I stood on rocks in Snowy river after midnight, watching dark storm clouds gather in the darkness. It had been another long day on the river. We took a fan boat up river early where we saw a mountain goat, ibex probably, braving rapids and leaping from deep water to rock face. We understood why when we found fresh bear tracks in the sand. The bears were out, but the fish weren’t and it wasn’t until evening when we started reeling in Baikal grayling again. Cleaned, salted and packed, they waited for the morning float out.
The morning dawned steely gray. Coffeed and breakfasted, we gathered our gear. Approaching our put in point, Petya was already bolting together the aluminum frame of our Soviet era canvas canoe. The bolts ran out before the frame was fully assembled! But that is nothing for Russian ingenuity, pliers, a few nails and some soldering wire. After engineering the frame together, we attached the canvas “hull”, and loaded our gear on our inflatable raft and canoe. Taking a solemn look at the river, we gathered in prayer, and placed our lives in the hands of God who made us.
Petya, Sergei and I climbed in canoe, disembarked, and within 150 yards of disembarking, in swift current, piled the canoe on a rock. Taking on water fast, we paddled for shore and pulled the canoe up to inspect damage. Distance traveled: one quarter mile. Gashes of 4.5 and 3 inches, not to mention multiple small holes peppered our craft. With a fire for warmth, Petya got to sewing. In forty five minutes, we were back the water, minus Sergei, who was against risking his life further in the canoe! All scared, but entrusting our lives to God, we set out again. Now it was wade in the shallows guiding the canoe with ropes, get in, shoot the rapids all the while madly bailing with my tin coffee cup, go ashore, dump out a boat-full of water, start again. Foundering in a foot of freezing water of became a continuous state.
Having dumped out our canoe again, Petya and I just pushed off a treacherous snagged log and floated round the bend. Hearts popped! Eyes accelerated at the reality of the FALLEN TREE jutting three feet over the water directly across our path. Branches arrayed against our persons like a cow catcher on a locomotive steaming toward us. The Snowy river, swift and deep was doing her best to widow our wives. Images of kayak tearing to shreds, cold-cocking on branches, and hungry green water swallowing us whole coursed through our psyches. “Petya! We are going through!” Crash! and we were out! Mental damage report: I was OK, the kayak was afloat, and Petya was still in the back. “Petya, are you in one piece?” “Everything in order” he called back. Our escape from that tree, that murderous rake seemed impossible. On a current of prayer, behind God’s mighty hand, we smashed through unscathed!
Snowy river leveled, deepened . . . slowed. Bailing all the way, with the occasional pull out to dump, we started enjoying yellow September foliage, yawning pools of crystal water deepening six, nine, twelve feet. Heavily, clouds obscured mountains and lowered upon us until . . . rain started pattering on the surface of the water inside our craft. Our transformation from “on the river” to “in the river” to “river” was complete.
Thinking back now, I imagine us as “amnesiac-graylings” suddenly realizing that we, fish, are absurdly paddling a canoe down Snowy river, where upon Petya and I drop ores, cast off hats, boots, jackets and, in a purply-pink flash, leap out of this foundering man-container, this utterly unfathomable conception back into the river as the finned scions of water that we are, silver denizens returning to our deep.
Or, as my Dad, upon hearing our story later remarked, “We got real wet.”