Kamchatka Honeymoon Part 1 (getting there and setting up camp)

Before the race report…the honeymoon report (for chronology’s sake).

Last year when John and I decided to get married, we only gave our parents about 2 months notice. We figured the less notice, the less meddling could take place. We wanted something as simple and low key as eloping, but knew that we wanted our families involved. The original plan was to give 2 weeks notice, but in the end, that seemed like too little. Two months turned out to be about right.

We kept the ceremony small and had it up at John’s family camp in Caratunk. It was cold, but gorgeous. We requested NO GIFTS (I already have a blender, thank you!), but our families both sneakily got around that with a bit of $ and a card offering to pay for our plane tickets to a honeymoon location of our choice.

While I don’t think we were necessarily inspired to find the most expensive flights available (though there was minor consideration of trying to get here), the offer at least, did open us up to being a bit more thoughtful about where we might go.

One day, while procrastinating at work, I decided to google, “cold, remote, beautiful places” (or something very close to that). “Cold”, because if you google, “beautiful places” you get a lot of resort-y islands – which is not something either of us are into. Lots of buzzfeed-esque lists came up and I started going through them to weigh the reality of travel. Unfortunately, many of the beautiful and remote places were so so so remote that they required multiple flights, chartering planes, and costs in the tens of thousands. No thanks!

One location on one of these lists was Kamchatka. Though I love board games, I’ve never played Risk so, I had to google ‘Kamchatka’ to find out where exactly in Russia it is (hint: it’s just above Japan).  A quick Kayak search and I was amazed to discover that we could fly there for about the same cost as traveling to Alaska (where we were previously considering). So, after a little discussion with John, we decided that this was the place to go and we purchased two RT flights on the Russian airline, Aeroflot.

The next 5 months were spent trying to find any information on traveling to/hiking within Kamchatka. While I can be pretty Type-A about basically everything, I always defer to John when it comes to planning backpacking/camping trips. He’s much more knowledgeable and organized – and plus he enjoys it. I pretty much sat back and let him take the lead.

There are not many (any) English travel books about Kamchatka, but luckily, John found a message board online where a couple posted about their travels biking and hiking through Kamchatka only two years earlier. We set up a Skype date with them to ask questions and get a better sense of logistics (like, will we be able to find white gas?). Through them, we got a few contacts via Couchsurfing – of people who were interested in meeting travelers and helping them navigate their first day of travel and the hilarious logistics of visa declaration, etc. (Note: this was invaluable!).

Our travel started in Boston with a bus ride to New York – JFK. Our bus driver had apparently never driven a bus and we stalled several times before getting on the highway and at every stoplight between arriving in NYC and the several block traverse to Penn Station.  Of course, we cut everything a bit close and had to run from the bus stop to catch the train to the airport. A great start to 24+ hours of travel! From there, our plane flew into Moscow and then on to Petropavlovsk. We were deposited on the tarmac of a small Russian airport sometime around mid-morning, several days later, looking for our (amazing!) couchsurfing contact, Katya, who would help us get our packs from baggage claim, drive us into the city, and navigate us through the hilariously bureaucratic process of registering our visas.  [Honestly – I don’t know how anyone figures out the visa declaration process without a local to help them through it.] In the several hours after arriving, we also changed our money, got some vegetables for dinner, and decided what our plans would be now that we were there.

As I mentioned, there wasn’t a lot of English information about Kamchatka – so John’s trip plans were not as detailed as they usually are. He had developed two ideas of areas we could go to, one of them slightly south of the city (to Gorley volcano) and the other about a day’s bus trip north (to the Kluchy volcano region). In the end, with some input from our host, we decided on the northerly route (as it is less frequented) and bought a bus ticket to the town of Esso for early the next morning.

We arrived at the bus depot the next morning and learned that we had purchased the last two tickets for the bus, which meant that we’d be sitting in the back seats, wedged between two fellow travelers. It was pretty warm and crowded on the bus and we spent the next 9 hours cozied up with our seatmates to the soundtrack of Russian pop music, trying to respect personal space while catching up on some zzz’s.

