New on Sidetracked:

The Volga River - Photo by Mark Kalch

Volga Summer

A Source To Sea Descent
Mark Kalch

As I ran stark naked from the crudely whitewashed, low ceilinged concrete building I sweated furiously. The late afternoon breeze immediately brushed my skin and with a few more giant bounds I leapt into the cold Volga. Not far behind, two large, hairy similarly attired Russian men followed suit. Moments before they had together violently attacked me with the leafy branches of a birch tree.

Russia. Despite knowing better, despite 12 months of research, reading, watching and learning, it had been hard to shake the distorted cold war-esque view that had been imprinted onto my consciousness growing up. A cold, grey country with crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks, toxic factories, leaking nuclear reactors and populated by a harsh, un-smiling people. I blame James Bond villains and Ivan Drago. Oh and the media. Mostly the media.

The Volga River flows across Russia from north to south. Emerging from the rolling, green hills north of Moscow it meanders south and empties into the Caspian Sea some 2300 miles later. Paddling its entire length revealed to me a country and population so unlike their caricatures as to be positively confounding.

Far from wishing to do me harm, the aforementioned men, Dimitri and Aleksander had introduced me to the wonder that is the Russian banya. A kind of sadomasochistic sauna experience culturally entrenched throughout the country and particularly popular it seemed, along the Volga River.

I had met Dimitri as I desperately searched for a camp site near the city of Ulyanovsk following an incredibly tiring 14 hour day of paddling. After being resigned to a covert spot beside an old factory I quickly found myself shown a bed in the family dacha or summer house. Like the banya, the dacha is ubiquitous in Russian life. Unless you are an oligarch, the building is purposefully basic. Often wooden sometimes brick, they are places to escape the the rush of urban life, even if it is just minutes away from a town centre. Dachas huddle together creating a community of oases, each with their own flower and vegetable gardens, outdoor cooking area and space to relax.

After getting my banya on we sat down to a raucous dinner with new friends both. My comrades entertained with tales of crazy driving on the frozen Volga in winter, hunting for rabbits and wild boar, ice fishing and chainsawing through said ice in order to continue the banya tradition year round. Life on the banks of the Volga was seemingly an outdoor paradise and by now, more than half way along its length I was infatuated.

After a comfortable evening indoors and a breakfast cooked by my host it was sadly time to once more press on. All my journeys suffer from a personality disorder. With two stated goals on every descent, source to sea and the gathering of images and stories from the river – it is supremely difficult to find a balance. Ensure the success of one and jeopardise the other. Turning down an invitation to stay longer, to talk, to drink in order to paddle some more always grates. But failing to reach the river’s mouth and the sea is finite. A difficult decision to make always.

My comrades entertained with tales of crazy driving on the frozen Volga in winter, hunting for rabbits and wild boar, ice fishing and chainsawing through said ice in order to continue the banya tradition year round.
A Russian Banya along the Volga River

The Volga River - Photo by Mark Kalch

Paddling away, a flag atop the dacha signalled a slight breeze but nothing that would cause a great deal of bother. Conversely though, the forecast was for terribly strong winds throughout the day. Dimitri had himself seemed convinced that today would not bring difficult conditions for paddling in. What was it to be?

Ulyanovsk, birthplace of Lenin, stretches out along the west bank of the Volga. Here the river is not a river at all but rather the largest reservoir in Europe, the Kuybyshev. It was created by the construction in 1957 of the Zhiguli dam, one of 9 along its course. Huge bays result in a body of water sometimes more than 35 kilometres across.

A shoreline paddle as a means to progress down the Volga at this point was a less than attractive prospect. Leaving the city, a point to point route would make for a 25 kilometre open water crossing, the closest land up to 10 kilometres distant either side of me. A somewhat daunting day but one that would erase many hours of paddling otherwise.

Storm cells and unfavourable weather conditions are spotted a long way off. The appearance of dark clouds in the distance, lit occasionally by flashes of lightning, keeps a paddler on his toes.
Gliding easily under the Imperial Bridge spanning the river I rounded the final headland leading into the great expanse. Cars and trucks rumbled overhead while some way off a handful of barges and tankers slowly followed in each others wake up and down the river.

For the first half an hour forward progress was easy made. To my right Ulyanovsk and the right bank of the Volga slipped away. On river left the shoreline remained for the moment straight and true, a village poking out from atop high cliffs. As had become usual the water below me was a wonderful dark shade of turquoise. To this point the waterway had exhibited little in the way of visual pollution and for the most part appeared pristine. Although perhaps it was invisible contaminants which were the more to be feared.

