Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Altai - Russia

Images - Benjamin Hjort 2013

In July 2013 an international team consisting of Benjamin Hjort (NOR), Mariann Saether (NOR), Ron Fisher (CH), Mark Basso (CAN), Xaver Freiser (DE) and Jasper Polak (NED) made their way to the Altai region well inside the great federation of Russia. For all of us it was that biggest part of the world we had never been to.  

This sign means big rivers are near so buy your basic food here
Compromising a large portion part of our livable planet in a far off land and once considered an enemy of the western world, there is no doubt even thinking about a trip here meant preparation and tolerance for a big paddling adventure well off the beaten path. 

Mariann and Ron share a moment - day 2 of 8 Ak-alakah with China in the background

How big? Well saying your going kayaking in Russia is like telling someone you are going kayaking to North America. However, just like North America Russia has many mountainous regions and it was specifically in southern Siberia along the Kazakh, Chinese and Mongolian borders the remote and mountainous region of Altai is found. In Altai, classic whitewater rivers such as the Argut, Chulyshman and Bashkaus begin as wet grasslands and gentle meandering streams before cutting themselves through deep gorges on their way to form the great Ob river of central Russia.

Those thinking a remote region in Russia might be full of unexplored first descents might be disappointed to discover that although the hard shell whitewater kayak is still a relatively new craft in this part of the world, many hearty Russian river explorers have been attempting to tame the raging rivers of Altai for quite some time. Since the 1970’s and 80’s Russians have been making incredible descents of raging class V and VI whitewater by means of raft, cataraft and of course the oddly designed Russian Bublik.

Argut camp day 6
Legendary descents of these rivers were known to take several weeks and have included stories of incredible hike-ins, arduous portages, primitive gear repairs as well as unfortunate swims and tragic endings. Memorial plaques are found alongside some of these rivers hardest rapids and pay homage to the passionate wild adventure seeking that Russian whitewater enthusiasts have had since long before kayakers came.

Argut is epic. The scenery at Karagem confluence
Flights from around Europe via Moscow connected us all as we met in the city of Barnaul Siberia well groggy from the all-nighter airplane flights.  We rounded ourselves up in a well ridden toyota van and soon after we were on our way adjusting to different food, Russian language and interesting cultural habits.

The sun was out and the sights were beautiful as we enjoyed plenty of smiles and laughs with our new guide Vasily Prosev. At first we knew little about our new found friend, but over the next five weeks we were able to discover his incredible capabilities as class V kayaker, off road driver, river guide and highly creative van mechanic.

Our pattern of travel took us first to the Sumulta river valley where we got our first dose of Russian 4wd off roading with Vasily at the helm. At the point the primitive road we were hammering up finally disappeared completely, we warmed up on a stress free hike into a remote and lush valley and soaked in the views. The next 2 days of the Sumulta were spent on easy class IV before the river grew in volume and the last kilometers gave us some big class V moves as we joined the great Katun river valley. 

Hiking into Sumulta 
After this warm up we headed to the Chuya river and the infamous Mazhoy gorge. Vasily was all smiles in his kayak now and kept up a fast pace as he took the lead on this short class V day run section. Although the Mazhoy was certainly pumping and a few beatdowns were witnessed, we were only getting a taste of things to come.  With more rain on the horizon we would be returning to this spot a few weeks later to a whole new river level and experience that would be called the ‘King of Asia’ race.

Mariann and I kill the first bag of chips in a while
Next up for our group was the great Bashkaus river canyon and the book of legends journey. Heading up over a pass from the Chuya river valley was only a quick drive and by the same afternoon we had acquired supplies for the 3 day trip and were floating down into the great abyss that so many Russians considered to be the most challenging river section in Altai. 

Bashkaus begins
By the next morning the walls of the canyon towered above us as the Bashkaus gradient began to steepen significantly creating long complex rapids and putting us to shore often for scouts and portages.

Bashkaus day 3
 The Bashkaus book of legends memorial appears high up on the cliff at one of the biggest rapids that long ago claimed the lives of many Russian rafters attempting to pass through. The book itself serves as a tribute to lost lives here and beyond as well as those of us who are making river journeys like this across the world. After a long stop to read some passages from the book and reflect on our journey to this amazing place, we got back into the folds of the abyss paddling at our best through endless class V whitewater. Eventually the river eased and we camped one last night before a fairly straight forward paddle on day 3 to the confluence of the Bashkaus with the Chulyshman and our waiting shuttle beers. 

