Sea Kayaking Articles from P&H Staff, Team Paddlers, and Friends

Tag: Scorpio


As you may know, we get to train a lot on rescues and if possible, we like to do this with external partners. We are one of the few that gets to train with professional, non-SAR shipping. For that we have to thank our social media and the network that comes with it. At this point we are befriended with some captains and their crews, who are actually sharing the same interest in safety at sea. We let the videos of our two last exercises speak for themselves, two different ships from the same category, both dredgers but with a different approach. There is always the “why”, obviously. To be short, safety is our priority. In case of emergency, it will not always be the Search and Rescue assets that will be first to arrive at the scene. In our particular case and venue, there is some commercial traffic that will respond fast to a mayday call. If we train with them, we know the possibilities and also the restrictions and dangers of such shipping and their crew. People tend to be afraid of the unknown, and therefore we sometimes get negative reactions for us being that close to such big ships. The opposite is true. Once in visual range, you are not going to be overrun! They will slow down and make their final approach slower than we paddle. Also, and that is a question we get a lot: no, you will not be sucked under water by the propellers. With these ships, the props are meters under the surface, and they can be turned off. If not, and in case you are in the water, you will be pushed away from the stern of the ship. This is information that comes directly from all the captains we are working together with, and rest assure, they know what they are doing. They will not, and I say again, they will not take unnecessary risks for the benefit of an exercise.

Rescue training dredger DC Brugge

Also, rescue training has become an important part of our sport. Besides the safety reasons, we just like doing these things and it is interesting to experiment different approaches. We hope that the day never comes, but should we find ourselves in such an emergency situation, we will know what to do… and what not. Let’s have a look at some details of the DC Brugge exercise. We are tethering ourselves to the bow or stern of our own kayak. This has two reasons. First of all, to avoid losing our kayak in the event the rescue and winching goes wrong. Secondly, bringing our line under tension will avoid the kayak from spinning around during the winching. Against pilot ladder protocol, we specifically asked to lower the pilot ladder below the surface. If not, it becomes hard to climb on the ladder when in the water. Having a few steps below the surface makes things amazingly easy. It’s a detail, but a particularly important one. We will always try to form up on the lee side. This big ship just blocks wind and waves like it’s nothing. It is a personal choice, but we will mostly opt to let the team leader board first. He/she will have an oversight on everything, he/she will have solid comms with the ship’s crew, and he/she can help the others to board swiftly. It can be done the other way around as well; team leader goes last. This will make a more difficult comms with the ship’s crew. Again, personal choice.

Rescue training dredger SCALD

On the DC Brugge, we
boarded via the pilot ladder and our kayaks were winched up with a big crane.
Very spectacular, it looked like we were special forces making a tactical
boarding. And all of this make this great fun, both for us and for the ship’s
crew. Every time we think that we have reached the limit of what is possible in
rescue training, we suddenly come up with something new! That was the case with
the dredger SCALD! Care for an exercise? But yes, off course! And how do you
want to board? Hmmmm…. what can you do with the drag head? The SCALD crew had
given this some thought of their own, when seeing us doing all these exercises
with their colleagues from other hopper-dredgers. And so, we went on, boarding
the SCALD dredger in a very, very unusual way. We got a solid explanation on
how the drag head works. There were no separately moving parts on the place
where we would board, which was important. They anchored the whole ship in a
matter of about a minute, just for this exercise. We experimented on how to
climb onto the drag head and in a matter of a few minutes we found it the
perfect way of boarding together with our kayak in a swift and responsible way.
The kayak was positioned between two tubes, and resting a rubber inserts of the
drag head. This means that we didn’t have to worry about scratches on our
boats. The whole team was lifted out of the water in no time. Same here,
everything was done in a responsible and safe way.

At this point, rescue
training takes it rightful place among other parts within sea kayaking in our
NORTHSEAKAYAK team. Like surfing, rock-hopping, touring, rolling …. rescue
training is equally fun, and it certainly highlights the way we manage

We do hope to shed some light on the way we train, and on the safety precautions we undertake before heading on with these big exercises. Before every exercise, we had a safety briefing with the captain of the ship.

Have fun and take care of each other on the water!

The North Sea Crossing

I have dreamed. I have prepared. I have trained hard. I have crossed the Southern part of the North Sea by sea kayak on the 30th and 31st of July 2015; man powered and alone, no support or pilot vessel, no support whatsoever. I have paddled during day and night. I’ve been exhausted, excited and happy, all at the same time.


This is my story.
I have had this dream to cross the North Sea for years, and finally the weather conditions were perfect; so I planned, made calculations to counter the tide and prepared myself mentally.


The crossing!
On Thursday 30th of July I said my goodbyes to my family. Right before starting I sent a message to both the Belgian and British Coast Guard to inform them of my plans and estimated route. At 21:30 hours sharp I sat in my sea kayak and paddled to open sea. I waved to my family one last time when passing the pier. I was lucky, after sunset I still had some light due to a full moon; the downside was the current, a full moon means spring tide! Up until I reached the Trapegeer buoy I had the tidal stream in my favour, after that point (fully calculated in advance) I had to paddle 6 hours against a strong tide. At 04:48 hours I arrived at the DY1 buoy; it was slack at that point, but the tidal current should change direction soon. I had radio contact one last time with Marc, the friendly radio operator from the Belgian Coast Guard (Ostend Radio) to give him my current position and state. He was in close contact with Sylvie (my wife and support team) to keep her informed. After that point I was on my own until I was in range of the British Coast Guard. I paddled on, with the current in my favour this time, to the Ruytingen SW and Ruytingen NW buoys. In the meantime the sun was rising which made the crossing of the international fairway a bit easier. According to the Coast Guard almost 500 sea ships are passing through that lane every single day; I had to keep watch in order to stay as far away from those big ships as possible. I doubted that they would even spot me!


I paddled as hard as I could, having a strong tidal current on the my side. I managed to get over the shipping lane, along the buoys Sandettie WSW to the South Falls without troubles. I only spotted 4 big sea ships but I passed them at a distance, and after that I changed my course and diverged from my planned route to a secondary planned route in order to counter the very strong tidal current that was pushing very hard from my right. Eventually I arrived at the East Goodwin light ship, where I established radio contact with the Dover Coast Guard; they we’re already fully aware of my intentions and also in touch with my wife, informing her of my position and state. The crew on the radio were very friendly towards both me and my wife.

