Valley of the River Kotuykan.

«Throughout the entire history of the Earth, fewer people have visited here than have been on Everest»

Sergey Dolya.

Before we start our story, let’s take a map and look at where the Kotuykan is situated. Let’s not take simply a physical map, but a density of population map. The valley of the river Kotuykan is highlighted in white, meaning the density of population here is less than one person per one kilometer squared. The nearest airport is 300 kilometers away in the village Hatanga, with a of population nearly 3000 people. But if you go further, you will see no one for thousands of kilometers. This is one of the most Northern territories, which are difficult to access.

Map of population density (English)

The history of the assimilation of these places, particularly the Taimir Peninsula, started in the 17th century. In these distant times, when there was no aviation, no precise satellite maps, the only way to explore the Northern territories was by river shipping. Industrialists and traders of different kinds had already explored Yenisey well and founded the town of Turuhansk, which later became a departing point for further exploration to the North-East. In 1626 the first Russian settlement on the confluence of the Heta and Kotuy rivers was founded – the Piasidskoye “yasachnoe” cabin, which is now known as Hatanga.

Only in 1954 Kotuykan was fully marked on the USSR’s map. This is linked, first of all, to the beginning of active helicopter and airplane use for all-round air photography in the 1950-1960’s.

You can reach Hatanga by plane from Norilsk or Krasnoyarsk. There are usually 3-4 flights a month.  Then helicopter delivers passengers and explorers to the district of the upper or middle flow of the Kotuykan. After that, rafting itself starts in the direction of Hatanga.

The river Kotuykan starts on the Anabar Plateau and crosses it from the South-East to North-West. In a geological sense, the Anabar Plateau is unique. Earlier it was the bottom of an ancient ocean. Some stones still show some imprints of waves from the Archaean in the form of frozen microbes up to this day.  For many millions of years, the Siberian platform was drifting from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern, to its current placement. Throughout this time, various sea sediments accumulated on the bottom. And as a result of the platform rising, this species has ended up on the surface. In the Kotuykan valley you can find one of the most ancient rocks on the surface – Proterozoic  (1.5 – 2 billion years) and Archaean (3- 3.5 billion years). Here, the ancient history of the Earth is literally scattered along its coasts and it can not only be examined, but touched too.  

Large stones – stromatolites, whose age is more than 3.5 billion years, are the product of the lowest blue-green algae’s (cyanobacteria’s) vital functions. They have a layered structure and resemble large pieces of cheese or stacked cups.

However, not only water and time have worked on the wonderful landscape of this valley. Wind, sun and temperature drops have also made their impact. Fantastic weathered sculptures chaotically scattered along the Kotuykan, remind us of fairytale characters and gadgets from Star Wars. Sometimes entire fortresses of powerful towers, cathedrals, minarets and even Sphinxes avenues grow on along its banks.

Of course, the picture of this place would not be complete without the plant and animal world of the Anabar Plateau. The valley of the river Kotuykan is one of the most ecologically clear places in Russia. Nature here exists in its virgin and primeval form.       

In spite of the severe Northern climate (sometimes it snows here even in the middle of July), the variety of species here is extremely high. The area of the Kotuykan larch taiga includes forest-tundra, lichen forests (as in the majority of Iceland), brushwood’s dwarfish birch, red bilberries, great bilberries, wild rosemary, cloudberry and other plants.

It’s interesting that modern lichens are descendants of those cyanobacterias, which accumulated on the sea bed and formed stromatolites then. In this way we can see that over a million years, these organisms haven’t died, they have just changed and adapted themselves to new life conditions!

These places are very favorable for reindeers, because lichens constitute 90% of their food in winter time. You can always encounter small groups of animals crossing the river, or on the coasts of the Kotuykan. They are not afraid of people and look curiously at travelers.

At the top of the food chain in these areas you can meet a polar wolf. The base of his diet is reindeer, which are in abundance here. It is quite difficult to see a wolf there, because when a group of tourists appears, it prefers to go away temporarily. However it is possible to find the evidence footprints of a wolf’s feast.

Moreover, Kotuykan has one creature which at first sight is not so evident. It lives in the dark waters of the Kotuykan, people call it the “King of Fish”. Taimen is the largest representative of the salmon family. Adult specimens can reach 2 meters in length and 80 kilos in weight. It’s no surprise that this fish is honored to be included in a range of mysterious creatures and spirits of nature. Siberian tribes always considered the taimen a competent owner of local rivers and treated it with special respect.

Generally this fish is very sensitive to the purity of the water and the presence of oxygen in it. The presence of taimen in rivers can be considered a guarantee of the absolute ecological compatibility of this district. During the Soviet Union, the period of “heroic Northern exploration”, the number of taimen declined a lot and in some regions this fish was on the verge of extinction, but later people left many Northern regions and the environment has reestablished its natural balance. Nowadays this fish is noted in The Red Book and you can catch it in limited quantities only with a special license.

Surrounding by such generous nature it is impossible to starve, or all the more, to die from starvation. There are a lot of fish in the river (there is also white-fish and umber), deer, which allow people to approach for an accurate shot, lots of different berries, there is firewood and the clearest water. It is enough to have a fishing-rod, gun, knife, matches or flint with you. Most likely the earliest explorers of the 17th century discovered these unknown acres in exactly this way.

In spite of all the savagery of local nature, footprints of human presence are noticeable in some areas. There is the Lithospheric RAS (Russian Academy of Science) base in Kotuykan, abandoned at the beginning of 1990s. This wooden house is quite adapted to living, everything inside remains untouched. There are soviet magazines on the table, a portrait of Lenin on the wall; books about geology are resting on a shelf, as if even yesterday scientists were living and working here. However, time takes it’s toll: the helicopter landing is overgrown with young larches, and the environment slowly devours man’s creations. 

Further following the stream of the Kotuykan, in the creek of the river Iliya, it is possible to find the remains of another desolated geologists’ camp. Here only frames from a canvas tent and bath-house remain, with rusty barrels of fuel scattered around.

The most amazing discovery is after the Kotuykan flows into the Kotuy. Not far from the coast, a paddle-towboat from the 1920s and a barge-frame were found. It is unknown how they could have overcome such a strong stream and get there. Even modern freight river boats can’t deal with this head current. Who, when, and with what aim they went there is unknown – these questions are expected to be clarified.

Usually helicopters takes tourists to a very picturesque place, where the rivers Djogjo (Dyodyo) and Kotuykan converge. The Djogjo makes a sharp bend, a so-called key pattern. In this place, the two rivers are divided by thin (near 50-meter wide) hard rock, and meet each other after several kilometers.              

Our journey through these wonderful and so far places finishes there.

In one of the next issues we will tell you about the unique expedition of our compatriots, who for the first time in history have reached Hatanga by passenger car!

Text: Andrey Sugakov-Romanov.  Translation: Margarita Maslova.  Photo: Sergey Dolya.

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