Paddling down the Amur River, Mongolia

By Patrick Kinsella 23 July 2015
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Four female paddlers take on the wild Amur River, one of the last truly free-flowing waterways left on the planet.

TRUE EXPEDITIONS rarely pan out like they’re supposed to. An uncertain outcome is part of the deal if the mission is real. When that first footstep falls onto virgin terrain, or that pioneering paddle stroke scythes through rarely disturbed water, the ending of the story that’s just being born should be completely obscured by the storm clouds of chance that cluster around the middle of the adventure. Otherwise, what’s the bloody point?

When Amber Valenti began dreaming about kayaking the Amur River from source to sea – through Central Asia’s unofficial empty quarter – she didn’t know that within a few years she’d be leading an all-female expedition attempting to do exactly that. And when the odyssey itself started, she couldn’t imagine that she would lose her strongest paddler before the river even properly began baring its teeth, or that the off-water bumps would be as challenging as anything the Amur itself could throw at them, or that seven shots of homemade horse milk moonshine is at least one more than her stomach can handle. But she’d find all these things out. And some.

The Amur River belongs to nobody

Amber, a physician’s assistant and wilderness medic from America, was first attracted to the Amur by its remoteness and rare status as a free-flowing river. The eighth longest river on the planet, it’s the world’s third longest waterway that remains undammed and undiverted for its entire length.

Painfully aware that her children – let alone her grandchildren – may never get to see a wild river like this, Amber was determined to experience it firsthand, from start to finish, and to document her adventure.

Free-flowing doesn’t mean it’s unaffected by the often-filthy hand of man – quite the contrary, during its course between Russia and China, the two great restless giants sweat and bleed a frightful cocktail of industrial poison into the river – but it does mean that it runs along the same course as it always has: from the foothills of Mongolia to its mouth on the Sea of Okhotsk, 5500km later. 

The spectre of a proposed dam perpetually hangs over the Amur like a guillotine, but for now it still runs free – it’s nobody’s river – a concept that became the de facto name of the project.

By the beginning of 2013, Amber had assembled the crew she wanted to take on the Nobody’s River expedition. Joining her on the adventure would be two fellow Americans – Becca Dennis (a river guide) and Sabra Purdy (a river ecologist) – and intrepid Australian adventure photographer Krystle Wright.

Sabra would report and analyse the health of the river. Krystle, a veteran of many wild escapades, with the battle scars to prove it, was there to record the journey. And Becca was Amber’s right-hand woman – “the perfect expedition partner” – a highly experienced kayaker and adventurer.

Tragically, however, just weeks before the expedition launched, Becca’s 28-year-old boyfriend, Zach Orman, was fatally injured in a paragliding accident in Arizona. Becca was determined to remain on the team, but a huge shadow had fallen across her life and although she began the trip, she wasn’t destined to accompany the expedition all the way to the sea.

Reaching the Amur River

The Amur is called the Black Dragon in China, and simply the Black River in Russia. The water might be dark by the time it has slunk across the enigmatic enormity of Siberia, slid between the torsos of China and Russia and wormed its way to the ocean, but when it first rises in a forgotten corner of Mongolia, it runs gin clear.

For the Nobody’s River team, simply reaching the source involved an epic 10-day adventure all of its own. The women bounced around in a beat-up Russian minivan until the roads ran out, and then rode for three days on the backs of hardy Mongolian ponies, led by guides trusting in their ability to navigate using holboo – a traditional form of route finding, based purely on intuition and a feel for the land. En route they saw a goat slaughtered with a hammer for their consumption, taught bemused nomads how to do headstands and dance to techno music, and bestowed their long-suffering steeds with names from the music charts of the 80s: George Michael, Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Michael Jackson.

Eventually, though, the vast plains of Mongolia revealed the headwaters of the mighty river, and the serious business began. Watching their trusty guides and pop star horses disappear over the horizon induced a moment of agoraphobic shock, but once that had subsided they unpacked four folding TRAK kayaks and launched their journey into the unknown. Beneath their boats the water ran clean and all around them sprawled some of the most remote terrain on the entire planet. 

In its youthful state in Mongolia, the river is known as the Onon – or ‘Mother Onon’ to locals – and here it is generally found (by the very few who visit) to be in a playful and benign mood. Young and untainted, the Onon cavorts between meadows and through forests under an epic Mongolian sky for most of its length.

While the water was generally gentle to the group, and the bears respectfully kept their distance, the kayakers were hunted and harassed by potentially deadly electrical storms on several occasions as they paddled 500km from the source to the Russian border.

They were accompanied by a translator for this section, and regularly enjoyed the hospitality of locals – a little too much on one night, when the homebrewed mare-milk moonshine began to flow as freely as the river – much to the subsequent consternation of Amber’s stomach. 

At the border, however, after 20 days on the water, everything changed utterly – starting with the transformation of the team dynamic, when Becca made the agonising decision to leave the expedition and return to the US to grieve for Zach.

