We had left the brown bears below us in the Valley of the Geysers, where they ambled among purple orchids, emerald grasses and the second-largest gathering of geysers on Earth.
Now, our small group of trekkers ascended through meadows gilded with golden rhododendron. We drank from snowfield streams. Spectacular volcanoes loomed ahead, part of the great arc of volcanic and seismic activity known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. We were trekking the highlands of Russia's Kronotsky Zapovednik, diadem of the world's largest system of strictly protected nature reserves.
And I was one of the first foreigners permitted to go hiking here as a mere tourist.
Ever since Russian naturalists started the country's system of zapovedniki (strictly protected nature reserves) in 1916, these vast landscapes have been mostly inaccessible, except to scientists, rangers and students. But now, thanks to government initiatives begun in 2011, many of these reserves are opening to a limited number of travellers.
- The Uzon Caldera, one of Kronotsky's many wonderlands, in autumn. (Igor Shpilenok)
It is as if the US national park service (also, incidentally, founded in 1916) had forbidden hiking for most of a century – then decided a few travellers deserved a chance to explore the Grand Canyon or get close to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful.
When I heard, I came. Located on Russia’s 1,200km-long Kamchatka peninsula, which swings like a sabre away from Asia and toward the Americas, this nature reserve is closer to California than to Moscow. Although larger than Yellowstone, with more than 10,000sqkm of protected wilderness, Kronotsky for years has permitted only the most constrained of non-scholarly visits: after taking a helicopter flight costing 36,000 rubles, groups of tourists parade on boardwalks in small areas for under three hours. No roads go to Kronotsky.
Now, as our group of three reached the mid-point in a five-day hike, snow-crowned Kronotsky Volcano rose before us, lifting more than 3,500m from the nearby Pacific. At its base, 30 million landlocked salmon swirled in its lava-dammed lake, a buffet for hundreds of the world's best-fed (and, weighing up to 700kg, largest) brown bears. Kamchatka snow sheep roamed unmolested in the volcano’s heights – a privilege, since foreign hunters pay handsomely to shoot this long-horned subspecies in unprotected mountains 150km north of the sanctuary.
- Where brown bears play in peace. (Igor Shpilenok)
But nobody hunts here. The Russian word zapovednik comes from zapoved (commandment), as in "thou shalt not harm". The reserve's 33-year-old director, Tikhon Shpilenok, who came here after he worked as an anti-poaching ranger at another zapovednik, happily cited Russian law that permits only "educational tourism" in Russia's 102 zapovedniki.
Kronotsky's great educators are its long-time rangers, who escort trekkers in this almost-untracked land. My guardian ranger, Evgeny Vlasov, strode ahead of our small group, making himself visible in order to alert bears. For safety, Vlasov packed his shotgun shells with handmade rubber bullets – designed to stun but not harm a bear – that he carved from flexible gaskets, castoffs from a nuclear submarine base. Until 1991 and the easing of Cold War tension, the Kamchatka peninsula was so militarised that Russia prohibited all travel here by foreigners.
I had first met Vlasov 12km west of here, when a helicopter dropped me near his ranger cabin in Uzon Caldera, one of Kronotsky's botanical and geological wonderlands. From our first steps, he started teaching. The roots of the garnet-red Kamchatka lilies were savoured by his ancestors, Itelmen natives living here for millennia before Russians arrived in the late 1600s. And what looked like milk-white morning glories undulating in hot springs actually were swirls of heat-happy bacteria – among the many living "extremophiles" that draw scientists from around the world, probing for clues to early life's evolution.
- The steaming flats of the Uzon Caldera. (Igor Shpilenok)