July 01, 2003

The Lure of Kunashir

packhorse in tow, i scramble along the rocky pacific coast of Kunashir, the southernmost of Russia’s Kurile Islands, a volcanic chain extending from Kamchatka to Japan. As the sun sets over the island, robing the lofty cones of active and extinct volcanoes in red and golden hues, my husband, photographer Igor Shpilenok, and I cross the salmon-choked Tyatina River.

We are searching for a small cabin, occasionally used by rangers patrolling the Kurilsky Nature Reserve, which protects nearly half the island. The cabin, where we plan to spend the next three nights, eludes us as darkness cloaks the island. We hear the deep call of the Blakiston’s fish owl, one of the largest predatory birds on Earth and, with only a few dozen pairs remaining, one of the rarest. A rustling sound emanates from dense underbrush and, suddenly, a large figure stands before us. Igor greets the shape, thinking it is a particularly tall and burly person. It lets out a roar. The horse balks and the creature vanishes. Our first bear encounter. We realize that we are blocking the bear’s path from the hills to its evening fishing hole. We encounter four more bears, including a mother with cubs. Thankfully, none confronts us. Perhaps the hulking figure of our horse with backpacks piled high scared them off. Finally, we locate the cabin and settle in for the night, realizing that scavenging bears have broken all the windows.

So ends our third day on Kunashir Island, the last stop on a 5,000-mile trip across Russia to document the country’s vast protected areas system, which began from our home in the Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve in western Russia. We were lured to Kunashir by stories of pristine wilderness, wild salmon runs and bears – more than 200 inhabit the island, the largest density of bears in all of Russia. Elated to have finally arrived on the island, we realize that our mission to document Kunashir is all the more pressing due to growing threats from gold mining, overfishing, and political disputes with Japan, which could jeopardize the sanctity of the island and its strictly-protected nature reserve.

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