Nobody's River: Paddling the Spine of Asia's Black Dragon

The satellite image taken shortly after the kayaks had been pulled off the Amur is shocking. The river’s belly is hideously swollen, like a python that’s just swallowed a goat. If the team had still been on the water when the deluge came, this feature could easily have been a multiple obituary. But it’s not. It’s the story of four women attempting to traverse one of most severe corners of the globe via an utterly untamed river. And it’s yarn with more twists and turns in it than the waterway they were trying to trace.

The plaintive yelp of a local man, terrified of what his bruised country was capable of, rang in Amber Valenti’s ears as she pushed off from a brutal concrete shoreline covered in broken glass in the midst of a bleak industrial city in Russia’s Far East.

“But, you have no security!” the man cried out, watching with apparent horror as the small group of women began nervously paddling away. He didn’t know what they had already endured, but he was right; they were completely on their own. Perhaps he had daughters of his own and was thinking of these young womens’ far distant parents.

“But, you have no security!” the man cried out, watching with apparent horror as the small group of women began nervously paddling away.

The Nobody’s River expedition was Amber’s idea — something that had smouldered at the back of her brain for years as she worked as a physician’s assistant and a wilderness medicine instructor. She hadn’t deliberately set out to make it an all-female affair, but it evolved that way and she ended up paddling the Amur River with three other women — two fellow Americans, Becca Dennis (a river guide) and Sabra Purdy (a river ecologist), and an Australian adventure photographer, Krystle Wright.

Known as the Black Dragon in China, and simply the Black River in Russia, the Amur is the planet’s eighth longest river. What made it alluring for Amber, though, is its status as the third longest wild river left on Earth. 

The river flows undammed and free all the way from a forgotten corner of Mongolia, across the immense belly of Siberia, then slides between China and Russia before spilling into the Sea of Okhotsk, almost 3,500 miles from its source. At the moment (at least in terms of volume and the direction of its flow) it is entirely unimpeded by humans. 

But the water quality, especially on the lower sections, tells a different tale, with the river heavily tainted by industrial waste from Russia and China, the two behemoths it briefly separates. During the expedition, Sabra would be conducting tests, setting time-lapse cameras and recording data about the health of the river.  

While a big black dragon to some, the Amur is little more than a tear beneath a fold in most people’s world maps, unnoticed and ignored by the majority of the planet’s population, a fact that has elements of both travesty and triumph in Amber’s mind. Its remoteness has enabled it to remain wild — but for how long?

Amber is deeply indignant at the damming of most of the planet’s major waterways and the distinct possibility that her children, let alone her grandchildren, may never get to see a truly wild river.

But it wasn’t just a passion for wild rivers that inspired Amber to paddle the Amur. The project was at least partly born from her desire to kayak to the edge of the map and then carry on. She planned to paddle directly into Grade V cultural encounters, to eat and drink with the people of the river — braving everything along the way, from industrial pollution and floodwater to the devastating effects of drinking too much homemade mare-milk vodka. 

The team navigate the lower section of the Onon river. Photo by Krystle Wright

By the time the expedition began, however, many of Amber’s best-laid plans had been torn to shreds.

Just weeks before the launch, in the Arizona Desert an awful long way from the Amur River, 28-year-old Zach Orman was caught in the swift embrace of a dust devil while attempting to land his paraglider, and thrown unexpectedly to the ground. He passed away a few short hours later, leaving behind a grief-stricken family and an utterly devastated long-time girlfriend. His girlfriend was Amur River expedition member Becca Dennis.

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Sabra Purdy helps put the Trak kayaks together. The dismantable system is the ideal setup for the team to travel with.
Photo by Krystle Wright

Becca was the team’s logistics coordinator and one of its most experienced paddlers. “She was the ideal expedition partner,” says Amber. “Besides being extremely confident and skilled, she exudes positivity even in the most trying circumstances. She is a shining light to everyone around her.” Shell-shocked and grief stricken, Becca remained determined to stay on the team and the women rallied around her in a supportive embrace. But a huge shadow had inevitably fallen over her life and a whole new level of complexity had been introduced to the journey ahead.

Other factors had also come into play that would influence the flow and direction of the expedition. It had proven impossible to get permission to paddle the section of the Amur that forms the sensitive border between China and Russia. The team could have pushed on without official paperwork, of course, so long as they were prepared to carry a casual $50,000 in cash to bribe their way through.

