Kamchatka Bears and Volcanoes tour

Barry Stone explores Kamchatka, the land of smouldering volcanoes, steaming geysers and soaring peaks, where bears keep the locals on their toes.

The volcanic landscape far below our ageing Soviet MI-8 helicopter brings the getting-to-know-you conversations of our group of adventure seekers to a grinding halt, substituted by gasps and all manner of expletives.

Somebody mutters that it is like gazing over a golf course for giants, with vast forests of birch, larch, spruce and meadows its fairways and receding ice sheets – the remnants of a late summer – its sand traps. Above the tree line, snow- and ice-filled ravines scoured by ancient and not-so-ancient lava flows descend from innumerable summits and look like the white stripes on a zebra – at least, that’s how Koert, a Dutch oil executive and vodka expert and one of 16 people in our group, describes it. There are no towns or villages, no ski runs, no agriculture or chimney smoke or roads or other helicopters or anything else suggesting human presence.

It is a primordial-looking place: the way the world must have been before humans started building things; before we got busy.

We are in the Russian Far East, hovering over Kamchatka – a 1,250-kilometre-long peninsula roughly the size of Germany, Austria and Switzerland combined, extending south from Russia towards Japan; the Sea of Okhotsk to its left, the Pacific Ocean on its right. Cossacks first came here centuries ago in search of fur – mostly sable, once known in these parts as “soft gold.” But the peninsula’s overwhelming isolation meant that few real settlements took hold until the province’s capital, Petropavlovsk, was founded in 1740 by Dutch explorer Vitus Bering. From where we are perched, it looks as though Bering never came here at all.

Though a peninsula by definition, Kamchatka might as well be an island, effectively cut off from eastern Siberia by mountain ranges so precipitous and rugged that even the Soviets, with their access to the abundant forced
labour of the gulags, never attempted so much as a road. But the remoteness – the peninsula is some 11,000 kilometres and eight time zones east of the Kremlin – has proven a blessing for wildlife. Half of the world’s population of Steller’s sea eagles are here, and there are reindeer, mink, sable and wolverines.

Kamchatka’s streams and rivers, hundreds of them, flow undammed and unpolluted to the sea, which is why scientists estimate that a third of all the salmon found in the Pacific Ocean spawn here and are the foundation of the area’s food chain – more than 130 animal species depend on them for survival, and they provide some of the best fly fishing you’ll ever experience.

The countryside is pockmarked with hundreds of geysers and fumarole fields, including the World Heritage listed Valley of Geysers, the second-largest concentration of geysers in the world. Eleven percent of the world’s volcanoes are found in Kamchatka, too – of the province’s total 300, 29 are active. They stretch for hundreds of kilometres along two mighty mountain ranges, the Central Range and the Eastern Kamchatka Belt, a tiny portion of which we are attempting to fathom.

Half of Kamchatka’s 400,000 residents live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a pleasant, walkable city with a distinctly provincial feel and handsome pre-Soviet timber residences lining hillside streets. The other half are scattered so widely that the peninsula’s population density equates to less than one person per square kilometre. But don’t count on having the vast swathe of land all to yourself: Kamchatka brown bears are scattered here, too – around 16,000 of them, the densest concentration of the sub-species on the planet. So if your travel insurance has a “physio/remedial massage” option, tick it – I never looked over my shoulder so much in all my life.

When it is time to find a place to land the MI-8 and for everyone to start talking again, we descend on Grassy Point, a tiny promontory on Kurilskoye Lake. The second-largest of its kind on the peninsula, Kurilskoye is also Eurasia’s largest spawning ground for red salmon and, as a result, one gigantic bear magnet – we spot hundreds of the animals crowding around the banks. We also spot a manmade structure – a two-storey A-frame timber lodge able to accommodate 15 or so guests. There’s a dining room below and wrap-a-round verandas to enable guests to enjoy the view: the graceful symmetry of Ilinsky volcano (1,578 metres) and a dozen other “lesser” peaks; bear cubs chasing each other across open meadows, their parents stalking salmon along the lake’s shore, just beyond the perimeter of our electrified fence. Well, so-called fence.

Installed after Japanese nature photographer Michio Hoshino was mauled and killed by a brown bear on this spot in 1996 – apparently, Hoshino insisted he would be safe sleeping outside in his tent – the fence concerned me. Three strands of wire powered by a solar panel the size of a cheese board didn’t seem to me to possess the necessary punch to deter a frontal assault by a 700-kilogram bear – and his friends. Alexsai, our national parks guide, tries to reassure us: “only” one in 100 encounters between bears and humans here goes awry, he says. His shotgun is more comforting.

Grassy Point is home for Alexsai, and we never step beyond the fenceline without him. He, in turn, never goes anywhere without his shotgun and cache of soft-lead slugs – you can’t be too careful in an environment where bears outnumber rabbits, and where getting about involves walking along fresh bear trails through metre-high grasses.

An African safari it isn’t – there are no jeeps or stretched Land Rovers here. In Kamchatka, you walk to your wildlife, or stop and let it come to you. Either way, you have plenty of time to say your prayers.

Early on day four, our dependable MI-8 returns to take us from bear country to a 1,000-metre base camp near one of Kamchatka’s most restless giants: Gorely volcano. At 1,829 metres high, Gorely is a geological jigsaw, a massive complex of five overlapping stratovolcanoes with 11 summit craters and another 30 on its flanks.

The trek to the summit is easy and requires no alpine gear, the five-hour walk taking you up around 750 metres over ice, scree and some sharply incised fields of volcanic rock. Once you reach the rim, there’s a final, nerve-jangling walk along an impossibly narrow ridgeline linking two of Gorely’s spectacular craters – one home to a breathtaking turquoise lake of sulphuric acid, the other an amphitheatre of near vertical rock walls pockmarked with steam vents that scream louder than a 747 taking off. Kamchatka’s interior has only a few hundred kilometres of paved roads, hence the popularity of Petropavlovk’s fleet of exhilarating MI-8 transport helicopters, a necessary conveyance for all serious bear and volcano voyeurs. The choppers rattle and are incessantly noisy; the gauges are analogue; various rods and control wires run along the inside of their fuselages; and no one cares if you don’t wear your seat belt. But their Russian pilots can land you on a rouble – or, in our case, on a rock the size of a car space inside the smouldering, sulphurous caldera of Mutnovsky volcano. What with the bears and the lack of roads – not to mention the fact that Petropavlovsk, a major base for Russia’s Pacific Fleet, was not even open to most locals until early 1989 and to foreigners until 1990 – Kamchatka doesn’t really lend itself to independent travel. But this isn’t a bad thing. The end-of-world landscapes and big silences that come with true isolation are a rare and special thing – as is the knowledge that you’re taking the (high, grassy) pass less travelled.

Barry Stone travelled with us to Kamchatka on the Bears & Volcanoes of Kamchatka 10 day small group tour.