Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Kitoy and Biluti Rivers: A Siberian Kayaking Adventure

Spending 9 days on a kayaking adventure down the Kitoy and Biluti Rivers in Siberia has been on my bucket list ever since I first heard about the trip many years ago and this past August, I finally made it happen!  I embarked on the adventure with my best friend Anne, who hadn't been out of the country since the birth of her 8 year old son, and my favorite all star kayaking couple Erin and Toby. It was truly a trip to remember to remember!

 Team USA!
The trip started in Washington DC where we departed our Aeroflot flight to Moscow and onto Irkutsk. Flying with boats is always a stressful aspect of any kayaking trip, and it was especially stressful for us knowing that finding boats in Siberia would prove difficult, so we were extra stoked to look out of window while at the gate to see our kayaks being loaded onto the plane!

Our kayaks being loaded onto the plane
We arrived in Irkutsk (with our kayaks!) after two long days of traveling with little plan besides knowing that we wanted to spend our one free day before the river trip visiting Lake Baikal, considered the deepest lake in the world. After a short rest and some quick internet research, we were off on a mini-adventure! Our plan was to spend the night at the small lakeside village of Bol'shiye Koty (only accessible by boat) and then hike the Lake Baikal Trail back to where we could grab a taxi to Irkutsk and meet up with our group the next day!

We took off in a taxi headed to Listvyanka (where we could catch the boat to Bol'shiye Koty), with a stop at a cultural outdoor museum on the way. It was an interesting stop, and allowed us to learn a lot about Siberian history and culture. After a quick stint on the side of the road looking for our next ride, we were picked up by a local mini-bus and were on our way. We had a minor epic when we weren't sure where the pier where we needed to catch our boat was located, and our Russian language skills left a bit to be desired. Thankfully, with the help of Erin's knowledge of the Russian alphabet, the google translate app and some really nice and helpful Siberian locals, we found our way to the pier with 5min to spare to catch the last boat ride of the day!

The village of Bol'shiye Koty has no restaurants or stores, so we'd stopped by the store before leaving to pick up the essentials (wine and vodka) and were excited to learn that the boat sold pizza! We spent our evening enjoying a gourmet dinner on the shore of Lake Baikal.

Getting fancy for dinner on the shore of Lake Baikal
The next morning we awoke and started our 12 miles hike along the Lake Baikal Trail, headed towards Listvyanka. The weather could not have been better, and the views of the lake were simply amazing.

Hiking along the Lake Baikal Trail

A mid-day dip in the lake
We eventually made it back to Irkustk and met up with the rest of the team we'd be putting on the river with the next day. We had an experienced team from all over the world, including an Irishman, a Norwegian, three Germans, two Russians, a Ukrainian and us four Americans.

Our drive to the river took around eight hours and brought us into the border zone with Mongolia before arriving at the put in of the Kitoy. We arrived at dusk, and without much daylight left to make it to camp, we all just threw our things in our drybags, grabbed some of the group gear/ food and took off. An hour or so later, we found ourselves pulling our boats up into a forest and were at our first of eight campsites of the trip.

Unloading our gear at the put in
Taking off at dusk, headed towards Day 1 campsite

The next day we had many long hours of paddling on class 1-2 water in order to reach our day two campsite. While the whitewater wasn't very difficult, the scenery was beautiful and the level of excitement was high as we were getting closer and closer to the gorges that would bring the best whitewater of the trip.

Typically scenery on Day 2
Chilling at Day 2 campsite

The next three days were filled with the best whitewater on the Kitoy. We ran hard rapids, dried socks by the fire, portaged a river gorge, slept in a campsite overlooking a waterfall and in general just enjoyed being out in nature. No cell phones, no facebook, no political news- just whitewater, awesome people, and vast Siberian wilderness. 

Gorge section at the beginning of Day 3
Day 3 campsite

Trying to get dry by the fire

Fun rapid at the beginning of Day 4

Scouting downstream during the portage on Day 4
Anne checking out the view from our Day 4 campsite

Celebrating successfully navigating the hardest rapids of the run during a lunch break on Day 5
After successfully navigating the hardest river gorge of the Kitoy, we paddled on to the confluence of the Biluti, a tributary of the Kitoy, which we would spend the next three days exploring. The only downside to the Biluti is that in order to get to its rapids, you have to hike for miles upstream through overgrown forests and along steep cliffed out ledges. The last bit of the hike involved climbing down a sketchy homemade wooden ladder, scrambling along a narrow ledge, jumping across a gorge stream, and then ziplining our boats across the gorge. It was quite the adventure, but worth every moment.

