Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

Amazing Kamchatka!

An amazing Kamchatka Brown Bear seen on the shores of Kronotsky National Park 


During the summer of 2007, my main goal was to get the family up to the Arctic.  I was contacting vessels sailing the Canadian arctic but could not find any that would allow Cokie to participate in the expedition.  Even though I was willing to pay passage for over two months of expedition travel, no one would take Cokie.  And while I was surfing the net to see what other options I could find, I came across the website of North Pole Voyages ( and saw that they offered trips to the Russian Far East.  I started reading further and became impressed with the itinaries they offered for a four-week+ cruise of Kamchatka, the Commander Islands and the Kuril Islands.  And the prices were well within our budget!  And they allowed Cokie to board their vessels, no problem.  That's all it took  - we were there!  And this is how our two-month expedition across Russia, followed by a one month trip to Scandinavia and Svalbard, began  I have decided to break the trip travelogues in to multiple pages in order to present a more thorough picture of what we experience during this mulit-month expedition of a lifetime!  And each location really does stand alone.



The start of our five week expedition to the Russian Far East, we spent some time in the interior of this amazing peninsula.  About four hours out of Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky is a wonderful wilderness named (in English), “Duck Lakes”.  Here we spent a few days exploring the roadless wilderness looking for brown bear and other wildlife.  Sadly the day we arrived, so did some salmon poachers who poached and gutted salmon far upstream.  After they gutted the salmon they left their carcasses to rot, attracting every bear in the region away from where we were.  Consequently we got skunked there for bear.  But we did get some good sightings of European river otters (Lutra lutra) and lots of birds.  I was hoping to see some caribou, snow sheep and marmots but we never made it high enough in elevation for either species although we spent many hours scouring the mountainsides for herds with our Leica spotting scope looking for them.

After our interior portion of the expedition, we boarded our expedition ship, the Marina Tsvetayeva, for nearly four weeks.  Our Kamchatka portion of the voyage produced some amazing wildlife sightings (as well as unparalleled views of several cloudless and erupting volcanoes!).  The birding was fabulous as well.  Seeing my first Steller’s sea eagle was an experience I will never forget.  And the feeling stayed nearly the same even after seeing my 35th individual!!  We finally saw some three or so Kamachatka brown bear (Ursus arctos piscivorus) along the shores of Kronostky Zapovyednik.  Also along the shores and river inlets of the peninsula we saw Insular harbor seals (Phoca vitulina stejnegeri) and Spotted or Largha seals (Phoca largha) in good numbers.  Steller’s sea lions (Eumetopius jubatus) were also common and very curious as they swam out to greet our zodiacs on several occasions.  We caught a fleeting glimpse of a Collared lemming (Dicrostonyx torquatus) during a tundra hike.  While strolling a remote beach north of Kronostsky, we did come across a Pacific walrus skeleton which surprised me as their populations are supposed to be much further north.


To see our complete Russian Species List, click here!


Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Kamchatka Landscapes Gallery


Here are some images of our expedition to Kamchatka!




While we were watching this amazing Kamchatka Brown Bear from a distance, my friend Guenther Weirand was snapping this and the upper image of the curious bear.  I was more than a little miffed when the zodiac we were on dily-dalied too long for me to get the images myself.  Oh well, at least we had some glimpses of the critter.  We saw over seven brown bears of two subspecies on this expedition.



One of the more spectacular encounters on the expedition was when we would have curiours Steller's Sea Lions approach our zodiacs for closer looks at the human invaders.  They would literally come right up next to our boats and take close looks at us!  There was always one who was clearly in charge, usually the dominant bull.  When he dove, so did all the rest.



We arrived in Kamchatka about a week before our cruises started, so we decided to explore the interior wilderness of this phenomenal wild peninsula.  We didn't have the budget for remote travel, but we were able to line up a stay at a hunting reserve a few hours inland from Petropavlovsk.  This involved a van ride to the end of the road followed by a spectacular zodiac ride to "Utinie" Lakes (Duck Lakes) at the base of the Vochkazhets Mountains and Topolovi Ridge.

Our main goal while there, aside from experiencing raw Kamchatka wilderness (which we did in excess!!), was to see numerous bears in the bush.  Sadly, while we were in the region, there was a major salmon poaching ring at work gutting roe from the gravid spawning salmon and dumping the carcasses in big heaps.  This attracted all of the bears from the region to their camp and away from us!  At least they caught the pricks.  We were there experiencing this event as David Quammen was putting together his article on the poaching issues in Kamchatka!  He even stayed at the same bed and breakfast we stayed at in Petropavlovsk (Martha Madsen's place.  She runs a fabulous bed and breakfast as well as an outstanding inbound tour operation:


We were fortunate to travel to Kamchatka during some extremely clear weather conditions (this is rare).  We had excellent views of at least 15 of the 48 shield volcanoes on the peninsula!  This one was seen from our boat, the Marina Tvetayeva, looking in to the wilderness of Kronotsky National Park.  I believe this mountain is Mount Kluchevskoy, one of the more perfect shield volcanoes on the Peninsula.



We spent our time in Kamchatka during the absolute peak of the flower bloom!  We came across fields of these Yatabe’s Lady Slipper (Cyprepedium guttatum yatabeanum) orchids.  We trekked for miles in to the high tundra and taiga communities near the Duck Lakes region.