IMGP6677Goodwin lichtschip

The East Goodwin ship is an unmanned lightship that brings the very treacherous Goodwin sand banks to the attention of ships; dangerous for almost every other vessel but ideal conditions for a seasoned kayaker. With almost no wind at all there were waves between 0.5 and 1 metres in height! In that area I saw numerous seals, wonderful!! The sand banks were the last piece of the crossing; after that I headed towards Ramsgate harbour. The tidal current was now pushing on my left side so I had to compensate heavily in order to reach the harbour. I reached the slipway of Ramsgate harbour at 15:06 hours (Belgian time). I was so far ahead on my estimated arrival time that my welcome party had not arrived yet; luckily I was prepared for that, I had dry clothes and plenty of food and drinks with me. After a few hours my lovely wife and kids arrived, it was a happy reunion!! We took the ferry back to the mainland together.

Aankomst Ramsgate

I wish to thank my wife Sylvie for her constant support in chasing my biggest dream, the North Sea crossing, as well as in all my other so called foolish plans regarding sea kayaking! I want to say thanks to Marc, the radio operator from the Belgian Coast Guard – Ostend Radio for keeping an eye out for me up to the DY1 buoy, and to the friendly crew from the Dover Coast Guard! To those people; your help is very much appreciated both by myself and my wife!

We hope that this crossing will put Belgian sea kayaking on the map, and a big thanks to my other Northseakayak-members for their continuous support!

Technical data:
The full crossing was correctly registered by GPS.
• Total distance: 106,7 km
• Total time: 17 hours 36 minutes
• Average speed: 6.1 km/h
• Maximum registered speed: 13.5 km/h
• Craft: P&H Scorpio LV (Polyethylene)
• Paddle: Vertical Element Explorer Aircore Pro Full Carbon
• Full safety gear including two VHF radios, a Personal Locator Beacon, flares, etc.

You can watch the video below:

Volga River, Russia – Source to Sea Kayak Descent

Distance:  2300 miles/3702 kilometres

Duration:  71 days

Kayak:  P & H Scorpio 170


The 7 rivers 7 continents project is a multi-year undertaking to make paddling descents of the longest river on each continent. 22 000 miles in total:

Amazon River (South America) – 4125 miles – completed 2007/2008

Missouri- Mississippi River (North America) – 3780 miles – completed 2012

Volga River (Europe) – 2300 miles – completed 2014

Nile River (Africa) – 4132 miles

Yangtze River (Asia) – 3916 miles

Murray-Darling River (Australia) – 2904 miles

Onyx River (Antarctica) – 25 miles


My descent of the Volga River began around 400km north-west of Moscow following an intense 5 hour car journey from the capital.  If you’ve ever driven in Russia, you know that breaking one’s speed PB is a requirement on every car journey.

The ultimate source of the river sits amongst the green, rolling Valdai Hills.  Unlike the Amazon and Missouri-Mississippi River sources, access to the river’s beginning is a breeze.  Marked by a small shrine, an imposing church and a scattering of houses, the source is easily reached.  There is even a souvenir stall set up!



Like big rivers the world over, the Volga’s source is auspicious in it’s humble beginnings.   A small pond-like body of water over which had been built the aforementioned shrine. Just a few weeks earlier it had been frozen over.  As I set off the rain began in earnest.  It was cold, bleak and once more I found myself alone in a strange land ready to undertake another big river descent.

The river’s drainage was contained in a small, marshy valley.  I walked on it’s sides, across it’s middle and along its course.  I had left my heavy, fully loaded P & H Scorpio kayak a few miles from the source.  It sat in the front yard of a family’s house by the edge of a small lake.

A few hours in, thigh deep in very recently thawed ice water under a heavy grey sky is not great fun, but it is what it is, necessary.  I burst out of the dense, wet forest on to the lake shore and made my way to the nearby village where my boat lay.

After being stuffed full with hot tea along with meat and pickle sandwiches, I bid farewell to my first river saviours and dragged my kayak down to the water’s edge.  A brief repack and I was paddling.  The clouds parted and the sun burst through with surprising intensity.  Now it was really on.

The upper Volga, indeed the entire Volga is akin to one giant lake.  A total of 9 dams choke the river and reduce it’s flow to a near standstill.  No mean feat over a couple of thousand miles.

The first meandering lake is alternately populated by rustic, grey, Soviet-era (and much older) wooden house villages and enormous luxury holiday surely owned by that infamous character, the Russian oligarch.  Homes styled with their own (totally unnecessary) lighthouses, pirate themed boat houses, marbled columns, Ibiza style gazebos and fire pits.


My first few days on the river were punctuated by bright sunshine and frigid blasting winds swapping with rainy squalls.  My dry jacket, wool cap and thermals were put through their paces.

That first week, 2 weeks of a long journey are always the same.  That period of adjustment from comfort, warmth and cleanliness, to, well, the opposite of all those things.  To me, long kayak journeys, no matter the hardship are really just one big holiday, so I try not to complain too much (or at least out of earshot of anyone else).  Life is simple.  Stay dry, stay fed and watered, stay upright.  It’s pretty straightforward.

The first dam, appearing below Selishche, is small and guarded by private security contractors.  Their knuckles covered in tattoos, sporting old and rumpled uniforms and cigarettes hanging from mouths, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  With a flourish of my official looking letter from my hosts, the Russian Geographical Society, well adorned in government stamps, the lads jumped into action.  I was ready to pull my boat around the dam on my kayak cart but they indicated we, the 3 of us would carry it.  A few hundred metres of struggling with my heavily laden kayak and I was back paddling, kind of.  The first couple of kilometres below the dam was boney with little water.  Knuckle dragging and actually dragging my way downstream was arduous.  The river was just 20m across and wound its way this way and that through the dense pine forest.


