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Faces of Russia

KAMCHATKA: THE REALM OF GEYSERS, BEARS AND NERKA

Kamchatka has always been one of the most alluring and challenging tourist destinations. This tantalising magnet attracts fanatics of extreme fishing and mounting climbing, as well as those who wish to experience one of the last remaining wildernesses left on Earth.

With only about 300 km of paved roads, the main means of transportation on the peninsula are helicopters and off-road vehicles. The capital of the region, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where half of the population lives, is the oldest city in the Russian Far East. It was founded in 1740 when the Second Kamchatka Exploration Expedition led by Vitus Bering landed on its shores. About 10,000 km of roads and eight time zones separate Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky from Moscow. The state border of the Russian Federation passes across both the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean, which along with the Sea of Okhotsk, wash the Kamchatka peninsula.

Kamchatka's climate is influenced by the Sea of Okhotsk, which acts as a huge accumulator and smoothes over temperature extremes, making the summer quite cool (between +10 and +15C) and the winter mild (rarely lower than 15C ). It may rain in December or January. The northern slopes of volcanoes may be covered in snow all year round even if the temperature reaches +30C. Moving inland by 10 to 20 m makes the climate more continental and allows you to sunbathe or even take a wim (especially in the hot springs).

The outline of Kamchatka looks like a primitive axe pointing southwards and, like the surface of a lithic-age weapon, the territory of the peninsula is rugged and rough. It is composed of about 300 volcanoes, 29 of which are active. Kamchatka volcanoes are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and their distinctive surfaces were the testing ground for "Lunokhod-1", the first unmanned lunar vehicle, before it was sent to the moon.

  • Kamchatka Krai (governmental name of the region) is situated in the utmost northeast of Russia and encompasses the Kamchatka peninsula together with its adjacent continental part, Karaginsky and the Komandorsky islands.
  • Population: 345,000 people. 
  • Population density: 0.7 people per 1 km2
  • Area: 472,300 km2.
  • Indigenous people: Itelmens, Koryaks, Chukchi, Ainus. Children of intermarriages between Russians and Itelmens are called "Kamchadals".

Asian wild salmon nerka are a precious treasure of the local waters. They fatten in the open sea for four years and return by the Ozyornaya River (60 km) back to Kurilskoye Lake where they spawn and die with their spawn feeding on their remains. The cycle repeats every four years. By the spawning period, nerka don a red "breeding dress", with their skin and, more importantly, their meat turning bright crimson outstanding even among other salmon species.

Another feature of the unique region is the steam and hot mineral water springs forming in areas of current volcanic activity. There are approximately 150 different clusters of hot springs in Kamchatka, with about one third of them suitable for bathing. Kronotsky Natural Reserve houses one of the most stunning natural wonders the Valley of Geysers situated in the basin of the Geyser River. The Valley overwhelms with more than 20 large geysers and numerous smaller throbbing and boiling springs and mud pockets.

Kutkh's Baty

These whitish outcrops of pumice depositions exposed to the elements resemble in shape to the long boats used by the Kamchatka indigenous people, baty, turned upside-down. Legend has it that this is the place where Chukcha's god Kutkh left his baty to dry.

Thick deciduous forests and crystal clear rivers flowing from mountains or glaciers teem with wildlife including Kamchatka brown bears, sables and Steller seagulls. But the main treasure of the land and the foundation for the region's economy is Oncorhynchus salmon, six species of which inhabit the cold waters of the Pacific and spawn in some of the 4,000 local rivers, the longest of which is called Kamchatka (700 km long). Every year almost one fifth of all the wild Pacific salmon take the last journey of their short life this type of salmon spawns only once and dies straight afterwards.

The Kamchatka brown bear is one of the largest of the species: males can be as big as 3 m tall and weigh 700 kg. Professional photographers aspiring to take a beautiful close-up provoke the carnivorous animals, often becoming their victims. In the summer, bears tend to stick close to salmon-spawning sites since the easy catch enables them to build up the body fat necessary for six months of hibernation. Bears wake up in April or May, disturbed by the thawing snow.

Fishing is the main source of income for people living in Kamchatka. Fishing artel Kolkhoz Krasny Truzhenik catches and processes seafood. One of the oldest enterprises in Kamchatka, it turns 80 this year. A dozen small seiners catches up to 10 tons of bottom fish comprising walleye pollack, flounder, cod, navaga and halibut in the open sea. The catching period is seasonal and lasts from March to October. During the spawning season, salmon species such as nerka, hunchback salmon, chum and loach are caught in the rivers.

Text Natalia Makarova
Photos courtesy of Konstantin Chernov

 

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