Chulyshman and Katu-Yaryk hill climb equal one sketchy drive - photo Alex Polezhaev
From here our journey continued for 3 more weeks of expedition kayaking on more classic Russian test pieces including the Ak-alakah and mighty Argut. Never was there a dull moment except for a few extra van repairs and some over salty meals that often came in the form of beans, rice and soup bases. Altai became a journey that any paddler who seeks remote adventure into the utmost reaches of our great planet deserves fully. I will never forget this paddling trip with such good friends and meeting the challenges this adventure brought along the way.


A video from our trip by Benjamin Hjort

Monday, April 09, 2012

Hinterrhein Gorge - Switzerland

Early Spring and great views in the Rofla Gorge of the Hinterrhein - Switzerland

Switzerland's Hinterrhein river valley drains north from the San Bernandino pass and adjoins the Vorderrhein confluence near the city of Chur. However as most paddlers familiar with the Swiss Alps already know, the Hinterrhein river ends up being dammed and diverted through numerous tunnels and reservoirs. Switzerland's popular hydro electric production means the Rofflaschlucht and Via Mala gorges are sadly barren of water throughout most the year.

The historic Via Mala into where the Hinterrhein nearly disappears.

Kayakers wishing to get this run have been fortunate over the past few months as maintenance work on the dams created a steady release of water between the reservoirs. In the Fall a few lucky paddlers were able to get the rarely running Rofla checked off the list before the snow came.

Hearing good stories from friends Mariann Saether and Ron Fischer, I was keen to see if the taps were still running on the Rofla. Tim Starr and myself met in Salzburg as probably the only 2 paddlers originally from British Columbia now living in Europe and headed off with car loaded to start another paddling season in the northern hemisphere. A random drop into the Vorderrhein valleys saw us reunite with the Rofla's number one local Thomas Rogenmoser of Kanuschule Versam. He assured us water was still running and tomorrow would indeed be the scene of some high quality adventure inside the Hinterrhein.

Sandro Sprieter on one of many Hinterrhein highlights.

Morning started in the sunshine with myself, Swiss ninja Severin Haberling, photo g Sandro Spreiter, trusty Toro Rogenmoser and Timmy the Starr heading up the windy roads of the Via Mala to a chilly put in. Snowbanks and shadows were still looming as a torrent pulsed between tightly spaced boulders, signifying what was going to be demanding Swiss class V from the first paddle stroke.

The Rofla's manky boulder maze looks over the top at first glance, but it paddles better than it appears. Scouting comes often and many rapids start with long technical moves, but with good stroke placement and big boofs, the eddy's and pools space themselves nicely throughout the section.

Toro clean on a comparable Swiss version to hammer factor of the Green Narrows.

Visible from the put in, the second drop is a steep slide into a powerful hydraulic. Catching a far left line should help with clearing the hole, but when you're barely into the first paddle strokes of the season I was intimately reminded there is never any real guarantees to what a section like the Rofla might throw at you.

Tim Starr sends the put in slide with success.

Immediately the Rofla becomes a steep boulder blur of epic proportions and we were grateful of the line recognition coming from Severin and Toro after their last mission only the day before.

A look at the mid point portage

The unequalled highlight comes near the end of the run as all eyes stared at disappearing corner chute. It was here Toro confidently mentioned to us how we had all now arrived... at the 'commit'.

The outstretched neck says it all.

On the first trip through the Rofla kayakers popped through this narrow chute and into a walled cauldron with an ominous horizon line.

Into the crux of the Roffla and no turning back.

Water levels allowed for a scout on a small rock near the lip and a sweet discovery was made. If you're going to get down the Rofla expect to be in flight upon exiting this pool.

Downstream the Rofla contains one more burly waterfall but a look at the the lead in will certainly make you understand why it's good to bring the climbing harness as well. A river left rappel puts you into a pathway that was carved through the rock to go behind the curtain of the falls. Once a grueling construction project by the land owner who got an idea to make a tourist attraction after a visit to Niagra Falls back in the day.

The Rofla gorge of the Hinterrhein is a committing piece of class V whitewater that well represents the topography and harshness of this Swiss region. The past few weeks since have seen quite a bit of traffic from paddlers in and around the area and it is only a matter of days until this magnificent stretch will dry up and go back into hiding. Thanks to Sandro Spreiter for some of the pictures from an excellent day on the water. More information and a video about the lower Via Mala section from Ron Fisher here.

