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).
14th SEPTEMBER . . .
It's nine thirty and the others have gone. They're hiking up to a lake about eight kilometres from here. Andrei and Gena have left to go shopping in the nearby village leaving me to watch the camp. I'm not really sure why I'm staying. My hip joint hasn't popped for months, although it's stiff and sore and my leg is very tired. I could do the walk. But I don't want to.
I woke up last night with Mark lashing me in the face. He sat up suddenly and grabbed the tent. "Who's moving the tent? where are we?"
"In Uzbekistan you silly bugger. Go back to sleep."
"Uzbekistan!" He calmed down instantly." Oh. Ok." And went back to sleep.
I've washed some of my clothes. It's odd how the stains remind
me of things. The blood on my hanky from the bone bashing ride into the
Chatkal. It seems like another life ago.
I had been woken by the noise of someone driving cattle. It sounded as though they were coming through or over the tent. When I got up they were gone, but on the other side of the river, which was a steep cliff face topped by grazing land, we saw a boy herding sheep. The bank, a dark orange, was stained darker where the water ran through, and dark green vegetation draped itself in the running streams, like streamers of shining moss. Then an old man in traditional dress appeared and stood and stared at us, to be replaced by a shepherd on a horse. He whistled loudly, threw stones into the river, generally tried to attract our attention. Then his wife and children appeared, and they sat down in a row on the edge of the bank and settled down to enjoy the show.
I had thought Andrei was staying, but I was also wondering how Gena was going to cross the river. I was half dreading a day in his doggedly friendly company but as soon as they had left I was dreading the arrival of some Uzbek shepherds who's language I couldn't speak. I didn't even have the pot so I couldn't boil any water and offer any visitors tea.
For the fist time since the Chatkal I was beginning to think about going home. Bishmulla was the watershed, and from it the journey turned towards Samarkand and inevitably to Australia.
I will spend the morning in the company of Byron. So far he has been
consigned to the excess baggage bag I dumped on the cataraft. This was
rather unfortunate as he's a good travelling companion; witty and knowledgeable,
and occasionally thought provoking. I will skip the bonking bits as being
inappropriate for my present situation. So I will read and sleep and try
and pump myself full of fluid. All toilet paper gone.
The problem with Byron is that the cadence of his verse is infectious. I went to sleep and dreamed in Byronic rhythms:
When a man has no rivers
to paddle at home
The rest of the team were due back at six and from three o'clock a scrubbed and sober Gena began to prepare what could justifiably be described as a banquet. Fresh salad, pancakes, tinned fish, goats cheese. The latter came in small hard white balls.
Gena gave me one to taste, and thinking it was sweet I bit into it and gagged, much to his obvious amusement. While we cut and chopped and Gena methodically made pancakes, Andrei slapped me gently on the wrists. He said that before Bishmulla he had felt we were all one happy family; after Bishmulla he wanted to stay away, he felt unnecessary because of my affair loving with Chris. The affair was news to me. I tried not to laugh. If he could be so staggeringly wrong about something like that, how accurate were my observations about these people whose language I couldn't speak.
Once he got over the glums he talked about other things in his fractured English. He had not paid any attention in his English classes at school, a thing he now regretted. But his life seemed to lack any kind of pattern. Although trained as an engineer in the computing field, he was now unemployed.
His father had been transferred to somewhere in Siberia when he was young. In the days of the Soviet Union graduates had to work away from the big cities for a year or so before they were allowed a job in the big urban centres. This is similar to the Queensland education department's policy towards it teachers, and I could sympathise with the frustration of any one who has to uproot their life because the faceless THEY'S think it's bureaucratically convenient.
We waited. Gena seemed surprised by the fact they did not turn up at exactly six o'clock. I would have been shocked if they had. While we waited I calculated I had thirteen days left before I flew home. And recognised the familiar tension, a terrible one at that. You travel to a foreign country and meet people you like, and then you leave them. In thirteen days Sasha and Vlod and Gena and Blodwyn would be memories. So the only possible recourse was to ignore that and squeeze each moment dry; take each moment for everything it offered.
