Another River, A New Love

It’s official: I love camping.  Like, really love it.  I don’t know how good I am at it but I don’t care, I love it!

Up until the beginning on July, I had been camping a grand total of three times in my life.  The first time was on my eight-day hike up and down Mount Kilimajaro.  The second time was my horrific three-day hike up and down Mount Rinjani.  The third time was early this past June, a couple of weeks after the ice break on the Lena River.  For my fourth time, one colleague and I went a little far afield to a different region of Yakutia.

For months as I was planning my summer activities, people kept telling me that I should visit Amga because it’s one of the most beautiful areas in Yakutia.  Every time I asked where I should go, Amga was always somewhere in the answer.  This was from at least five different people, so I decided to take them seriously.  I checked to see if the company we had previously gone camping with had a trip to Amga.  They did but it wasn’t at all convenient to my working schedule so I put the idea on the back burner and continued making my other summer plans.

Then somehow, one of the young ladies who was working in the sales office at my school told me that her uncle has an excursion company that does weekend trips to Amga and other places around the Republic.  I told her that I would come back to her with a date.  My one colleague (the same one from the previous camping trip; it seems we’re the only intrepid ones) and I settled on the first weekend of July and got our stuff together.  This time, we would be kayaking for three days, plus it was properly summer now, so we packed our swimsuits as well.

On that first Friday of July, we caught a taxi to the ferry, where we met our group for the weekend, lead by our host, the young lady from the sales office.  Unlike my trip to and from Churapcha only a week before, we didn’t take the car ferry this time, but the people ferry.  We loaded all our bags and other gear onto the ferry and about forty minutes later we were meeting our van at Nizhniy-Bestyakh.  A word about our van.  It was an UAZ.  I know, this means nothing to you.  It didn’t mean a thing to me either until I moved to Russia.  The UAZ is the iconic old Soviet-style minivan, in which I had not previously travelled, so I was pretty excited to finally have my first ride in one.

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UAZ!  The ride was as bumpy as it is in any other vehicle on rural Yakutian roads

It took us three hours riding in our hired UAZ to get to our starting point on the Amga River, near the town of Amga.  There, we met our guide for the weekend, an experienced outdoorsman called Gosha (it’s the nickname for Yegor; one of these days I should write a post about the wonderful Russian practice of having a shortened version for almost every single name), who would lead us for the weekend.

There at the starting point, we were given our assigned life vests for the weekend, as well as our tents, mats, sleeping bags, double-ended oars and seat cushions.  The seat cushions were actually Styrofoam squares that we positioned in the kayaks to help make sitting for hours while rowing a little easier on our butts.  They helped a little but by the end of the weekend my butt was aching anyway.

We were two to a kayak so we listened attentively as Gosha gave us basic instructions about how to propel and steer the kayak.  Basically, the person in the back steers the vessel based on how they paddle and the person in the front helps with propulsion.  We put all of our gear into garbage bags to protect them, loaded up our kayaks and set off just after 7 pm.  I know, it sounds late to be starting a boating trip but remember that it was still white nights so 7 pm was as bright as 10 am.  Also, we were going less than two hours up the river.

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Setting off for our weekend on the river. See what I mean about 7 pm?

I took the rear position in our kayak and my partner and I practiced getting into a rhythm.  Since it was my first time kayaking, it took me a little while to get the hang of steering with my oar but I mostly worked it out before we stopped for the night.  We set up camp while our host and guide prepared dinner.

A quick word about our group.  We were eight women and two men (as usual), with one of those men being a customer and the other being Gosha.  Not surprising.  I still don’t know why most of the men who live in Yakutsk don’t go on these excursions.  Anyway, of the customers, two were a couple (the lone guy and one of the women); four of the women were colleagues and friends; then there was my colleague-friend and me.  We were all assigned cooking duties for the five meals that we would share together.  My partner and I were assigned to prepare Saturday’s lunch.

After a nice getting-to-know-you chat over dinner, we all retired for the night, my partner, our host and me sharing a tent.  Unfortunately, our rest was disturbed in the wee hours of the morning by an inconsiderate late-arriving group of campers; our previously peaceful spot was apparently pretty popular.  We all awoke somewhat out of sorts early the next morning and asked Gosha to please ensure that our campsite for that night was far away from other people.

After having breakfast and packing up camp, we spent the entire day paddling up the Amga River.  It was pure peace and beauty.

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The water, sky and grass were really that vivid

We stopped at around mid-morning for our first swim.  I didn’t swim then because I was still wrapping my mind around how cold the water was.  I did sit and stand around in it for a few minutes, while the others skipped stones across the surface of the water.  Then we got back to rowing.  We stopped on an island at around 1 pm and my partner and I prepared our campfire lunch.

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Campfire borscht and the requisite tea

Afterwards, we all relaxed and sunbathed for a while before getting back into our kayaks and continuing our journey.  Late in the afternoon, we stopped again to climb a large hill – I guess you could call it a mini-mountain – from the top of which there are spectacular views of the valley and the river.  I confess without shame that I didn’t go all the way to the top.  It was a steep, slippery hill (lots of loose gravel) and I was wearing my crappy old kicks, not my trusty hiking boots.  One of the other ladies and I went most of the way to the top and stopped, sitting on the hillside to wait for the others’ return.  Meanwhile, we snapped lots of photos and got to know each other a little better.

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View of the river from the hillside

Finally, we got back into our kayaks for the last push of the day.  I think we were all pretty much done by that time but Gosha, in his commitment to find us a people-free campsite for the evening, wouldn’t stop for the longest while.  My partner and I agreed that our muscles were fine but we were just tired from a full day of kayaking and being in the sun.  When Gosha finally did settle on a spot, we couldn’t complain about his choice.  It was excellent.  There was one other group camping on that stretch of land but they were far enough away that we couldn’t even say hello.  We set up camp again and I finally went swimming for real.  Well, not really swimming because I don’t swim well at all, but I had a blast playing in the water and reveling in the moment.

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This was as dark as it got. Look at those colours. So amazing.

Eventually, we had dinner then sat around chatting and drinking wine.  Near midnight, the other camping group set off fireworks (yay!) then I went to bed (or should I say, sleeping bag?) and slept wonderfully.  Almost my first thought when I woke up was how much I love camping and I said a quick prayer to God that, on top of the other things He’s preparing about my husband, I’d really appreciate it if He could please make sure that he’s an experienced camper.  God’s honest truth, that’s how much I love camping now.

I spent most of Sunday morning alternating between enjoying the cold, clear water of  the Amga River – with the fish trying to nibble on my toes if I stood still for too long – and lying on the rocky beach enjoying the sun.  The weather was perfect – not hot or cold – and I genuinely didn’t want the weekend to be over.  That feeling intensified as a herd of grazing horses ran right behind out campsite.

But wonderful weekends come to an end so at around 1:30 pm we packed up camp, loaded our kayaks and set off for a short journey to our ending point, me in the front of our kayak this time with my foot trailing over the side in the cold water for most of the journey.  Within forty-five minutes our time on the river was over and we were waiting for another minivan (not an UAZ this time) to transport us back to Nizhniy-Bestyakh.  I spent those last few minutes frolicking in the water.  By 8 pm, I was back at my flat with promises to one of the ladies to visit her dacha for a cookout that week.  My colleague-friend and I did that, spending a lovely evening there after work just two days later.

My weekend camping on the Amga River brought me rich experiences: kind and generous new acquaintances; a newly discovered love of camping; and invaluable time spent outdoors, in God’s creation.  There was absolutely nothing I would have changed about that weekend and I thank God that He gave it to me.

For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  Romans 1:20a (ESV)

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