High in the clouds, stunning aerial views of nearby volcanoes had completely captivated me before even landing in Kamchatka. As the seatbelt sign flashed on, with the plane ready to descend, half of the travellers were out of their seats, glued to the right hand side windows in complete astonishment. Kamchatka already seemed otherworldly.
Once we landed, went through customs, tracked down the massive bike boxes and grabbed our backpacks (thank you Sharon and Tom for handing down your wicked bags from the 70's), we tracked down a large enough taxi to fit the bikes. A large SUV pulled up, took the back seats out, stuffed the bikes in, and shut the door on me in the back crushed between the boxes. Stoked we were finally in Kamchatka, I was pretty damn happy.
Once in Petropevlovsk-Kamchatsky we met up with Svetlana, a local lady from Kamchatka who hosted us for a few nights while we got settled. We took a couple days checking out the town and deciding what to do first. We learned pretty quick the difficulties of travelling independently in Kamchatka, as almost all of their tourism is tour based. It seemed that every person we talked to pointed us in the direction of travel agencies offering unique and exciting, but very expensive tours. Another point of difficulty was the remoteness of so many spectacular places. Much of Kamchatka's wilderness is only accessible by helicopter or long 4X4 jeep tours. Trying to make a plan, we decided to hitch hike north to the town of Esso.
We set out early the next morning and were picked up right away. Making it to the nearby town, we stopped at the most popular cafe for their insanely delicious pirozhki — a baked Russian pie filled with cabbage. Sitting out in the sun, a local man with very limited english motioned us to come with him. With very few words and a lot of hand signals he told us he would be driving five hours north to Esso. We were on our way!
Spending some days in Esso we explored a couple shorter hiking trails, visited the ethnographic museum, soaked in hot springs and did everything in our power to not let the overwhelming amount of mosquitoes make us go absolutely crazy. I don't mean it lightly when I say you could probably die from the sheer volume of mosquitoes. Alaska and the Yukon have NOTHING on the mosquitoes in northern Kamchatka.
A few days later, trying to hitch hike back south, we had little luck from passing vehicles. Bummed we couldn't hitching a ride we ordered our bus tickets for the following morning. Deciding how to spend our afternoon, we headed back to the tourist information centre. We ended up meeting with two park rangers, both named Roman, working at the tourism centre and spent the evening hanging out around the fire. After making dinner, they wanted to show us their ranger base camp ten kilometres into the backcountry. With the offer on the table, we jumped on the opportunity to ride in their side-by-side on a crazy little dirt path deep into the park to check out their home and the yurts at the ranger base camp.
The next morning we got up early and hit the road for the long nine hour bus ride back into Yelizovo. Coming in late we were incredibly fortunate to find a little guesthouse out of town run by an old Russian lady named Galina. The quaint little place was only made sweeter with the kind, generous and adorable heart of the old Russian woman. Her home cooked meals, vegetables straight from her garden and endless amount of biscuits didn't hurt either. We spent two nights at Galina’s as a huge storm pulled through. This also gave us a chance to organize for our intended week long trek in Nalychevo National Park.
Starting out the following morning we didn't allow the continued rain to bring us down. The total excitement of our week long trek was in full swing. The first day of the trek was in the forest amongst five foot shrubs and weeds, which tight wrapped around the scarcely visible trail. If it wasn’t the pouring rain that would get us wet, it would be the overhead plants holding buckets of water splashing into us. As we carried forward through the rain, we decided to stay at an open hut 18 kilometres along the trail instead of going further to camp. Little did we know that a group of twenty high school students from St. Petersburg were also vacating the hut for the night. They were more than willing to make room in the tight little space for two soaking wet Canadians, along with sharing stories and new card games with us.
The next day, with the rain continuing to come down, we left later in the morning to hike towards the base camp at the Nalychevo hot springs. As we trekked along and through Pinachevo pass, the sun came out in full force, highlighting the beauty of the area. The pass presented us with incredible views of the valley along with a remarkably strong wind that literally blew me off my feet.
