Advanced Praise for Brothers on the Bashkaus by Eugene Buchanan:
“A Class-V ride through both big waters and a fast-changing culture.”
—Jon Bowermaster, National Geographic Adventure author/adventurer
“A torrent of a book… Take the plunge!”
—Richard Bangs, founding partner of Mountain Travel/Sobek, author of 11 books, including Mystery of the Nile, Adventures without End, The Lost River, River Gods, and Riding the Dragon’s Back
“Adventure paddling is fun enough, but it becomes epic, zany, and outrageous when it’s set in the manic madness of modern Russia. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson—without the drugs—running Class VI. Can’t conjure up the image? Sit down on a comfortable chair, get some raw pork fat for munchies, and read Eugene Buchanan’s Brothers on the Bashkaus for a wild, hungry ride in improbable boats with a bunch of crazies. The book exposes the unadulterated spirit of whitewater adventure—stripped clean of all the fancy stuff, like paddles and lifejackets.”
—Jon Turk, author of In the Wake of the Jomon and Cold Oceans
“Buchanan’s blood is two parts river. This is a memorable tale of adventure, friendship, and a confluence, or collision, of cultures. Buchanan and his cohorts get tossed almost by happenstance onto the wildest of rivers in a land where the gear is homemade, local horsemen go crazy on strong tea, memorials to dead paddlers perch on the banks, and, as at an execution, nothing can happen until a last cigarette is smoked.”
—Peter Heller, author of Hell or High Water, Outside magazine contributor
“Your fate is tied to strangers in a strange land in—strangest of all—a craft hewn from the forest primeval… a monster Siberian whitewater river before you. A reader could want for no better guide than Eugene Buchanan, an expert storyteller who knows firsthand that if you are good, lucky, and don’t mind daily fat cubes, the best expeditions sometimes emerge out of the worst predicaments. Superb.”
—Todd Balf, author of The Last River and the forthcoming Comet: The Untold Story of Major Taylor and How He Beat the Color Line (Crown Publishing, 2007)
“Eugene Buchanan’s paddling expertise and sharp reportorial eye will sweep you breathlessly down one of the world’s wildest, toughest, and most remote rivers, in company with the knights-errant of Siberian whitewater. A fascinating cultural and adventure read.”
—Peter Stark, author of The Last Breath and At the Mercy of the River
(Look for complete excerpt in May issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine)
THE BASHKAUS PUT-IN
After 182 hours of solid traveling involving three airplanes, five cars, a seventy-three-hour train ride, two buses, an army truck, and seven Siberian hitchhikers, the last piece of the puzzle falls into place. Our put-in for the Bashkaus is a broad camp atop a bluff overlooking a sparkling green waterway. Boris, grinning from riding shotgun in the army truck while we were crammed outside in the bed, hops out and unlatches the rear gate. Our four-hour bumpy ride jostling on top of gear is over.
“Come on, guys,” he says. “We’re here.”
We quickly pile out, followed by the rest of the Latvians. Unfortunately, there is no time for stretching. No sooner than their feet touch ground, they set to work. Sergei the Tall and Valeri start a fire to boil soup, Ramitch and Sergei the Small notch logs to place around a fire pit, and Boris secures enough firewood for an army. It seems overkill until we find out it will take three days to build the frames for the rafts.
“So close,” Edge says, eyeing the river, “and yet, still so far.”
“So far” is right. We’re about as far in the boondocks as any of us has ever been. I look downriver for a glimpse of the “fairy landscapes” from the river description but see nothing but rolling grass-covered hills pocketed with stands of thick forest.
After the confines of the road trip, it’s nice to finally be at the river. We’ve been traveling in close quarters with the Latvians for a week, and the lap of the river and Siberian air are refreshing. I stroll a few yards from camp to a ten-foot-high cliff overlooking the river. Cobblestones on the far bank lead up to a foot-thick layer of dark green moss, above which lie hundreds of small yellow flowers framing a grassy bench. The bench ends abruptly in a thick forest of larch and pine, the type you’d expect to house Shrek and his trusty donkey.
The water is clear and fast, but not dangerously so. Below me, the current has slackened into a green pool, with a large eddy lining a rocky beach. Upstream, the water turns white, where a Class III rapid extends up around the corner. It’s bordered by granite cliffs, with boulders constricting the river into a series of drops and folds. Neither the rapid nor water volume looks overly intimidating. I dare an inner smile of joy, before remembering what lurks downstream.
Turning that direction, I try to see where the water goes. But the river is bordered by a thick-walled forest on each side and disappears around a blind bend. I won’t know until I’m there and on it, when there’s no turning back. When we won the grant to run a river here, we felt luck was on our side. Now I continue to wonder if we are still so lucky after all.
