Kamchatka Whitewater Expedition: Source-to-Sea Kayaking in Wildest Russia (Photos)

Bryan Smith is leading a team of whitewater
kayakers on a month long
expedition to Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Funded by the
National Geographic Society’s Expedition Council, the team will be
attempting several source-to-sea first descents of previously un-run
rivers, as well as working with a diverse team of scientists, NGOs, and
locals to help show how important Kamchatka’s river ecosystems are in
the long term survival of wild salmon.

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Phrases and slogans define places as much as entire novels, but they need context or experience to truly understand them. In the months of preparation prior to this expedition we were constantly warned of “Kamchatka Delays.” A slogan loosely used to explain helicopters that would be on continuous standby, 45-minute waits turning into daylong sagas and endless battles with a crumbling post-Soviet infrastructure in one of the wildest places on Earth.

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We choose not to worry too much about this and figured once we hit Kamchatka soil we would deal with the battles as they were thrown at us. Our most critical piece of artillery would be Martha Madsen. An Alaskan native, Martha has called Kamchatka home for over 15 years. Now you don’t exactly open up the yellow pages and search under “Kamchatka Logistics Expert” to find Martha. A year of research and endless networking allowed us access to the fixer who has handled almost every BBC, National Geographic, and high profile expedition into Kamchatka.

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Within 45 minutes of landing in Petroplavosk, we were at Martha’s house and frantically packing to fly into our first source to sea descent on the Syemlyachtsk. The dreaded “Kamchatka Delay” had been substituted with Martha’s “Anything is Possible in Russia.” We strapped the boats into the pick-up, changed into our paddling gear, and raced to the heli-port.

Transitions on expeditions are when you have a moment to reflect on reality and prepare for the next step. When those transition times are crunched to a couple of frantic hours, adrenaline sets in and the flow of the expedition begins to define itself. After over two years of preparation, our reality was quickly becoming Kamchatka whitewater. Something we knew existed, but we were unsure if we could access on a limited time scale and budget. For the next 12 days we would paddle two source-to-sea first descents in hopes of finding challenging whitewater, recording hydrological data for Dr. Nicholas Zegre, and defining ourselves as a team in this magnificent landscape.

The Syemlyachtsk proved to be a great first river. Steady gradient, fun whitewater, and interesting logistics. Martha had arranged for a heli into the source and a 36-foot sailboat to pick us up at the ocean three days later. When we arrived at the Pacific Ocean an enthusiastic crew who assured us that we would have good sailing back to Petroplavosk with “a good 30 knots of wind” greeted us. Finding humor in dark places makes the top ten of expedition musts. Within five hours we had hit over 40 knots of wind, four-meter seas, and our captain was as sea sick as all the rest of us. For the better part of 24 hours we all fought personal demons and sea-sickness, finally emerging in the run down port that our captain affectionately called "the Kamchatka Yacht Club." Back on solid ground, we soothed ourselves with Russian candies wrapped with Penguin characters, our first slogan was born…“Like a Penguin Chopping Wood.”

Twenty hours after arriving back in Petroplavosk we were organizing our mission into the Karminsky River. Martha had sorted the heli, the sailboat was booked for a second time, and we were re-supplying with smoked salmon from the market. The Karminsky turned out to be the whitewater gem that we were all hoping for: unbelievable rapids, complete with giant waterfalls, brown bears, and unique hydrology readings of critical importance to Dr. Zegre. “Like a Penguin Chopping Wood” had become our slogan for success. Out of context, no one would understand what we were talking about, but for us it meant two successful source to sea descents in one of the wildest places on Earth.