The River Will Come Home

The meandering and willow-lined Maksimovka River in Primorye, Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

In autumn 2012, a heavy rainstorm caused the Amgu River in northern Primorye to burst its banks and wash out a small section of road leading into the village of Amgu. This settlement, barely offset from the Sea of Japan by a narrow, sandy beach, was poised to be cleaved in two by the massing waters. Luckily, the escalating pressure caused a second river mouth to burst through the beach and into the bay. The water levels receded and the village was saved.

The residents of Amgu, shaken by this near-catastrophe, raised a tall, earthen dyke between the river and the adjacent road in response. This would prevent such a disaster from threatening again, they reasoned.

Two years came and went. Water levels rose and receded. Villagers, lulled into a sense of safety behind this castle wall of mud and rock, remained unaware that the Amgu River was not yet done with them. In fact, like a dragon resting on the valley’s chain, the river was waiting patiently for the right moment to arch its back, spread its wings, and breathe some serious fire.

The floods returned in September 2014.

Two days of rain released a leviathan on Amgu; a stampede of water, sludge, and debris that quickly hopped the dam and used the road—the path of least resistance—to cut directly into the heart of the village. Several kilometers of the only road linking Amgu to the outside world were washed out. The village was wholly isolated for close to three weeks.

In the end, more than a hundred houses in Amgu—about half the town—ended up under at least a meter of water. The river superhighway hustled countless belongings from the safety of closets, sheds, and yards to the dark, insatiable waters of the Sea of Japan. Only those houses on the fringe of the valley or on its slopes escaped the flood.

An aerial examination of the coastal river valleys in this region reveal a landscape slashed by the linear scars of past river channels; places where, over time, water abandoned former flows and pioneered new routes to the coast. These rivers have, for generations and in slow motion, slapped across their respective valleys like contemplative flicks of a house cat’s tail, having at one point saturated almost every patch of land presently dry.

Notably, when the explorer Vladimir Arsenyev visited this area in 1906, he observed that the Chinese residents of the village Sankhobe—relative newcomers—lived in the valley, while the indigenous Udege—who had lived there much longer—occupied the valley slopes. And in the coastal village of Maksimovka, old-timers warned against building homes where there were willows: dead giveaways of past river flow.

With experience comes wisdom.

The coastal rivers of Primorye are prodigal but invariably venture home. And heaven help the complacent and the unaware when these waters come knocking.

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