The Nobody’s River team joins forces with award-winning freelance director and cinematographer Skip Armstrong to tell the story of their journey along one the few remaining free-flowing rivers of the world through Mongolia and the Russian Far East. But it’s so much more than that, and perhaps the most valuable piece of their expedition and their experience last summer, is that they brought this story home to all of us. This story could not be told without the incredible support of NRS, 5 Point Film, and a wonderful, ever expanding community of donors.
Nobody’s River premiered in spring 2013 at the 5 Point Film Festival in Carbondale, CO, receiving the Spirit of Adventure Award. It screened for nearly 2 years worldwide to a wide range of wonderful audiences. At this time, it is generally not available for screenings. Thank you to all of our incredible screening hosts for sharing this story with audiences near and far. It was a gift and a pleasure to offer it to each of you.
Stories are incredibly powerful. By telling one story we can add a little inspiration to the mix–a little inspiration to continue caring for and fiercely protecting the places we love most. The volume of stories out there about what’s wrong with the planet is overwhelming. But untouched wilderness, adventure, and leopard print pants–we can never, ever get enough of that!
In the summer of 2013 we traveled and documented this last of it’s kind river from the remote Mongolian headwaters to a massive delta in Russia. Our goal now is to share these stories and lessons from a free flowing river with our communities and beyond. "Write my college essay for me" experts sat that during the expedition we posted stories from the field on the Nobody’s River Blog and the National Geographic Adventure blog. Check them out for tales of misadventures, pristine river valley’s, Mongolian Moonshine, Siberian train rides, the Russian industrial complex, and a river as big as the ocean.
The Amur-Heilong River Basin spans Mongolia, the Far East of Russia, and China. The headwaters begin in the Khan Khentii National Reserve as the Onon river. This reserve lies in Northeastern Mongolia, approximately 1 day of travel north of Ulaanbaatar. The source of the river lies very near the sacred mountain and birthplace of Genghis Khan, Burkan Khaldun. The ~818 kilometer Onon travels through the wilderness of the Khan Khentii reserve, across the Mongolian Steppe, and across the Russian border.In Russia the Onon eventually meets the Ingoda River to form the Shilka. From here the Shilka River flows 555 kilometers to its confluence with the Argun River where it becomes the mightly Amur-Heilong River. The Amur-Heilong meanders on ~2824 more kilometers. It forms the Russian-Chinese border for much of that distance before heading north through Russia to the Pacific Ocean. According to Russian math, this distance corresponds to approximately 580 bottles of vodka.
The Amur River, also called the Heilong, is the single longest undammed river in the eastern hemisphere and boasts a 380 million acre watershed. It is also the only west-east flowing river in Siberia. It originates in the Khan Khentii wilderness near the sacred mountain Burkan Khaldun, the birthplace of Genghis Khan. It flows east through the Mongolian Steppe and eventually entering Russia.It continues on to flow along nearly 1,000 kilometers of the Russian-Chinese border, meandering through temperate forests and many remote villages that harken back to Soviet Era. It then heads north for a brief stint through Russia before dumping into the Sea of Okhotsk. "Do my coursework" experts say that the aerial view of the Amur-Heilong, seen above, is striking because it illustrates the impressive number and size of oxbows it contains as it meanders to the sea – making navigation tricky for our expedition.
The Amur-Heilong traverses an incredible diversity of ecosystems including one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world, expansive steppe grasslands, and the taiga biome – the largest of its kind in the world. These ecosystems support a remarkable variety of species. The Russian side alone is home to approximately 2,800 plant and 500 animal species. They also provides critical habitat for species on the brink of extinction–most notably the Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard.Wetlands provide important sanctuary for migratory waterfowl, including Red Crown Cranes and Oriental White Storks. Musk deer and brown bear make their home in the old-growth deciduous and coniferous forests. Wild Ginseng, prized for it’s healing properties, is found in the Russian Far East. And the river itself hosts the largest Salmonid fish, the beautiful Taimen, and the supposed largest freshwater fish in the world, the Kaluga Sturgeon.
The Amur-Heilong watershed, while widely unknown, has incredible global importance for one major reason: it is one of the few great free flowing rivers left on the planet. It has no dams and only two major bridges along its entire length. The scale of the free flowing Amur waters is nearly incomprehensible in a world where greater than 60% of our large rivers and nearly all rivers this massive are dammed. "Write my case study" experts state that this makes the Amur a world treasure as well as a crucial baseline for the management of all large rivers. As one of the few rivers with a clean slate, it could become a model for sound management of water resources worldwide.
Becca Dennis was born with a paddle in her hand and a sparkle in her eye. A woman of all trades, she is 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.
Day Job: Grand Canyon Guide & Nursing Student
Passions: Sharing her love of wild rivers with others, free-soloing, giggling.
Our Favorite Dirty Secret: Never let that sweet face fool you. Becca has biceps that have made a grown man cry and a smile that gets her through just about anything. She is our secret weapon in any sticky situation.
Sabra is a watershed restoration ecologist, 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. She brings a firm understanding of the environmental concerns facing rivers, a link to the international science community, and a love of hair-brained schemes.
Day Job: River Restoration Ecoglogist & Rock Climbing Company Owner and Guide
Passions: Picking folk tunes on her guitar, rescuing little river creatures, dirty jokes.
