Women take on Amur

By Derek Rosen March 15, 2013 03:31 pm

Sabra Purdy and Becca Dennis are about to set off on the adventure of a lifetime. And that’s quite a feat for the rock climbing ecologist and river guide-turned-nursing student who already have some adventures under their belts.

The two local products will join two other women — Amber Valenti and Krystle Wright — in May for a 70-day expedition down the Amur River. The third longest undammed river in the world, the Amur runs from its headwaters in Mongolia through China and Russia before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

Sabra Purdy and Becca Dennis are about to set off on the adventure of a lifetime. And that’s quite a feat for the rock climbing ecologist and river guide-turned-nursing student who already have some adventures under their belts.

The two local products will join two other women — Amber Valenti and Krystle Wright — in May for a 70-day expedition down the Amur River. The third longest undammed river in the world, the Amur runs from its headwaters in Mongolia through China and Russia before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

On their trip — now called the Nobody’s River Project — the four women will collect scientific data, document their surroundings and collect information for a scientific and social atlas on what is considered the most biodiverse watershed in Asia. 

They will also navigate political and social challenges as they pass more than 2,700 miles through national and cultural boundaries.

“We’re trying to plan as much as we can, but who know’s what’s going to happen,” said Dennis. “I think it’s going to be one of the (most fun) trips I’ve ever been on and one of the most challenging.”

Purdy, 34, is a river restoration ecologist and rock climbing guide who has been conducting research in the waterways of the Sierra Nevada for years. Raised in the Sonora area, she graduated from Sonora High School in 1996 before earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of California, Davis.

Dennis, 24, will take a break from studying to be a nurse for the expedition. The Mountain Ranch native will bring her expertise in river rafting, as she worked as a guide along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon after graduating from Calaveras High School in 2006.

The two have been involved since the project’s early stages about two years ago, when mutual friend Valenti contacted them for an all-women expedition down the Amur. A physicians assistant, Valenti has experience in rescue and remote rescue and has rafted rivers around the world.

Valenti said the idea came from a realization that in all her travels, she had never been on a large, free-flowing river.

“When you say yes to Amber, fun stuff happens,” said

 Purdy, who met Valenti at Davis.

Purdy, whose work often focuses on how dams and diversions in California have affected native fish, said this expedition is also “an opportunity to get some science done on a free-flowing river.”

It’s also an opportunity capture on film a remote stretch of free flowing water that traverses the birthplace of Genghis Khan and the expanse of southern Siberia. Filmmaker Skip Armstrong, who had done work for National Geographic and other clients, will follow along and document the journey for a film to be screened at festivals in 2014. 

Wright, a professional adventure photographer from Australia, will also document the trip.

The total project is expected to cost about $90,000, and the group is still fundraising. They’ve secured a variety of sponsors, including National Geographic, which awarded the women a Young Explorers grant.

Though all have experience on lengthy backcountry trips, Dennis and Purdy say this will be the most challenging yet. 

After arriving in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, they will take horses to the headwaters of the Onon River and take packrafts along the narrow waterway. Downstream, they will trade the rafts for faster kayaks with expanded supplies after a five-day stretch.

According to their itinerary, the Onon flows into the Shilka River in Russia, which meets the Argun, which then flows into the Amur-Heilong. They will use various crafts and modes of transportation, and they say they will likely have to improvise for unexpected encounters.

Both pointed to the logistical issues they will face as they cross multiple borders and deal with the bureaucratic issues of being foreign researchers. And it’s likely, Purdy said, that there will be more data and discoveries than they will have time or room to document.

“You’re committed when you’re out there in the wilds of Siberia,” Purdy said.