They arrived at seven, tired but elated after a long day in the hills. The walk was as hard as they had anticipated, the lake as beautiful. They met a man and his sons on horseback who had invited them for tea. He has(had?) 5 wives and is expecting his 11th child. Apparently he was aiming for 15. They were surprised that our party carried no guns; there are bears in the hills.
On the 15th Andrei and Andrei left for Tashkent, to buy tickets for the train. Our bizarre progress down the river became even more odd. With two on the Admiral's barge, Vlod and Gena could only run straightforward water. Then they needed assistance.
We came to a long rock garden, where the river wove its way between large rocks, and towards the end of the rapid funneled its way under some of them. Undercut rocks are one of the worst things you can encounter on a river. A body or a boat crushed up against them can be held there by the force of the water. Where the water is actually going under the rocks, the problem is worse.
We ran the rapid in our kayaks, and then Mark and I walked back to help Vlod. "I will still love you both," said a laughing Blodwyn as we passed her, "even if you have no legs."
Her meaning became immediately apparent. We knelt in the bow positions, our legs held in place by metal hoops. I was jammed in so hard I wasn't convinced I could get out in a hurry. The paddle seemed huge, but then it needed the length to reach the water; it twitched and flexed unpleasantly.
The Admiral began to tell us the line, then stopped: You understand the river, you'll know what to do. Dry mouthed, heart pounding, we pulled out into the current. In the bow you feel as though you're being hurled at rocks, dropped into holes from a great height, buried in the frothing water. Breathless and heaving on the flexing paddle, the barge responded painfully slowly. We made a good run. And I suddenly realised how much skill the Russians possessed to be able to run this technical water.
The Blue catamaran's run was not as successful. They washed up into an undercut wall, and struggling to stay upright backed out of the current in to the slack water by the bank where all the water eventually went under something. We hauled them out and they carried the boat around the last big rocks to a huge pool at the bottom of the rapid. I remember this for two reasons. The pool reeked of something that had died and rotted, and while we were labouring with the boat Mark popped what may have been the first Kayak loop in Uzbekistan.
After our second run in the Barge we were left boatless, and had to scramble back up the bank to the road, across another fragile looking bridge. As we were paddling away two men on donkeys came to cross the bridge. And stared at us. While we stared at them. Martians again.
The others hadn't waited, and it was easy to see why. They'd stopped above a fierce looking rapid on a swinging S bend. We edged closer, scrambled along the bank, and vacillated. The first drop looked ugly, the river, confused by the abrupt turn, dropped over a ledge and the main current piled into a large hole on the right hand bank.
Some of the current kept going right, into a mess of rocks, the rest made it round the corner to a frothing pool of sorts and then turned again. The second drop had a river wide stopper in it big enough to thrash a kayak until the river level dropped. There seemed to be a path through, which began with a tight squeeze between two rocks, but from the bank the line looked too thin to be elegant and the consequences of failure were absurdly terminal.
On the Herbert river Jackie had told me that statistically most outdoor accidents occur at four pm. It was five past four. Mark wanted to get it run and done, but the Russians were on the other bank making camping signals. Searching for flat spots between the rocks we smoothed out some sand and found a home for the night. It was strange to sleep above a rapid I hadn't decided whether or not I was going to run. Jackie had taken one look and decided to portage.
In the morning everyone decided to go for a walk to take photos and collect fruit. The sky was overcast and it rained on and off; the world looked bleak and cold, as if someone had forgotten to tell the weather man the sympathetic fallacy was no longer a popular literary convention. I had reached the stage of lightheadedness. What better preparation for running a rapid.
While I waited for the others to return two cocky white Russians in a baby catamaran appeared. Their gear looked upmarket, looked bought rather than made, and their paddles looked like paddles and not bits of roof nailed onto to metal tubing. They stopped long enough to talk to the Admiral and then disappeared round the corner.
