This months adventure with purpose got us very jealous here at HQ. An epic kayaking expedition through one of the last truly wild and unexplored places on earth the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.
Unashamedly tagged explore to conserve, mention of The Kamchatka Project immediately made our ears prick up, as those of you now familiar with our mission may well imagine. This expedition makes Eds upcoming kayak adventure down the Loire from St Etienne to Tours look like a Sunday row in comparison (sorry Ed, but you know its true).
The Kamchatka Peninsula is the 1250 km appendage to Russias Far East (view map). With a human population which only just outnumbers the brown bears, 30 active volcanoes( including the highest in the northern hemisphere – Klyuchevskaya Sopka at 4750m), only one highway and no major industry, claims that this remains a largely untouched and unexplored wilderness are not to be scorned. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this rugged land, criss-crossed by free flowing rivers, is the fact that between a quarter and sixth of the worlds salmon spawn here. Indeed, aside from the epic whitewater, it is the plight of these scaly friends of ours that lured this team of experienced kayak expeditioners.
During the Soviet era the peninsula was largely off limits, forcibly depopulated and used as a Cold War military outpost. Since the fall of the USSR in 1990, private businesses, extractive industries and the mafia have begun to court the region, bringing growing development pressure. According to their website Kamchatkas rivers and salmon populations now threatened by an alarming increase in poaching for caviar, industrial land use designations, and the lack of effective exploration and research
That is where the Kamchatka Project comes in. Hungry to know more, we caught up with Robert Bart, one of the team, when they finally emerged from the wilderness at the end of the July.
First off, Explore to conserve? Many people may well be wondering what does whitewater kayaking have to do with conservation? You have a podcast exploring the question, but can you sum up the answer to that in a sentence?
Maybe! People conserve what they know about, and kayaking gives people a reason to stop and take notice.
We set out to go deep into the peninsula exploring and documenting unpaddled white water by kayak, collecting important data on salmon populations, working closely with biologists, conservation groups and local Russians. The hope was to contribute in establishing the critical data, curriculum and exposure needed to protect these river drainages and the salmon that depend on them.
Did you get the data required/hoped for?
Yes the data collection was a huge success, with one of the sets of readings, of PH level changing as we moved downstream, seeming to be enough to lead to a small scientific paper.
You set out wanting to get into conversations with locals to discover their perspectives of the river. What sort of responses did you get?
Yep, that was a secondary goal of ours and it can be dangerous to extrapolate a larger meaning from a few conversations. However, the 1 poacher we did speak with told us that 10 years ago the river was black with fish. In the next breath he told us he didn’t think the salmon would ever stop running in the river. That is probably not the case. Other people working in conservation told us that poaching was a huge issue and that lack of education and understanding of the scope of the problem by the poachers was a huge barrier to any sort of reforms or efforts to get poachers to stop. The one thing everyone that we spoke with seemed to agree on was that if you put up check points at the airport and the port, you could all but stop the flow of caviar out of Kamchatka, thereby decreasing the incentive for people to poach.
How did that leave you guys feeling about the future for the region?
Up in the air. Kam. is truly one of the last wild places on earth. Right now, the only invasive species we heard of was moose, which had been introduced for hunting. The vast stretches of land that are inaccessible make development difficult, but that does not mean there are not threats to the area. Mining, oil/gas exploration and increase pressure from poachers are all going to have a huge impact if more people are not aware of how unique Kamchatka. is.
What was most memorable bit of kayaking?
Aside from the incredible whitewater we ran, the wildness and remoteness of the place is like nothing any of us had ever experienced. Most of the time when we were putting a foot print into the sand, I felt like I was the first person to have ever put a foot print there. The other incredible thing about it was that when we were walking through a stand of trees of stretch of grass, you knew that the stand of trees had been there, since the last ice age or natural fire. There was no trace of humanity on the landscape at all.
What can we do at home to make a difference to the plight of Kamchatka?
We are currently going back through our conservation contacts at Wild Salmon Center and other organizations to have a better answer for this question. For right now, the biggest thing people can do is tell others about our trip and encourage them to learn more about Kamchatka.
Hats off guys, we remain suitably inspired and a little jealous of an amazing kayak expedition. We are sure this isnt the last we will hear about Kamchatka. Looking forward to reading more about it all in National Geographic.
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We hope this has provided you with some inspiration… There’s more of that on our canoe and kayak holidays page!