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Valley of Geysers

Volcano breath

It is impossible to look away from the porthole - hills, volcanoes, river lace, green forests. Sometimes you can even see a bear, who is frightened by the sound of a flying giant above him and running to the nearest creeping cedar bushes. The helicopter is full of tourists, there are about 20 people on board. Everyone is patiently waiting, adjusting their headphones, staring at Kamchatka, smiling at their neighbours and keeping their cameras of different brands and sizes ready. As soon as we fly to the next nameless mountain with snowy stripes of slightly melted snow, everyone clings to their gadgets and takes dozens of shots. And I am no exception.



Flying over Kamchatka is the most appropriate way to understand the immensity of this unreal land. It is necessary to get to know the peninsula from above - this will help you to navigate on the ground, understand the cardinal points, allow you to see the ocean in the distance, and to memorise the locations of the 'domestic' volcanoes: Avachinsky, Kozelsky and Koryaksky. And you will constantly aspirate “WOW"!  The helicopter excursion includes a visit to the famous Valley of Geysers, which is located on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a walk along the Uzon caldera and a swim in the Nalychevo hot springs. The end of the trip is always the same: tourists are relaxed after the hot springs, surrounded by volcanic sulphuric odours, they are sitting all together at one table and eating lunch (there is only fish on the menu). But you never know in which location the trip will start and where the helicopter will land at first. It depends on the weather conditions and the number of helicopters on the routes. To separate groups of tourists, the captains agree among themselves, which helicopter will land where. There are only 14 km between the Uzon caldera and the Valley of Geysers, so the flight between the smoking tops is very short. Anyway, it doesn't really matter where you start. The first stop on our trip, for example, was the Uzon caldera.

  • Orange fact
    A helicopter tour to the Valley of Geysers is one of the most popular excursions in Kamchatka and the most expensive one. For a half-day trip you will have to pay more than forty thousand rubles per person. However, there is no other way to get to one of the Russian "Wonders of the World". You can take a private helicopter tour, of course, but then you have to apply for permission to visit the Kronotsky Reserve (the Uzon caldera is a part of it). A helicopter tour has both advantages and obvious disadvantages - the group is going to be large, international. The time at each location is very limited. In the Valley of Geysers, for example, there is clearly not enough time to take a walk, carefully examine the mud volcanoes, and count the geysers. The entire time there you literally have to run somewhere.

The first step of the trip is to fly around a pair of volcanoes. On the way to the Valley of Geysers there are two of Kamchatka's giants. The first is Karymsky Volcano, with black smoke billowing out of its vent, like from a locomotive firebox. They say, it sometimes is hooting in the same way. It is constantly smoking and sometimes billowing out columns of ash; but flying around in a helicopter is not as dangerous as on a plane. It seems that the helicopter is very close to the top. But when you realise that its caldera is 5 km in diameter, you understand that it’s still way too far to the volcano. The guide shows a sheet with the name of the next volcano and points to which side the next Kamchatka exhibit will appear.

 

Now it is Maly Semiachik, an extinct volcano with a lake in the crater. The turquoise lake looks very impressive on a cloudy day, playing with all the aquamarine colours, but in fact this is a terrible mixture of sulphuric and hydrochloric acids. The lake is also warm, its temperature ranges from 27 ° C to 42 ° C. The depth of the lake is 140 meters. Well, you have to read all this information later, the guide keeps silence while on board of the helicopter. It is impossible to shout louder than the engine sound, and passengers are sitting in their headphones anyway. The distance from the Valley of Geysers to the Uzon caldera is only 14 km. Just a few minutes flight.

Caldera of Uzon volcano

A huntsman hangs a double-barrelled shotgun over his shoulder, walks along a wooden path, showing with a sign that everybody needs to follow him. Inspectors of the Kronotsky Reserve are required to accompany each group arriving by helicopter. Well, even if everybody knows the strict rule to walk only along the wooden paths laid over the gurgling and stinking fumaroles, there will always be those who are ready to fall into a mud volcano for the sake of some photo that would shock social media. Well, bears are often seen there too and can also add cool content to the account of some blogger. Therefore, the attendant watches every step of the visitors.



