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).
I SLEPT BEAUTIFULLY, undisturbed by bad dreams; mine or Mark's.
Gena had got his act together. Scrubbed, groomed, sober, he was back to work, producing salads, going to bed early and not getting rip roaring drunk. However, he did begin this day by making himself a foul looking concoction from last night's left over tea, with honey and vodka. We had run out of coffee.
My hands were a mess, something I noticed as I wrote up my notes. They were withered, dried out by the sun and the air, burnt dark brown, creased with white lines and scratched and scarred by the brutal portage of the day before and the guitar's strings. As I was staring at them Andrei and Andrei appeared. I was hoping they had brought us coffee and toilet paper, but the Admiral didn't sound too happy to hear their news.
We missed out on so much being unable to eavesdrop on their conversations. When they came back from scouting rapids, when they were discussing the day's program, when they were talking round the fire. Blodwyn was on holiday, as she reminded me when I grumbled, so most of the time we flew blind, picking up clues from body language and the few words of Russian we knew. I would have bet that the Admiral and Blodwyn weren't discussing kayaking the night before, but remembering Andrei's mistake I wasn't prepared to get dogmatic about it.
Time to wash clothes, lie in the sun, write up diaries and read. Our only plans were to have the banya in the afternoon and then after the evening meal walk up the road to a camp where the Andreis had spent the night before and where we were to go dancing. While I was sitting on a rock, watching my gear drip, I looked down and saw a guitar pick. Thank you God. A day without plans, a day to wallow in sunshine. While we cleaned ourselves and our gear (Yes folks, the manufacturer's claims that you can wash these trousers in the clear running water of a mountain stream are true) I asked Trevor and Mark what their definition of a good kayaker was.
As we talked, or as they talked and I made notes, it occurred to me that this was probably the first conversation the three of us had had since leaving Moscow. The question is not as daft as it might sound. If you have two musicians then the better one is likely to be the one who can play the harder peices. There is a tendency to see the grade one paddles as the defining factor; someone regularly paddling grade five is automatically seen as being a better paddler than someone who only paddles to grade four. But we had all met plastic heads who survive grade five rapids on their second river trip. Did that make them better paddlers than those kayakers who never paddle grade five but who paddle grade three with precision and control?
Trevor thought that the ability to read the river was important. A good paddler had to be technically competent above grade three. He also thought that the willingness to paddle outside your comfort zone, to push the edge of the envelope occasionally, was fairly important, but so was knowing when to quit and start walking.
The discussion led us into other areas and no nearer to a definition, or an answer to the Admiral's question. Did the fact that I might portage a rapid another paddler might run define our relative abilities? I have paddled with people who run rapids on sight that I wouldn't even dream of attempting, people whose ability is so vastly superior to mine that I have often wondered why they let me tag along. And I have watched videos of rodeo competitions where paddlers have effortlessly performed acrobatic manoeuvres I have spent afternoons trying to decipher. Usually it doesn't bother me. After all, as chaucer said: This life so short/this craft so long to learn. What surprised me was not the realisation that I wouldn't rate as a good kayaker on the Admiral's scale, but that after so many years of arguing about the sport, and watching it and teaching it, I couldn't come up with a definition that satisfied me.
We all agreed we really hadn't pushed ourselves to the edge of the comfort zone on the river. Fifteen and sixteen had been hard, but we'd been in control. I think Trevor was still regretting his decision to portage the big hole. Neither Mark nor I, who enjoy surfing, had indulged ourselves on many of the big waves we had passed, but part of the reason for this was the cold. The idea of rolling in the fridgid water was unappealing.
Mark and Trevor and Jackie walked off to the local village. It was half an hour away up a steep hill. I had been vacillating about going, but when Blodwyn announced she wanted to sleep, it seemed silly to struggle to reach a place where all you could do on your arrival was smile hopefully. Andrei the climber agreed to go, but I still couldn't understand him. Since God had been kind enough to provide me with a guitar pick I decided to honour her gift by tuning up and playing for myself for a change.
The gentle sound of the creek flowing over the rocks and the dull rush of the river provided a bass accompaniment. I had retreated into my own comfort zone. Mark had said the best thing about trips like this was that the biggest problem you had to face in the morning was finding some toilet paper.
