Seismic Siberia

Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, at the eastern edge of Siberia, is home to 160 volcanoes, at least 30 of them active. This is our Earth at its most raw—bubbling, violent and utterly mesmerizing.

Thunder woke me up from a rain-nurtured sleep. I checked my watch; it was only 4:15 a.m., so I rolled over gingerly. I was one of two women in this one-man tent. The rumbling continued without a pause—weird, but I figured it was another heavy storm, thundersnow, or some other anomaly in this land of the intense and the huge: incessant rain, miles of thick, fertile tundra, giant golden-brown bears, and rivers that produce one-quarter of all wild Pacific salmon. My friend Sigrid and I had flown four hours west from Anchorage to Kamchatka to backpack in the Kluchevskoy Nature Park, already a UNESCO World Heritage Site even though it was only established in 1999. So far we hadn’t seen a hint of any of its signature 12 volcanoes, only thick-to-the-ground fog, soaking rain and spongy, boot-sucking turf.

Next thing I knew, it was daylight, and Sigrid was oohing about the snow as she slapped at the heavy accumulation on the tent ceiling. I stuck my head outside: Yucky, dirty snow. Back inside, I turned over, not ready to face another day of more rain or snow. Just then, Maxim, our local guide, came galumphing over. “Ladies, did you hear the volcano? Wake up. Clean the ash off your tent.” Yuri, our Moscow-based travel agent, ran up with a pan of water and started rinsing the brown muck off the tent fly. We would later learn that Bezmianny, the volcano located just east of our camp, had erupted, sending an ash plume nearly 6 miles in the air, resulting in an ash cloud measuring 78 by 22 miles.

Welcome to Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, a 720-mile land projection at the far eastern edge of Siberia that is home to more than 160 volcanoes, at least 30 of them active. This is our Earth at its most raw—active, violent and riveting—in the subduction zone along the northern rim of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Volcanoes have been forming here for millennia, as the Pacific plate plows into the Earth’s interior and pushes magma up along a convergence called the Okhotsk Plate. The Kluchevskoy group of volcanoes is at the cusp of the junction of the Aleutian and the Kuril-Kamchatka Trenches.

Maxim had warned us about the corrosive effects of volcanic ash, so we carefully cleaned the residue off the tent, the one Yuri brought from Russia after he deemed my two-man, at five pounds, too heavy. (When I got back home, I saw just what the guide meant: My titanium walking poles looked like woodworms had attacked them.) Sigrid and I finished loading our backpacks and waited while Yuri boiled water. That was the extent of the guides’ cooking prowess. We mixed boiled water with whatever Maxim tossed us—packets of ramen, mashed potatoes or oatmeal, the choices for the next three weeks. This morning it was oatmeal with jam and apricots.

I was still dumbfounded by these guys. Yuri Kolomiets was touted as the supreme Russian mountain guide, acclaimed for his book describing the climbing routes of Mt. Elbrus and 62 walks in the Caucasus. Maxim Galayda was a renowned local hiking and Kamchatka expert. Here they were with oversized packs, hauling glass jars of jam, cans of chicken, fish, everything in its store packaging—a definite no-no when packing at home. The added heft is backbreaking, but they are Russians, strong, and I suppose carrying weight is a badge of honor.

Maxim and Yuri made an odd pair. Sallow-skinned Yuri is cerebral, anxious to broaden Maxim’s horizons beyond traditional Russian dogma. Ostensibly, he came along as our English translator but rarely spoke to us at all, as he was constantly engaged in rapid conversation with Maxim. He did speak to us later that day: “Ladies, be careful. If you step in a marmot hole, you will break your leg.”

In contrast, Maxim, always clad in his bumblebee-yellow jacket, is a dead ringer for the friendly cinematic ogre, Shrek. Each morning, he wrapped his feet in green boiled-wool strips, then stuffed them inside thick rubber waders, proclaiming, “My smelly feet are Russia’s ultimate terrorist weapon!” Chubby and smiling, with a raucous laugh, he entertained us at night with his high-kicking Koryak bear dance or an aria from Boris Godunov. He told us that he welcomed the return of the czar to Russia: “I’m born to serve—one on the ground, one in heaven.” Yuri called him simple.

“Ladies, let’s go!” Maxim would command at the start of each day. Today, we slogged through the wet ash, eventually hiking into an ash-free, craggy volcanic region, home to hundreds of fat Kamchatka marmots. Occasional peak-a-boo slits in the clouds revealed tantalizing glimpses of the giant snow-covered mountain we were circumnavigating—a teaser from the massive volcano complex called Tolbachik. Alas, we were also running about a day behind our Yuri-designed itinerary, which he called “the program.”

