Dave Shively's outdoors column appears Sundays in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Contact him at 871-4253 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
When you really put yourself out there, the most memorable episodes seem to be those correlated with distance from your comfort zone - oftentimes meaning it's not what you bring, but what you don't have that makes the adventure. Language, proper equipment and easy access are great starters.
For me, one of those episodes was guiding a seemingly simple Class III-IV commercial raft trip.
Except that it was on Croatia's Zrmanja River, far removed from things such as liability waivers, safety speeches, repair kits and spare paddles. A mouth and set of lungs replaced the top-off pumps and a two-liter container of homemade plum brandy rakija replaced the first-aid kit. But the literal linguistic crash course of a trip still ranks as one of my all-time favorites.
When Steamboat's Eugene Buchanan assessed a paddling career that spans nearly 30 countries to write an anthology, the one that pushed him the furthest - onto one of Asia's most inaccessible and imposing rivers with the most primitive equipment - made for his best tale.
Buchanan's recently published "Brothers on the Bashkaus," (Available at Off the Beaten Path) chronicles his 26 days on the 212 Class IV-VI rapids on the Bashkaus, a tributary of the Ob River in western Siberia's Altai Mountains.
After securing the first whitewater-oriented expedition grant from W.L. Gore & Associates, Buchanan's four-man team entered the former Soviet Union in 1993 with the intention of running the Kalar River. But, arriving as some of the first Westerners to the USSR after its collapse, their local contact was nowhere to be found. Instead, they got "Team Konkas," a Latvian corps of ten paddlers set on the remote Bashkaus.
When their fate became tied to a group of total strangers, most of whom couldn't speak a lick of English, the Yankees' survival depended on learning the more-with-less communal creed of the Latvians.
Buchanan's crew didn't have to don the crude and original floatation suits of improvised Styrofoam, wine bladders and soccer balls, but had to run homemade catarafts, with frames made of trees felled at the put-in and tubes made of old germ-warfare suits.
As the crew learned to paddle together into the committing canyon and past memorials of previous boaters, they also had to swallow their individualistic pride and accept the collectivized Eastern Bloc work ethic of their jolly ax-wielding, cigarette-puffing counterparts, between brutal portages and the militant division of the Spartan food rations of pork fat into 14 equitable portions in camp.
The book's element of what global river pioneer Richard Bangs calls "a lost moment of cultural and environmental first contact" highlights the same truth I learned that day on the Zrmanja about the hard-earned dividends of team accomplishment far from home.
Or, as Buchanan puts the greater whole in relation to the sum of its parts after the first Class V rapid: "But that's the greater beauty of team paddling. It's a chess game with countless more outcomes and more profound achievements."