Author and adventurer Eugene Buchanan's watery life
Blame it on Boulder. At least that’s where author, adventurer and Boulder native Eugene Buchanan lays responsibility for an interesting, eclectic life that has taken him around the globe in search of steep rapids on remote rivers and some not so steep and rapid.
“Growing up in Boulder had a lot to do with it,” Buchanan says when asked how he ended up chasing watery dreams around the world. “We grew up in the Chautauqua neighborhood and Chautauqua was our backyard, from scrambling up the Third Flatiron to playing capture the flag up there, that was how we had fun.” But, surprisingly for a kid with world-class rock climbing out the front door, it was the liquid charms that would end up becoming the biggest influence in Buchanan’s life.
“Our first paddling experience was bouncing down Boulder Creek,” he says. “As kids, we’d go out to Boulder Reservoir, and we’d go to the swimming holes up in Boulder Canyon and in Eldorado Canyon — no one was kayaking these runs back then — and that’s where I developed a love of cool, fresh water.”
Buchanan also had some help from his family, going on river rafting expeditions on the Yampa River and in Cataract Canyon as a kid. Those experiences, coupled with the tubing excursions closer to home, led to summer gigs as a raft guide on the Arkansas and up in Alaska. And then one day he found himself in Russia, paddling a grant-funded trip.
The W.L. Gore’s Shipton/Tilman Grant, named after explorers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, is designed to assist small expeditions.
Pioneering mountaineers of the 1930s and ’40s, Shipton and Tilman collaborated on several projects, including a lightweight assault of the 7,546-meter Himalayan massif of Muztagh Alta in 1947. While the attempt failed just shy of the summit, their lightweight, minimalist approach to mountaineering and focus on small, highly compatible teams was deeply influential. When Buchanan first heard of it, the grant had had never been awarded to a river expedition.
“They seemed to like expeditions that could be planned on the back of an envelope, and historically it had been given to climbing expeditions,” Buchanan says. “We caught wind of the grant and picked a spot on the map.”
The spot happened to be the Manuska River, in Siberia. But they never made it there.
The Manuska’s River expedition’s hectic first 24 hours, as well as their entire epic journey in Russia, are chronicled in the book, Brother’s on the Bashkaus. And in retrospect, floating the Bashkaus was perhaps truer to the spirit of Shipton and Tilman than the initial plan to do reconnaissance on the Manuska.
“We rolled with the punches,” Buchanan says. In the end, the entire project became “back of the envelope planning.”
Buchanan was joined on the Manuska expedition by Bruce “Edge” Edgerley, who currently runs Boulder-based Backcountry Access; Ben Hammond, who was assistant director of the Rocky Mountain region of the National Outdoor Leadership School at the time, and Jackson Hole resident Van Wombwell. The group coalesced around Buchanan, who heard of the grant through his job as editor of Paddler Magazine. The year was 1992 and, with the Soviet Union opening up, the expedition members decided that Siberia would be a worthy destination. The grant committee agreed and the first Shipton/Tilman Grant for a river exploration was awarded.
“The book is based on our whole string of events,” says Buchanan. “We didn’t end up doing the river trip and ended up doing the hardest river in the former Soviet Union — one of the premises of the grant is that any worthwhile adventure is worth doing.”
And the Bashkaus was worth doing. One of the most difficult and scenic rivers of Siberia’s Altai region, the Bashkaus is considered a Russian testpiece. It’s ranked as Class V water, technically difficult with deadly rapids.
Compounding the objective danger is the river’s utter remoteness. And the fact that once you go in, there’s no choice but to keep going.
“There’s really no way out,” Buchanan says. If things go wrong on a river like the Bashkaus, he says, “You just keep going downstream. You have to keep going.
“In the heart of the trip it took us two weeks to go 13 miles. Some days, you’d go a mile. Some days, half a mile. It all depended on the portages. We were with 10 Latvians, only one of whom spoke any English, and we had to bond as one team. You couldn’t have done it alone.”
Compounding the difficulties was the equipment.
“They made all of their gear,” Buchanan says of the Latvians. “They made life vests out of soccer balls, and they manufactured their raft frames from the forest. It’s actually a good way to do it because if you break a frame, you can just use the natural materials to repair it.”
Still, while a great adventure, the Bashkaus is only one of the many rivers that Buchanan has found himself floating on. And, as the current editor of Paddling Life, he’s been able to marry a paycheck with a watery lifestyle.
And he’s changed pace. His latest book is Outdoor Parents Outdoor Kids: A Guide to Getting Your Kids Active in the Great Outdoors, focuses on how to enjoy the outdoors with youngsters. Part of the proceeds assist the Boulder-based Outdoor Foundation’s efforts to increase youth participation in outdoor recreation.
“I caught some flack from my hardcore guys, saying ‘Have you gone soft?’ when I wrote that,” Buchanan says laughing.
He would still love to get back to the Altai region of Siberia, he says.
“It’s a cross of Montana and Idaho when it comes to rivers. There’s at least 10 two-to-three week long Class V rivers over there and, to me, it is still one of the great places on the map. But when you have kids, trips to Siberia are harder to come by.”
But he’s not too bummed out about the whole situation.
“When you take your kids out, you can have just as much fun and enjoy yourself just as much,” he says. “That’s the beauty of the sport. A class 1-2 boater can have as much fun. You can push yourself at your own level.”