Next morning, about a half-hour after “Ladies, let’s go,” I heard honking. Lo and behold, a brown bear cub was running toward us, croaking its head off. “Move, ladies,” commanded a slightly panicked Yuri. “Walk quickly!” Far across a wide expanse of tundra and lava rocks, the enormous golden-haired mother was furiously digging, front paw deep inside a marmot hole, all the way up to her shoulder. The cub loped back over to mother bear, who never once looked up … poor marmot. Fortunately, we were downwind the whole time, but the encounter shook our guides. Sigrid and I, however, were pumped.

As we crossed a wide plateau named Tolud Pass, the tundra transitioned from a sea of moss and lichen to patches of low, flat scrub, leaves changing to red in the brief autumn, and berries. We scooped up ripe blueberries, mountain cranberries and waterberries (bog-bilberries), gobbling by the handful, feeling a bit like the starving couple in Elvira Madigan. The monochromatic tundra was taking on personality, now gutted by occasional deep ravines, remnants of past lava flows. We climbed over crusty fields of old molten rock, then into patches of stunted willow turning yellow and orange. Round rocks suggested a creek bed, except that the water table was still far below the surface. Boulders got larger, and we found ourselves crawling over and around them, as they became our path. In a short distance, water emerged. This was the river we would follow—seven days through the taiga with its gnarled thickets of fir, birch, alder and willow—to the next volcano cluster, the Kronotsky Nature Park. But first, a side trip up a 30-foot embankment to the former Tolud seismic cabin, followed by a day’s trip west, hiking on a carpet of red and black cinders, the only visible plant material an occasional brave tuft of fireweed.

We were headed to the Tolbachik complex, a weird amalgamation of a peak volcano (named Ostry) joined to a flat-top, or caldera, volcano (Plosky), enlarged in the 1976 great fissure eruption by three substantial cinder cones (Novy) 10 miles south. At the base of Tolbachik are some Russian fairytale-like cabins, the Leningradskaya seismic research camp, once also used as a testing site for Russia’s moon and Mars rover. It’s now a popular destination for tourist groups hiking to Novy or the top of Plosky.

On our hike to Novy, the three massive hills of gnarled white, yellow and red slag were still oozing hot, sulfurous gases. When we reached the top, Maxim shoved the wooden stick he had brought along into a small crevice in the rocks. Yes, it caught fire—that hot after more than 30 years. Blessed with our first intermittent sun, we could look west from the summit across the great Kamchatka River Valley that divided these frontline volcanoes from the older chain, and we could also finally see the snow-covered flanks of Tolbachik and volcanoes beyond. Magnificent!

Returning to camp, Yuri announced we would not be continuing down the taiga route, as we hadn’t kept pace with his “program.” He announced that a jeep would drive us to the Kronotsky Nature Park for an extra $1,000. I politely told him, “No way. We’ll fly back to Alaska.” Four satellite phone calls later, we had a new program: Take a short detour to the village of Esso, then hop a public bus for the 10-hour, 360-mile ride south along the peninsula’s dirt highway to the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, from where we would take a van further south to the trailhead for a trek into the craters of Goreley and Mutnovsky, Kamchatka’s more famous southern volcanoes. Yuri apologized for “cultural differences in the trekking expectations” but later confided that in his experience, the Dutch were the only ones who could hike as well as the Russians. He was not happy to be taking what he perceived as “the tourist excursion.” We found out later that he’d never even been to this area.

A day in Esso offered a cultural exploration into the traditional lifestyles of the Koryak and Even, indigenous peoples of Kamchatka. Their skin tents (chum), clothing, hunting practices and other customs exactly parallel the ways of Aleuts and other native Alaskan tribes. Beautiful birch forests, thick with blueberries and raspberries, surround Esso, but we were anxious to travel south, to stand inside active calderas.

A day later, the van left us with our backpacks at the base of Gorely, which is a crazy quilt of at least five overlapping stratovolcanoes resulting in numerous summit and flank craters, and we started our climb between two large lava flows. Zigzagging through white ash, we reached a tapered footpath that crested, then continued along a crater rim. With chin on chest, I peered down into an iridescent-blue glacial lake inside the first of 11 craters. Before I could say anything, I was coughing and rasping, hit in the face by a blast of sulfur gas. “Don’t breathe,” I kept repeating to my oxygen-depleted brain, “just walk fast. This is why we came here.” It lasted only a few seconds but left my throat burning. After a few more minutes on top, I got the hang of sensing the flash of warmness, or rotten-egg smell, that heralded an approaching gas cloud, so I just stopped inhaling until it passed.

