Editor’s Note: We are including this story on our website for two reasons. One, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Two, because it’s a story worth telling and it’s about kayaking in the shadow of Moscow in October, 1995. It was written by Misha Dynnikov, one of the Rangers. A big thanks to Vice Admiral Jim Kakuk for the photos of Misha in Crimea and the short bio of Misha at the end of the story.
Sweet and pungent sage-scented air drifted down from sun-bleached grass covered hills. Mixing with fresh ionized sea breeze, they become one unforgettable blend. Inhaling it is like drinking nectar. Last summer, I vacationed in the Black Sea again, the place where I learned to swim as a boy and have dreamed of revisiting. This time, I brought a kayak. Here is my story.
It was early morning. I had just gotten off the train, and could barely walk, having given a piggyback ride to my gear. Before I even got to the lockers, a private cab driver offered me a ride to wherever I wanted to go. I instantly readjusted my plans and instead of visiting museums and other sights of Feodosiya, I chose to roll down the narrow winding road. On the top of the hill we stopped to watch the rising sun over the Black Sea. The view and the colors were so beautiful, I felt joyful impulses of adventure electricity running through my nerve network, spreading vibrations to every cell of my body. October days melt down fast. First, I bought groceries from the local market. Organic produce grown by local farmers is fresh, incredibly tasty, and what is really important for low budget tourists like myself, it is ridiculously cheap. I spent only $10 for a week’s worth of food. Lugging all my stuff a half a mile to the shore was a drag, but I was psyched to get in the water and so my energy doubled.
The sea greeted me with mirror-glaze calmness, and about 70 refreshing degrees. The second half of the day was devoted to puzzle solving – putting together a hand-made folding kayak that I by lucky chance was able to borrow from a friend in Moscow. A 14-foot, sit-in-the-hole, banana-slug boat was a letdown after being trained on space-tech Tsunami kayaks, but I hoped that ski-pole tubing and door upholstery fabric skin would keep me afloat. By the time I got all rigged up I had only a few daylight hours left, the sky became overcast, and the wind and seas picked up. It was definitely a good call to delay the take off until the next morning, but the idea of spending a night on a town beach was not appealing at all. So off I went, lining up the bow of the boat with a jagged point in the grayish distance, which according to my map was called Lagerniy (campsite). Well, everything went well until my miscalculations began to emerge, and my kayak started to slowly submerge. The sky was getting dark fast but the distance would not get much shorter. The swells were rolling over, pushing more and more water through my leaky spray skirt. I picked up the pace, pumping air and paddling like a steam engine. The only other person within visual range was a motor powered hang glider flying in circles like a gigantic bug. Soon he too disappeared.
When I got close to the point, it was almost dark and my banana slug boat was about to turn into a sea cucumber submarine. The landing seemed suicidal, but I did not have much of a choice. Pushed by churning swells, I directed my boat by feel and sound, narrowly escaping sharp-toothed rocks ready to bite through the soft skin at any time. Finally, I hit the shore, ejected out of the hole, but the next swell was quick, flooding the boat, making it impossible to lift. I was not panicking but felt like I was in competition; my brain shut off, and my body was doing all the work. It was fun watching myself pulling the gear out of the slug and throwing it on the shore. After several tries, I managed to use the power of the crashing wave to roll the boat over, the water poured out, and the fight was over. Shivering and shaking, and tapping a snare drum beat with my teeth, I did not look much like a winner; I was just happy to be back on solid ground alive. My gear, except for a knife I lost somewhere, was safe. All I could think about was dry clothes and fo-o-o-od.
The next day a storm came through, so I spent the day exploring my half-mile long kingdom. From both sides it was surrounded by steep cliffs, weathered and cracked like elephant skin. A freshwater stream sprayed down on the beach. I also found a house-sized cave, where I stayed overnight, listening to the resonating waves and burning a fire. A few days later I learned that the place was called Karadag, a well-known and well guarded land reserve.
Paddling along the coast, I sometimes saw late season groups of tourists trudging under heavily laden backpacks along the shore trails. Everywhere I looked I saw many good campsites. I usually chose those easy landing ones, preferably next to vineyards. My morning walks were pleasantly sweetened by big juicy clusters of grapes that were left there to dry. Enjoying the solitude of a solo trip, I was not avoiding company. Local people and tourists were very friendly. Sharing food and stories by a campfire was a pleasant change after days of lonely paddling. In one spot I was invited by a group of people who jumped in the water and brought me a delicious port, which they called “The Black Doctor.” After a pure vegetarian diet, the Black Doctor and hot shish kebab fixed me right up. I spent a couple of days with my new friends, staying at the half-way operational military base.
