Life

A Journey Through the Volcanic Wilderness of Kamchatka – Discovering Its Untamed Landscapes, Bears and Boiling Geysers

When I mention the term “Kamchatka,” it evokes thoughts of the remote reaches of the earth. In this untamed expanse, traversed by only a scant few, lies a landscape of unparalleled grandeur. It remains unsullied by the hand of man, a testament to its pristine and unspoiled nature. Yet, Kamchatka, with its raw beauty and awe-inspiring vistas, remains largely undiscovered by the wider world.

Volcanoes abound in this realm.

The Aeroflot aircraft descended into the Kamchatka Territory. Beyond the window, a splendid, cone-shaped volcano emerged beneath the azure heavens. Its summit, adorned with snow, vanished into clouds and mist. Beneath the gaze of this majestic peak, we descended from the heavens to the earth below. In the ensuing days, the presence of the volcano accompanied me relentlessly—whether I ventured upon the sea, roamed the city streets, traversed the Lake District, or gazed skyward from the confines of my friend’s coastal abode. Along the outskirts of Petropavlovsk, capital of the Kamchatka Territory, stand five volcanoes, among them Avacha, Kozelsk, and Koryak.

The natural legacy of the Kamchatka Volcanoes comprises six distinct protected areas. The South Kamchatka Nature Reserve, for instance, was established through a pact between Russia and Japan in 1973 to bolster the safeguarding of migratory avifauna. The peninsula boasts not only numerous volcanoes but also an array of volcanic phenomena—from caves, geysers, and hot springs to beaches cloaked in black sand. During my fourth expedition to the Kamchatka Peninsula for photographic pursuits, fortune smiled upon me, granting vistas of the most extreme volcanic landscapes. Chief among them is the Vilyuchinsky volcano, soaring to a height of 2173 meters. Its flawless silhouette serves as an emblem, particularly enchanting during the waning hours of sunset. As we venture out into Avacha Bay, leaving the port and the city in our wake, the Koryak volcano looms like a titan, its lofty peak—elevated to 3,456 meters—emerging from the veils of clouds, bestowing upon us a spectacle of vast proportions. Viewing these volcanoes from the vantage of the sea is an experience imbued with a surreal quality, marking the boundary of the Eurasian continent, the veritable terminus of the earth.

Come evening, I ascended Mount Michel, situated at the heart of the city, commanding a panorama of urban sprawl and the volcanoes in the distance. “Have you ventured there before?” I inquired of my guide, Dasha, gesturing toward the volcano. “Approximately once a month,” came her nonchalant reply. Among the locals, ascending the 2,741-meter Avacha Volcano is a favored pursuit. Scaling its heights with companions on weekends is as routine for them as ascending Xiangshan Mountain is for denizens of Beijing. Indeed, for the people of Kamchatka, volcanoes are a ubiquitous facet of life.

Baqi Volcano Expedition

In 2023, I embarked once more on a journey into the Tobalchik volcanic region aboard a Kamaz-modified heavy truck. Our all-terrain vehicle traversed dense stands of pine and birch. After a thrilling off-road excursion through the forest, we arrived at our campsite nestled within the expanse of lava fields by afternoon. Baqi volcano stands as one of merely six volcanoes worldwide to have erupted from extensive fissures in recorded history. It ranks among the three volcanoes subjected to the most meticulous study of their eruptions to date. In modern times, Baqi has borne witness to three significant eruptions—in 1941, 1975, and 2012—of which the eruption of 1975 stands out as the most cataclysmic volcanic event of the 20th century, lasting a year and a half. A monument near our campsite pays homage to the victims, including geologists who succumbed amidst the upheaval.

The detritus and molten magma from the volcanic outburst accumulated in the vicinity. The eruption of 1975 birthed eight cinder cones, each soaring to approximately 300 meters in height, with lava flows extending nearly 10 kilometers. The volcano we ascended in the vicinity of our camp that afternoon likely formed part of this assemblage. After a forty-minute trek across these ebony scoria, we stood atop the summit. In the distance, the peak of Baqi Mountain lay obscured by clouds and mist, while a nearby brick-red crater stood out conspicuously.

