Solo from source to sea. By Mark Kalch.
Russia’s Volga River is not only the longest in Europe at some 2,300 miles in length, it is also the continent’s largest river in terms of discharge and drainage basin area. For hundreds of years this giant waterway has been utilised for transportation, irrigation, trade, energy and recreation. It has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, world wars, the break up of the Soviet Union and Russia’s 21st century emergence.
The ultimate source of Mother Volga sits amongst the green, rolling Valdai Hills, 250 miles northwest of Moscow. Unlike the Amazon and Missouri-Mississippi River sources I had approached before, access to the river’s beginning is a breeze and is marked by a small shrine, an imposing church and a scattering of houses.
Like big rivers the world over, the Volga’s source is auspicious in it’s humble beginnings. Just a small pond-like body of water over which had been built the aforementioned shrine and which a few weeks earlier had been frozen over. As I set off to follow the waterway, rain began in ernest. It was cold, bleak and once more I found myself alone in a strange land ready to undertake another big river descent from source to sea.
The river’s drainage is contained in a small, marshy valley. I walked on it’s sides, across its middle and along its course. A few hours in, thigh deep in very recently thawed ice water under a heavy grey sky is not great fun, but it is what it is, necessary. After almost a full day of bush whacking, I burst out of the dense, wet forest on to the shores of Lake Sterzh and made my way to the nearby hamlet where my kayak lay waiting, just as I had left it, in a family’s front yard.
This first large, meandering lake is alternately populated by rustic, grey villages of wooden houses and enormous luxury holiday homes, surely owned by that infamous character, the Russian oligarch. All styled with their own decorative lighthouses, pirate themed boat houses, marbled columns, Ibiza style gazebos and fire pits. I paddled by, studying them all in differing awe.
That beginning week, two weeks of a long journey are always the same. A period of adjustment from comfort, warmth and cleanliness, to, well, the opposite of all those things. To me, long kayak journeys, no matter the hardship are really just one big holiday, so I try not to complain too much. Life is simple. Stay dry, stay fed and watered, stay upright.
The upper Volga, indeed the entire Volga is akin to one giant lake. A total of nine large dams choke the river and reduce its flow to a near standstill. No mean feat over a couple of thousand miles. The first two dams are portaged at Selishche and Dubna, my kayak carried by my hands and alongside new friends.
Each dam portage on my journey Each dam portage on my journey would take on average a hard hour. From landing on the concrete wall of the dam to putting in below, I unpacked, did multiple carries, dragged my kayak trolley over busy train tracks, busy roads, through dry scrub, down steep hills, repack and away. From start to finish I pushed as hard as I could. Portages are never much fun.
At every stop made, I longed to stay. Just sitting, drinking tea, eating, laughing, talking with these people of the Volga was incredible. The Russians I had met were so full of life and so friendly. A start contrast to the brainwashing I had been given since birth, of life behind the Iron Curtain, its dreariness and it’s underlying anger towards the West.
As my descent continued, the river grew wide and wild. Powerful winds whipped up breaking waves. They crashed on steep shores and on concrete embankments in front of towns, creating confused water. Miss a stroke or a brace and I would be wrong side up in an instant.
The large city of Nizhny Novgorod loomed ahead. From start to finish the urban centres on the Volga stretched for some way. With masses of tankers, cruise ships and small boats about it always took longer than expected to clear them.
As the slowest moving vessel, I played chicken with all the other boats. Jet skis roared by, expensive speed boats complete with bikini clad models, cut across in front of me. The city itself was clearly divided into ancient and modern. It’s impressive Kremlin dominated a green hillside, while in front and behind modern apartment buildings loomed. As I floated by I wished for more time to explore. Slowly, very slowly the days left on my visa had started to enter my mind.
All my journeys suffer from a personality disorder. With two 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 the night, 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.
Some of the weather I encountered on the river so far was brutal. Storms which creep up from behind the low mountains which line the Volga and then unleash rain, wind, lightning and thunder have been both exciting and unnerving. Multiple times I have completed big open water crossings with minutes to spare before the water is whipped up into a white foaming mass, waves breaking in every direction. Good assessment of conditions on my part or just luck?