With sun shining, the Volga was magical.  With rain about slightly less so.  I passed several groups of paddlers who had spent a long weekend kayaking on tributaries of the river.  At the town of Staritsa I was keen to resupply with food.  A couple of young boys on bicycles stared down at me from the high river bank.  I asked them where a “magazin” or shop might be in my best Russian.  Nothing.  “Magazin?”, I repeated.  Oh yes, over there somewhere, they waved.  Not exactly reassuring.  Just downstream was a huge steel bridge spanning the river.  Below it on river right were a couple of trucks.  Here, I thought I could leave my boat and head into town.  As I approached I realised one of the old trucks was loaded down with about 10 kayaks!  Sweet!  A group of young Russians had just taken off the river after 4 days paddling the Volga and a tributary.  I was immediately invited to join them for tea and food.  Instead of allowing me to venture into town they began putting together bag loads of food for me.  Cheese, sausage, bread, cookies, tea, spaghetti, tuna, corn, apples, pickles, milk and juice.  Their trip was over and they were headed back to Moscow.  Their kindness was amazing.  As I paddled away, the clouds cleared and the sun shone.

After 8 days I reached the city of Tver.  My first chance to upload some photos and write some articles for publication. I spent 2 nights in Tver, also resupplying and getting lost in my first Volga city.


After Tver I began to meet and visit with more and more people. Their welcome and kindness was hard to believe.  I had not expected this sort of welcome.  There are always nice folk on every journey but on the Volga it seemed everyone was smiling at me.

A few days later I reached the second dam at Dubna.  This time a significant hydroelectric dam whose construction included a lock for ships.  Entering (and leaving on river right) was the Moscow Canal.  Had I so desired I could have paddled this waterway all the way to the centre of Moscow!  But my destination lay a couple of thousand miles to the south.

I was met by a new friend at the portage.  Ilya was a giant of a man who worked as a security guard at the dam.  It was his day off and he and friends had celebrated his wife’s birthday the night before.  Instead of loading my kayak on to my cart Ilya insisted we carry it.  Oh man!  It was heavy.  I think both of us had some national pride helping us.  Me the Australian and him the proud Russian.  We took a few rest stops for Ilya to smoke a cigarette and share the vodka he kept in an army issue water bottle on his belt.  After 5 breaks to reach the river once more I was feeling pretty relaxed!  The first of many vodka battles on my journey.

Days continued unabated.  Long hot days, long wet days, always punctuated by meeting people on the Volga.  On resupply in larger towns or cities, someone was always more than happy to keep an eye on my kayak.  In small villages it wasn’t necessary.

Russians love the Volga!  On weekdays and weekends in particular, every day saw people camping, relaxing, fishing, swimming and boating.  Even when I felt totally alone, around a bend I would see a cluster of tents and people about.  It was great to see them making use of this giant river, not just for industry or commerce but for it’s true wildness.

I paddled on and on.  Each dam portage took on average a hard hour.  From landing on the concrete wall of the dam to putting in below I unpacked, did multiple carries, dragged my kayak trolley over busy train tracks, busy roads, through dry scrub, down steep hills, repack and away.  From start to finish I pushed as hard as I could.  Portages are never much fun.

Below each dam, there was actually some flow.  It was a surreal feeling to have spent days and weeks on what amounted to one long lake to be suddenly carried along in a swift current.


In the city of Yaroslav I visited with the Russian emergency services group, EmerCom.  They look after safety on the river for all users, from sunbathers, to fishermen in boats, to the cruise ships and tankers that were now becoming more common.  On a Saturday afternoon, some of the younger members eagerly volunteered to patrol the packed beach with a pair of giant binoculars. Tough gig.

At every stop, I longed to stay.  Just sitting, drinking tea, eating, laughing, talking with these people of the Volga was incredible.  The Russians I had met were so full of life and so friendly.  A start contrast to the brainwashing I had been given since birth of life behind the Iron Curtain, its dreariness and its underlying anger to the West.

A month into my descent of the Volga and it had surpassed everything I had hoped for.  The beauty of the river, the welcome of its people was difficult to believe.  But it just continued to get more amazing.

At the city of Kimensha I had been battling a headwind all day.   I was a little over it.  Just beyond the bridge that spanned the river I thought I could see a giant wooden raft.  Could it be?  As I paddled closer the raft revealed itself.  It was a huge hybrid Kon-Tiki (the balsa raft built by Thor Hyerdhal to cross the Pacific) with a wooden body and three giant inflated PVC pontoons.  Around it milled a dozen people.  I had to explore this!


The raft was named, “Rus”, the old word for Russia.  It was a boat for travelling the world!  Piloted by just 3 crew it had been all over the Arctic, the Berents Sea, Greenland, Canada, Black Sea and of course the Volga.  I was welcomed with tea, beer and a stew for lunch.  A television crew arrived and I was honoured to help push the 3 tonne craft into the water and raise its mast.  What a boat!  I stayed the afternoon with the boatmen and as the sun was setting pushed off to paddle a couple of more hours downstream.

It was slowly becoming clear that the Russians of the Volga were not people to sit still.  In just a few short weeks I had met ocean sailors, whitewater kayakers, parachutists and round the world cyclists all by the banks of the river.

My descent continued.  The river grew wide and wild.  Powerful winds whipped up breaking waves.  They crashed on steep shores and on concrete embankments in front of towns, creating such confused water.  I dared not miss a stroke or a brace or I would be wrong side up in an instant.

It felt strange to still think of the Volga as a river.  It was so wide with huge bays and coves it could not be so.  Late in the afternoon but still with plenty of light to paddle I chanced upon a group of kite surfers.  High winds for me a nightmare, for them it was time to play.  10 kites jumped and sped across the water.  As brothers in arms I stopped to say hello.  Immediately dragged over to their camp I was fed a late lunch, vodka, tea, dried fish and beer.  As luck would have it a few of them were headed to the shop in town.  I took a ride with them and filled up on pasta, sugar, sardines and chocolate bars. Perfect.

Another dam, another portage over.  For a while the water flowed, then as before slowly petered out.  Flat water, still water to paddle.  The large city of Nizhny Novgorod loomed ahead.  From start to finish the urban centres on the Volga stretched for some way.  With masses of tankers, cruise ships and small boats about it always took longer than expected to clear them.  At Nizhny, the river Oka entered from river right, in the centre of town.  As the slowest moving vessel, I played chicken with all the other boats.  Jet skis roared by, expensive speed boats complete with bikini clad models, cut across in front of me.  The city itself was clearly divided into ancient and modern.  It’s impressive Kremlin dominated a green hillside, while in front and behind modern apartment buildings loomed.  Almost past the city, a cable car stretched across the river. It took passengers on a scenic ride from Nizhny Novgorod to the smaller city of Bor on the left bank of the Volga.  As I floated by I wished for more time to explore the city.  Slowly, very slowly the days left on my visa had started to enter my mind.

Again, the river’s flow subsides and it’s banks move further and further apart.  The Volga’s beauty continues.  Where are the factories and industry spewing pollution into it’s waters?  If they exist they are well hidden from view.

At the city of Cheboksary the sand river beaches are packed with sun bathers.  Families, children, girls in bikinis, young toughs cruising in cars, old men deep in conversation with one another.  More jet skis and fast boats zip this way and that.  I stop at a concrete marina.  Once more my friends at EmerCom lend a hand.  I trudge up a steep hill to the shop for resupply.  Dimitri, who works for the emergency services offers their quarters for me to stay.  I am just a few miles from the dam and even though late in the day I would like to portage it.  I thank him for the offer and put back in.

All my journeys suffer from a personality disorder.  With 2 goals on every descent, source to sea and the gathering of images and stories from the river – it is supremely difficult to find a balance.  Ensure the success of one and jeopardise the other.  Turning down an invitation to stay the night, to talk, to drink in order to paddle some more always grates.  But failing to reach the river’s mouth and the sea is finite.  A difficult decision to make.

I am buoyed by the knowledge that approaching the huge city of Kazan I have a few days at least to reenergise, resupply and explore.  I have friends in the city and eventually spend 4 days in hastily arranged press conferences, television appearances and sight seeing.  I make new friends and find a city that captures my heart.


Some of the weather I have encountered on the river so far has been brutal.  Storms which creep up from behind the low mountains which line the Volga and then unleash rain, wind, lightning and thunder have been both exciting and un-nerving.  Multiple times i have completed big open water crossings with minutes to spare before the water is whipped up into a white foaming mass, waves breaking in every direction.  Good assessment of conditions on my part or just luck?

Beyond Kazan, I spend 5 days battling this inclement weather.  A couple of times, people stopped me and established that they had seen me on television.  I was famous on this little part of river.

The river twisted and turned, the left bank disappeared from view as another might river, the Kama joined it.  Wind blew hard from the west.  The sheltered bank was almost entirely stark and steep cliffs.  Hardy vegetation filled any small break in the rock.  Finding a camp site as night rapidly approached became an unsettling task.  I crossed to the other side, exposed to wind and waves but with more camping options.

Now the right bank vanished.  The water stretched for almost 30 kilometres from side to side.  As I high braced into overhead crashing waves and surfed sometimes down their open faces I wondered if perhaps I had erred in judgement.  Too late now I pushed on.

At the city of Ulyanovsk as darkness set in I had resigned myself to a camp beside an old factory.  Before I had a chance to make landfall a voice called out.  A man waved to me from the bank.  That night was not spent in a tent beside an old factory.  I slept inside a Dacha or summer house.  I also experienced my first Banya or Russian sauna complete with being flogged with birch branches and running naked into the Volga.  Dinner was a huge event with new friends, talking about the Volga and the similarities between Russian and the West.  The river, as usual, provided for me.


I left early in the morning after a bacon and egg breakfast and straight into a day of the hardest paddling of the entire descent so far.  Weather reports suggested that the day was about to get pretty windy.  From the edge of the city to the next point was 25 kilometres in a straight line of open water.  Following the river bank would add another 10 kilometres on top.  I had been through some difficult paddling in the week previous and felt up to most things the river could throw at me.  The crossing turned into a 7 hour affair.  Not once could I dare to miss a stroke or a brace.  I fumbled when I could with a chocolate bar for energy.  For 6.5 hours I needed to pee.  No chance.  Relieving myself in my boat was a serious consideration.  As I collapsed on shore in mid-afternoon under a grey sky I swore never to make myself as vulnerable again.  Then I took a pee.


The gods of the river must have decided that more than a week of rubbish weather was my penance paid.  On an afternoon a few days after my less than fun crossing I nudged my boat onto a wide and long rocky beach, the water crystal clear below me.  The entire day had been almost without a breath of wind, the scenery out of this world.  Low rolling hills, dotted with groves of trees, small villages here and there.  Now a dry camp with the huge expanse of the Volga in front of me.  These moments more than outweighed the days of rain and wind.

From the Tolyatti dam to the city of Samara, the river continues it’s brilliance.  In one day I saw hundreds of sail boats and catamarans, kite surfers, paragliders, mountain bikers, campers, fisherman and people just making the most of the resource they had on their doorstep, the wonderful Volga.  It was amazing to witness.  At Samara the city lines river left.  On river right opposite hundreds upon hundreds of semi-permanent encampments exist.  Come the weekend thousands of Samara citizens cross the river in taxi boats, bus boats or their own boats to spend a couple of days relaxing and often partying.  I struggled to find an empty spot to erect my own little camp.  I eventually did and set to work on my tent.  As I finished it a couple of young Russians walked by and said hello.  I replied in Russian and of course they immediately knew I wasn’t one of their own.  Upon hearing I was an Australian paddling the length of the Volga River they literally dragged me back to their party camp.  The World Cup was showing on a tv, speakers blasted Russian electronica (all powered by a generator) and the vodka flowed.  I spent the night dancing, singing, laughing and talking with yet more beautiful people of the Volga.  By now the welcome I had received on my descent was becoming surreal.  How could it always be so amazing?  How could every single person I met be so friendly?  On all my travels I had not experienced such a thing.

I left Samara early the next morning trying to convince myself I had no hangover after the previous night’s festivities.  It kind of worked.

At the city of Syzran the river makes a sharp turn to the south.  It’s inside bend a maze of wetlands and small islands.  Rather than stay on the wide open river I paddled into this confusing paradise.  Birds called and fisherman sat bobbing about in their boats. Signs indicated that at least part of this area was a protected zone for birdlife.  The area was more wild than other parts I had paddled through.  The trees, vines and bushes were reluctant to ever part in order to expose even a small place to camp.  Fortunately I discovered a fishing camp on an island.  Deserted but well maintained with even the grass mowed.


