Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bogged down and bushwacked on Kamchatka

As the snow has melted, I find myself bogged down and bushwacked (19 May 2017).
When the explorer and journalist George Kennan (1845-1924) joined a reconnaissance expedition in the mid-1860s to survey a possible telegraph line from North America to Europe via Siberia, there was a reason they concentrated their overland travel in the winter.  This journey is chronicled in a highly readable, at times very entertaining account by Kennan, Tent Life in Siberia.  Don't let the title fool you -- their team spent most of their time on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Here is an interesting blog about the overland telegraph effort
Last Friday, 19 May, was the last day I managed to travel on the Avacha marathon ski trail via skis.  I had to take off my skis a few times to cross dirt patches, and I knew I would have to turn around once I reached a big, swamped marsh.  At the end of the day, near the main road at low elevation and with a southern exposure, I broke through snow into a muddy puddle and gave up on my skis.  Saturday it rained, Sunday was very windy, and Monday blustery.  By Tuesday, I was stir crazy... 
End of the ski trail -- it's swamped!

I took my trekking poles and decided to walk from the city to Lesnaya, the area (and beyond) where we have been skiing all winter.  I found a back street for some distance of the way; it was quite ugly in the near field with discarded debris as well as everyday litter melted out of the snow.  If I looked up, there were the snow-capped volcanoes -- Petropavlovsk is basically an ugly city in gorgeous surroundings. The second half of this 40-minute trek was along larger roads, noisy and dirty -- maybe if I knew the city's geography better, there was a more pleasant way to go, but at least I didn't get lost.

Once at Lesnaya, I wasn't sure what to do -- try to follow a melted-out ski trail (I was wearing hiking boots)?  Take the gravel road that led to some dachas?  For starters, I headed across the ski-area's open field, which was mostly low dead grass, and I only encountered a little mud.  But the ski trails from there up the hill looked too snowy, so I took a low trail over to the biathlon stadium, where I knew there was a maze of asphalt trails (which we had skied in snow in the winter), designed for summer sports such as biking and roller skating.  When I arrived at a fork where the ski trail went right and the asphalt left, up a steep hill, I saw there was a birch-forested slope I could go up instead!

All winter we had skied through birch forests as if we were a breeze.  I forgot that the snow covered various shrubs -- ryabina (mountain ash) on south-facing slopes, kedrach (shrub pine) on cooler spots, wild rose in drier spots and willow in wetter spots -- the willow thickets are usually separate from the birch.  And the floor on which these woody plants grows was a tangled mat of last year's tall grasses and flowers. So I found myself bushwacking --not as bad as many previous Kamchatka experiences, but what a shock after flying through the forest on skis.

After I thrashed up the hill, I punted and went out onto the asphalted trail, which was very serpentine, up and down, good exercise, surrounded by birch forest with some great views -- the city, its bay, and Viluchinsky volcano -- and in the other direction Koryaksky and Avachinsky volcanoes.  But this trail never gets too far away from the stadium area, and thusI could hear the incessant hum and roar of the main-road traffic.  I had a healthy walk and took the bus home.

Wednesday also dawned clear, cool and breezy.  It seemed a shame to take a bus to go for a walk, but I wanted to get out of the city, away from the dirt and noise, so take a bus I did.  At the Lesnaya stop, I had more decisions--repeat the prior day's trek?  Walk up the gravel road?  I decided I wanted the quickest route to escape the traffic noise, so I headed up the gravel road... but a few cars passed, and it was dusty, so... I veered onto the "zdorovye" (health) (ski) trail.  

What was I thinking...  I had worn teva-type hiking sandals (with socks) because my boots were pinching.  The first few hundred meters were mostly dry "road", but then of course there was lots of mud and melting snow and...  giant puddles and broad willow marshes.  I quickly gave up keeping my feet dry (the sandals are designed to get wet) and kept going, trying to stay in grassy marsh rather than muddy muck.  Some places were ok; sometimes I could veer onto a low ridge with birch and its underlying brush.  What was I thinking...   but I had navigated enough marsh and muck not to want to turn back, and I kept thinking it might get better; I sat on a stump and had a snack and thought about ... bears.  Before Tanya left last week, we talked about my taking a "bear flare" -- we use signal flares to scare bears away.  But I didn't.

I came to the spot on the trail where the gas pipeline crossed, and I thought I could take the primitive pipeline road till it crossed the gravel road I knew would take me back.  But the pipeline road devolved quickly into another quagmire.  So -- I figured my best bet at this point was to take the (ski) trail to Severo Vostok, a suburb of Petropavlovsk.  This trail also was a mess, partly because some stupid (drivers of) motorized vehicles had really mucked it up.  But I was not far from Severo Vostok, and from there I could walk on streets and find a bus.  I was mucking along when to my left I saw someone on a trail!  I veered over, and there was a footpath in birch forest, on which I soon saw bunches of people -- some headed out to collect wild garlic (cherem sha), some picnicking, some walking dogs...  it took me easily to a bus stop.

1) This was the vez dihod that was supposed to take us to our base camp in 2005.
It turned out not to be amphibious, and we got swept into the Mutnaya River.
Called a helicopter...  photos by Bre MacInnes.  In the left picture, I am wearing
rezinovye sapogi (hip boots)
1) Skis, snowshoes, reindeer sleds and dogsleds don't work when the ground is not frozen and snow-covered.  The best overland (motorized) vehicle in this case is a wonderful Russian machine called a "vez dihod" ("goes anywhere") -- they are even amphibious except when they are not...
2) Wear rubber boots -- they are your "go anywhere" ticket.
2) [and I knew this...]  If you go hiking on Kamchatka in the summer season (with possible exception of on volcanoes), your best footwear is "rezinovye sapogi" (rubber boots), of the hip-height variety.
3) Don't travel overland -- go by air or find a water route!
3) Put your vehicle on a ferry; find a river to float down; if you can afford it, take a helicopter.