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You’re living a supernatural movie. Sputtering, spouting fumaroles bubble from rocky hillsides. Mud puddles burp like underground giants. Heat and oppressive humidity press on your lungs with every step. A sudden roar jerks your head around. It’s an erupting geyser, hissing and roaring.
And it stinks. Rotten egg-smell exudes from every hillside’s pore.
Steep mountains surround this wildflower-filled valley, their crevices filled with snow even in summer. Miles from civilization, the sky shows incredibly blue.
On a hillside, silhouetted against the sky, a lone gunman stands, automatic rifle at the ready.
It’s Memorial Day. Where are we?
* * * * *
“Russia’s Valley of the Geysers is one of the three big geyser hotspots of the world. The other two are Yellowstone National Park in the US and Rotarua in New Zealand,” says Stefan the geology naturalist.
But unlike Yellowstone and Rotarua, Valley of the Geysers is accessible only by helicopter. “Few people in the world ever see these geysers.”
And you nearly weren’t one of the lucky few. For a rainy week, you waited in the city of Petropavlosk, a port city named after Saints Peter and Paul on Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. Every day, helicopter pilots stared at leaden skies, radioed the Valley and shook their heads. “Nyet. (No).”
But today, your last day in “Petro,” skies have cleared both here and in the Valley.
“Da! (Yes),” verify the pilots and 29 eager passengers clamber onboard.
The white helo swings up and away, heading northwest.
Petro sits in a valley ringed by chocolate-colored mountains laced with snow. They look like iced Sara Lee ™ cupcakes, identical to the mountains you glimpsed out your plane over Anchorage, Alaska, a seven-hour flight east.
In between the “cupcake” mountains, brown braided rivers meander through green valleys. Plumes of smoke rise from some peaks.
“This is Karimsky Volcano, one of 27 active volcanoes surrounding Petro,” says local guide Katya over the intercom. “We’re known for salmon and volcanoes.”
Kamchatka lies on the edge of the Ring of Fire, a poetic name for an area of volcanic activity that surrounds the northern Pacific Rim.
Karimsky Volcano is the most active volcano in Kamchatka, having recently erupted in the 1900s. “We are in constant danger,” Katya continues over the helo noise, “But we don’t have mice or snakes.”
The helo flies over Karimska Lake. “There used to be red salmon in the lake but ash from volcanic eruptions landed in the lake and killed them.”
An hour and twenty minutes after taking off, the ‘copter drops into a steamy depression among the mountains.
You land on a sturdy helo pad next to a wooden chalet. A tidy network of wooden paths and bridges leads to observation points along the Geyserna River where hundreds of mini-geysers are erupting at irregular intervals. Steam exudes everywhere, permeating the atmosphere with sulfur-y humidity.
Last winter’s snow reaches far into the valley, ending where low green bushes and shrubs begin. Yellow, white and purple wildflowers thrive in the humidity, defying the snow only a few yards above them.
“Although the area was discovered in 1941, it wasn’t declared a national park and developed for constructive tourism until 1981,” says Katya. She gestures to the river valley.
“At first we call it Valley of Death because animals wandered in and died from concentrations of carbon dioxide. But tourists wouldn’t come to Valley of Death so it was renamed Valley of Geysers.” She pronounces the last word as “gee-zers,” bringing a chuckle from your gray-haired companions.
The group arrives at Big Geyser, whose spout is reputed to rise 50 feet high. “You just missed it!” announce departing tourists.
“It won’t erupt again for 20 minutes, so we go on,” Katya informs the disappointed group.
You want to stay and wait, but Katya shakes her head. “Nyet. Stay with group—and walk only on wooden paths. We have bears.” She gestures to a silent young man dressed in camo and carrying a rifle, walking a few yards behind our group. “Sergei saw mother and three cubs earlier today.”
You fall in line.
Wooden walkways lead past steamy waterfalls to fancifully named points such as Gates of Hell, “because of sound,” yells Katya over the roar of the river. Wild orchids and iris bloom purple and pink near “Hell.”
She stops by a bathtub-sized red mud pot. “We call this Lavatory. You see why,” she says with a smile. Sure enough, after erupting, Lavatory “flushes” itself.
Bathing Pond’s blue color “because of the aluminum” invites a dip. “It’s 100 degrees Celsius, so I don’t recommend,” warns Katya. You do the quick math: 212 degrees F-- the boiling point of water.
Big Mud Pots, a series of muddy, bubbling brown ponds, lie near a long gray rock. “This is birch tree turned to stone 400 years ago,” explains Katya.
Back at the wooden chalet, a buffet awaits. You tuck into fried and smoked salmon, white rice, peas, fresh tomatoes, caviar, cheeses and sausages, all washed down with Russian beer. Just as you pop a chocolate candy for dessert, someone yells, “Bolshoi med-vyed!” and everyone abandons their lunch in a rush for the door.
Following the pointing fingers, you train your binoculars across the valley to four dark dots in the snow about 100 yards away—Kamchatka bear (med-vyed)! A sow the size of a mini-SUV and two cubs, each almost as large (bolshoi) as their mother, wrestle one another.
They’re too far for your point-and-shoot telephoto, so you watch them through borrowed binoculars until Katya announces the ‘copter is ready for re-boarding.
The ‘copter lifts up and away again, and the wooden buildings disappear quickly from view. You look out the window and spot a storm brewing far in the west. It will reach the Valley tomorrow. You recall Stefan’s words and smile.
Today you became of the lucky few.
Visit www.kamchatkatourism.com for helicoptering, bird watching, hiking, camping and other adventures!
c. “Follow Me!” Ruidoso (NM) News 2007