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We arrived in Esso at around 8pm and were surprised to be greeted by an (english speaking!) german woman, Corola, who had been contacted by Katya. Apparently, Katya had also helped Corola when she first arrived in Kamchatka, so she reached out about meeting us and potentially showing us around the town for the night. We were treated to a (short – the town is quite small) tour of the town, self-serve 1.5l bottles of beer, the company of a lovely cat, some good insight into the hikes we had planned to do, and in exchange – we cooked dinner for our lovely hosts.

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Carola suggested a nice overnight hike outside of Esso before we hitchhike further north to Koserevsk for a longer, 7 day backpacking trip in the Kluchy valley. She gave us two hilarious cartoon maps  (the maps we would rely on for our entire trip) that would prove invaluable and we sat down to discuss what our best options might be for getting into the valley once we were in Koserevsk. There are two access ‘roads’ into the valley, one more common but which requires a large vehicle (example here) as it crosses a fairly large river and we weren’t certain how high it would be running. Since we’d be on foot, we planned to take the other road of unknown distance. But if the map was accurate, the road we planned to take was a shorter distance than the more frequently traveled one that I believe, if memory serves me correctly is ~60-65km/35-40miles. So we figured our road looked about half as long so probably 18-20 miles.

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Our ‘map’ after the trip


a zoom in of the second map that Carola gave us – here you can see the two road options for accessing the valley. We took the top one.

 But first, a hike in the Bystrinsky Nature Reserve right outside Esso.

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On top of one of the volanoes
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Our camp at the base of the twin volcanoes

We returned from our overnight to the twin volcanoes and instead of puttering around town, we bought another liter of beer and proceeded to try and hitchhike our way to Koserevsk before nightfall (roughly 11pm). We figured once we got to the crossroads, it would be fairly easy to catch a ride.

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After about an hour of about 3 cars going past, we were able to snag a ride with a man going to the next town, Anavgay. He dropped us off there and we walked back to the road to see if we could make it the additional 20-30 mile distance to the main road which runs north south through southern Kamchatka. In about 15 minutes, we saw a car coming and I jumped onto the road to flag the car down. Hilariously, the driver turned out to be the same man who had picked us up originally – and after a quick stop at home, he was continuing his travel. Though we could not really communicate, we all laughed as we continued the journey to the crossroad.

Finally, around 6pm we had made it to the main road. There were a handful of other people there, but most of them looking to go west to Anavgay or Esso, from where we had just come. No one else appeared to be going north. A couple of cars passed by in a 2 hour span, but no one slowed down to pick us up.

Around 8:30 pm, we decided it was time to come up with a contingency plan for the night and try again in the morning. We still had a few hours of light left, so I suggested we try for 45 more minutes before setting up camp somewhere off the road for the night. Right around this time, very suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of mosquitos. One second we were standing in shorts and tee shirts chatting comfortably and the next we were swatting like crazy. I frantically grabbed for more clothes and threw on my headnet, but I was still fending off mosquitos left and right.

Around 9pm, we saw a car in the distance. The benefit of being a woman is that I’m more likely to get picked up as a hitchhiker. But this meant that I had to pull of my headnet and make myself look like a less terrifying person. Voila! The car started to slow down.  Excited by the thought of escaping mosquito madness, I ran to the car asking, ‘Koserevsk?!’. As far as we could tell from the map, there was really nothing between where we were and Koserevsk, so this car HAD to at least be going by the town. Maybe from my mosquito madness, I misinterpreted the two women in the car as welcoming us in, but as I opened the door, their expressions quickly changed and they made it clear that they couldn’t take us. I closed the door (they were clearly upset that I was letting the mosquitos in) and started to sulk away as they drove off. But then, moments later, the car started to slow again! We ran up and they let us in (still reluctantly) and we jammed ourselves and our packs into the very little space in the backseat – pushing the dog that had previously been lounging there into the front with its owners.

