Bears and volcanoes: A trip into the Russian wild

Carl Fincke

THE WASHINGTON POST – You come to Kamchatka for two reasons: bears and volcanoes. The Russian peninsula has both in greater abundance than anywhere else in the world.

It’s barely 7am. I’ve flown through the dark from another Russian city I can’t begin to pronounce. Kristina reminds me that for the next six days we’ll be off the grid.

Not many folks have heard of Kamchatka. Most who have known it from the game “Risk,” which I have never played.

Indeed, there’s a bit of risk involved in visiting this remote teardrop that hangs down from Siberia, well north of Japan and just across the Bering Sea from Alaska. Kamchatka has more than 150 volcanoes, including 29 active ones. And it boasts the highest density of brown bears in the world, with almost 15,000 on the peninsula.

The heliport has a dozen Mi-8s lined up, all drafted for duty to explore a territory that was, because of its strategic location, off limits to residents until 1989 and foreigners until 1990.

ABOVE & BELOW: In search of spawning salmon, Kamchatka brown bears stalk the mouth of a stream at Kurilskoye Lake; and trekkers and crew unload supplies from an aging Mi-8 helicopter on a plateau just below the Mutnovsky volcano. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

A turquoise lake pools in a crater near the summit of Mutnovsky volcano
The aerial approach to Kamchatka, always spectacular, is especially so at sunrise

At roughly 100,000 square miles, the peninsula is about two-thirds the size of California. Sitting on Pacific’s ring of fire, it’s peppered with hot springs, geysers and fumaroles, and gets the occasional earthquake and tsunami.

More than half the year, Kamchatka is buried under snow. Our August tour is timed to catch the bears in their final stages of storing up for hibernation and the hikeable volcanoes before they become completely encased in ice.

The flight into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the peninsula’s only real city, is spectacular. Surrounded by snow-capped volcanic cones and set on a perfect natural harbour, it is home to half of Kamchatka’s population of about 400,000.

And it is certifiably remote: the second-largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road (Iquitos, Peru, on the Amazon, is the largest). Direct flights from Alaska are no longer available, and you must fly into another Russian city first.

The rest of our six-person group arrived yesterday; visa issues cost me the prep day here, but I was able to make it just in time for the helicopter.

The chopper thunders off the tarmac, and within minutes, civilisation is in our rearview mirror – no roads, only forests, rivers and mountains. We’re headed for Kurilskoye Lake, about 120 miles to the south, near the tip of the peninsula.

On the way, we stop for a swim in a hot springs and are introduced to some of the region’s most unpleasant residents: voracious mosquitoes.

We make a second stop at Ksudach Volcano, a massive, 100-year-old caldera – young, by earth standards. The crater is more than a mile across, with brilliant twin lakes. We walk along its rim, peering over the cliffs.

No paths, no ropes, nothing to stop you from going anywhere – including over the edge.

The chopper lands just inside an electric fence that surrounds our idyllic compound: a cabin perched on a thumb of land sticking out into the lake. In the distance, we can see brown specks – bears, fishing at a stream that enters the lake.

We gather at a gate to the fence, where three armed rangers await. One, Costa, is straight out of central casting: full camo, bandanna, dark shades, two-day stubble, knife on his side, rifle in his hands.

The safety talk is stern: Walk single file, do not get separated, do not go off the path, do as you are told. Questions?

The first, of course: Have you guys ever had to use your rifles?

Misha, our main bear guide, deadpans, “Yes. On tourists.”

We creep along the shoreline, occasionally dipping into the brush – one ranger in front, another in the middle, the third at the rear. Whenever the line gets too stretched out, we stop so it tightens back up.

Lana, the lone female ranger, says she once had to go to Step 2.

Step 1 is warding off a bear by firing a flare. Step 2: shooting a blank cartridge. Step 3: real bullets.

Suddenly, over to the right – a bear, not 20 feet from us. A wonderful blend of fear and excitement hits us. Cameras and phones nervously move to capture the moment.