Our Favorite Dirty Secret: Sabra comes from a long line of traveling thespians. She can bust out a rendition of most major musicals at any given moment, and always keeps a wig, face paint, and impromptu costume fixings nearby at all times.
Amber is a Physician 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.
Day Job: Expedition & Emergency Medicine Physician Assistant
Passions: Keeping wild rivers wild, laughing uncontrollably, dancing back flips.
Our Favorite Dirty Secret: Amber is an expert jowler who has been perfecting her distorted facial expressions for decades. What is jowling you might ask? The act of rigorously shaking one’s head side-to-side and pushing air through one’s lips while taking an image of said face(s).
Krystle is a pioneering photographer from Australia who is accelerating the awareness and visibility of the world’s wildest sports and athletes. A passion to capture the most unique perspective not yet discovered drives her inspiring work. She continually challenges herself and others to the next great adventure and brings gorgeous images of demanding adventures and landscapes to communities around the globe.
Day Job: Adventure Sport & Expedition Photographer
Passions: Capturing wild places and people, pushing limits, hot cocoa.
Our Favorite Dirty Secret: Krystle easily holds the world record for most hot cocoa consumed on a single expedition. Seriously. This woman has a talent.
Notes From The Upper Onon: Getting Lost And Found in Mongolia
The Onon River, or “Mother Onon” as the locals call her, was everything we could have imagined… And more.
It was amazing to watch the river change from it’s headwaters, paddling smoothly 500 kilometers to the Russian border. So much nuance—new plants, birds, animals, weather, ever-changing landscapes and more and more and more water. As we left the most remote part of the journey on the upper section, two weeks after leaving Ulaanbaatar (UB), we met up with our herdsmen friends from our horsepack in and they hosted us in their humble and cozy cabin for two days in the village of Binder—the only town along this stretch of river.
Yet again they took amazing care of us, brought us our resupply food bag, and took us to a Mongolian horse race and wrestling match… an entirely different amazing story that I will tell you all sometime. Until then, here’s a photo…
Then we continued on another couple of weeks through more incredible country—huge towering cliffs, shifting moody skies and a whole lot of beautiful silence. We had an encounter with a sketchy electrical storm one night under the towering Diggin Giggin cliffs. It was right over head for 30 minutes and striking within a couple of hundred yards. We anxiously crouched in the willows next to our camping spot on a very exposed cobble bar for nearly an hour. Any who have been in a lightning storm with me know how I feel about being anywhere near it. I love to watch it from afar, but I hate the helpless feeling of being in an exposed place during an electrical storm perhaps more than anything else. The raw energy and power is something to be admired, but as it finally passed, we were so happy to have our heart rates come down to something near normal again!
In typical Mongolian fashion, no one could really describe or direct us to the elusive takeout when that day finally came, 22+ days after leaving UB. But somehow we found it, by pure intuition of course. We were within two kilometers of the Russian border, looking at Russia across the river, and all the things we had been told about the takeout (local family on river right, obvious road) were nowhere in sight. We had that sinking feeling of an epic about to begin. We stopped at a random cobble bar, hiked up an even more random dirt trail and 40 despondent minutes later, in this vast wild place, we caught sight of our purple Russian minivan romping across the uneven terrain… absolute magic. We laughed, jumped around and hugged our big-bellied driver more times than was probably necessary. Despite all the doubts, we had made it all the way from the headwaters to the border—four very dirty, weather worn, wild women and one wide-eyed translator named Mangi.We drove four hours and stayed that night with a local family out on the steppe. It was really cool to hang out in a Ger, a yurt lived in by nomads, and be with other people again after so much time on the river.
In my usual style, I ate every questionable thing they put in front of us—milk tea, weird dried yogurt things, homemade bread and butter (delicious), dried meat soup and some kind of funky mutton… even though I don’t typically eat meat or much dairy. I think I actually did okay with all of this, but the seven teacups of homemade milk vodka was a no go. We had the best time hanging out in the Ger, laughing with everyone, singing songs and enjoying such a sweet moment of connection.
When we left the Ger, everyone was good and drunk and having a blast. Then all of a sudden I became violently ill. Becca and Sabra drug me out onto the grasslands away from the Ger and the sleeping family, and I heaved everything I had onto the steppe… over and over and over again. And as I was reminded the next morning, I also gave quite an amazing monologue to the camera just before bed. Priceless. The next day we drove 14+ hours on the bumpiest dirt roads in of Mongolia, or at least it felt that way. I was so green. It was pure misery. I think that is the sickiest I have ever been… and that says a lot with my habit of eating sketchy food in the developing world. I took 12mg of Zofran and it still wasn’t working. So we pulled over every few hours so I could puke it out on the steppe. Finally after 16mg of Zofran, 2 dramamine and a little more time, my head quit spinning quite so violently and I was able to sleep fitfully the next seven hours back to UB on the laps of all the ladies, bouncing and jarring the entire way.
The only conclusion we can come to is that milk based liquor = poison in my body. Maybe seven teacups was a bit over the top for someone who doesn’t drink milk? All the other ladies had the same thing and same amount and didn’t get sick at all, so who knows… But it certainly makes for a good story and my shaky stomach is slowly making a comeback and I know one thing for certain: I never, ever need to drink Mongolian mare’s milk moonshine again.
I write this as I am in Russia, after more epic travel, this time by rail. More on our adventure on the train soon, but for now, we’ll fall asleep with dreams of the magical Upper Onon and Mongolian moonshine dancing in our heads.