But honestly, you forget about all the dangers when you go down to the caldera. This is a field of spitting fumaroles, gurgling cauldrons, sneezing mud volcanoes, multi-coloured clay tubercles, a smoking acidic lake with nettle and fern on its shore. It seems like you can watch it for hours. And inhale the 'aroma' of rotten eggs, stinky socks, and some acid. There are more than 100 sources that are outflowing and falling out from under the ground; in total, geologists count more than 500 geothermal phenomenon in the Uzon caldera. This is some kind of chemical laboratory of God, where something seems to be happening according to the 'Breaking Bad' scenario. All this is called volcanism - the eruption onto the surface of the earth of all sorts of toxins, including even oil.

 

I notice a bear’s footprint on apparently toxic clay. I wonder if this chemical mixture under its feet is burning its paws. And what was the bear doing here? Wasn't the bear frightened off by the stench of hydrogen sulphide and everything that evaporates from these colourful puddles? But it turned out that the bears like to stomp on warm clay. In addition, in the summer there are many berries and pine nuts..

 

Looking at a smoking acidic Chloride lake with white water and blue-green thermophilic algae, which feel quite freely in the boiling mixture of sulphuric acid, sodium chloride, methane and hydrogen, I recall another TV series: there was a kind of smart criminal, who got rid of bodies, dumping them in cauldrons with sulphuric acid… even the sandals weren’t left from these poor g



Uzon is also a volcano, sleeping for the last 8000 years. It is not visible, because the helipad is on the flat bottom of the caldera itself, and it is one of the largest in Kamchatka. A huge hollow, 9 × 12 km, filled with all kinds of toxic liquids and minerals. Thanks for being alive! The volcano is still 'breathing' in its sleep. Three hundred thousand years ago, Uzon, as befits a young volcano, was handsome, with a conical shape, reaching a height of three thousand meters. It erupted so violently that the earth beneath it sank and formed a caldera, in the centre of which our helicopter landed

 

There are many mud volcanoes on Uzon, of any diameter. If you learn the chemical reaction from sulphur fumes to kaolinite clays, you can bring any chemistry teacher in ecstasy. But my success in chemistry was so-so. So, I was just hypnotised by these grey bubbles of the earth. This is some incredible activity. Under clay crusts there are empty spaces, a plateau underfoot is constantly moving.  On the site of old volcanoes, landslides occur, and new volcanoes can appear anywhere. This is a real hell’s kitchen, and if it will happen to fall into such a thing, it will get messy. Clay cools much longer than water.


 

In each bubbling hole there is a chemical process: arsenic and antimony are formed here, sulphur is deposited as a soft green layer, mercury, copper and zinc do their job. They say that mud volcanoes are especially active after it rains, when the clay becomes more liquid. You won’t understand how something else can exist here. However, archaea live here - tiny microorganisms that breathe sulphur and live in all sources. Well, we did not have enough time to see everything. We spent too much time at the observation tower, looking at this volcanic swamp. If we would have hurried up, we could have reached Lake Bannoye with its warm water and fumarole fields. But we had to fly.


The Valley of Geysers, Kamchatka Krai 



It would be more correct to call this place the Valley of the Geysernaya River. All the most interesting things are located along its stream bed. This is one of six places in the world with geothermal geyser activity, the second one after Yellowstone National Park in terms of the number of geysers in the world. In fact, this is a gorge 4 km wide, 8 km long and about 400 meters deep. About 200 of the most diverse sources are active in the valley.



Landscapes change quite quickly there - natural disasters have completely changed the landscape twice in the last ten years. In 2007, the largest in the history of observing Kamchatka  mudflow came down, its “tongue" was  2 km long, and the total mass of volcanic mud and slag was about 20 million cubic meters! It demolished buildings, created a dam 50 meters high on the river, buried and flooded 7 geysers and several springs, waterfalls and covered the Malachite Grotto. Even a new lake was formed, but later it poured into the river. And during the next mudflow in 2014, the previously buried geysers opened up again and new ones appeared. The Valley of Geysers has become even more beautiful.

In the colourful Valley of Geysers, you can find everything that is in a geologist's guide to geothermal activity - bewitching mudpots and waterpots, steam columns, fumaroles, pulsating springs, geysers, bright clays and warm lakes. The Kikhpinych Volcano is responsible for all this. Since the Valley of Geysers is a part of the Kronotsky Biosphere Reserve, it is allowed to walk here only under supervision and it is strictly enforced to walk only on the wooden boardwalks, which are installed in a field of grass as tall as a human.