All day the Russians worked on their river banya. First they built a kiln of large stones and then they collected a huge pile of firewood which they spent all day burning until the rocks were heated. Andrei patiently sewed our plastic ground sheet into a tent.
About two o'clock there was a great commotion as the banya set the hillside alight. We rushed around with water, laughing and putting out the flames, then erected the tent using paddles as poles. It was ready. I had been watching with interest as Vlod collected bundles of leafy branches and tied them together. Now I found out what they were for. First you stand in the steam, choking and breathless, sweat pouring from reddening skin, while a friendly helper beats you with the twigs, ostensibly to stimulate your circulation. Then, when one has had enough of the heat, or the beating, one races into the frigid waters of the river to cool down, and then back in to the steam. Repeat as necessary. I watched Blodwyn beating the Admiral and thought people probably pay thousands for that kind of treatment in the red light districts of big cities the world over. And we were getting it for free.
Squeaky clean, in clean clothes, we had an excellent dinner and then, as it grew dark, set out for the dance. Andrei the climber insisted it was only a kilometre away. It was the longest kilometre I have ever walked. The path led up the side of the hill, over shattered rock, along steep banks to the road.
We saw a group of figures walking towards us and recognised Vlod and Gena, who had gone shopping.
A wide eyed boy with a torch peered up at us: "Who.Are.You?" he asked,
to the amusement of the other adults who were with him.
They were space cadets. Technically they were followers of the Bagwhan who Dixon had told me about on the South Fork. They had come from all over the old Soviet union to this camp which was a training ground. From here they would take their message back to their homes. What the message was I didn't find out. As we entered their camp my automatic reaction was to shut up shop and make myself invisible, but the music and the dancing were compulsive; soothing; like a massage without the physical violence.
So one by one we joined in. There was a lot of group hugging going on and numerous blonde women in a variety of pre-loved sixties fashions "getting heavily into the rhythm"; they swayed and flowed in the firelight, their faces ghostly in the glow, like a coven of latter day witches. The only harsh note was the photo of their leader placed in the centre of the writhing circle; the eyes were repulsive; sinister; unsettling.
I had been reading Byron's advice on how to pick up ladies at dances; he was into ogling. There was a lot of it going on across the fire. Gena seemed almost embarrassed though he was enjoying the attentions of a couple of ladies, Andrei was involved in a mammoth hugging session with a plastic blonde in tights while Blodwyn danced with the Admiral, who was "grooving with the beat" but grumping about the music. Their leader, a neat looking man with a beard and skull cap, who looked remarkably like John Wilde, welcomed us formally, and invited us to dance, pointing out that we need not if we felt threatened.
Next morning Jackie would say that their religion seemed like a curious mixture of the spiritual and the sensual. Mark had been admiring the fact that they incorporated physical ecstasy in to their worship. I agreed. Just because European man hitched his star to a god of self denial whose preachers claimed the earth was a foul place and man's only redemption lay in denying it and hoping for better luck after he was dead was no reason for the rest of us to follow suit.
When we returned in the dark we learnt to our cost that most of the Russians didn't own a torch worthy of the name. I couldn't face another night when the Russians spoke Russian and the Australians spoke Australian and the twain never met. So I went to bed, wrote up my journal and went to sleep rocking to the gentle rhythm of remembered music.
The last day on the river began well. I had been watching a small hole while I played the guitar the day before, calculating my chances. In the absence of convenient eddies getting in was going to be awkward, and a hundred yards downstream the river smacked into a huge undercut rock, but it was time to push the envelope a little.
Shedding gear from my boat I went out to play. There is something elemental and childish about playing on a wave or in a hole. The water thunders in your ears, the boat bounces and lurches, seeming to be travelling at incredible speed although it goes nowhere while the spray from the planing hull blinds you. Then, if it's steep enough and you can hold it straight, there is the sudden plunge and slow motion lurch as the boat shoots skywards. I went vertical. Then managed half a pirouette, and finally got my loop.
It is an immensely satisfying feeling, the elegant wrench of the boat plunging down and then rising to somersault over its own nose. To my own surprise my roll was swift and effortless. Though I could get vertical again I couldn't get another loop. Trevor came out to play while Mark set himself up to take pictures. I popped a half loop, rolled back up, and saw Mark making "T swimming" signs. I went after him. Apparently he had tried to ferry glide above the house sized rock and been washed against it. Baling out he had felt himself held in the undercut and then washed down river. He had a long cold swim, which was exhausting rather than dangerous, but it somehow set the tone for the rest of his day.
