A Week of Adventure in Russia’s Version of Alaska

September 2018: For years I wanted to visit Russia’s answer to Alaska, Kamchatka but the price was just to cost prohibitive. Finally, I was tired of watching documentaries about the wildlife and volcanoes and I pulled the trigger on going. Along with my friend Richard and his son, we booked a flight to Kamchatka from Tijuana via Beijing and Khabarovsk to Kamchatka.

 

 

Where is Kamchatka

Map of Kamchatka Location

Kamchatka, considered to be one of the last true wilderness areas in the world is a peninsula surrounded by the frigid waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. It is one of the most isolated parts of Russia, covered in tundra, forest, volcanoes and only reachable by airplane or ship. There are no roads that connect from mainland Russia to Kamchatka and bears outnumber people. There are 27,000 Grizzly Bears in Kamchatka giving it the title of having the highest bear density in the world. It truly is wild and organizing trips around the peninsula is almost impossible to do without a Russian fixer and even with logistics in place, due to the region’s remoteness, plans and equipment often fail. To keep the costs down, I organized the trip as much as possible on my own such as hotels, and food and I booked individual trips around the peninsula with various Russian outfitters. My friends and I flew to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka via Beijing, which saved us a lot of time considering we were arriving from San Diego.

 

Petropavlovsk

Petropavlovsk, is a small but lovely city on the ocean. It is surrounded by massive snowcapped active volcanoes and a stone’s throw away from wilderness and bears. The city itself is fun to explore and there is incredible seafood and remnants of the Soviet era all over town. Most of the time I felt like I had traveled back in time to the Soviet 80s when I was in Kamchatka. The colors, fashions and architecture it seemed has changed very little since then. There are cheap hotels, good restaurants and bars in town and the people of Petropavlovsk were very kind and interested in how a group of Americans discovered their little town. One of the highlights was visiting the grocery stores and being offered free samples by stern faced Russian women of king crab, locally produced vodka, and an assortment of caviar. There were also fresh berries from the local forests for sale. We stayed in a Soviet era hotel-Hotel Postoyali dvor with bright red-, and orange-colored designs on the wallpaper and blankets that Russians adore in their decor.

 

Ubiquitious Lenin Statue

Seafood section of a grocery store-free samples of caviar and crab

King crab at the grocery store

Boy selling locally picked berries from the forests

Giant active volcanos looming over Petropavlovsk

Rafting with Bears on the Bystraia River

I organized a two day/one night rafting trip into the Bystraia River through a local Russian company. The river is famed for its salmon and fishing, which means that bears are also abundant. This is the reason for why I wanted to go there. To get there, we traveled 1/2 a day via paved and 4WD tracts to the southwest of Kamchatka before we reached the end of the road where our raft was waiting for us. We were with a group of Russian tourists from other parts of Russia and our guide was a Russian adventurer who travels around the works working different odds and ends adventure guide jobs. His assistant was a large and protective German Sheperd dog that would be our bear deterrent and alarm when we encounter bears, which we were told was imminent.

 

The road out of  Petropavlovsk

Rafting down the river was heaven, and most of the time we just lazily paddled and soaked up the pleasant sun and scenery, while other times we paddled furiously to stay on course in the rapids and to avoid capsizing. During the course of the two-day trip, we counted some 20 plus bears from the riverbanks. At the end of day, we landed at a remote campsite in the forest far from any road and we set up camp with our tents for the night. Upon landing we observed a group of bears fishing near our campsite, so we knew we were in for a long night.

 

Rafting

For the reminder of the day, we visited one of the only beaches near town, a black volcanic sand beach. Luckily the weather was great, which it had been all week and was unusual for Kamchatka, a place known for rain and deep fog. We also visited a local hot spring that was jam packed with Russians. We visited the hot springs alone and with no ability to speak Russian, a patient Russian attendant lady helped us via sign language, and we were eventually able to figure out the process to get unchanged and into the hot springs. 

 

Hot springs

Rafting with Bears on the Bystraia River

For the reminder of the day, we visited one of the only beaches near town, a black volcanic sand beach. Luckily the weather was great, which it had been all week and was unusual for Kamchatka, a place known for rain and deep fog. We also visited a local hot spring that was jam packed with Russians. We visited the hot springs alone and with no ability to speak Russian, a patient Russian attendant lady helped us via sign language, and we were eventually able to figure out the process to get unchanged and into the hot springs. 

 

Richard and Wes

Rafting with Bears on the Bystraia River

For the reminder of the day, we visited one of the only beaches near town, a black volcanic sand beach. Luckily the weather was great, which it had been all week and was unusual for Kamchatka, a place known for rain and deep fog. We also visited a local hot spring that was jam packed with Russians. We visited the hot springs alone and with no ability to speak Russian, a patient Russian attendant lady helped us via sign language, and we were eventually able to figure out the process to get unchanged and into the hot springs. 

 

Our protector against bears

Fishing at our campsite

Fishing from our campsite

Salmon we had for dinner

Bears at our campsite

Bears at our campsite

bear catching a scent of our cooking

Bears In the Campsite at Night

We had a huge dinner at night with fresh vegetables, fish, meats and vodka. We had a great time getting to know our Russian co-travelers while staying the night deep in the Kamchatka wilderness at the mercy of the bears that we knew were all around us. We set up our tents and went to sleep. I was so tired that I barely awakened when a bear came into our campsite. Our guide had advised us to not leave our tents even to go to the bathroom and this was for good reason, the bears were definitely present. In the middle of the night, I heard barking and growling, and this was followed by large explosions, which I later found out were fireworks that our guide threw at the bear when his dog gave chase to it. The deterrence worked and the bear ran off. In the morning I awoke and saw the giant paw prints of the bear next to our tents. An incredible wildlife photographer that I used to follow had been made famous by his bear photos and he met his demise in Kamchatka when a bear attacked and killed him in his tent at night, so I knew bears here were no joke. In the morning we had a big breakfast and rafted out the river for the next 7 hours, and then met our vehicle and drove back to Petropavlovsk, where we spent the night in our hotel.