 

The first thing you see down in the valley is the 'Stained Glass', a steaming slope about 40 meters high on the banks of the Geysernaya River, where 8 large and many small geysers spit hot water. In total, in the valley there are 42 large geysers and 6 large mudpots today. The most spectacular and the largest one is Red mudpot, its dimensions are 17 × 12 meters and a depth of about 2 meters.

 

If anyone does not know, a geyser is a column of boiling water, or rather a steam-water mixture heated by igneous rocks to 98 ° C. It pours out of the channel - the gryphon (in geology - a mud volcano). After ejecting steam, there is always a resting stage, when the geyser collects power in order to spit out a new amount of steam with maximum force. Each geyser has its own schedule, but almost all of them erupt like clockwork. Most of the geysers and pulsating boiling springs are located in the lower part of the Geyser River - this is the natural attraction of Kamchatka Geyser Valley.

A little higher up the river there are two more sections. But, any chance to go a little further or come a little closer to an attraction is strictly suppressed. Safety in the Kronotsky Reserve is well monitored. Gases erupting from holes and pots can be dangerous - every year animals fall into these traps - wolverines, foxes, small birds, even bears sometimes. But more often this happens in the nearby Death Valley.

Tatiana Ustinova, hydrologist of the Kronotsky Reserve, discovered the Valley of Geysers in 1941, together with local Itelmen (native people of Kamchatka) Anisifor Krupenin. They arrived there in April by sled dogs. For tourists there is only one possible option - by air in a helicopter. Due to its inaccessibility, the Valley of Geysers kept its secret for a very long time. And it didn’t even open up neither for the natives (who were afraid of all kinds of volcanic activity and didn’t go deep into the peninsula), nor for the first researchers in Kamchatka - Stepan Krasheninnikov, Georg Steller, Karl Dietmar, and Vladimir Komarov.

In the middle of the last century, access to the Valley of Geysers was open to anyone who could get here. But tourists were able to inflict huge damage even to this formidable local nature. For many years, this part of the biosphere reserve of the park was closed. Only in 1993 did the first tourists arrive there, since then a visit to the Valley of Geysers - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is only possible as part of an organised group.



The main attraction of the excursion in the Valley of Geysers is the eruption of the Great Geyser (Bolshoy Geyser), which lasts 3-4 minutes. Its cycle is about every 70 minutes, sometimes a little less. The geyser erupts almost as spectacularly today as it did a long time ago. A wooden observation deck was built right in front of it, and the geyser performs an encore -  erupting a steam column almost 10 meters high. When it then calms and gets quiet, the Great Geyser looks like a pot of boiling water spraying in all directions. It's time for the 'hostess' to reduce the heat, but the water suddenly falls down somewhere deep into the rocks. 

 

An hour in the valley passes way too fast, it seems you do not have time for anything. Time is subordinate to the eruption of the Great Geyser, it must be calculated precisely so that you are on the observation deck on time and do not miss the main show of the Valley. Impressed, we are boarding the helicopter again. Another short flight and landing - now in the Nalychevo Valley.

 

According to our excursion plan, there is a swim in the Nalychevo hot springs and lunch. We need to change our clothes in a small wooden house on the shore pretty quickly (we have only half an hour to swim), and try to plunge into the river. But surprisingly it is not just very warm. It is crazy hot, like in a Devil's cauldron! We need some time time to adjust to this heat. I am trying to plunge in with an exhale, but it is impossible to stay in hot water for a long time. My body warms up quickly in there, and after a few minutes it seems that even my brain is melting.

Well, I cool off later in the helicopter, somewhere on the way to Yelizovo. The whole way back, crumpled and stunned with emotions, I am hanging out near the porthole, looking at the beauty beneath: the tundra, forests, mountains and volcanoes. Upon landing at the heliport in Yelizovo, I am given a certificate stating that I was in the Valley of Geysers, one of the seven Russian "Wonders of the World". In one of the 6 geyser fields of the world.

The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
 trip to the Valley of Geysers 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
Trekking to Vachkazhets Mountain range
Kuril Lake: something about the life of bears and humans
Climbing Mount Camel
The Small Valley of Geysers
Avacha Bay
Volcanoes of Kamchatka
Kamchatka: Life-hacks and tips

Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1

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