Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula: A majestic land of volcanoes and bear-trodden wilderness

Eva Sohlman and Neil MacFarquhar visit the Unesco world heritage site, a land of mesmerising beauty where locals insist Russia begins

Tuesday 22 October 2019 13:10 BST
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The Koryaksky Volcano in the Kamchatka peninsula
The Koryaksky Volcano in the Kamchatka peninsula (Getty)

If you can find me a better place than Kamchatka on this earth, I will argue with you,” exclaims Alexei Ozerov, the exuberant chief volcanologist on the entrancing peninsula hanging off Russia’s Pacific coast. Leaping from behind his cluttered desk at the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, he tore a tabletop globe from its stand and traced his finger around the “Ring of Fire”, the chain of volcanoes encircling the Pacific Ocean.

Only the Kamchatka Peninsula stands directly over the grinding tectonic forces that forged its volcanoes, he says, with about 30 still active among more than 300. Four to seven erupt annually. That makes it a unique vantage point for volcanologists and everybody else, Ozerov says. Unesco seemed to agree. The international organisation has designated the volcanoes of Kamchatka a world heritage site because of what it called their exceptional beauty, concentration and variety.

Indeed, say “Kamchatka” to a Russian, and many will respond with a dreamy look and a wistful “Oh!” The peninsula, farther east than Japan, represents a distant otherworld of majestic, magnetic wilderness. That’s not exactly wrong. Famous for its exceptional flora and fauna, the peninsula does not resemble anyplace else in Russia, or many other parts of the planet. Kamchatka, roughly the length of California at just under 800 miles, is shaped like one of the peninsula’s plentiful fish, with its head pointed down towards Japan and its tail attached to the rest of Russia.

In late summer, Kamchatka’s abundant rivers run red with the crush of salmon racing upstream; it is the only place left where all six species of wild Pacific salmon return to spawn. An estimated 20,000 brown bears roam its enchanted forests of Russian rock birch and other trees, growing fat and mostly happy off salmon. Giant Steller’s eagles wheel overhead while offshore, orcas cavort and Kamchatka’s king crabs grow bigger than footballs.

During the brief window between the last snows of May and the first in mid-September, a rich variety of plants bloom at turbo force, adapted to their short, spectacular lives. The plants exude an unexpected tropical luxuriance.

Emerald forests and mauve tundra cover the foothills amid volcanoes in various hues of grey and dusty red, most dotted with glaciers and snow. Alpine meadows burst with blossoms and colours including yellow rhododendron, purple mountain heather, pink azaleas, fuchsia fireweeds, and the white stars of the eschscholtz starwort. Lower down, fields of wild grass can grow more than 11 feet tall.

Kamchatkans insist that this is where Russia begins, where the first of her 11 time zones wakes up. In previous centuries, it took a year to reach the peninsula from Moscow. To this day, no paved roads traverse the swampland separating it from mainland Russia.

Kamchatka’s isolation has gradually ebbed, with tension emerging between preserving it and developing its natural resources. Visitors come for its unusual, pristine nature and the plethora of outdoor activities in a relatively compact area – trekking, fishing, rafting, surfing and mountain climbing. In winter, there’s helicopter skiing and a month-long dog race.

The Bolshaya Udina volcano in Klyuchevskaya (Getty)
The Bolshaya Udina volcano in Klyuchevskaya (Getty) (Getty/iStock)

To a volcano’s rim on massive tyres

Kamchatka has only about 370 miles of paved roads, mainly concentrated around the three southern cities, home to 80 per cent of its shrinking population of just under 315,000. Pricey helicopters provide the only quick access to some of the more spectacular sights.

Mutnovsky volcano is a famous peak of more than 7,600 feet. While less than 40 miles from the capital, reaching the top requires a bumpy, four-hour drive on dirt roads and across boulder-strewn lava fields. Camouflage-wearing volcano guide, Sergei Y Lebedev, is an originator of the idea of building Mad Max vehicles mounted on massive tyres to haul tourists up to the very lip of various volcanoes. He has added a double axle to the back of his current model, a silver Toyota minivan. Its six tyres, each 4-feet-tall and 27-inches-wide, with a short ladder to get in.

Tourists ignore the nature and photograph the hulking vehicle. The other guides had given it the affectionate Russian nickname of “Malysh” or “Baby”. As the road ascends, 30-foot poles appear at regular intervals along its edge. They measure the formidable height of the winter snow, Lebedev says.

