Forged by Volcanoes, Kamchatka Offers Majestic, Magnetic Wilds

It was Kamchatka’s furs — sable, mink, red fox, silver fox, sea otter and ermine — that prompted Russian Cossacks to colonize the area in the 17th century. “The skins of animals were gold for Czarist Russia,” said Irina V. Viter, a local historian. Then Peter the Great, seeking to make Russia a maritime power, dispatched Vitus Bering, a Danish officer in the Russian navy, on two early 18th Century expeditions. Bering explored the sea that bears his name, and founded Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Historians have never established the source of the name Kamchatka, with theories ranging from the surname of an initial explorer to a supposed indigenous word for a land that trembles.

Kamchatka became the jumping off point for Russian exploration and control of Alaska as well as parts of California and Hawaii. Then in 1867, needing money, Russia sold its North American territories, and Kamchatka stagnated. It served as an occasional place of exile for Czarist political prisoners.

World War II largely bypassed the peninsula, but the conflict with Japan prompted the Soviet Union to transform Kamchatka into a warren of military installations. During the Cold War, it was closed to all foreigners and most Russians, which helped to preserve it.

The weather repeatedly thwarted our attempts to reach the interior, with the clouds hanging ever lower. Hiking on nearby Avachinsky Volcano to admire the view seemed pointless. But options were limited.

The rain did not prevent fishing expeditions, so we boarded a small yacht, the Princess, and motored out of giant Avacha Bay into the Pacific. Puffins skimmed the surface as the crew handed out fishing poles.

While the captain’s wife transformed the day’s catch of halibut and crab into a feast, the rest of us lurched on the pitching deck, listening to the guttural rumblings of the sea lions and watching the bobbing otters.

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