We woke to a windy first morning of camping on the Lena River. I mean, windy. So much so that there wasn’t a mosquito in sight (or bite; hee hee, see what I did there?) for the entire day. I’ll say it right now: the wind was cold and it made the river rough but I’d take those conditions over a swarm of mosquitoes any day, no matter how much repellent I have.
Additionally, we’re into white nights now in this part of the world. That is to say, the sun technically sets but it doesn’t actually get dark. This has been happening for weeks now and I’ve been sending my sister pictures of 2 am looking like 7 am, and blowing her mind all over the place. At this point, 3 am is like 9 am now, with the sun shining brightly and intensly.
The change wasn’t even really that gradual; it just seemed to start happening suddenly several weeks ago. At first, it caused my sleep to be disturbed then I started using an eye mask to keep the light out and I slept fine again. Now, I find that I’m at the point where I don’t need the eye mask at all and I sleep perfectly normally and wake feeling fully rested. This is where my ability to sleep in any condition, as long as I’m tired and not enraged, comes in handy; even a few locals have told me that they suffer from insomnia for the entirety of the white nights period, which is two or three months by my estimation.
I say all this to say that, when the sunlight hit our yellow tent on our camping trip, the brightness of everything should have woken me very early on both mornings but I was so cosily cocooned in my very comfortable sleeping bag, with the hood pulled over my head, that the light was of no concern to me.
Once I rolled out of my tent, and after a quick visit to the toilet and a wash of my face at the river bank (the cold water felt wonderful on my face), this was the peaceful view that I sat down to absorb on the first morning.
After a while, others started stirring in the camp, lighting the fire and getting breakfast started. My tent mate and I wandered over to help but they told us to relax. So I pulled out the book that I had brought with me and settled in to get some reading done. It’s a translated collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol, a Russian author from the early 1800’s and it’s quite good.
After breakfast and cleanup, we lazed around a little before packing up our gear and loading the boats. By this point, I had added my fleece under my rain jacket because the wind had brought a definite chill with it. I was thankful for this before long.
The water was rough because of the wind and it was hard going with the oars. Pretty soon, our guide turned on the motor and we zoomed off. I don’t think any of us were sad that we didn’t have to row, even though speeding through the waves meant that we got soaked on every area of our bodies that wasn’t covered in waterproof material. The wind also felt colder as we sped through the water. In fact, my hands were cold enough that, when we passed a huge piece of unmelted ice left on the river bank from the ice drift a couple of weeks before, I didn’t even think to ask the guide to stop so I could take a picture. I didn’t trust that my hands would safely pull my phone from my pocket and snap the photo without dropping my phone into the river.
Since our boat was one of two with an engine, our guide dropped us off on the island where we were camping for that night and headed back out to tow one of the other boats. While they were gone, us five women changed out of our wet pants (thank goodness I had brought my warm winter tights), started gathering firewood and got a fire going (the older woman from our boat managed that part; I’ve never started a campfire in my life).
For the rest of the day, most of the ladies roamed the island picking spring onions, which they will freeze and use throughout next winter. I nibbled a few as someone handed them to me to taste. They look like grass and they’re really tasty but I still didn’t pick any for myself. A few people also took one of the boats out and went fishing. Unfortunately, they didn’t catch anything.
Meanwhile, I hauled out my book and pitched up on a convenient log near the campfire, settling in to read. This was how my trusty rain jacket got burned. An ember from the fire popped and landed on my jacket, unseen by me since my attention was absorbed by the book. It managed to burn a small hole before I noticed the smoke and shook it off. I wasn’t happy about it but what could I do? It was nobody’s fault and embers from a campfire is a part of camping. When I got back to town I stuck some tape on it and it will be my reminder of my first river camping trip.
One observation I made that day on my jaunts to the toilet in the woods and in my walking around was that there was old horse poop from the winter all over the place. It was amazing to think that horses roamed these islands during the winter months when they were all connected by the frozen river. One of our group told us that the horses instinctively knew when the ice would break and they made their way back to the mainland before that happened so they wouldn’t be stuck on an island until winter again.
I also spent the afternoon and evening chatting with others in broken English and Russian, with our English-speaking guide translating as needed. At one point, I took a quick nap in our tent then went back to walking around our section of the island taking photos. I couldn’t stop myself because it was so beautiful and peaceful and I kept trying to capture that feeling. My mind was totally free and clear of past ruminations, current concerns or future plans; I was fully present in every moment I spent on that island.
Again, I brushed my teeth by the river bank, splashed my hands in the cold water, and went to bed sometime after 11 pm, hoping that I wouldn’t need to go to the bathroom in the night. That was a vain hope; it was really cold that night and even my cosy sleeping bag didn’t fully keep the cold out. Not even my (very cold) nose peeked out of the bag. I awoke some time around 1 am, I think (based on the level of “darkness”), with an urgent need to pee. When I pulled my sleeping bag from over my head, I felt that the air in the tent was cold and I really didn’t want to get up. However, after trying to convince myself that I could hold it for a few hours, I eventually had to unzip myself and head to the woods.
On my walk across the field to the woods, I lifted my head and saw a wondrous sight. There, directly in front of me and sitting low on the horizon, was the moon, huge and orange and in the gibbous phase, and seeming to slightly shimmer against the faintly lit sky. I wanted so badly to dash back to the tent and grab my phone to try and capture the moment, but I really needed to pee. Also, I didn’t want to disturb my tent mate any more than I already had when I was exiting the tent. Going back in for my phone, exiting again and going back again would have been a bit much, I thought. I wouldn’t want anyone to disturb my sleep like that. So I had to do what people did before everyone had cell phones with cameras; I had to appreciate what I was seeing as I was seeing it and commit it to memory, one that I will pull out to enjoy again and again in the future.
I crawled back into the tent and settled back into my sleeping bag, colder than when I had awoken but so much happier.
The next morning, our second and final morning of camping, the ladies from our boat were assigned to help with breakfast. That’s how I spent the next couple of hours: gathering wood for the fire, stirring mashed potatoes with sautéed vegetables and chopped fresh spring onions mixed in, and doing whatever else I was asked to do.
After breakfast, we did the washing up, then I relaxed on our dining table/tarp on the ground with my book. We had a couple of hours before we would leave and I spent them relaxing, alternately reading and napping right there in the sun. A couple of the ladies stripped off their pants and ran into the cold water. More power to them; I do not like immersing my body in cold water and felt no compulsion to join them.
Eventually, we started packing up. We loaded up the boats and pushed off from the island sometime after 2 pm, headed back to the city. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave. I could have happily spent another few days out there, immersed in peace and beauty. About two hours later, we pulled up onto a concrete embankment back in the city and suddenly my idyllic weekend was over.
I loved every minute of those forty-eight hours spent on the river. I have not one regret or complaint about that entire weekend; not the wind and cold, not my burnt raincoat, not having to go to the bathroom in the woods, nothing. I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful experience and I’m eager to repeat it. How can anyone see all this and doubt?
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:20 (NIV)