The Caucasus is a major mountain range in southern Russia, extending some 800 km west to east, from Black to Caspian Sea. Less known though, this range is the biggest in Europe, with several peaks over 5000 m, and the highest point of Europe, Mt. Elbrus (5642 m, 18510 ft) is here.
The region is densely populated and roads go up almost every valley, making river access easy. The range itself is a border between Russia (northern slopes) and now independent country of Georgia (southern slopes); the same border geographically separates Europe and Asia.
The major concern of the area is an unstable political situation. Eastern half of north (Russian) Caucasus if currently off-limits due to the war in Chechnya (despite authorities say the war is over, the situation outside major towns is obviously out of control). Three eastern districts - Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia are not recommended and are not described here.
Further west, Osetia (Alania) is still under the question. Too close to Chechnya and Ingushetia, no one is currently eager to check it out. But because there was no war here, the situation may stabilize soon, and we describe some rivers in Osetia too.
Western half, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea are stable and safe enough, there were no assaults or conflicts with locals reported (unless you're asking for troubles being drunk and trying to date someone's girl).
Southern slopes of the Caucasus are not a wise option to go at the moment; Georgian government is too weak and hardly controls anything outside the capital. They have had numerous tribal conflicts and there're many Chechen's fighters camps in the gorges due to unsecured border with Chechnya. It's a pity, because Georgia was a very welcoming place in the past.
The only exception is Abkhazia, western Georgian province, an actually independent (thought unrecognized) country completely separated from Georgia after they were in a war some 8 years ago. Abkhazia used to be recreational paradise for countless holiday-makers, and thanks to currently almost transparent border with Russia it slowly gets back.
Type of Paddling
Typically short (rarely multi-day) runs of any level of difficulty. Because the road follows almost every river, it's a good idea to have a car support and paddle light, jumping from one river to another.
Season & Climate
April till October (even March and November if you can tolerate cold). The climate is warm, rather hot in the summer, but in April and in early May it's easy to get an occasional snowstorm at altitude. There are practically no mosquitoes in this area. River altitude increases from west to east, from 700-1000 m in Adygea and Abkhazia up to 1500-1900 m in Kabardino-Balkaria. The same way, rivers in the west are mainly snow and rain fed (high level in May-June, low in August-September) but coming east, they become mainly glacier-fed (high level in July, low in May and September).
Getting There & Away
Because the Caucasus is a major holiday destinations, there are numerous flights and trains from almost everywhere in Russia (but getting a reservation in peak season is a hard job).
For most of the Northwest Caucasus, Mineralnye Vody, a famous mineral water resort, is the best option to fly into. Coming by train (25-30 hrs from Moscow, 30-35 hrs from St.Petersburg), the destination might be Mineralnye Vody or Kislovodsk (for the Central Caucasus) and Nevinnomyssk or Belorechensk (for the western part). There are belt roads in the foothills allowing quick move from river to river, as well as roads up almost every valley (some are unpaved, but 4x4 drive is rarely necessary).
For the Black Sea coastline, including Abkhazia, the destination (either flight or train) is Sochi (Adler), a famous sea resort.
Because the main range acts as a border with Georgia, the borderland permits may be necessary for upper valleys. There is little bother for river runners as most of the runnable sections are quite far from the border, but for trekking or mountaineering this issue should be noticed.
The Caucasus Nature Reserve occupies upper valleys of Belaya and Malaya Laba and also requires permit, but getting this one is easy and can be done on arrival for a reasonable fee.