Rafting the “Ryka Bystraya”

✍️: Jan 📸: Erin & Jan

Вперёд! Стоп!
Левый табань! Правый вперёд!
Стоп! Вперёд!
Навались! Навались! Навались!

Erin and Jan rafting in Esso, Kamchatka, Russia

Our “captain” barked those words at us as we rafted the Bystraya (translation: quick) River down the middle of the Kamchatka peninsula. For most of the day, those are the only words we heard.

And, let me tell you, when the captain yelled “Вперёд Навались!” we pulled our oars hard as the current pushed us toward a huge, jagged volcanic rock jutting menacingly out of the frigid whitewater spray.

We only had to pull hard for a few seconds until the rock was behind us. Suddenly, we were cold and wet, but exhilarated and warming in the sun, and celebrating with a dozen or so people, most of whom spoke little to no English. We raised our oars high and yelled a word we neither understood nor really knew how to say. But we felt a camaraderie with those people. It felt a little like we might have all just saved each other’s lives … and it was fun!

A Kamchatka River Lunch

Most of the river, however, was a peaceful float. We meandered through deep, narrow valleys of mossy granite punctuated by wide, almost flat, landscapes covered in conifers that reached the rivers edge. After a few hours, as lunchtime approached, we came across another group of rafters, their big inflatable rubber skiffs moored along the western shore. A couple of men fished with a boy and a girl. A couple of other men tended a large pot over an open fire. It smelled delicious, and the scene was a bit idyllic.

Our captain had us pull the raft up to the shore. He and a few of the group on shore had a discussion that sounded quite angry. But suddenly they were all laughing, and the next thing you know, one of the fishermen pulled a string of trout from the river, tossed a half-dozen fish or so into a plastic bag, and handed them to our captain. This brief episode illustrated Kamchatka in a nutshell: a landscape that is by turns beautiful, menacing, and inviting — and utterly strange to us.

We pulled our boat back into the current and floated for about 15 minutes to another clearing along the river for lunch. There was a fire pit and a long table with benches covered by a shelter. As our captain set up his kitchen, he pulled a fishing rod and reel out of his kit and handed it over to two of the friendly Muscovites (Moscow dwellers) in our party. They promptly wandered off down the river to try their luck while the rest of us warmed and tried to dry ourselves by the fire.

After about 5 minutes, one of the Muscovites came running and hollering into camp clutching a trout that looked to be a little over 12 or 13 inches long. This got everyone fired up, and the next thing you know, we were all down at the shore taking turns casting a little spinner into the river. Altogether we pulled four trout out of the river, each one at least 12 inches. And they all went into the soup pot tended by our captain and now chef.

Fisherman Jan

As for me, well … I’m generally the kind of fisherman who comes home with nothing but the memory of a relaxing day on the water and a sunburn. I consider getting a nibble on the end of my line a good day. So when I got a nibble, and then set the hook, and then felt a good size fish pulling on the line, I got pretty excited. Me and my quarry, we battled for a few seconds. But he slipped off my line.

So I cast again. Sure enough, another nibble, another good set of the hook, and I got another trout on the line. This time, I pulled him within about a foot of the shore. But, like I said, I’m not known for my fishing prowess. Once again, he slipped me.

Undeterred, I tried again. And once again, it didn’t take long for a nibble, a set and a battle. This time, success! I just landed a … 4-inch trout.

This one went back in the river, not the lunch pot. So it goes. But I reckon that second trout I hooked, the one that I got a good look at right up next to the shore before he got away … I bet he was at least 14 or 15 inches long. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Kamchatka Fish Soup

A word about lunch. Our captain filled a large pot with river water. He chopped up a dozen onions, a dozen carrots and half a dozen tomatoes. One of the trout had a belly full of eggs which were extracted, salted and set aside. The trout were chopped into five or six pieces, each 2 to 3 inches thick, and added to the pot, heads, tails and all. He added salt and pepper for taste by the cupful. When it was just about ready, he threw in a healthy amount of fresh dill.

The soup was served with big hunks of bread that were fresh-baked and hot when we left Esso a few hours earlier. We’re not accustomed to having soup stare back up at us, so getting used to the floating fish heads took a minute. The Russians didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they seemed to really enjoy them. We left our fish heads uneaten, but I have to say, that was some of the best fish soup I’ve ever had.

The salted fish eggs were served with bread and butter: Kamchatka caviar, we’re told. I though it was delicious; Erin wasn’t as enthusiastic. So when I saw similar “caviar” in markets in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (or PK, as the capital of Kamchatka is known) and later in Vladivostok, she wouldn’t let me buy any.

  • Group rafting in Esso, Kamchatka, Russia
  • Warming up and drying out by the fire
  • Fisherman Jan
  • Kamchatka Fish Soup
  • Our captain and chef dishes bowls while Olya looks on
  • Good soup

Back to the water

As we ate, I realized I wouldn’t know the Russian word for “left” or “right” if quizzed by Olya, our wonderful host and trip organizer from highly recommended Grushanka Guest House. She came along to help with English translations, given the captain only spoke Russian. I wouldn’t be able to say “Левый” (roughly pronounced “leah-vuh”) or “Правый” (something like “pra-vuh”) even though I’d heard those words all morning.

I hadn’t been trying to translate Russian when the captain barked out his orders. Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking, just reacting. I heard a word — little more than a sound, really — and I put my paddle in the water and pulled hard, because that was what the sound meant. And now, as I ate around the fish head in my bowl, I marveled at the fact that there was no way I could repeat any of the Russian words that were so meaningful just an hour earlier.

After we ate our fill, and cleaned up the camp, we all climbed back in the raft. The captain yelled “Вперёд!” (which sounded to me like “peery-ot!”, but is probably closer to “vleery-od!”) and we all immediately and without thinking put our oars in the water and rowed, because we just heard that word that I couldn’t remember 15 seconds ago and it meant “forward!”

2 thoughts on “Rafting the “Ryka Bystraya”

  1. Linguist tip: If you have a device with a recording app with you, just repeat the words when you hear them into the recording app, as best as you can, and as soon as possible (not while rowing!). I did that with English in the early 90s in Kansas with a little mini-cassette recorder, and it helped me remember them/look them up later.

    Non-linguist: damn, that soup sounded delicious…

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