One day I took a ride on a big, all terrain military truck which served as a school bus for the base kids. When I got off in the school yard I got in the cross-fire of many inquisitive little eyes. I guess I did look as though I just fell from the moon. First I did not know how to release the built-up tension, then I made a funny face, and walked towards the store. Instantly the kids begin to laugh, pointing their fingers at me. I walked like a clown laughing with them and making more faces.
Paddling the Black Sea along the Crimean peninsula feels like going back into the ancient time of Greek explorers. According to Homer, the brave Argonauts sailed to its shores to find the Golden Fleece. It is only a legend, but when I approached the city of Sudak with its unassailable fort towering over the sea on a vertical 1000 feet cliff, like a mirage in the distance I saw the white sails of a Greek galleon coming into port to trade with the colony. I rinsed my eyes and alas, the white sails were gone. I landed on the city beach, next to a small yacht thrown on the shore. For a while I again became a tourist attraction. Several kids asked me tons of questions, while their mothers peered at me from under the cover of their shades. I got acquainted with a German couple whose boat lay like a dead fish on the shore. It turned out to be the doings of the same storm that almost creamed me. The guy offered me scuba gear for my kayak. I told him that if he wanted a good kayak, he should get a Tsunami X-15 Scramjet, which I was going to bring there next year.
I spent several more exciting days paddling, hiking, and camping around Noviy Svet (New World). Exploring sea jagged ridges, covered with Crimean pine and pungent juniper was a good change and very pleasant experience. Bright red and yellow foliage saluted farewell to the fading summer. The air was so fresh and filled with incredible smells coming from all the plants, especially the pines. On one cliff I ran into a couple of mountain goats. They leapt off the cliff, and I thought they would crash. But when I looked from the edge a hundred feet down below, I was observed by two pairs of goat eyes, asking, “Would you like to follow?”
As my kayaking trip neared the end, somewhere in the haze I could see the ghostly lines of Ayoudag (Bear Mountain). Next to it lay Alushta, a beautiful small city, my final destination. The last few miles of paddling were tedious, so I fantasized what I would tell my Tsunami Ranger friends about the trip, so I could get them interested in visiting the area. I thought they wouldn’t have to worry about being harassed by the coast guard who used to patrol this strategic area. My musing was interrupted by a military truck driving down the shore toward me. A military man jumped out of the truck and waved his hands at me. Oh, no, I just could not believe it. My first reaction was to ignore the guy, as though I just could not see him from a quarter mile. It did not work though, because the horn on his truck would wake the dead. Well, I paddled close to see what seemed to be a problem. The military guy kept yelling, “Get on shore!” After a few minutes of feigned miscommunication, I decided to take my chances, and said, “Sorry, sir; see you later.” Then I slowly started heading off through the waves. My heart rate also picked up, especially when I heard him bellow, “Do not make me have to use firearms!” I was determined to avoid him and so paddled faster down the shore. The chase had begun. My hearing became tuned to the sound of the truck engine.
They kept on appearing on every beach along the way, following me as closely as possible. Remembering James Bond movies, I was trying to figure out how I could escape. On the other hand, I wondered if I really wanted to play that game. My other question was, why are they chasing me at all? They saw I spoke Russian; perhaps they did not like my Moscovite accent. Or maybe, one of these beaches is the Government’s restricted area, where they drink vodka and do their deals. They were worried I could have sneaked up on them and learned the new currency exchange rate. At any rate, my kayak was not a James Bond mobile. I could have sunk it, since it carried quite a bit of water inside, then I could get away by land. Other wild fantasies swirled in my head, though I did not lose sense of the reality of the situation. I was looking for a place to land, take a break, and get the water out. There it was, a perfect stretch so I could see for a quarter mile in each direction, and a steep cliff offered good protection from the top. I landed, drained the boat, and got ready to take off in a split second. I enjoyed sunbathing and rolling in warm sand, but I was absolutely alert. When the military men appeared, running with AK-47 machine guns and a dog, I hopped into my kayak and powered it straight off shore with adrenaline energy making my arms paddle faster than they ever had in a race.
