Among the oversized bears and birds of Kamchatka, Louise Southerden hears stories of war and adventure.
It's a blue-sky day as we file down the gangway of the ship and onto waiting Zodiacs. Bukhta Russkaya (Russia Bay) has everything that makes the Russian Far East inviting: snow-flecked volcanoes (there are more than 300 on the Kamchatka Peninsula, 29 of them still active), marine creatures (seals and sea otters swim around us as we motor slowly towards the black-sand beach) and a broad valley, carpeted in yellow flowers, promising a close encounter with a bear.
But first we have to get ashore. Our leader and the owner of Heritage Expeditions, Rodney Russ, is the kind of man you'd want on your side in a fight or, better still, in a debate about extinct manatees in Russian waters. Today, however, he's our emissary, making a courtesy call to the border guards stationed at Bukhta Russkaya. Permits were arranged months ago but this is Kamchatka and the guards want more documentation. Russ knows the drill - he has been jumping through bureaucratic hoops since 2002 to bring travellers to this region - and takes a Zodiac back to the ship for the necessary paperwork while the rest of us wait, taking in our surroundings.
The Russian far east, which includes Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands and the Commander Islands, is one of the world's last true wildernesses. Off limits even to Russian travellers until the early 1990s, Kamchatka in particular is wildly natural and still lacks essential infrastructure. Six-wheel-drives and helicopters are often used to explore beyond the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, but with few roads and uncooperative weather the most reliable way to travel is by ship.
Even then, nothing is guaranteed. "It's not easy and it's unpredictable but it's extremely rewarding when you can get over the hurdles," Russ says after we've been given the OK to land. "There's a saying in the Russian Far East - God's a long way up there but Moscow's even further away."
Cruising out of Petropavlovsk on a rainy Monday afternoon, we meet a storm head-on. I spend the first 24 hours locating my sea legs and dividing my time between my cabin, where I lie in my bunk watching books and pens slide off the desk onto the floor, and the deck, where I mentally trade places with the seabirds circling the ship and skimming the grey waves with the tips of their outstretched wings.
As expedition vessels go, the Spirit of Enderby is relatively small, 72 metres, and there are only 32 passengers on my trip (though it can accommodate 48), plus Russ and eight expedition guides. But travelling on a small ship has big advantages. It's informal - the bridge is always open, for example, and there are Friday night movies with popcorn in the briefing room - and it feels more like a real expedition than a tour. It also takes only four or five Zodiacs to get everyone ashore, as we discover on day three.
We'd outrun the storm by cruising south along the Kuril Islands, 22 volcanic stepping stones stretching 1250 kilometres from the Kamchatka Peninsula to Hokkaido, Japan. This is our first landing, on Toporkovy Island. On the way to the rocky shore, we see several high dorsal fins break the surface. It's the first time I've seen orcas in the wild and their shiny black backs are close enough to touch. Then we're surrounded by rafts of crested auklets, tufted puffins ("toporkov" in Russian) and kittiwakes, which look like large seagulls with dabs of red lipstick at the ends of their beaks.
The Kuril Islands have been the subject of an ongoing tug of war between Russia and Japan. Toporkovy, like other islands we visit later on the trip, bears the battle scars: trenches, gun emplacements and circular embankments built by the Japanese during World War II.
The next morning we're anchored off Simushir Island, in the middle of the Kuril chain, imagining a different war. This part of the world is closer to North America than to Moscow, a fact Soviet military commanders used to their advantage during the Cold War, establishing bases all over Kamchatka and the Kurils. Broutonia Bay, on Simushir Island, has one such base. A flooded caldera where the water is only 2.5 metres deep at its entrance but 240 metres deep inside, it's a perfect natural hiding place for Soviet submarines. It's also the kind of place James Bond might find himself, having been kidnapped by enemy agents, especially on a day like today, with heavy fog creating a near white-out.
As our Zodiac takes us into the caldera, however, the clouds lift, like stage curtains, to reveal the once-secret submarine base of Kraternyy. Built in 1978, it was a home away from home for 3000 Soviet naval personnel and their families until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Now, amid the rusted skeletons of trucks and abandoned three-storey barracks, nature is making a comeback. Fuel drums have become flower pots for yellow lupine-like golden banners. Songbirds such as Arctic warblers and grey-bellied bullfinches flit between barbed-wire fences and nest in old maintenance sheds. And when I hear a squeak at my feet, I look down just in time to see a mouse-like tundra vole disappearing into a hole.
You could come to Kamchatka for its wild things alone. Almost every day we see whales - grey whales feeding, 23 humpbacks on one occasion - or Dall's porpoises riding the ship's bow wave.
One day we cruise past 20 endangered Steller's sea lions sunning on a ledge and a pair of Steller's sea eagles atop a rocky islet - both named after Georg Steller, the 27-year-old naturalist on Bering's 1733 expedition. We see bird colonies teeming with guillemots and cormorants. Sometimes the birds even come to us. Passing Raykoke Island on the evening of day four, we find ourselves in a sort of bird storm that draws everyone on deck, even the crew, to watch about 250,000 northern fulmars, which breed on the island every summer, on the water and on the wing.
