The Wild, Wild East

The eerie beauty of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula gives travelers a dozen ways to contemplate nature untrammeled. For C. J. Chivers, it's salmon fishing in the resplendent Kol River.

The eerie beauty of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula gives travelers a dozen ways to contemplate nature untrammeled. For C. J. Chivers, it's salmon fishing in the resplendent Kol River.

The early morning light illuminated hearty splashes along the banks of the Kol River, a sign that the approaching cold had not deterred the fish. It was late September. Winter was beginning its advance toward Kamchatka, the pri­mordial peninsula in Russia's far east. But even now, weeks ahead of the freeze, as frost sparkled in the meadow, salmon and char were slipping in from the sea. One of them splashed again on the opposite side. I stepped into the vodka-clear water wearing neoprene waders and a wool cap and felt the chill wrap around my calves. The rod swept overhead. A spinner sailed out and plopped into the water upstream of the big swirl. Almost instantly a coho salmon rose, surged forward, and slashed at it, hooking itself before turning downstream.

This would be a workday. The scientists at the Kol River Bio­log­ical Station, where we had come for a visit, were still asleep in the cabins. Soon they would be preparing for an upstream run in flat-bottomed skiffs to collect data from one of the most vital rivers in the world. But not yet.

The fish raced with the current, making the reel whir. I followed until, after several minutes of splashes and struggle, I led the fish to the shallows and reached into the water to roll a male sal­mon onto its side, pinning it gently against the bottom. Its muscular flank flexed and twisted as I removed the hook from its curved jaw. I righted it and looked closely. It appeared to weigh about six pounds. Then it darted back, zigzagging over the gravel toward the channel, where it was lost in a procession. Out there in the intensifying light, fish pulsed by, sometimes one by one, sometimes in small groups, all platinum-sided and strong, fresh from the salt. This was a Russia as rich as Moscow: wild, clean, quiet, and far from the usual sights. Busy in ancient ways.

Kamchatka, a peninsula of volcanoes, forest, and tundra in the North Pacific, was almost totally closed during the Soviet regime. Part of a prohibited military zone and unreachable by road or rail, it became an accidental sanctuary, a California-size reserve of northern habitat and wildlife that remains lightly traveled to this day. A team of American scientists now regularly comes to its west­ern coast, along the Sea of Okhotsk, to visit Russian colleagues who spend the season in research stations studying some of the most pristine rivers left on earth—among them the last great repositories of Pacific salmon. Conservationists and scientists from Oregon's Wild Salmon Center, Moscow State University, and the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station have been trying to find out what makes these rivers so productive. On the Kol, nearly 80 miles long, there has been no logging and there are no dams. The year-round popula­tion is two—a pair of brothers who run a fish camp downstream from the station.

I recently tagged along, hoping for a counterpoint to the industrialized Russia I usually work in. The contrast felt immediate and strong. In Moscow an expanding consumer class lives in a blur of spending. But as the Kremlin has asserted itself over the nation's energy resources, the country has reestablished czarist-era gaps. Public infrastructure lies in disrepair while mansions rise. Bulletproof sedans weave through tiny Zhigulis on pitted roads. The population's heavy drinking and smoking go on unabated, as if good times might end with the flip of a switch. A grim list accompanies the new excesses: campaigns in Chechnya with macabre violence by both sides, rigged elections, the suppression of independent news media. Public corruption is widespread; journalists have been murdered and critics poisoned.

For a correspondent whose job requires looking into many of these darker elements, Kamchatka presents a shift, a chance to be en­­veloped by wilderness and by Russians working methodically to understand and save it. It is also a reminder that Russia, no matter the Western lenses through which we view it, is more than just its government, its politicians, or its public mood and persona. The country is also a space so vast and varied, spanning so many time zones, climates, and habitats, that it holds uncountable worlds within. Here on Kamchatka is a view of what exists inside the largest nation on the planet, a land with places unfished and untrodden.

The biostation is composed of a group of cabins and tents built on low stilts to avoid the river's inevitable floods. A raised walkway connects the buildings to each other, and all paths lead to a small tent where the scientists take meals. The first night, over fried salmon and scoops of bright red salted salmon eggs, a researcher named Jack Stanford explained why scientists have invested so much time studying the region. Throughout the world wild salmon stocks are threatened by pollution, habitat degradation, dams, genetic depletion, and overfishing. But Russia offers a last redoubt. "We still have truly untouched rivers and a chance to study their fish populations in a wild state," Stanford said. Kamchatka's regional government is working to set aside several of these rivers for protection, creating a novel conservation model: salmon sanctuaries, from headwaters to sea.

After a couple of hours of fishing early the next morning, I slipped into the warm cocoon of the cabin, peeled off my waders, and met our group for breakfast. Then we roared upstream in skiffs, following the Kol's weaving course through massive clumps of peat. Cold spray stung our faces. Kirill Kuzishchin, a scientist from Moscow State, handled the helm as Stanford leaned into the wind, dodging low-hanging branches. He wanted to check on soil samples a student of his had been collecting along the flood plain, part of an effort to understand what makes the river—so cold and northern that one might expect it to be barren—so laden with life. A sea eagle soared overhead. Kuzishchin had brought along a dog to warn us of any brown bears nearby. It padded around on the deck and tasted the air, sometimes letting out an excited growl.

For two days we toured the river, looking at samples. At last Stanford seemed to have mischief on his mind as much as science. He conferred with Kuzishchin and called a break, miles upstream, at a spot where the channel had carved a small network of islands in the tundra. We tied off the boats and waded in, throwing lures and flies. Within minutes we started landing one fish after another: maroon-purple cohos that were busy spawning, brilliantly metallic rainbow trout that likely stayed among them only to feed on their eggs, and the odd Dolly Varden char. Fish leaped around us at times, so numerous and wild that they paid us little mind. We were in a deep slot in the soil. After the seventh or eighth fish, I climbed up a peat bank and out of the narrow gorge onto the tundra to take in Kamchatka's golden autumn vista. Below, salmon finned lazily in the current, clearly visible. Kuzishchin busily went from fisherman to fisherman, measuring and tagging each rainbow trout for the group's research and taking scales and fin clips for the DNA database that Moscow State has spent years assembling.

That night, after another meal of salmon, Stanford held class in the mess tent, talking about the current efforts to save the Kol. To understand it, he said, you have to imagine a river so full of fish that at times it is impossible not to find them. There have been days when the scientists split up and combed the river—each chan­nel, each hole, each lagoon, each sandbar—looking for a place with­out salmon. They have never found such a place.

Stanford showed a movie, made with a sub­merged video camera, of fish nudging past. The station has hooked that camera up at the height of runs, he said, and salmon pass by in every frame. I'd just seen some of the finest fishing of my life. But it was late in the year and it was nothing, at least when compared to the midseason abundance on Kamchatka that is an unheralded form of Russian wealth.

On the ride back to Moscow several days later, the helicopter buzzed a plateau where two brown bears dashed underneath, fish-fed and fat, crashing through small trees. Their necks were keg-thick; one knocked aside branches with sweeps of his forelegs as if he were swatting cornstalks. Russia's trea­sures go beyond its considerable oil wealth or its artwork, its literature or its music, its nearly undiluted sense of pride. They are also found far away, predating all the rest, made possible by fish that exist here like nowhere else.

Explorers Corner, an outfitter based in Berkeley, California, offers 15-day trips each summer to Kamchatka's Zhupanova River, which flows from the volcanic highlands to the Bering Sea and is home to 30-inch rainbow trout ($4,990; 510-559-8099; explorerscorner.com).