ExWeb Interview: West Hansen, First Paddle Source-to-Sea on the Volga River, with Jeff Wueste

Posted: Jul 08, 2014 11:04 am EDT

 

(By Kyle Henning, updated Jul 11, 07:15 am EDT) After paddling two kayaks 3,428km (2,130 miles) down the Volga River over 59 days, American adventurers West Hansen and Jeff Wueste have returned to Texas. ExWeb caught up with Hansen to reflect on their adventure through Russia from the source of Europe’s longest river in Volgoverkhovye to its outlet in the Caspian Sea. [Ed note, update Jul 11, 07:15 am EDT: according to the team this was the First Source to Sea paddle on the Volga.]

 

 

ExWeb: Being an expedition in Russia, how was the visa process? Did the Russian government give any restrictions?

 

Hansen: We used a commercial visa service www.gotorussia.com, which was more expensive than working directly with the Russian consulate, but it was completely hassle free. Russian law requires tourists to check in with the government now and then, I suppose just to keep tabs on us. Guards with enormous hats at each of the dams we portaged strictly forbade us from taking pictures, even though very detailed pictures are available on Google Earth.

 

The delta of the Volga is highly guarded and regulated, due to this being an international border of Russia. Even with the required permit, several of the tributaries are off limits to all but military or commercial shipping traffic. We were threatened with arrest and having our kayaks confiscated if we ventured down the main shipping channel from Astrakhan to the Caspian. Usually, we’d ignore such threats since it was pretty easy to explain our goal and prove we were no threat, but this situation was repeated to us by several different local sources, with reports of Russian citizens who had been detained for merely being in restricted waterways.

 

How did you get your gear to the source? How was the upper Volga?

 

We were able to take our kayaks as checked baggage on Singapore Airlines. Egor Voskoboynikov and his monster van plucked us from the airport, fed us lunch in downtown Moscow, and then hauled us up to the headwaters with all our gear.

 

The river started with a small, frozen pool in a bog, then gets boggier for the next five miles until small hills contain it into a tiny stream leading into a frozen pond. We had to slide across the frozen ice in our kayaks, which was a new thing for us, as Texas only has ice in tea and margaritas! Once the stream became more pronounced, we encountered some very industrious beaver works that blocked the streambed every few feet, so we heaved our kayaks over and around huge logs for the remaining few miles to the first real reservoir.

 

You’ve both paddled the Amazon from source to sea. How does the Volga compare?

 

Compared to the Amazon where we paddled 500 miles of fairly uncharted white water and were held at gunpoint five times, then faced thirty-foot waves at the Atlantic, our threats were few and miniscule. I was still recovering from shoulder surgery when we started the expedition, so my shoulder was never really strong. We were pleasantly surprised at the beauty of each region. The Volga begins in dense birch and pine forests along steep, rolling hills. Once entering the lake regions, the hills flatten a bit, but the forests remain thick and quite lush.

 

In the larger towns we began seeing the remnants of wars and carcasses of factories long since abandoned. The cities all had the ubiquitous concrete block Soviet-era beehives masquerading as apartments, but were also filled with ancient onion domed churches, forts, and other buildings dating back centuries. Camping conditions ranged from Caribbean quality beaches, to pine forests, to gravel shores during the mid-section just before and after the city of Kazan.

 

Communication was perhaps the toughest aspect of this expedition. We both have families back home and we missed them all terribly. Using a locally purchased mobile phone, we talked to our wives, kids, and grandkids once a week, and to my sister, Barbara, daily so she could update the blog.

 

What about entering the Caspian Sea?

 

The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake. It was calm and nicely placid, which was a welcome event compared to our meeting with the Atlantic at the mouth of the Amazon. The Volga is a very distinct river branching out into fifty or so channels, each of which spill out into a very finite enclosed sea.

 

Once we learned of the restricted areas, we were forced to take another look at what constituted the “end” of the Volga River. If our goal were to take the longest route, then we wouldn’t have taken the shortest route around islands or cut offs around large bends, but our goal was to be the first people to paddle the Volga River from its source to the Caspian Sea, which we are happy to say we accomplished.

 

How did all this challenge your relationship with Jeff?

 

I’ve known Jeff Wueste since 1993, when we started racing on the same team in the 260-mile Texas Water Safari canoe race. We’ve learned each other’s faults, shortcomings, quirks, and strengths and do our best to keep our mouths shut when it won’t do any good to voice consternation.

 

The main thing that makes for a good partnership, far more than ability, is a shared sense of humor, flexibility, and resourcefulness. The lack of these things caused problems with some teammates on the Amazon and allowed others to excel.

 

Now that you are back home, are you planning anything next?

 

We’re both back home in Austin, Texas dealing with post-expedition emotions and trying to repair our finances. The Volga and Amazon expeditions taught me that there are people out there who will try to scoop you if you announce plans for a first descent or new record, so I’ve learned to just keep quiet about these things until the last minute. My shoulders have taken a beating and I need to get my atrophied legs back in shape, so I’m spending time running and biking.

 

Previous / Related from ExWeb:

 

West Hansen and Jeff Wueste Paddling the Volga River 

 

Kayaking Europe's Longest River (Mark Kalch) 

 

ExWeb Interview with Chris Hayward (19): First Ascent of Murray River 

 

Anne Quemere to Kayak 2500 nm of the Northwest Passage

 

West Hansen and Jeff Wueste Blog and Website: http://www.volgariverexpedition.org/

 

#oceans

#Volga #River #WestHansen #JeffWueste #SourceToSea #Russia #Sea #Kayak

West Hansen and Jeff Wueste on the Volga River
courtesy West Hansen , SOURCE
Church of Sailors on the Volga River
courtesy West Hansen, SOURCE
Volga River from a rooftop in Ulyanovsk
courtesy West Hansen, SOURCE
Jeff Wueste Paddling in Uglich
courtesy West Hansen, SOURCE
West Hansen getting directions in Ulyanovsk
courtesy West Hansen, SOURCE