Surf, Bears and Kamchatka [65]

By Justine Curgenven

I had a sick feeling in my stomach as I paddled tentatively towards the beach, craning my neck upwards to try to see where the waves were crashing down the least, then spinning around in my seat to search for any big sets creeping up behind me. The wild Pacific coast of Kamchatka is known for its pounding surf and I found myself asking why I had chosen to seakayak 640km along this remote shore. Twice a day for three weeks our team of three would have to cross this violent danger-zone, kilometres from any roads. Our expedition would be the second one ever to kayak this coastline.

Kamchatka is a wonderful 1440km-long jagged peninsula in far East Russia, with a backbone of active volcanoes, turquoise crater lakes and steaming geezers. I and another woman, Hadas Feldman, hoped to kayak north from the capital Petropavolvsk to the next town, Ust Kamchatsk. It was an ambitious plan as this stretch of coastline contains no roads, very few people and 10,000 hungry brown bears. Not to mention the surf.

As this wasn’t challenging enough, the authorities insisted we must have a Russian “guide” with us at all times. The only problem was that no-one in Kamchatka can seakayak so we’d be taking a complete novice with us.

22-year-old Alexey Sitnokov was an expert kayaker by Kamchatka standards – he’d kayaked on flat water twice and he held his paddles the right way up. He spoke only pigeon English. “Tank – yoo” he grinned when I told him he had the job, and I couldn’t help thinking how quickly that grin would be wiped off on his first surf landing.

Before the expedition I took Alexey for a few days kayak training. As we pulled up at the top of an endless golden beach my heart sank. Instead of the small introductory waves that I had hoped for, four or five lines of whitewater were battering the shore. I glanced at poor Alexey who was smiling a wide smile of ignorance and trust.

The practice session didn’t start off very well. The young Russian capsized practically the first time a small wave hit him, and swam three more times in an hour. Back on dry land, he was optimistic to say the least.

“For me, this expedition is crazy. But, I do it anyway.”

Early the next morning, we launched from Petropavlovsk in mist and drizzle. Hadas is used to a somewhat different climate in her home of Israel and she wore three hats to combat the chill! Even so, we all had beaming grins on our faces as we pushed off from the shore into the unknown. I felt my whole body relax as the safe rigidity of land was replaced by the dancing unpredictability of the sea.

We crossed the sheltered Avacha Bay and turned north into the open ocean. Immediately we could feel the dormant power of the Pacific Ocean as we rose and fell on the swell. I lost sight of Hadas and Alexey as the crest of a wave reared its head between us. Landing through the surf would not be easy.

After eight hours paddling and 30km under our belts Alexey was flagging. It was time to take on the surf. I went first in what I hoped was a break in the sets. It all went well until I was within spitting distance of the shore. A small wave started to break right behind me and turned my kayak sideways violently. Suddenly cold water hit my face and my ear was in the sea. I felt a sense of inevitability – the certainty that I’d now have to try to roll alone here in the breaking surf. But while my mind was trying to work out a strategy, my body kicked in with natural reflexes. One hip flick and I was upright again – no roll necessary.

With the panicked eyes of a wild animal, I bullied my way gracelessly to the beach. Once ashore I was shaking with cold, relief and nerves. This was only day one and Hadas and Alexey were still out there. I couldn’t see them anywhere. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes. I cringed at the possibility that I’d have to fight my way back out through the surf to find them. Finally after about 20 minutes I caught sight of two yellow kayaks coming towards the beach. Alexey did brilliantly and was almost on shore when one last wave hit him and capsized him. He walked the last few meters to dry land with his kayak, but he was smiling. Hadas excitedly told me that Alexey had been capsized by an unexpected breaking wave way out to sea and she’d had to rescue him. So he’d swum twice on his first day!

We’d only just set up our tents when the peace was shattered by the rattling engine of a battered old tank ploughing across the dunes in a cloud of sand. It came to a sputtering halt besides our tents and eight soldiers with guns surrounded us. One of them asked Alexey to show them our documents. After a detailed study of our permits and a long conversation on his radio, the soldier told Alexey that we must break camp and take everything – including our kayaks – on the tank to their military base. I immediately imagined the three of us festering in a tiny room, unable to leave until we paid an outrageous bribe to a corrupt official, and I refused to go. Alexey’s wide eyes flickered from my steely face to the line of soldiers facing us, his gaze drawn directly to the eight guns casually but firmly held in their hands. “No,” I repeated.

I tried to empathize with Alexey. It was only the first day of the three-week journey, and he’d already paddled thirty kilometres and swum twice. Now one of the two foreign women who were meant to be looking after him was saying “no” to soldiers with guns. “Don’t be a soft touch.” I thought.

Eventually Alexey persuaded me we should go and, after half an hour bouncing over dunes on the tank, we reached a building and a lookout tower in an otherwise monotonous dunescape. Hadas and I sat on the tank under armed guard for three hours as discussions went on inside. Finally a smiling Alexey emerged saying that we could leave. The soldiers remounted the tank and drove us back to the exact spot where we’d landed. Apparently our permission was fine after all. Judging from the shy smiles directed at Hadas and I, I think the soldiers just wanted something a bit different to do on a boring afternoon.

