Armu River. Russian Far East.
My PakCanoe is a boat that can get you just about anywhere. You can carry it dismantled in a couple of rucksack loads over mountains and through forests, then reassemble it when you get to a river’s headwaters. You can get to places where few, if any, people have traveled before; as I’ve done on jungle expeditions in Brazil and Bolivia several times in the past few years. This time, I’m off to Siberia.
Dave Clark, a photographer friend, and myself are going to look for tigers – the “tiger spirit” we like to call it, as tigers are prominent in the local Nanai tribal mythology. We’ll be following one of the routes of Vladimir Arseniev, a Russian explorer who mapped the ‘Taiga’ forest north of Vladivostok between 1901 and 1910. In 1975, his exploits, or rather those of his Nanai guide, were made into an Oscar-winning film, Dersu Uzala, by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It would be good to find our own version of Dersu on our journey. But we shall see.
Before starting our main expedition down the Armu, our guide, Sergei, says we should test the canoe out on a nearby river, the Kyema. It’s popular with holidaymakers from Vladivostok, who set up camps on the banks and spend their time fishing, eating what they catch, and steaming themselves in home-made tent-type saunas on the riverside shingle. Their hospitality is overwhelming, and before we even start canoeing, we’ve been force-fed masses of trout soup, and offered a good steaming followed by a whipping down with birch branches. Finally, we build the canoe and set off. Dippers and grey wagtails flit between the boulders sticking out of the water, and twice we see ospreys swooping for fish.
Negotiating the minor rapids adds to the thrill of being on a wilderness river. These soon increase in frequency and ferocity. Dave gets out of the canoe (he says to do some videoing, but maybe it’s because of the mounting tension over my and Sergei’s canoeing styles). He says he’ll walk back to the road and get a lift to our planned camping spot. Five hours later, tired and less sharp than we should be on the rough water, we come to a zig-zag as the river cuts around some house-sized boulders. On the first turn the canoe ships water and the front end snags a large rock mid-stream, suddenly pitching us side-on to the flow. I jump on to the rock to stop us capsizing. Sergei nearly falls out as he too clambers up. The canoe fills up at one end and the dry-bag containing my passport is in danger of floating off. I edge along the boulder and manage to swing the bag to safety, but I fall in and am swept along some distance before managing to get to the shore. I try to swim back across to Sergei and the canoe. The flow takes me again, but I get a fingerhold and pull myself on to the boulder. Somehow, we empty the half-sunken boat and carry on. The rapids after that are easier, or we are more skilful at negotiating them. By then I am far too cold to care, in any case.
Two days on the Kyema and we’re jeeping across to the Armu. It’ll take us about two weeks paddling to get to the village of Dalniy-Kut, by which time the river will be too large and well-travelled to have the wilderness feel we’re after. Also by then, we’ll be out of tiger country. Anataloi, or driver is the nearest we’ve come to a real Dersu Uzala. True, he’s a Russian, not indigenous Siberian like the original, but he is a man of the Taiga.
Every winter, Anatoli sets off into the forest for two months with his rifle and hunts on skis. The album of black and white photos he brings out, shows him with dark-furred sables lined up on the snow, Gorbushka salmon and stags he’s shot. Anatoli has seen wild tigers seven times. As we sit around our campfire, he promises to tell me the story of ‘his’ tigers; half a mug of vodka for each one. I keep up with him as far as Tiger number three, the mother that jumped out at him when he came across two cubs on a logging track. Anatoli, carrying a stack of firewood, ended up on his pack flailing arms and legs in the air like a flipped over cockroach as he vainly tried to retrieve his rifle (tied to the wood pile) to loose off a warning shot. “My hair stuck up on end,” he smiles. “And look! it’s been grey like this ever since.” That is my last vodka (and tiger story) as just then a bear wanders through the thicket behind out camp and we all end up drunkenly throwing rocks at the bushes until it goes away.
Three days downriver, we come to our first signs of tiger. We are camped at a sudden drop in the river, a cross between a waterfall and rapids, that is best tackled early in the morning when tiredness won’t force us into making stupid errors. A fisherman points out tracks right behind out camp. They are the size of my hand; four-toed, no claw marks, unmistakably those of a tiger. Fourteen of them are dented into the reddish earth at the edge of a clear felled area. The prints lead downhill between some straggly bushes and peter out, or are smothered by the tread marks of large tractor tyres. I find another footprint on a stretch of riverside mud a week later whilst returning from foraging for firewood. Rather ominously it is right on top one of my outgoing tracks.
By now we have reached the confluence of the Ubilaya and Armu rivers, and it’s breezy next to the rapids, so there are no midges for a change. Even Sergei, our guide, seems far more relaxed with my daily wanderings into the forest, on the grounds that, with one tiger covering a territory of 160 square kilometres, there is little likelihood of us actually meeting one. It is August and already the leaves are turning yellow. Without the Gulf Stream to regulate the temperature, this place will be freezing by late October, under two metres of snow by December. Even the daily weather shows an almost absurd variation from scorchingly Mediterranean (when Dave spends hours sunbathing) to an autumnal second week when we spend whole days sheltering from driving rain. When it’s like this, Siberia feels like a more forested version of Scotland. Canoeing down a wilderness river, we have rain, we have drizzle, we have midges in their thousands. Even the birds – the dippers and grey wagtails, the mergansers that scoot off each time we pass – are Scottish. But, judging from a solitary paw-print, the size of my hand, that I found close to our camp six days ago, there is one major difference. If Siberia is like Scotland, then Scotland has tigers.