Kamchatka​—Russia’s Pacific Wonderland

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN RUSSIA

MORE than three hundred years ago, Russian explorers pushing east through Asia came upon a mountainous peninsula that jutted south into the Pacific Ocean, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Bering Sea. A little larger than Italy, this land of mysterious beauty is still largely unknown to outsiders.

On nearly the same latitude as the British Isles, Kamchatka has a cool climate. Winters are milder near the coast, but some inland places get over 20 feet [6 m] of snow and sometimes nearly 40 feet [12 m]! During summer, the peninsula is frequently shrouded in sea fog and swept by strong winds. The abundant rains that fall on Kamchatka’s volcanic soil produce luxuriant plant life, including berry shrubs, grasses as tall as a man, and glorious wildflowers, such as the rose known as queen of the meadow.

Stone, or Erman’s, birch trees cover almost a third of the peninsula, their trunks and limbs bent and twisted by fierce winds and  heavy snows. Hardy and slow growing, these birches are unusually sturdy, and their roots tenacious, enabling the trees to grow almost anywhere​—even horizontally from cliff faces! Their leaves sprout in June, often with snow still about, and turn yellow in August, heralding the coming of winter.

Volcanoes, Geysers, and Hot Springs

Located on the Ring of Fire​—a belt of high seismic activity rimming the Pacific Ocean—​Kamchatka has some 30 active volcanoes. Described as having “a perfect, incredibly beautiful cone,” the Klyuchevskaya volcano rises to a height of 15,584 feet [4,750 m] above sea level, making it the largest active volcano in Eurasia. Since 1697​—the year Russian explorers first set foot on Kamchatka—​more than 600 eruptions have been recorded on the peninsula.

In 1975/76, cleft, or fissure, eruptions in the Tolbachik area created a flaming “torch” over 8,000 feet [2,500 m] high! Lightning flashed in the ash clouds. Without letting up for almost a year and a half, the eruptions created four new volcanic cones. Lakes and rivers disappeared, and hot ash desiccated entire forests down to the roots. Vast stretches of countryside were turned into desert.

Fortunately, most eruptions have occurred far from inhabited areas, and very few people have been killed. But visitors have other reasons to be cautious, especially when going to the Valley of Death, which lies at the foot of the Kichpinych volcano. When the air is still, and especially during the spring thaw, poisonous volcanic gases concentrate in the valley, making it a death trap for wildlife. On one occasion, the valley was littered with the carcasses of ten bears and numerous smaller animals.

The vast crater known as the Uzon caldera features bubbling mud pots and steaming crater lakes that are alive with colorful algas. In the same area is the Valley of Geysers, discovered in 1941. Some geysers erupt every two to three minutes, and others, every few days. Helicopters take visitors to these amazing places, situated about 110 miles [180 km] north of the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. However, the number of visitors is strictly  controlled to avoid upsetting the delicate ecological balance. To that end, six areas in Kamchatka are protected as World Heritage Sites.

Kamchatka boasts numerous hot springs, many of which, in the 85- to 100-degree-Fahrenheit [30-40°C] range, delight visitors and provide some compensation for the long, cold winter months. Geothermal heat has also been used to produce electricity. In fact, Russia’s first geothermal power plant was built on this peninsula.

Bears, Salmon, and Sea Eagles

About 10,000 brown bears still roam Kamchatka. Their average weight is 350 to 450 pounds [150-200 kgs], although they can grow to nearly  three times that size if left alone. In the folklore of the indigenous Itelmen people, the bear was their “brother,” and they respected these animals. This brotherhood ended with the arrival of firearms. Now conservationists fear for the animals’ future.

The bears are shy and thus seldom seen. But in June, when the salmon start to spawn in the rivers, bears come in large numbers to feast on the fish, and one bear can eat two dozen salmon! Why such a voracious appetite? During the summer, bears must accumulate enough body fat to sustain them through the lean, cold months of winter, which they spend asleep in sheltered dens in order to conserve energy.

Another animal with an appetite for salmon is Steller’s sea eagle, a magnificent bird with a wingspan of up to eight feet [2.5 m]. Mostly black, it has a patch of white on the shoulders and a wedge-shaped, white tail. Now numbering about 5,000 and decreasing, the eagles are found only in this region of the world and, on occasion, in the Aleutian and Pribilof islands of Alaska. The birds use the same nests year after year, maintaining and adding to them. One nest reached ten feet [3 m] in diameter and grew so heavy that it cracked the birch tree supporting it!

Kamchatka’s Human Inhabitants

The present-day inhabitants of Kamchatka are mostly Russians, but several thousand indigenous people remain, the largest group being the Koryak, who live in the north. Other groups include the Chukchi and Itelmen, each with its own language. Most of the inhabitants of Kamchatka live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, the administrative center. The rest of the peninsula is sparsely populated, and most coastal and riverside villages are accessible only by boat or aircraft.

Fishing and crabbing are the economic mainstay. Kamchatka’s giant red crabs are especially popular. With a spread of five or six feet [1.7 m] from claw to claw, they add interest and color to vending tables.

Since 1989, Jehovah’s Witnesses have visited Kamchatka with a different kind of fishing in mind. As “fishers of men,” they have been bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom to the isolated people of Kamchatka. (Matthew 4:19; 24:14) Some have responded, and now these help still others to know and worship the Creator, Jehovah God, rather than his creation. As a result, many local people are being set free from the common fear of evil spirits. (James 4:7) They are also learning about a future time when the entire earth, cleansed of all evil and evildoers, will be “filled with the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters are covering the very sea.”​—Isaiah 11:9.

[Box/​Pictures on page 18]

A SPECTACULAR CALDERA

Uzon caldera, the basin of an ancient volcano, is about six miles [10 km] across. Its steep walls embrace a “collection of everything that Kamchatka is famous for,” says a reference. The basin boasts hot and cold springs, cauldrons of bubbling mud, mud volcanoes, pristine lakes alive with fish and swans, and abundant vegetation.

The book Miracles of Kamchatka Land says that “there is hardly another place on Earth” where autumn is as beautiful as it is short. The scarlet tundra contrasts with the rich yellows and golds of the birch trees, while here and there the boiling earth emits pillars of white vapor that stand out against the deep-blue sky. And in the early morning, the forest “sings” as countless millions of hoarfrosted leaves fall to the ground with a tinkle, gently announcing winter’s imminence.

[Box on page 19]

A DEADLY LAKE!

In 1996 a volcano thought to be extinct erupted beneath Karymsky Lake, creating 30-foot [10 m] waves that flattened surrounding forests. In minutes the lake became too acidic to support life. Nevertheless, no dead animals were found near the lake, despite the volcanic fallout and the waves that swept the shoreline, explains researcher Andrew Logan. “Prior to the eruption,” he says, “several million fish (primarily salmon and trout) were known to live in Karymsky Lake. After the eruption the lake was devoid of life.” A number of fish may have survived, however. Scientists speculate that some kind of warning signal​—perhaps a change in water chemistry—​had alerted the fish, causing them to flee into the nearby Karymsky River.

[Map on page 16]

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RUSSIA

KAMCHATKA