August 08, 2021

The Water is Fine: Water Sports in Russia


The Water is Fine: Water Sports in Russia
Is this Miami or Sochi? Impossible to say. (Actually, it isn't. It's Sochi.)  Igor Starkov, Unsplash

Russia is a land of winter sports. Ice hockey, figure skating, and even dogsledding are all activities that may come to mind when you think of the county and its unreasonable number of winter months. And there aren't many places with warm water. This situation created a recipe that was less than ideal for the development of water sports. But that hasn't stopped Russia. The country’s expansive network of lakes and rivers provides locations aplenty for adventure. Here’s a sampling of just some of the water sports that you can use to keep cool this summer. 

1. Whitewater Rafting

What we know as whitewater rafting is called “splav” in Russian.  It developed from the forestry industry, in which lumberjacks would regularly build rafts out of felled trees ("splav") and ride them down the river to their required destination. A modern whitewater raft is usually inflatable and made out of heavy rubber with lots of straps to protect its passengers, and modern Russian splav is no different. 

A back and white photo of a group of settlers riding a wooden raft down the Amur River.
A group of settlers rides an original wooden "splav" down the Amur. | Live History, creative commons

But actual rafting with anything more for proper equipment than a few logs wouldn’t be seen in the county until the late twentieth century. In an excellent interview with Rafting Magazine, Vladimir Petukhov details his experience in the late Soviet Era as an avid rafting enthusiast. He explains how materials were so limited that he had to make his first raft out of a tent and some medical rubber, which he then used to successfully navigate rivers in Kazakstan, Tajikistan, and the Altai

It’s no wonder this sport has a reputation for being so dangerous in Russia. If you Google search “Russian rafting” you will find nothing but an endless stream of extreme maneuvers and wipeout videos. So you can understand why my Russian host nearly panicked several years ago when I told her that I was planning on going rafting with a friend. Luckily for me, the trip wasn’t even half as dangerous as I was warned it might be. Rafting in Russia has changed a lot since the ’90s.

A rubber whitewater raft strapped to the top of a gray Soviet-style UAZ van.
Soviet UAZ-452 vans are the most popular mode of transportation for Russian whitewater rafts. | Alexandra Curtis

Of course, you can still go on extreme multi-day excursions where you tackle challenging waterfalls, but that was absolutely not our plan; splav has also become an extremely popular guided tourist activity in many regions, especially the Altai region where I happened to be at the time. So if you wanted a very simple ride, as we did, it was available. It was so simple there were actually a few children paddling alongside us on the raft! However, in more challenging groups things can get crazy really fast, as people will actually request that the guide intentionally flip the raft over, in order the heighten the thrill of their excursion and get a good video to post on social media. 

2. Stand-Up Paddleboarding 

A couple paddleboarders float by shaman's rock in the sunset.
If you look closely, you can see that one of the paddleboarders is doing a headstand! | Alexandra Curtis

Lake Baikal is huge; so big, in fact, that many of the people who live near it just call it "the sea" to better describe it. But that doesn’t mean it’s the type of place you would expect to see people surfing. And I haven’t, but stand-up paddleboarding is close enough.

I was very lucky to have come into the acquaintance of Viktor and his group at the “Just Make Yourself Happy” stand-up paddle-surfing camp on Olkhon Island at Lake Baikal. Their operation is just one of the more unique examples of the activity’s growing popularity in Russia.

During my paddling trip, Viktor provided instruction for the whole group on how to paddle correctly and then guided us around the cove of the island to see the sunset. Once we got far enough out into the lake, we took the glass mugs that Viktor had brought for us to drink a toast from the fresh lake water. It was an incredible way to experience the lake. Best of all, this project is run on donations only, so all trips are absolutely free to those who wish to try it. 

Of course, you don’t have to travel all the way out to Lake Baikal to get a taste for paddleboarding. Every year St. Petersburg has an international Paddle Boarding Festival. Since 2016, people from all over the world have gathered in the canals to paddle in a loop around the city's beautiful buildings and statues. Preceding and following the athletics, there are lots of celebrations and awards, which proves that none of these events on this list are about the activity alone, but about the social bonding that comes with them. 

3. Surfing

A person in a wetsuit sits on a surfboard and watches their friend surf in the sun.
Surfing in Kamchatka requires very specific gear. | Alex Glebov via Unsplash

Because stand-up paddleboard surfing is not really surfing, it would feel amiss not to mention that people really do go surfing in Russia. Of course, Russia doesn’t surf like Hawaii does, with warm beaches and sandy swim trunks, but they do have ocean access and people who use it to hang ten. 

Surfing entered the Russian awareness after the fall of the Soviet Union when a group of Russian snowboarders went abroad and discovered the sport. They brought boards and wetsuits back with them to the motherland and attempted to set up camp in several places during the '90s, but with very little luck. They only really began to find good surf once they settled down in Kamchatka, where the best waves can be found. By the mid-2000s the surf scene in the far east really began to catch a wave. 

This is one sport that I will admit that I have no personal experience doing, but there are a lot of cool documentaries out there that describe others' experiences and challenges in this activity. For instance, this beautiful documentary by Konstantin Kokorev about a group of surfers in the Murmansk region. 

 

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