Another dam at Balakovo.  Portage takes 80 minutes with hauling over multiple railways tracks, through scrub and mud to pop up beside the dam’s guard post.  I drag my kayak up behind a security officer toting a machine pistol and his civilian buddy.  They haven’t spotted me and I have to announce my presence.  I attempt to allay their confused looks with my by now pretty polished Russian language explanation of my journey.  I also present my letter of introduction from the Russian Geographical Society.  It has become my “magic letter”.  It’s air of authority and liberal covering of government stamps works wonders.  The guard steps out onto the busy road which crosses the dam and waves his baton.  Cars speeding in both directions come to a halt and he motions me across.  I thank him and wave somewhat embarrassed to the motorists who have stopped to let me cross.

A couple of days later I am passing the city of Saratov.  Again it’s a weekend and the river is alive with people.  Unfortunately the 2 windiest days of my entire journey so far are forecast.  Even tracking down small side channels offers little respite.  I just grind out the miles.  A boardwalk in front of the city hosts a skate competition, small beaches are full with taxi boats ferrying people to and from small islands and camps away from the city.  I resupply at a shop and chow down on crisps and fizzy drink.  The wind continues to send the river into a fit.  Waves push my boat from all directions.  It’s hard work to stay upright and all this with an audience of hundreds.

On these days I paddle hard under a perfect blue sky, the river lined with houses perched on rocky cliffs.  More invites accepted, more food offered and vodka consumed.  This descent, hard at times really is a dream paddle.

For the next few days the river is straight and wide.  Hours and hours of paddling every day and at times it feels like I am on a treadmill.  The high banks like cliffs change little.  Stopping to resupply is a welcome change.  I stop in an ancient village where 9 out of 10 crumbling wooden houses seem deserted.  Searching for water, I occasionally spot a babushka (grandmother) down a side street.  The village has a bunch of wells lining the main street.  Most are not functioning.  One thankfully, is.  I arrive to the well at the same time as an old lady with her own water bucket to fill.  I ask for her to go first but she won’t have it.  Embarrassingly, I need her help to control the water flow.  We chat about the Volga in Russian and walk together back down the road.


In the meantime back down by my boat, a group of 6 men have landed in their fancy speedboat and commenced a mid-week BBQ.  With 7 hours of the paddling day left, I was expecting some big mileage.  Not to be.  I ate my fill of meat, bread, vegetables and unfortunately drank my fill of vodka too.  A highlight was all of us jumping in the boat and speeding out into the middle of the Volga, at this point 3 miles wide.  Under a clear sky, I spent the next hour jumping from the boat into the cool waters of the river miles from land.  An unforgettable experience.

Late in the afternoon I was finally able to extract myself from my new friends.  After an hour and a half of slow, vodka affected paddling I decided to call it a day.  What a day.

Volgograd in sight.  The 9th and final dam separates me from this city where in WWII, the Battle of Stalingrad cost some 2 million lives.  A difficult 1 hour and 15 minutes of lifting, dragging and pulling sees me put back in on the Volga.  After failing to get any sense from a boat crew who are well past simply drunk I spend the night on a floating cafe with my new Armenian brothers.  I am welcomed aboard with huge smiles and as usual stuffed full of food and vodka!  We talk, dance, laugh and swim late into the night and some of the morning.

A day or two below Volgograd the river is still moving.  Not atypical for a river usually but on the Volga a pleasant surprise.

Villages that touch the river become less frequent, as briefly do the number of fisherman and river users.  For two consecutive days I am trapped in the open when huge electrical storms hit the river.  I can see small towns in the distance high atop sheer cliffs.  Creeping up behind then and headed my way, enormous black cloud mass, lit by lightning in quick succession.  As the storms hit with a harsh mix of rain, wind and electricity it is hard not to duck lower in my cockpit.  As if that might make me a less appealing target.  Each time I push on and in between squalls find good camps on huge river islands.  Sometimes with neighbours, often alone.

I make camp above the city of Astrakhan one beautiful Saturday afternoon.  The entire day I spend talking and waving with Russians playing by the river.  Sometimes entire beaches are packed with swimmers and campers.  A jet ski here and there, boats too.  It is a real party atmosphere.


My final push to the Caspian sees me in a quandary.  To enter the delta region all visitors must hold an authorisation from the FSB (the modern day KGB).  I have the authorisation.  Applied for 60 days earlier and granted a month ago.  Unfortunately the FSB office is only open for business Monday to Friday, not the weekend.  Should I wait till Monday, another day and a half to get a hold of my document or make a break for the prize?  In the days above Astrakhan I had heard stories that taking the main channel to the sea was forbidden, permit or not.  Heading down there without having my authorisation in hand seemed like asking for trouble.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the Volga was lit up in gold.  I ate my dinner of pasta and sardines looking out over the river, trying to decide what to do.  It would be a massive blow to get within a few miles of my goal and be picked up by the authorities for some sort of infringement.  I looked over the paperwork I used the apply for my permit.  I had listed the exact towns and villages through which I would pass on my way to the Caspian.  The all lay on the main channel.  How could there be a problem?  I decided right then to go for it.

Another city to clear.  The wind was blowing hard, the river wide and boat traffic was everywhere.  Just below Astrakhan, small beaches lined the banks.  Once again it was a full party atmosphere on the river.  Windsurfers whipped back and forth across the river dodging huge ships, water police were busy inspecting recreational boats for life jackets and registration.

Invitations to join BBQs and parties came along steadily.  I stopped over the day now and then to say hello before moving on, a smile permanently etched on my face.  As I had done over the past couple of months of paddling I shook my head in wonder at the welcome I had received in Russia.  It was almost too much.

With the river still flowing reasonably strong, channels began branching off on river left.  The delta was growing wider and wider.  Thousands of small channels now snaked their way to the sea.  My route left me on the main channel heading south west.  At times less than 100m across I shared the waterway with petrol tankers and the like.

My final evening on the Volga was low key.  I pulled out at a small boatyard and jetty.  Two rustic houses amongst recently mown grass.  Still in PFD and paddling gear I wandered up to the smaller of the two.  Inside was Alek, a big bear of a man who oversaw the place.  Gruff at first, once I explained my presence he was pleased to have me camp by the river on his place.  Another glorious sunset came and went.  How many of these have I been fortunate to witness on my big river descents?  Hundreds, surely.


