Looking into craters

God created this country to show people his love, his glory, and his wrath.
Stepan Krasheninnikov. Description of Kamchatka Land.

It was a funny night. The ocean was playing with our boat like a juggler. It was too stormy for me to get seasick (I'm only sensitive to a certain range of wave sizes), so I could enjoy the ride through mountains of black water, watching moonlight rainbows and storm petrels. Looking at the broken orlop window, I saw a tall, broad-shouldered man, who kept peering into darkness despite streams of cold water rushing inside every minute or two. "Probably a former sailor, a true sea wolf," I thought, "he is now a passenger and could go down to a warm cabin, but the ocean calls to him."

The morning was gray, cold, and stormy. Having some Bloody Mary (alcohol diluted with tomato paste) with the captain, I asked him about the tall passenger. Was he a former sailor?

"No," the captain answered, "he is an accountant at a mink farm."

"But why does he spend all the time there?"

"He is so seasick, he can't move away from the broken window. He needs fresh air."

In the afternoon we got into a bay, and the sea calmed down. Jaegers chased gulls and terns around the boat, trying to rob them of fish. The sun was setting right ahead, behind colossal purple cones of Klyuchi volcanoes. Soon we were in the mouth of Kamchatka, the major river of the peninsula.

Next morning we barely had enough time to get to the shore during low tide. At high tide, huge stationary waves form at the river mouth. They are capable of sinking a large ship. We were in Ust'-Kamchatsk (ustie means river mouth), the second largest city of Kamchatka. It is built on a flat shore between the bay and the river. Every time there is a tsunami warning, the city administration leaves in the city's only helicopter, and the rest of the population spends a few exciting hours trying to get to the hills ten kilometers to the north by running along the sandy beach.

My friends left for the airport, and I tried to find a boat to go upstream. I met a guy from Belorussia, who was trying to go in the same direction. We found a tugboat that was supposed to go to Klyuchi village in three hours. The crew told us to wait at the pier, and went to a store to buy some food and vodka for the trip.

While we were waiting, the guy told me his story. He decided to ride a bicycle along the Transkamchatkan Highway from Ust-Kamchatsk to Petropavlovsk, then continue his trip to Sakhalin and Ussuriland. He sent his bicycle by mail in February. By the time he got to Ust-Kamchatsk, the bike wasn't there yet (it was mid-August). He also discovered that the highway didn't go to Ust-Kamchatsk, as shown on all maps, but ended in Klyuchi, fifty kilometers up the river. He left a note at the post office, asking to send the bike to Vladivostok. (Eventually he made it to Ussuriland and then back home. His bike caught up with him in January: it was returned to Bielorussia with a huge bill for mailing it all around the country).

Suddenly our conversation was interrupted. The tide was still coming in, the tugboat was lifted from its mooring and started drifting downstream. We didn't know what to do. Then we noticed a border guard speedboat at the next pier, and ran to them, crying for help. By the time they started their engine and chased the runaway boat, it was less then a hundred meters from the stationary waves. We boarded it, but it took us a while to figure out how to start it, so it was a very close call. At the most dangerous moment a drunk sailor climbed out from inside the tugboat, looked around, saw the waves, and jumped into the river in panic. The guards laughed so hysterically that they couldn't help us with the engine. Finally we all made it back to the pier, greeted by the crowd of spectators.

The trip up Kamchatka River was very scenic. Its canyon cuts throw the mountains of Eastern Range. Piles of dead chum salmon lined the shores. Dozens of Steller's sea eagles and fiery foxes (scarlet-colored local race of red fox) could be seen feeding on dead fish. The engine kept breaking every few hours, so we had to spend the night on the river. A bear climbed on our deck before dawn, and tried to open a can of caviar. We turned on the lights, and it ran away, leaving the desk covered with liquid dung.

