My last post about our honeymoon in Kamchatka left off with John and I finishing a long grueling hike, plagued by little water, lots of sweat (we were wearing rain suits and carrying 35lb packs uphill for 28 miles), and millions of mosquitos, to find ourselves in a gorgeous alpine valley of soft moss, surrounded by some of the largest volcanoes in the world.
On our first full day in the valley, we found a place to pitch our tent and relaxed a bit. We explored our nearby surroundings – we found a nice swimming hole and a pretty sizeable waterfall, we read our books, and we planned out our next few days.
The following day, we headed east, toward the Tolbachnik volcano. We knew it was pretty far and that we were not going to scale the volcano, but we could see on our map that there was a pass within striking distance and we hoped to get there so we could see along the other side.
Early into our hike (about 3 miles), we came to a pretty large river. Luckily, it was running fairly low, so we were able to manage the several shin-deep mini-crossings to make it across the entire thing. Now, I should tell you that I am not a fan of river crossings. First off, it’s usually beneficial to take off your boots (because who wants to hike in wet boots all day if you can help it), which means that you’re likely going to stub your toe or scrape up your feet. Second, it’s cold – but I can get past that. Third, it’s a little bit scary (for me anyway). I just don’t like it. But, we took our usual approach to crossings with John going across first and then me following once he was on the other side. These multiple crossings were not my cup of tea, but we made it. We’d have to come back through at the end of the day, but I was confident that I could do it again.
Once on the other side, we stopped for a delicious snack while we dried our feet and warmed up. The rest of the hike was along what I would end up calling ‘up-downs’, which was a constant ‘field’ of mini hills, or land waves. We’d climb up a tiny steep hill, then descend down again immediately. Luckily, we just had day packs – otherwise this fairly easy day of walking could have been much more tiring and difficult.
We made it to the pass and climbed a snowy slope and then a tiny mountain/hill which allowed us a gorgeous (and windy) view over the other side. Before us was an amazing landscape of snowy rises – with no one or thing in sight. We took some pictures, ate a snack, and decided it was time to head back.
The map made a vague suggestion of hot springs nearby. Both John and I had seen some steam in the distance on the way out, so on our way back we plodded in the general direction, hoping to take a quick dip – if possible. Neither of us are huge fans of sloshing around in hot springs, but after a day of hiking it seemed like an ideal thing to indulge in. As we started to approach the river crossing, we saw the steam in the distance and continued to head a bit south toward it – only to discover as we got closer that the ‘steam’ was actually just dirt from dry parts of the river being blown into the air. Dreams crushed.
At this point, it was probably about 6:30 pm and we were back at our river crossing. We’d likely finish our hike around 7:15 and have an early dinner before settling down for some pre-bed reading. However, as we approached the river (this time about 3/4 of a mile south of where we had previously crossed), it became clear that things had changed.
As this river was a glacial river and the day had been quite sunny and warm, the water was now running much higher and much MUCH faster. Mostly much faster. Like… rapids. As I mentioned earlier, the crossing was probably about 200 meters across, but was a series of several mini-crossings, some larger and faster, some smaller and …still fast. To add insult to injury, the current was now also picking up small rocks and carrying them along with the rush of the water (and slamming them into our legs as we crossed).
None of the crossings were particularly easy for me, but at some point (about half way) it became clear that the crossings were getting larger (and that I was becoming less ambitious and optimistic). By walking side by side holding hands with John upstream to help block the power of the current – we made it to our very last real crossing. Phew! But wait! Ahead of us was the most formidable crossing so far. In some points, it looked knee to thigh deep, but there were a few steps of unknown depth and those were the scary ones. John decided to test it out by going first. Within 3-4 steps, it was clear that the height of the water/strength of the current was a bit more of a challenge with this crossing as I watched John work a bit harder to maintain his footing and uprightedness. One attempted step later, he headed back toward me and we decided that it would probably be best to try to cross this portion somewhere else (maybe less deep). We looked around and I proclaimed that we go back all the way and hike down to where we had crossed earlier in the day. John acquiesced.
When we made it back to the bank of the river (still on the wrong side), I was soaked up to my stomach in icy cold water. I had stumbled a few times in our original attempt and my reaction was to peel off all my soaking wet clothes in hope that the last bit of sun would help in the drying off and warming up department. In the end, this probably wasn’t the best idea – but at the moment it felt glorious to take off all that wet spandex. While I cowered on the moss trying to warm myself, John decided to hike 10 minutes south to see if the river opened up to a flood plain (more crossings, but less depth/slower water), allowing me some time for mental and physical recovery. I threw on a fleece jacket and shivered in the fetal position until he returned.
