Magazine article Russian Life

Bears in the Mist

Magazine article Russian Life

Bears in the Mist

Article excerpt

Kamchatka is Russia's final frontier, a land of big bears, large salmon resources, and vast swaths of old growth conifer forests. And now I am in its heart--the Kronotsky Nature Reserve, one of the zapovedniks in Russia's expansive system of strictly protected areas (see Russian Life, Sep/Oct 2003). I arrive, as do all staff and visitors, by helicopter--an hour-and-a-half ride skimming the mountaintops from Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka's capital and only sizable city. Mine is a Russian cargo helicopter, which has been brightly painted blue and orange to conceal its age.

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Kronotsky Reserve is accessible only in good weather--June through September. I am here in mid-June, in time to see the Valley of the Geysers come to life. In late April and May, the nearly two-dozen large geysers, hundreds of steaming thermal springs, and boiling mud-pots in this valley melted off the deep blanket of snow. Even now, snow covers the mountains surrounding the valley, but green shoots and spring blossoms are visible in the steamy valley below. Brown bears gather here in force in springtime. For the bears, it provides an early respite from Kamchatka's long winter. Green grasses attract the bears from other parts of the Reserve where the snow will remain until summer. Females treat their young cubs to fresh vegetation, and males woo other females to begin the mating cycle anew.

I glimpse a mother bear leading two cubs across the opposite slope of the valley. I am certain to see many more during this visit under the guidance of my husband, Russian nature photographer Igor Shpilenok. He is a volunteer ranger in Kronotsky. In the nearly two years he has worked in the Reserve, Igor has learned his way around bears. Igor and bears are constantly crossing paths in the Valley of the Geysers--one of the major attractions of Kamchatka and the section of Kronotsky Nature Reserve he helps protect. In summer, when dozens of tourists are flown into the valley each day for brief excursions, Igor is a buffer between them and the bears. While Igor's job is to protect the bears and their habitat from human pressures, more often than not he ends up protecting the people from the bears.

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The Kamchatka brown bear is the second largest in the world, after the Alaskan Kodiak bear, but the Russian population is not as well managed. Poaching, poor monitoring, and insufficient capacity for enforcing protected regimes threaten the population, which hovers around 10,000. In addition, over-fishing threatens the bears' main food source--salmon. One-quarter of all wild Pacific salmon come from Kamchatka, meaning that depletion of Kamchatka's fish resources could have consequences for more than Kamchatka's bears.

Volcanic mountains and geysers dominate the valley's landscape. Yet the geysers were not discovered until April 1941. Russian hydrologist Tatyana Ustinova and her Itelmen guide Anisifor Krupenin were exploring the unmapped interior of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, where a federal nature preserve had been created seven years earlier. As storm clouds gathered, they briefly stopped to rest in a narrow canyon before returning to camp. Suddenly, they were sprayed with hot water bursting from an opening in the snow across the stream. They had discovered the first geyser on Kamchatka, and indeed in all of Russia. Subsequent expeditions found more than 20 large geysers and other unique natural phenomena, such as bubbling mud-pots. The seven-square-kilometer area now known as the Valley of the Geysers was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

Some of the geysers emit steam constantly. Others, like the one Ustinova first encountered, erupt periodically, showering the landscape and unwary visitors with hot, sulfuric water. The steam is framed by steep hillsides and an azure sky. The bears and I have found a beautiful, wild place. …

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