Navigating the river was difficult: we had to avoid rafts of birch logs floating downstream. The wood of Kamchatkan stone birch is very hard, twisted, and costs close to nothing. But there was a logging plan to keep up with, and there were almost no good larch forests left on Kamchatka Peninsula by that time. Most larches had been logged, and because larch wood is very heavy, most of the timber was rotting on the river bottom. Almost all large rivers of Russian Far East and Siberia are said to have parquet floors.

Klyuchi is one of the most beautiful villages in Russia, if not in the world. It is surrounded by four giant volcanoes rising from the swampy floodplain of Kamchatka River. The tallest one is Klyuchevskoi (4,800 m), famous for its regular shape. There is a 30 km-long dirt road to about 2,000 m altitude up its smooth slopes. I followed it through dusty birch parklands and blue thickets of alder bushes, across deep canyons cut by lahars in soft tufa, and into Bombardment Tundra, boulder-covered land with numerous tiny volcanoes, so-called parasite craters. Some of them were black, some yellow, and some brick-red.

I couldn't take my eyes from the summit, so beautiful it was. I climbed between old lava flows and dirty glaciers to a cabin built by volcanologists at 2,800 m. For some reason, the volcano is usually more active at night than during the day. Fire could be seen on the summit, the cabin was often shaking from small earthquakes, and huge rocks rolled by.

In the morning I continued my climb through snow and ice. Above 4,500 m there was no ice visible, only gray ash. At first I could see lake-dotted floodplain below, but then low clouds moved in, so the peak looked like an island. Finally I got over the old crater rim, climbed the small inner cone, and looked into the crater, but couldn't see anything because of a huge stream of yellowish smoke rising from it. In the depression between the old crater rim and the new cone the rocks were warm, and there was no wind. I decided to spend the night there. The sun set, the moon rose, the clouds disappeared. I could see icy summits of other volcanoes, the ocean to the east, and the Sea of Okhotsk very far to the west. There were no villages in sight except for Klyuchi below. Snowflakes were falling from the sky, but it was very clear, and meteors passed by every few minutes. I was almost asleep when the mountain started shaking and roaring, and the smoke above the crater turned red.

Remembering the Ebeko eruption, I felt very uncomfortable, but it was too late. A shining fountain of red lava rose from the crater, and was immediately struck by blue lightning from the smoke pillar. Stones started falling and rolling all around, and the air filled with ash and sulfur dioxide. The red glow was so bright that I could see its reflection on the glaciers of other volcanoes. I found an overhanging rock, and watched the show from relative safety. After a few more bursts of activity, a narrow stream of lava came down from the crater, and froze into a small pool. But then the mountain went quiet again, and I managed to get an hour or two of sleep before dawn.

As soon as the sun looked out of the ocean, I ran all the way downhill, through fresh ash and layers of morning fog, picked up my backpack at the cabin, and continued running, until the marmots of Bombardment Tundra greeted me with musical whistles. I hiked all the way back to Klyuchi, seeing nothing interesting along the way. (Only a few weeks later I realized that a pair of nightjars I'd seen that night was the first ever record of nightjars on Kamchatka Peninsula, or anywhere in Northeastern Russia).

It took me another hour of walking around the sleeping village to find a field station of Volcanology Institute, where a door to the second floor was traditionally left open for unexpected visitors. I had never been so tired in my life; my leg muscles were hurting so bad I almost cried from pain at every step. I crawled under a table, closed my eyes for just a second, and opened them again to see it was broad daylight, and the station crew was having breakfast at the table I was under.

There are two major mountain ranges on Kamchatka. The Eastern Range follows the Pacific Coast. It is not entirely volcanic, but most of the peninsula's active volcanoes and hot springs are located either inside this range or close by. The Midline Ridge follows the Sea of Okhotsk coast. It is much older, and only one of its volcanoes is still active, but there are lots of hot springs there, too.

