Kamchatka: Land of volcanoes, bears, bugs and bogs!

If you research peat bogs for a living then Russia is where the action is! Russia is the country with the largest total area of peatlands, the greatest expanse of peat (the West Siberian lowlands) and the biggest individual bog (the Great Vasyugan Mire, a candidate UNESCO world heritage site). In the last few years I have been working on Russian peatlands, travelling to Western Siberia in 2014 and the Leningrad Oblast in 2015. This summer a new Royal Society project with my colleague Yuri Mazei at Moscow State University gave me and a couple of my PhD students the opportunity to travel to somewhere even further afield: the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. Flying from Moscow to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is an experience in itself and really brings home the scale of Russia; it’s an eight hour domestic flight and you haven’t even covered the full width of the country! From the moment you land at the airport it’s clear that you are somewhere a bit different with snow-capped volcanoes dominating the view. Petropavlovsk has been covered in volcanic ash several times in its history –most recently in 2013- and it’s easy to see why.

Our research project is about how bogs accumulate carbon and cool climate so we travelled to Kamchatka in search of its famous pristine blanket bogs. After a couple of days sorting out provisions and paperwork and seeing the tourist sights of Petropavlovsk (didn’t take long!) we headed off out into the wild. Kamchatka only has a few dozen miles of tarmaced road so getting around is something of a challenge. Our Russian colleagues had arranged an ancient ZiL truck and driver Alexei. This behemoth was an amazing piece of engineering: a huge lumbering beast but able to get into the most improbable places, and still sporting tyres proclaiming ‘Made in the USSR’!

The first leg of our trip took us west into the mountains and then north along ever worsening roads. Our colleagues had arranged for us to travel along some private roads so we were soon away from any sign of human civilisation and into proper wilderness. In contrast to other areas of the boreal zone the forests of Kamchatka are not of conifers but rather a species of Birch (Betula ermanii) giving them a more open feel. In common with other areas of the boreal zone however the forests are endless, only interrupted by the peat bogs. It didn’t take long to find our first bog and after that the bogs and the views just kept getting better. Blanket bogs are an unusual type of peatland where the peat ‘blankets’ the underlying topography. This type of bog is very familiar to us Brits because it is the type which covers our hills and mountains from Dartmoor to the Flow Country. However globally it is quite rare, only present in places with very maritime climates so this was the first time I had seen peatlands like this outside the UK. In the UK our peatlands have been trashed by peat cutting, burning, over-grazing and air pollution over many centuries but the peatlands of Kamchatka are some of the most pristine on earth with beautiful mosaics of Sphagnum mosses. Lovely!

We spent much of the first week travelling from bog to bog exploring the sites and their peat before deciding on the perfect site for our main efforts. In these remote regions there is no accommodation to rent, so we camped. I don’t mind camping but camping in Kamchatka bought with it the hazard of the dreaded Kamchatka mosquito: a huge and bloodthirsty beast which gathers in vast swarms waiting for that moment when you have to remove your layers of protection to eat dinner or go to the loo. Kamchatka’s more famous great predator is the Brown Bear with all the tourist literature proclaiming the incredible density of bears on the Peninsula. I took these claims with a pinch of salt at first. I have done a lot of fieldwork in Alaska where the tourist literature makes similar claims but I have only seen one bear in six visits. However I have to concede that the Kamchatka tourist board have this right as we ended up seeing eight bears over the course of our trip. We all learned the Russian for ‘bear’ quite quickly! The closest of these encounters was one afternoon when we strayed further from the vehicle in search of an unusual mire mentioned by a park ranger. As we were heading back to our campsite along an overgrown track we came across a large bear and her two cubs heading towards us. This was the closest I’ve ever been to a bear and they really are impressive animals and very very large. The first thing you are taught about bear safety is to avoid the mothers with cubs but the high vegetation had meant that we got fairly close to this group without them being aware of us, or us of them. We stopped and both groups inspected each other. We shouted but the mother just stood her ground while the cubs stood up on their hind legs craning to get a better look at these strange-smelling animals. Fortunately Alexei had bought his rifle and a few shots were enough to persuade the little family that they might be better off heading in a different direction leaving us free to resume our amble back to the campsite.

After several days coring and surveying our target site we headed back the way we’d come, resupplying and spending a pleasant rest day at one of Kamchatka’s many hot springs. The final leg of our trip took us north through better-travelled areas. Here we were closer to the volcanoes and our peat cores provided graphic evidence of the history of volcanic activity with thick layers of volcanic ash bracketing the peat. Another week of peat coring, this time with some nights in bunk houses rather than tents and we were soon heading back to Petropavlovsk. A touristic trip to the edge of the Pacific rounded off the trip.

So what were our final impressions of Kamchatka? It was very interesting to see a different side of Russia. The big cities these days are affluent, modern and self-confident but there was no getting away from poverty in Kamchatka. The people were very friendly but this really felt like a region which was dealt a body-blow by the end of the USSR and hasn’t quite recovered even after twenty five years. The first leg of our trip had a feeling of remoteness and true wilderness which is difficult to match. I feel privileged to have been somewhere that few Russians and very very few western Europeans get to go. The views of bears and eagles and sealions will stay with me for a long while, as will those views of stunning snowy mountains protruding above the sea of trees. We owe a big debt to our Russian collaborators for making this all possible.


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