The river twisted and turned, the left bank disappeared from view as below the wonderful city of Kazan another mighty river, the Kama joined it. Wind blew hard from the West. The sheltered bank was almost entirely stark and steep cliffs. Hardy vegetation filled any small break in the rock. Finding a camp site as night rapidly approached became an unsettling task. I crossed to the other side, exposed to wind and waves but with more camping options.
Then the right bank vanished. The water stretched for almost 20 miles from side to side. As I high braced into overhead crashing waves and surfed sometimes down their open faces I wondered if perhaps I had erred in judgement. Too late now I pushed on.
At the city of Ulyanovsk as darkness set in, I had resigned myself to a camp beside an old factory. Before I had a chance to make landfall a voice called out. A man waved to me from the bank. That night would not be spent in my tent at all. Instead I slept inside a Dacha or summer house. I also experienced my first Banya or Russian sauna complete with being flogged with birch branches and running naked into the Volga. Dinner was a huge event with new friends, discussing the Volga and the similarities between Russia and the West. The river, as usual, provided for me.
I left early the next morning straight into a day of the hardest paddling of the entire descent so far. Weather reports suggested that the day was about to get pretty windy indeed. From the edge of the city to the next point was 25kms in a straight line of open water. Following the river bank would add another 10kms on top. I had been through some difficult paddling in the week previous and felt up to most things the river could throw at me. The crossing turned into a seven-hour affair. Not once could I dare to miss a stroke or a brace. I fumbled when I could with a chocolate bar for energy. For over six hours I needed to pee – no chance! Relieving myself in my boat, in my drysuit was a serious consideration. As I collapsed on shore in mid-afternoon under a grey sky I swore never to make myself as vulnerable again.
From the Tolyatti dam to the city of Samara, the river continues its brilliance. In one day I saw hundreds of sail boats and catamarans, kite surfers, paragliders, mountain bikers, campers, fisherman and people simply making the most of the resource they had on their doorstep, the wonderful Volga. It was amazing to witness. At Samara proper, the city lines river left. On river right hundreds upon hundreds of semi-permanent encampments exist. Come the weekend thousands of Samara citizens cross the river in taxi boats, bus boats or their own boats to spend a couple of days relaxing and often partying. I struggled to find an empty spot to erect my own little camp.
The World Cup
Eventually I did and set to work. As I finished, a couple of young Russians walked by and greeted me hello. I replied in my best Russian and of course it became immediately apparent I was not one of their own. Upon hearing I was an Australian paddling the length of the Volga River they literally dragged me back to their party camp. The World Cup was showing on tv, speakers blasted Russian electronica and the vodka flowed. I spent the night dancing, singing, laughing and talking with yet more beautiful people of the Volga. By now the welcome I had received on my descent was becoming surreal. How could it always be so amazing? How could every single person I met be so friendly? On all my travels I had not experienced such a thing. I left Samara early the next morning trying to convince myself I had no hangover after the previous night’s festivities. Amazingly it kind of, sort of, worked.
Another dam at Balakovo The portage took 80 minutes with hauling over multiple railways tracks, through scrub and mud to emerge beside the dam’s guard post. I dragged my kayak up behind a security officer toting a machine pistol and his civilian buddy. They hadn’t spotted me and I was compelled to announce my presence. I attempted to allay their confused looks with my by now pretty polished Russian language explanation of my journey. I also present my letter of introduction from the Russian Geographical Society. It has become my ‘magic letter’. It’s air of authority and liberal covering of government stamps works wonders. The guard stepped out onto the busy road which crosses the dam and waves his baton. Cars speeding in both directions come to a screeching halt and he motioned me across. I thanked him and waved somewhat embarrassed to the motorists who had stopped to let me cross.
Above the city of Saratov the river is pitted with hundreds of islands, big and small. A refreshing break to paddle amongst quiet backwaters and not a gargantuan waterway for a while. Again it’s a weekend and the river was alive with people. Unfortunately the two windiest days of my entire journey so far are forecast at Force 10 and stronger. Even tracking down small side channels offers little respite. I just grind out the miles as best I can. A boardwalk in front of the city hosts a skate competition, small beaches are full with taxi boats ferrying people to and from small islands and camps close to the city. I resupplied at a shop and chewed down on crisps and fizzy drink. The wind continues to send the river into a fit. Waves pushed my boat from all directions. It is hard work to stay upright and all this with an audience of hundreds.