Tourists during the ascent to the active volcano Mutnovsky
Tourists during the ascent to the active volcano Mutnovsky (Getty)

The barren landscape – the soil is too sulphurous for plants – and the shifting mists lent the entire scene a Kurosawa-like foreboding. No signs caution about the risks, but a small white cross honouring a young scientist who died collecting data serves as sufficient warning.

Lebedev describes one previous visit, when the mountain rumbled fiercely and suddenly in the fog, giant boulders materialised in a field. “It is so strange and stunning that you can walk into an active volcano,” he says. Threading through a narrow valley covered with ice, volcanic rocks and small, ash-covered piles of snow, it takes 90 minutes to approach the heart of the crater. The hissing and sulphurous smell arrives first, as if the Devil is nearby, breathing heavily.

From atop the last ridge, white steam billows skyward from open holes in the Earth. These wheezing, roaring fumaroles dye much of the landscape a bright yellow. A clear sky reveals the snow-flecked splendour of Vilyuchinsky volcano with its lopsided, 7,135-foot cone.

A land built on salmon

Volcanoes form the backbone of the Kamchatka peninsula and the base layer of its natural wonders. Calderas, fumaroles, volcanic lakes and thermal springs dot the landscape. Clouds driven by high winds either from Siberia or off the Pacific tend to stall on this mountain chain, dropping prodigious amounts of snow and rain that feed lakes as well as some 14,000 rivers and streams.

In essence, the entire ecosystem of Kamchatka is built on the carcasses of spawning salmon

Yevgeny G Lobkov, professor

While salmon inhabit the waterways year round, millions return to spawn every summer. After laying their eggs, they die, and their carcasses turn into a biomass that stokes the fecund nature. “This entire biomass migrates to different areas, on the land, in the forests, in the meadows, in the rivers themselves, and it shapes the ecosystem,” says Yevgeny G Lobkov, a jovial, goateed professor of biology at Kamchatka State Technical University. “In essence, the entire ecosystem of Kamchatka is built on the carcasses of spawning salmon.”

Bears, trees, everything grows bigger. Researchers at Kronotsky Nature Reserve, a federal protected area, found that boom years for spawning salmon produced wider tree rings

That natural bounty also brings trouble, however. The animals, especially in a region lacking economic resources, have attracted poachers for decades. First, almost the entire population of wild reindeer was wiped out. Then western trophy hunters shot the largest bears and big-horned sheep. Arab princes pay $50,000 and up for falcons smuggled off Kamchatka, while Asian pirate ships used to vacuum up king crabs from the Sea of Okhotsk.

But the biggest poaching prize has long been the salmon and their roe, which underpin the local economy and constitute the staple diet for some 14,000 indigenous residents.

Brown bears fish for salmon on a river in Kamchatka
Brown bears fish for salmon on a river in Kamchatka (Getty)

The crux of the problem, explained Sergey Vakhrin, a conservationist who founded a nonprofit organisation called “Country of Fish and Fish Eaters”, was that fishing companies, corrupt politicians and enforcement agents, along with the criminal “poaching mafia”, worked in concert. They vastly overshot the quotas meant to preserve fish.

Still, conservationists point to the bumper crop of legally caught salmon last year to indicate that the area is now on the right track. Major fishing companies and some tourist organisations, for example, having bought exclusive rights to certain estuary fishing grounds or whole rivers, police their areas to protect their investment.

Kamchatka’s position as a frontier territory also helped to shape an unusual history. It is the cradle of a common Russian and American culture.

Some 22,000 years ago, lower water levels in what is now the Bering Sea created a land bridge between the two continents later dubbed “Beringia”. Some indigenous people migrated to what is today Alaska, along with reciprocal movements of fauna and flora.

The Kamchatka mountains provide a stunning backdrop as bears hunt for their dinner
The Kamchatka mountains provide a stunning backdrop as bears hunt for their dinner (Getty)

It was Kamchatka’s furs – sable, mink, red fox, silver fox, sea otter and ermine – that prompted Russian Cossacks to colonise the area in the 17th century. “The skins of animals were gold for czarist Russia,” says Irina V Viter, a local historian. Then Peter the Great, seeking to make Russia a maritime power, dispatched Vitus Bering, a Danish officer in the Russian navy, on two early 18th-century expeditions. Bering explored the sea that bears his name, and founded Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

Historians have never established the source of the name Kamchatka, with theories ranging from the surname of an initial explorer to a supposed indigenous word for a land that trembles.