The landscape of the Baqi volcanic valley evokes comparisons to the lunar surface. Once, a Russian base for testing lunar rovers and spacecraft occupied this terrain, only to be entombed beneath the torrents of lava unleashed by the fissure eruption of 2012. Yet amidst the desolation, green grasses and wildflowers now flourish upon the volcanic ash, bearing silent witness to the enduring solitude of this place, weathering wind and rain with stoic resolve. As ominous clouds gather on the distant horizon, heralding an impending deluge, we hasten our descent. Come nightfall, the patter of rain upon our tent lulls me into a deep slumber.

Tent Encampment in the “Forest of Death”

The following day, amidst a downpour, we set out for the “Forest of Death.” This desolate expanse was wrought from the aftermath of the reawakening of the Ploski volcano on November 27, 2012, following a 36-year dormancy. At that time, the volcanic plume drifted northwestward, blanketing residential areas more than 50 kilometers distant with a layer of ash measuring some four centimeters in thickness. Rivulets of molten lava cascaded down the mountainside. In a bid to stave off the encroaching flow, rescuers deluged the lava with copious quantities of seawater, coaxing it to congeal. Over a decade later, this site remains a somber tableau, akin to an otherworldly landscape. Though the forest was ravaged by the volcanic onslaught, the charred remains of trees still stand, lending credence to its moniker, the “Forest of Death.”

Beneath the lithosphere lies the asthenosphere, where molten rock roils, serving as the wellspring of volcanic activity. When magma breaches fractures in the earth’s crust, coursing across the land as it cools, it begets a myriad of geological formations. The incandescent flow of lava surged southward, stretching some 45-50 kilometers from the Nikolka volcano. Roughly 80% of the eruption centers coalesced in a concentrated belt, manifesting as multiple fissures and chains of ash cones spanning a narrow strip of land. Today, this terrain resembles an open-air museum of geological wonders, wherein one may behold lava rendered in myriad forms: sinuous ropes, twisted tendrils, swirling vortices, floating rafts, serpentine coils, and more. Even now, more than a decade since the eruption, the spectacle remains awe-inspiring. Landslides scar the landscape, fissures rend the earth, and crimson magma seethes and flows, casting a spellbinding tableau before our eyes.

Our trek across the lava fields continued unabated, despite the intensifying rain and thickening fog. Save for the patter of raindrops and the dull thud of our footfalls, a solemn hush enveloped us. Beneath our feet, the once-roiling magma, now solidified, lay ensconced in time. In this moment, with nowhere to seek refuge, we pressed onward in silence, bearing witness to the awesome power of nature.

That evening, compelled by the relentless downpour, we relinquished our camping plans and sought refuge within a tent encampment nestled in the heart of the “Death Forest”, a recently unveiled sanctuary established in the summer of 2023. A collection of a dozen resplendent ivory-hued semicircular shelters stood out starkly against the desolate ebony expanse. Within these shelters lay inviting, immaculate bedding, alongside exclusive dining quarters and lavatories. The ambiance within the confines of the tent exuded a sense of luminosity and comfort reminiscent of re-entering the realm of civilization.

At dawn’s break, a crimson sun pierced through the veil of mist, casting its ethereal glow upon the “Forest of Death”. As I gazed intently, a profound sense of solitude engulfed me, a poignant reminder of life’s nascent struggle in this wilderness at the world’s edge. To traverse uncharted distances and behold the earth’s most exquisite panoramas finds its perfect embodiment in the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Encounters in the Geyser Valley

The Kamchatka Peninsula stands as the world’s second-largest congregation of geothermal marvels after the Yellowstone National Park in the United States. During a recent excursion, I opted for a helicopter sojourn to the renowned Valley of Geysers. En route, we beheld the awe-inspiring spectacle of two majestic volcanoes—Kalumki and Small Semiachko. The latter, having undergone a cataclysmic eruption four centuries past, birthed a cobalt-hued crater lake within its oval-shaped caldera, a sight of sublime beauty from aerial vantage points, albeit imbued with acidic waters.

