We sailed into Kodiak on a somewhat rarified day for this part of the world, one filled with sunshine rather than rain. The weekend just past had been its annual Crab Fest, an event dampened by typical May weather: horizontal rain and temperatures just above freezing. But on a big, blue, sun-shiny day you’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more beautiful place, the entirety of Kodiak Island and the snowcapped mountains that rim it wrapped beneath an indigo sky.
Ironically, the place it reminded me of most of was Kamchatka, where we’d been a week before. Both are spectacular lands of active volcanoes and hot, spurting geysers. The seas that surround both are the same steel-blue, the volcanic mountain ranges similarly tall and foreboding, with fishing boats moving in and out of the bays. Both regions share physical turmoil as well as beauty, visited frequently by earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami waves. Rain is a constant for both (Kamchatka, 110 inches a year, Kodiak, 68).
A very good halibut day, off Kodiak Island
Though separated by one thousand miles of Bering Sea they started out with similar human roots as well. The very first Russian colony in North America was founded in 1784 at Three Saints Bay on southeastern Kodiak Island and until 1804 it was the center of Russian activity in Alaska. Russians are responsible for the name “Alaska,” derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning “the mainland” or more literally, “the object towards which the action of the sea is directed.”
In the mid-1800s Russia, worried that the expanding U.S. and Canada would usurp its Alaskan territory without paying, attempted to play one against other in a bidding war, which proved unsuccessful. Ultimately, in 1867, the U.S. bought Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million (two cents per acre) and would become the 49th state on January 3, 1959.
Today both economies are driven by fishing. Kodiak is consistently one of the U.S.’s top three ports, with 750 fishing boats working off the island profiting from a wealth of Pacific salmon, Pacific halibut and crab. One thousand miles to the west biologists estimate that a sixth to a quarter of all Pacific salmon originate in Kamchatka’s highly productive waters, including all six species of anadromous Pacific salmon (chinook, chum, coho, seema, pink, and sockeye).
But that’s where the comparisons come to a screeching halt. The state of the local economies and the health of the natural environments couldn’t be more different. The air and sea around Kodiak are nearly pristine; in Kamchatka, far from it, impacting the quality of life for all. Per capita income is widely different too (Alaskans, $33,000 a year; Kamchatkans, less than $7,500) and, no matter what you think about Alaskan politicians (Ted Stevens?), those in Kamchatka win the prize for blatant corruption.
How did these two regions, so similarly blessed by nature, turn out so differently? Two words: Soviet Union. During the Soviet era Kamchatka was closed to outsiders for decades, for military reasons; today half of the territory of the Peninsula is still controlled by the Army. The result has been hard on both man and nature.
One of the first things you notice in Kamchatka is that there are very few old people. The harsh climate is partly to blame, but it is human influence, rather than natural forces, that shortens the lifespan of local residents. Despite its unspoiled appearance, the peninsula is filled with toxic pollutants, the most frightening aspect of which is that no one is really sure just how contaminated it is.
Until 1990 Kamchatka was home to the Soviet Pacific Submarine Fleet, several major airbases and is still an important testing ground for ICBMs. This substantial military presence has contaminated the landscape with heavy metals, radiation and other pollutants. The large naval base across from the capital city of Petropavlovsk bobs with poorly maintained nuclear submarines.
The decrepit capital appears to have been forgotten by time. Crumbling, Soviet concrete-slab buildings line the once-lush hills dropping down to the water. The once-bustling port is now mostly idle and crammed with rusting ships and scrap metal. Poaching – mostly illegal caviar, but also whales – are big economies and locals blame the intense poverty. It is estimated that criminal gangs poach at least half the fish sold from Kamchatka; when we were there twenty fishing trawlers were moored out at sea, impounded for poaching.
While I met some beautiful and incredibly gracious individuals in Kamchatka, I couldn’t help but think their situation desperate. The few I met who would talk openly admitted that the corrupt bureaucracy that continues to oversee the plundering of the region’s unique natural resources cannot be – or at least should not be — continued. For their sake I hope big changes come. Soon.
