Kayaker recalls experience in remote Siberia

LAKE PLACID – Lake Placid Elementary School physical education teacher Matt Young successfully completed an 11-day whitewater kayaking expedition on a remote river in Siberia in late August.

The trip started in southeast Siberia, near the city of Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, believed to be the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1,700 meters) lake in the world.

Young went with an 11-member group that consisted of four Americans, four Brits, a Swede and a Russian. The trip was led by professional kayaker and guide Tomass Marnics of Latvia, who had previously visited the area.

Located in the remote Sayan Mountain range, the Kitoy River and its tributaries are rarely visited by outsiders.

“The tributary that we paddled called the Biluti, myself and three other Americans on the trip were the first from the U.S. to see that stretch of river,” the 30-year-old Young said.

Young compared the Biluti to Johns Brook in Keene Valley, a narrow and steep creek. It also required two days of hiking to get to the top of the run.

Young said the Kitoy River was much bigger and often about 30 meters wide with Class IV and V rapids. However, it took a little while to get to these sections.

When the group first arrived at the Kitoy, they found a narrow river that was not really even deep enough to paddle. So the first couple of days they slogged through shallow water. During this part of the trip, they engorged themselves during meals.

“We started with tons of food, so much food,” Young said. “I had two raw chickens in my boat the first night. Chickens for the first two days. We weren’t hitting any real whitewater, so you just kind of throw things in your boat. So you eat well for the first two nights on the trips and after that you kind of get into the expedition food.”

On the third day, they hit Class III rapids and the real paddling was underway. The meals of chicken and potatoes were replaced by canned horse meat and pasta and mayonnaise.

“If I were going to Quebec or California, I’d stop by REI or EMS and get a freeze-dried Backpacker Pantry meal, but in Siberia, you don’t really have access to that stuff,” Young said. “I could have brought it, but since the trip was kind of arranged by Tomass, it’s just what he does. And culturally in that part of the world they eat horse meat.”

Young said he was taken aback at first at having to eat horse meat because it’s not part of American culture but he ate it anyway.

“When it came right down to it, it tasted fine,” Young said. “It was more of an issue that we were eating meat and pasta for breakfast than the meat that we were eating. I was like, ‘Man, I’d kill for some oatmeal right now.'”

Another element of the trip that was different because the kayakers were in Siberia was that they didn’t use lightweight cooking stoves and gear. Instead, food was cooked by open fire in a big pot. Each day a different person would carry the pot between their legs in their kayak. Young made sure he carried the pot early in the trip because the river got more difficult the further downstream the group paddled.

Young said one of the best parts of the trip was that there were few rapids that had to be portaged.

“On this trip, especially on the Kitoy, I was so surprised at how challenging and exciting, but also runnable everything was,” Young said. “We only made two portages on 300 kilometers of the Kitoy River. Not all of those kilometers were whitewater, but even the hardest section of whitewater on the Kitoy on the lower canyon, there were no portages. Big volume rapids on top of each other for sure.”

One of the most challenging parts of the trip was that Young didn’t know most of the people on the trip. He was invited by Freddy Riner of Switzerland, who he had paddled with in the past. The person he was most familiar with was his friend Anthony Gianfagna of Watertown.

That made difficult stretches kind of stressful at times.

“It was definitely different for me, going on a trip like this with people I didn’t know,” Young said. “That made the difficult sections of whitewater more difficult, because when I’m paddling with Bill Frazer we don’t even have to talk to each other. I see the expression on his face, or I know if there’s something coming up that he doesn’t like, he’s going to jump right out of his boat and take a look at it and then go tell me what to do. There just wasn’t a lot of those automatic things I was used to, especially in the upper canyon on the Biluti.”

But all in all, the trip went well and Young had a great time. It was a big step in his paddling career. It was by far the most remote place he’d visited. At some points, he said the hike out from the river would have been four days.

“That really stuck with me because I’ve been to places in North America where we consider remote in eastern Quebec or the Sierras in California, and those places the walk out is within a day,” Young said.