I like swinging flies for steelhead. Anywhere. Everywhere. I have been fortunate to chase wild steelhead throughout their range, from the virgin growth redwoods of California, to the stark deserts of Idaho, to the fabled rivers of BC. But the most ridiculous steelhead expedition I have ever been on was by far and away, literally, the Russian Far East, guiding for the Kamchatka Steelhead Project
Every steelheader gets exited for the road trip. The prep; the tying first, then the packing up the bags, and finally the ride to the river. The anticipation can be the best part…so much potential.
My second season on the Kvachina River, on Kamchatka’s west coast, was a serious road trip…if you could call it a road. We had to get into camp 2 weeks before our sponsors showed up, and without anglers to split the bill for a helicopter ride, our outfitter came up with plan B. We were going to take a tank into camp. Actually two tanks.
We loaded up 2 armored personal carriers with all of our gear, and then the wood for the canvas wall tent frames, a few tons of diesel and gasoline, and a months worth of groceries. My seat inside the lumbering steel box was a 50 gallon drum of diesel with a bag of rice on it. No problem, sounds exciting.
I checked the GPS…only 350 kilometers, in a straight line to our camp. Shouldn’t take long, I could drive that in under 4 hours on I-5 to the North Umpqua. We set off around noon, me and 9 Russians, headed to the wildest steelhead rivers on the planet.
We started off riding on the roof of the tanks, on pretty good dirt roads, with our legs dangling down in front of the windshield. We immediately started crawling uphill and by the first afternoon we were starting into our first major mountain pass. It was nearly mid September and got cold quick up there, then it started snowing. We crawled into the belly of the Iron Beast, but we might as well have been outside. It was fucking cold! Fully layered up, fleece masks, gloves, hoods up. No windows, metal on all sides, except for the bag of rice between me and the diesel barrel I called my seat. We rode for 12 hours our first day, finishing late, in the dark.
We camped our first night in some poacher’s cabin on the side of the worsening dirt road. At least 3 guys did. The rest of us rolled out mattresses and bags inside the tanks and dug in. We had made it 40 clicks. It did not look like I was going to be swinging flies as soon as I had hoped. We had Korean instant ramen for dinner, shot back some Russian vodka, crushed a few more ruts and crashed.
The next day was beautiful and we set off in the early morning. We did not get far. We snapped our first axle about 3 hours into the day. Both tanks come to a stand still and got to work. We had to pull a pin to remove one of the tank treads, then run a bar through it and with a guy on each side, drag it out straight in front of the wheels. Crazy heavy. The process of changing a broken axle on a tank takes about an hour if it goes easy.
It ended up taking us five and a half days to go the 350 kilometers into camp. We averaged about 16 clicks an hour. Top speed 28 kmh., downhill on a straightaway. We were on the trail or “track” 12 to 16 hours a day but we probably spent 4 to 5 hours doing maintenance or getting unstuck, from the mud. And to get a tank stuck, you must be in some seriously bad swamp. We had to replace at least 6 broken axles between the 2 tanks. On the 4th morning, we had to refill with diesel. Each machine took 200 gallons, which we hand pump out of the barrels.
When it was nice out we spent most of the time on the roof, shooting Ptarmigan off the track for lunch and dinner. We even got 3 capercaille , a huge upland game bird, just smaller than a turkey. Pretty good eats, great feathers for tying. You would just blast them as they flushed then jump off the rolling tank to fetch them up, trying not to make the tank stop.
We were almost there on the fifth afternoon, only about 10 more kilometers to our base camp and it was raining hard. We had to cross the headwaters of our second steelhead river, the Snotlvyem. Getting across was no problem, but on the other side was a 200 ft wall and it was steeper than 45 degrees. We hit it straight on, got about half way up, then started running out of steam. The operator started turning the tank to an angle, to side hill or kind of like switch back the second half. It seemed like it might work, and we were still making gradual progress until the hill started sliding out from under us and we started moving straight down the hill sideways. We were inside the tank at this point, and I thought we were going to flip for sure, and crushed under the massive drums of fuel. We finally skidded to a stop almost to the bottom, at an obnoxious angle. We all piled out quick, on the high side, so the God damned thing wouldn’t roll right over us. Then the real work started.
We immediately noticed that while sliding sideways down the hill, we had slipped right out of the track. We were in a ridiculous position, on an angle, fully loaded, in the driving rain, and it was getting darker by the minute. Time to get dirty.
We unloaded the tank, on the side of the cliff, to make it “light”. It took us about 4 hours of slipping and sliding and trying not to get smashed, or lose a digit, in all the sloppy, moving parts, we had to remove and rearrange. We literally had to disassemble the entire track, 4 links at a time. They are that heavy. Then we used the other tank to reposition the busted one so we could move it in a straight line. Then we rebuilt the track and rolled onto it and reconnected. Then found a better way around the cliff that still wasn’t that easy.
We succumbed to exhaustion at a Koriak tribesman reindeer herder’s hut, about 7 kilometers from base camp, at about 2 o’clock in the morning. We all immediately fell asleep in a toasty warm wooden room, around the fire on the floor, covered in mud. I have never slept so well.
The next day, after thanking the native Koriak, and doing some more maintenance on our not so trusty steeds, we triumphantly rode the last hour into camp on a beautiful Kamchatka morning.
We had made it through the greatest road trip I will probably ever endure, en route to a steelhead river. I hooked my first Rusky steelhead of the season a few days later, and it lived up to all of the expectations that had built up during the entire year leading up until then.
As I swung a hammer, building our new cabins, watching the tanks clank away down the track for their journey home , I was sad I would be taking the easy way out. A helicopter ride home, a month and a half from now.
The chopper took an hour and change.