My trip to the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East, via Alaska, begins with a deception. I list on my visa application an imaginary stopover in Moscow, at a (real) hotel called the Belgrade. This fiction was recommended to me as a way of putting the Russian authorities at ease. Moscow is a more normal destination than Kamchatka, which for decades was off limits for security reasons to westerners and even most Russians.
A once-weekly air service inaugurated in 2012 connects Anchorage and the sole city on the California-sized peninsula, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka, a gritty seaport town of 200,000 ringed by spectacular mountains, including several active volcanoes, and without rail or road connection to the rest of Russia.
Along with five others, I have signed up for a week on the Savan, one of the hundreds of wild Kamchatka rivers virtually unfished by man and reachable only by helicopter — in our case, a Russian MI-8 transport (a “time-proven, burly, reliable workhorse,” assures the outfitter’s brochure).
The trip takes us through mountain passes and over lush valleys framed by distant mountains, some snow-covered even in August. After an hour, with one stop to let off some others, we reach our destination. We are 10 people: six fishermen, a head guide, Alex, his assistants Yuri and Andrei (who also serves as a translator) and Tatiana, our cook, a thirty-something redhead whose culinary skill is matched only by her handling of the males of the expedition.
We are left by the river in a field of grass and purple fireweed, surrounded by our provisions, rafts, tents and gear. As the clatter of the departing chopper fades to the afternoon quiet of the wilderness, we see our first grizzly bear, on the slope of the opposite bank.
A rifle at the ready
Bears will be a constant, if largely unseen, presence during our trip, and a very real danger. Their traces are everywhere: scat, fishbone piles, and matted paths along the water’s edge. While our outfitter reports “no serious bear encounter in Kamchatka,” the guides carry a high-powered rifle and use it on one occasion to scare (not hit) a bear to avoid such an “encounter.” We are never without it. Other groups take “bear dogs” along for the same purpose.
At dawn one morning, my tent mate nudges me awake, in time for me to see through the tent flap a bear, just a few yards away. I call over to the adjoining tent, where Yuri has the rifle. The animal lumbers down to the river, uninterested in us; like us, it has come for the fishing.
The Savan smokes with fish: migrating chum and coho salmon, in bright red spawning color, bruised and exhausted as their life’s cycle nears its end; Dolly Varden; Arctic char; and the greatest prize: large, aggressive rainbow trout. We routinely encounter rainbows of 20 to 24 inches, with larger specimens always possible.
The most productive fly is a swimming mouse pattern called “Mr. Hankey,” which the fish take violently at the surface on eight-weight tackle. The assertion in our outfitter’s guide that “you don’t want to be undergunned when you tangle with these creatures“ is not hyperbole. This is far removed from the delicate, lightweight presentations to the shy 12-inch brown trout of Wisconsin and Minnesota that are my more usual quarry.
None of us have ever seen fishing like this.
We leave the tempting shore paths to their rightful owners, and move downstream by raft, getting out and wading the likely spots Alex has scouted, bucking river stones and the current as we go. Alex reads the water perfectly, spotting each member of our group to a good location and suggesting the best strategy and technique. On one day alone we estimate our total at 200 fish, all caught and released.
Out of our ‘comfort zone’
But as the days pass, initial exuberance over the sheer number and size of the catches begins to be tempered by a sense that fishing Kamchatka has taken us out of our “comfort zone,” and the control we feel over most of our daily life.
The river is abundant because it is isolated. It is not easy to navigate in rafts that are ungainly, and frequently beach in unpredictable shallows. The weather shifts, from sun to rain, fog and gusts of wind; if it is bad on our last day, we know the helicopter will not fly in, and we will miss the only flight home for a week. A simple injury in the streambed to any one of us may critically delay the entire party, and any rescue will be at the mercy of the weather.
The landscape itself is savage. Kamchatka is on the “Ring of Fire,” a belt of tectonic activity that circles the Pacific basin. Beyond the tundra wildflowers and birch forest rise steep, raw volcanoes. Any one of these could erupt, snarling air traffic, and our return home, just as transatlantic air travel was disrupted not long ago by volcanoes in Greenland.
In the end, we are fortunate. The weather cooperates, and our return to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka is uneventful.
To experience Kamchatka is more than to enjoy a few days of spectacular fishing. Rather it is to be stepped back, in a small way, from our tech-dependent and relatively stable life routine to an earlier condition in which man was at the mercy of his environment and the daily prey of elemental forces. Maybe the Russians didn’t need to seal off Kamchatka from outsiders for all those years. The land itself did it for them.
Jonathan Scoll is a retired environmental attorney living in Edina.