Island of Horror

Sing, sing, my tambourine,
I am not a bad hunter!
I never waste time,
I always kill something.
Aleut song

Coming back to civilization is always a greater shock for me than leaving it. Streets seem crowded, air unbreathable, and taking a bus a torture. Petropavlovsk is one of the most beautiful cities in Russia - not because of its architecture, which is as ugly as it gets, but because of its location, with Avacha Bay below and two huge snow-covered volcanoes just above. However, the moment I got there I started making plans for leaving it as soon as possible.

First I had to wait in line for three hours to return my unused air ticket from Sakhalin, then two more hours in another line to get a ticket back home for September. After lunch I took a bus to Elizovo, thirty kilometers west, where the office of Kronotsky Nature Reserve was located. The idea was to get a permit and, if possible, transportation to that famous but very remote reserve on the Eastern coast of Kamchatka.

But it proved much more difficult than I'd thought. The office was surrounded by a huge tourist camp, at least twenty tents, filled with tourists from the mainland. They all wanted to get to the highlight of the Reserve, the Geyser Valley. Unlike most of these people, I had an official scientific mission, and a letter from some amateur scientist club in Moscow to confirm it (I used letters from this club to obtain border zone passes). But the Reserve administration was so frustrated with this constant stream of desperate tourists who thought there was nothing to see on Kamchatka except the Valley, that it hated all visitors. The director reminded me of a frightened hedgehog, rolled into a ball and responding to all attempts of making contact by puffing and making the ball even more tight. I could simply hike to the Reserve, but it would take at least a week one way, and there were lots of other places on Kamchatka I wanted to see before the summer was over.

I decided to wait until the tourist season comes to an end, got back to the port of Petropavlovsk (it took three bus changes), waited in one last line, and boarded the same ship I'd arrived by in the morning. It was scheduled to leave for Commander Islands late in the evening.

I had no money for a cabin and got myself an airplane-style seat. The guy next seat was almost a colleague: a hunting inspector from Elizovo. His name was Vasya. He was going to the islands to make some extra money by collecting king boletus mushrooms for sale. He shared some salted salmon with me, and told me interesting news. According to him, in the spring of that year, a polar bear was carried to the islands on sea ice. The animal was said to be extremely aggressive and dangerous.

The route to the Commanders passes over two deep-sea trenches, so it's the best place in Russia to see beaked whales and albatrosses. We got to the islands next evening, but the sea was too rough to get to the shore, so we spent one more night on board.

When I got to the deck in the morning I saw three tourists there. Armed with a piece of fishing-line and a can of rotten fish, they were dragging one halibut after another from the water below. In ten minutes they caught ten halibuts and one huge crab. Obviously, these were experienced travelers. They said it was their third trip to the islands. They had four large tanks of alcohol, and plastic umbrellas, very useful in a place with an average of four sunny days per year. Of course they were from the KGB. But their job there was mostly theoretical research in electricity. I decided that having friends with "red IDs", as they were called, would be useful, and suggested to travel around together.

Meanwhile, a small barge approached our ship. The crew started unloading the passengers on its deck, using a crane and a huge burlap bag. This method is very convenient if the sea is choppy. On Kuril Islands it is not used, and once I saw three passengers fall into the sea while trying to walk from their ship to a landing barge. They didn't drown, but their luggage did.

"Be careful," the barge captain told us, "there's a polar bear on the island. Border guards tried to shoot it, but only wounded, and it killed two of them."

A police officer we met in the harbor also warned us: "Don't get far from the village. There's a man-eating bear on the island. It attacked the fishermen at the lake, and they were barely able to chase it away."

There is only one village on the Commanders. It is called Nikolskoe, and is located on the southern (Pacific) side of Bering Island, the largest in the group. We went to the border guard station to ask for an armored carrier to travel around.

"No, no way!" said the station commander. "I don't want to be held responsible if the bear kills you."

"Did you ever see it?" we asked.

"No, thank god, we didn't. But the police chief tried to chase it on a motorcycle, and wounded it."

At that point my new friends showed him their "red IDs". The commander said he was sorry, he couldn't give us the carrier anyway because it was being fixed, but he could provide us with weapons for protection. He gave them a handgun and two carbines, and I got a Japanese musket, made in 1912, with octagonal barrel, 20-something mm (one inch) caliber. This scary-looking weapon was as long as myself, and there were only two cartridges for it. "Even one would be enough," the commander said grimly, "you'll never need a second round."

We found the only guy on the island who had horses, rented all four of them for a tank of alcohol, and rode west along the seashore. It was August, but everything looked like spring: gray snow in ravines, early flowers on lush meadows, and fresh air smelling of icemelt. We followed the endless beach, covered with large Mactra clams, net floats, disposable lighters, dry kelp, fishermen's gloves, bones of extinct Steller's sea cows, and shed crab shells. Such firm gray beaches are called laida in the Far East, and often serve as the only roads. You can drive very fast on a laida, but there's always some risk of getting stuck in quicksand.

We spent a night in a log cabin marked with Bethlehem Steel Corporation sign, obviously found on a beach. It was inhabited by voles, so tame that they spent the night cuddling next to us in our sleeping bags. Next day we decided to test the musket. After firing a shot we all went deaf for a few minutes, and I got a huge bruise on my shoulder.

