On a canoe to the Russian Arctic

Jura Hanák, our fan and hard-core paddler set out on GUMOTEX boats with a group of five friends on an adventurous trip to the White Sea to the Russian Arctic. How did it go?

Polisarka, Pana and Varzuga rivers - Kola peninsula (Russia, Arctic)

It’s cloudy, birch trees in the surrounding taiga are still without leaves. Off-road UAZ wades pool in muddy road up to the door. It’s snowing. On June 20th we set out from the mining town of Apatita. Everyone here says that this winter was cold and there is a lot of snow in the mountains.

We, therefore, six of us - Jura the geologist, Petr the bag maker, Jirka the programmer, Helena the librarian, Alena the surgeon and myself the photographer, unpack three brand new inflatable PALAVA canoes from GUMOTEX by the blind arm of Polisarka river.

The wind blows from the north, drenched clothes from yesterday’s blizzard swing on a cord. We inflate the boats, load up the two-week rations, and set out on rusty dark water. The surroundings are reminiscent of the Mrtvý luh in Šumava, first we enter the Polisarka river. Sparse waterlogged taiga up to the mouth to Nižné Polisarské lake. The distant horizon of the spruce forest forms a black line of the ridge. Silhouettes of ducks disappear into infinity, and several whooper swans fly over the grey sky.

How easy it was to enter the lake, how hard it is to find the way out. Last year’s grass with willow trees, waterlogged banks with swamp blueberry and dwarf birch in spillages. But how nice are then the camps on the raised banks. Fishermen and hunters have left them here before us. Taiga turns into a pale pine forest with a massive undergrowth of reindeer lichen cladonia; it crisps dry under feet and is soft as a mattress in the rain. The view from under the sails to the water, where the marsh marigold blooms on the bank and half in the water and also underwater. It is the Arctic summer and the sun does not set. It describes a circle on the horizon, the night is like a day, but we don’t see the sun. It’s drizzling gently.

Grayling took a fly and the first Atlantic salmon took a lure, three quarters of a meter fish is caught and a red meat fillet with salt and caraway is fried in a pan. Along with dark Russian bread, it is the North’s delicacy. Ucha soup, our hot breakfast, is cooked from skeleton and spawn in the morning. On the banks there are plenty of boulders, above them nice pine trees with roots like from the painter Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin. We are actually passing through a kind of a realistic romantic painting. Siberian jay is heard.

The river settled into a twist and hums from a distance. The first boat is already in rapids. We see Alena standing on a boulder waving her paddle in the air and calling: “Do not go!!!” We hit the bank and tie the canoe. Behind the bend, the rapids turn into a massive water tongue bent into the rock, followed by a few hundred meters of turbulent rapids, impassable with a loaded boat. Marked as waterfalls on the old map. We help to pour water out of the boat and pull out wet things. Peter’s untied fishing rod ended up forever at the bottom of Polisarka. Fire is burning on the bank and wet clothes are hanging on the cords everywhere. Horsetails push from the muddy soil to the light and pink daphne flowers on the banks. The birch leaves are growing every day, and everything looks magical in the night violet light.

There are few mosquitoes so far. The cold has slowed them down, but the Arctic summer will awaken them and there will be countless numbers of them. We later witnessed it in the Lovozero tundra. The next day we carry boats and food for a good half a kilometre lower. Further on, water redundancy allows for carefree sailing regardless of the rocks below the surface. There’s more water by about one meter. Boats disappear in the silver backlight behind another meander. There are nice continuous rapids before the confluence with the Pana River, the water rolls into the boats, we have to pour the water out.

Another fish is writhing on Jura’s borrowed rod. Two salmon for the day is enough. A change in fish preparation is welcome. Roasted meatball with scraped meat and onion is a real delicacy. Only a skeleton is left laid in an ant hill. We entered a third river called Varzuga. The sky cleared up. An old log house over the river, a sunken roof, and door overgrown with moss, date of 1959 carved on one of the beams. Several plovers run in the widest spillage on the bank, we are approaching the village of Varzuga with a wooden church and a grocery - they have beer!

The river spread wide and the number of islands increased, overgrown with a lush yellow cover of globe-flower and blue-violet geranium with white yarrow. Behind the island, the river rests on a high earthen bank with a colony of sand martins nesting in many holes. The entire flow is blocked by nets in the shape of “v”, an old way of catching salmon. Wooden barracks on the banks and bellied man, who don’t like us as we weave through the nets. “Here are the fish named Gorbuša (humpback salmon). A smaller but more numerous group of salmon on the move downstream,” says the man, “From the Barents Sea on the north, there is move of the large Semga salmon (Atlantic salmon) of up to 20 kilos, which are only about 60 - 70 cm big”. He confirms our experience and points to our rod with lures on the top of the boat. “You're fishermen too, aren't you?” We nod our heads.

Towards the mouth, there is one more inhabited place, a few dozen wooden houses, a distinctive village of Kuzomeň on a high bank above the river. Planks instead of pavement. Some buildings are leaning to the side, there are few right angles. Somewhere, everything that seems useless is in front of the house. Real Russian mess. The last few kilometres to the mouth of the Varzuga River to the White Sea lead through the shallows with views of the sand dunes. Completely different landscape, forestless with fluttering grass and colonies of terns circling the sky in low sunlight. When entering the bay through a relatively narrow canal we feel swinging from the waves. Weak surf and really white sea from midnight reflected light. Remnants of ferry boat sunk by shore and a few barracks with running aggregates on the opposite side. Several parked cars without drivers on the dunes. Plenty of sun-bleached driftwood on the sand. The last fire at the end of the river. Fillets of humpback salmon against the sun above the horizon. Boats are rolling on grass with valves enabled. We are packing. Beautiful 200 km and 14 days.

Text and photo: Tomáš Rasl