View Hinterrhein - Rofla Gorge (V) in a larger map

Friday, September 02, 2011

Susna - Norway

An instant classic waiting in the Nord. Upper Susna - Northern Norway

Susna is becoming the household name for anyone that has traveled up to Northern Norway on a summer kayaking mission. Although the location is only in the middle of the country according to the map, this vast area surrounding Hattfjelldal is still a distant drive north from the last major Norwegian city of Trondheim.

Homebase on the beach after another stellar day

Besides a handful of Finnish and Norwegian paddlers who consider Hattfjelldal to be common local knowledge, this new Norwegian hotspot for kayaking is at least a 7 hour drive up from the more recognized paddling playground of Sjoa.

Mariann Sæther gives the A-ok on the Upper Susna's rowdy super slide.

Hiding in a remote valley stretching under summer's midnight sun, the Susna is first called the Tiplingelva as it drains from remote scandic lakes in Børgefjell National Park. The Susna quickly picks up momentum within the valley of Susnadalen as it expands into one of the major river systems of the North.

Dusj-boof falls usually makes everyone's day a bit better

Any whitewater enthusiast might at first find the Susna character deceiving. The view from the window of the car is often flat and boring along the winding road south from Hattfjelldal. But secluded among the nordic forest, the classic Upper Susna and lower Susna canyon offer a range of paddling difficulties and commitment depending on the season. They are however usually at manageable flows at different times from each other .

Mariann and the go-go bus in search for the perfect put-in.

Let the photos speak for themselves. Putting on the Upper Susna should be an easy decision of amazing pool-drop whitewater most paddlers are seeking during their summer adventures.

Michelle Basso gets one of the many drops the Upper Susna

All rapids can be scouted or portaged effortlessly, but count on staying in your boat most of the time through a long section of beautiful views, slides, a sweet waterfall and the 'always-lurking-around-the-corner' Norwegian super-combo option at the end.

Karl Engen in the rapid above the waterfall.

The lefty stroke boofing dreams are made of

Susna's lower gorge is certainly just that. It's a canyon full of surprises and paddling challenges suited to much lower flows compared to what the Upper Susna section can handle. In July our team dropped into the top half of the canyon with too much water and were quickly met with marginal lines, gnarly holes, hairy-ferries and sweaty portages amongst the horseflies. Much of this section was previously unrun until Ron Fischer, Mariann Sæther and Benji Hjort made a complete descent a month later. Ron took some great pictures on the way down that made it onto his website.

After Hattfjelldal, the Susna's name changes once again to the Vefsna and so too does the river's size. The Vefsna now becomes a high volume river with multiple sections split between canyons that drop deeper into the valley and away from the road. It's down in here that many discoveries are still awaiting those who want to explore later into the season when water levels usually drop off. Perhaps even a multiday trip down the entire river as the Vefsna heads west and eventually north again off giant Laksforsen waterfall and on into the fjord at Mosjøen.

Mariann Sæther makes a big move in the 1st Vefsna gorge below Hattfjelldal.

So as the roads clear up from the caravan crowds, so does another summer fading fast up in the land of the midnight sun. Hattfjelldal and the Susna valley will always be right where they belong inside this amazing country; waiting for the next paddlers willing to spend an extra day driving in their car. See you up in the Nord.

Check out Mikael Lantto's recent video tour of Finland playboating, the Upper Susna, and an incredible descent of the Graddisselva mega-slide. Nordic kayaking at it's best.

Nordic Kayaking from Mikael Lantto on Vimeo.

View Upper Susna (IV-V) in a larger map

Monday, August 15, 2011

Svartisen-Saltfjellet - Northern Norway

Michelle Basso dwarfed beneath the Svartisen Glacier. Stormglomvatnet - Northern Norway

Stretching up from the rugged fjords of the Norwegian coast and on into the high mountain tundra near the Swedish border, Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park is a captivating location found in the heart Norway’s Nordland region.

Nice views, lazy roads, long days - It's the Nord.

It's an expansive natural wonder embedded within the polar circle and was once again part of the Norwegian summer road trip.

Oh yeah we did some whitewater paddling ...anyone take a picture?

The area encompasses lush forested valleys and endless rivers that emerge from Svartisen, northern Scandinavia’s largest ice field. Unfortunately this is one of Norge's least accessible areas meaning many good things are going to remain hidden unless kayaks are packed in some long distances.