After a long days hike we were happy to come into the national park base camp. We chatted with the rangers, checked out the area and hiked the remaining two kilometres to the camping area. Once our tent was set up, we cooked dinner and set our bear hang, we headed back to the base to relax in the natural hot spring rivers. Our first night in the hot springs was felt completely perfect. We were in the middle of nowhere in Kamchatka, Russia, extraordinary nearby volcanoes stood plainly in view, we had the hot spring river entirely to ourselves, the sky screamed with shades of pink along with an alpine glow, and I was with the person I love most in the world. It was complete bliss.
It only seems fitting that while we relished in the glorious hot springs, we had a massive surprise waiting for us back at camp. Coming to the campsite Brandon noticed one of his shoes was missing. Thankfully, we found it soon after, a few metres away. At that point Brandon knew something was wrong, while I thought he simply forgot where he had placed his shoes. As we walked further to our camp spot, Brandon joked that our tent was gone, but by the time his comment had registered we both knew we were in trouble. A brown bear had come in completely crushing our tent, shredding a large portion of our gear and dispersing its remains around the site. The entire site was in complete chaos. In utter disbelief we both grabbed what we could, leaving behind our shredded tent, sleeping bags and matts. With fear of the bear lingering in the area and unable to see much from the darkness, we quickly trekked back to the base camp towards the ranger hut.
This entire trip, Brandon and I have taken extra caution for bears and other wildlife. We never leave food in our tent, always take out anything with scents (tooth paste, soap, etc), cook away from our tent and always secure a proper bear hang away from our site. This night was no different. While we always take these precautions to mitigate our risks, we can never completely avoid them. Coming to the ranger station that night we were informed of a ‘bad bear’ in the area. A younger, curious bear who had just parted from his mother. Having met with the rangers before we set up camp, it would have been valuable information to know ahead of time, but even so, somethings are out of your control and no matter what, sometimes shit happens.
After midnight, the rangers came out and were kind enough to give us a hut at the base camp for the night. Unable to continue our full trek without usable gear and shelter, we had to assess our options of getting back safely. Deep in the backcountry, with no outside connection and limited assistant from the park rangers we had no choice but to make the long haul back in one full day. The night and days after the incident had really rattled me and admittedly hit me harder than I would have thought. After spending two nights in the hut at Nalychevo I felt trapped and mentally exhausted. I didn’t worry so much about the gear, as it can be replaced, but thought more on loss of time and experience. The area was incredibly beautiful, the hot springs were phenomenal, and we were invited into the cabin of five local hikers for cards, dinner and homemade berry infused vodka, however I still couldn’t shake the feeling of disbelief or let the continual questioning leave my mind.
The following morning with no choice but to hike out, we awoke at 4:00 am to began our trek out. We were incredibly fortunate to have perfect, sunny weather, after two days of pouring rain. It turns out that a long day of solitude in such a phenomenal landscape turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time. Although the day was very demanding, hiking for over 14 hours, moving through lush sub alpine, trekking over snowy passes, and navigating around and between towering volcanoes gave me a giant shift in perspective and overwhelming sense of gratitude. The beauty that surrounded us reminded me it isn’t always going to be easy. Undertaking a trip like this involves continually being pushed out of your comfort zone (hell, I don’t think I understand my comfort zone anymore). You will definitely have some shit days, however, the troubles and struggles faced all seem worth it when you’re grinning ear to ear, feeling absolute, pure, unimaginable bliss.
Coming back from our trek, we spent the remainder of our time in Petropavlovsk figuring the logistics of getting new gear and preparing for our journey to Magadan. We are incredibly stoked for the next portion of our trip, piecing the bikes back together from the boxes and cycling 2000 kilometres of dirt along the ‘Road of Bones” through Siberia to Yakutsk.
Russia has been all kinds of crazy!