Before leaving, Jackie, still paddling the guide book, announced:"It's all easy from now on, only grade threes and fours," which was received with laughter she joined in when she realised what she'd said.
After leaving the last gorge the Pskem seems to relent. Instead of big long rapids it becomes a continuous run of boppy grade twos and threes, with some fours thrown in for good measure. There were enough big stoppers around to make it impossible to get too casual. I followed Andrei and Sasha down in the blue catamaran. As if freed by its performance in the hole, Boat had finally decided to dance, and for the first time in the trip we seemed to have settled our differences and were a unit instead of two disparate parts trying to go in opposite directions.
After an hour we had completed half the day's run and stopped for lunch at a bridge. Trevor's bad day was continuing. He had swapped his kayak with Vlod and was paddling the cataraft, and had managed to bruise his foot. It was just what he needed before his attempts to climb rumski doodle.
Over a long drawn out lunch we made helpful noises, offering to amputate the bruised toe, or drill his nail with Mark's swiss army knife (no paddler should be without one; does your knife have the hole in the toe drilling gadget: if not how would you save your friend's life?) Trevor put up with all this silliness with good humour, and in the absence of Russians, who wandered off to find shade or fruit and herbs, lunch was more like lunch on a river back home. We talked aimlessly of films we'd seen and books we'd read and places we'd like to go to next.
The rapids in the afternoon were continuous, with big holes and big waves, and the Admiral, paddling Trevor's kayak, took three long swims. The first with me chasing him frantically. In the second he capsized just above a drop, and was forced to swim it. I paddled after him, yelling swim, you silly bugger, swim, but he was trying to climb on the upturned kayak the way he had climbed on the upturned catamaran and the boat just kept rolling over and filling with water.
His third and last swim occurred just as we reached the pullout point, and the rafts were swept on past it. After floundering through a series of grade three drops, Mark and I finally got him to the side. He emptied out the boat, still grinning. If this man could only get hold of a kayak, what a boater he'd make. I apologised mentally for ever doubting his right to be the Admiral.
We then spent a good half hour trying to figure out where to camp. Sasha finally came back from scouting downstream to announce that he had found an ideal spot but we had to run one more rapid. The prospect seemed suddenly unappealing. We had grown cold waiting, and the words, Bolshoi Botchka, (which is Russian for bloody big stopper) did nothing to make it sound more inviting. But we paddled round the corner and it was over.
The river had widened out, allowing us glimpses of the mountains that line the valley; vast, vertical rock. In the evening light the mountain wall opposite the campsite was the spires and turrets of She's city, crumbling away as the light slid over it and multiplied the shadows.
Andrei and Andrei set off to buy food "for our celebration" and Euphoria waited again while we lugged our gear up to the flat ground of the camp site and made our fire. She is not a patient lady. She came and smacked me full in the face as I struggled under one more massive Russian Rucksack, using two homemade Russian paddles as walking sticks, along the crumbling scree strewn path to the campsite. We'd done it. We'd kayaked two superb rivers in Central Asia. The euphoria was short, almost exquisitely painful, and then there were boats to unpack and tents to put up and a meal to cook.
A and A returned after dark, with potatoes and tomatoes and peppers and chili. I made irish stew a la Pskem, with chili and capsicum as an elegant variation. Then the formal toasts began; to friends, to rivers and the people who run them, to hugs, and "To the stars that shine above us, to the rivers we travel on, and the earth beneath us" our last vodka gone before anyone was drunk. Sasha, usually so reticent, proposed a toast to the group, to our ability to work together, as friends, and to our ability to get down the river.
We settled down to sing, the guitar pick saving my right hand which had been torn ragged on the wires; The Drunken sailor, The Lewis Bridal song, Tonight will be fine, The Rising of the moon, and two men arrived, carrying guns. Hunters said Blodwyn, men who don't hunt but who look. Um.
She had sensed my irritation with her frequent failure to translate, so we hammered that one out and one by one people slid off to bed, until I was on my own by the fire.
The Pskem and Chatkal had been kayaked.
I think so.
And down the golden road, tomorrow or the day after, the blue domes of Samarkand, and then the journey home.
End of Chapter
15. . .
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