We went and had another look. There was no possibility of not hitting the hole after the first drop. It was running at an angle however and I thought that as long as I hit it six inches to the left of centre, with my nose going left, I'd arrive eventually in the pool below. The second drop still didn't look good, but I could easily portage it on the left hand bank if it looked ugly from the water.
These rapids require a different sort of commitment. Miss a move and the consequences are fairly painful. At the top of the rapid paddlers rehearse the moves they must make before setting out on their run. And in the back of one's mind is the alternate plan, what to do if you miss that eddy, if you hit that hole.
There will not be time for improvisation on the river. Paddling long
technical rapids is the sort of experience that only practitioners
of the silent sports and Zen masters
Mark and I decided to get it over with. The river hurried to the corner, the current driving us towards the white wall that was the hole. I slid quickly over the ledge, buried in the foam, and shaking my face clear of water, found myself sitting comfortably in the hole. I was in there long enough, the boat bouncing and twitching, to give me time to wonder if I had misjudged it. I worked my way out, back into the main current and yahooed into the eddy.
From the water the line through the next drop looked far more obvious than it had from the bank. Trevor, who had been carrying Jackie's boat, had raced to catch us up and now overtook us. It was merely a question of putting the boat through two rocks, nose pointing left to catch the eddy, then turning to follow a seam through the stopper, down through some big waves, avoiding holes on the right, and into the safety of a big eddy.
Then waiting. Sasha and Blodwyn disappeared. They were gone so long Trevor went to see what they were doing. Sasha was pumping up his raft. The Silburn Theory of Fear Displacement, first enunciated on rapid fifteen on the Pskem, which is, surprisingly graded six, is that kayakers deal with fear by trying to get the rapid over and done with, rafters fiddle endlessly with their equipment.
This may supplement Neely's Law that the amount of time spent inspecting a rapid is directly proportional to the amount of time you spend getting thrashed by it, because when the blue boat finally swung round the corner their line on the first drop was spectacular but messy, their line on the bottom non existent; they went up the rocks in the middle, slid off, spun round, wallowed through the hole and then crashed through to the eddy below. The big cataraft, on the other hand, with Blodwyn and Sasha as guest paddlers, ran it with a precision that was almost graceful. I was beginning to appreciate the Admiral's skill.
Silburn also propounded his Theory of Elastic Time but the sun was out and I'd had enough theory for awhile.
After a bop downstream through a narrow gorge without serious rapids we came to a place we all decided to portage. The cataraft was ahead of us, but Blodwyn was sitting on a rock and the catamaran was on the bank above. The river funneled down between two big rocks in to a monster hole. It was big and loud and ugly and we stood and admired its power, speculating about the type of kayakers who might run it. The Admiral appeared, to tell us he and Gena had run the hole without incident, and then he and Sasha walked back upstream to run the little boat through.
They seemed to drift out into the current and move with an apparent lack of urgency towards the drop. At the lip they started to paddle hard, but they slid down and crashed to a buried halt. The pressure on the stern forced it under and the boat reared up vertically, shedding white water from its glistening blue hull. Sasha was flailing, his paddle no where near the water. Vlod, buried, was still going for his stroke even though the boat was obviously going over on its back. It's the mark of a good paddler. A lesser boater would have dropped the paddle and clung on.
It crashed down and was spat out of the hole. Vlod was quickly back on the upturned boat, paddling for shore. Sasha worked frantically to free his spare paddle and then they paddled in.
We stood on the banks laughing, giving ten out of ten signs, much to Blodwyn's confusion. A dripping Sasha appeared, and told Blodwyn that today was his birthday. He was forty seven. It was a spectacular way to celebrate.
Rapid eighteen on the Pskem is graded six and for once no one was arguing. There are rapids graded six you can see a theoretical line through, even if you don't like the consequences of failure and decide to walk. There are rapids you don't run but feel that on a good day you might have got away with it. But there was no line, theoretical or otherwise you could have held to get you through rapid eighteen. You would have to begin and then abdicate all pretence of control over your destiny. Your life or death totally at the caprice of the river. There was no way to line the boat up to escape from the frothing bowl of thrashing roaring water; no chance of swimming, little chance of staying in your boat, and even if you did manage to stay in your boat your death was a sixty forty chance.
