Mark Kalch - Expedition kayaker

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Paddling the longest river on each continent from source to sea. In 2014 I made a 71 day, 2300 mile descent of the Volga River in Russia. In 2012 I made a 117 day, 3780 mile descent of the Missouri-Mississippi River in the US. In 2008 a 153 day descent of the 4130 mile Amazon River in South America. In 2010, I walked alone across the entire Islamic Republic of Iran. I use my journeys to bring stories to life through images and word.

Fourteen hour days in a kayak through 40 degree C heat, rain, wind, overhead breaking waves, through everything, you kind of need a good spray deck.

Once again, on the Volga, another river thousands of miles long, I used a deck from Snap Dragon Design - the Sea Trek Breathable. This deck (or skirt if you prefer) is a combo of 3.5mm Supratex Neoprene on the deck and a waterproof/breathable nylon tube. For my river descent on the Volga (and the Missouri-Mississippi River in 2012) this deck is perfect.

Come rain or shine, I had my deck on. Even on the hottest of days I felt comfortable. There was no overheating or sweating. I just felt at one with my boat. Similarly in the terrible storms that the Volga was apt to throw at me with little warning. Overhead breaking waves crashing down on me and popping out the other side or surfing sideways down the face, my deck just laughed it off!

Snap Dragon Design make decks for the most extreme paddling in the world and their team includes some of the baddest paddlers on the planet like Steve Fisher, Freya Hoffmeister, Ben Stookesberry and me! On top of that they are super cool guys. If you need a deck for any boat, touring or whitewater they have you sorted.

Kayak portage carts or trolleys are not the sexiest piece of gear in a paddlers arsenal. A bent shaft, carbon fibre paddle, a new bit of tech gear, the latest boat; that’s where it’s at for cool. But on a long, long river descent a kayak cart is among the most important bits of kit around.

On my most recent descent I used a KariTek kayak trolley. Manufactured and based in Scotland, KariTek produce a number of paddling related pieces of gear including trailers, roof racks and cradles. You know that when the company behind the brand is an engineering firm you are using some quality gear.

I have used over the years pretty much every conceivable trolley or cart around. On my Missouri-Mississippi River descent I used New Zealand brand C-TUG. An all plastic cart which served me very well, but died a horrible death upon completing my very last dam portage. To be fair, it had gone through hell!

On the Volga I knew I had to portage 9 dams as well as other various obstacles. I wanted a cart that was compact, light and indestructible. I researched my options. The C-TUG is a good cart but it had some shortcomings. It did not pack down as flat as I would like, had no stow bag and on long portages, the all plastic (more or less) axles overheated and melted!

Enter KariTek. I had heard of the carts before, mostly down to their impressive engineering. From the website and various forums I could not make out exactly how they went together or packed down. I thought to give them a go.

The cart is comprised of 2 wheels, a flat, flexible plastic “chassis” and attached axle. Also attached are cam straps. My first attempt of putting the cart together was frustrating. It was hard to bend things, close things. I was a little worried. Come my second and third practice, it was a breeze!

On the river I kept the cart in its stow bag, cammed down to my front deck. Its low profile kept it out of the way. For portage it became a smooth routine to un-cam, remove from bag, attach axle, affix wheels, load boat, tighten and go. So easy. It handled all terrain from road, mud, sand, rocks, forest, anything. No punctures, no bending or breaking, nothing stopped it. I was really stoked with its performance.

My fully loaded boat including water and food was crazy heavy but the cart did not mind. Positioned just behind the cockpit, pulling the kayak along was a breeze, even over a couple of miles.

All in all, one of my favourite bits of kit and certainly the toughest. I honestly cannot fault it.

I have been sponsored by Kokatat since 2007 when myself and a few mates jumped on the Amazon River with bright, new shiny kit to make a source to sea descent all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (a lighter moment on the Amazon below).

Having used a bunch of different brands over the years, strapping into Kokatat gear was a revelation. There are other super nice companies out there of course but Kokatat’s ruggedness, indestructibility and no B.S approach just feel like a good match for me and my expeditions.

On the Volga River I was stoked to use the new(-ish) Maximus Prime PFD. When I tried it on for the first time I must admit I was hesitant. I had become so used to my Kokatat Ronin Pro PFD having quite literally molded itself to my body that the sudden slight stiffness of a new jacket took me by surprise. For a second I wished I had opted to use my old PFD. That feeling quickly passed. After a few easy adjustments I had the Maximus fitting snug. I just really dig the feeling of security a good PFD brings. I think for any paddler it acts very much as our body armour. Both for impact protection and importantly flotation.