But it is brief, as the rangers order us to keep moving.

Half a mile from the lodge we arrive at the stream. Bears everywhere. We file into a metal, two-storey viewing platform called the bear tower. Built on the bank, the ground floor has prison-style bars to keep them out and us in. The second deck is open from the waist level up.

What a sight – maybe two dozen bears at various stations. Three across the stream mouth, serving as an initial obstacle for spawning salmon. A mother nurses two cubs on the far bank. Three more sleeping. Another perched comically on all fours on a small tree branch midstream. A dozen more scattered along the edge, scanning the waters for movement.

Then it happens. A fin breaks the surface and a bear charges. Others, not seeing the salmon but knowing one has been spotted, join the rush. As the panicked fish reveals itself, the bears close in. Inevitably, one pounces – the prey pinned beneath its paw or captured in its jaws.

A few growls later, after warding off would-be thieves, the bear wades ashore and devours its prize.

It’s mesmerising. For three hours, we watch this classic life-or-death struggle – salmon relentlessly trying to reach their destination, bears battling to snag precious protein to get through the brutal winter.

The Kamchatka brown bear can weigh up to 1,400 pounds. It can eat 100 pounds of salmon a day. Most of the fish, which turn blood red as they spawn, weigh five pounds or more.

Often, the bear that first spots a fish is not the eventual winner. We find ourselves rooting silently – never for the fish, always for the bears, especially the smaller females, with their cubs watching hopefully from the bank.

The bears are oblivious to our presence. At times, they even haul their catches onto the bank so close we can hear the crunching of bones.

Our cameras are getting a workout. Every bear, every chase seems worthy of filming. One highlight: a prolonged boxing match between two cubs, standing on their hind legs as they playfully paw at each other.

With guards in tow, we polish off the glorious first day with an insane dip in the lake – with a temperature of about 40 degrees.

The group has quite an international flavour: the Netherlands, Singapore, Austria and Spain, plus an extended family from India that has joined us for the bear segment. The only American, I’m reminded of one of the benefits: Everyone here speaks almost perfect English.

Our cook, Sveta, regularly flashes the considerable gold in her teeth. Her soups, stews and porridge are restaurant quality.

At dinner, I asked Kristina if she has ever been to the United States (US). No, but she once tried to go to Hawaii. Her visa request was denied.

“I am 27, no husband, no children,” she said. “They are afraid I come to America to get married.”

Misha is a character – lanky and balding, blind in his right eye, with serious scars across his forehead. He fancies himself a joke teller, but much is often lost in translation. Still, it’s easy to laugh along with him.

When not handling tourists like us, he leads hunting parties up north. Russia sells permits, at up to USD14,000 each, to shoot bears – often, Misha said, to Americans.

We spend the next three days revisiting the bear tower and exploring the wilderness. A cruise across Lake Kurilskoye gives a sense of how time and geology work their magic: 40,000 years ago, this was an active caldera; today, it’s a lake 1,000 feet deep and five miles across.

Walking across the tundra, we see bears munching on berries, another staple of their diet. From a distance, they look like cows grazing.

One scheduled hike is cancelled: too dangerous. Fish are scarce in that area and the bears are overly aggressive.

Although they seem to pay us no mind, we know what they can do. On the lodge grounds is a memorial to a Japanese photographer killed by a bear here in 1996. Against the advice of others, he chose to sleep in a tent instead of indoors.

Tomorrow we head for the volcanoes. I’ll miss Misha, who is not coming with us.

I want to know what happened to his eye and how he got all those scars. A bear? Hunting accident? Car wreck? War? We’ll never know. I just didn’t have the nerve to ask. None of us did.

The chopper sets down on a plateau between the Mutnovsky and Gorely volcanoes. We will trek up one each of the next two days.

