• DOWNRIVER UNDYULYUNG

    By
    Zakir Umarov
    Photographs by Zakir Umarov. Translation by Joanna Dobson

    Dreams of Yakutia

    Yakutia is a land of fishing legends. Grayling, mackerel, huge pike and giant Siberian trout all came alive in the tales of those lucky enough to have been there. And afterwards they come to life in my imagination.

    It so happened that my brother Zafar ended up at the very centre of Yakutia when he was still a student. His group were doing their geological field work experience in the region of the Verkhoyansky pass. I did not see him until September. When we met I asked him how he had found Yakutia. His reply was simple, brief and clear: “A day or two more and I would have stayed for good!”

    Later my brother would nostalgically recall the severe conditions of the distant region; the small hare that fearlessly “greeted” them each morning as they crawled out of their tents; the huge grayling that pushed and shoved each other like piglets for the remains of the expedition rations floating in the stream … In short, all these years we fantasized about Yakutia.

    Undyulyung River. Rafting

    We were made to dream for a long time. A whole ten years in fact. But then fate took pity on us and gave royally. A marvellous opportunity arose to depart with friends for the legendary Undyulyung River. Many Russian fishermen dream at night of the right tribute of the River Lena, generous in beauty and rich in Siberian salmon.

    Our mood was totally euphoric as far as Yakutsk itself, but there it ended. On the day after landing we received unpleasant news. We were informed of heavy rains in the upper reaches of the river and due to the high water levels our fishing trip might have to be cancelled. They even offered us a refund.

    Surely nothing so trivial could get in the way of a true Siberian?! Naturally, we immediately asked to be dropped off at the first rafting point. At that point we still had no idea of what awaited us…

    Mosquitoes, mosquitoes... 

    Our helicopter was soon flying up over the endless taiga. On the horizon we could see the might Lena rolling her turbid waters towards the Arctic Ocean. The size and width of the river radiates such power that by comparison our native Ob seems a mere stream.

    We photograph enthusiastically through the windows and at the same time celebrate the onset of our journey. We try to treat the pilots to a drop but they decline (with evident regret). Towards evening the helicopter landed at the base camp where the boats and seriously wild-looking “natives” of the San Sanych and Kirill tourist agents had long been expecting us.

    Zafar who had been passionate about fishing since childhood hurried straight for the river removing the cover of his spinning rod and pulling on light waders as he went. I carefully unpacked my fly fishing gear, donned the appropriate equipment and set off to find an efficient spot.

    The first casts on the backdrop of a stunning sunset, the tentative bites of a small grayling…and suddenly cries of delight from our camp site. The cries came from an exultant Andrei Kuznetsov carrying two huge pike caught in the pools of the river arm. Some of the other fishermen in our company rushed to occupy the spot and by the time a strangely bright evening twilight had descended all around a wonderful pike supper had already been secured. If the truth be told, at our pike feast we so filled our stomachs that pike would never again be included in the “Yakutsk Traveller” menu…

    The weird evening “twilight” turned out to be the white nights that differed from the daytime only in the unusual silence that hung in the air. Even the mosquitoes seemed to have disappeared although to be fair there were hardly any mosquitoes there at all. That is Yakutia for you!

    And when they did occasionally fly in it did not really bother us. And the life and soul of our company Vladislav Shvets sang at the campfire: “Mosquitoes, mosquitoes, drink my blood! But what, what for, if love is no more?!”

    The impertinent whopper of a pike  

    The morning was quiet and sunny. Our perfect examples of real men who had climbed to the very edge of the world (there was not a soul for 300 km) sat around the campfire on the riverbank admiring the waters and eating rice porridge with sultanas (!) washed down with hot coffee.

    An appealing picture? As it happens, that what it was really like…

    After breakfast we set on our way. The next few hours of rafting along deep stretches of river were accompanied by the shouts of contented anglers. Almost everyone had managed to catch a pike. Maksim Yakubenko particularly shone, at last pulling out his first sizeable fish. The imposing pike weighed about eleven kilo.  Everyone was delighted for him as yet in the company of his “fish-rich” friends Maksim became more downhearted by the hour…

    We all rushed from one part of the bank to another as areas of pike habitat, deep pools with back flows and eddies, bays with standing water, and grassy clumps etc., are easily recognizable in the rivers of Yakutia. The pike were just waiting to be caught! We tried every kind of bait you can imagine and the pike took it all. Zafar simply wheeled in the next pike to the boat and shook his spinning rod until the fish let go of the bait not without an affectionate: “Go on, let go..”

