There are about 20 000 brown bears in Kamchatka and the biggest population, which is nearly 200-300 individuals, is based in Kronotskiy nature reserve on Lake Kuril. This is a territory of the South-Kamchatka federal reserve. Animals here live side by side with people, having achieved a mutual agreement. Brown bears fish in Ozernaya River and Lake Kuril, while people observe them from a safe distance, usually from special bridges and a watchtower. The Internet is flooded with photos of the bears, a lot of people who have been here took some impressive shots, making Kamchatka famous.
Lake Kuril is 8400 years old. It was formed as a result of an eruption, just like everything in Kamchatka. It is another enormous caldera, surrounded by volcanoes and filled with water. The lake is one of the largest fresh water sources on the peninsula, the depth can exceed 300 metres in some spots.
The most activity takes place here in August. Every year the red salmon arrive in Lake Kuril via the Ozernaya River. Hordes of red salmon — on average, about a million and a half. So, the brown bears have a feast that lasts until the first frost. Skinny and hungry bears are going to eat the fatty salmon until they gain dozens of kilograms of fat, some of them will weigh up to 500 kg! Salmon is an easy catch — after spawning and being almost dead (red salmon die after spawning) the fish can be easily grabbed by the bears. Hundreds of bears diving and catching fish can be seen on the shores of the lake at this time of year. The female bears teach their children to fish. I could gaze at it forever. I only had 10 minutes though.
The easiest way to get to Lake Kuril, logistically, is by helicopter — it takes a little more than an hour. It is possible to get there by car, but it’s long and uncomfortable. The disadvantage of the first option is that the time is limited — you can only spend 1,5 hours in the nature reserve. It is usually enough time to take hundreds of cool photos from a wooden bridge above the river, see red salmon spawning and a bear fishing. Since the trip is available only in groups of about 20 people, it is hard to film in such a crowded situation. The excursion includes a stop in the crater of Ksudach volcano and a swim in the Hodutkinskiye Springs. The tour costs 45,000 rubles. It is the most expensive excursion in Russia.
I chose the first option. Most helicopter excursions are provided by the “Vityaz-Travel” company. Hundreds of people travel on a few MI-8 aircrafts on sunny days. Another option is hiring a personal helicopter with a private company. Actually, it can be cheaper to hire a helicopter with a pilot, unfortunately, I did not find such an option. Disappointments are not expected, naturally, you assume that for such a price no one will dare to not follow the plan and meet the promises. Something did go wrong, though. We had a great flight to Lake Kuril, we landed and went out to the platform near a cordon, a small patch of ground surrounded by an electrified wire fence since there were a lot of bears around.
We were walking back and forth along the cordon, looking around and waiting. Everyone was thrilled to finally see what they came here for — bears fishing. We didn’t move though. 20 minutes later the guide returned from the main inspector’s house and surprised us all — the bridge which is used to watch the bears was closed. The department of local fishing control (it is probably called differently) was observing the salmon spawn that day. As an alternative we were offered to climb up to a sightseeing point, from there we only spotted a single bear far away after 20 minutes of waiting. The dream to see everything that Kamchatka is famous for vanished like volcano smoke. Everyone felt betrayed.
To break the ice, our guide offered to listen to a “fairy tale about three bears”: “Well, there are no bears, so I’m going to give you a lecture about them”. A lecture about bears, for 45 000 roubles. I dared to go and speak to the inspector, I found him in the exact same house and asked, why wouldn’t he, his staff or the “fishing control” warn the tourist companies about the limited access beforehand, so that the tourists could change their travel date. I got a rude reply: “No one is supposed to warn you here. It’s a native reserve and it isn’t our responsibility”. I asked if there was another way to see the bears. The inspector said: “You could rent a boat, but it’s too wavy today and the navigation isn’t functioning”.
I wondered why he or his staff wouldn’t warn the tourists that there is no alternative way? It’s weird to spend an hour flying by helicopter to listen to a lecture from a guide. Well, the inspector did not think so. I did see a bear from afar, why was I even complaining? I realized that the mission to film bears fishing had failed. I told the inspector that I would be honest and write about the risk of such a situation on Lake Kuril. I turned around and headed to the helicopter. It worked though. The inspector reluctantly gave permission to embark everyone and lead us along the shore. We had to leave in 20 minutes.
The waves were actually strong. At the first shallow we saw bears fishing. It was almost impossible to film with such waves. A smartphone wasn’t able to take a shot of a bear either. All the pictures you see in the post were taken within 10 minutes from a swaying boat, about 30 metres away from the shore.