Less than a mile beyond the cabin was a fur seal rookery, and a seabird colony on the rocks above it. We spent the rest of the day there, and next morning decided to cross the island to its northern (Bering Sea) side. The interior is mostly wet tundra. We had to walk our horses, bouncing from one tussock to another, and feeding on various berries along the way. Blue Arctic foxes, rock ptarmigans, and jaegers attacked us, trying to chase away from their territories. After a few hours we entered a flat green valley, and galloped down to a tiny cove. Five small creeks entered the sea there, and all of them, except for one with a tall waterfall, were full of coho salmon. Offshore rocks were decorated with harbor seals. We cooked some salmon with kelp, and made salted caviar. While we were eating, a little sandpiper approached us, and started undoing our shoelaces. We gave it some caviar, left the cove, and soon got to another fur seal rookery.

This one was huge: ninety thousand fur seals and two thousand Steller's sea lions. The sea lions formed a golden island in the sea of black fur seals. Seal cubs were provided with wooden corrals, to help them avoid being ran over by large males. Unlike the first rookery, this beach was all sand, not pebbles, and many cubs died from parasites there. Flocks of gulls were feeding on the corpses.

It took two days to ride all the way along the island, to the mountains of its eastern part where wild reindeer lived. We passed dozens of small, cozy coves, each inhabited by a pair of snowy owls and a family of Arctic foxes. We had incredible luck with the weather: four sunny days in a row, something unheard of in the island's history. At one point we had to cross a medium-size river, flowing out of a beautiful lake. There some Aleut fishermen were stacking huge piles of smoked sockeye salmon. They taught us to spearfish with a kitchen fork tied to a stick, and warned about a man-eating bear. They said they hadn't seen it themselves, but it had killed a geologist in May.

The Aleut were brought to the island by Russian-American company in the 18th century. There were only 200 of them left in 1988, and only the elders could speak the language. They said they'd tried many times to get permission to visit their relatives in the US, but each time the only result was more restrictions on travel to and from Kamchatka. The islands became one of the most difficult parts of border zone to get to.

We returned to the village, and found an abandoned cabin not far from it. The same day our friends the fishermen came back from the lake, and camped nearby to celebrate the end of their month-long shift. We opened a second tank of alcohol, and they brought a large aluminum jar of caviar. Lots of people came from the village to join the celebration.

We told everybody that we'd seen some huge bear tracks just outside the village, and some half-eaten deer and fur seals elsewhere. Then we went on to tell horror stories about bears (each of us knew dozens of them). The largest predator on the Commanders is Arctic fox, so the locals were really impressed. By midnight everybody stopped singing and dancing, and tried to get as close to the campfire as possible. We noticed that one young fellow couldn't get his eyes from a nice spyglass one of us had. Soon the party was over. Inside our cabin, most of space was taken up by one large bunk. The bear stories made ourselves a little nervous, so we loaded all our guns, and kept them close.

I was almost asleep when I felt cold air on my face, and then heard a noise in the corner where our backpacks were. "Who is there?" Nobody answered. I cocked my musket, and the visitor hurried towards the door. I pointed the gun upwards, pressed its butt against the bunk, and fired.

The shot not only shattered our tiny window, but crashed the bunk, and we fell on the dusty floor. Our uninvited guest screamed in panic and ran out, knocking off the door. My friends started firing their guns, too, and then there was shouting and gunfire outside. We looked out. All fishermen were running in the open, firing in every direction. Next minute we heard machine guns and saw tracer bullets in the sky: the border guard station woke up, too.

Windows were lighting up one by one in the village. People were running up and down the streets, firing hunting guns and rifles. Then some heavy stuff joined the fireworks: antiaircraft machine guns and mortars from a military base on the far side of the village. We went back to sleep, but the battle continued until dawn.

In the morning, we found the spyglass on the floor near the cabin door. Whoever the thief was, it was probably the last time he tried stealing anything. Village streets were covered with empty shells.

We used the third tank of alcohol to hire a fishing boat for a day, and explored other islands. Two are very small: Toporkov (Puffins) Island is flat and covered with crested puffin burrows, while Arii Kamen (Murres' Stone) is a large rock, and thousands of seabirds nest on its cliffs. The only other large island in the group is Mednyi (Copper). It is all rough and rocky, and very scenic. It is inhabited by a separate race of blue Arctic foxes, and they have a bad habit of biting visitors' toes - they can puncture your rubber boots in a second. There is one more island, called Bobrovy (Beaver), but it is very small and remote, so we didn't have time to check it out.

The next visit by a passenger ship was canceled because of a storm. We tried to talk the captain of the fishing boat into taking us to Kamchatka for our last tank of alcohol. He was very angry and upset. During the night of the celebration, he was seen by the local police officer firing an unregistered rifle. Now he needed some "liquid currency" (vodka or alcohol) to bribe the police and avoid having the rifle confiscated. We found a few more people willing to get to Kamchatka, and they threw in some more "currency" to help convince the captain.

Before leaving the Commanders I decided to visit Bering's tomb. His ship ran aground on the island, undiscovered and uninhabited at the time, when they were trying to get back to Kamchatka after discovering Alaska. Their naturalist, George Steller, figured out that Alaska was part of America, because he saw a crested bird there (now called Steller's jay), and realized it was a relative of blue jays from New England. The rest of the crew considered him a psycho and a sorcerer. When they got stranded on Bering Island, Steller said they had to eat wild onion to avoid scurvy. Some did as he said, but Bering and a few others refused to, and died.

On my way back to the boat I met Vasya, the hunting inspector.

"Could you guys please show me the skin," he asked.

"What skin?"

"Come on, you can tell me. Everybody knows you killed the bear last night. Don't worry, I won't tell anybody that you shot an endangered animal."

I knew he would never believe me if I told him there was no bear on the island. So I said:

"You see, we tried to stop it with gunfire when it broke into our cabin, but only made it angry. We had a hand grenade, and used it to kill the beast. It was blown to pieces. We don't have a skin to show."

"You guys are heroes," he said.

Back to Contents