On our third day we came face to face with our first bear. As we kayaked past a 200-metre-high cliff with a narrow beach at the bottom, I spotted what I thought was a barrel at the far end of the shore.

“Bear!” said Alexey.

“No way,” Hadas and I thought, “It’s at the bottom of a 70-degree cliff.”

We stared intently at the barrel and it turned and started loping towards us. The heat drained from my body as I realized the agility and resourcefulness of the Kamchatka brown bear. If they’d make the effort to teeter down a steep cliff face in the hope of a few scraps of food then I felt sure they wouldn’t think twice about unwrapping our fragile tents and helping themselves to the tasty treats inside.

We paddled up slowly and watched the magnificent creature turning over bits of seaweed with his giant paw. He was sniffing at something when suddenly he sensed us and turned his nose sharply towards the sea. Spotting the three yellow kayaks he immediately turned and fled. We stared in disbelief as the bear launched himself at the cliff face, powering his way up with his sharp claws, his giant bulk shaking as he somehow found purchase in the loose rock. I felt guilty that we’d disturbed him, but it was reassuring that this powerful creature was obviously so scared of us.

The days passed and as we travelled up the coast we got into a rhythm. We had to paddle an average of around 35km a day to reach Ust Kamchatsk in time, and we were typically on the water for between six to nine hours. Alexey had a few more swims in the surf but we often managed to find more sheltered spots to land. One day we found an old fishing net full of fresh salmon, which fed us for almost a week! The scenery was breathtaking – steep rocky cliffs, jagged volcanoes, green valleys and snowy patches. Alongside the many bears, we glimpsed whales, sea otters, sea lions and the rare Stella Sea eagle.

The sea showed us her power on occasions and one day Alexey was swept away by a freak wave that broke over a shallow reef. All I could see was wisps of white spray as the ridge of water rushed away from me. After what seemed like a minute I finally saw a startled Alexey sitting upright in his kayak. He was still in the danger zone, water dripping from his hair, and trying to manoeuvre himself to a limp red piece of material a few meters away.

“Leave your hat, Alexey” I shouted, “I’ll get it for you.”

He didn’t need telling twice and paddled hard out towards Hadas. I turned to shore to try to get his hat but three breaking waves in a row hit me and stopped me in my tracks. Stuff Alexey’s hat – I turned and paddled to the others as hard as I could. Once the big set was replaced by calm waters, Alexey told us that the wave had rolled him three times and it was like being in a washing machine. Amazingly though, the sea eventually spat him out the right way up. He was fine but he never did get his hat back.

We met a handful of isolated people along the coastline and shared some wonderful evenings learning a little about each other’s lives. We visited one lighthouse so isolated that the two elderly couples who ran it hadn’t seen any other people for eight months. They spoilt us rotten with hot meals every two hours and we were able to deliver them two letters. Both were six months old but it was a real pleasure to see the old man’s face as he read news from his son.

On day twenty, we woke up to sunshine, a calm sea and the knowledge that our destination of Ust Kamchatsk was only 35km away. We smiled to ourselves as we launched through the surf for what we hoped was the last time. It was a day of mixed feelings as we left behind the wild rawness of virtually unexplored Kamchatka and returned to a landscape tamed by man. Almost immediately we were paddling over massive fixed fishing pens and we could see managed woodland and shabby buildings. Our exploring had finished and I was anxious to get today over with, to reach Ust Kamchatsk and call our expedition a success. Alexey reached the shore first and threw his paddle down. “No more water,” he shouted forcefully, but his grin betrayed him.

We got out of our kayaks for the last time beside a massive rubbish dump and rundown boathouses. The pretty village centre, with colourful textile shops and throngs of people that I had imagined, were nowhere to be seen. In the distance we could see gigantic cranes and low-lying concrete buildings. A few busy-looking people stepped over the rubble and around grazing cows in what looked like their best clothes. Apart from a few curious boys wearing “Simpsons” t-shirts, no-one paid any attention to us. I got the feeling that there was no room for indulgent adventures in this working fishing town and I suddenly felt ashamed that I was hoping we’d end our trip with curious locals who wanted to celebrate with us. Instead, our last campsite was in a rubbish tip and we still had to arrange getting back to Petropavlovsk. It all felt like a bit of an anti-climax until Hadas noticed my glum face and gave one of her wonderful hearty laughs. I couldn’t help but join her and we both stood in the middle of that dump and threw back our heads and made some noise. That made the locals look!

Sponsors: Nigel Dennis Kayaks, Lendal, Snapdragon, Reed Chillcheater, Peak UK, the Welsh Sports Council, Extreme Vision Systems, Teva, Powerbar, The North Face.

Justine Curgenven

Runs Cackle TV and makes the “This is the Sea” DVDs. She will be a speaker at Rock’n’Roll.