Our group tarp at the Day 5 campsite at the confluence of the Biluti

Anne and Me partway up the hike up the Biluti on Day 6

Nini making her way down the ladder to cross the gorge on the hike

Me making my way across the gorge on the hike
The following day, the rest of the group headed upstream with kayaks on their backs yet again in order to reach the upper stretches of the Biluti and paddle the rapids at the top. Anne and I decided to hang back and take a rest day to enjoy the sunshine, crystal clear water and beautiful surroundings. After seeing the group return late in the day exhausted, Anne and I felt pretty good about our decision. 

Relaxing by the Biluti on Day 7
On the morning of Day 8 we woke up refreshed and ready to paddle the Biluti's beautiful rapids. For those that decided to go for it, the day started out with a 30-foot waterfall. While the waterfall looked pretty good, the possibility of being deep in Siberia with an injury was not worth it for me, so I chose to take pictures instead. The rest of the Biluti had some fun rapids and cool mini-gorges before it brought us back to the Kitoy where we would start out long paddle out.

Egor running the 30 footer on the Biluti

Anne running one of the classic Biluti rapids
Day 9 was a slog, and involved many many many hours of paddling class 1-2 water to the takeout. We were all relieved to see the bridge that signaled the road access where we'd be picked up. While happy to be done paddling 30+ miles of mostly flat water, there was definitely a sadness to finishing our big adventure. When putting on the river I expected that I'd be ready for civilization after 9 days out there, but I honestly could have spent another week or two living the river lifestyle. There is really something so special and simplistic about living by the river, with little to concern yourself besides putting in paddle strokes.

Celebrating a successful trip down the Kitoy
After a 4 hour drive back to Irkutsk, our team celebrated with one final night together out on the town. The following morning, Erin, Toby, Anne and I all caught an early flight to Moscow where we played tourists for the day. 

Enjoying a day in Moscow
I cannot say enough good things about our experience in Russia! The people were so kind, the scenery so spectacular and the adventure so grand! Definitely a place to add to everyone's bucket list! And if you'd like to join a trip like we did, check out Two Blades Adventures for more info. 

If you'd like to see more about what our trip was like, check out this sweet video Erin put together of our adventure! 

Russia 2017 from Erin Savage on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Wildlife and Whitewater: An Africa Honeymoon

Africa has been on my bucket list for a long time. The allure of an exotic destination abounding with wildlife was enough to start the dream, but once I learned about a wave called Nile Special and an island called the Hairy Lemon, I knew I had to go to Uganda.  And after hearing that an incoming dam on the White Nile was going to flood both the wave and the island, I knew I had to go soon.

So when Steve (my then fiancé, now husband) and I were talking about where we wanted to go on our honeymoon, I knew just the place. It wasn’t very hard to talk him into three weeks of warm weather, wildlife safaris and whitewater kayaking all wrapped into one epic vacation. We married in May, but because of our work schedules, we had to delay the honeymoon until December. It was worth the wait.

We started the trip off in Tanzania with four days of wildlife safaris in the Northern Serengeti. To say we were blown away by the experience would be an understatement. Within an hour of landing on the dirt strip that served as a runway, we were staying in the eyes of a beautiful mother leopard hunting for her cubs. Everyday was a new surprise and the perfect way to start off the adventure.

From there we flew up to Uganda and continued on our quest to see wildlife on a safari through the southwestern part of the country. This safari was all about primates, from chimpanzees to baboons to the grand finale: trekking to see mountain gorillas. We also got to witness the famous tree-climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park and spend Christmas Eve on a boat viewing huge numbers of elephants, hippos and water buffalo. Ugandan wildlife did not disappoint.

As much as we loved the animals, we were both most excited for the last part of our trip – kayaking on the White Nile. The White Nile is no stranger to dams. The river has already been reduced in length due to the Bujugali Dam, otherwise known as the Silverback Dam, which was completed in 2011 and flooded many miles of exceptional whitewater. While many great rapids were lost, the river still currently retains plenty of awesome river miles and epic waves to keep most kayakers happy for weeks.

We were stoked to have Erin and Toby “MacSavage” (also freshly married and celebrating their honeymoon) with us for the kayaking part of our journey. We met up with them at Nile River Explorers, where we would base for the first couple of days of kayaking. We decided to hire Kayak the Nile, a local kayak instruction and guiding company, to help show us the ropes of the river, and try to teach a group of creek boaters how to playboat.

