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Paddling Siberian white water

Stephen BedfordVail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily Author and kayaker Eugene Buchanan recently visited The Bookworm to talk about his book "Brothers on the Bashkaus," which documents his journey rafting in Siberia.
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In 1993 Eugene Buchanan chartered a rafting trip into the virtual unknown, and returned with the story of a lifetime and friends he’ll never forget.Buchanan’s tale is one of rapids beyond classification, pork fat, three guys named Sergei, vodka, mercenaries and adventure pulsating with adrenaline. The Steamboat Springs native eloquently compiled all those elements and more into “Brothers on the Bashkaus: A Siberian Paddling Adventure,” a book of whitewater rafting half a world away.

Buchanan discussed his sojourn to Siberia at The Bookworm in Edwards Wednesday night. Books are still availabe at the store.After securing a grant from W.L. Gore, the innovators of Gore-Tex, named for famed British explorers Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman, Buchanan and three friends began plotting the ultimate whitewater expedition to the far reaches of the world. The team decided on Siberia, an area of the globe teeming with rivers that had been virtually impenetrable by westerners before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After that, the team unintentionally would be improvising as they explored.The trip was thoroughly planned out with a detailed dossier for day-to-day happenings in Eastern Europe, “was” being the operative word. With their contact in Russia missing in action, Buchanan and friends were stranded in Moscow until fate intertwined and introduced the Americans to Team Konkas, a Latvian river-running outfit hell bent on tackling the brutal Bashkaus River and its Class V and VI rapids.The stretch of the Bashkaus the crew would run stretched 130 miles with a drop-off of roughly 32 feet per mile. In comparison, the Grand Canyon features a drop of about 8 feet per mile. This is gruffly detailed in broken English, hand signs and crude drawings by trip leader Ramitch, who also casually notes that the last time he ran the Bashkaus two members of the expedition didn’t return.Barely able to communicate with their new comrades, Buchanan’s group trekked across Mother Russia, discarding their carefully packed gear along the way. These strange Latvians, who loved The Beatles and were either soaked in whitewater or vodka at any given point during the day, would be building everything that went on the river using logs, deflated soccer balls, wine bladders and any other refuse that might suit the purpose of a raft.

Bewildered at first, Buchanan said in retrospect he wouldn’t want the trip to unfold any other way.”We did get more than we bargained for, for sure,” Buchanan said. “At the same time, we could have never planned a better trip that exposed us to the area’s true river-running culture. I know it would have never been worthy of a book if we stuck to our original plans. We also wouldn’t have bonded with a group of complete strangers.”Therein lies the crux of Buchanan’s book. It may appear like an adventure memoir, but it’s actually about cultures, friendship, trust and the unbreakable bond built when the three converge. Though unable to truly communicate, the two sides were capable of manufacturing rafts and gear predominantly from what the forest provided. During downtimes there were exchanges of cultural customs as well as acoustic sing-a-longs, mostly to “Rocky Raccoon.”It was a sensitive time to explore, as the shadow of the Soviet Union still lurked over nations, and people, with new-found freedoms. Buchanan and his friends were precarious ambassadors during somewhat troubled times.”It was definitely weird,” Buchanan said. “We felt privileged to be from America with all its opportunities. It made us feel more patriotic.”Civil liberties aside, Buchanan’s crew probably missed the dietary opportunities afforded explorers on American soil. In Siberia, the Americans and Team Konkas subsisted on pork fat, boiled fish water, bread and sugar cubes, all prudently rationed out. Occasionally, a Team Konkas member would negotiate with armed horsemen, trading vodka for a sheep. Residents along the river also spared what they could to the famished rafters, Buchanan said, who lacked the caloric energy to fight through rapids.”I’m over it now,” Buchanan said of Siberian sustenance, but also noting pork fat samples will be available at his presentations. “My first bite brought back some gut-wrenching memories.”

Buchanan’s book has been several years in the making, but now that’s it finally been released he’s gearing up for a busy schedule featuring a presentation at REI headquarters in Seattle. The paddling community in the Vail Valley will be among his first stops.”I’ve always enjoyed the Vail Valley for the skiing and the paddling,” Buchanan said. “I think anyone who paddles even a little bit will enjoy the story.”Buchanan is the former editor and publisher of Paddler magazine and the founder of Paddling Life. He has run rivers on the six inhabited continents, and can safely call two of them home.


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