The Power of Struggle: Falling Off The Map In Far Eastern Russia
“Why would you come to this place that God forgot?” asked Natalia.
Her kind eyes and shockingly clear English made the dingy beach we had just landed on and Soviet-era background of Komsomolsk Na Amure feel suddenly more welcoming. I had asked myself a similar question many times during the two weeks before our arrival to this far far eastern town in the absolute middle of nowhere Russia. It was shocking to hear someone acknowledge this aloud. Yet despite, and perhaps because of, all we had seen, feared and struggled through, we replied without hesitation: “We think the Amur River is incredibly special—like nowhere else in the world.”
At the end of our long train trip across Siberia, we landed in Khabarovsk on July 7. We spent two days facing every fear we had ever conceived of about traveling by kayak on the Amur River through far Eastern Russia as a small group of women—without Becca and without a local translator. We had to decide if we were really going to do this and if we felt like the often convoluted risks seemed reasonable now. I had hoped there would be more clarity on this section of the trip once in the country. But it never came.
As we planned this project and traveled through Russia, we had constant fears expressed to us. It was extremely difficult to discern real risks from the fear-brain of others, because there is so little solid information about this area. In the end it came down to intuition and long hours of risk management discussions.
After belaboring the decision of where, what and how much to paddle of the lower Amur, on July 9 we put on the lower Amur River. We launched in the industrial heart of Khabarovsk with the plan to paddle 400 kilometers to town of Komsomolsk. Three itty bitty humans adrift on a river that felt as big as the ocean. As we pushed off from a blocky concrete shoreline strewn with broken glass, an onlooker yelled down at us one last plea from Russia, “but you have no security!”
He was right. All of these collective fears welled up inside me and I wondered if my mom was right this time.
I would love to tell you all it was lovely. That I was psyched. That I knew it would all be okay. That it felt like a grand adventure that day we dropped into the Lower Amur. But I’ll tell you the truth: I mostly wanted to go home. For the two days before we launched, then two to three days after we launched, and at countless other times, I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there. I wanted to sleep more than five hours a night, to let my 500 gnat bites heal, to stop looking over my shoulder constantly in fear—to hug my loved ones, and be far from the deceptively polluted waters of the lower Amur. Which by the way contain traces of everything from Hepatitis A and raw sewage, to DDT and Chloro-benzenes below our put in. I was already tired and I knew this place required constant vigilance to navigate safely.
But we had come too far. Despite all of the fears running around in my brain, my gut told me we were just where we needed to be—that this was in fact our journey even if it felt strange. And that we could complete our journey safely.
Over the next nine days we dove into the utter enormity of the Amur River and all her strange wildness. It flew by in a whirl of wind, water, incessant bugs, insanity inducing itching, 4 a.m. wake up calls, 50 kilometer paddles, sleep deprivation, humid swamp living, perfect glassy mornings on the water, constant navigational confusion through braided channels and sheer exhaustion. We pushed our minds and bodies to the point of breaking—so much so, that Sabra ended up with a debilitating tendinitis in her right wrist. We towed her for three days just to get us all to the end.
We had to keep constant vigilance—bugs, people, navigation, weather and fatigue all lurked around the edges. We stayed covered, despite the heat and humidity, from head to toe, most of the day to survive the swarming mosquitoes and gnats. We eyed the wind and building clouds suspiciously all day, since at any given moment it could take us an hour or more to find a suitable spot to pull over. On one side of the river was a 5-foot cut bank and on the other, water flowed through dense willows. Accessible land above the high water mark was incredibly rare.
One night we camped well below the high water mark because it was the only place we could find after a two hours of looking. We drug our boats through calf deep mud to get them on shore, grateful to have a place to rest at last. The next morning we woke up to wild wind and storming—and rising water. On a free-flowing river in monsoon season the water can rise three or more feet easily overnight. And the water was already high. We were literally camped out on a sinking island waiting for our weather window and hoping we did not have to make a sketchy break from our island before the weather improved. It was the least restful rest day of my life. Luckily the water did not rise much more our second night and we made a fast break downstream at first light.
While we were busy surviving, the Amur River was slowly teaching us. She would scold us with frightening conditions in one moment, then would smile in a stunning orange dawn double rainbow the next. The extremes were shocking. A lot like far Eastern Russia. But ultimately we were in her land. We were just guests. And it was up to us to pay attention and follow her patterns. Not the other way around.
Our first lesson: check your expectations at the door. This is Eastern Russia. Closed cities still exist here. In very recent history an estimated 2 to 10 million people were killed in Gulags, or work camps, in the Stalin years alone. The winters batter the small communities with extreme cold, snow and wind. And the summers barely last three months. Eastern Russia is not a particularly friendly place. Nor is it an easy place. It is a place defined by struggle.
Yet at the same time it is filled with thriving communities, kind strangers, stunning wild landscapes and massive untamed waters. But we had to look closely to see it. To see beyond the fear of others. To see beyond the empty spaces on the map. To see the incredible place that this is.
The local villagers never hesitated to fill our water drums from their own tap when we paddled up to their shores or to speak and laugh with us in our limited Russian vocabulary. They never threatened or bothered us—unless you count one curious, but friendly, town drunk. One group of fisherman even tried to throw an enormous catch of the day right on my kayak, smiling big the entire time. In this most improbable place, historically and geographically, people still thrive amidst all the struggle—or perhaps because of it.
This leg of the journey has reminded us that looking at the imperfect pieces of the world and ourselves is as important as looking at the beautiful, awe-inspiring parts, because there is beauty there too. And in the process we get an incredible chance to connect more deeply with ourselves, with each other and with the world around us.
The Nobody’s River Project was intended to be an exploration all along. Not a single glorious summit or goal. Not perfection. But a meandering journey with all of its blind corners, struggles and wonderful surprises. Our experience in Mongolia was nothing short of magical. But the Lower Amur was about struggle—and about finding magic even when it wasn’t easy. It was the juxtaposition to the ever present beauty and awe of our experience in Mongolia. It was the real story of what happens downstream from two of the least environmentally friendly giants on the planet: China and Russia. And it was about how this river, it’s waters, it’s incredible biodiversity and it’s communities have found a way to struggle on despite all of it.
As I think about the wild and powerful braided channels, storms and waters of the Amur River, I realize that it has been a long time since I stood in the kind of wildness that brings you to your knees and makes you feel with every ounce of your being just how small you really are. The kind of wildness that is so large and so powerful as to be unfathomable, even when you are amidst it. That is far Eastern Russia. That is the Amur River. And I have never been more grateful to have struggled so hard.
ALL PHOTOS: Krystle Wright