July 01, 2006

The Wonders of Kamchatka

I cringed at each bump as we drove down an endless washboard of gravel road – the main north-south highway to the interior of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Perched in the front seat of a 10-seat minibus, I cradled my right arm in a cast, which rested on an oversized pillow. I was dreading the 300 mile trip ahead – from Bystrinsky Nature Park to the capital city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Ten hours and three flat tires later (and filled with admiration for the driver with enough foresight to haul four spares) I arrived in the city, where I received antibiotics for my bite wounds and treatment for my dislocated elbow. Despite the injuries, I was thrilled by positive sentiments from my two-week adventure living in the park’s remote mountain wilderness, among Kamchatka’s native Koryak and Even (pronounced e-VEN) peoples. 

Three months earlier, I had moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (so named to distinguish it from the Petropavlovsk in Kazakhstan) to work on a biodiversity monitoring project for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). My husband, photographer Igor Shpilenok, had secured a job as a ranger for Kronotsky Nature Reserve (Zapovednik). This allowed him access to the reserve – a 90 minute helicopter ride from the city – for his wildlife and nature photography. Unfortunately, I saw him infrequently, as helicopters were sporadic and return flights to the city depended on the number of tourists and the weather, which was often foggy and overcast any day a helicopter flight was planned. 

Excited to finally experience the wild Kamchatka I had heard about since coming to Russia in 1993 to work for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), I found myself disappointed with the peninsula’s largest city. Petropavlovsk had squandered its potential to become a city benefiting from an unparalleled scenic setting. Hugging the northeastern coast of Avacha Bay and rimmed by snow-capped volcanoes reflecting in the bay’s glistening waters, views from Petropavlovsk were marred by crumbling Soviet-era buildings, unsightly jumbles of metal car garages, and scruffy greenways filled with trash in summer and edged with blackened snowbanks in winter. Beyond, in the cold, deep waters of Avacha Bay (said to be the largest in the world) lurked hoards of submarines – relics of the former Soviet Union’s largest naval base. Across the bay was their home port of Vilyuchinsk, beneath the volcanic cone of the same name, where foreigners dared not set foot for fear of grave punishment or deportation. 

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