THE Last Secret Outpost Russia has opened Kamchatka, site of breathtaking scenery, to adventurous travelers

December 27, 1992|By Nancy Shute | Nancy Shute,Contributing Writer

Our Aeroflot Yak-80 banked steeply around the steaming summit of Klyuchevskaya so closely it seemed the wingtip would slice its frosted slope. The 15,000-foot peak, Asia's largest volcano, was as white and perfect a cone as Mount Fuji, but unlike Fuji, Klyuchevskaya didn't stand alone. The mountain was just one of a line of volcanoes that marched to the horizon, a vast white army guarding Kamchatka, one of the last secret outposts of the former Soviet Union.

For most of this century, the Soviets protected Kamchatka so jealously that foreign interlopers, like the unfortunate passengers 1983's KAL Flight 007, were shot from the sky. But Kamchatka possessed other secrets besides the nuclear submarine base that prompted the KAL jet's destruction.

This mountainous 800-mile-long peninsula, which juts into the Pacific north of Japan and west of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, is one of the world's last great frontiers, a dramatic wilderness that is home to the greatest concentration of varied volcanoes anywhere on earth, including more than 30 active peaks and the Yellowstone-like Valley of the Geysers.

The collapse of communism has ended the Russian Far East's forced isolation. For the first time since the beginning of the Cold War, Russia is opening Kamchatka and the rest of its vast Pacific coast to the world. To the north lies Chukotka, a tundra-covered land on the Arctic Circle where Eskimo hunters still stalk seals from walrus-skin boats. Three thousand miles south are Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, bustling ports near the Chinese border where cowboy-booted American wildcatters and Korean entrepreneurs are stampeding to scope out the region's rich stores of oil, timber and gold.

Writer Simon Winchester, watching the foreigners from Tokyo, Seoul and Anchorage surge through the Khabarovsk airport, called it "a place of the Wild West now transferred to the Wild East."

No place in the Wild East offers more to adventure travelers than Kamchatka. Since the early 18th century, visitors have acclaimed Kamchatka for its rough beauty, with its volcanic spine threaded with mountain rivers thick with salmon and trout, and Kamchatka brown bears, cousins to America's grizzly, roaming the stone birch forests.

The rocky coast shelters thousands of sea birds, otters and sea lions, and the Valley of the Geysers, a basin lined with hot pots and fumaroles, offers a glimpse into Kamchatka's volcanic heart. It is also, for all its raw force, surprisingly benign. Although snow lingers through April, Kamchatka lacks Alaska's icy glaciers, and summer in Kamchatka, its earliest American visitors discovered, is as genial as Europe's.

George Kennan, an ancestor of 20th-century American diplomat George F. Kennan, came to Kamchatka in 1865 as part of an ill-fated effort to build a trans-Pacific telegraph line. One of the first foreigners to explore Kamchatka, he came expecting "the biting winds of Labrador." He found those, but he also found a land he likened to Italy. "We could pick handfuls of flowers almost without bending from our saddles," Kennan wrote in "Tent Life in Siberia," a travel classic, "and the long grass through which we rode in many places swept our waists."

Those meadows bloom today, unchanged from Kennan's day, and range across a California-sized peninsula that is home to only 350,000 people. Originally, the peninsula was the domain of two native tribes, the Itelmen and the Koryaks, but the Itelmen have been almost totally absorbed into Russian culture. The Koryaks, who live predominantly in northern Kamchatka, maintain a traditional culture centered on reindeer herding. Mango, a Koryak professional dance troupe, often appears at public events performing intricate dances depicting legends of their people. But the majority of Kamchatkans are Russians who live in the capital of Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy, where they work in the fishing industry or for the military.

Perhaps because Kamchatkans have been so long denied the pleasure of visitors, they are unflaggingly hospitable -- like the eminent scientists who thought nothing of taking a handful of tourists on a 500-mile jaunt in a small jet to show off Klyuchevskaya and Kamchatka's 200 other volcanoes, pointing out furiously smoking craters and calm turquoise lakes spiked with acids.

A love of the land

Kamchatkans have long loved their fierce land and, with communism's fall, were quick to realize that its stark beauty could be their most valuable asset. Russian Premier Boris Yeltsin has pledged to end travel restrictions to Kamchatka by 1993, but Kamchatkans, in their typically independent way, haven't waited for Moscow's fiat. Earthwatch and REI Adventures pioneered adventure tours here in 1991 and 1992, with a few small hiking, camping and research expeditions.

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