On the water by 7am the next day I couldn’t help but wonder when around the corner would come a navy patrol boat to end my journey.  I continued to pass small villages on huge delta islands, connected to the mainland by a short ferry ride.  In a couple sat massive navy ships at anchor, sailors working on board.  Did they see me?  I was getting more paranoid the closer I go to reaching the Caspian Sea.

Now the main channel I was on became ram rod straight, at it’s end lay the sea.  Indeed now on either side of this man made stretch lay the Caspian, reached by even narrower channels.  On my maps the area should have been deserted but still I would see old abandoned fish processing factories, crumbling houses and light poles.

One house, half fallen into the water already looked empty.  A large dog appeared, then an old man, followed by one younger.  I paddled over to them and chatted a while.  They were living deep in the delta, miles from any town in a house only barely there.  They seemed to be among the happiest people one could ever meet and pointed out the next turn I should make to reach the small town of Vyshka where my journey would end.

After a confusing maze of tiny waterways and thick jungle like vegetation all of a sudden I paddled out into open water.  Was this the sea?  There was some islands a mile south of me but excepting them it was indeed the Caspian.  A half mile to my right I could make out the town of Vyshka.  A name and spot on a map of which I had dreamt for many months.  I slowly paddled toward it.


After some 2300 miles and 71 days I had kayaked the Volga River, Europe’s longest river from source to sea. I had paddled a river so beautiful that it was almost unreal.  Picturesque lakes, pine forest, rolling hills, rocky cliffs, open dusty steppes, huge cities and small villages.  It was stunning.  But what really had made my descent one so special were the people of the Volga.  From beginning to end the Russian people had welcomed me, cared for me and extended a hospitality I had never expected as a stranger.  As I neared my final takeout I was genuinely sad to be finished.  My time on the Volga River was over, it was time to go home.

The Mississippi Challenge 2013 – May Madness

The next instalment from Sam and the Mississippi Team who set off on June 5th.
Find them on Face book HERE
And the web HERE



2012 Missouri-Mississippi River – Source to Sea paddling descent

Distance:  3780 miles / 6083 kilometres
Duration:  117 days (11.06.2012 – 05.10.2012)
Kayak:  P & H Scorpio 170

The 7 rivers 7 continents project is a multi-year undertaking to make paddling descents of the longest river on each continent. 22 000 miles in total.

Amazon River(South America) – 6937 km (4300 miles) – completed 2007/2008

Missouri- Mississippi River (North America) – 6083 km (3780 miles) – completed 2012

Nile River(Africa) – 6650 km (4132 miles)

Yangtze River(Asia) – 6300 km (3916 miles)

Volga River(Europe) – 3645 km (2266 miles)

Murray-Darling River(Australia) – 3370 km (2904 miles)

Onyx River(Antarctica) – 40 km (25 miles)

My descent of North America’s longest river system, the Missouri-Mississippi River took 117 days paddling 3780 miles across the USA.  The descent began at the river’s utmost source, Brower’s Spring in Montana’s Centennial Mountains.  The spring lies at an altitude of approximately 2680m above sea level.  In early June when I began my descent the spring was still covered by at least 1.5 metres of snow.  

On the 11th June I set off from my established base camp amongst the dense pine trees towards the spring.  I followed the upper most waterway known as Hell Roaring Creek; a steep narrow creek as closely as possible.  After 5 hours of ascent I was forced on to snow shoes. In my hand I carried bear spray and called out to bears till my voice became hoarse.  Finally, following 7 hours of hard uphill slog I reached the spring.  Waypoint marked, images recorded, my descent could begin.

For several hours, Hell Roaring Creek alternately ran free and was covered by old snow and ice.  At this time, impossible to run.  Too much snow and not enough water.  After another 5 hours of descent I stumbled exhausted into my camp, day 1 over.

Hell Roaring Creek runs out of steep sided canyon into a wide, flat valley floor. Still too shallow to kayak I would follow the creek for 22 miles on foot as it flowed into Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes, closed at this time of year to paddling in order to protect nesting birds.  Still with bear spray in hand, moose, deer, eagles and other birds were to be found.  

As I passed the wildlife refuge office I arranged with the manager, Bill West to transport my kayak from my camp to the outlet of the lower lake.  Bill was happy to do so and in his pickup we explored the refuge on the way to collect the boat.  Bill dropped my kayak off and deposited me back at the office in order that I might not break my human-powered  journey.  With the sun setting I marched out the final 4 miles to my boat.  Bill had told me to keep an eye out for a wolf pack in the area.  Sure enough at dinner that evening they showed up, with little fear of my headlamp and yelling.  Bigger and much more bold than coyotes they watched a while before disappearing into the night.

At dawn the next day I packed my kayak and slid into the water.  Finally I was paddling.  The Red Rock River flowed slowly and meandered like a lazy snake.  Sometimes deep enough, though often I dragged my boat across a rocky bottom.  The small river flowed into Lima Reservoir, which I crossed in a morning without a breath of wind.  My first portage around the dam was short and sharp.  Putting back on the water, the river now flowed much more quickly.  Sieves and strainers littered the banks and bends.  

Piloting a near 17 foot boat round a sharp bend on a 18 foot wide fast flowing river takes some doing.  It was an intense beginning to a 4000 mile journey, but the Scorpio handled it all with ease.  I pulled hard on my paddle, utilising every stroke in my arsenal.  

Soon enough, trees in the river became secondary obstacles.  Ranchers had begun to place fences across the narrow river.  At first, a few strands of wire appeared.  Sometimes I could duck underneath.  Other times it meant a quick exit, pushing the kayak beneath the lowest strand and submerging myself completely into the icy water.  Frustrating but all part of the journey.  Next, strands of electric fence criss crossed my path.  Were they live?  I had no plans to find out and avoided them as best I could.  Barbed wire fences were next.  Exiting a fast corner to see clusters of sharp wire blocking my way necessitated some pretty quick thinking.  Here and there I got caught up on the strands but managed to escape the worst.  The final fence variation was a hybrid of barbed wire and roofing iron completely blocking my path.  It was often a case of “WTF?”, but with no one around to complain to I simply pushed on.

