A sturgeon odyssey

A sturgeon odyssey

By Matt Spencer

One Average Spoke; just an average bloke. Cycling across Eurasia for sturgeon. We hear back on Matt's first part of a journey that would end up being more than 8500km. For more detailed insights head over to his blog.

"Adventure is one hell of an elixir, and I am sure it falls under several of the seven deadly sins: greed, lust, gluttony….pride. What started as a pinprick in lockdown blossomed into the adventure of a lifetime, and like many fruit-bearing trees, its seeds fall to lay dormant in various parts of my brain. Awaiting a time, moment and adequate condition to germinate again."

Last year I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. A mad odyssey, cycling across Europe and Asia to raise awareness of sturgeon (not the SNP variety); which to the untrained eye may seem a strange cause with which to risk career, finances and health over. However, to those in the know, such as the amazing people at the Alpkit Foundation, sometimes life and limb have to be put on the alter to galvanise positive change.

Forget trip of a lifetime, this was a lifetime in a trip and despite the saddle sores and dysentery, I genuinely cherished every moment I spent on my bike and in my tent last year. From dogs chasing my bike (and not in the cute sense), sleepless nights under the milky way to crossing deserts solo, the trip gave far more than I realised upon first return and I still find it hard to write about such a journey of juxtapositions.

It would be impossible to recite all that went on during the expedition, as well as all the issues sturgeon face across the globe. Instead, I will break down the beginning, middle and end; all that inspired and transpired in sketch mode. Stacked against me along this journey was the three ACLs I had ‘completed’ over my life, significantly down against the biological average. Wrecked by sport and stupidity alike, my body has toiled and taken the brunt for many of the mishaps in life, and it would have to rise to the challenge once more.

Couple my poor physical state with minimal life savings, and you have what would appear to be a doomed quest.

Importantly, with all that being said, once you are on the saddle all that really matters (apart from the depth of saddle sores) is your top 2%, the part of your brain that asks how bad do you want it.

Saving sturgeon single handedly was never an intention of this quest, what I wanted to do was bring a species no one had even heard of into you, the three blog readers, lives. To inspire you to fight for the unknown, to champion your own species or passion that needs help and to think of the wider ecological picture.

I should take the time here to caveat that the premise of the trip was to visit the last rivers in Europe and Asia that still played host to sturgeon, the worlds most at risk of extinction group of species. I would be doing this trip to highlight their demise and the poor state of many of the world’s rivers they call home and in doing so making an epic trip eastwards even more confusing and illogical. Two words that are often associated with me.

As someone who took the term ‘training’ rather liberally I landed in Brittany woefully unprepared for the surprisingly hilly nature of the province, further welcomed in true French style by their wettest start to spring in 18 years (or so I was told). Sites that were dry in the evening were a swamp by morning, but still, this is what I had signed up for and with headwind for company I made good(ish) time getting to Bordeaux and to the Garonne River in particular.

Here I saw firsthand what humankind had done to sturgeon. Rivers dammed, illegal and overfishing crippling the population and pollution run off from the land leaving the European sturgeon in a state of near extinction. As a species that, for the most part require fresh and marine water, what we do along the length of the river and out to sea can dramatically impact them. No longer reproducing in the wild, a handful of mature adults were collected in the late 1990s and a broodstock now only exists in one place on the planet, the INRAE facility near Bordeaux. My time spent at the research centre was as interesting as it was depressing but to know there are young sturgeon being released regularly back into the river to one day return, left me with a sense of hope.

It will not shock readers when they find out the South Downs are not an adequate training platform for the Alps.

Rivers by their very definition are separated by their watersheds, which are usually defined by hills or mountains. From the offset I knew that no matter how hard I tried I would be going uphill at some stage (believe me I poured over Google map to try find an easy way East). Sadly, no matter how much prep I did cycling between pubs in the rolling hills of the Home Counties, I was well and truly caught off guard this trip. Climbing hills for me is like swimming against a tide. With my rotund backside and propensity for a fat back (thank you genes) it is as if I am pulling a literal parachute up with me. Many a honk and an angry Frenchman I saw whizz pass me as I struggled up a steep hairpin bend; and nothing quite lifts the morale than seeing a queue behind you going up a sheer face.

Hitting Marseille a sharp turn eastwards was made into Italy and towards the River Po. A new country, with crossing multiple borders making the expedition seem somehow more legitimate in my mind. Some hard earned lessons had been gleaned from the roads so far (shower more, eat more roughage), and importantly the wet weather had been replaced with warm faces in Italy. Hospitality bounded, flat roads plentiful and mercifully not a single puncture. It was all too good to be true and I knew I was leaving Italy when the flat plains that hug the River Po were replaced by the mountainous passes of Slovenia.

Camping in these wooded high peaks was tricky at the best of times and cycling until sunset meant that I mistakenly camped in a smorgasbord (love that word) of places, most aptly defined by being awoken to find you had in fact camped in the local school’s playground during the ‘rush hour’…. really not a good look.

Despite the dystopian nature of some campsites so far, everything seemed so logical in the saddle, the routine becoming enjoyable with the scenery a reminder that the everyday can be more exquisite than anything borne of mortal hands could conjure up.

However, the enjoyable slow decent into the wild, and into a wilder state of self, was in sharp contrast to the personal malaise I had begun to suffer from. Struggling with gear giving up on me (crucially my inflatable roll matt, my poor brittle back), terrible weather and my first pangs of homesickness, I went through what I dubbed at the time as the week from hell.

I knew this battle would arise at some point, just I had not expected it A.) to still be in Europe and B.) just how quickly it came on. Writers and adventurers far more versed than I have written at length on the topic, so I’ll quickly assure readers that it took one magical moment of generosity from a stranger to turn this around; in the form of chocolate and so for the remainder of the trip I always carried an emergency bar dubbed Hungarian chocolate for other low times that would arise.

As the Black Sea neared I was fortunate enough to join the Danube Delta Institute in surveying for sturgeon. This was a river, in a part of the world, once famed for its variety of sturgeon species and for the huge numbers that were once present. Sadly, poaching for caviar has led population numbers to topple as mature females (far more important than the males, sorry chaps) were targeted as they come upriver to breed.

Known timings and likely sections of the river that sturgeon travel along meant that these incredible animals were easily hunted before their chance to produce the next generation, and in turn compound the other multiple stressors sturgeon faced – habitat degradation due to dams and pollution events to name a few.

After seven years of volunteering with sturgeon projects, and two months of solid cycling I got to see my first sturgeon in the wild, a baby beluga weighing only a few grams. Give it time and space to live, these fish will grow upwards on 5m and can weigh over 1000kg. Never judge a book by its cover is apt for sturgeon.

In my last few weeks in Europe I made the conscious decision to slow down as meeting sturgeon scientists – and wanting to protect my budget – had seen me race through the continent. This decision was richly rewarded. Days off midweek, extended camps by rivers, collecting firewood and most importantly, having the opportunity to spend extended periods with people I met along the journey. Some of my most memorable moments of the trip were spent literally doing nothing, with this relaxed approach recharging the batteries that had been long depleted from life under lockdown.

"I had just departed Kars, a city in Eastern Turkey and where I had just experienced my first whiff of the ancient Silk Road. I would be zigzagging and intersecting it from here intermittently for the next four months." 

Continue on Matt's odyssey... 

Or find out about the Flora & Fauna International Saving the last sturgeon project.

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