Official permission to paddle the section of the Amur that forms the delicate border between China and Russia had remained elusive, and the remaining three girls were faced with an ugly choice. They could push on without the proper paperwork (with the knowledge that they’d need around $50,000 in cash to bribe their way through) or they could pack away their kayaks, take a train across Siberia and rejoin the river in Khabarovsk, Russia. Lacking a bribery purse with five grand in it, let alone 50 grand, there was only one real option. The ability to compromise is something you simply have to pack in your expedition kit.   

The Amur River is a challenging beast

“But, you have no security!” a man cried out from the bank as they set off on the second stage of their journey.

The concerned stranger – looking on with horror as the trio launched from a brutal concrete shoreline covered in broken glass in the midst of Khabarovsk, a bleak industrial city in Russia’s far east – wasn’t telling the women anything they weren’t already terribly aware of.  

Ever since they’d arrived in Khabarovsk, the team had known they were facing an entirely new challenge for the second part of their expedition. Since they’d last seen it, the Amur had transformed into an entirely different beast – one with claws and jaws, and a mean streak to match. The clean waterway snaking between meadows and forests was a distant memory here, and instead the river had become a sprawling, braided and polluted mess, up to 4km across in places and viciously dissected by dangerous shipping lanes.

Gone too was their translator – attempts to find another one for this leg of the journey had been met with incredulity about what they were planning to attempt. So they were on their own – three western women attempting an unsupported paddle through remote far eastern Russia, where only the occasional ugly scar of an industrial town punctuates the wilderness. A thousand kilometres of river stood between the team and the sea, and time was against them, with the summer monsoons fast approaching.

As they debated their next move, a niggly knot of tension formed within the expedition team. Krystle, hungry for a story and gung-ho for an adventure, just wanted to get on the water and paddle right through. Sabra, the pragmatic scientist, was more interested in analysing and reporting on the health of the river. Amber, wearing the responsibility of leadership, was juggling concerns for the safety of the team and the integrity of a mission she’d spent years planning.

Eventually the call to continue was made. The kayaks were unpacked and reassembled, and the three paddlers nervously got onto the fetid flow and set off into a new shade of unknown.

As the outskirts of Khabarovsk faded, the industrial landscape quickly gave way to wilder terrain. This made for prettier paddling conditions, but beyond the urban influence the river was the boss once again, and it liked to assert its authority.

“I’ve been paddling for decades, and I’ve never seen anything comparable to the Amur,” says Amber. “It’s so big and so powerful. The flow is so huge. It’s not like being on a river; you’re dealing with almost ocean conditions… It was a kind of perfect storm on that lower section.

“I hadn’t considered how hard it would be to literally get off the river. Sometimes the banks would be like five metres of sheer dirt. A few times we were just stuck on the river, and there would be a storm coming. It was very committing like that.

“And it would change. It would be really calm, like flatwater padding, and then a storm would break with thunder and lightening and these waves would kick up. We couldn’t have taken a swim, there’s no way we would have gotten back in our kayaks. If somebody had gone in they would have been out of their boat for hours.”

Being out of their kayaks for even a short time was a nightmare scenario that Amber was desperate to avoid. The conditions, when they kicked up, were dangerously feisty. Sabra in particular was some way outside of her comfort zone in her kayak – and she knew more than anyone that the health threat posed by the pollution levels was very real.    

The untameable power of the Amur River

And the tough decisions were far from over. As they paddled on, a monsoonal temper tantrum was constantly threatening to erupt around them and some seriously heavy weather had been forecast, threatening major, disaster-level flooding.

One very close brush with calamity brought home the brutal reality of the situation. One night the team awoke just in time to discover the island they were camping on was rapidly sinking. The river water was rising around their tents and threatening to swallow them whole.

The deathblow was dealt when Sabra developed severe tendonitis in her forearm. For three days Krystle and Amber towed their stricken expedition partner towards Komsomolsk, but by the time they arrived and pulled their kayaks off the river, it was with the knowledge that the paddling part of the expedition was at an end.

They had kayaked a further 400km, paddling 50km a day, dealing with monstrous storm-whipped waves and sleeping for five hours a night, with one eye constantly open and looking over their shoulders for signs of more incoming flash floods.

Another 500km of river stood between them and sea, and the rains were coming. To continue would have been very risky. “Too risky,” says Amber. “With the tragedy that happened before the expedition, I just thought that risking further tragedy on the trip wasn’t an option.”

As they got off the water, an astonished local girl fired an abrupt question into Amber’s face: “Why would you come to this place that God forgot?” 

This was no way to end an expedition so, packing away their kayaks, the three women caught a boat and a ride to the Amur River Delta, where they finally got to see the river they’d been following for two months disgorge its contents into the ocean.

About a week after they pulled off the river, the entire region flooded. The river broke its banks and swelled up to 50km wide in parts, sweeping away houses and causing widespread destruction.

“The floods showed how powerful this river is,” says Amber. “It was like the ultimate validation of our decision to get off the water. There’s no doubt what would have happened. Imagine – we were struggling to navigate when it was 3km wide. And we would have been amongst all the stuff that gets washed into the river during floods, bits of houses and cars.”

Ultimately, Sabra’s tendonitis probably saved all three women’s lives. That, and Amber’s willingness to accept that a free-flowing river of this size is a waterway that calls the shots. “No one is in charge of this river,” she says. “No one tells the Amur what to do.”