Once in the car, we all worked vigorously to kill the mosquitoes that made it into the car while we tried to communicate using our map of where we were trying to go. The women tried equally as hard to communicate where they were actually going – and as far as we could tell, we’d end up about 12km short of our destination – which we supposed was better than nothing.

Shortly after crossing the scarily large Kamchatka river, we found our car taking a left hand turn across what appeared to be a wasteland of volcanic ash. Apparently there was something between where we were in Koserevsk – or these women were taking us into the woods to kill us….Soon our car was being chased by 3 adorable dogs and we were deposited along the side of the river, next to a old-timey wagon and a fire with a couple of men standing around. It looked like we’d be camping there for the night.

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As we stepped out of the car, I was relieved to find myself mosquito free. But moments later we were again surrounded by hundreds of the pests and I threw myself directly into the smoke from the fire so I could re-dress in my mosquito-suit and get ready to set up our tent.

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We camped a little bit away from the wagon and soon after we had our tent up, one of the women was screaming for us to come eat (communicated through sign language of a person spooning invisible food from an invisible bowl). We walked over and into the little wagon to discover the inside housed 2 bunk beds -each 3 beds high, a small table, and a little woodstove. We were offered freshly caught fish stew and a giant bowl of salmon roe.

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Over the next hour, we drank wine, ate bread and stew (as a vegetarian – I stuck to bread – and chocolates), and attempted to communicate our lives via sign language, camera phone pictures, the few words we knew in Russian and the few words they knew in English.

The next morning, one of the women gathered us into the car, drove us to the road and flagged down a car to take us to Koserevsk. We were on our way!

Once in Koserevsk, we went to a small market to get some food. Luckily, here in town we found ourselves completely mosquito free!  We could take off our headnets and our jackets and relax. Luxury! We considered trying to find a hostel for the night (there was a sign suggesting there was one), but after 2 trips down every street in the town, we failed to figure out which one was the hostel. Instead, we decided we might as well start our hike into the valley.

One of Carola’s friends/coworkers in Esso had helped us write a note asking for the possibility of a ride into the valley. [Note that when we mean ride, we mean ‘giant 6 wheel drive vehicle]. As I noted above, we estimated by the length of the roads as depicted on the map, that our chosen route would be about 15-20 miles, certainly walkable, but if we could get a ride – great! The woman who helped us write the note suggested that she thought the cost of the ride could range anywhere from $100 – $500 dollars. She was fairly certain it would be closer to the $500 range. Both John and I were aghast – considering it would be a roundtrip distance of only ~30-40 miles, but thought we’d try a few people in town anyway.

After showing the note to 3 different people in town, getting some phone numbers of people who they knew who could help, and confirming the estimate of $500 dollars as correct, we decided that walking was our best option.

We set off from town around 11:30am. Sorta late, but this seemed ok because the days were so long.  We threw on our packs and in shorts and tee shirts, we jauntily (as jauntily as you can be wearing a 35lb pack), made our way to the ‘road’.  Right as we crossed the line from town, we were again, immediately bombarded by thousands of mosquitos. Even though it was 70 degrees out, we were both forced back into our rain pants, jackets, mittens, and headnets.

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We knew from the map – and the GPS, that there were few opportunities for water on this road. Though by the time we really realized this, we were far enough out of town to go back and fill all of our water containers to the brim. It turns out that the majority of people in this area of Russia do not hike – and if they do, they take advantage of large military vehicles to get them as close as possible to the volcanoes – thus eliminating the need for trails and roads to meander along bodies of water. Due to the extreme heat of hiking while wearing a rainsuit in 70 degree weather, we plowed through our water and were dry by 2:30. It wouldn’t be another 2 hours or more before we finally came close enough to a water source that John was able to hike a little off trail – and down into a ravine to fill our platypus bags and our nalgenes.

