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Vlad’s 1980 Sayan Oka River Trip

    - Vladimir Gavrilov | December 28, 2011

My first trip to the Sayan Oka was not an easy one.

First of all, with the exception of my wife, I went to Oka with people whom I barely knew. In the Soviet sport of rafting I could not officially lead my group to this trip unless I gradually passed through rivers of all classes of difficulty – from first to sixth. Therefore, even with two Class 6 expeditions behind me, I had to find a group going to a Class 4 river and to ask their trip leader to include me. Had I known how different the style and attitude of this Latvian group was I probably would have found other options. But sh… happens.

We left Riga (capital of Latvia) at the end of July and after 5 days the train brought us to the small mining town of Slyudyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal. We passed 5 days on the train by playing cards and making fishing flies from the red hair which we cut from the beard of a huge red-bearded guy in our group.

In Slyudyanka we took a bus to the famous (among rafters) Kyren Airport. I did not have high hopes that we would catch our flight to the Oka and unfortunately I was right. There was a crowd of about 200 boaters waiting for flights and the weather was not promising. With with a sky covered with lead-grey clouds the 12 seat AN-2 aircraft would not fly.

Kyren Airport

Kyren Airport

Our only option was to drive to the beginning of a trail (at that time a road did not exist) and hike 2 days the river. At our pre-trip meeting in Riga I warned our trip leader about such a possibility, but nobody took my warning seriously. We had to distribute enormous amounts of food that our group prepared for the two-week long trip. Yes, Latvians love to eat! It was about three times more food than my usual boating friends would bring on a similar trip. The distribution took a pretty weird turn and somehow my wife and I had to carry the biggest loads in our backpacks. Lena was the smallest person in the group and she carried 80lbs. I had to carry 124 lbs. Our next two to three days did not look very bright to me.

The truck dropped us at the summit and we began the hardest part of our trip. Scattered rain turned to heavy rain and some snow. We crossed several rivulets and a couple of them were waist deep and ice cold. We passed the Okinskoe Lake (the source of Oka river) and in near darkness found a relatively dry place to camp. The following morning we continued our arduous path to the river with bags that were even heavier due to our wet tents. The rain continued to chill us, but luckily we could shorten our hike by starting further upstream than usual since the Oka was full of water. The rain continued while we were on the river, but at least we did not carry our packs anymore.

Hiking to the Oka River

Hiking to the Oka River

After three rainy days our boats – a raft, 4-person catamaran, and my 2-person folding kayak reached the heart of the Oka, the Orkho-Bom Gorge. Occaisonal blue patches of sky appeared above our heads, but quickly disappeared like a mirage. We camped on a nice shelf above the river a couple miles before the entrance of the Orkho-Bom Gorge. We were already behind schedule but our fearless leader decided to have lay-over day and wait for the water to drop. The river did not look nice at all. Huge logs and even entire pine trees impetuously floated downstream.

At night we tried to get dry near the campfire and our red bearded friend began to complain about bad fishing at high water. Because the conversation was in Latvian, which I did not understand, I went to my tent and fell asleep. At morning we found that our red bearded friend and his “well rounded” wife left us. They took off to the village upstream in hopes to catch a plane flight back to Kyren.

From this moment everything changed. The following afternoon we finally saw the sun. The river was still high, but we could not wait anymore and the next morning we entered the grandiose Orkho-Bom Gorge. Here, for the first time during the trip, we met another group of rafters. They camped at a couple nice campsites and also waited for the water drop. Unfortunately we were already behind schedule and could not allow ourselves such a luxury and had to continue downstream.

The water was very fast with huge waves and whirlpools at each turn. It was a pretty shaky run for our two person folding kayak and every moment we felt the power of water. The first four rapids we ran without scouting as they had nothing but smooth mountainlike waves, but the kayak looked like a toy in these waves. We stopped at an eddy above the two strongest rapids to scout the rapids. The river formed huge waves with sharp tops and then, after a right turn, powerfully pushed onto the right cliff.

Half of our group decided that these two rapids are not for them. A portage was impossible due to thick taiga and therefore four of us ran the rapids first on the raft and then the catamaran. The waves were very impressive, but not as bad as they looked from the bank.

We came back to my kayak and began the rapid by very carefully running around the huge hole at the entrance. Afterwards we entered a chain of huge standing waves. We almost crossed the chain to the left, but last wave flipped us. My partner swam like an Olympian to the left bank. I could not do it and together with the kayak went into the undercut rock wall. The water was very turbulent and I spent almost the entire time under water even with my high volume lifejacket. I completely lost orientation and just tried to hold on to the boat (possibly it was my super-responsibility or just simple healthy sense of greed – we had all “group” money in the kayak). I cannot recall how I reached the sand beach on the left bank just before the next rapid. The rest of the group found me and my kayak over there. The next morning I was in pain – every muscle was aching.

Three Geologists Rapid

Three Geologists Rapid

In light of this event and lack of people on the raft and the cat, our leader told me to fold my kayak. As a result, the remainder of the trip I spent paddling the catamaran. The Orkho-Bom Gorge was beautiful, weather sunny and warm, and water clean and cold. We enjoyed wonderful camping spots, and to the credit of our leader Ilgmar (he was a professional astronomer) on dark nights I learned from him how to read the stars in the sky. And of course we could not eat all food that we carried on our backs through the marshes.

Still, I am very excited to come back to Orkho-Bom – especially without hiking with 126 lbs in my backpack.