In a two-week trek, our party of 11ˇXall cousins from the U.S., ranging in age from 15 to 64ˇXwould see more bears, as well as reindeer, foxes, ermines and half-meter-long trout. We would hike up an active volcano during a hurricane and skinny-dip in a hot, sulfurous pond. We would marvel at spouting geysers and boiling mudholes in psychedelic hues. We would share vodka and salmon caviar with melancholy park rangers in ramshackle huts. And we would be seduced by the mystery of Kamchatka, a land of fire and ice that remains one of the wildest places on earth.
Nine time zones from Moscow, Kamchatka has just begun to attract visitors. (A five-hour flight from Anchorage, Alaska, is the only international air connection to the peninsula). The 1,207-km-long region was off-limits to most Russians, not to mention foreigners, during the cold war because it was the site of a nuclear-submarine base and military radar installations. Today nearly a third of Kamchatka is protected nature reserves, including five parks designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The peninsula's capital, Petropavlovsk, founded in 1740 by Danish explorer Vitus BeringˇXfor whom the Bering Sea and Strait are namedˇXis a morass of Soviet-style apartment blocks and potholed streets, incongruously framed by a mist-swathed harbor and snowcapped volcanoes. Its few hotels and restaurants are drab. Yet we found a certain eccentric charm in menus featuring "fern salad" and "boiled pieces of paste" for breakfast and "burning mussels with rice" and "cowberry drink" for dinner.
Kamchatka's economy has collapsed in the wake of perestroika , as subsidies from the central government have dried up. Corruption is rampant, with poachers depleting the region's vast fisheries. Nature reserves are under threat from mining and energy projects. Electricity is frequently shut down, even during the brutal winters. As a park ranger noted while guiding us through the thermal springs of the peninsula's Valley of Geysers, "This is the only place in Kamchatka where they can't cut off your hot water."
But Russia's new regime has also opened the way to travel entrepreneurs: nowadays about half a dozen local operators offer packages. Our tour company, The Lost World Ltd. (go to travelkamchatka.com), was launched by Nikolay Kruglyakov, former chief of the Kamchatka rescue service, in 1993, when Moscow stopped financing the rescue service mountaineers. "The central government said, 'Make your own money,'" he explains. "That was the start of a business opportunity." In 2002, Lost World guided some 500 foreign tourists on summer hiking and rafting expeditions. In spring and winter, the company and several other firms organize helicopter skiing and snowboarding down steep volcanoes as well as visits to indigenous reindeer herders by dogsled or snowmobile. Other companies specialize in bear hunting and trout fishing. Meanwhile, cruise ships ply the shores, scouting sea lion colonies and groups of rare Steller's sea eagles with their two-meter wingspans.
Visiting Kamchatka is best done through a guided, organized trip with an interpreter and fixers to deal with glitches. With Lost World, we paid $1,890 each (not counting airfare) for 14 days inclusive of food, transportation and four hotel nights. But prices vary depending on where you go and how many people are in the group. A worthy nonprofit organization, the Wild Salmon Center (at wildsalmoncenter.org) based in Portland, Oregon, has been conducting fishing and scientific expeditions to Kamchatka for years.
Part of the "Ring of Fire," the string of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean, Kamchatka has more than 100 volcanoes, 29 of them active, along with spectacular concentrations of geysers and thermal springs. For nine months a year, snow blankets the peninsula, and only by July does it melt sufficiently to enable comfortable hiking. Well, let's say relatively comfortable. During our mid-August trek, it rained half the time. Much of the interior is accessible only by helicopter, and tourists who fly into a volcanic site for an afternoon can occasionally be stranded for days.
Our first outing, to the 2,323-m Mutnovsky volcano, was a day's bumpy ride from Petropavlovsk in a six-wheel-drive bus. Rockslides blocked the road at one point, so we piled out, doing calisthenics to keep warm, while the vehicle roared and slid around the frozen lava. That night we camped at the foot of the volcano, in a meadow carpeted with yellow rhododendrons and crimson bearberries. While we hauled water from a freezing stream, Elena, our cook, served up meat stew, brown bread, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, cheese and chocolatesˇXone of many feasts.
But during the rest of the night a storm arose, and the next day, sheets of rain reduced visibility to a meter or so. Some of us played cards in the main tent, but others curled up inside sleeping bags in a fetal position, trying to stay warm. The second day, we set off in drizzle, trekking up steep ice fields encrusted with ash. Soon it poured again. We crossed paths with a group of drenched Austrians. Only upon our return to Petropavlovsk did we discover that we had hiked seven hours through an 80-km/h storm. Nonetheless, the spectacle had been worth the effort: a vast crater licked by glaciers, steaming vents encrusted with yellow sulfur crystals, sputtering mudholes and a turquoise acidic lake.
After a night's rest in Petropavlovsk, we set off by helicopter, briefly stopping by the Karymsky volcano, which, since its 1996 eruption, has been spewing ash into the air every 10 minutes or so with sinister rumbles. No wonder the native Itelmen people once thought the volcanoes were inhabited by gomulsˇXghosts that roasted whales over huge bonfires, sending forth clouds of smoke and rivers of boiling fat. After camping by the Sestryonka River, we hiked through birch forests and fields of wild purple irises to the Valley of Geysers.
Discovered in 1941, this hidden canyon in the Kronotsky Nature Preserve is one of the world's geothermal wonders. Rickety boardwalks snake through a hell's kitchen of bubbling mud pots in rainbow hues of ocher, pea green and blue gray; of steaming fumaroles puffing from deep crevasses; and of more than 200 geysers, some of which spout boiling water over 30 meters into the air. Similarly dramatic was the nearby Uzon Caldera, a 15-sq-km geothermal field where we bathed in a warm, sulfurous-smelling pond. As we coated ourselves with the mud, thinking "spa," our cook, Elena, a regular visitor to the spot, warned, "Don't stay in too longˇXthe radon gas is not good for your heart." Oops.
Primitive and unpredictable, Kamchatka might not be for the fainthearted. But for extravagant, dazzling scenery, it is unparalleled. "People come here and reproach us," Kruglyakov of Lost World says. "They ask, 'How is it that you have all this beauty and you haven't told anyone?'" Kamchatka, wild as it remains, is slowly opening to the world.