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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
polished-wood staff, which he extended often to help me leap across streams,
was whittled from the stone birch trees that abound in the caldera, creating what
looked like white-washed groves for hobbits. (When 1970s Soviet filmmakers
created their version of an escapist journey to a Russian Shangri-La, Sannikov Land,
they filmed here). As my legs began fading in the tenth hour of our first full
day of backpacking – climbing out of one caldera, tracing a tufa-banked river
and then descending into a gorge – the leaves that Vlasov shoved in my mouth
were Itelmen favourites for fixing low testosterone. Or something. Specifics
aside, the uplift got me to our next cabin ahead of darkness and bears, though Vlasov
had to fire his shotgun skyward when he surprised a mother and two cubs on our
trail near nightfall. All three vaulted upslope and away.
Now in the
highlands with Kronotsky Volcano slipping out of sight, our hiking destination
came into view: a ranger-patrol cabin that Vlasov built in 1985. Above it
hulked a black-crested volcano called Savich. Born in an eruption near 700AD (making
it roughly one-tenth the age of Kronotsky) and still fuming, Savich rides a
blob of upwelling magma. Pressing up from about 8km beneath our feet, the blob
drives superheated water through underground channels to create the Valley
of the Geysers’ frothing
fountains and bubbling mudpots.
From the ranger-patrol
cabin we looked down into another of the magma blob's creations: a diabolic
cousin to the green geyser valley, discovered only in 1975 when it received the
name Death Valley. On windless days, its gases – laced with hydrogen sulphide
and cyanide – settle near ground level and kill. Its victims have included
foxes, bears and even yellow-beaked Steller's sea eagles on the rare occasion
they stray from the fine fishing along the zapovednik's Pacific shoreline, less
than 20km southeast of us.
though, brought blue-sky breeziness with good odds for safety. Vlasov led us
down slope, across sands of sulphur green and chrome yellow, into Kamchatka's
vivid vale of death. We reached a lone set of human boot prints. I thought of
Robinson Crusoe. "Slava", said Vlasov, speaking of a ranger who walked
here from the geyser valley on routine patrol.
stream flowing over olive-green cobbles, Vlasov zipped to the top of a peaked
boulder, raising his birch staff in mock-alpinist triumph. I bent low to
photograph the olive stream – a mistake. My head reeled. Wooziness, rangers
say, signals the onset of deadliness.
however, was already leading us out of our toxic gorge. "I survived
Russia's Death Valley" stuck briefly as a bumper-sticker on my mind. Stretching
out on a ridge to enjoy the breezes blowing through bellflowers and heathers, we
gazed at the well-defended wilderness surrounding us.
Protecting Russia's wilds
Russia's system of zapovedniki has provided the world's highest level of nature
preservation (called category 1a by the International
Union for the Conservation of Nature) to the largest land area within one nation. Nature protection for
zapovedniki is stricter than for the world's national parks, some of
which, like Yellowstone, have paved hundreds of kilometers of roads and
permitted development of grand hotels within their boundaries. It also is
stricter than for designated
"wilderness areas" – like Alaska's Denali Wilderness,
home to North America's highest peak and, at 8,600sqkm, almost as large as Kronotsky – which place few
limits on hiking.
To Vlasov, Russia’s
history of nature protection began long before 1916. As we dined on
ranger-concocted potato soup and fish paste bruschetta, he reminded us that his
Itelmen ancestors reputedly had begun preserving off-limits forests and
no-hunting regions before the first Russians came here in the 1600s.
zapovednik system is a source of Russian pride. Just five days before my
arrival in July 2012, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had helicoptered
into the geyser valley and then shared some photos of his trip on Facebook.
He got more than 3,800 "likes" for a misty snap of an iconic array of
geysers, rising up a multi-toned valley wall known as "Stained Glass",
tinted with reds, yellows, greens and blues by a mix of soils and plants. Medvedev's
geyser junket followed a 2010 visit of then prime-minister and now president
Vladimir Putin. Each leader, after visiting, announced support for expanding
the zapovednik system by 11 new reserves from 2010 to 2020.
Minister Medvedev did not stay overnight; most visitors cannot.
