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Watertown native to take part in whitewater kayaking expedition in Siberia


Whitewater kayaker Anthony J. Gianfagna, Watertown, nearly died two years ago on the Moose River near Old Forge after he smashed his face against a rock in the violent rapids.

He knows the dangers of paddling in rough water and says it’s all about risk management, choosing your battles wisely.

Mr. Gianfagna’s next battleground: Siberia.

He and 11 other seasoned whitewater kayakers will be paddling and hiking through some of the most extreme conditions imaginable in a two-week expedition in August through remote tributaries of Russia’s Sayan Mountains.

Walking away from death

“Whitewater is a delicate balance between risk and reward,” the 28-year-old middle school teacher said. “There are parts of rivers that offer uncompromised serenity and tranquility. Other parts can offer some of the wildest, scariest, most intense moments of your life.”

For Mr. Gianfagna, a Watertown native, the incident two years ago on the Moose River was one of those moments.

Upside-down in the water and dazed from the blow to his head, he could have drowned but somehow managed to hold onto a thread of consciousness and perform an Eskimo roll — correcting his capsized boat.

He suffered a concussion and received more than 20 stitches in his forehead.

His helmet, shattered by the blow, probably saved his life.

An adventurous mind

As one of six children brought up in an “outdoor sports-oriented family,” Mr. Gianfagna said he never got into video games or television.

Since getting into whitewater kayaking in college eight years ago, he’s been spending most of his free time in the water.

Kayaking in whitewater brings Mr. Gianfagna “clarity.”

“It’s a good opportunity to unplug; to get away from civilization and things that don’t matter,” he said.

He considers himself “very fortunate” for growing up in such a beautiful area with so many outdoor activates to enjoy and like-minded people to hang out with.

To Mr. Gianfagna, running the rapids is not about “conquering the river” or getting the biggest adrenaline rush.

It’s truly about the journey, he said, and time spent with friends who share the same passion.

Fierce rapids and big drops

Mr. Gianfagna stressed that it will take both skill and good decision making to survive the expedition in southeast Siberia.

Studying some rapids, he will have to get out and walk around.

Still, plenty of long Class IV rapids as well as some extremely challenging Class V rapids lie between the group’s launch point at Irkutsk — one of the largest cities in Siberia — and Lake Baikal in southeast Siberia north of the Mongolian border.

Rapids are rated in six difficulty classes with Class I being the easiest and Class VI considered suicidal.

One of the waterfalls on their path is supposed to be nearly 40 feet high.

That, Mr. Gianfagna said, “is a big drop.”

A multinational crew

Twelve kayakers from five countries — four from the U.S., five from the United Kingdom and one each from Russia, Switzerland and Latvia — make up the expedition crew.

Tomass Marnics of Latvia will lead the pack.

Mr. Marnics organizes these trips every summer and knows the waters inside and out.

Veteran paddler Matt Young, 30, of Lake Placid, also brings to the group an extensive experience in self-supported kayaking and has completed multi-day descents in California and in Quebec.

But the expedition in Siberia is “somewhat of a different animal,” said Mr. Young, who proposed the trip to Mr. Gianfagna earlier this year.

“I have never traveled to a place quite as remote as the Sayan Mountains of Siberia,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Young said he has been kayaking in whitewater for 18 years since he learned how to paddle with his father when he was 12.

“My parents did an amazing job of supporting my paddling through high school,” he said.

He worked for rafting companies in the Adirondacks when he was still in high school and since then has spent time as an instructor, freestyle competitor and downriver racer.

Mr. Gianfagna has been paddling since 2006 and is part of a regional team of professional kayakers for Pyranha Mouldings and Werner Paddles — both are among the most recognized brands for whitewater enthusiasts.

When he’s not on the water kayaking or guiding rafts through rapids, Mr. Gianfagna teaches special education at Indian River Middle School, where he also coaches wrestling and soccer.

One of the perks of being a professional whitewater kayaker like Mr. Gianfagna and Mr. Young is getting sponsored by top brands in outdoor sporting goods.

“Pyranha Kayaks, Werner Paddles, Kokatat Water Sports Wear, and Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company in Old Forge have all supported me with equipment for this trip,” Mr. Young said.

The game plan

There are no cities or villages, few roads and fewer residents along the group’s route down the Kitoy River — the main river in Sayan Mountains — and its tributaries Ekhe-Gol and Biluti rivers.

This means each man must carry 11 days’ worth of equipment, clothing and food.

On Aug. 13, Mr. Gianfagna will leave for Russia, bringing his own boat and gear with him as special luggage.

Many strenuous day hikes await the group, and he hopes to make it back in one piece on Aug. 28 — the last day of the trip that ends on the beautiful Lake Baikal.

According to UNESCO, the 25 million-year-old Lake Baikal is both the oldest and — at 5,577 feet — the deepest lake on the planet, holding 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen freshwater reserve.

Mr. Gianfagna will have his 8.5-foot-long Pyranha “Everest” kayak — which alone weighs 47 pounds — loaded with equipment and various supplies during the trip.

On the first day, he anticipates carrying more than 150 pounds on his back.

The group will have to survive without doctors or a support staff following. But a lot of them — including Mr. Gianfagna — received first-responder training in addition to satellite phones to reach authorities in case of an emergency.

The group expects to complete roughly 90 miles of paddling during the trip, Mr. Gianfagna said.

Summer weather in the Sayan Mountains in August should be fairly warm during the day, in the 60s and 70s, but normally gets cool at night with temperatures dropping to the low 50s. Water temperatures will vary, but should be around 64 degrees, Mr. Gianfagna said.

His spray skirt will keep the water out of his boat and his dry suit should keep him warm for the most part.

Travelling through canyons and remote areas of the Sayan mountains, the group will be privileged to view some unique scenery in areas that are reachable only with kayaks.

Preparing for a trip of a lifetime

Navigating the rapids in a fully-loaded boat creates its own challenges as the kayak sits lower in the water.

But Mr. Gianfagna said he feels quite confident after spending some time in the water paddling in a loaded kayak.

“It’s actually a lot of fun and not nearly as difficult as I had imagined,” he said. “In addition to kayaking, I have been running and hiking as much as possible.”

Mr. Young said obtaining a tourist Visa required to travel to Russia — which he described as a nightmarish task — has been the most challenging part of the trip so far.

“Believe it or not, once we actually get to the river and start paddling, that’s the easy part,” Mr. Young said. “I’m preparing for this trip by making paddling a priority over the other things that I also enjoy doing.”

Both Mr. Young and Mr. Gianfagna are certain the payoff will be worth it.

“I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices in my life to be able to do what I now consider not simply a hobby, but a lifestyle,” Mr. Gianfagna said. “Anything worth having, you’re going to pay for — in one capacity or another.”

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