Where A River Runs Hot
Russia's Last Best Place
By Andrew Tarica
Past a snow and through a canyon of jagged, red-rock walls, lies a freakish world of fire and ice in the former Soviet Union.
It is called Mutnovskaya. The living heart of this volcano is a towering, blue-rimmed glacier surrounded by howling fumarole (steam vents), boiling mud pots and rocks colored yellow from the earth's geothermal activity.
Hikers often wander through this supernatural landscape, yet there is always danger when exploring the inner core of an active volcano -- one wrong step could spell disaster.
"Two years ago, a student was trekking through Mutnoskaya, and he leaned too close to one of the mud pots and fell in," said volcanologist Vladimir Kirianov. "All the rescuers found of him was half a leg and a rubber boot."
Welcome to Kamchatka, a remote peninsula of mountains, tundra and volcanoes in the Russian Far East, separated from the mainland by Sea of Okhotsk and from Alaska by the Bering Sea.
Kamchakta is one of the world's last best places. Though it was populated by Eskimo and Aleut-related peoples, Kamchatka was not known to Europeans until the Cossacks "discovered" it in the 17th century. In the centuries that followed, only ships could reach the peninsula, leaving it untraveled except for trappers and a handful of explorers such as Vitus Bering in the 18th century.
During the Soviet period, the presence of military bases armed with fighter planes, bombers and nuclear submarines -- all aimed at the United States -- prevented foreign tourists (and most Russians) the opportunity to travel there.
In 1983, Korean Airlines flight 007 flew off course, skirting the 900-mile-long coastline of Kamchatka -- too close to Soviet subs for Moscow's comfort. The airliner was shot down near Sakhalin Island; all 269 passengers and crew members died.
But times have changed. Mikhail Gorbachev eased travel restrictions to Kamchatka in 1990. Now, jet service from Anchorage, as well as cities in the former Soviet Union, make it possible to reach the peninsula in hours.
My journey began aboard Aeroflot flight 3885 from Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, to Petropavolvsk-Kamchatsky. Traveling light with only a backpack, some clothes and a fly rod, I was at the end of a nine-month trek along the "left bank" of the Pacific Rim, from Australia to Far Eastern Russia.
The port of Petropavlovsk, a modern city of more than 300,000 people (roughly three-fourths the total population of Kamchatka), sits on magnificent Avacha Bay, surrounded by craggy cliffs, black-sand beaches and four snow-capped volcanoes.
It was the opportunity to see wild nature -- and perhaps squeeze in some fishing -- that motivated me to make a stop in this far-off land.
As Stepan Krasheninnikov, an 18th century explorer and natural scientist, wrote, "The peninsula of Kamchatka is largely covered by mountains. They stretch in an unbroken chain from its southern tip to the north and are divided into two almost equal parts. Foothills run from this mountain range in both directions, while rivers run from the valleys between them to the sea."
And then, of course, there are the volcanoes, which most excite the imagination, with names like Koryakinskaya, Avachinskaya and Zhupanovksy. Kamchakta -- roughly the size of California -- is currently one of the most active volcanic areas along the Pacific Ring of Fire. Of the peninsula's 300 or so volcanoes, a staggering 29 are active.
The ringleader is Klyuchevskaya, which, at 15,584 feet near the center of the peninsula's eastern coast, is the tallest volcano in Eurasia. In April 1994, Klyuchevskaya erupted, sending a plume of lava three miles into the sky. This powerful volcano erupts almost every year, emitting 54 million tons of magma annually.
As might be expected in such a wilderness, traveling to the volcanoes is not an easy task. There is little tourist infrastructure on Kamchakta, let alone roads. As I was traveling independently and on a budget, this posed a problem. But hanging around the helicopter pad in Petropavlovsk, I arranged to tag along with a group of locals heading to a volcano called Khodutka for three days of camping.
After an hour-long flight, a breathtaking ride above an endless wilderness, we arrived at our campsite beside the Khodutinskaya River, about 75 miles from Petropavolvsk. The clear-as-gin river emerged from the base of the 6,897-foot Khodutka volcano at 161 degrees, only to be cooled by icy streams to hot-tub temperatures, perfect for swimming.
"We call this phenomenon 'hot river,' " said Kirianov. "On Kamchatka, there are many, many hot springs, but this is the only place where a river runs hot."
The landscape seemed a bizarre mix of the Far East and Far North. The river banks were lush, over grown and reminded me of jungles in Thailand or Vietnam. But everywhere else there was vast tundra, just in case one forgot the cool winds blowing from Siberia.
During my days at Khodutka, I fished for salmon and trout; picked wild mushrooms and berries from the tundra bushes; followed bear tracks along the river bank; and sang folk songs above love stories by a campfire, all in the good company of Russians. And though a cold rain fell throughout, I felt a warmth from my 20 or so companions, who seemed to relish the presence of a foreign guest. Indeed, for many years, the people of Kamchatka were led to believe that America was the enemy. Yet our camping encounter proved we had much in common.
