The Land of Volcanoes and Bears

It seems ages ago, it was ages ago, when I was actually traveling in the land of Volcanoes and bears, also known as Kamchatka.

“Kam-What?” Is what I heard all the time. Kamchatka is the name, the Russian Far East is the place. It is ‘the other side of the world’ for us, at least, the other side of our almost-neighbour Russia. A mere 10 hours time difference, about the same amount of flying hours, which makes it a lot further off than let’s say, New York.

The only people that generally know the name are Argentines. There is a country in a board game that is called that way, and there is an Argentine movie called Kamchatka.

So far so good. For all the other people in the world who don’t know it : it’s a peninsula the size of let’s say the UK, it’s a 1250km long. It is practically inhabited, about 320.000 people, of which 85% lives in the urban areas. The economy is based on fishing. There are few to no roads outside the urban areas. The further you drive from the capital Petropavlovsk, as can be expected, the worse the roads get. Best is to either take a huge 6×6 (larger, with much larger wheels then a large 4×4) to drive over all the debris, or a helicopter.

For years it has been closed to the public, as it was a military zone, and now that it’s open for ‘tourism’ it is slowly getting known internationally. ‘Tourism’ (between brackets), because there isn’t a lot of tourist accommodation. We did a cruise on a boat that would not be considered seaworthy in Europe, shared a cabin with 11 people and some had to eat standing up (lack of space). We slept in tents, and our most luxurious “hotel” was a cabin shared with 7 other women. And then I will not discuss the availability or condition of bathrooms…

So one must be a bit out of his mind to go there, you would think?

Well maybe. The beauty of the land totally makes up for the uncomfortable stay. The exhausting and sometimes dangerous climbing of volcanoes, I would sign up again without thinking, if I could. This land is unique. This land is amazing, this land is a dream!

It is situated on the “ring of fire”, the belt of volcanoes that goes from the Andes in Latin America over Russia, Japan, Indonesia, until New Zealand. It counts about 452 volcanoes, of which over a 100 are in Kamchatka, and of those 100, about 30 have been active during the last decades. So it is right to say that Kamchatka is the land of volcanoes. It is also considered UNESCO world heritage.

I had never seen so many volcanoes. They are high, much higher than the surrounding mountains, they have this beautiful cone shape, and are magnificent. All you can do is admire them. They are grand! I just could not get enough of looking at them. Taking pictures of them, again and again.

Apart from the wild, impressive and powerful nature, there is also an extensive wildlife, killer whales (we probably saw about 100 of them in a couple of hours), sea lions and seals, lots and lots of birds, but most famous are its bears.

The Kamchatka bears are similar to the Alaska bear, they are among the largest in the world (up to 3 meter), and live all around the peninsula. In many areas they are hunted for, with real guns, in order to kill them. We shot them with our cameras, in order to bring the images back…

Around Kurilskaye lake (a lake that originates from, yes, a volcanic eruption) there are about 1.000 bears living protected from hunters. It is where bear lovers go to see them, study them, take pictures.

The lake is also known as one of the biggest concentrations of spawning salmon in the summer season. The salmon that, after a few years living at sea, swim upstream to put their eggs in the lake (and then consequently die, if they have not been eaten by bears before that). Thousands, millions of them. This is of course a total feast for the bears!

This amazing experience I have just put together in my latest book, “Kamchatka, the land of volcanoes and bears”. Check it out and share the news! Now also available as e-book for your iPad or kindle. Feel free to add comments!

Teddy Bear

If you know how dangerous a bear is, you wonder why they give -of all animals!- stuffed bears, also called ‘Teddy Bears’, to kids and babies. But even though my brain says they are dangerous, I must agree that they look particularly cute. At least, if you look past the blood around their mouths, and discard the way they capture, skin alive and eat the salmon.

“Where did that fish go?”

“Let go of me!”

The Catch

Even so. They are unbelievably cute. So much that I would want to hug them. Even when they stand in front of you, really close, and gigantically tall.

I have stood in front of a bear (or rather, bears), several times, really close. Mostly the bear is not ‘standing’, but walking on his 4 legs, so the giganticness doesn’t strike you that much. Well , it does strike you, in a way. But still, they look cute.

If it wasn’t for the armed guards, one walking in the front, and one in the back, constantly urging us to stay close, and occasionally telling us to back off, we would have gotten close enough to actually touch them.

After he has caught and skinned his salmon, he goes looking for a quiet place to eat it.
Nap time.
Right after he duck after his salmon, which he obviously missed…
Catch me of you can! A salmon swimming by while the bear is to busy eating another one.

I have traveled a lot, and I have been to many interesting places, but not one was looked at with so much eager and enthusiasm by my friends and followers than this trip to bear country, Kamchatka.

Kamchatka, a far away land, also called the Far East of Russia. It is a long flight (from Moscow) and a huge time difference (11H), and as soon as you arrive you know you are in an extraordinary place. Especially when you land on the empty airport of Petropavlovsk in a Boeing 777, where you have to get off the plane, and into a bus, that drives you 15 meters further and drops you off at to the door of a tent where the luggage belt is (why can’t we walk?). There are only a few tourists like us, many locals, and a lot of Russians visiting from Moscow, arriving with their guns, ready to hunt some bears.

Yes, in Kamchatka they hunt for bears. Some with a gun, others, like me, with a camera. There are many, many bears in the Peninsula, some say too many. We Europeans wonder, can there ever be too many? (their cuteness must have something to do with that, and having to live with the constant risk of being attacked by one of those dangerous giants is something we tend to forget))

For many people, the bears are the only reason why they go to that place. For me it was one of many, but after 3 days of ‘hunting’ and shooting over 2000 bear photos, I have to admit that I have come to love them.

mmmmm Delicious!
Mother bear waiting for a fish to pass by (and be caught).
Same mother, now jumping after the fish (which she caught, by the way).

We went to a national park at Kurilskoye that is known for its bears. All day for 3 days we walked around the area, close to each other, looking for bears. One day we saw more then 70, all doing their thing. Mostly this is hunting for fish, call it fishing, often it is sleeping, or napping, or just walking towards good fishing spots. Bears are slow, or so it seems, calm, but when they accelerate they change into something quite different. You do not want to cross their path when they run (towards you).

Some bears are fishing champions, they catch one salmon after the other, others really suck at it, like that one bear the guards called ‘Jumper’, because he always jumps into the water but hardly ever catches something. As a result he is skinny. Some bears are constantly running after fish, others are standing at the shore looking down until an interesting one comes along, they then jump in, sometimes come out with a fish, sometimes they missed.

The salmon, still alive at this particular moment I am afraid…

It was extremely tempting to stay and watch a bear for hours, with cameras at hand, ready to shoot when they make a move, but very often they would stand there and look into the water and not move at all. But we knew, there are more bears further on. Kurilkoye is a bear crowded area. Here, buy the way, there is no place for hunters, and even the guards said they never had to shoot a bear. There had never been a dangerous situation during their guard…

This guy has just jumped and missed.
Waiting for fish…

Even though I don’t consider myself a wild life photographer, this bear shooting was a wonderful experience, so you should best keep on following me to see what else I will be doing in the future 😉

Have a great bear-day, give your friend a bear hug, and for our Flemish readers; ‘t was Beire goe!