Letters from Kamchatka bears
Text and images Kaisa Sirén
When our inflatable boat approaches the beach of Kurile Lake, I realise instantly that six bears are lying right where we are supposed to land. What to do? Are we going to wait until they move or are we going to find another landing site? Oh no, we are actually going right were the bears are, but slowly they do retreat.
When eight photographers, a Russian tour guide, and two armed park wardens land on the beach, the bears disappear in the bushes but reappear fifty meters further away as if they were contemplating going fishing. While the wardens draw a 6x6 meter area in the sand for the photographers and set up some chairs for us, more bears arrive to the fishing site. I have waited for this moment for over a year and now, really, I am on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, known as one of the best places on earth to photograph bears in their natural surroundings.
We are far to the East in Russia, a nine hour flight from Moscow to Petropavlovsk, the capital of Kamchatka and then a two hour helicopter ride to the Kurile Lake Nature Reserve. From our base camp, we travel another hour and a half to the bears’ fishing site. Then the show can start and what a show it is!
On our first evening, we follow a big and seemingly lazy male, who lies on the beach like a dead body. But every now and then it jumps up and rushes into the water where almost every time, it catches a salmon and returns with it to the beach. The old male is accompanied by a few young males who are still learning how to fish and often return without a catch.
Several bears come and go, and one approaches us from behind and sits down to look at us only about twenty meters away. After a while, it lies down and looks like a bearskin on the floor by a fireplace. Every now and then it moves to another spot close to us.
A young male has gone fishing but the old male does not like the youngster being separated from the crowd, and soon it is chased back to where it belongs. But then it gets up and walks straight towards us! ”Don’t fear”, I tell myself, but when I look at the bear through my telephoto lens, I am convinced that my heart skips a few beats. However, the approaching bear changes directions and my pulse returns to near normal.
Kurile Lake is one of the most important spawning sites for the Pacific Ocean salmon. When we were there, the spawning season had recently started, and the salmon had traveled the 80 kilometre trip from the sea to the lake, but not yet up its small tributaries. The bears were hungry and fishing was on.
We spend three days photographing on the Hakucina River where the rules are the same as initially: a 6x6 meter area for us, no food when the bears are near, and, if a bear walks by us at a near distance, we have to stand up. The wardens are vigilant with torches in the dark, while we mostly stand without food. At best, we spot 13 or 15 bears at the same time.
We are observing an old male that weighs certainly 450 kilograms. It is very slow on land and sleeps into the afternoon, but in the water it is very fast and agile. We also see young bears fighting about the salmon, and a few times they manage to steal one from each others’ mouths.
We then see a beautiful mother with two cubs. All of a sudden the mother brings the cubs to be ’babysat’ near our photo site and then goes into the river fishing. The cubs stay on the beach where they play with a big bone and tumble and wrestle while keeping an eye on their mother. When she catches a salmon, the cubs swim out to her. They repeat this sequence several times during our three days there, and our guide thinks that the mother is confident that strange males are not willing to approach us, and thus her cubs are safe close to our site.
The photographing is very intensive with bears constantly fishing at several locations at the same time. I am no longer excited but when ’nature calls’, I tense up: There are three women in our group, and before we are allowed to go to the bushes, the warden goes there to chase away any bears. Then the three of us follow the armed warden and squat next to him after he just chased a bear away from our path. Unfortunately we did not get the ’nature photo of the year’ of this scene.
Our return trip to Petropavlovsk happens the safe way: Since the weather in Kamchatka is very windy and foggy, catching a helicopter ride is erratic. Hence, we rely on land transport. First, we walk 12 kilometres to the nearest road including three encounters with bears along the way. Then, we travel on this ’road’ on a 6 wheel driven truck for 14 hours and 500 kilometres to the city. The ’road’ was never built but it has just appeared after people started to drive along the dunes, the river bottom, and the swampy lowlands. A couple times we board a ferry to cross a bay. During this trip we see another ten bears, most often a big brown head lurking in the bushes.
There are approximately 1000 bears just in the Kurile area and more than 10 000 in the entire Kamchatka, which is the area in Russia most densely populated by bears. The Kamchatka bear (Ursus arctos beringianus) is the biggest subspecies of the brown bear with males weighing up to 650 kilograms. It is also said that the Kamchatka bear is the gentlest one of the brown bears. It is easy to believe, although my heart was racing on the first day. But the next day I had to remind myself that these are bears. On the last day I teared up knowing that I might never have this experience again. I had difficulties saying good bye to these mellow giants.