The next crater over held another blue lake, but a different blue—an evil, sick Easter-pastel blue. This wasn’t water but bubbling sulfuric acid, with hissing gas vents (or fumaroles) along the walls of the deep pit. Yuri called it “Earth’s hell.” We climbed on up to what was left of Gorely’s peak; it was vertically split like axed hardwood, but there remained enough of a perch for us to have a lunch of canned pork followed by Choco-Pies—a Korean made, Russian-adored, Moon Pie—and take in a 360º carousel view of Kamchatka’s southern volcanoes, including Mutnovsky, Opala, Viliuchinsky, Avachinsky and mountain summits as far as we could see on this sunny day. As much as I’d enjoyed the north, this beat trudging through the wet taiga.

Next day, we hiked some 9 miles across an old barren crater bed that’s a lake in spring and a crusty mud pit in September, but in ancient earth times it was the original crater of Gorely. Yuri selected an exposed campsite at the base of Mutnovsky, but we were able to hunker down before an onslaught of heavy wind and rain, a storm that continued most of the night, ripping the guides’ tent from its stakes. Rumor had it that some groups had to stay in their tents for up to four days, so we were relieved when morning brought little wind with the rain.

We trekked up the slopes of Mutnovsky, but the muddy trail ended at a sheer drop carved out by winter avalanches. Cautiously, we lowered ourselves down the washout, then onto and across a precipitous, snow-covered ice field before heading up through a break in the mountain’s cone. This tectonic crack was filled with glacier ice. We hustled through this ice pass, apprehensively glancing skyward at the large boulders in the ice wall high above.

Off the ice, we climbed along the rock banks of a waterfall and up into the crater floor, passing blue ice caverns, hissing vents, twirling sulfur clouds—all chaos and upheaval. It was beyond description. I kept trying to remember: “Avoid holes; don’t breathe fumaroles; don’t get close to bubbling mud pools; stay on white ash crust.”

We ventured on in silence, following Maxim, for this was new turf for Yuri. Mutnovsky is a composite stratovolcano, with many craters collapsing within a central crater, all connected by a glacier system. The next pit held a deep turquoise-blue lake, but no one else would venture beyond this point, so I took it alone.

We had not seen a soul for three days until just that minute. A few tourists from Eastern Europe appeared and chatted briefly. I then followed one of them into the last crater, climbing up a knotted rope, hoisting myself over the muddy rim, crawling warily onto a greasy inner ledge. This was the crater responsible for all the “smoke” coming off the mountain. The sides of this inverted cone seethed with hundreds of active vents, hissing, spitting, the wind whisking their plumes into huge columns escaping off the top. This was Earth’s soul, I thought, awed. Yuri’s only comment: “I’m not impressed with fumaroles.”

Next day, we followed the tectonic crack down the mountain flank to a waterfall that was so deep, it seemed to resonate into the Earth’s crust. The zigzag fissure continued downhill, eventually turning shamrock green, covered in sparkling wet moss. Even in the fog it was spectacular, and at last Yuri was energized. It was all Maxim could do to keep him from hurtling down the crack face to investigate. He seemed to want to find the center of the Earth.

Hiking off the eastern side of Mutnovsky, we trekked through the immense Dachny fumarole field, where geothermal energy is being harnessed to produce electricity for most of the peninsula. And the next morning, the sun rose through an orange and blue lenticular cloud.

Sigrid and I had a sunny Sunday back in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Named in 1740 by its founder, Vitus Bering, for his two ships, St. Peter and St. Paul, the city lies in the crook of one of the world’s most expansive harbors, Avacha Bay. On any day that the sun shines, families turn out for walks along the coast, rides at the waterfront carnival, a harbor boat trip, or a tour of the local museum. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is the capital of Kamchatka and the only city of any size on the peninsula. Its 250,000 people mostly live in Soviet-era block apartments and shop at the few supermarkets and local outdoor markets. Our big-city find? An expensive, upscale mall complex located at the edge of town in a building resembling a modern Quonset hut. Best of all, though, was the small ski run just above downtown.

At the airport, we boarded the plane for Anchorage with all the bear hunters and salmon fishermen carrying their equipment and trophies. We knew we had the best trophy ever, having experienced a much broader expanse of this incredible land, and we would be overwhelmed by it for a long time to come.

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