A key part of using Kokatat PFDs is the comfort level. For 7 years I have chuckled every time I read about a paddler opting to not wear their PFD because it is - uncomfortable, hot, gets in the way and a myriad of other complaints. On the Volga, for 71 days I spent not a second on the water without my Maximus Pro on. It goes on first thing in the morning and then I just forget it is there. What’s the problem? In 2012 on my Missouri-Mississippi River descent, I did the same for 117 days. I enjoy taking risks and pushing the limits of safety when paddling but not when it comes to PFDs.

The SunCore long sleeve shirt is another favourite of mine. 14 hour days under a 40 degree C (104 F) sky necessitates some sun protection. The SunCore offers perfect coverage of body, arms and importantly neck. It’s construction gives great range of motion. Like my PFD, once it is on, I just forget about it. My only complaint is that it works so well that at the end of a few months on river I end up with super tanned face and hands with the rest of my body unsuitably white!

When the sun goes away and the clouds come out so does my Kokatat GORE-TEX® TecTour Anorak. Driving rain, overhead breaking waves and bitterly cold winds are nullified by this jacket. With wrist gaskets, adjustable plash collar, zippered double storm flap and storm hood there is little worry about being exposed to the elements.

Combining the TecTour Anorak, SunCore long sleeve shirt and Maximus Prime PFD creates a paddling outfit hard to beat. Depending on conditions and river I vary my outfitting and Kokatat gear. I am confident that every time I use this river kit that whatever the weather I am as prepared and comfortable as I can be.

Keeping gear dry on a paddling journey is obviously pretty important. From clothing, to food and on to electronic kit, if any of these items get wet then things can start to unravel pretty quickly.

I have been using Seal Line dry bags for coming up on 15 years now, sponsored and not. From taking folks down rivers in South Africa to the Amazon, Missouri-Mississippi, Volga and rivers in between. I’m that guy who wanders around town with a bright yellow dry bag in hand like some sort of outdoorsman’s handbag!

I really like that Seal Line offer a number of different weights of bag. The Baja and Black Canyon lines are bomb proof! Nothing is bothering them. A 20L bag is my above mentioned man bag! I paddle with it inside my kayak cockpit and use it as a grab bag containing emergency survival kit ranging from knife, lighter and thermals to passport, cash, phone and more.

Lighter and more pliable is the Nimbus range of dry bags. Still super strong and watertight, these guys are great for stuffing into tight deck hatch spaces.

For using as bags inside bags the the Cirrus dry sacks are perfect. Super light and brightly coloured I use them for organising bits and pieces of smaller gear.

I am a real fan of the Kodiak taper dry bags too. When space is at a premium these shaped bags slide all the way up into the bow of your kayak. They also rock a purge valve to squeeze even smaller. Great for clothes storage.

All important on a river journey lasting weeks and months is a deck bag. The Baja deck bag has been my constant companion for 117 days down the Missouri-Mississippi and just now for 71 days down the Volga. Within easy reach for snacks, GPS, sunscreen, IPod, maps; a whole bunch of stuff. A perfect bag for sure.

PS. Cynics may suggest that my gushing over Seal Line or any of my other kit is understandable as I am sponsored by a bunch of different companies. In reply I would simply say that you could not pay me enough in gear or cash to use sub-standard kit on a big river. These items quite literally keep me alive. Anyone who would use such gear because they are “sponsored” would be crazy (and would have no place on a big river descent). I use it first and foremost because I judge it the best on the market. Having good relationships with Seal Line and others is just a bonus. I would use their gear anyway, sponsored or not!

I thought some folks might be interested in what kit I am packing when I paddle these ridiculously long rivers. So here goes. First up - stove.

For cooking I use the MSR Reactor stove system. I dig it big time! I have used it on my 117 day Mo. - Miss. River descent and now my 71 day Volga River descent (as well as shorter trips in between).

I have both the 1.0L and 2.5L pots but find myself using almost exclusively the smaller of the two. On a long kayak journey space is paramount! The cookware itself is bombproof. Easy to pop the stove inside as well.

The union between the stove and cookware means that even super high winds doesn’t bother your cook-up.