I heard a shot, then another. I was still alive, watching two red flares burning down in the sky. I heard them swearing and yelling something. All I could think was paddle faster, faster, get away from the shore and the guns. When I reached a safe distance, I turned parallel to the shore and watched two soldiers and a dog pursuing me as fast as they could go, but they could barely keep up with my pace. A group of campers observed the scene, probably wondering where the film crew was and what was the name of this movie. I could see the buildings of the city of Alushta, when my ears picked up the whine of a coast guard motor boat engine. I turned toward shore, hoping that they would be more polite in front of the people. The three soldiers and a military agent in the patrol boat caught up with me before I could land. I raised my hands and surrendered. The military agent ordered me to go ashore, as though he did not see that I was already about to land. They circled around me and demanded that I paddle faster. I guessed they thought I might play another trick. When we landed, the corporal (the military agent) officially introduced himself, and asked for my identification. A small crowd of curious kids surrounded us, curious as to what was going on. I felt more relaxed with their presence. Fortunately, my Russian papers were in order, and I was smart enough to keep my California driver’s license separate. After checking my passport, he asked me why I was running away. I said I did not know who he was and wanted to know what I had done wrong to be arrested. He looked kind of puzzled, then he left me under the soldiers’ guard and made a phone call. The soldiers looked tired and bored. Even though I fancied I had brought some excitement into their normal routine, at the same time I recalled my own Soviet Army experience and knew why they looked that way. Loss of personal freedom, what worse can be done to a human being? Before the corporal returned I already guessed what would be the news but still hoped they’d let me go. The corporal said politely that they needed to check some information on me, so I had to go to their unit.
They tried to tie my kayak to their patrol boat, but the swells were too big to drag it behind. I was left with one soldier waiting for the truck to come. They were barely able to get their boat going, after fighting with the engine for ten minutes. The truck showed up hours later, and during the lull I had become friends with my guard, sharing my food and army stories with him. While talking, I dug a hole in the gravel and dropped my American documents into it. To remember the place I left walnut shells on top. I was really hoping to come back and retrieve my American papers. Riding in the truck was like riding a roller coaster. We eventually made it to the unit. Everything in there, including “Osobist,” the KGB officer who wore civilian clothes, reminded me of my two years in the army. The KGB guy was very polite, but pinned me tight asking a bunch of autobiographical questions, especially where I was working for the past five years. After thoroughly searching through my belongings, he queried why I had a telephoto lens on my camera, and why my journal was written in English. I told him that I build kayaks in California and travel around. That caught his interest so much that he even stopped writing.
Later they gave me food, but I still had to remain in the unit, waiting for a higher ranked KGB officer to visit me. It turned out that from the start of my paddling trip I had passed undetected three coast guard units. In addition, when I ignored their orders, which they said nobody had done before, they had to inform headquarters in Kiev. They made me write several papers which detailed exact times and places where I had stopped on the trip. After talking to the high-ranking “KGB-Osobist,” it boiled down to whether they were going to confiscate my kayak because it was not registered. This reminded me of the American Coast Guard. After a long discussion as to whether they had the right to take my boat, I finally gave up. Next morning, after I wrote an even more detailed itinerary of my trip, they told me that the Ukrainian Coastal guards forgave me, and I could have my kayak back – and get out. I did not need to hear it twice. I piled my stuff on my back, shook hands with my new KGB friends and the chief of the unit, told them big “Spasibo” (Thanks), and was on my way.
I did a farewell swim in the beautiful Black Sea and got on the road. I hitchhiked to the place where I hid my stash, retrieved my papers, and got back on the road. My next ride happened to be the first KGB guy, and we greeted each other like old friends. He was delivering incredibly tasty grapes to Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea. I enjoyed the scenic route and grapes. My KGB friend was so nice, he even offered me a deal – 15 tons of frozen sturgeon and truckloads of “Black Doctor.” I told him I’d consider the offer, but was most interested in unrestricted use of the area. He said, “No Problem, Comrade. Just give me a call.” And that is the end of my story.
Misha came to California in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russian citizens were allowed to travel. His home town was Dzerzhinsky City, a suburb of Moscow. I met Misha in 1994 in Redding after he had been traveling with the Russian Circus from the Bay Area and he decided to see Northern California. Misha was interested in the kayaks I was building and wanted to help. Being the talented person that Misha was, he quickly became a skilled kayaker and soon started traveling with the Tsunami Rangers on our adventures.
Most of all, Misha was resourceful; with his communist upbringing he was good at solving problems. In my two summers of traveling with Misha in Russia (1995-1996) I was always amazed how he could find ways to get around the obstacles that we were constantly confronted with while navigating the complexity of the Russian system.
Misha was young, wild, handsome and smart but he was also rambunctious and daring, always looking for something new and the next shiny thing that would catch his attention. Thin, athletic, playful and with lots of energy, Misha was rough around the edges but a smooth talker and good at using the English language. Misha was clever, funny, talented, charming and loved by everyone that knew him. He is still dearly missed.
Misha disappeared while solo free diving in Hawaii in 2007. He was 38 years old.
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