On Onekotan Island, where we land the next day, the ground is a living patchwork of wildflowers: shiny red crowberries and bog cranberries, narcissus anemones, purple keyflowers, polar willows and black-petalled Kamchatka fritillaries. There are "forests" of Siberian stone pine and dwarf birch, the trees barely half a metre high. "As we say in the Arctic, if you get lost in the forest, just stand up," our Canadian naturalist guide, Adam, says.
We don't see any bears at Bukhta Russkaya but we do see fresh bear scat, "nests" where they'd recently napped and paw prints twice the size of our gumboot prints. There are said to be 10,000 brown bears in Kamchatka, more than anywhere else in the world, so the odds are in our favour. At Olga Bay, in Kamchatka's Kronotsky Nature Reserve, we get our last chance.
We split into two groups and walk along the beach in opposite directions, the 3528-metre Kronotsky volcano playing peekaboo with the clouds. My group sees a Kamchatka reindeer. Then, nearby, a furry brown shape on the sand raises its head: a Kamchatka brown bear. The largest of all brown bears, they can reach three metres tall and weigh almost a tonne. We keep quiet and creep closer, comforted by the fact they prefer plants to people, until it bounds into the long grass and out of view. The other group sees two more bears at the other end of the beach.
At 10pm on day eight it's still light but fog hems us in, like a ghost ship, as we make an overnight voyage 200 kilometres east of Kamchatka to the treeless Commander Islands, at the western end of the Aleutian Islands curve. First settled in 1825 by Aleuts brought here by Russian fur traders to hunt sea otters and fur seals, the Commanders are now protected. Two-thirds of Bering and all of Medny, the two main islands, lie within nature and marine reserves inhabited by about 300,000 marine mammals.
There are also about 600 people in Nikolskoye on Bering Island. At the town's small museum, the curator, Nataliya, shows us around, occasionally referring to her Russian-English dictionary; only "two to seven" ships come here each year, she says. But she's proud of the museum - which includes pieces of Bering's ships and an eight-metre skeleton of the now-extinct Steller's sea cow - and of her island home. "It's not the Aleutians, it's not Kamchatka. It's a unique place," she says.
Then we pop into the boat-shed gallery of local artist Sergey Pasenjuk. He draws in the winter and sails and hosts boat-shed parties in
short summer. "It's good for the soul, a free life," he says. While he makes us tea, fetching cups from reindeer antlers attached to the wall and boiling the kettle on a coal stove, we take in the trappings of his 38 years on Bering Island: an old kayak, his ink drawings, a canvas sail, two deer skulls with antlers (bucks fighting over a doe, Pasenjuk tells me with a wink) and couches covered in reindeer hides.
Outside, there's a statue of captain-commander Vitus Bering, a hero in these parts. The islands are, of course, named after him, and Petropavlovsk, where we begin and end our trip, is named after his two ships: Svyatoy Pyotr (St Peter) and Svyatoy Pavel (St Paul). Bering Strait and the Bering Sea honour him for being the first European to sail around the easternmost extremity of the Eurasian land mass, in 1728-30. On his second Kamchatka expedition, in 1733-41, Bering sailed as far as Alaska, which was then part of Russia (it was sold to the US in 1867 for $US7.2 million). It was to be his last voyage.
Our last landing is Bering's final resting place, at Commander Bay on the east coast of Bering Island. We take to the Zodiacs just after 6am but summer days are so long this far north that the sun, in a cloudless sky, is already high and bright. That and the calm sea, brushed smooth by an offshore breeze, make it difficult to imagine the storm that forced Bering to seek shelter here in November 1741. The long months at sea had taken their toll on his ship, St Peter, and his crew - many had scurvy and were unable to work. So they came ashore for the winter, made dugout shelters and survived on sea otters, fur seals and sea cows. It was too late for some: 15 men died, including Bering, in December 1741. (The 46 survivors, including Steller, sailed a small, makeshift ship safely back to Petropavlovsk in August 1742.)
We follow a track through shoulder-high grass up a hill to a tall cross marking Bering's grave and the simpler graves of five of his men, all with a view of the bay. It's sombre and serene and sitting on the grass surrounded by buttercups, tiny roses and spotted orchids, looking down on the curving beach, the sea shining and our ship anchored offshore in this faraway, seldom-seen place, I can't think of anywhere in the known world I'd rather be.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Heritage Expeditions.
Heritage Expeditions, based in New Zealand, has three Kamchatka itineraries: Birding the Russian Far East (June 12-25), similar to the trip described, with fares from $US6850 ($6674) a person; In the Wake of Bering (June 26-July 10), from $US7525; and Jewel of the Russian Far East (September 6-25), from $US10,350. Costs include accommodation and meals on board, guides and all shore excursions, landing fees and permits. See heritage-expeditions.com. The September trip can also be booked through World Expeditions; phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.
Hotel Petropavlovsk, in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, has rooms from 3600 roubles ($122) a night; see petropavlovsk-hotel.ru/en.
- Sydney Morning Herald