 

Our tents

Failed Trip to Plosky Tobachik Volcano

In Petropavlovsk, Wes and I went out for drinks at the bar in our hotel and we ordered Russian Mule drinks. The waiters were ironically not familiar with the drink, so we had to teach them how to make it. I only had about 2 drinks, but I felt like I was as sick as I was in a freshman dorm WOP party. I spent all night vomiting and I felt terrible. It turned out that I was probably sick not from the quantity of alcohol but the quality. I later read about alcohol poisoning from bad hard alcohol in Kamchatka and how even a few drinks of this poor-quality liquor can get you deathly sick. The next morning, we were set to head off early in the morning to Tobachik Volcano, an active volcano in the north of Kamchatka that required a long drive on terrible 4WD roads inside a Soviet era tank like jeep. We set off and drove an hour outside of town before the tank jeep broke down. I was still feeling dreadful, and I laid down on the street to stop the spinning sensation. After an hour, the mechanic declared that he might not be able to fix the vehicle. Given that we already had a long day of driving ahead, were already short of time and the trip seemed uncertain, we decided to cancel and see killer whales and take a Soviet helicopter to visit bears and volcanoes in the south of Kamchatka instead.

Broken Soviet Jeep truck

80’s era hot springs we sat in with other local Russians

Soviet Helicopter Tour to Kuril Lake

Richard graciously offered to cover the cost of a helicopter day trip to Kuril Lake, which was not cheap. The MI-8 Soviet era helicopter was from the 60’s and no spring chicken. It was huge and could fit 20 plus people inside and it was an incredible experience to fly in it. We shared it with other tourists, mostly Russian and Chinese tourists so we weren’t alone on the helicopter. Kuril lake is known for its large Bown bear population and in addition to the lake we would visit a hot spring, volcanoes and land the helicopter in wild mountain ridges to hike.  We flew low off of the ground over a roadless wilderness of taiga forest, tundra, volcanoes, glacial lakes and we landed in a few rugged mountain ridges to get out and explore. We also stopped near a natural hot spring and went for a swim. The hot spring was infested with mosquitos, so it was hard to relax and enjoy ourselves. 

Our M1-8 Soviet Era Helicoptor

M1-8 Helicoptor pilot cockpit

Inside the helicoptor

Me, Richard and Wes

View from helicoptor

Active volcano we flew over

View from helicoptor

A lake we stopped the helicptor on and hiked

Natural hot springs we swam in 

The final stop was Kuril Lake, known for its large blown bear population. There were hundreds of large brown bears all fishing for the abundant salmon in the rivers and lake. Upon landing we were assigned to a guide with a rifle and told to stay behind him at all times and to not approach any bears. The bears were commonly as close as 30 feet away from us and on the most part oblivious but one big male bear with its eyes transfixed on our group was approaching us with no obvious indication of backing down and this made out guide nervous and he rounded us up and had us all back up immediately in retreat back to the helicopter.

Brown bears of Kuril Lake

Brown bears of Kuril Lake-Mother and baby

Brown bears of Kuril Lake

Boat Trip to Watch Killer Whales

On our last full day, we joined a boat trip to watch killer whales. The boat trip was approx. 8 hours long and the weather as was all week, immaculate. Due to the military vessels inside the harbor, we were told that we had to stay inside the boat and avoid any photography until we left the harbor. We were also required to cut our trip shorter by two hours because a big nuclear submarine of the Russian fleet was due to arrive in the evening and the entire harbor would be closed during its entry to all other vessels.

The boat trip was magical. We saw seals, puffin birds, dolphins, whales and lots of killer whales. The killer whales were very active and came up close to the boat. Each whale has its own unique dorsal fin shape, and the captain was able to identify the individual by name based on its fin.

Petropavlovsk

Volcano from the shore

Puffin Bird

Harbor Seals

Killer Whales

Killer Whales

Killer Whales

Killer Whales

Killer Whales

Khabarovsk Stop Over

On the flight back to Beijing and onward to Tijuana, we had a 7-hour stopover in Khabarovsk, Russia so we decided to go out for dinner and see some of the historical monuments. Once we were finished exploring, we tried to wave down a taxi, but it seems all taxis were taken and after 30 minutes we weren’t having any luck. We were running short of time to get back to the airport, still a long way away so I tried to wave down common cars knowing from experience that in Russia sometimes the best taxis are ones that are ones that are just average people who are willing to pick you up for a fee. The first car I waved down, a sedan with hatchback, pulled over for us and it was not what I expected. In the car was a Russian family, husband and pregnant wife with a baby. The man spoke English and asked us where we were going. When I said the airport, he said no problem I will give you a ride. His wife immediately took the baby and sat in the back of the sedan under the hatchback where there was no seat belt and hardly any space for her, hunkering down in an uncomfortable position so we would have a seat despite our protests. The man was very chatty and informed us that he loves America and planned to visit Florida in the future. He dropped us off at the airport which was not a short drive. It was at least a 40-minute drive away and once we arrived, I tried to give him some money, but he refused to take it. I was astonished by the kindness of these strangers. But their kindness would later be neutralized by the meanness of the nasty ticket agent for the Russian Airliner to Beijing that stalked us through the airport to make most of us check our bags instead of allowing us to take them on board as carry-ons. 

Khabarovsk World War II Memorial

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