The near 300 miles from Brower’s Spring to Three Forks took a little under a fortnight.  It was both a beautiful and isolated descent, as well as being frustrating and mundane in it’s sameness.  For days on end the river sat a metre or so below the river bank, short grass and an occasional cow poking it’s nose over the edge.  

Below Clark Canyon Reservoir the river became the Beaverhead.  Now, less isolated and suddenly busy.  Not with paddlers but fly fisherman in drift boats.  So common, sitting in deep pockets of river, it was an ordeal just keeping out of their way.  Sometimes a wave from an old timer but mostly their eyes never left the quivering end of their fishing poles.  

Beyond the town of Twin Bridges the Beaverhead meets the Big Hole River to form the Jefferson.  My spirits soared on this stretch of waterway.  Clear, fast and wide it flowed.  Fields of green grass, colourful flowers and groves of cottonwoods lined the banks.  This is paddling I thought.

All too quickly the Jefferson led me to Three Forks.  Here it meets with the rivers, Gallatin and Madison to form the Missouri River proper.  Already the muddy brown colour it will keep on it’s long meander to the ocean, the Missouri grew wide and flowed at a rapid clip.

The dammed upper covers almost 1500 miles and is pocked with a dozen lakes and dams.  Free flowing here and there but for the most part a slow haul across bodies of water ranging from a few miles long to more than 200.  

Easily the most challenging are the “Big 3”.  Fort Peck Lake stretching more than 130 miles in length, it’s shores dry and bleak cover a greater distance the the entire coast of California.  Little or no sign of man to be found.  Multiple 3-5 mile open water crossings to be made on a lake where the wind can go from still to gale force in 30 seconds.  

Lake Sakakawea, more than 150 miles long and 10 miles at it’s widest point.  Less isolated than Peck it’s shores are more uniform and easier to follow.  Entering from it’s western end is a game of guesswork.  A muddy delta with multiple braids blocks access to open water for many miles.  Maps are useless in this ever changing environment.  Instinct combined with trial and error led me to the lake proper.

Finally, the 230 mile long Lake Oahe appears.  Between 1 and 4 miles wide the lake has a reputation for being the most difficult to traverse on the entire river.  Being windbound for 4 days or more is not uncommon.  I made the crossing in 8.5 days, losing just a day and a half to wind.

Of the 16 lakes and dams I traversed I paddled every lake and manually portaged every dam.  Sometimes this portage was a few hundred metres but often a couple of miles or more.  Loading my kayak onto the cart I hauled it up and over steep tracks and cross country to search for an appropriate put-in below the huge concrete expanse holding up the river.

Gavins Point Dam, South Dakota sits just a few miles above the town of Yankton.  Here, my journey reached a significant milestone.  Below the dam, the Missouri would finally, after more than 1800 miles, run free till it’s waters reached the Gulf of Mexico.  

My mind conjured up easy days paddling, the swift current aiding me along.  The first day out of Yankton into a stiff headwind and driving rain brought me to my senses.  Even though I was back to reality I was unswayed in my paddle to the ocean.  

Days in my kayak were long.  I tried to be on the water at 7am and would paddle till 7pm, never leaving the water.  My alarm would sound like a jackhammer to my ears at 05:30 hrs every morning.  Dragging myself from my warm sleeping bag I would conjure up coffee and instant oats.  The task of breaking camp was smooth after a couple of months on river.  Rather than stop for the toilet I carried a pee bottle and instead of pulling ashore for lunch I would chow down on chocolate bars, oat bars, trail mix and beef jerky throughout the day.  As the sun began to set the search for a campsite would begin.  This year, in a complete reversal to last the Missouri River is at low water.  Many of the states through which it flows are in severe drought.  The benefit this brought me was a plentiful supply of exposed sand bars on which to spend the night.  Having found high ground, I would set up my tent and gather wood for a fire.  Dinner comprised of packet rice and pouches of tuna or sardines.  A fifth of the cost of dehydrated meals, just as light, if not quite as nutritious.  

On a good long day of paddling between Yankton and St. Louis (where the Missouri meets the Mississippi)  I could cover more than 70 miles.  My cadence became so rhythmic that I could time my arrival at mile markers to less than a couple of minutes over an entire day.  Some feat!

The 700 odd miles I paddled to St. Louis passed by in a couple of weeks.  Long days on the water, perfect isolated campsites punctuated by the odd muddy one or stealth camping in an urban park.  I would stop in towns whose waterfronts were accessible to me but avoided major centres like Omaha and Kansas City.  No place to leave a kayak and gear alone and expect it to be there on your return.  In small towns I would resupply with food and water, check emails and update my website before paddling on.

As the Missouri River mile markers ticked over and down towards 0, it signalled my approach to it’s confluence with the Mississippi River.  First below 50, then below 20 and then 10.  As mile 1 appeared the mighty Mississippi swung into view on river left.  Before I knew it I was floating beyond the confluence point and into slack water where the 2 giant rivers meet.  I looked up the Missouri from where I had come.  All the way from the mountains of Montana to here.  Slowly the current of the river took me in it’s grasp and the Missouri disappeared from view.  My final look was one of sadness.  I had met so many folk and experienced so many things up river.  Now, the waterway was sure to be different.  Slower, wider, busier.  I plunged my paddle blade into the water and swung my boat downstream.  Still well over a thousand miles remained on my journey to the gulf.  I had better get going I thought.  

St. Louis served well to resupply, repair and refresh me to continue on my way.  I had been warned up river that the river below St. Louis flowed much more slowly than above.  Navigating the Port of St. Louis took some concentration as barges and towboats chugged this way and that.  Barges were parked in their hundreds on both river banks and anchored in the middle of the river as well.  The wake from boat traffic and upstream wind gusts coupled with downstream water flow combined to make for an angry river.  Waves came from all directions intent on upending my kayak.  It took a couple of hours of constant paddle contact to clear this mess only to paddle into a severe storm.  Caught unawares I sheltered behind a half sunken barge as trees were felled by the wind and sheets of rain cascaded down.  By early evening the worst had passed and I paddled on to a marina whose docks had borne the brunt of the storm.  Walkways were thrown askew and ropes a tangled mess.  In spite of their own calamities the owners were more than happy for me to camp on their land.  

