The map shows Bear Island to our right. Spawning salmon shadow the shallows. "Sergei, isn't it about time we saw one of these brown bears?" My companion sits facing downstream in the stern of our inflatable rubber boat. In reply, he puts a finger to his lips, pointing with his other hand to the bank.
I turn slowly. About 150 feet away, the dark form of a Kamchatka brownie, the largest bear on the Eurasian continent, bends over the water. In slow motion, I pull my camera from beneath my jacket and snap the shutter. As the bear rears up on his hind legs and disappears into the woods, I notice the film window shows number 37. While I reload the film, Sergei steers us noiselessly toward the bank. The only sound is the crunch of branches just inside the row of birches lining the water. We're 10 feet from shore when the adult grizzly plunges out of the forest again and into my viewfinder. This time, there is no question as to whether he's seen us; with an earth-shaking whoompf! he beats a fast retreat.
The river is low in late September. We float unhurriedly, watching for rocks, watching the woods and the sky. Boris and Mark and Bill are upstream and out of earshot. We see lots of ducks, Pacific eagles and, once, a rare white falcon.
Sergei Alekseev is one of those naturalists who can see a dot move in the trees a mile away and tell you its Latin name. He's a game biologist by trade, a transplanted Muscovite who manages what he proudlycalls"the most beautiful zapovednik in the Soviet Union -- and probably in the world." "Zapovednik" is a nature reserve, a very restricted designation that prohibits virtually any exploitation, including recreational.
The Kamchatka Peninsula is the U.S.S.R.'s farthest outpost, extending from the northern tip of the Kurile Islands nearly to Nome. We're floating down the Zhupanova River in eastern Kamchatka, south of Kronotsky Zapovednik. Already several days into the trip, I'm still pinching myself to make sure we're really here. Not only the zapovednik is closed to the curious; Kamchatka itself has been off limits to visitors, including Soviet citizens, for decades. But the authorities finally started granting Westerners visas to Kamchatka and, after two years of tangling with red tape, I'm here with four companions: Bill Dawson, fisherman and photographer; Mark Dudley, explorer and Russian interpreter; and our Soviet hosts, Sergei Alekseev, superintendent of Kronotsky Zapovednik, and Boris, who spends the better part of the year trapping and hunting.
The pure challenge partly fueled my two-year bureaucratic battle for a visa to Kamchatka, the last place in the Soviet Union an American couldn't get permission to go. But, besides the challenge of the impossible, I had it on good authority that there ++ was some wilderness out here worth seeing. So far, we haven't been disappointed.
Few places in the world can be called untouched. Wilderness everywhere is under siege, and even the well-meaning usually leave some trace of their passing. Thanks to its remoteness and a totalitarian government intent on protecting its military secrets, Kamchatka has escaped the onslaught of the curious. Here, you can go for days without seeing people or signs of them.
Which is not to say the woods are deserted. You feel like an invader just stepping into the forest. Well-trod trails follow the river, coming right down to the water, and in the mud, big tracks . . . and I mean big tracks.
I'm snapped out of my reverie by Sergei's pulling madly at the oars. The rubber raft is nosing down a chute at an angle far too vertical for comfort. Then we're sitting horizontal again in a boatful of water.
Luckily, the cabin where we're spending the night is only a half-hour farther. The cabins along the Zhupanova sit at intervals of 10 miles or so, each section of land assigned to a trapper who sells his sables to the state.
We hang our wet clothes up to dry by the wood stove. Boris eyes our state-of-the-art Gore-Tex and polypropylene blends condescendingly, saying, "That stuff won't keep you dry, but it sure will scare the animals."
He slaps the leg of his leather pants. "See, these don't rustle at all in the bushes. Keep me warm when it's minus 40."
Boris has never met foreigners before and is trying his best to show us a good time. Several times a day he asks if we'd like to shoot a bear, finding it hard to believe that the only trophies we want to take home are pictures. Like everyone we've met, he's warm and generous, with that realness of character you find in people who live close to nature and are at home in the wild.
The best part about cabin-living on Kamchatka, without question, is banya. The banya isn't just a sauna in the woods, it's a ritual the Russians have raised to an art form. Boris arrived before us at the cabin and had already been stoking the banya for several hours. Steam rises from the stove and a caldron of water for washing is already near boiling.