The first three days of kayaking were spent with Craig, our guide and freestyle kayaking extraordinaire. Craig showed us all that the White Nile had to offer. The river is generally very wide, and in many cases has 3-4 different channels to choose from. Having Craig along to say “this one’s good to go” or “that one’s called Hypoxia and it will swallow you whole” reminded us why we decided to hire a guide.  In addition to showing us down the river, Craig also coached us on playboating on the Nile’s most classic features including Super Hole and Nile Special. Results were mixed, but I am happy to report that I at least upgraded my standard one trick, the 360 spin, to a roundhouse. J

After saying goodbye to Craig, we posted up for the remainder of our trip on Hairy Lemon Island, the most magical place I’ve ever been. Hairy Lemon is located in the middle of the river, a 5 min paddle from the famous Nile Special wave, and is filled with monkeys, hammocks and cold beer (three of my favorite things). Our days involved eating the delicious home-made meals served by the island’s friendly staff, drinking hot coffee and cold beer, surfing on Nile Special or Club Wave, going upstream for a river run, lounging in hammocks, reading books or just enjoying time with friends. With no internet or phone service, life is simple there and I loved every minute of it.

The imminent Isimba damn, projected to be completed in May 2018, will flood a significant portion of the remaining rapids including Nile Special, Malalu, Kula Shaker and Hair of the Dog. And to add to the tragedy, it will also put Hairy Lemon Island under water. While there will still be some quality whitewater left after the dam is in place, the classics the river is known for will be gone. All this to say, if you have not yet been to the White Nile, 2017 is the year to go! If you are not a kayaker, local rafting company, Nile River Explorers, will take you down the river on a raft so you too can experience the wonders of the White Nile before its gone.

If you want to learn more about the dam, visit Kayak the Nile’s webpage dedicated to providing up to date information about the Isimba Dam Project.  Also, check out this video following a local Ugandan explaining what the river has meant to him (note: Since the publication of the video, it has been decided that the dam will be the highest of the possibilities, causing the most loss to the river).

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

My Favorite Season is Russell Fork Season

There are so many great things to love about Fall.... the cooling weather, the changing leaves, pumpkin flavored everything, but the absolute best thing about Fall? It means its Russell Fork Season!

Ever since my first trip to the Russell Fork back in 2005, it has held a very special place in my heart. In case you need some convincing on why you should check it out, here are a few of the reasons why I think it is one of the best places on the planet:

Enjoying a quiet moment on the Russell Fork
1) The kayaking is classic! While it may be short, the Russell Fork Gorge is packed full of some of the most fun rapids around. Tower, Maze, Triple Drop, El Horendo and Climax are the kinds of rapids kayakers dream about. And if you want to lengthen your day, you can warmup on the class 2-3 Bartlick section or easily get multiple laps on the gorge section. 

Emily Shanblatt boofs into Tower
2) The Lifestyling is epic! Because you can't put on the gorge until around noon due to the water release schedule, it means that the Russell Fork is the perfect place for late nights and relaxed mornings! There are multiple camping options, but my all time favorite is at the takeout. Its super convenient to swing by your tent in between laps, there are great camping spots, a covered pavilion to get out of the rain if necessary and theres even an awesome play wave right there. Couldn't have designed it any better myself.

Cooking dinner at the takeout #vanlife

Dave and Karl discussing the upcoming election at camp

3) Elkhorn City is one of the most kayaker friendly town out there! Located in rural Kentucky on the Virginia border, Elkhorn City has a population of barely a thousand people. I'm not sure if it just the excitement of having new faces around or what, but this place really makes a point to be supportive of and embrace the kayakers coming to town (which is quite the opposite in some other places). My favorite campspot at the takeout I mentioned? Thats actually a day use area that they allow us to overnight in during the season. Some days youll even pull up to the takeout and find warm chili and cornbread being served in the pavilion! And don't get me started on the moonshine...

4) The scenery is spectacular. Known as the "Grand Canyon of the South," the Breaks gorge is the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi. Whether you're paddling through it, or viewing it from an overlook, you'll be wowed by this beautiful place. And with Breaks Interstate Park right there, there are plenty of non-kayaking recreation options as well in case you need a break from the river or have non-kayakers along.

The view from the Tower Overlook in Breaks Interstate Park

Enjoying the park with my favorite youngsters while their parents go boofing

5) The season finishes up with a super fun grassroots race! The Lord of the Fork Race, named in memory of Jon Lord, a Russell Fork regular who passed away at Tower rapid, is by far my favorite kayak race out there. There is something about it being not too hard, but not too easy, and filled to the brim with quality rapids and many of my very favorite people all coming together that earns it that title. The timing works out so you can get a practice lap in the morning of the race, and theres plenty of time for either  another lap or good ole beer drinking afterwards. And the day is capped off with the Russell Fork Rendezvous, a kayaker party that raises money for American Whitewater. What more could you ask for.

My husband, Steven Augustine, racing through Climax

The scene at the finish line

Lady chargers! 
While my time at the race this year wasn't one of my best (I placed 5th with a time of 7:51), I still had a great time and am already looking forward to next year's Russell Fork season! See you there!

Check out full race results here: https://www.webscorer.com/race?raceid=84838