A couple of days below St. Louis sees the Ohio River enter from river left.  A mighty river in it’s own right, it adds to the already voluminous river I was paddling.  Alas, rather than grow faster the river merely becomes wider.  Old river towns slipped by.  New Madrid and Caruthersville, two notable stops for resupply and a wander around for photos and a general explore.  Once important stops on the river, now a viewing platform and a handful of loading docks for grain silos provide a tenuous link to the past.

It took almost a fortnight to travel the 500 miles from St. Louis to the major city of Memphis.  It had become clear that my dreams of hard fought 70 mile days may perhaps be over.  Once more, fortunate to have friends in these here parts I spent 3 days exploring the city and readying myself for the final stretch with food, boat cleaning and catching up on much needed sleep.  

As had become the norm, I left the relative comfort of an urban area into pelting rain and strong headwind.  But, all the same, in my kayak, with dry jacket and spray deck on I was shielded completely from the elements.  The nose of my kayak easily sliced through the offending chop.  

100 or so miles below Memphis I reached the town of Helena, Arkansas.  A small town typical of this section of river in that it was in an unfortunate decline.  No jobs, little industry and not much hope for the future.  I stopped here in order to meet up with a friend of a friend and somewhat of a legend on the Lower Mississippi, John Ruskey.  John runs the Quapaw Canoe Company and builds, by hand dugout canoes, as well as running programs for disadvantaged and at risk youth.  I spent an evening with John and some friends on nearby Buck Island as they readied themselves for the weekend’s coming Bear Dance Festival.

Below Helena, my campsites took on surreal proportions.  Camping alone, far from anyone (apart from passing barges) on enormous sand bars I swam, cooked by a fire and camped out under the stars every evening for weeks.  If I had nowhere to go I would wish it to have never ended.  I stopped into the towns of Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez all in the state of Mississippi.  In Natchez I was assured that now would be a good time to cease swimming each day in the river.  Upstream the previous week in Vicksburg they had pulled from the river 2 15 foot alligators.  Much less aggressive than crocodiles, I still had no desire to put them to the test.

With a little under 300 miles to the gulf, the river began it’s final transformation.  Flow often became non-existent, sand bars disappeared, replaced with thick scrub down to the waters edge and levee banks appeared.  Perhaps most difficult was the major increase in boat traffic.  As far up river as Baton Rouge, ocean going tankers ply their trade.  Natural gas, petrol, diesel, oil, grain and cement filled their enormous holds.  Hailing from China, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, Panama and other far flung places these ships lay anchored in huge numbers along the river.  At rest they presented formidable obstacles, under steam they were a nightmare.  Their speed was unreal and difficult to gauge.  Crossing the now sometimes mile wide river was fraught with danger.  Not only these giants lay in my path but many more barges and towboats along with speedy crew boats.  From every corner and every hundred metres a boat would play chicken with me, cut across my bow or speed from behind.  Throw in headwinds and sudden rain storms reducing visibility to less than 10 metres and this final run to the coast was no fun at all.

Outside New Orleans I came far too close to being machine gunned by a US Navy boat for straying too close (while trying to avoid a tanker bearing down on me).  After having paddled 3700 miles rather than wisely complying with the gunners instructions I let off a tirade of expletives as I paddled away.  The look of surprise on their crew’s faces was priceless.  Silly in hindsight but it felt pretty right at the time.  

A couple of miles past New Orleans city centre lies the inter-coastal canal.  From here to open water is 2 miles.  A route that some long-distance paddlers choose.  Unfortunately for them it is incorrect if they wish to claim a full descent of either the Missouri-Mississippi or Mississippi alone. On the river proper still lies some 90 miles or more of slow paddling.

The last town on river with access by road is Venice, Louisiana.  A mash-up of ports and marinas.  Here was to be my final stop before reaching open ocean.  I slept little the night before what I hoped would be my final day on river.  From Venice to mile marker 0 is 10 or so miles.  But this is not open ocean.  Here lies the Head of Passes.  It is at the mouth of the South Pass where the Gulf of Mexico lay.  A further 14 miles of paddling.  I needed to paddle some 20 odd miles to the gulf and if unlucky, 20 miles back upstream.  A prospect I did not relish.

At first light I paddled out of the marina and on to the river once more.  At Pilot Town (a scattering of buildings housing the pilots who guide the tankers from the gulf to the river) I had to cross from river right to left.  By now boat traffic had been added to by crab boats, fishing boats, transport boats and more.  Holy heck!  I spied an opening as a tanker appeared up river a good few miles off.  By the time I had paddled across the river I avoided the Goliath by less than 50 metres.  A close call.  Below the Head of Passes and into the South Pass and things quieted down.  Here and there a fishing boat on charter would appear and I even chatted with some Fish and Game officers inquiring as to my business down in the pass.  

In a few miles a lighthouse appeared in the distance.  Port Eads.  Flattened in Hurricane Katrina, it was just now in the process of being reconstructed.  A tiny port and a couple of buildings was all there was.  As I neared the lighthouse I thought I could see the flash of paddles.  Couldn’t be.  All the way down here?  It was.  Well then they must be local and decided to paddle out for a day or two down in the bayou.  Closer still I could see 2 kayaks their decks adorned like my own with spare paddles, deck bag etc.  I couldn’t believe it.  After 3780 miles and 117 days and 1 mile from the ocean I came across Brent and Hunter from South Carolina.  An hour earlier they had completed their own long distance journey from Lake Itasca to the gulf following the 2350 mile Mississippi River.  

We shook hands and smiled a lot.  They had secured a lift back upstream to Venice.  I wanted in on that ride!  I bid them goodbye with a request to wait and paddled like a madman towards open ocean.  Ever so slowly breakers came into view.  I paddled out of the pass and rode high over the waves.  To my left nothing but water and waves, to my right the same and in front the horizon.  I was there.

I had paddled 3780 miles in 117 days.  By beginning at the waterway’s utmost source, Brower’s Spring, I had become the first person to make a full source to sea descent of the longest river in North America.

Additionally I had become the first person to paddle from source to sea the longest rivers in North and South America respectively.

Mark Kalch

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén