"If you can find me a better place than Kamchatka on this earth, I will argue with you!" exclaimed 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.
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Only the Kamchatka Peninsula stands directly over the grinding tectonic forces that forged its volcanoes, he said, 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 said.
UNESCO seemed to agree. The international organization 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 toward 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 gray and dusty red, most dotted with glaciers and snow. Alpine meadows burst with blossoms and colors 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 monthlong dog race. Intrigued by Kamchatka's mythical allure, we decided to make our last trip of a five-year assignment in Moscow to the region that most Russians consider the obscure end of their country.
To a Volcano's Rim on Massive Tires
As our Aeroflot flight from Moscow traced an 8-hour arc above the Arctic Circle, we delighted as the red-orange disc of the sun seemed to roll along with us, never setting. Blissfully unaware of how Kamchatka's capricious, sub-Arctic weather plays havoc with travel plans, we had decided that six days was enough to hit the highlights.
Soon after we landed, the wispy fleece around the dazzling volcanoes circling the regional capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky thickened and they disappeared. "Neil, heli excursions canceled for tomorrow," read the WhatsApp message from our travel company.
Kamchatka has only about 370 miles of paved roads, mainly concentrated around the three southern cities, home to 80% of its shrinking population of just under 315,000. Pricey helicopters provide the only quick access to some of the more spectacular sights.
Grounded, we headed for Mutnovsky volcano, a famous peak of more than 7,600 feet. While less than 40 miles from the capital, reaching the top required a bumpy, four-hour drive on dirt roads and across boulder-strewn lava fields.
Our camouflage-wearing volcano guide, Sergei Y. Lebedev, was an originator of the idea of building Mad Max vehicles mounted on massive tires to haul tourists up to the very lip of various volcanoes. He had added a double axle to the back of his current model, a silver Toyota minivan. Its six tires, each 4-feet-tall and 27-inches-wide, meant we climbed a short ladder to get in.
Wherever we stopped, tourists ignored the nature and photographed our hulking vehicle. The other guides had given it the affectionate Russian nickname of "Malysh" or "Baby."
As the road ascended, 30-foot poles appeared at regular intervals along its edge. They measured the formidable height of the winter snow, Lebedev said.
After sliding across a couple of glaciers, we parked and began hiking into Mutnovsky's crater. The barren landscape — the soil is too sulphurous for plants — and the shifting mists lent the entire scene a Kurosawa-like foreboding. No signs cautioned about the risks, but a small white cross honouring a young scientist who died collecting data served as sufficient warning.
Lebedev described 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 told us.
We threaded our way through a narrow valley covered with ice, volcanic rocks and small, ash-covered piles of snow. It took 90 minutes to approach the heart of the crater. The hissing and sulphurous smell arrived first, as if the Devil was nearby, breathing heavily.
From atop the last ridge, we saw white steam billowing skyward from open holes in the Earth. These wheezing, roaring fumaroles dyed much of the landscape a bright yellow. As we stared into their murky depths, a sudden gust of steam stung the eyes and prickled the skin.
On a clear day you can hike to a lake, but thick fog prevented us from venturing further.
On the way down, the clouds finally cleared, revealing 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.
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," said 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.
The crux of the problem, explained Sergey Vakhrin, a conservationist who founded a nonprofit organization 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 organizations, 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.
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," said 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.
World War II 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'
The weather repeatedly thwarted our attempts to reach the interior, with the clouds hanging ever lower. Hiking on nearby Avachinsky Volcano to admire the view seemed pointless. But options were limited.
The rain did not prevent fishing expeditions, so we boarded a small yacht, the Princess, and motored out of giant Avacha Bay into the Pacific. Puffins skimmed the surface as the crew handed out fishing poles.
While the captain's wife transformed the day's catch of halibut and crab into a feast, the rest of us lurched on the pitching deck, listening to the guttural rumblings of the sea lions and watching the bobbing otters.
Suddenly, magically, a family of orcas leapt in front of the boat. It was the first of two lucky sightings.
Our luck did not endure. Rain washed out our fourth day, so we drove around 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.
We visited the Vulcanarium, a small, engaging museum, which offers 90-minute tours and displays in both Russian and English.
By that stage we pored hourly over three newly downloaded weather apps to check the height of the cloud ceiling. The chilly rain did not ground the helicopters, but the pilots needed visibility over the peaks.
With sinking hearts, we ate dinner in our hotel room — creating wraps from deliciously fresh coho salmon roe bought at the local fish market. Then suddenly we received an encouraging text. If the southern skies cleared as expected, the helicopters would fly to Kurilskoye Lake the next day. Visitors can get close — but not too close — to bears hunting salmon.
Almost every local 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," said Anastasia Takatly, our enthusiastic and enterprising main 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, said 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 said, 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."
To the Bears
The next morning, with dabs of blue sky peeking between the clouds, our cautious optimism paid off. We boarded an Mi-8 helicopter at the separate helipad near the main airport. It rose, dipped momentarily under the weight of the 25 people onboard, then lifted.
One volcanic peak after another stretched in endless succession below. Occasional flashes of blue whizzed past as we spotted a crater lake. Rivers, silvery in the summer light, meandered down every valley.
After an hour, the helicopter swerved, looping low over the lake. To our delight, bears lumbered along the shoreline or galloped into the water to try to snag a fish. Even the plump, red salmon were visible from above.
After landing, we were told to stick closely to one of the shotgun-carrying rangers from the Kronotsky Nature Reserve.
First, we set out across the lake on motorboats. The lake lies at the foot of the nearly 5,000-foot Ilyinsky Volcano, which erupts roughly every 100 years and is overdue.
Perhaps our favorite bear swam past less than 10 yards away like a snorkeller, its eyes underwater, seeking salmon. Fish broke the surface at random, leaping for insects. On one beach several bears appeared to be slumbering lazily. Suddenly one mother pounced into a narrow river, snatched a salmon and quickly fed her cub.
Back at the station, we ventured outside the electric perimeter fence toward a wooden bridge over the Ozernaya River, where scientists tally the fish and bears hunt them. None of the 10 bears visible seemed particularly adept. One young bear performed repeat belly flops into schools of fish but never caught one. The adults were not much better, charging at high speed into the river, which seemed to boil as an entire school of salmon scrambled to escape.
Our fellow Russian visitors called out "Misha" or "Mishka," endearing nicknames for their national symbol.
This August, the numbers of spawning fish was below average, leaving the usually contented bears a little hungry. Just two days after our visit, authorities suspended trips to one river where an aggressive bear rushed toward a group of scientists, veering off at the last minute.
Our flight back included two stops: a brief visit to a crater lake and a longer stay at the Khodutka mineral hot springs. Heading down the wooden steps for a dip, we encountered a traffic jam as people hesitated before entering the water, scalding at more than 110 degrees.
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, endorsed the tourist village, too. The park would expose people to his beloved volcanoes, he said, 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 said 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 organizations call that a dangerous precedent.
"We need to protect not only Kamchatka, but nature in Russia in general," said 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 $520 in February, rises to $1,890 by May, if you can find one.
Our tour from Enjoy Kamchatka cost $2,350 a person for six days, without helicopter flights at $1000 each per person. The oligarch version, with your own helicopter transporting you throughout the peninsula, costs about $23,500 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 favorite 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 and Neil MacFarquhar
2019 The New York Times Company