    Pike. Fishing

    But I suffered a loss. I was suddenly relieved of my yellow, rabbit streamer fly. It all happened quite unexpectedly: hardly had the streamer touched the water than it was gobbled up by a magnificent pike right in front of my very eyes. I let out the groan of a wounded buffalo but it was too late. The impertinent whopper of a pike was already hiding majestically in the waters amongst the grassy beds.

    It was already dusk by the time we reached the spot where our guide Vitaly assured us there would be plenty of lenok. Whilst we were drinking cups of warming tea two of our company went to test the river with artificial mouse and plunker lures. The first bites and once again, a pike, although according to the professions of our experienced guide this was not the ideal place for pike. And in truth, what would a pike be doing in the rapid, deep riffle-pool? There could only be one answer. The water level which was visibly rising had altered the distribution of fish across their usual habitat areas.

    Nonetheless we continued to be blessed with a fisherman’s luck. In the end, our perseverance was rewarded with three large Yakutian lenoks, phenomenally beautiful in their spotted attire. And again I saw my childhood dream – a real lenok! How many times had I dreamed about the lenok as a boy thumbing bare the pages of the “Anglers Sportsmen” (you may recall there was such a journal in the Soviet period?)! Hardly could I have known then that some day in the future I would be unable to imagine life without these distant rivers and streams.

    Bait for…a bear 

    The next morning we rafted further down the river and as if sensing that she was nearing the mighty Lena she gathered ever more power, turning us this way and that in her greenish currents. It began to drizzle.

    One of the morning’s main discoveries was that the water level had crept up even higher: what yesterday had been a small pool was now a turbulent current of water, albeit for now, relatively clear and so there were still fish. The pike were biting well along with descent sized cisco and lenok. To my brother’s ironic prompts I continued to work hard with a spey rod designed for catching large-sized salmon. I could have cast till I was blue in the face; the salmon weren’t biting!

    Then something incredible happened! When Zafar once again raised his “Rapalovsky” red-headed wobbler, an alligator of a pike leapt up from the depths of the river. It was so huge that my brother and I almost capsized the boat in terror! This incidentally, is all that saved the wobbler. By the time the Yakutian monster clamped its jaws shut it was left with nothing, and we were already pulling hard at the oars headed in the opposite direction.

    Leaving Zafar at one of the shingle spits (our guides had showed us a hole that the summer before someone had pulled out Siberian salmon of about 30 kilo) the other anglers and I set off further up the river and after some time tied up at a shrubby island where we decided to set up camp.

    Whilst the campfire was being lit, two of our comrades stalked the many gullies with a rifle trying to shoot a duck for lunch.  From time to time we heard a shot and our imaginations painted various enticing culinary delights. Alas, the hunters shattered all our illusions by shamefully missing their target.

    Having learned from our guides that large Siberian salmon were abundant in the vicinity of the island we all rushed over to whip the river, but the whole "trouble" was that only lenoks and the odd pike were taking the bait. The salmon were no doubt full up. It is a well-known fact that a well-fed salmon can go two or three days without going out to hunt and the chances of catching one when it next had a fit of the munchies were not very high!

    When we returned to where Zafar was waiting for us, evening was setting in. He was overjoyed to see us and could not wait to tell us how once he had become tired of luring trout with all kinds of different bait he had decided to lie down and take a nap. No sooner had he settled down than he heard strange sounds behind him as if someone was treading on twigs. Indeed we had come across fresh taliped tracks along the banks of the Undyulyung River. Zafar had instantly visualised the tantalising picture: “Bear Swipes Fisherman”. In short, he had never been so happy to see a fellow human being.

    ***

    Meanwhile, on the island the desire for Siberian salmon continued to burn. Andrei Osokin took out his “secret weapon”. The artificial black rat designed as bait was so impressively realistic and intimidating that the river giant would surely have not choice but to bite.  But we were mistaken. Except for sizeable pike no-one was tempted by the rat. Matters were no better for any of the other fans of evening fishing.

    Eventually luck smiled upon Andrei Kuznetsov. A fabulous salmon eventually ‘sat’ on his “wobbbler”. We flustered around him offering tips but the lucky angler methodically carried out his task. That’s it! A trout has landed on the shore! We’ve got it! A short-lived triumph, a photo-session, and not without some regret, the large fish is set free again. It could at least have waved its tail in parting!