I hitchhiked to Esso, a village deep into the mountains of Midline Ridge. It is one of the last places with oldgrowth larch forests, and it has some hot springs. It is also the only place with native population accessible by road. Koryaks, Itelmens and Evenks live here together with the descendants of Cossacs, who've built a fort in the canyon two hundred years ago. As soon as I got to the hot spring, I jumped into the pool, and was very sorry to see that I made it unusable for everybody else for the rest of the day, so much ash and dirt was washed off me.

I hitchhiked back to Transkamchatkan Highway and got stuck at the junction. There is little traffic in the northern part of this road, so you should always be ready to spend a day or two waiting. Chased by bloodthirsty gnats, I hiked south through burned and logged forests, watching clouds play over Tolbachik Volcano. First, one cloud formed over its summit, took the shape of the volcano, and then moved away as its ghost. Half an hour later, flat umbrella clouds started forming one above another, until there was a stack of seven layers above the peak.

Two days later, I got back to the developed part of Kamchatka, and made a second attempt to get into Kronotsky Reserve. I spent half a week there, making shuttle trips between the Reserve office in Elizovo and Volcanology Institute in Petropavlovsk (unlike the reserve, the institute still had money for helicopters). But it was all in vain.

During the weekend, I climbed nearby Avacha Volcano (a windy mountain with a golden sulfur-lined crater, and lots of ground squirrels on grassy slopes below). In a tourist camp halfway to the summit, I met some people from the Urals, who were also trying to get into the Reserve, but, unlike me, had a lot of money. Together we could talk to the reserve administration, the institute director, and helicopter pilots at the same time. But it still didn't work. It is probably difficult for a foreigner to understand why it was such a problem to hire a helicopter. But in the Soviet Union, only state-owned organizations could hire an aircraft. And there was a lot more red tape to get through.

I took a break and hitchhiked to a construction site on the slopes of Mutnovski Volcano south from Avacha Bay. A powerplant using volcanic energy was supposed to be built there. In 1988 there were two buildings surrounded by roaring "geysers" of steam coming out from bore-holes. On a nearby creek there were some hot springs and a warm waterfall. The restaurant had a sign "Employees only! Do not feed stray dogs and tourists!" But for me it wasn't a problem, because I had a membership card from my scientific club which looked very much like the ones issued to KGB agents.

Two interesting side trips can be made from this place: a two-day hike through tallgrass meadows to a fjord to the east (there is some good pink salmon fishing along the trail), and a day hike to Mutnovski crater. I made the first one easily but ran into problems on the second one. I started it in the afternoon and tried to get to the crater by nightfall, but dense fog came in, and I got lost among dirty glaciers on the slopes. I almost froze to death under some rock, but then the fog disappeared, and in bright moonlight I easily found a narrow canyon leading inside the crater.

Morning view of the crater was stunning. It was seven hundred meters wide and deep, with three inner craters on the bottom, all connected by a hot stream. Three icefalls flowed in from above: one of them was blue, another one red from tufa moraines, and the third one golden-yellow from sulfur. Of the inner craters, one had huge volcano-like fumaroles, golden on the outside and emerald-green on the inside, one had white lakes of sulfuric acid, and one had a red-hot lake of boiling mud.

As a result of this hike, I got one toe frostbitten, and another one burned, and hardly made it back to the village. But then I found a radon-rich hot spring, and both toes healed within a few hours after bathing in it.

Amazingly, that entire area was almost unknown to the outside world at the time.

There are two other volcanoes nearby. Active Gorelyi (Burnt) has ten craters, some filled with lakes and some with glaciers. Extinct Vilyuchik is a beautiful double-headed pyramid with a large waterfall halfway upslope. Ash-covered plateau between the three volcanoes is locally known as "the museum of Natural disasters". Eruptions, earthquakes, lahars, avalanches, forest fires, floods, snow and dust storms, even tornadoes all occur there.

After two more days of fighting with local bureaucracy I made a trip to the western coast. It is lined with strange dunes made of pebbles. Inland lies wet tundra, so that coast is ideal for waterbirds and waders to migrate along. Millions of sandpipers were moving south along the shoreline. When I came back to the city, there was fresh snow on the volcanoes around. The summer was almost over.

