Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
THE EVENING WAS beautiful. Ravaged mountains rose around us as we curled along the lake and headed across a rickety wooden bridge that crossed the drowned lower reaches of the Pskem. The road turned up the valley.
The rain had softened the air. The evening smelt of warm damp hay. We rumbled through clusters of houses, too small to be called villages, their roofs covered with fruit and vegetables drying in the sun. In a green field a man on a wagon forked hay into his loft; colourful women and men in suits, turned their brown faces to watch us as we passed, and the children running after us, played bang bang. We stopped in a small village to drop T and J's climbing gear, then continued in the gathering dark along horror show road.
The valley of the Pskem is much narrower than that of the Chatkal. On either side the horizon line is broken by numerous impressive mountains flecked with snow. The truck lurched along as the road became a switchback clinging to the steep sides of the valley. I was wondering why the driver kept peering out of the cab to stare at his wheels but gave it up, deciding that speculation in this case was not advisable.
From time to time we could see the river, pinched and dark, with huge rocks trailing white streamers against the grey water. "Category six," said Sasha, nodding down to the river. It grew dark, then it began to rain steadily, and we pulled the plastic sheet we had used for a table cloth over our heads. The truck began to lurch violently, gears screamed, the wheels spun, and then the engine stopped.
The river was narrow and loud. We had stopped on the right hand side of a rickety looking bridge that crossed the river to a small hut where we could see the orange glow of a fire. The driver didn't fancy his chances on the bridge, so we began the long carry to the hut, intimidated by the roar of the river, by the change of pace, by the darkness and by the presence of the two silent, watching men. While we stood staring at our pile of equipment, two men on donkeys carrying hay from upstream arrived and stopped to talk.
We hustled in the dark to a flat spot a hundred yards up the river from the hut, and relayed our gear, worrying about robbery. Once the tents were up in the cramped little space available the boys commandeered the fire and began to prepare tea. By now my stomach was suffering from a surfeit of Bishmulla and I practised positive thinking, trying to convince it that everything was fine. When this didn't work I reminded it that we had failed to replenish toilet paper supplies in Bishmulla and I couldn't be trusted to recognise Central Asian poison ivy. That did the trick. For a while.
The little man who lived in the hut, sleeping outside it on an iron bed by his fire, was the guardian of the bridge. His job was not to keep the bridge in good repair but to watch who came across it as it gave access to the cultivated fields up stream from our camp.
Next morning it was raining on the Pskem. During breakfast we watched the villagers parade across the bridge on their way to their fields; women and girls with iron buckets, wiry men on stringy horses with lean tatty dogs, old men on donkeys, and boys on foot passed over and up into the mountains. They all stopped to talk with the guardian, who spends the whole summer here. He was an adept scrounger. His method was to sit and watch until he was offered whatever was going. He watched Mark rolling cigarettes, he watched Vlod cooking breakfast, he lingered around Blodwyn.
Our first task was to carry all our equipment up the river to a flat where the Russians could build their boats. This was not a pleasant experience. But the campsite was flat and open, and preferable to our cramped quarters under the Guardian's scrutiny.
Sasha asked me if I'd like to go fruit picking, I agreed as long as Blodwyn promised to translate anything that wasn't a private conversation. She agreed and we set off for the garden of Eden. Sasha hailed a passing truck, and we leapt up on the back, and bouncing along in the cool breeze entered a landscape designed by Rider Haggard. The dirt track went uphill, past a ruined barn with a huge mountain of hay beside it. Across the river we saw other, greener gardens. The road went through fields of potatoes where a man stood glaring intently at his spuds, and then stopped abruptly in an orchard.
Rows and rows of fruit trees, planted with an apparent lack of logic: apples, plums, cherries, apricots, all interspersed. The grass between had been cut and had been left to turn into hay. It was like wandering into a Rider Haggard novel; the English man suddenly stumbling into some paradise hidden in the mountains. All that was lacking was the ruined city, with vague architectural memories of Greece and Rome and a beautiful woman who was waiting to shower me with gold and grant my every wish if I'd only forgive her for something she did to me twenty thousand years ago. I'd never have to stand in front of a sullen class again.
The fat child's dream and the adult's reality came perilously close to fusing. Sasha was looking for an apple tree he had found here three or four years ago, so I ambled along testing the fruit, trying to make a daisy chain. Should the World's Desire put in an appearance I was going to be ready. I had been ready since I first made her acquaintance in the Library in Coventry over twenty years ago. Should she fail to materialise I could always give the daisy chain to Blodwyn, and there was always the clear air and the view of the surrounding mountains to offset any disappointment.
As we returned, laden with plums and apples, we discussed the mysteries of the universe. We met the other foreigners striding up the hill and pointing them in the right direction continued on down. A family had parked their car by a stream and invited us to join their picnic. We declined and returned to camp, where Gena was cooking lunch. While he did so the wind continued to rise until the Admiral's tent was heaving around like a lady in a Victorian dress billowing in a gale. For the first time on the expedition I pegged my tent down, then all hands were required to save the Admiral's tent and move it to a more sheltered spot.
After lunch we finally got around to river stories. This was something I had been missing. Usually you put a group of river runners together and they tell stories. We had failed to do this because it was so tedious having to have everything translated. Blodwyn was on holiday, she wasn't a professional translator. Huddled into the shade of a tree Mark and I told Sasha the story of The Worst Journey in the World which he seemed to enjoy, and that got us going on worst trips we have been on.