    After the intense elation, our interest in fishing waned and my friends were drawn under the canopy closer to their hot supper.  Someone happened to mention that it would not be a bad idea to throw together a quick dish made of lenok to which I boldly announced that I could catch one straight to the table, right in front of the honoured audience. No-one believed me.

    Taking hold of my favourite “Sage” class 3 and attaching a mouse made of deer fur I began fishing for a lenok at a distance, two metres from the shore. The true angler will know what this means. The first cast, line, catch! The desperately resisting lenok flew out of the water to the sound of applause. It was effective of course, but nothing special really. One simply has to remember that as night sets in the lenok approaches the shallows right along the bank. 

    As it later turned out this was to be the last easy night of our trip and yet dozy and tired I slept unawares. It was a long time before I could bring myself to forgive my brother for failing to wake me when he decided to go flyfishing in the moonlight.

    The river that had been crystal clear turned muddy and the water crept in nearer and nearer…

    A Day of Increased Humidity 

    We were woken in the morning by the river that had flooded the tent. When I jumped outside I hardly recognised the bank. Just the evening before the water had seemed at quite a distance from us whereas now it squelched underfoot. It was a great start to the day: a light drizzle, wet sleeping bags and turbid water…

    Naturally the thought occurred to us that we wouldn’t catch much in a muddy river. The fish would not respond to the bait because they would not be able to see it, except in the rare case of a pike perhaps? But it was no time to be thinking of fishing. Vitaly, our guide, was running along the bank gathering things into the boat looking extremely worried. We quickly prepared to leave. 

    Thus began the most challenging day of our journey in Yakutia. We tied all the boats together and given that no-one was concerned with fishing any more we gave ourselves to the will of the current. Around us raced tree stumps, dead wood, and all sorts of other rubbish the raging river had washed from the islands and shoals. The much needed rain continued to fall but we did not allow ourselves to become crestfallen. We drank as a purely preventative measure and arranged an impromptu feast across the chain of boats.

    We were soon overtaken by a motorboat carrying two anglers from Moscow and their accompanying guide. They were rushing to reach the shingle pit where an An-2 was arranged to meet them in the evening. Our guides were headed there too.

    Yet towards evening the landing area flooded and the aircraft returned empty. Our guides became seriously agitated. This they had not anticipated. (Later one of them confessed that through all the years they had been working here they had never witnessed such a huge flood). Pacing around our small island, that during the day had still resembled an ordinary river bank, Vitaly held constant negotiations over a satellite phone.

    We decided not to wait on the mercy of nature and lit a large campfire which had to be periodically edged away from the incoming water. In the end all that remained of the island was just a patch of charred soil a few square metres in size. 

    The twelve-year-old son of one of the employees of Vadik tourist agency who was travelling with us gazed at the flooded area that surrounded us and philosophically pronounced: “That’s it. We are all going to drown”. His calm words emanated such optimism mixed with cool presence of mind that we all, albeit a little nervously, burst into laughter.  

    We spent the night marking the level of the foaming water fighting the desire to call the emergency services. Someone slept on the charred logs whilst one of the others was lucky enough to huddle up in the boats, but no-one complained.

    The following day we learned that the Muscovites had travelled further down river and unable to find a single patch of land had moored up against the nearest available tree. There they sat the whole night cursing the day their guide was born, as if he was god of the Yakut river itself and had doomed them to suffer the whole ordeal.

    I could picture the scene: a boat moored to a tree, swearing Muscovite clients and our young friend Vadik, gazing over and whispering in their ears: “That’s it, we are all going to drown”…

    After the flood

    Undyulyung River. Helicopter

    Yakutia had vented its harsh temper upon us but towards morning met us with compassion. The clouds parted to reveal a patch of blue sky. It is human nature that when caught in the rain and sludge, you suddenly spot a patch of ethereal azure, the soul is instantly filled with hope and joy!  

    It was not a bad start to the day. The rain had ceased and the water level had fallen considerably. Closer to lunchtime the chakk-chack of the helicopter sent to collect us could be heard. Having indicated its direction overhead the helicopter flew several kilometres downstream, and landed, waiting to be loaded. 

    The weather had indeed settled! The sun came out and the desire to live, to fish, to be carefree returned. Flying home I asked myself why I was so fond of these Yakut place names: Undyulyung, Terekhtyakh, Alazeya…

    Perhaps I had been a northern hunter in a previous life?

    Translator JOANNA DOBSON