Kamchatka brown bears are the biggest in the world. Their weight can reach up to 750 kg. A mature male, standing on his hind legs, can reach 3 metres in height! It is easier for the bears to fish in the river, where they just knock them out with their paws. However, it seems more fun in the lake. The bears walk along the shore, looking for schools of fish. Some of them sit halfway in the water for hours waiting for a fish to pass by. Some of the fluffies dive from the shore, skilfully catch a fish, and rush back, happy but soaked, eager to eat the fatty salmon. The young ones chase the fish, running around in the water.
This whole scene of bears fishing is a distraction from the main fact — brown bears are a dangerous carnivore. They can easily kill a human, who cannot confront a bear’s massive paw with anything other than a weapon. Their claws can break any bone. They have perfect hearing and a perfect sense of smell — a brown bear can sense a human from 200-300 meters away. And they have small eyes with a sharp look. When they notice a human, the latter is doomed.
Actually, bears are loners, they prefer to stay away from each other most of the time. However, during spawning season, they hunt close to each other and don’t pay attention to their mates. The prey is enough for everyone. Each spot is “claimed” by a bear, the richest spots belong to the alpha males and the large individuals, the young ones only get the leftovers. The baby bears are also starving, the mothers don’t feed them any fish; they have to acquire new skills on their own to survive.
No fish could be seen in the lake. All the pictures, packed with red salmon, were taken at a shallow river. It can be seen in the photos that the salmon changed their appearance after migrating from the ocean. Before spawning, their scales become red and dull, a hump appears on their back, the fish grow teeth which are used to tear the mates’ flounders. After spawning nearly 2000 eggs, a female salmon dies. It continues on from year to year, from century to century. Only about 30 young individuals out of those 2000 return to the ocean, somewhere towards the Commander Islands. The fish spend four years there and the return to Ozernaya River to end their lives.
The stop in Ksudach volcano crater was short as well — 20 minutes to walk around the shore and then back aboard. Ksudach reminded me of a caldera on Deception Island in Antarctica — same perfect shapes of water filled crater. The last eruption of Ksudach was in 1907. It was as massive as Krakatoa, the volcano blew out over 2000 cubic metres of volcanic dust and self-destructed — the eruption's force destroyed the volcanic cone.
The crater gradually filled with water and Lake Klyuchevoe was formed. If you have enough time, you can also walk to Goryachiy beach, where the thermal waters are boiling like in a kettle. Because of such a high water temperature, the lake is almost uninhabited, even though the depth is impressive — it can reach up to 100 metres.
A little more time is left for swimming in the Hodutkinskiye springs. Firstly, you have to change, secondly — to have lunch. Goryachaya (Hot) river is named like this quite logically — the water temperature is about 40°С and it’s rich with minerals, especially silicic acid. The water is “heated" by a “boiler” — the dormant volcano Hodutka. Hot water flows into the river at a speed of 150 litres per second. You can feel the pumice under your feet, there is also something volcanic along the shores, even though it’s drowning in green.
I wouldn’t mindlessly dive into the hot spring if I were you, it is better to have a look at the list of contraindications in the changing room. Swimming here is unusual — active movement isn't recommended, it's better to stand waist-high in the water and ward off the hornets that appear out of the blue, or walk around slowly. While many swam in the river, I took a walk through the blooming fields in the valley.
Probably, we were just unlucky that day. I did see a bear, but was left with an unpleasant “aftertaste”. I really would love to go back there. To spend a few days at the lake and watch the bears peacefully, not depending on weather and other circumstances. To get to an interesting pumice sight “Kutkhiny Baty”, waterfalls and “Kamenny Gorodok”.
I hope that I will have such a chance one day. As for those who prefer the helicopter excursion to the lake and want to see the main summer event in Kamchatka — the bears fishing, I would recommend to figure out what is going on at Lake Kuril beforehand. However, I’m not sure it will be easy. I suppose, it might be nearly impossible.
The “Four Seasons of Russia” project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
The trip to Kurile lake is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.
Also read about Kamchatka:
Mutnovsky Volcano on Kamchatka: How I climbed into the crater of an active volcano
The Valley of Geysers
Volcanoes of Kamchatka
Climbing Mount Camel
The Small Valley of Geysers
Trekking to Vachkazhets Mountain range
Kamchatka: Life-hacks and tips
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1