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Rafting north
May 1996

As always in these pages, you can click on a small inline picture in the text and get a larger full-color, postcard-sized image.

All the country of Russia always spends the last days of April preparing for May holidays. There are different ways to prepare, of course. May 1 is an official holiday and the city authorities order a big washing of Moscow to clean off all the dust and dirt that has accumulated on the facades over long winter months.

A worker polishes huge brass letters on the walls of Central Telegraph building, another one gives a shower to a wrinkled granite wall of a big store across the street. And the results are quite impressive.
Golden emblem of Moscow brightly lit by the morning sun shines on the house of Moscow City Council. And all Tverskaya street looks almost dressed up for the coming spring events and celebrations, May 1 and the Victory Day on May 9.

Many Russians are busy with their agricultural chores. Dacha owners do their best to take advantage of four days off. There are so many things to plant, to dig, to graft... Oh well, I am not very excited about dacha and its tasks, if you care, please check my last year story about it... Will not repeat it here again.

I do belong to the minority that is not completely happy on their patches of land growing vegetables or flowers and enjoying drinks in the shadow of fruit trees. I do prefer more open spaces and May for me sounds "camping season opening". This year a group of friends of mine invited me to join them in a slow rafting event.

That is why on the night of April 30 we left Moscow in the direction of St. Petersburg on a train packed with other people planning to spend the holidays out of the city. We did not go all the way to St. Petersburg. At the station of Bologoe, precisely in the middle of the road, 200 miles north-east from Moscow, we got off the train and spend the night in the local station hotel. In the morning we planned to get on a local train that would take us another 100 miles east.
Bologoe station platform was quite a view in the morning! It was raining, and crowds of campers were moving all their bulky gear under the cold drizzle. Quiet local trains were packed with backpacks and bags of all sorts containing variety of rafts, boats, kayaks, catamarans, canoes and whatever else would keep an adventurous person on a water surface (or at least not too deep below it).

Our goal was a village of Maksatikha on Volchina river. A few miles downstream Volchina would fall into Mologa, a larger river going straight north. Our plans were to go down Mologa for about 100 miles to the small town of Pestovo where we could take another train back to Moscow.

Normally, Mologa is a good choice for a slow family vacation trip in late summer. Then it would we a joyful stream winding among sunny sand beaches and small grassy islands, full of fish and comfortably shallow for small kids to safely play in it. The forests on the banks would offer you in August plenty of sweet berries and tasty mushrooms. In 1992, I spent there two nice weeks with the family and friends.

Now we had four days to complete the trip and had no plans for fishing or gathering berries. We planned another kind of rest. To look around at the nature waking up after the long winter, to chat about anything that comes to mind, and to get away from city rush for the first time in months. We also selected a new (for us) sort of raft. According to safety regulations, every sea ship or an airplane flying across the water must carry emergency rafts that would in case of accident automatically inflate themselves and help passengers stay afloat. These rafts come in different sizes and are made of heavy duty rubberized cloth. Still, they are surprisingly light weight.

We found an emergency raft that would normally give shelter to 10 passengers. There were 7 of us, but we had more supplies with us than poor accident victims would. And we were not planning of course to spend the time under the red roof waiting for a rescue team to save us. We collapsed the roof and made a comfortable nest on it. Of course the raft has never been designed for any fast paddling or white water rapids. But there were none on our river anyway. Perhaps you may call our journey a "floating island style rafting".

The river met all our expectations. It was high water after melting of winter snows, and there were no islands to navigate among. Just a wide, 300 feet from bank to bank, strip of water, rolling forward at just the right pace. And the beautiful scenery around. And birds loudly singing in the forests around. And beavers crossing the river and angrily flapping their tails at us, trespassers of their territory.
Four of us were lazily paddling, the other three were busy with taking naps, reading maps, playing a guitar or a mouth harmonica. Very relaxing after busy Moscow lifestyle. We managed even peel the potatoes and wash the dishes after lunch on the raft. Why waste time at the bank when this can be done on the way?

Of course there were things to be done on the bank only. A stop for making a hot lunch was a must. It's nice to run in the empty fields and meadows, to stretch legs after sitting for hours, to smell the wet soil and look for the first shy flowers.

And there were night camps of course. It's a special pleasure of any camping trip to carefully select a place for a camp so that it is both beautiful and comfortable. We are really choosy in this matter, and our camp site had to meet a few serious requirements.
First, the site must have a nice view in the evening. Second, it must be so located that morning sun will dry up the early dew and wake us up. Third, there must be a pile of snow in the vicinity (but not too close) to cool the vodka for dinner. It takes a few attempts of course to select the right place, but we are usually patient enough...

Morning in the camp brings of course not only sunshine but some work too. There are always things that get broken or torn and have to be fixed before moving on. The raft itself needs particular care, we depend on it. Not surprising that Sergey carefully fixes any small hole that appears in the bottom!

In an hour after breakfast we are again on the water and heading north... Oh, by the way, who are we? The right time to introduce the crew. We are a strange assortment of people. A well-known artist (I started this page on F&P with telling about some of Katya's works), a physicist, a president of a small tape and CD recording company, a Web server manager, a customs expert, a university student, and a high school girl dreaming to become a journalist. Ages from 16 to 42, but all seasoned campers, no matter what the age.

Occasionally we go past a village on the high banks. Villages here are rural and look almost like an illustration from a textbook. Very beautiful illustrations.
And of course there are sunsets. Unbelievable fantasy of shifting colors above and on the running water. Enchanting minutes when you may forget other tasks and duties and simply look at the light, listen to the low sounds of the river and the forest, to gurgle of a small creek nearby, to be happy and at peace with everything.

In the daytime, there is also the wind. This time something really strange has happened. Everyone who has an experience of rafting on the wide water knows that there are two and only two options. One: there is no wind at all. Two: there is a contrary wind. Period. All other winds dwell in the books. Such things as favorable wind do not occur in nature. Never.
This time it was a miracle. There was a level reasonably strong passing wind. We were waiting for it to stop fooling us, of course. It could've been nothing but a practical joke of the playful nature. But the wind did not stop. Finally we made a makeshift sail of a nylon blanket and stopped paddling. For the whole day, the wind was adding couple of miles per hour to our speed. More than enough on the wide water of spring flood...

Four days passed as a happy dream and there was time to board a noisy train again, to say good-bye to the woods in the green haze of fresh foliage, to return to pale faces in Moscow metro from sun-tanned smiles of fellow travelers.

Well, it's not the last time! See you soon some other place!

Andrey Sebrant -

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