Although Kronotsky is
opening to a few hikers, its scientists have set limits on how many walkers may
travel a route, in order to assure that soils remain undamaged and animals
typical tourist, often dressed in Moscow-style street clothes, steps off a
helicopter for about two hours of walking on boardwalks built by Vlasov and his
ranger colleagues to protect both fragile plants and feet vulnerable to
steam-searing on magma-heated earth. Even these visitors, however, are scarce:
fewer than 4,000 short-stay heli-tourists visited Kronotsky in 2012, paltry in
comparison to the nearly three million who visit Yellowstone's Old Faithful.
Tourists allowed to overnight in Kronotsky, as I did, totalled 23.
Bear-chasing and geyser-gazing
For my last
zapovednik evening, another ranger, Kolya Solovev, invited our half-a-dozen-strong
geyser valley community to his cabin to dine on smoked salmon and watch
a slideshow of polar bear and musk oxen, whose company Solovev enjoyed the year
before when rangering at the Arctic zapovednik that protects all of Wrangel Island.
though, Solovev had to deal with a young bear, about 2m tall with handsome
claws, that the rangers had started calling "Freddy Krueger" in
homage to the razor-clawed slasher from the horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street. Our Freddy had begun snuffling close behind groups of heli-tourists, perhaps
smelling snack food. Rangers worried that Freddy might inadvertently hurt someone,
reminding us all that even a slight increase in tourism can change wild
animals' behaviour – and giving reason to limit tourism's reach in any
Freddy had ambled
onto a helipad from which the day's last visitors had just flown, so Solovev
loaded a shotgun with his preferred ammunition for bear safety: flare
cartridges, designed only to scare. As Freddy veered toward a visitor centre,
Solovev fired. Red flare-balls flew. Freddy scooted for the birches.
restored to the valley, Solovev suggested a stroll before dinner. We followed
the Geyser River toward the vaulting spouts and red-yellow soils of the great
Stained Glass geysers. Earlier among heli-tourists I had jostled toward Stained
Glass – a mixed pleasure, like glimpsing shards of the Rose Window of Chartres amid tour bus travellers.
Now with Solovev, his
shotgun slung over his charcoal black t-shirt, we left the heli-tour boardwalk,
wandered the river's gravel shore and sat on brick-red rocks at a pulsing
spring called Malachite Grotto. Against a deepening blue sky, geysers puffed
puffer called Bastion, launching out of a 3m grey cone, spurted onto a grassy
verge. Double Geyser, just up river, flipped crisp blips of water that
slithered downhill on a brick-red dome whose colours recalled the ruddy top of the
Duomo in Florence. Another dozen geysers and hot
springs played around us. Up ahead was Averyev, a geyser I had been looking
forward to see. It was named for a Russian volcanologist who battled in the
1960s to keep this valley preserved, after years when Soviet administrations in
Moscow had tried to strip protection from many zapovedniki. Closer to us,
Fountain Geyser blew, launching Stained Glass's largest tower of whitewater 10m
into the air.
Stained Glass, we sat before the globe's greatest natural calliope – a
steam-powered organ driven by the earth's heat – each blowhole piping its own
pitch in our now-private sanctuary. As rangers kept telling me, geyser beauty gets
greater after the last helicopter leaves and evening light turns slant.
along the sights of his shotgun, Solovev took casual aim across the Geyser
River, as if he had something to defend. And of course he did: one of the
long-hidden glories of the globe, accessible now to small numbers of hikers –
so long as they abide by a crucial zapoved, "thou shalt not harm".
Russia's leaders are encouraging zapovedniki to bring a few overnight visitors
for educational tourism, planning a hike in Kronotsky can be surprisingly easy.
All paperwork and logistics can be arranged by the Kamchatka-based tour operator Explore Kamchatka, run by an American and Russian couple, Martha Madsen and Yuri Barada. They can meet travellers right at Kamchatka's airport and
offer a superb base at their bed and breakfast, which is surrounded by a small
All hikers must travel with a ranger, be in good
physical condition and be able to carry a substantial backpack. Hikers who do
not speak Russian will gain from a bilingual guide like those who work with Explore