Ocean-sized waves, unreliable navigation, and corrupt officials were just some of the challenges National Geographic grantee, Amber Valenti, faced during her 2,700-mile trip along the Amur River.
Valenti, along with three other women, chose to travel the entirety of the Amur through Mongolia and Russia because of the river’s unique nature. “It’s the third longest free-flowing river left on our planet, and with 60 percent of the world’s rivers being dammed now, it was an opportunity to see something that’s truly last of its kind,” Valenti says.
But the beauty of the Amur was often overshadowed by tense situations. “The lower Amur is in this really mysterious political area where you have barbed wire fences lining the entire border along China, and even Russian nationals aren’t allowed to go there,” says Valenti, describing how difficult it was for her team to be sure they were making smart decisions. She wondered, “Do we really want to be held at gunpoint on the Chinese border?”
The women eventually learned to take their misadventures in stride. When lost, Valenti joked, “Worst thing, we just float right on into Russia, get arrested, and end up in Gulag.” Given the severe physical and mental demands of the trip, the women made a point not to take themselves too seriously. “We would run naked into the river to take baths and just be totally silly,” Valenti says of the group dynamic. “It’s like when you hang out with all of your girlfriends, but then add in the rigors of an expedition.”
The journey was part of a larger objective to support dam removal movements and other conservation efforts. Valenti explains, “Our main goal was to bring back inspiration for people to keep falling in love with the places all around them in the natural world because, in my mind, that’s how you create conservationists. People can know that it’s a good idea to conserve but they will probably never follow through with it unless they really love a place.”
Listen to Amber Valenti on National Geographic Weekend radio:
And watch Valenti and her teammate Krystle Wright share more expedition stories on stage with National Geographic Live: