I had been anticipating the paddling section of our “triathlon” since the windy, frigid March days, and we finally put on the Ural River on a sunny day in mid-June, about four and a half months into our trek. The river started as a narrow, vegetation-choked waterway, and we repeatedly rammed into overhanging branches, shrubs and fallen trees as we learned how to steer our new craft. Our kayak, a rudderless, inflatable tandem number, is not the most responsive of boats. Neither of us had ever paddled a tandem kayak, and it took awhile to learn how to share responsibilities of steering. I had worked as a river guide, and was used to yelling commands- “back left!”, etc., which seemed like overkill, but if we didn’t communicate we ended up paddling against each other. Finally, it was decided that Charlie, relegated to the back seat by his long legs, which couldn’t fit up front with all our gear stuffed into the bow, would steer.
The first day was full of spiders. We kept running into overhanging trees, kidnapping their arachnid residents as we swept past, unable to dodge every obstacle on the narrow, winding river. The corners were too tight, and our kayak too long, to be able to avoid running into the sides. We were sliding through tree after tree, covered in mud, leaves, and countless spiders. Really – countless spiders. Much to Charlie’s irritation, I kept putting down my paddle to shriek and pluck two or three spiders off my legs which, of course, led to us running into the next set of bushes and collecting more eight-legged friends. It’s no exaggeration to say that on the first day, we had at least thirty spiders in our kayak at a time. It was rather unpleasant.
Russians are avid fishers, and we constantly pass men and women fishing from the shore, groups of campers, partying teenagers, and young men washing their cars. It’s nice to see the local people out enjoying nature and summer. We have, however, been surprised at the lack of development along the riverfront in the bigger towns. Early on, we talked about stopping at riverside cafes for cold beer in the afternoons, but this idyllic goal still has not been met.
We paddled over to the shore as close to the security fence as possible, and started unloading our gear. A wiry old man came up to us, excitedly rambling about tourism and offering to drive us around the dam. First, he gave us an extensive tour of the property that he appeared to be building on. It was all in Russian, but we gathered something about music, concerts, and Elvis Presley. He was very friendly, and within an hour we were back on the river, south of the dam.
A few days later, we approached another dam. This time it was only a few kilometers to walk around, so we unloaded the kayak, slung it up above our heads, and walked it through a small village and beyond the dam. We then went back for our bags, and half a day’s work had us back on the water.
Overall, paddling down the Ural is blissful. Days do get tedious, but the novelty hasn’t worn off. Wearing a swim suit all day every day, jumping in the water to refresh, and wading in to wash off in the evenings just feels divine. I daydreamed about these exact moments while my head was tucked under the hood of my -30˚C sleeping bag all spring. The riverscape scenery was beautiful yet punctuated by hulking, rusting semi-ruined industrial cities with no-nonsense names like Magnitogorsk and Energetik.
After five hours, we were let go with a $7 fine, and joked that they had probably fed us about $3 worth of food anyway. We have now been found guilty of two separate administrative offences in Russia, which shouldn’t be surprising in a country of such exemplary bureaucracy.