A photo of me and 4-year-old Cokie cruising the Zhupanova River searching for Kamchatka Brown Bears and Steller's Sea Eagles.  This was an amazing afternoon which involved getting stuck in sand bars, great sights of many eagles and some bear sign.  We even had a good look at my first Spotted or Largha Seal (Phoca largha).  This was an amazing wilderness. (Photo by Olga)


Two to four times everyday we would make our way down these precarious stairs in to the waiting Zodiacs.  We were usually the first to get on as the latter boats rarely got to see the bears.  This company was very inexperienced with how to deal with the zodiacs - they often sent "exploratory cruises" with only the crew onboard.  Consequently the crew were generally the only ones who got to see the wildlife! The boat we sailed on was the impressive and extremely comfortable Marina Tvetaeva.  We loved our four weeks on this glorious vessel.  The Russian crew was fabolous and the food was outstanding!



Hiking the willow-alder taiga/tundra of Avacha Bay along the Kamchatka coast.  We thoroughly enjoyed trekking the bear trails through this immense wilderness. What an amazing experience!




One of the many "unlucky" ships we came across during our cruise through Kamchatka.  This one was seen along the coast at Avacha Bay.



Cokie and Som making a whale-bone gate at Avacha Bay. We had several hours to explore this spectacular site.



Som during our first life-jacket drill!  She even looks hot in an old Russian life-vest!




Our lovely guide, Elena, spent the better part of a week with us in the remote Duck Lakes region of central Kamchatka.  I was so impressed with the level of education of all of our guides, but Elena was particularly impressive.  With a PhD in English Literature, she was a professor at a local PKC university!  And she was a wonderfully nice lady too!



Coke in the great tundra, dwarf birch tundra community that stretches for miles in to the wilderness of the Kamchatka interior.



Our professional tracker/guide, Yuri.  Yuri was a well-seasoned outdoorsman with a lifetime experience of tracking wild animals in Russia.  He had control of some 80,000 hectares of Kamchatka wilderness which was traditionally used for hunting.  But his goal as of 2007 was to slowly convert it to eco-tourism.  We were his first clients for this endeavour!  Martha Masden arranged this program and it was worth ever penny!  We had a splendidly relaxing and exciting time with Yuri in the backcountry of Kamchatka!



Som scouring the slopes for Russian Mountain Sheep with our scope.  We did not spot any of these elusive bovids, but it wasn't for a lack of trying.  We spent hours covering the mountainsides in a grid pattern with the scope.  If they were there we would have seen them.  Next time!



Taking our small zodiac deeper in to the wilderness of Duck Lakes with Yuri.



The gang heading up the Zhupanova River looking for bears and eagles!  We were half lucky on this afternoon. (Photo by Olga!)



We came across this "rare" Sooty Shearwater fishing among the tens of thousands of Northern Fulmars seen in the waters along the Kamchatka Coast.  Evidently this one is much rarer here than in Alaska, where I have seen thousands.



We regularly came across large numbers of both species of Puffins.  This Tufted Puffin allowed us to approach close enough to snap this image!  What a great bird!



Our approach scared these Thick-billed Murres in to flight along the coast of Kronotsky National Park.  We saw literally thousands of these and many other species of birds in the many "bird bazaars" we visited.



The ubiquitous Northern Fulmar.  We came across tens of thousands of these tube-nose pelagic birds.  The summer of 2007 could be said to have many "theme" species.  Brown Bears, Puffins (all three species!), Caribou, and the Northern Fulmar.  We saw the dark morph in the Russian Pacific in large numbers, and the white morph in Svalbard and the waters off Norway.



I spent a bit over an hour one afternoon in Kronotsky National Park watching this irritated Peregrine Falcon dive-bomb me.  It took me awhile to find the chick it was protecting nestled in the rocks of the cliff.



There is no doubt that the number one avian species that I wanted to see along the Pacific coast of Russia was the Steller's Sea Eagle.  After seeing this enigmatic king of eagles on numerous nature shows over the years, I was thrilled to see my first one ever on our first day in the Zhupanova River.  This one was seen and photographed basically at the southern-most tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula as it was fishing the gorge there. Som spotted this bird from over a mile away!  The naturalists doubted her sighting, but after I convinced them to trust her, we all took the zodiacs over to catch these amazing images!



This spectacular Steller's Fish Eagle was seen resting along the coastline of the southern tip of Kamchatka!



One of the many smoking volcanoes seen during our amazing journey to Kamchatka!  This one will have to remain me at least.



 Take a look at the size of this rear-paw print of a massive Kamchatka Brown Bear that we had just missed by a couple minutes.  When Yuri, our guide who had sworn off hunting bear forever, saw this print, he looked throughout the bush to see if this massive beast was still in the area and said in English, "Nice trophy!"  I could see it in his eyes...


One of the many bear trails seen in the wilderness of the Duck Lakes area of interior Kamchatka.  We trekked these for miles but only with our well-armed guide, Yuri.  Actually I did steal some alone time in the bush for a few hours daily.  All the while I was doing this however, the sense that I was doing something slightly foolish never left me...


This Common Tern was seen relaxing on the banks of Duck Lake.


A fishing Common Tern working the waters of Duck Lake.


After our time in Kamchatka, we had seen well over 40 individuals of Steller's Sea Eagles!



A lovely wild pea collecting dew droplets on a foggy Kamchatka morning.


To see our complete Russian Species List, click here!


Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Kamchatka Landscapes Gallery