Kamchatka (3) – in search of bears

Third in a series drawing upon my July 2009 experiences on an expedition cruise exploring the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East.

Landing one clear, sunny morning at the head of Bukhta Russkaya, a fiord on the Kamchatkan mainland, we set forth into long grass, following a sandy-bottomed river alive with salmon. Despite the whispered jokes, our group leaders remained fully alert as several bears had left their traces scattered across the sand. None materialised.

None of us had yet encountered Kamchatka’s signature animal, the brown bear. Would our promised landing further up the coast at the Kronotsky Nature Reserve deliver the goods?

The perfectly-formed cone of Kronotskaya commands Bukhta Olga, a sweeping bay within the Reserve. Wading ashore onto a wide beach of dark sand we split into two groups, one led by Dennis Schmitt, Californian polar scientist, composer and guest lecturer. By midday Schmitt had led my group down the beach to a cluster of timber cabins, a weather station where the resident observers and a whale watching team boiled the samovar for tea.

Another leader, Aleks Terauds, peeled off to scout the wide, shallow river emerging onto the beach below the cabins. Before long our scout spotted a bear, so everybody hastened down to a safe vantage point. After twenty minutes we had glimpsed a red fox but nothing else emerged from the alder bushes and birch forest.

Brown bear in the Kronotsky Reserve, Kamchatka, Russian Far East

Brown bear in the Kronotsky Reserve, Kamchatka

What a let-down… then the bear, a fully grown male ursus arctos, emerged into the open and plodded down to the waterline. Breathless silence as the animal waded across the river, swiped lazily at one or two salmon, and ambled towards Terauds, who quickly crossed the river to rejoin us.

The bear now began to amble towards us, close enough for concern.  Schmitt began to engage it in a ‘conversation’ , waving arms and chanting to inform the animal that we were fearless equals, but not challengers for the animal’s territory, for Schmitt’s experience suggests that bears react to human body language. Now within one hundred metres, the animal reared up on its hind legs to inspect us, eased back down and plodded off.

We too retreated, tramping back up the beach to gloat over the other group. Two people stripped off for a quick dip in the Pacific, within sight of snow.

More images of Kamchatka

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