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Going downstream on the River Southern Buh
Going down a river that has rapids in a boat is a risky thing to undertake but there is always a number of daring people who want to do it just for the fun of it. Some are attracted by the challenge, others just want to “get away from it all,” and the rest are motivated by the romantic feeling of adventure.
Earth, water, fire and air — these are the elements that you find yourself braving when you are face to face with the river that carries you downstream. We did not go to the Carpathians or the Crimea as so many people do. There are a lot of other places in Ukraine which are attractive to tourists. We chose the River Southern Buh.
It was not the first time we went there. The word buh comes from the Slavic word boh, or god. The Slavic people who lived in the vicinity of this river thousands of years ago found it to be so special that they called it a god.
The first written mention of the river dates to the 5th century BC — the ancient Greek historian Herodotus calls it Hipanis. The Buh is one of the longest rivers in Ukraine. Its source is in Khmelnytsky Oblast; the river crosses a considerable part of Ukraine in the general direction from north to south and empties in the Black Sea.
We, a group of boating enthusiasts, gathered in the early fall to sail down the Buh in two catamarans that can carry four people each. Earlier this year, in the spring, we travelled down the turbulent Cheremosh River in the Carpathians. We had a good training then. The Buh expedition would be perhaps even more challenging but we were prepared for it well both psychologically and physically. Besides, we had had additional training on the Dnipro River.
To get to the point on the Buh from which we want to start, we travel in a minibus through the lands of Vinnychyna, then Mykolayivshchyna and arrive in the vicinity of the town of Vinnytsya. The weather favours us — it is warm and cloudless.
We load food, helmets, oars, life jackets and rope, get on board and set sail.
Not too far down the river we encounter the first obstacle on our way — a dam. In fact, it’s not much of an obstacle for us — we had encountered many of them before. We row to the bank, land, pull the catamarans out of the water and carry them along the bank until we get on the other side of the dam. Minutes later we are sailing on.
One of the catamarans suddenly slows down and with a scraping noise stops completely. At first we think it is a shallow place but the oars do not reach the bottom. It turns out we got stuck on a rock. There are many such treacherous underwater rocks in the Buh. They sit in the water, their tops slightly below the surface so you can’t see them. It takes but a couple of minutes to free the catamaran and get it afloat again.
The river gradually widens; many little “islets” of reeds appear along the banks. The scenery improves and gets prettier. The water is placid; water lilies are seen here and there. Everybody keeps silent; we do not want to break such serenity with our voices. Small birds fly low above the water, then drop in, hunting for fish — a moment or two later they take off again.
The river again gets narrower, makes a turn and we hear the distant rumble of falling water. There must be some rapids ahead of us. We know that altogether there will be around 30 of such places on our way down the river.
The Southern Buh flows through an area which was the bottom of the sea about 60 million years ago. At some stretches the river flows through canyon-like places with vertical cliffs rising high on both sides. There are a lot of rocks in the water; there are many islands; the water is swarming with fish.
High cliffs on both sides; jumble of rocks; a steep descent in the riverbed — we are approaching the rapids. We assess the difficulties of getting through the rapids, the distance we’ll have to go to get through. Now we are ready to move into the rapids. At one point — surprise, surprise! — it gets so shallow we have to get off the catamarans and wade, waist deep, pushing and pulling them. Though the water is fast, the going is slow — there is a lot of weeds and stones underfoot. At last we are through.
Later in the day we get through several more rapids, all without problems. When the sunlight dies, we stop, pitch tents, build a fire and cook dinner. Everybody is very hungry. After a good meal, we fall asleep almost immediately.
The next morning the weather is as good as it was the day before. The mood is buoyant, we are ready for adventures. If the rapids are too fast, we carry the catamarans around them. Once in a while we stop rowing to get a good look around and enjoy the scenery — naked rocks and dense forests. Occasionally, we see people who come to fish — they say fresh-water catfish of considerable size can be caught there.
At some places, the rapids stretch for a distance of a kilometer or more. An exceptionally beautiful place is in the vicinity of the villages of Sokilets and Pechera. An island sits in the middle of the river; on the right side of it, huge rocks stick out of the water with the water poring through them with a deafening noise; on the left side of the island there runs a canal built in the nineteenth century. There used to be a water mill there; now the water turns the turbines of a hydroelectric power station. On the banks, you can find the tombs of members of the Potocki family who once owned the village of Pechera; an old park and a wooden church sitting close to the edge of the high craggy bank. Contests and boat races of various kinds are held in the canal, and the rocks serve as a training place for mountain climbers.
The next morning is as good as the previous one. The fish we caught the previous night makes an excellent breakfast. After sailing for some time we stop to help set a large cormorant free. One of his legs got caught in a triple hook left behind by an angler. The line attached to the hook got wound up around a rock. The bird seems to understand we want to help him and lets us work on his leg. It takes some time, several instruments and the strength of two of us to free the bird. Free at last!