Reality and reason prevailed. The team would paddle as much river as possible, in folding TRAK kayaks — which collapse down into easily transportable bags — and follow the rest of the route of the Amur by any other means possible.

Horse packing across the marsh lands as the team travel to the headwaters of the Onon river.
Photo by Krystle Wright

A three-day horsepack journey through deep marshes and countless creeks brought the team to the headwaters of the mighty waterway, which begins life in Mongolia as the benign-looking Onon River, or ‘Mother Onon’ as the locals call it. 

These nomadic locals don’t encounter many foreigners — especially not all-female parties of paddlers determined to teach their hosts how to dance to techno music — and anecdotes about the womens’ visit would soon spread through the region, carried on the wind and the sparks from one fireside conversation to the next.

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The team packs up camp after spending the night with a local nomadic family. The local family is self-sufficient and makes extra income from selling homemade butter and vodka distilled from fermented milk.
Photo by Krystle Wright

Accompanied by a translator, the team spent two and half weeks paddling over 300 miles from the head of the river to the Russian border, travelling under the epic Mongolian sky, which knitted its brows and unleashed electrical storms that kept them on their toes. Bear prints lined the flower-fringed banks and the river snaked through virgin forest. 

At the Mongolia–Russia border the expedition went into an entirely new stage. Pulling off the river they were picked up by their shuttle and spent the night in a ger (Mongolian yurt) with a hospitable local family, who proved to be generous with their home-brewed milk vodka — a little too generous for Amber as it transpired.

But Amber’s mare-milk alcohol poisoning was the least of the team’s worries. Becca, deep in grief, had made the decision to leave the expedition, to return to her and Zach’s families in the States.

After saying their goodbyes to Becca, the remaining three members of the team wrestled an impossibly huge heap of luggage, paddles, kayaks, and supplies onto a train and travelled by rail to Khabarovsk, Russia — where some serious decisions had to be made.

Sabra, Purdy, and Amber Valenti paddle past the industrial waterfront of Khabarovsk. Photo by Krystle Wright

Khabarovsk, an administrative and industrial centre close to Russia’s border with China, is as far removed from a tourist destination as you’ll find on this planet. A handful of visitors that had been through here in recent years had left less-than-encouraging-sounding reports about travel through the place that the team found to be frustratingly accurate.

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Sabra, Becca, Amber (left to right) share a moment of introspection during a brief rest on the tundra.
Photo by Krystle Wright

Since they’d last seen it at the Mongolia–Russia border, the Amur had changed character and appearance dramatically. Having left behind bucolic scenes where the waterway meandered through epic meadows and vivid splashes of wildflower color punctuated the banks, in Khabarovsk they were greeted with a river that was a sprawling, braided, and polluted mess, up to nearly 3 miles across in places and dissected by dangerous shipping lanes.

Contemplating the putrid water at their feet, different opinions about how to proceed bubbled abruptly to the surface and began to pop. Krystal, the Australian wildcard of the group and the youngest member of the team (although well bloodied from previous forays into unpredictable and dangerous waters), had eyes only for the narrative arc.

She’d joined this expedition to document a source-to-sea expedition, and she wanted to live out that story. Sabra was more focussed on recording the health and ecology of the river than chasing an adventure ideal, and Amber, as the expedition leader, was tiptoeing along razor wire while balancing responsibility for the safety of the team in one hand and the integrity of a mission she’d spent years planning in the other. 

Becca and Amber paddle the Onon River in Mongolia. Photo by Krystle Wright

“The Amur is a very fine river,” enthused Anton Chekhov in 1890. “I have gained more from it than I could have expected.” The writer was travelling on a steamer along the river, en route to a Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, where he was to spend months interviewing convicts.

If he was seeking inspiration for future characters, he wouldn’t have been disappointed. A fellow traveller was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore chains around his legs. “His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters.”

But in juxtaposition to this human tragedy, Chekhov found majesty in his surrounds. “I am quite incapable of describing anything so beautiful as the shores of the Amur;” he writes. “I am at a complete loss before them, and recognise my bankruptcy. How is one to describe them?  Rocks, crags, forests, thousands of ducks, herons and all sorts of beaked gentry, and absolute wilderness. On the left the Russian shore, on the right the Chinese. I can look at Russia or China as I please. China is as deserted and wild as Russia.”