One night, after a quick swim in the hot river, I wrote this entry in my journal: "I was told that 80 percent of the Kamchatkans are from other parts of Russia and the Ukraine, and my new friends are no different. Yet they seem to enjoy their new lives here on the frontier -- hunting and fishing and trapping and dealing with the unpredictable weather.
"I suppose this is what Alaska was like 40 or 50 years ago."
A few days later, I met Pavel Kuzmich, in an office at Yelisovo Airport, about 20 miles west of Petropavlovsk.
Pavel -- a retired, 67-year-old fisherman who lives down the street from the airport -- greeted me with a firm handshake and a friendly smile, before his eyes drifted to the strange silver tube in my hand.
"Rybalka," I explained (it was a fly rod for fishing). Pavel, who was wearing a wool suit and tie, shook his head and chuckled. "Ahh, rybalka!" He wasted no time in inspecting my strange gear.
After a few minutes, he turned to me and said, in Russian, "Tomorrow you be here at 9 a.m., and I am going to show you how we fish on Kamchatka. You bring your rod. I'll bring mine. And we'll see what happens."
Less than 24 hours later, Pavel and I were hiking along the back roads of Yelisovo, shooting the breeze about our dual passion for fishing. I said I had been fishing about 10 years; he told me he had been fishing on Kamchatka for the past 41 years.
Undoubtedly, Pavel has enjoyed some good days. On Kamchatka, there are more than 6,000 rivers and 100,000 lakes, many of which are home to abundant fish populations, including four species of salmon, two species of trout along with steelhead and Arctic char.
It was silver salmon and a unique species of ocean-going trout, called mikizha, that we fished for along the mighty Avacha River that day. While I made a futile attempt to lure some fish with my flies, Pavel put his experience to work.
A crafty angler who used only homemade equipment, Pavel fished with a thick line tied to a hand reel, with silver-colored attractor shields as bait. As an alternative method, he broke off a tree branch, tied a line to it and fished for small salmon -- called losos -- along the shore.
By day's end, Pavel's catch was three silvers and about 100 of the smaller fish. And as for me? Well, there's always another day.
As the sun set behind the mountains surrounding Yelisovo, shining a brilliant light on the 11,404-foot Koryakinskaya volcano, Pavel and I hiked back to his modest apartment. There, his wife had prepared for us a delicious multi-course dinner -- salmon borsch, caviar, cold chicken, and, of course, a touch of vodka.
Full from our feast, Pavel and I retired to another room, where we spent an hour playing show and tell with our fishing equipment. Like little boys trading baseball cards, we swapped flies, line and lures. And before escorting me onto the bus to Petropavlovsk, Pavel gave me a partially torn, antique map of Kamchatka and some souvenir postcards.
Waving goodbye to my new Russian fishing friend from a seat at the back of the bus, I thought about this irony: I didn't catch any fish and yet it was the greatest fishing day of my life.
Fresh from my adventure with Pavel, I took a side trip to Mutnovskaya volcano. This was the freakish world of fire and ice, where a hiker's misstep can lead into a boiling mud pot.
Trekking out of the glaciated crater, my Russian companions and I looked like ants marching through a huge, empty landscape. Bare, rolling tundra -- broken up by snow fields, wide valleys and an occasional volcano -- stretched like a carpet before us.
"Andrewski, it's like the moon" said Tanya Bogotorove, whom I met days earlier in Petropavlovsk, when she invited me to climb the volcano, along with six young families.
After sharing this dazzling, volcanic experience, we began the five-hour trek back to Petropavlovsk, in a six-wheel-drive, 18-wheel, diesel-powered Ural truck. Halfway there, we stopped at a spot along the salmon-choked Parantuka River, where everyone piled from the truck and began preparing dinner.
With the exception of Tanya, none of these people knew before the day began, and yet -- as always during my stay on Kamchakta -- I was treated like royalty, an honored guest from the West. Under the shadow of a venerable volcano called Vilunchinskaya, we grilled sashlik (lamb kebabs), danced and drank festive amounts of vodka and champagne.
This was my final night in Russia, my time to remember…
I took a deep breath, trying to absorb it all -- the smiles of my Russian friends; the soothing sounds of the rushing river; and warm colors of the sunset; the the rugged mountain scenery all around me.
With Russia's economic future in the balance, there will likely be pressure to develop this virgin landscape. Protected by the luck of history until now, the magic of Kamchatka -- its forests, mountains and volcanoes -- has reached a critical juncture.
As I stood there, on the rim of the Asian continent, I wished that this wild place remains as it is, for Kamchatka is a world treasure.
Perhaps my friend Igor, a radio engineer from Petropavlovsk, summed up this mysterious land best, when he walked up to me and said, simply, "You know, we have a name for our home. We call it Kamchatka the beautiful. Here there is wild nature."