At our next stop we discover many shards in the clay of a steep bank. The shards look very ancient and we speculate as to who could have left behind these potsherds, and what kind of people they were, and what kind of pottery they used, and how long ago they lived, and what happened with them.
The rapids near the village of Hranitny prove to be too difficult to get through and we walk around them, carrying our catamarans. The woods there are dense; we discover ruins of an old mill and visualize “towns lost in the jungles.” Part of the way we have to walk over the granite outcrop which got hot during the day. We see several grass snakes that lazily crawl away; out of the crevices stick pieces of skin that snakes shed.
The next leg of the journey we cover in the bus. When we get onto the river again, the scenery is different. And the weather is different; it’s mostly steppe now. There is a big natural preserve (official name: Hranitne-stepove Pobuzhzhya — Granite-Steppe Land near the Buh) in the vicinity of the place where we resume our trip down the river. The next forty kilometers promise a lot of rapids. We start at dawn. Gradually, the light chases away the darkness and what seemed to be sleeping gigantic monsters turn out to be chimerical rocks.
That land is rich in history. Thousands of years ago, people of the ancient Tripillya culture had their settlements there; then came Cymmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and ancient Slavs — hundreds of archeological sites are silent reminders of their presence. The Zaporizhzhya Sich Cossacks made that stretch of the Buh River a historic place. The centre of the Cossacks’ division stationed there was the island of Hard. Archeologists keep working and finding Cossack artifacts.
We spend some time at the place called Myhiya getting ready for crossing the rapids. We know it will be a serious test for us. One of the most difficult ones will be the rapids nicknamed Integral. There is an S-shaped run with a huge rock meeting you halfway that sits right in the middle of the stream. You have to watch it very carefully. In spite of all precautions, we do get squeezed against it and then one of the catamarans almost gets flipped over. It is a tense moment but we finally get through. That place is also known as The Black Gate. Extreme sports contests are held there.
The next two days pass quietly, with no tough spots to get through. We enjoy the scenery, fish, cook fish soup, drink beer and take swims. One of the evenings we devote to ‘the sauna bath, our style.” We find a big rock, bring it close to the bank, fix it in such a way that fire can be built under it; keep stocking the fire and getting the rock red-hot; build a frame with branches; put a large sheet of thin semi-transparent plastic material over it; when we judge the rock is hot enough, we put some earth over it and move the frame so that it sits right above the rock. If you climb under the plastic, it is so hot you start sweating within seconds. The river being a few paces away, you don’t have to run too far to get into the cold, clean water to bathe. And then back again into the makeshift dry heat bath.
We slept so well that night.
During the next day we must reach the island of Hard, the most interesting stop on our journey. Just as we pass the town of Pivdennoukrayinsk, a whole series of rapids begins, each more difficult to get through than the previous one. A lot depends on coordinated and synchronous teamwork. Though we have been there before, we get out to have a good look at what we are letting ourselves in for. We get through a section of the rapids with flying colours and no mishaps.
But the next stretch of the rapids seems to be much more difficult to get through. We stop at the island, climb out and walk around, looking at the rapids, and pondering a dilemma: should we try to get through, or should we get the catamarans out of the water and walk around the rapids? An hour passes but we are still looking, checking, assessing a possibility of strong underwater currents playing havoc with our vessels. There is one particularly dangerous place called “the barrel” at the end of one of the rapids — if your vessel gets caught athwart the stream there, nothing will save it from being flipped over. At last we decide that we shall choose the four best among ourselves to try their luck with the rest remaining on the bank with the rope cameras at the ready.
I’m among those four who will take on the challenge. The roar of the water is deafening and I can’t hear the pounding of blood in my ears. The excitement gets the adrenalin going. At first, we are doing fine; we are moving faster and faster, we push away from one rock to evade hitting another. We are all set for going through “the barrel.” And at that moment a hidden current picks us up and throws to the side. The catamaran is hurled out of the water, it stands vertically for a second and then falls back, luckily without flipping over. But I am alone in the catamaran — three of my friends are in the water. Without help they cannot get back into the catamaran, but I’m helpless myself — any wrong movement and the catamaran will be turned over.
Our friends on the bank help those three in the water to safety. Then it is my turn — they throw one end of the rope to me. It seems a simple enough thing to do — not so under the conditions of the rapids. The catamaran does not stand still for a second. In fact, on that rope my survival may depend. At last I manage to grab the end thrown to me, and hold on tight to it. The rest of our team slowly pull me back to the bank.
We take an inventory of the damage: several bruises; a couple of helmets and a couple of sandals lost. Not much of a damage really, particularly in view of what might have actually happened.
We spend our last evening on the river talking about things philosophical — the sense of life, its value. It’s a very heated discussion, our emotions overflowing. We have learned from our life-and-death experience something that can hardly be put in words. O, life is beautiful!
God of the river, we shall come back!
By Serhiy and Svitlana Pidmohylny
Photos are from the author’s archives