Volcanic Kamchatka

This item appears on page 54 of the May 2012 issue.
Sunrise at 4,500 feet, with 12,080-foot Mt. Tobalchik looming. Photos: Fuller

Twenty years ago I read about the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeastern Russia, south of the Bering Sea, and decided I had to go to that amazing place. What makes Kamchatka so fascinating is it sits atop three tectonic plates, making it home to 200-plus volcanoes, of which 30 are active. There were six eruptions between December 2010 and the time of my trip there, July 12-Aug. 2, 2011.

Kamchatka reputedly has 10,000 grizzly bears and has also been a Mecca for well-heeled fishermen from around the world, who take luxury vacations to catch 5- and 6-foot-long river salmon and trout. For info on fishing tours, contact The Fly Shop (Redding, CA; 800/669-3474).

I started researching Kamchatka air connections a few years ago and found them difficult or fleeting. In the end, I flew from Tokyo to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, on Vladivostok Air (Seattle, WA; 206/443-1614) for $900. (Note: in 2012, Vladivostok Air offers direct flights from Anchorage, Alaska, to Petropavlovsk.)

Dersu Uzala Ecotours (127473, Office 5, Tschemilovskiy 1st Lane, Building 1, Moscow, Russia; phone/fax +7 [495] 518 5968 [916] 148 7984, e-mail dersu_uz@mail.ru) had the best 2-week tour package, “Volcanoes and Bears,” which involved hiking on volcanoes and through forests, watching for bears, taking a harbor cruise, meeting aboriginal Russians and more. The land cost was $2,700.

The day I landed in Petropavlovsk, we could see TWO smoking volcanoes; already the tour was working out as planned!

For the next two weeks, it was fabulous. Imagine five or six Mt. Shastas in a row and connected!

We rafted down a river for two days, catching fish as we went; our excellent tour cooks had them on the table each night. We took a boat trip on Avacha Bay and hiked on the snow and ice on Mt. Mutnovsky to a small geyser field in the snow, adjacent to a giant geothermal plant. The next day we hiked through deep forests to a wilderness spa supplied by more geothermal vents.

One Ural rescuing another in the mud.

In Esso, a resort town, we met some Russian aboriginal people who raised reindeer. We visited one bearded giant with a small log cabin in which he carved wooden statues ($600 each). It was like Santa’s workshop in Kamchatka.

About 10 group tour members took an optional flight over smoking volcanoes in a Russian military helicopter for $900, bumped up from $600 at the last minute — and only greenback dollars were accepted. I wish I took it, as the weather cleared and they even landed and walked around.

When we weren’t rafting or sailing or hiking, we were in a giant Ural, a six-wheeled, 2.5-ton truck that could easily negotiate roads full of standing water and mud and slip-slide across the snow and ice fields that pretended to be roads.

There were 12 to 16 people in our tour group, depending on the day, and another 8 to 10 staff, including my personal translator. In 14 days in Kamchatka, I was the only American around. There was a Polish geographer who spoke good English, and everyone else was Russian. Most of them spoke at least some English, and all of them were wonderful in their interactions with me, so I always felt like one of the gang.

I had the most fun playing Go Fish and Hangman with Dasha, the 12-year-old daughter of Viktor, the tour director, while her mother prepared excellent food for the group. We ate VERY well; it was not all fish and even included salads, hot drinks, cookies and candy.

Woodcarver in the village of Esso, 100 miles northwest of Petropavlovsk.

Of the 14 nights of the trip, we camped out eight times, including three nights in Kluchevkoy Nature Park (which has 12 volcanoes and hundreds of cinder cones), pounding our tent stakes into volcanic ash. In addition, we camped in swampy areas where we had to hack out campsites from the 5-foot-high growth and stick our stakes into mud.

A caution about going to Kamchatka — it’s a good idea to ask ahead of time if the current year is a “mosquito” year; 2011 was. Another — check weather reports; we did have overcast and rain that hampered some volcano views.

For the last supper, in our dining tent, I brought vodka to thank all the Russians for being so nice to me. There were toasts, photos and détente.

On this trip we did see one bear, along the road, but we roared past and I missed the photo.

If you go, remember that this part of Russia is the wild frontier — few roads, little development and only 350,000 people in a place the size of California.

Lincoln, CA