Having water again really revived us. I feel like I haven’t really experienced this before, but being this thirsty really gives you an immediate sense of desolation. (Note: we were never in any real dehydration danger as we could have easily dropped our packs and been back in a town in a couple hours). I had definitely started to get crabby.  Not only were we hot and thirsty and carrying 30-40 lb packs along a long boring road of indeterminate length, we surrounded by so many mosquitos we could barely hear each other over the buzz. Eating was something that had to be done carefully and quickly to avoid any of them having a moment to get under our headnets, and going to the bathroom – that, for me, was definitely not an option. I really really cannot communicate the sheer mass of mosquitos that surrounded us this entire day. There were points where I would look over at John and parts of his arm would be completely obscured by mosquitoes trying to poke through his jacket.  I could swat and take out 50 mosquitoes with one hand. The minute we had water again, I felt like a totally different person and the mosquitos became somewhat bearable again. [I should note that John stayed pretty positive the entire time. Having his company definitely made this death march more enjoyable].

Around 6pm, we were out of water again and both of us were starting to move pretty slowly. By matching our GPS track with the squiggly line on the map illustrating our road, we could tell we were definitely making progress – but could still only estimate the distance based on  how far we had gone – and how much of the line we had drawn with our GPS track matched the line on the map. What in the beginning seemed like a 15 mile road, was now clearly much longer.

At 8:30pm, I was getting thirsty and exhausted enough that I felt like I was barely moving. At this point, we were taking breaks every 10 minutes or so. I didn’t mention, but there were an enormous  number of bear tracks in the mud along the entire distance of the road, so over the course of the previous 9 hours, we had continually made loud whooping noises to make any nearby bears aware of our presence. Later that night in our tent, John would comment that he could tell when I was getting worn down because I would make bear-aware noises almost non-stop. [So please imagine a ragged woman in a rainsuit, slogging along at a crawling pace, making non-stop whooping noises – LET THE HONEYMOON BEGIN!]. Around this time, John suggested that we hike for 30 more minutes before throwing down our packs and seeking out water before setting up camp for the night. I was really hoping that before that time we’d finally reach our (really unknown) destination and not have to concern ourselves with seeking out water and a place to camp for the night. But at 9pm, we were still in the woods so we put down our packs and continued along. I was pretty tuckered at this point, but without the weight of my pack, I had a second wind.

After about 25 minutes, suddenly (really – VERY suddenly) the woods opened up to a beautiful alpine meadow with the sun starting to set behind a small cabin (and water!) in the distance. I was so awestruck by the beauty of the landscape (and the slight breeze that chased all the mosquitoes away – allowing us to take off our headnets/hoods for a moment) and the excitement that we had made it that I (sort of) didn’t mind that we had to go back into the woods and down hill to get our packs.

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Words cannot express how happy
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John in awe of the cabin (and the water)

It was probably 11pm before we made it to the cabin – just enough time to set up our tent and get dinner started before darkness fell.

That night, my legs ached like I had just run a marathon – so of course I had trouble falling asleep…but it was so nice to be in our tent, in a beautiful alpine meadow, wearing a tank top and shorts and drinking water to my content!

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Mosquitoes that escaped the breeze by getting underneath the fly of our tent. Makes getting out of the tent to use the bathroom even more of a challenge.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast, filled up our bottles again, and enjoyed the light warm breeze that allowed us to wear normal clothes – mosquito free!  We packed up our bags and prepared for a short day hike to the inner part of the valley, where we planned to set up camp for a few days. This day was fairly easy as we made our way in along the meadow. There were a few river crossings, but they were eased by the fact that they were, at least in some parts, still completely covered in snow so that we could just walk across the top.

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We set up camp along one of the rivers about 3 -4 miles in and enjoyed a day of leisure (reading, relaxing, napping and delicious snacks) at camp.

To be continued…

[Part 2: in which our travelers are faced with a harrowing river crossing and encounter a bear]

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