And finally we made it. The Volcanology Institute hired a helicopter for two days with our money. In exchange we promised to deliver some of its equipment to people working in the Reserve. To get the permit we agreed to give a ride to some Reserve rangers who wanted to get in or out. We managed to sell the remaining seats to some tourists from Uzbekistan, but the flight still cost me more than the rest of the four-month trip to Sakhalin, Kurils, Commanders, and Kamchatka. At sunrise we boarded a cute red Mi-8 helicopter and took off.

The area between Petropavlovsk in the south and Klyuchi in the north is one of the most stunning parts of the world to fly over. This is the land of impenetrable alder and stone pine bushes, meadows with grasses three meters tall, and cold tundra uplands. It is dotted with big and small volcanoes, craters, calderas, and fumarole fields. We crossed it all the way to large dark-blue Kronotskoe Lake, watching wild sheep and reindeer from above, and landed in a place where a river flows out of the lake towards the ocean. On the far side of the lake was Kronotsky, the most beautiful volcano in the world.

We picked up some people, dropped off others, and made a circle over Krasheninnikov Caldera. It is a huge crater with a double-headed volcano in it. One of the volcano's parts has an inner cone in its crater, and this inner cone has another crater with another inner cone with another crater! Then we got off the helicopter in the so-called Valley of Death.

The valley got its name for carbon dioxide, which seeps from the ground and forms a thin deadly layer on the surface. Bones of bears and wolverines who died from gas poisoning can always be found there. But if you follow a small river, you'll get to Geyser Valley, the liveliest place on Kamchatka. It doesn't have as many geysers as Yellowstone, but they are much more diverse in appearance. The place is very remote: it was only discovered in the 1940-s, and there are no villages within a hundred kilometers. In 1988 it was still relatively pristine.

We were supposed to be picked up by helicopter from Valley of Death next morning. The pilot was not very experienced, and he landed right in the middle of gas-filled depression, stirring up the toxic layer. As a result, a little daughter of one of the tourists collapsed, but got better as soon as we took off. Our next stop was Uzon Caldera, a Ngorongoro-like place with numerous hot lakes and springs. Instead of lions and elephants, this crater is inhabited by bears and swans wintering at hot lakes. It also has the most extensive thickets of Arctic bramble (called kingberry in Russian) I've ever seen.

South from Uzon there are three other spectacular volcanoes. Karymski has a tiny crater and is almost constantly erupting. Lesser Semyachik has a large crater with a lake of green sulfuric acid inside. Greater Semyachik has no crater, only giant fumaroles and a lake of boiling asphalt. I asked the pilots to let me hang on a rope below the helicopter, and took some nice photos of all three.

I had just enough money for one last trip, and took a plane to Ozernaya village in the far south of Kamchatka. From the village, it's a one-day hike to Kurilskoye Lake, the world's largest chum salmon spawning site. It is also the best place in Russia to watch bears. Sometimes you can see twenty at a time. The largest brown bear ever measured was killed there in 1875. The lake itself is very scenic - it is an old caldera with a small volcanic island, and two more volcanoes close by.

I had to leave the lake after spending one day there. Cirrus clouds appeared in the sky. In this area it is a reliable sign of an approaching cyclone. I made it to the village just before the rains started, but had to wait for two days before a plane could arrive. I had no money left, so I had to live with local bichs in abandoned army barracks, feeding on canned salmon stolen from a canning factory through a hole in a fence. I got back to Petropavlovsk airport half an hour before my flight to Moscow.

Flying to Moscow takes seven hours, but because of time difference you arrive at the same time you take off. My clothes were all in large holes from volcanic gases, and there was nothing left in my backpack except for film and caviar. I was out of money, and had to walk for a few hours to get home from the airport. But I knew that very few people had ever had a summer more interesting.

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