Trevor asked Vlod what the line was.
"Right, left, you can go straight down the middle. You can go anywhere you like as long as you go without me."
We looked at this ugliness, then paddled down to the big eddy above it to shorten the portage. There was one heart stopping moment when we thought Gena and The Admiral were going to miss the eddy and do the drop backwards. This made us all a little nervous, which is probably why Mark and I misunderstood Sasha. We thought he intended to walk down to the eddy so we walked back up to help him carry his boat. I got disorientated scrambling back up from the river so stopped to play the bear in the sweet blackberries. While I was doing this I saw the blue boat running down towards the eddy.
Confused, we raced back to meet them. Then helped to portage the canyon. Mark and Sasha took the boat, while Blodwyn and I took the rucksacks. Staggering under the weight of the bag I had a vivid memory of my student looking at me quizzically and asking; "But Mr. Guilar, don't you have to be fit for this kind of thing? You don't look very athletic."
Are you watching me now?
We followed the line of the river, over crumbling shattering rocks that slid away from our feet, forcing our way through brambles and bushes, Slithering down a steep embankment we arrived at the point where the others, having followed the portage trail, had left the boat.
We blundered back for lunch. I had seen enough of the lower gorge to think it was runnable, and Mark and Trevor had come to the same conclusion. So I carried Boat past the first drop and then sat down and waited, feeling gradually sicker and colder as the day turned gray and the temperature dropped and rain began falling in random showers. I couldn't even work up the energy to climb back to help them carry the raft. Expedition Suffering was no longer a laughing matter.
Mark had three rules of Kayaking he had learnt in New Zealand: don't be stupid, shit happens, bring beer. I added a fourth while waiting, to turn it into a quatrain.
When Kayaking, don't be
We finally ran the gorge; it was fast and narrow and we emerged from it into the valley which seemed to be opening out. The big raft ran the rest of the gorge too but The Admiral spat the dummy about the run for some reason. Sasha then celebrated his 47th birthday by having to walk all the way back to our lunch spot to reclaim his camera.
There was an obvious possibility of mutiny concerning the campsite. Flat spots were rare, but the scenery was magnificent. A creek ran in to the river on the right hand side, weaving its way down from the valley higher up. At its head, in the distance, a huge mountain blocked the V with ramparts of grey rock patched with snow. On the left an impressive water fall carved its way through the vertical rock walls of the bank.
We made camp, and then celebrated Sasha's birthday. Blodwyn, who had taken to calling him "father", got excited about it all. While we cleared a space in what the Admiral claimed were narcotic plants, she dropped a scarf over a rock to make a small table, cut up the last remaining energy bars and Mark's last Cherry Ripes arranged them like a heart, put some of the Admiral's narcotic in the centre as a table decoration and lit a candle. Sasha hid behind his concern for the kasha. Trevor gave him a roll of film. I gave him my last bar of chocolate, which he promptly cut up and shared around.
Then five drops, and five more drops; to the river, to Sasha, to us. To friendship. And five more drops and some songs.
For the first time in several days I was feeling no pain. The warmth of the fire had eased the numb chill that had settled on me all afternoon. I was afraid to move in case I started to feel sick again, so I huddled by the fire, long after everyone else had gone to bed. Blodwyn and the Admiral were still there, still talking in Russian, oblivious to my presence. Or so I thought.
But Vlod had questions he wanted to ask, and so Blodwyn translated them for me. What is a good kayaker? Can you be a good kayaker and still portage rapids? And why did some people obviously feel compelled to do things they didn't want to do?
Today I think that Russians go to the river like it is a war; a test of their courage and strength.
We go to the river to dance.
End of Chapter
14 . . .
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