Kamchatka became the jumping off point for Russian exploration and control of Alaska as well as parts of California and Hawaii. Then in 1867, needing money, Russia sold its North American territories, and Kamchatka stagnated. It served as an occasional place of exile for czarist political prisoners.

The Second World War largely bypassed the peninsula, but the conflict with Japan prompted the Soviet Union to transform Kamchatka into a warren of military installations. During the Cold War, it was closed to all foreigners and most Russians, which helped to preserve it.

Stuck in ‘PK’

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky city stands in front of the Klyuchevskaya Sopka mountains
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky city stands in front of the Klyuchevskaya Sopka mountains (Getty)

In Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, or “PK”, many of its older, battered Soviet buildings have been fortified with metal rods against earthquakes. The constant tectonic activity means minor temblors roll through every few months. There’s the Vulcanarium, a small, engaging museum, which offers 90-minute tours and displays in both Russian and English.

Almost every local there has a bear story. Bears plod through the woods in quest of blueberries, cranberries and honeysuckle berries, which Kamchatkans also collect by the bushel.

“Of course, we can only pick them if the bears share,” says Anastasia Takatly, a local guide, who runs an English school in the off season. “One time I was picking from one side of the bush and I looked up and saw a bear picking from the other side. That was scary.”

Lobkov, the biologist, says that Kamchatkans think of the bears as too stuffed with fish to be belligerent. Some seen regularly are even given names. “I have met bears 1,000 times,” he says, grinning. “I have had to run; I have had to climb trees. But here I am in one piece; I never had a real problem.”

I have met bears 1,000 times. I have had to run; I have had to climb trees. But here I am in one piece; I never had a real problem

Lobkov

This August, the numbers of spawning fish was below average, leaving the usually contented bears a little hungry. Just two days after our trip, authorities suspended trips to one river where an aggressive bear rushed towards a group of scientists, veering off at the last minute.

Given its mesmerising beauty, it is little wonder that Kamchatka attracts visitors, but the number that it can support is now the focus of an intense debate because a Russian tycoon wants to erect a tourist village. Sold as an “Eco-park,” it would offer summer and winter sports, including walks on wooden viewing paths near the Mutnovsky, Gorely and Vilyuchinsky volcanoes. The proposed 1,000 rooms would accommodate some 400,000 visitors annually, two to three times the current number.

Kamchatkans are divided. Businessmen say it would provide jobs and kick-start a halting tourism industry. Ozerov, the volcanologist, endorses the tourist village, too. The park would expose people to his beloved volcanoes, he says, plus it is more ecologically friendly than industrial development projects.

Kamchatka is rich in deposits of minerals and metals including platinum, gold, silver, nickel and copper. Gas and coal are being exploited as well. Some locals say the mines represent a greater threat than more tourists, especially since environmental inspectors rarely access mining areas.

The investors want to own the land for the hotel project, however, which would require removing it from a locally protected nature preserve. Conservationist organisations call that a dangerous precedent. “We need to protect not only Kamchatka, but nature in Russia in general,” says Roman Korchigin, deputy director for Ecotourism and Education at the Kronotsky Reserve. “If we start moving the boundaries, in the future we will start looking for reasons to move more.”

If you go

Travel to Kamchatka is not cheap, especially when booked close to the peak season in July and August. A round-trip economy Aeroflot ticket from Moscow which costs about $330 (£250) in February, rises to $1,200 by May, if you can find one.

Our tour from Enjoy Kamchatka cost $1,500 a person for six days, without helicopter flights at $650 each per person. The oligarch version, with your own helicopter transporting you throughout the peninsula, costs about $15,000 per person for eight people for a week. Cheaper, overland tours need more time.

Spontaneous changes to your agenda can run into the headache of special military areas. Getting a new permit from the security services, the FSB, can take two weeks, and the rules border on the absurd. The tour company arranged ours in advance, but when we weighed staying a few extra days in the spa town of Paratunka, we were told that without permits we would have to move from the east side of the town, which is a special military area, to the western side, which is not. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky offers a few good dinner options. Our runaway favourite was San Marino for the grilled blue halibut, but Kamchatka Local Kitchen also prepared wonderful seafood.

When I told the waitress “I will have the salmon please,” she responded, “Which kind?”

Eva Sohlman lives in Moscow, where she is working on a memoir about her Russian grandmother. Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting from Moscow

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