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Amber Valenti and Sabra Purdy set up camp at sunset on the Amur.
Photo by Krystle Wright

A lot has changed in the region since 1890, but untamed beauty and tragedy continue to define the Amur. The team discovered that once they broke free of the cityscape of Khabarovsk, nature quickly reasserted itself and they were looking at the same scenes that captivated Chekhov over a century earlier. 

Industrial cities seemed like malignant mirages when they reared up from the banks, which appeared remarkably unscarred by human hands for huge sections.

The Amur cuts through an epic and empty landscape, bearing the poisons of logging and mining interests. The women knew the water they were paddling on was foul with industrial effluent, yet it still ran wild—a powerful connecting force linking their memories of Mongolia with the beckoning ocean that lay ahead.

Camping near the cliffs of Digginjiggin as an electrical storm front approaches the camp. Photo by Krystle Wright

The expedition faced a perfect storm on the lower section of the river. With the departure of Becca the team had lost their most competent and strongest paddler. They had no translator, no security. Facing the tall, near-vertical banks that stand sentry on either side it was for long stretches impossible to get off the river. The flow was huge and storms hunted the small group down, descended on them with unprovoked fury.

Over 600 miles of river stood between the team and the sea, and time was against them. The summer monsoons were in full temper-tantrum mode and some seriously heavy weather was forecast, threatening major flooding.

Then one day, with a cannon-shot of thunder, the dragon awoke. 

To capsize now would mean a no-return swim. This was no longer like paddling a river. These were ocean conditions.

From millpond conditions waves started to build as the river stirred angrily from its slumber. Amber, trying desperately to keep her paddling companions in sight as her kayak climbed and dropped as the dragon flexed its muscles, knew exactly what the penalty for any mistake would be. To capsize now would mean a no-return swim. This was no longer like paddling a river. These were ocean conditions.

Tragedy had touched this expedition before it had even begun, and Amber didn’t want more to be heaped on top. 

At Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a cold and concrete town like so many others they’d seen in eastern Russia, Amber, Krystle and Sabra pulled their kayaks out of the water for the last time. They then caught various forms of transport to the Amur River Delta, where they finally got to see the beast they’d been riding for two months disgorge its contents into the Pacific.

They hadn’t paddled the final 300 miles, but they were alive. Shortly after they pulled off the water, a biblical-style deluge drowned the entire region. The Amur haemorrhaged its banks and become horrendously enlarged. In places it was over 30-miles wide, unstoppable and merciless in its rampage, sweeping away houses and cars and raining destruction all around.

The Black Dragon had awoken, and it was greatly displeased. Two giants had filled its body with filth, but when stirred a truly wild river is capable of flushing the poison from its veins.

“No one is in charge of this river,” says Amber. “No one tells the Amur what to do. It’s nobody’s river.”

Patrick Kinsella

Patrick Kinsella is a UK-based writer, photographer and editor who specializes in adventure and outdoor sports. A director of the media company Adventure Types he is also the editor of paddlemag.com and a senior contributor to Australian Geographic Outdoor. In between stints in the editor’s chair at various travel and outdoor magazines, he has worked for Lonely Planet as a writer and editor for over a decade. He’ll take on any assignment you throw at him so long as it involves boots, bikes, boats, or beer. 

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Krystle Wright

Krystle Wright is a pioneering photographer from Australia. When she’s not on expeditions to Antarctica, Baffin Island, or the remote reaches of Mongolia and Siberia, she is involved in an ongoing mission to accelerate the world’s awareness and visibility of extreme sports and adventure pursuits — and of the athletes involved in them — through the medium of photography. Her work has appeared in publications all over the world, from Outside magazine to National Geographic Adventure. 

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Sabra Purdy

Sabra Purdy
The River Expert
Sabra is a watershed restoration ecologist and rock-climbing guide service owner, and caterwauling folk singer. She devotes most of her time to standing around in rivers, harassing fish, and sweet talking invertebrates.

Becca Dennis

Becca Dennis
The Paddling Guru
Becca, a born paddler, is a woman of all trades: an expert skier, rock climber, and river guru who now calls the Grand Canyon watershed her home. Becca’s knowledge of the river and her impressive technical skills are a testament to her love for the outdoors and all things wild and free.

Amber Valenti — The Leader

Amber Valenti
The Leader
Amber is a physician’s assistant with a background in rescue and remote medicine. She has been guiding and celebrating wild rivers the world over for nearly a decade. A wild woman with an insatiable thirst for undiscovered places, she thrives on the dusty cracks of foreign cities and swirling currents of untamed rivers.