This six-kilometer expanse of valley remained concealed until 1941, subsequent to which scientists flocked to scrutinize the genesis of geysers and their ecological impact. Within this valley lie an assemblage of ninety geysers and over five hundred geothermal springs, nourished by the subterranean warmth emanating from the youthful Kipinich Volcano, sequestered five hundred meters beneath the surface at a scorching 250 degrees Celsius. Moreover, the valley forms an integral part of the Kronotsky Biosphere National Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Encircled by the collapsed Uzon Crater, the valley intermittently exhales geothermal emissions, as steam, mud, and water surge skyward from its geysers. Vast swathes of the hillside are painted a gentle ochre, while sulfur crystals adorn select locales. The minerals dissolved within the waters imbue the encircling rocks with hues of crimson, rose, azure, and buff, rendering a spectacle of resplendent colors that captivate the beholder. Though the geysers vary in magnitude, their eruptions range from intervals of three to five minutes to spans of several hours, with water temperatures nearing the boiling point. Among them stands the largest geyser, erupting at intervals of three to six hours, spewing forth a towering column of water reaching heights of thirty to forty meters. Each eruption leaves behind a gaping orifice in its wake, as subterranean waters coalesce in anticipation of the next celestial display.

The Geyser Valley, verdant and luxuriant, also plays host to the brown bear. Every April and May, following their hibernation, these majestic creatures emerge, ravenous for sustenance amidst the verdant meadows nourished by the valley’s warmth. Navigating with caution to avoid scalding springs, they assume a graceful yet awkward posture while grazing upon the lush grasslands.

As the helicopter glided toward the Ilyinsky volcano, my gaze descended upon the sinuous rivers and myriad lakes sprawled beneath, lost in contemplation. Yet, the saga unfolds further. The helicopter made a deliberate pause at the Sudachi Crater, an active volcano with an elevation of a mere thousand meters, its volcanic cone ravaged by a tumultuous eruption in 1907, now designated with a verdant alert status on the volcano monitoring register. Nestled within its crater lay twin lakes, their contours reminiscent of the Tai Chi symbol. Standing amidst this tableau, gazing upon a landscape forged by the elemental forces of ice and fire, I found myself ensnared in a liminal realm where time and space converge, marking not merely a journey but a profound odyssey of existential exploration.

Volcanoes, brown bears, geyser valleys, and crystalline volcanic lakes—only by braving the crucible of adversity can one behold nature’s unadulterated splendor. As winter descends, cloaking mountains and forests in solemn silence, the brown bears prepare for their protracted slumber, and the peninsula dons a shroud of wintry white. Yet, come spring’s advent, as the brown bears rouse from their snowy dens and salmon embark on their annual migration, I shall return, as vowed!

The Proliferation of Volcanoes

The preponderance of volcanoes within the Kamchatka Peninsula finds its genesis in its geographical placement within one of the Earth’s most volatile zones—the Pacific Rim volcanic and seismic belt, rivaled only by the Mediterranean-Himalayan seismic zone. Nestled along the eastern fringe of Russia, in northeastern Asia, and flanked by the Sea of Okhotsk to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, the peninsula stretches approximately 1,250 kilometers in length, encompassing an expanse of 472,300 square kilometers. Positioned at the juncture of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates, its geological configuration epitomizes the Cenozoic Alpine orogeny, rendering its crust exceedingly unstable and endowing it with the dubious distinction of harboring some of the most frequent volcanic activities worldwide.
The Peninsula’s underdevelopment cannot be solely attributed to its nascent economy, rudimentary tourism infrastructure, or sparse populace. Rather, its status as Russia’s eastern frontier, with Avacha Bay serving as the naval bastion of the Russian Pacific Fleet and Vilyuchinsk designated as a secluded administrative enclave, renders large swathes of its topography off-limits to civilian habitation, the realm of the military juxtaposed against the backdrop of its unique volcanic terrain and extreme climatic conditions, a domain seldom traversed by the human foot.

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