It’s quite fun to see just how long you can drag out a fuel canister. My record for a 16 oz canister stands at 17 days! That is cooking once in the morning and once in the evening. Not too shabby.

For breakfast I boil water for coffee and porridge. For dinner I cook hard and fast for pasta or rice. Heck I am so good I can make this rocket stove simmer!

Certain other fast and light stoves rock a push button igniter. The Reactor does not. Should it? Maybe, but carrying a lighter for making camp fires anyway means lighting is no bother for me. No biggie.

I can think of little to fault the MSR Reactor stove on. Fast, light, tough. What more do you want?

Volga River, Russia - tough spot to find a camp!


In May 2014, expedition kayaker Mark Kalch continues his world first “7 rivers, 7 continents” project to complete paddling descents of the longest river on each continent. This is a combined distance of more than 22 000 miles (35 500 km). He has already become the first person to ever paddle the entire Missouri-Mississippi and Amazon Rivers in North and South America respectively. Mark now sets his sights on the 2300 mile (3700 km) Volga River in Russia, Europe’s longest.

The project’s goal, beyond successful descents is to record and compile audio-visual and written pieces capturing the influence the waterways have had on the growth of civilizations and impact on the surrounding eco-systems.

The place that the Volga itself holds in Russia’s culture, history and indeed existence cannot be overstated. From north-west of Moscow, it flows east, then south through giant, industrialised urban centres, past vast steppes in complete natural isolation and is punctuated by some of the largest reservoirs on the planet. It empties into the Caspian Sea by way of its huge delta.

The descent will record life in communities both on the river and in those influenced by the river.

From the fisherman, the hunter, the family and the hydroelectric worker, to the farmer, the city dweller, the trees, the predator and the prey, all have inspiring and thoughtful stories to reveal.

Sharing these stories provides an opportunity to inform, educate and inspire an international audience regarding the importance of the world’s greatest rivers.

Mark says, “Paddling these immense waterways from source to sea is a physical and mental challenge like no other. The great rivers of the world have shaped the very existence of humans and the ecosystems in which they live. As a result issues such water scarcity and food security are fast becoming one of the planet’s most pressing dilemmas. Beyond testing the limits of human performance, the project will provide a unique insight into the life rivers have built and sustain”.
Amazon River (South America), 4150 miles - completed 2007/2008 

Missouri - Mississippi River (North America), 3780 miles - completed 2012

Volga River (Europe), 2300 miles - commencing May 2014

Nile River (Africa), 4132 miles

Yangtze River (Asia), 3916 miles

Murray-Darling River (Australia), 2904 miles

Onyx River (Antarctica), 25 miles

Follow online:

Twitter: MarkKalch

Facebook: Mark Kalch

Mostly, when it comes to films, folk get all excited about the next Hollywood blockbuster starring the latest who’s who in movies. After watching the trailer for the soon to be released, Dam Nation, I sort of get how they feel. I haven’t been this excited about seeing a movie since E.T dropped!

Dams, the nemesis of all paddlers, fisherman and river users. But, they exist. They exist on a massive scale. They do or once upon a time did serve a purpose. But, times have changed since the dam building boom in the first half of the 20th century. Communities are waking up to the damage and destruction dams have wreaked on the environments they impact.

I hope that the release of the Dam Nation film, re-ignites the debate on the removal of antiquated hydro-electric schemes and what role they play moving into the future.

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"Living the best day ever" sounds like a pretty good ethos and Hendri Coetzee was fortunate to have lived that day before he left this plain.

This past weekend marked the anniversary of that day. For not the first time I watched the film, “Kadoma” in his memory. As a film it happens to feature paddling but is as far from kayak porn as one could imagine. You can feel Hendri’s overwhelming strength pervading throughout.

It’s easy to get carried away with bestowing accolades on those departed but in Hendri’s case I can’t think of anything less than legend!

Watch the trailer, but buy the movie (less than 8 bucks on itunes). Certainly the best kayaking film I have ever seen and one of the best films ever.

EDIT: I forgot to add, buy Hendri’s book! “Living the best day ever”. For where to grab it and more details go here -

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Whether you rock out with Patagonia gear or not (maybe you’re sponsored by another brand…ahem), to me, it is impossible not to admire them. Do the least harm pretty much sums it up. The short film, Worn Wear tells some fantastic stories and goes beyond being a clever marketing ploy.

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