Kamchatka Fashions a Vision of a Volcanic Tourist Wonderland : Russia: Region hopes to attract financing for mineral and fishing industries by promoting the wildlife, salmon streams, indigenous peoples and 28 active volcanoes.
Kamchatka Province lies so far east of Moscow--4,700 miles and nine time zones--that it’s very nearly west of the Russian capital.
Lenin thought so: He once offered to lease this California-size peninsula to an American businessman. Today, Kamchatka’s elected leaders think so too, working hard to attract Western capital for mineral and fishing industries. They offer visions of a volcanic tourist wonderland teeming with wildlife, laced with magnificent salmon streams and populated by indigenous peoples called Itelmen, Even, Koryak and Chukchi.
The visions are true. The peninsula’s 500-mile section of the Pacific Ring of Fire contains 28 active volcanoes. The scenic superstar is 15,584-foot Klyuchevskaya, Russia’s highest, which emits about 60 million tons of magma a year. Farther south lies the great caldera of Ksudach, whose eruption in 1907 was one of the 10 largest of the 20th Century.
This hellish landscape boasts a touch of heaven, too, in hot springs like the Khodutkinskaya River, which emerges from the foot of Khodutka Volcano at 161 degrees to be cooled to hot-tub temperatures by icy surface streams. Floating silently here, wreathed in sulfur-tinged steam and watching the evening sky slowly fill with stars, can seem like a rerun of creation.
Kamchatka is largely roadless. For travelers, a chartered helicopter is the only way to go. “I know every rock and birch tree personally,” said Capt. Vladimir Samarski, skimming his helicopter along narrow valleys and around precipitous peaks. Here and there he lands to collect firewood and buy fresh reindeer meat and homemade salmon caviar from friends who live in isolated regions. “Everyone welcomes us--it is almost like a festival sometimes,” he said.
One of his far-flung friends is a full-blooded Even named Alla Kechgichavina, a small, seraphic woman camped near the Icha River. She wears hip boots and a canvas parka and carries the rifle with which she has earned a living for 30 years as a hunter of ermine and fox.
A tough life has left her with an inner serenity. “I’m very rich; I have everything here--animals, birds, the taiga,” she said. “It’s just a pity I’m so old.”
In the village of Kovran, historian Oleg Zaporotsky is less sanguine. He is the founder of Sunrise, the Council for Rebirth of Kamchatka Itelmens.
“Itelmens possess the oldest culture in Kamchatka,” he said. “We are descended from the first wave of eastward Asian migration, which began about 14,000 years ago. There were 25,000 Itelmens when the Russians came in 1697. We began dying from disease, or war with Cossacks. Today we are only 2,000.”
To the north, where the Pyatibratskaya River flows into the Sea of Okhotsk, Gavriel Kikhlyab, 52, a Koryak, is pioneering an old way of life with his wife, Galina, and their two children.
“This is my place. I was born here,” he said, surveying a campsite where salmon dry on a driftwood framework. The couple moved here five years ago. “I have spent most of my life herding reindeer for the state farm,” Kikhlyab said. “Now we catch salmon and dry them to sell to the herders.”
In olden times, when shore-dwellers hunted whales in the Okhotsk Sea, they were careful to honor their prey. On Dobrzhanskiy Island they erected a shrine made of whale bones, visible from the surrounding sea. Today, a scattering of bones of lesser prey--reindeer, seals, even dogs--indicates that the spiritual tradition isn’t dead.
Old gods also survive in the Chukchi village of Achavayam, where Ludmila Koyan is custodian of her family’s idols--wooden male and female figures festooned with bells, spoons, twigs, leather ornaments and other memorabilia. “These have been our gods as long as we are on the Earth,” she said. “They know all about the people. They must be fed each spring with bone butter made of reindeer marrow and blood, or they will cause trouble.”
Of all Kamchatka’s native groups, the Aleuts of Bering Island are closest to losing their heritage. Russians brought them here from Alaska’s Pribilof Islands in 1826 to hunt fur seals. Today, only 200 of their descendants survive.
“Natives were considered the lowest level here,” said Valentina Stus, chairman of the Aleutski Regional Soviet. “The government said children had to be taken from Aleut families because we were too poor. But actually they wanted to eliminate our language and traditions.”
Although the Aleut language has been lost, traditional hunting continues. Once a year, during fur seal mating season, hunters make the 12-hour voyage to Mednyy Island, whose cliffs jut from the sea about halfway between Kamchatka and Attu Island. Using clubs, the hunters kill the seals swiftly and methodically.
Bering Island east of Kamchatka is named for Danish explorer Vitus Bering, who died here in 1741 when his ship was driven ashore while returning from his discovery of southern Alaska. Recently archeologists discovered his grave and those of six crewmen at Commander Bay, took their bones to Moscow for study and rectified a 250-year-old case of mistaken identity.
For reasons unknown, a portrait of a portly relative of Bering’s has been used for two centuries as a model for statues and paintings of the great explorer. “We learned that he is not his uncle,” said Prof. Victor N. Zviagin of Moscow’s Institute of Forensic Medicine.
Zviagin carefully reconstructed Bering’s features on a cast of his skull, revealing a handsome man of about 58, slightly quizzical, slightly sad.
Bering’s discovery of Alaska turned Petropavlovsk into a boom town, providing logistic support for Russia’s trade empire, which stretched from the Aleutian Islands to California and Hawaii.
The Cold War turned all of Kamchatka into a fortress where Soviet nuclear submarines, bombers and fighters stood guard against American forces.
Today, Russian warships remain in port for lack of funds and fuel, while a new Russian Orthodox church rises on a hill above the harbor, its three domes golden beacons for tourist ships.