Karl Engen gives his approval for the helicopter near Junkerdalen

Stormdalselva at full rage

Hiking into the upper Stormdalselva past the 200 foot Bredekfossen is a fine example of impressive stretches whitewater that have very rarely seen any paddler.

Bredekfossen hike in.

On the west side of the Park a road high above Glomfjord took us to a remote location with exceptionally different paddling potential. At the road’s end, an ominous dam wall appears looming above as if hiding something. As you climb the dam walls for a view the emerald waters of a massive arctic reservoir reveal itself along with massive glaciers lining shoreline.

Norwegian engineers in the 1980’s created Storglomvatnet reservoir with renewable energy in mind. Two constructed dam walls that span narrow gulleys connect one entire valley and fill up with water melting from the Svartisen icefield.

Upon completion nearly 20 years ago, a long lasting hydropower source was created.Today the glacier tongues dropping down to the water’s edge continually feed this high mountain lake while tunnels and gravity send the water to the power plants in the fjords below.

This impressive unnatural water source was immortalized recently as it graced the cover of Kayak Session magazine and Rush Sturges' new whitewater film 'Frontier'. Another paddling epic found by Rush and his crew is lying on the far shore. Hiking a low pass on the other side of Stormglomvatnet will get you to the Glomåga River headwaters; multiday wilderness paddling with lake access and the best views around!

Our paddle wasn't across the lake for the Glomåga this time, yet a sunny day in the sea kayaks could not last long enough. Deep sounds resonating from the intimidating sculpted ice environment came often, keeping our eyes fixed on massive towers of ice. An awesome encounter with one of nature’s greatest spectacles set amid the landscape of Northern Norway.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Krutåga - Norway

Mariann Sæther headlines Norway's search-for-more tour on the Krutåga - Norway. There's no question that the secret is out of the bag. Whitewater in northern Norway has always been on the map waiting for the first paddle strokes to arrive. Yet exploration by the foreign crowd has been limited mainly due to the laden creeks and overloaded options in the known southerly regions around Voss and Sjoa. With a few exceptions, stories have been kept on the low by tight lipped Norwegians savouring too many good things up in these parts. In the summer of 2005, Simon Westgarth, Sam Hughes, Rob Coffey and few others headed further into the midnight sun than many had before. After a couple of weeks they returned beaming with great tales for the rest of us. Northern Norway has it for sure, why not? The mountains follow this amazing country from the south up to its far reaches as sure as the summer sun stays long into the evening. With mountains as far north as 65' latitude, it was only a matter of time before these new paddling zones would be sought after by more foreign eyes. This past summer, the missions were on in full. Tuomas Vaarala and Mikael Lantto from Finland arrived from the north. Their group hit the Tromsø - Narvik area and shared light on the very good situation around there. Another three groups headed up from the south with the maps in hand. First stop was into Susnadalen, Hattfjelldal, and the classic roadside Krutåga. With us came 3 token Dutchy paddle bums living out of their car, 2 Germans with an inflatable roofrack and of course the veteran lady huckster with her summer home on wheels. With its headwaters trickling down from across the border in Sweden, the Krutåga is another example of an alpine creek quickly becoming the whitewater potential that keeps Norwegian kayaking legendary. With a late start in the summer sunshine, a few corners of routine ledges soon became high doses of vertical liquid consumption. Benjamin Hjort leads the charge on the first big slide. The Krutåga falls down the valley with beautiful rapids on the way down. One of the biggest slides goes off the charts and most likely requires a walk through the open forest around it. After a flat section along the road, the final canyon changes character and produces a few ugly cataracts in between more good lines down until the take out bridge. Roy Hopmans gets it on in the Nord Hattfjelldal is a small forested community with the basic services to keep you in the region as long as needed. The big Susna drainage will likely be the next on your radar with multiple paddling sections along its path. Head up the valley to Unkderdal for an amazing beach camp and another paddle option down the easier Unkerdalselva. Midnight base camp on Unkervatnet Surprises are many in this region but perhaps the biggest surprise of all was what it wasn't. Getting up to this classic area was hardly a suffer. Hattfjelldal is really considered the middle of the country and from the Sjoa area only requires 600 kms of scenic road. Breaking up the trip with a detour to the Forra just north of Trondheim is also a very good paddling idea. Discoveries still await in the numerous hidden valleys off the beaten track. Northern Norway is sure to become another special part of Europe's best paddling country. Come and get it. View Krutåga (III - V+) in a larger map