While the Latvians set to work, we unload the gear from the back of the truck and find our packs among the odd assortment of Latvian gear. Separating ours from the pile, we pull out our sleeping bags, pads, and other gear, shaking it off from the dusty ride.
When Yevgheny sees us unpacking our slim, compact life jackets, he comes over and holds one up for examination. He then yells to Ramitch, who also comes over to inspect what is our only chance for survival should we swim in the Bashkaus. Turning it over in his hands, Yevgheny squeezes the flotation and fusses with the zipper. Then he goes over to his pack and pulls out his life jacket, beaming.
“Your life jacket, no work,” he says, putting on his own. “This is jacket you need for strong river.”
The source of his pride looks cartoonish. A giant inflatable collar rises behind his head like Dracula’s cape. Two twelve-pack-sized rectangles of foam are sewn into each breast, with two more dangling in front of his stomach. When he finishes buckling his crotch strap he looks more like a motocross racer than a rafter. Our life jackets pale in comparison, both in fashion and flotation. Where ours are state-of-the-art kayaking life jackets made by reputable manufacturers, like their backpacks and tents, the Latvians’ are entirely homemade.
Ramitch then puts his life jacket on. Soon, he is clad in purple from shoulders to toes like Barney the dinosaur. Ensolite strips are sewn into every available square inch of surface area for extra flotation. On his arms, the strips run parallel to his forearms before switching 90 degrees and running across the elbows for flexibility. Then, they resume a parallel position along his upper arms. The same Ensolite flotation pattern holds on the legs and knees of his purple overalls: parallel along the shin and femur, and sideways across the kneecap for mobility. He’s so protected, he could survive a Russian hockey game (the intended purpose of his light-blue helmet). The final piece of his ensemble is a plastic orange cylinder dangling from the front of his life jacket. Inside is mandatory survival gear: matches, fire starter, and, most importantly, cigarettes.
Next, Sergei the Small strides over with his life jacket. He puts it on over a white-and-maroon flannel shirt and joins the promenade. It’s akin to being at a Paris fashion show, only we’re in the middle of Siberia, the models are hairy-legged, stubby-bearded males, and instead of touting svelte bikinis, they’re modeling bulky head-to-toe wardrobes for whitewater.
Sergei’s life jacket has a markedly different look from the others. It’s made from the halves of six soccer balls, with three domes protruding proudly along each rib cage. Each dome has an improvised rubber valve for inflation. He also shows us his homemade helmet, an oblique white blob made out of pieces of Styrofoam glued together and shaped in a close proximity of his head.
Boris’s life jacket is equally unique. Rather than having the bulk of his flotation on the front like the other jackets, two giant humps rise from his back like Quasimodo. The jacket matches a pair of bright-orange flotation-riddled overalls underneath. Andrew’s life jacket has a still different approach to flotation. It’s made from old wine bladders housed in nylon sleeves.
Everyone’s life jacket looks different. Like a coat of arms, each one is decked to the hilt with pride. As well they should be. Each creator’s life depends upon it. But there’s also an attention to aesthetics. Colors match and the odd flotation solutions are hidden. Still, I can’t help but chuckle. We’re about to embark on a multi-week Class V expedition and we’re standing in a Halloween party of Draculas, Barneys, Quasimodos, Michelin Men, and assorted cosmonauts. But these aren’t costumes. They’re our most important pieces of equipment, with function playing a far more important role than fashion.
Just when we think we’ve seen all the innovation possible in a personal flotation device, Valeri appears. His goes a step beyond merely providing buoyancy: it has an additional breast pocket housing a homemade parachute. It’s designed to pull him out of a Siberian-sized hydraulic should he fall into one. In theory, if he were getting recirculated in a reversal, a rock would fall out of the pocket and deploy a nylon parachute that would grab the faster green water reached by the rock below and pull him to safety. That’s the theory, anyway.
“I might worry about those chords wrapping around your neck instead,” Ben says after examining the potentially guillotining gadget.
We hold our own life jackets up again and suddenly feel inadequate, like showing up to a drag race in a K-car instead of a Trans Am. For the Latvians, the term life jacket is a misnomer. Combined with their floatable overalls, the result is a complete dress suit of flotation, far more at home on the Bashkaus than in any board room. Despite the animated look of the final package, there’s no denying which we would rather be wearing in the heart of the canyon. A new dread for the inadequacy of our preparation hovers over each of us.
The Ensolite serves several other purposes as well. Strips of it are taped around each paddle to protect the obvious works of art. If I had invested as much time into the paddles’ designs as they have, I, too, would want to ensure that they didn’t sink if dropped overboard. Rectangular visors of the foam also adorn everyone’s helmet, to ward off the Siberian sun.
“Incredible,” Ben observes, only half in jest. “Even the visors add more flotation.”