For the next few days the river is straight and wide. Hours and hours of paddling every day and at times it felt like I was on a treadmill. The high banks like cliffs change little. I stopped in an ancient village where nine out of ten crumbling wooden houses seem deserted. Searching for water, I would occasionally spot a babushka or grandmother down a side street. The village has a bunch of wells lining the main street. Most are not functioning. One thankfully was all I needed. I arrived to the well at the same time as an old lady with her own wooden bucket to fill. I motioned for her to go first but she would not have it. Embarrassingly, I need her help to figure out how to control the water flow. We chatted about the Volga in Russian and walk together back down the road before saying our goodbyes.
Finally Volgograd is in sight The ninth and final dam separates me from this city (formerly Stalingrad) where in WWII, the Battle of Stalingrad cost some two million lives. A difficult one hour and 15 minutes of lifting, dragging and pulling sees me put back in on the Volga. After failing to get any sense from a boat crew who are well past simply drunk, I spent the night on a floating cafe with my new Armenian brothers. I was welcomed aboard with huge smiles and as usual stuffed full of food and vodka. We talked, danced, laughed and swam in the Volga late into the night and some of the morning.
For a time on the lower Volga, villages that touch the river became less frequent, as briefly did the number of fisherman and river users. For consecutive days I am trapped in the open when huge electrical storms hit the river. I could see small towns in the distance high atop sheer cliffs. Creeping up behind them and headed my way, enormous black cloud mass, lit by lightning in quick succession. As the storms hit with a harsh mix of rain, wind and electricity it was hard not to duck lower in my cockpit, as if that might make me a less appealing target. Each time I pushed on and in between squalls find stunning camps on huge forest covered, river islands.
I took out above the delta city of Astrakhan one beautiful Saturday afternoon. The entire day spent talking and waving with Russians playing by the river. Sometimes entire beaches are packed with swimmers and campers. A jet ski here and there, boats too.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, the Volga was lit up in gold. I ate my dinner of pasta and sardines looking out over the river, my mind preoccupied in thought. Soon my journey would be at an end.
The following day below this final city, with the river flowing reasonably strongly, channels began branching off on river left. The delta was growing wider and more convoluted. Thousands of small channels now snaked their way to the sea. My route left me on the main channel heading south west. At times less than 100m across I shared the waterway with enormous petrol tankers and the like.
My final evening on the Volga was joyously low key. I pulled out at a small boatyard and jetty. Two rustic houses amongst recently mowed grass. Still in PFD and paddling gear I wandered up to the smaller of the two. Inside was Alek, a bear of a man who oversaw the place. Gruff at first, once I explained my presence he was pleased to have me camp by the river on his land. Another glorious sunset came and went. How many of these have I been fortunate to witness on my big river descents? Hundreds, surely.
Now the channel I was on became ram rod straight, at its end lay the sea. Indeed, now, on either side of this man made stretch lay the Caspian, reached by even narrower channels. On my maps the area should have been deserted but still I would see old abandoned fish processing factories, crumbling houses and rows of light poles.
After navigating a confusing maze of tiny waterways and thick jungle like vegetation all of a sudden I paddled out into open water. Was this the sea? There was some islands a mile south of me but excepting them it was indeed the Caspian. A half mile to my right I could make out the town of Vyshka, a name and spot on a map of which I had dreamt for many months. I slowly paddled toward it.
After 71 days I had kayaked the Volga River, Europe’s longest river, from source to sea. I had paddled a river so beautiful that it was almost unreal.
Picturesque lakes, pine forests, rolling hills, rocky cliffs, open dusty steppes, huge cities and small villages. It was stunning. But what really had made my descent so special were the people of the Volga. From beginning to end the Russian people had welcomed me, cared for me and extended a hospitality I had never expected as a stranger. As I neared my final takeout I was genuinely sad to be finished. My time on the Volga River was over, it was time to go home.