After a late start I figured it would take me the best part of the day to reach the majestic headland and hills distant. The weather would have a big influence on how this might turn out and as ever, I would have little say in the result. In such a wide open space, generally storm cells and unfavourable weather conditions are spotted a long way off. The appearance of dark clouds in the distance, lit occasionally by flashes of lightning, keeps a paddler on his toes. Which way is it headed? Across my path, directly to me or away and of no consequence?

More than 45 days into my descent of the river, my body was well conditioned to long hard days of paddling. A routine had developed for work, rest and replenishment on river. On flat water my regime flowed effortlessly. As the waves stacked higher and the wind blew stronger this continuity ended. Rather annoyingly it made wolfing down chocolate bars and water difficult. In between the rise and fall of my kayak I would retrieve food from my deck bag, paddle over a wave, remove the packaging, paddle again and finally shove the entire thing down my throat. Similarly, staying adequately hydrated raised an issue not normally a problem. To relieve myself I had a pee bottle. In easy water, well it’s pretty self explanatory. In rough water, popping my spray deck and getting things done was out of the question. I would have to hold on for the duration.

The Volga River - Photo by Mark Kalch

The Volga River - Photo by Mark Kalch

The Volga River - Photo by Mark Kalch

Three hours in and things started to get a little sketchy. No blue sky remained above, clouds ruled supreme and scattered rain shrouded water and forested hills far in the distance. The wind blew mightily, waves grew some more and white caps littered the water everywhere. By now I was very much in the middle of it all, weather wise and far from land. Despite the conditions I feared not for my life but the ensuing hassle if I were to capsize. I had so much gear strapped to my deck that rolling would be nigh on impossible. It would mean a wet exit and re-entry, a tough ask amongst this lot. Paddle, brace and repeat was all I could do.

Paddling alone over thousands and thousands of miles gives one time to think, a lot. Thoughts of the past, the future abound and well, the present just takes care of itself. With waves crashing on my spray skirt and submerging my back deck I could find myself trying to recall the name of a girl I went to primary school with, lyrics to a song or the nuances of the Israel-Palestine conflict, all in the space of a minute.

Five hours gone and the city had all but disappeared behind me. The wind still raged, the waves broke and I still needed to pee. But I had covered already 1500 hard miles on my journey and fatigue notwithstanding I would make it to the sea. Just another of those all too frequent days that take place on an expedition paddle.

I have carried with me for the last four years a training injury to my neck. Mostly fine, it would go bad at the most inopportune times. Like in the middle of an open water crossing in bad weather. I had already massaged into my neck well over the recommended dosage of diclofenac anti-inflammatory cream with little result. In perhaps too much haste I then swallowed two 800mg Ibuprofen capsules. Desperate times, desperate measures. At last, within a few minutes the stabbing pain down the right side of my neck and into my upper back subsided just a little.

I was busy thinking about life and my neck when abruptly, from above the hills around 3 kilometres to the west, a group of clouds as black as midnight appeared. They lit intermittently with flashes of lightning and the deep growl of thunder rolled over the tree tops. I was still far from my goal and fighting hard the waves still. Tracking the speed of the approaching maelstrom I figured I had but a few minutes before the front reached me. Making sure my spray skirt was solid, my dry jacket zipped up and all my deck gear secure I awaited my fate.

Right before the wall of bullet like rain hit and a wind which sent wave tops skipping across the water struck I realised something. Sixteen hundred milligrams of Ibuprofen and a liberal dosing of diclofenac is not only effective at dulling pain but is also great for getting high. Very high. I had lost no motor control as far as I could tell but all of a sudden, despite the approaching squall, I had a wicked grin on my face. I laughed, screamed and paddled for my life. More than ever, a mistake right then would be costly. But still I thought about that girl from school, Bob Marley and geo-politics. High brace, low brace, paddle hard, don’t stop, don’t give in. When would this fairground ride end?

Less than thirty minutes later, dripping with rain water, river water and sweat I bobbed about on a sea, eerily calm. I watched as the compact but powerful storm, passed by and continued it’s journey east. In it’s path a line of ships droned on. Their journey, unlike mine, would be not be impeded. Their crew safe and dry inside.

After seven hours of non-stop, bitterly exhausting paddling I ran my kayak up onto a deserted rocky beach littered with enourmous twisted and gnarled driftwood. I had endured perhaps the hardest paddling so far on the Volga yet still a few hours of light remained in the day. What to do? Maybe, just maybe around that next headland a dacha, banya and smiling faces awaited me. As I prepared to paddle once more I could think of only one thing: ‘I really need to pee’.

Mark Kalch is an expedition paddler whose 7 Rivers 7 Continents project will see him complete source to sea descents of the longest river on each continent. He has so far completed descents of the Amazon River, Missouri-Mississippi River and this latest source to sea descent of the 2300 mile Volga River in Russia, Europe’s longest river in 71 days. Mark also founded and runs the expedition paddling apparel brand Paddlers First.

Twitter: @markkalch