Nobody’s River: Transitioning to Russia’s Amur River

The team arrives in Khabarovsk, Russia; Photograph by Krystle Wright
The team arrives in Khabarovsk, Russia; Photograph by Krystle Wright

Editor’s Note: On April 7, the Nobody’s River team began a very different kind of journey. Becca Dennis’ longtime partner,  Zach Orman, was in a terrible paragliding accident. He passed away a few hours later at the age of 28. After a month in Mongolia, Becca realized her own journey had changed once again. While the three other team members are now paddling the Amur River through remote Eastern Russia, last week, Becca returned to her home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to follow her own path. Our hearts are with Becca and the Orman family, as well as the three women paddling on the Amur River through Russia. Read previous Nobody’s River expedition dispatches >>

Transitions are always challenging. This one was no different. After 25 days in the lush wilderness of the Onon River, we were back in Ulaan Baatar getting ready to launch into the mysterious and daunting Russian portion of the journey. Becca had decided to head back to the United States—we were all sad to see her go, but completely understood her need to be back with her and Zach’s families.

The Onon had been so kind to us. The river was stunning; meadows rife with wildflowers surrounded us, the mosquitoes hadn’t been all that bad. But Russia felt like it would be another beast entirely.

The chaos began the night before we departed from Ulaan Baatar. We’d been told that because we had so much luggage, we needed to come 24 hours in advance to drop off the excess, which would go in a baggage car. For reference, our pile of collective luggage is so absurd that people just stop and stare at it—and us. We have three giant boat bags containing the kayaks, and three duffle bags containing our personal gear, sleeping bags, and clothing. We also have a giant duffle with life jackets, dry bags, and camping gear, and a really heavy bag of dehydrated food and Pro Bars. In addition, we have camera gear, a tripod, science gear, a sat phone … you get the picture. Oddly enough, on the water we are a streamlined unit: everything fits in the kayaks just fine, and we move easily. The main chore is unpacking camp in the evening and putting it back the next morning. But on land we are like trying to move a crippled elephant with a wheelbarrow.

We arrived in advance as we were told and our translator, Manaljav, immediately began to run around like a lunatic trying to figure out where we were supposed to take the luggage. It turned out there was nowhere to take it, there was no baggage car, and we were probably not going to be allowed to get on the train with all the bags, but we could try.

We walked up to the train car where we saw the most intimidating Russian train matron guarding the door. “Shoot,” we thought. But we smiled, acted dumb and confused (which was not hard), and just started shoving bags on. The matron assaulted us with an onslaught of indecipherable Russian to which we continued to smile and load our bags.

We had three legs of the train part of the journey to complete, along with immigration and customs thrown in. We were pretty nervous about getting through the Russian border, with all of our gear and food, but the customs agents did a few cursory pokes through our gear and then got overwhelmed, told us we were brave girls, and went on their way.

We’ve been so lucky since we’ve been here. Even with the difficulty of movement on land, many people have come to our rescue each day, helping us with luggage, helping us read menus written in Cyrillic, helping us find our way. They think we are hilarious and insane; we think they are guardian angels.

In Blagoveschensk, we had the very great honor of being introduced to a venerable Russian biologist by the name of Vasily Antonovich Dugencov, who was one of the first ornithologists (bird biologist) to work in the region. He’s in his early 60s, retired from work at the local university, but energetic and passionate about the natural world in the Amur region. We got to accompany him to a local wetland where we spent about four hours trudging through waist deep swamp water checking on grebe nests in the reeds. It was rainy and we were soaked with swamp water, reeking of sulphur, and covered in pond scum and duck weed.

It was around this time that Vasily Antonovich turned back and asked us in Russian, “Is everyone smiling with real smiles or forcing smiles, because I am very happy?” If there were any forced smiled in the group, they became very real at that point. It’s wonderful to see people with such dedication and passion doing what they love well into retirement. He said many wonderful things to us in the two days we spent with him and he wanted very much to connect with American biologists and for us to all sit down together and solve the environmental problems of the world. What an honor for us to make his acquaintance and come into his world for a bit.

This journey has never really been about just one thing, and as we wrestle with how to make our final days in this remote corner of the world count, we have reflected greatly on the gifts, lessons and deep challenges this journey has provided to us. We know one thing: we are just so very lucky to be here. What has become clear to us here is that we are seeing a place in the world on the very brink of enormous changes. It faces brutally difficult challenges that must be met with the collective will of three countries—all struggling with different needs and values. If it remains nobody’s river, it will sink further into the abyss of pollution, dams, species extinction and loss. If, on the other hand, it becomes everybody’s river and is valued for the treasure it truly is, one of the last great wild rivers on the planet can be saved and support generations of humans, birds, fish and other creatures. We are not the first people to explore this region, we are not pioneers in an untouched land, but we see with clear eyes how fleeting and precious this river is. It is one of the last of its kind and we must do everything in our power to celebrate it, care for it—and above all, protect it.

Read previous Nobody’s River expedition dispatches >>