20 minutes later, John returned and announced that, unfortunately, the river didn’t open up further south and actually looked to be far worse crossing. So instead, we’d hike north where there would be less melt and hopefully easier crossing conditions.
At some point, John suggested we make our second attempt. My (somewhat delusional) mindset at this point was just to hike as high as possible before attempting to cross again. But, it was getting late and we really did need to try to cross before dark. The worst part of this for me was knowing I’d have to force myself through several moderately scary crossings before I would know if the last crossing was even doable. The worst part of this for John was probably dealing with me.
So I put my wet spandex back on (reinforcing that taking it off in the first place was a poor decision) and we went for it.
The added difficulty with the second crossing was that by this time, my feet had been in my cold boots for a couple hours and were so cold I couldn’t feel them – which made it harder to get solid footing. It’s hard to maintain your balance when you don’t have feedback from your feet! (Note: It turns out that this river is called the “Studenaya” river – which translates to “very cold river”). The mosquitos had also returned, so I donned my net and my hat – on top of the last few pieces of dry clothing I had.
My method was to avoid crossing, while John’s method was to calmly coach me across as much of the river as possible. We’d cross a portion, then evaluate the next option – which sometimes required walking up or down a sandbar looking for next best option. These little breaks allowed me to mentally regroup before John would suggest another crossing. Eventually, we made it most of the way across once again.
The last two crossings were the most challenging. In the second to last one, I stumbled a bit and fell in up to my chest, but as we were still crossing together, holding hands with John upstream, I recovered quickly. As we approached the last crossing, it looked much more manageable than the final crossing of our first attempt, however there were again a few steps where it was tough to tell how deep it would be. At this point, my feet were so numb and my boots so logged with water that I had a difficult time maneuvering them along the river bottom. I was basically just tromping along with my feet landing wherever.
I didn’t want to ever leave the sandbar we were on, but I also wanted to be done with this river (and I could tell John did too). So, as with all our previous crossings, we held hands and started to cross. Things went pretty smoothly until we got to those deep steps, which ended up putting me in about waist deep water. As I tried to pick up my foot to take a step, the current swept me up, my feet went out from under me, and I went completely under. Wearing my hat and my mosquito net, with water rushing hard into my face, I could hardly see and just tried not to let go of John’s hand while grasping for anything else that would prevent me from going downstream. Luckily, we were almost across at that point and John was able to secure his footing and pull me up. With that and a bit more scrambling – we had made it!!!
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy – totally drenched and frozen, my boots (and my mouth) full of grit from the river – as we reached the other side. I know I’ve made this pretty dramatic. The river certainly wasn’t an easy one to cross, though to be honest, without me, John could have probably crossed it a lot quicker and more easily. But, I’m smaller and have much less experience with crossing fast moving water. Plus – water can be really scary! It’s so powerful (and full of large rocks to smash your head on!).
While this was a miserable experience that I will never want to relive, I was so comforted by how patiently and calmly John helped me momentarily overcome my fear of the river. There were a handful of times while we were attempting to cross that I reminded myself that we could be relaxing on a beach somewhere! But as soon as I had made it across the river, John and I kissed each other in celebration! We had done it! Together!
I was so happy to that if I had to do this, that I did it with John, that he was so patient and understanding with me through such an emotional and difficult circumstance. Our Kamchatka honeymoon seemed really perfect – for what is more telling of the strength of a relationship than how it fares in difficult situations.
After a moment of celebration, we quickly got ready to continue on – as I was soaking wet, it was starting to get dark, and we still had 3+ miles or so before we’d be back at camp.
By the time we finally got back, it was about 10pm. We quickly changed into warm clothes and treated ourselves to what we expected was the best meal we had packed for the trip: Annie’s Mac and Cheese (family size)! We scarfed it down, quickly did the dishes (I was still so chilly that I actually promised John that if he did the dishes – while I got in bed – that I’d do them the next 4 meals), and were in bed by 11:15. Another adventurous day!
Once we got back from Kamchatka, I took some time to try to figure out what river we had crossed. (Mostly because I wanted to read anything to justify that this crossing was actually a bit tough and that I wasn’t just being a huge baby). As I mentioned earlier, it turned out that it was the Studenaya (‘very cold’) river. In fact, it was so cold that there were parts of my skin that remained slightly numb for several weeks after returning from our trip!.
This river is often crossed on the way to Tolbachnik from this direction – however, most people cross only in one direction and make sure to do it early in the morning, ‘before the river becomes rapid’ from the day’s melt. Guess we learned the hard way!