Imagine if you will, all you Alaskans (and Outsiders) who flock to the Kenai each summer, if the Peninsula jutted some 750 miles into the North Pacific, and was the size of Nevada. Picture a rugged spine of ancient mountains running up its center, with hundreds of swift, sparkling trout streams rising from either side to make their way down to the coast, through a landscape similar to Alaska, but even more spectacular, with towering, smoldering volcanoes, steaming hot springs and geysers, gnarly forests of twisted birch and cedar, and deserted meadows filled with wildflowers as tall as corn. (A milder climate and higher productivity make the vegetation and critters reach prodigious size, like southcentral Alaska on steroids.)
Instead of the 82 mile long Kenai as a centerpiece, try to fathom a behemoth, 460 mile drainage sprawling through its immense heart, providing almost unlimited opportunities for abundant sport fishing, rafting/kayaking and camping. And best of all, if you can, get your mind around an outdoor wonderland like this without the roving army of tourists that besiege the Kenai each summer; instead, think of mere hundreds of visitors spread out over the entire season, most of them concentrated along the road system in the southern tip.
This is the best way I’ve come up with to describe the fabulous Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaskans unfamiliar with our sister province lying just to the west of the immense arc of the Aleutians. Russia’s remote Far Eastern territory, Kamchatka was off limits to westerners until shortly after Perestroika in the early 1990’s, tantalizing with the promise of untouched, spectacular flyfishing and other attractions. But hampered by its remoteness, lack of infrastructure and the continuing détente between the world’s two biggest superpowers, Kamchatka’s promise has developed in fits and starts. Initially serviced from Alaska by several air carriers (it’s only a 3 ½ hour flight away), it suffered grievously when the last direct flights were cancelled in 2006, due to economics. (Americans have since had to endure long hours of travel through Moscow or Seoul to reach it.)
With the resumption of direct flights from Anchorage beginning in mid-July, via Yakutia Airlines, the vital link between Alaska and Russia’s Far East is restored, and with it endless possibilities of outdoor adventure not possible anywhere else.
Much has been made of the similarities between Kamchatka and Alaska fifty or more years ago, but there is so much about this place that is totally unique. Foremost, of course, for many folks, is its superlative wilderness flyfishing. Nowhere else in the world will you find, at this late date, so many unfished streams having such perfect conditions and superabundance of rainbow trout, charr and salmon. (It has been claimed that Kamchatka holds up to 25% of the wild salmon runs in the North Pacific.) A short helicopter flight or four wheel drive, hike or horseback ride from the road system will put you into fishing that equals or surpasses anything available in Alaska (there are six species of salmon there, not just five, BIG rainbow and steelhead trout, grayling and a charr called a “Kundzha”, that reaches 30 lbs., in addition to zillions of Dolly Varden), with the added, priceless bonus of running into few, if any, other anglers. Indeed, only a handful of Kamchatka’s many streams receive fishing pressure of any kind from visitors or locals.
Ecotourists will find in Kamchatka, the rare combination of a totally pristine, way-off-the- beaten path destination with unique, world class attractions and zero industrial tourism. The world has yet to discover this northern Shangri-La, and you can be among the first to explore its many wonders. One of Earth’s most concentrated areas of volcanism, Kamchatka has 28 active volcanoes (including the most imposing in all of Asia, Kluchevsky at 15 ½ thousand feet), and hundreds of hot and mineral springs, geysers, calderas, fumaroles and mud pots. They add an awesome highlight to treks, drives and river floats throughout the peninsula (no better way to end a long day outdoors than to soak in a steaming thermal pool), with some of the most impressive and accessible located within easy reach of the main hub of Petropavlovsk. Kamchatka’s renowned wildlife includes countless shore, sea and song birds, raptors, waterfowl and land and marine mammals, protected in some 85 parks, preserves, monuments and nature reserves, including 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites. A virtually intact indigenous population provides rich possibilities for aboriginal ecotourism, with visits to remote reindeer herding camps, live performances of world famous native folk ensembles, and tours of local cultural centers and museums among the most popular.
And since this is Russia, you’ll find your hosts earthy, hospitable and engaging, especially toward their neighbor Alaskans, whom they share many common bonds with. From the moment you arrive at the international airport in the town of Yelizovo, you’ll be treated like family, as they proudly show off their modest, rustic homes and lush vegetable and flower gardens tucked into the surrounding birch forest, past the roadside stands and small shops selling produce, pastries and dried fish, and everywhere, people walking and bicycling. A scrumptious, home cooked Russian meal, washed down with prodigious amounts of vodka, followed by a visit to the local hot springs or steambath (called “banya” in Russian) is top on the list of initial priorities, to help you shake any jet lag and get you acquainted with the Russian way of doing things. Only after this are you ready to take on the challenges and excitement of the wilds of Kamchatka!
It should go without saying that this place, unlike Alaska or practically any other destination for that matter, with its remoteness, difference in language and culture and dearth of infrastructure is less than ideal for the DIY adventurer (trust me on this), making the services of an experienced and reputable guide/outfitter almost mandatory. Kamchatka’s growing tourist economy provides a surprising variety of services to visitors, everything from flyfishing guides and lodges to volcano treks and mountain climbing, wildlife viewing, horseback trips, river rafting, heli ski and snowboarding, even diving tours in the clear, cold waters of Avacha Bay. Available accommodations vary from hotels and resorts to B&B’s, homestays and campgrounds; they are, for the most part, Spartan and rustic, but clean and comfortable. Always eager to please, local tour operators will be more than willing to put together a custom itinerary that combines your favorite activities, whatever they might be.
From the main hub of Petropavlovsk, a city slightly smaller than Anchorage, and nearby town of Yelizovo, located on the southern end of the peninsula, first-time visitors can sample many of Kamchatka’s superlative attractions, without forgoing the comfort of a soft bed every night. You can take a day hike up into local volcanoes (Gorely, Avacha or Mutnovsky), whitewater raft or fly fish nearby rivers (the Bystraya or Avacha) or soak in the abundant thermal pools of Paratunka or Malki, less than an hour away. For those wanting more adventure, there are the utterly wild rivers of the west-central coast, the colossal volcanoes of Kluchevsky Park and the vast valley of the Kamchatka River, a day’s ride or two hour helicopter flight to the north.
If you Go
For information on Anchorage to Kamchatka flight schedules, prices and reservations, and referrals for reputable Kamchatka guides/outfitters for flyfishing and ecotours:
InterPacific Aviation and Marketing, Inc.
World Trade Center East, 2211 Elliott Avenue, #200
Seattle WA 98121
American visitors to Kamchatka must have a valid U.S. Passport (good through 2012) and a Russian Tourist Visa (secured through a Visa Invitation and Travel Voucher issued by the host agency). Kamchatka’s warm weather tourist season runs from late May into mid-October.
A version of this article appeared in print in The Anchorage Daily News on August 19, 2012.