This land of volcanoes and earthquakes — the western frontier of the literary “Ring of Fire” — is still a month away from true spring. Dirty, crusted snow lies beneath the leafless trees and in the gutters along Petropavlovsk’s main streets, which already look pretty grim, lined as they are by Soviet-era buildings. The only hints of color in town are the red-and-yellow hot dog-beer-and-coffee stands across from Lenin Square and the colorfully painted walls of a local gym. Otherwise, from the bottle-strewn banks of the fishing harbor to the top of the hills looking out over Avachinskaya Bay, the operative description of this city at the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula is … grey.
Long a place shrouded in secrecy, Kamchatka was until recently known to Westerners only as a closed military region or as a name on the Risk board. We are at the very edge of the Russian Far East, a region known locally as “the back of the beyond.” The seven hundred and fifty mile long peninsula is lined by a pair of mountain ranges – the Sredenny (Central) and Vostochny (Eastern) – and from the air looks like a big fish. The Kamchatka River fills the trough between the two ranges. Encircling the city are snow-capped volcanoes, nearly 300 dot the peninsula, a tenth still active. When I ask the first people I meet — two young journalism students, Victoria and Ivan – if they remember the last eruption they smile, wracking their memories.
“I think it was like two weeks ago,” says Victoria. “But they happen so often, it’s hard to be sure. And earthquakes, too. But we are used to them. Why do you think the buildings are so … solid.”
Three-quarters of the peninsula’s 400,000 people live in Petropavlovsk, the capital city founded by Russian explorer Vitus Bering and named after his two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul. The Russians and Ukrainians came to work at its once-booming navy station; ten miles across the bay sits Russia’s second largest nuclear submarine base. The indigenous Itelmen and Koryaks are still mostly nomadic reindeer herders. Judging by the attire of the locals waiting in long lines at bus stops, the biggest imports are patent leather jackets and boots with spiked heels (for women) and camouflage (for men).
The peninsula is known for an amazing diversity and abundance of wildlife: Sable, ermine, Siberian bighorn (or snow) sheep, the Kamchatka brown bear, crab and, of course, salmon in large quantities. Today it’s said that Kamchatka’s industries can be divided into two categories: fishing and those that support fishing, though like so many parts of the world it is at risk of being over-fished. At the dock I eat thick slabs of brown bread slathered with red caviar.
As I munch on the dock I watch big fishing boats being readied to head back out to sea. When I ask what they fish, the answer is simple: “Whales.”
“But isn’t whaling illegal?”
“Listen,” says a fisherman in blue rubber bibs hosing down the back ramp of one of the gunmetal grey boats. “I know in Alaska it is illegal to shoot even a bird. But here, this is Russia. Nothing is illegal.”
Fish are ninety-three percent of Kamchatka’s exports, particularly salmon and king crab (though after walking the city for a day, I have to say it was very, very difficult to find either … or even a restaurant to ask for them. “Eating out is not popular,” admits the only guidebook reference to food I could find). Kamchatka’s biggest import is fuel, which in the recent past led to some trouble. I ask why there appear to be so many burned-out homes along the main street. “About ten years ago we did not receive enough coal,” says a man drinking coffee across from Lenin Square. “So people were using open fires to heat inside. Obviously there were some … problems.”
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 opened the region to the outside world and there is something of a tourist industry here, though small A land still being born thanks to the near-constant volcanic activity, Kamchatka can be a place of breathtaking beauty and unique wildlife; this afternoon when the sun pops out and the sky clears a perimeter lined with snow-capped mountains is revealed across the wind-swept bay.
It is a strange place. There is a saying here which loosely translates as, “In the winter it’s not too cold, but in the summer it’s not very warm!” Pharmacologists are on record that a cup of fresh Kamchatka water drunk in the morning heals the liver and stomach, cleans the blood vessels and prohibits bacteria. Other scientific studies detail increased levels of radioactivity in both air and water, thanks to the decommissioning of nuclear subs taking place just across the bay. Which makes me somewhat reluctant to drink from its taps or, if I could find one, eat one of those giant king crabs.
The only Russian phrase I pick up during a day of wandering PK? “Kamchatka, ehto strannoe mesto” (It’s a strange place).