Kamchatka ~ the wild and untamed

The wild and untamed Kamchatka Peninsula is 1250 km long and 480 km wide at its largest point. The landmass is a 370,000 km² peninsula.  It juts into the Pacific Ocean, off the eastern coast of Russia, north of Japan, and across the Bering Sea from Alaska.

Map of Kamchatka
Map of Kamchatka

Kamchatka was only opened up for tourism in 1990. Prior to that, it was closed, as it was a military base for missile testing.  Transport, accommodation, and infrastructure remain very limited. Travelling throughout the peninsula is either by converted all-wheel-drive KAMAZ trucks or Mi-8 helicopters. The security restrictions related to movement pose many challenges for tourism, requiring permits for all travels.

Trekking the wild and untamed Kamchatka
Trekking over the snowy landscapes

The peninsular is wild and untamed. The climate in Kamchatka is very unstable and comprises of several climate zones due to its geographical location and thermal activity.

Kamchatka volcanic landscape
Volcanic landscape

Fog, frequent strong winds, snowstorms, and rains are typical all year round. The weather is influenced by the surrounding seas and air currents. Summer is dull, rainy, and cool, with an average daily temperature of 10c. Winter is snowy, with strong winds and an average daily temperature of -20c. January is the coldest month. For 50% of the year, Kamchatka is covered in snow. The best time to visit is during summer, from July – mid-September.

Kamchatka has been described by many, as “one of the most picturesque places in the world”. There are two main reasons why one would want to go to Kamchatka; one is brown bears and the other is volcanoes. Other reasons are trekking, fishing, rafting, surfing, and mountain climbing. In winter people enjoy heli-skiing.

Volcanic landscape of Kamchatka
Volcanic landscape

There are around 300 volcanoes in Kamchatka, 29 of which are still active. Four to seven volcanoes erupt annually. UNESCO has deemed the volcanoes of Kamchatka ‘a world heritage site’ due to their exceptional beauty, concentration, and variety. 

Karymskoye Crater Lake of Akademiya Nauk
Karymskoye Crater Lake of Akademiya Nauk, and active volcano
Karmysky volcano, Kamchatka Peninsula
Aerial view of Karymsky volcano, currently the most active volcano on the Kamchatka peninsula
Maly Semychik volcano
Aerial view of Maly Semyachik volcano crater lake. The turquoise waters of this lake are poisonous due to the content of several types of acids and other chemical compounds

Kamchatka has the largest density of brown bears in the world, estimated to be 20,000 of these magnificent individuals, roaming the enchanting forests and lake areas. The peninsula also has beautiful mountains, lava fields, forests, and geysers.

Enchanting forests
Enchanting forests
Spring flowers, Kamchatka
Spring flowers
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky ~ the Capital

Kamchatka’s capital is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, which is the second-largest isolated city in the world.  The other being Iquitos, in Peru.

Flying into the capital city, you can see snow-capped mountains and the natural harbour.  It is home to around 240,000 people, which is half of Kamchatka’s total population. The peninsula has no roads or railways which connect to the rest of Russia. 

Aerial view of Petropavlovski-Kamchatka
Aerial view of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky
Avacha volcano
Avacha volcano from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky
Kamchatka’s mode of travel

Travelling around the peninsula is either by large all-wheel-drive KAMAZ converted trucks or by Mi-8 helicopters. 

The advantage of travelling via helicopter allows for great aerial views of the landscapes and especially the volcanoes and craters. 

Mi-8 helicopter
M1-8 helicopter travel
Kamaz truck
Converted KAMAZ truck for travelling overland on the rough terrain and typical accommodation!

Kurilskoye or Kuril Lake

A 200 km helicopter flight south to the bottom tip of the peninsula takes you to the very remote Kuril Lake. The crater lake is the epicenter for the brown bears of Kamchatka.

Sow with her two cubs, Kamchatka
Sow with her two cubs

Kuril Lake is home to around 20,000 brown bears ~ a must for wildlife and bear lovers. It also has the largest concentration of spawning sockeye salmon in Eurasia.  Millions of salmon swarm the lake between July and September, which attracts hundreds of brown bears to the lake to gorge themselves on the fresh salmon.

Lucky catch for brown bear
Lucky catch
Spawning salmon
Spawning salmon

Russian bears are amongst the largest bears in the world. This is due to their rich diet of salmon and berries (blueberries, cranberries, and honeysuckle berries).  Maintaining their body weight is crucial for survival for the long periods that these bears spend in hibernation during the winter, which can be up to 6months.  They can weigh up to 700 kg and can eat up to 45 kg of salmon a day. 

Dancing brown bears
Dancing bears

The bears do not seem to be bothered by human presence. There are many bear crazy photographers, who frequent this area each season with their huge 600mm lenses. For both the bears and humans safety, groups are always escorted by at least two armed guards and kept at the mandatory 10 metre distance from the bears at all times.

Checking out the scene
Checking out the scene
Standing bear
Standing bear
Camera shy bear
One very camera shy bear!

Some of the highlights of the trip were the amusing exchanges between bear cubs as they playfully pawed each other, on land and in the water

Brotherly love
Brotherly love
Kuril Lake reflections
Kuril Lake reflections
Kuril Lake accommodation
Kuril Lake accommodation
Ilyinsky volcano at Kuril Lake
Ilyinsky volcano on Kuril Lake
Valley of the Geysers

Valley of the Geysers is located 180 km northeast of the capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. It has the second-largest concentration of geysers in the world. There are around 90 geysers that periodically expel huge volumes of hot water and steam up from the ground. Situated in a canyon 4 km wide, 8 km long, and around 400 m deep, the Geysernaya river flows through this canyon. 

Valley of the Geysers
Helicopter ride to Valley of the Geysers
Geysernaya River flowing through the Valley of the Geysers
Geysernaya River flowing through the Valley of the Geysers
Kamchatka Conservation status

The main threats for the Kamchatka brown bears are poaching, over-harvesting salmon (their main food source), and habitat loss.

Poaching

Poaching bears are common. This is due to the high demand for bear parts in China and other parts of Asia. It is estimated that around 500-1500 bears are poached annually. Excessive and uncontrolled salmon poaching, due to over-fishing has significantly decreased the supply of the main food source for brown bears. 

Hunting

Hunting for brown bears is permitted under a quota system, which is poorly enforced. Uncontrolled trophy hunters target large, dominant male bears, which changes the social dynamics of the bear population. Approximately 300 bears are killed annually from the Kamchatka Peninsula. Local hunters also kill the bears as a source of dog food, and as a recreational activity.

Habitat Loss   

Kamchatka is rich in minerals (gold, platinum, and other minerals). Unmonitored oil, gas, and mineral exploration and development are also increasingly threatening the wildlife habitat, leading to smaller wildlife habitats.  The exploitation of Kamchatka’s mineral resources is allowing poachers to access previously inaccessible areas of the peninsula, which is affecting both the salmon and bear population.

There are no regulations in place for protecting bear habitats, controlling hunting and poaching of bears and salmon, and uncontrolled tourism.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working in Kamchatka to control bear poaching and overfishing. They also are working with mining companies to reduce their negative impacts on the environment and to protect the natural resources and ecosystems and the bear’s habitats. 

References

https://russia.wcs.org/en-us/wildlife/kamchatka-brown-bears/conservation-threats.aspx

https://wwf.ru/en/regions/kamchatka/

https://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/2520

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