An afternoon hike takes us along a dicey ice field, then to scrub land sprouting countless wild blueberry bushes. Kristina can’t resist, stopping repeatedly to gather all she can eat and carry. They’re smaller than our blueberries but just as delicious.

We’re only at around 5,000 feet, but it’s bitterly cold. Wind howls, hammering at the sides of the tent all night.

The group debates whether to hike to the trailhead or take the six-wheel-drive truck. Thankfully, the truck wins.

What a brute of a vehicle. Barely moving at walking speed, it growls and claws its way across stream beds, over boulders and up steep inclines. We are quickly into a moonscape, void of vegetation.

Mutnovsky last erupted in 2000 and is still very much awake. The five-mile trail up the volcano snakes past hissing steam vents and sulfur pots belching yellow clouds that make eyes water.

The summit features twin craters, separated by what is aptly described on our itinerary as a “knife-edge ridge”. It can only be reached by scrambling up a rope. Who knows when it was installed, or by whom, but we trust it and haul ourselves up, hand over hand. Down the steep slope, a turquoise lake beckons. The view of the crater on the other side is completely obscured by steam and clouds.

Bad weather swoops in overnight. With almost zero visibility, we must scratch the Gorely volcano trek. Plus, there is no way the helicopter is getting back up here. We will return to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the six-wheeler.

For six hours, the truck lurches and grunts its way back to civilisation. In town, we wash off days of dust and soak in the hotel’s outdoor heated pools. Not crazy about the front desk hanging on to our passports.

On TV, “Russia Today” airs a piece on conspiracy theories surrounding the Jeffrey Epstein suicide. Says the commentator, “So Russian!”

Day 7 is an optional trip that we all choose to take – to the Valley of Geysers and Uzon Caldera.

The bus to the chopper sports an impressive crack running the entire length of the windshield. More excitement: In our flight path is Karymsky Volcano, which began erupting two days ago. After a slight detour, we land at the geyser park. Interesting, but disappointing – little more than a poor man’s Yellowstone.

I’ve been counting down the helicopter flights. The first couple were exciting, but the novelty wore off, and the Mi-8 has a ragged safety record. When today’s final flight – our seventh – touches down, I give thanks.

Our last full day is a cruise around Avacha Bay. On one side, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky; on the other, Vilyuchinsk – one of Russia’s remaining 40-some “closed towns”, where travel and residency is restricted.

We sit at the dock for more than two hours aboard an old rust bucket – albeit a rather comfortable one. The delay: waiting as the Navy tends to an underwater net that stretches the entire two miles of the bay’s mouth. This is home to Russia’s largest submarine base, and the net is a protective measure of some sort.

The harbour is littered with antique hulls and half-sunk vessels. Aging cranes work heaps of scrap metal. Crusty fishing boats chug in and out.

As we finally head for open water, the city’s modest skyline emerges: low-slung, Soviet-style buildings. Some cinder block, some stucco, most looking tired and beaten.

We pass the bay’s iconic Three Brothers – a trio of sentinel rock formations guarding the entrance. Legend has it that three brothers went out to protect the harbour from a tsunami and turned to stone.

The excursion features our most interesting food yet: fresh sea urchins. We slurp them, raw, straight out of their spiny shells.

Our final dinner is top-shelf, a king crab the size of a beach ball in the middle of the table. The chow – salmon two or three times a day – has been terrific throughout.

“People come to Kamchatka and they think they will lose weight,” Kristina said. “They don’t.”

We reconvene in a back room of the hotel. Most folks have a leisurely day tomorrow before flying out. I have to be up at dawn for an early flight. Sadly, around 11pm, I’m the first to leave the party. After getting up tomorrow, it will be four flights, an international date line and 40 hours before I hit the sack again.

While packing, my phone rings. Misha has made a surprise guest appearance downstairs. Can’t miss that.

“My American friend!” he said, throwing his arms open for a hug.

Before going our separate ways, we share contacts, promising to stay in touch. We won’t, of course, but our shared experience here is for keeps.