The rain interrupted our story telling and drove us into our tents. My note book records the fact that it was Trevor's turn to be ill. While I was lying in the tent Mark came to ask me if I truly believed that you should only sleep when you're dead. Since the answer was yes we headed for the Russian tent and a party that ended with Gena roaring drunk and Mark and I playing for Blodwyn who wanted to dance round the campfire. It was difficult to believe that we were going paddling the next morning. The first rapid started just above the bridge and was supposed to be a kilometre and a half of grade five water.
If the Pskem moved through a landscape designed by Rider Haggard, Spike Milligan had rewritten the script and the play was being performed by the Monty Python crew. We were going to take seven days to run forty to fifty Kilometres of river. On two of those days we wouldn't be paddling. "On rest day, Banya. By river," announced Vlod, his eyes glazing over at the thought of it.
The sun came out and dried our gear, and we tried to get our heads into paddling mode. Gena had retired from the cooking and for some reason I was now expedition cook. After breakfast no one seemed to want to move, but we packed and swung out into the current, which raced us down towards the rapids. The rapids on the Pskem were caused by a combination of the river dropping through huge rocks which littered the riverbed. The position of flood debris, mostly river worn wood, perched on the top of housesized rocks, and the massive undercut banks showed that in flood this river would be horrific.
An hour after setting off we had got no further than the bridge. This had nothing to do with the severity of the rapids. We were waiting for the Russians. Mark entertained himself by spending three quarters of an hour trying to surf a small hole.
By the end of the day it was obvious that the Pskem was going to be a kayaker's river, that at this water level the rapids were no where near as difficult as their grades suggested and that our downstream progress was going to be painfully slow.
A kayak team made up of reasonably competent paddlers can move swiftly down an unknown river if they can trust each other's judgement and skill. The paddler in the lead has the job of picking the best line down the rapid from his or her boat.
This takes skill and experience. The standard method is to hop down the eddies, using them for resting and scouting, with the rest of the team following, usually leaving one eddy between the probe and themselves. When the rest of a rapid is obscured by rocks or drop, then the lead paddler has to be able to pull off the river and scout from the bank which means they tend to paddle from eddy to eddy, always making sure there is one which they can get to and get out in.
If the rapid is long and involved, or difficult, the rest of the team, arriving in the last eddy, will get out and scout. Frequently, however, the rest of the paddlers can stay in their boats and simply follow the probe's advice, if they trust his or her judgement.
Mark Silburn is a splendid probe, with a fine eye for a good line down a river and a common sense approach to risk taking. The last thing you want to do on an unknown river is to follow some slash and burn hair boater round a corner and into a boat munching hole or over a waterfall.
We easily outpaced the Russians, who were scouting everything from the bank. On the Chatkal the cataraft had been able to run through stoppers and holes we had been obliged to avoid. On the Pskem, their basic lack of maneuverability meant the moves for each rapid had to be planned in advance.
At lunch the Admiral and Andrei tried their hand at kayaking. Trevor introduced them to the art of long cold swims but they dealt with it with good humour.
The evening too was eventful. The Russians punctured the left sponson of the raft, and I found a wonderful piece of wood worn by the river to look like a windblown hag. I had asked Sasha to find me some herbs, and he disappeared soon after we arrived and returned with herbs, wild onions, and garlic. Both he and the Admiral had a passion for herbs, and whenever Vlod made the lunch time tea he would throw handfuls of green stuff in; "This is for the heart" he would announce, or "This is for headaches."
Blodwyn had announced that she was going to cook the evening meal and had been planning something vaguely exotic for dinner. When it came time to cook she disappeared, and left Trevor and I to hunt for pasta or spaghetti or rice. All we could find was bread and biscuits. Nothing but bloody bread and biscuits. Andrei the climber had taken over the organisation of food for the Pskem. He didn't seem to know what was going on. We were reduced to potatoes with Garlic and herbs, and the ubiquitous tinned meat which looked and smelt like pedigree chum, topped with a cheese so devastating that it would have made Russia's nuclear arsenal redundant. Blodwyn returned after Trevor and I had finished cooking to give her approval to our efforts.
The night was vodka free and silent from songs. We sat by the fire, watching the spectacular stars, which glinted with precision in the blue black sky, and I got an astronomy lesson from Sasha. I hadn't seen the plough for seven or eight years, but it was good to see its familiar shape, which used to be visible from the back door of my parents' house.
The Russians seemed to have slowed to a stop. In the morning the Admiral and Gena worked on their injured raft; dried it, cleaned it; scoured it and patched it in the time honoured method of rafters everywhere. While they did this I lay in the sun trying to convince my stomach to behave and watched Andrei and Andrei make breakfast. They were so slow. They sat so closely together while they worked that they could probably have done with only one set of clothes. They were making omelets with dried egg powder. Breakfast was such an oddly disconnected affair that I gave up and went surfing. I could get the boat vertical but couldn't pop it up.
Another day of fine rapids followed. Trevor, getting out to film, was able to tell us the basic line and so we scouted little but waited a lot. Fortunately the scenery was magnificent; high snow capped mountains were visible from the river, and we wallowed in blue skies and sunshine. We hadn't seen much wildlife, a few goats, probably domestic, one snake, some distant soaring birds. The Admiral found a large horn, possibly of some kind of wild goat. Neither he nor Gena managed to catch any fish. The Russians found bear scat, and I found a bear trap when I narrowly avoided standing in it, but we saw no bears.
The evening meal was bizarre even by our standards.
"What am I cooking for dinner Andrei?"
"Sounds good. What do we need for Plov."
"First we cook onions and tomatoes and garlic, then we add meat and herbs, then we add rice."
"Good. Where are the tomatoes ?"
"We have none"
"We have no onions."
And so on.
End of Chapter
13 . . .
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