Friday 13th, a day out of a rockhound's life

A rockhound learns more than geology on a trip. A nice story that the friday the 13th superstition is not true. It was friday 13th june 2003. I was on Kamchatka for almost a month then. And although the rest of the northern hemisphere had summer, it was still very early spring here with bad weather and lots of snow, especially further north up the peninsula. I had tried to get a helicopterflight for several weeks now to get me to the volcanoes. Each day I received a call that the weather at our destination was too bad. But then on friday the 13th we got the green light from the meteorologists and off we went!

A Mi-8 from Krechet on the Petropavlovsk Airport, photo Gerard Helmer.

Flying in Russia is a thrilling experience. I flew with Krechet. A trustworthy company that uses the strong and safe Mi-8 helicopter to fly people all over Kamchatka. There are hardly ever problems with these choppers, considered the amount of flying hours and the rugged natural conditions they fly in. Nevertheless strapping yourself securely into one of these requires you to switch of all the 'what if...' questions that keep popping up in your mind! Inside it was nice and cosy. An interior reminding of a cramped 1950's airliner or more a vintage autobus. It was reassuring to smell that they did not have forgotton to fill up the tanks, since the fuel fumes inside the cabin made your eyes water. This was only temporarily since the fuel fumes soon made way for exhaust fumes. A tell tale sign that the engines were working too! But this was already obvious since the machines shook like a rodeo bull and made a noise as if two centrifuging washing machines were strapped to your ears. After a few checks the noise became even louder and then gracefully as a pregnant rhinoceros the chopper decided to leave earth. Once in the air the flight attendent opened the windows. The fuel and exhaust fumes deminished, and a fresh arctic cold filled the cabin as we flew slowly over one of the earth most deserted places.

The typical rugged Kamchatkan landscape. In front the mountains near Mt.Arik, behind the Central Range.

After some flying my nose picked up the familiar smell of sulfur. The pilot turned the chopper in some steep turns which gave me an excellent view of the Karymsky volcano. We were flying close over the fumarols, close enough to smell them.

The fumarols on Karymsky's west face.

We were circling the volcano for about five minutes and on one of the turns we flew a little further from the volcano, when there was suddenly a large steam plume over the volcano, just about where we flew minutes before.

The plume over Karymsky, unfortunately the clouds behind make the plume less visible.

We flew further of the craterlake of Maly Semiachik, along the snow filled Uzon caldera and past the fumaroles of  Bolshoi Semiachik. Everything still in the gray and white colors of the Siberian winter. Suddenly a patch of green was visible, a small steep valley that winter has forgotten and where it was summer! The Valley of the Geysirs. Heated by geothermal vents and geysirs it is a peculiar oasis in the icy landscape. We landed on a small wooden platform and left our rusty flying rhinoceros there to explore the valley. It is a nature reserve so no rockhounding. But pieces of geiserite are everywhere and you can pick them up easily.

Geyserite from the valley.

And I was not there for rockhounding, just for seeing the volcanoes and all the volcanological processes. Not long after our arrival it became clear that we were not alone in the valley. All rockhounds look at the ground often and instead of rocks I found these:

The prints of the Ursus Arctos horribilis. The Kamchatkan big sister of the grizzly.

Again not long after this discovery someone from the group shouted "Myedvyed! " (Russian for bear) The most beautifull animal I have ever seen was standing higher up in the valley looking down at us. The very dense red brown fur gently waved in the breeze. The bear was about 200 meters away and I began to calculate how many seconds it would take this bear to reach me. I had no clue, but it would be less than half a minute for sure and I would have needed at least five minutes to get back to the chopper. How fast can things change. Only two hours earlier I saw the chopper as a major risk to my life and now it suddenly seems to be the safest place on earth. Well we were not going any closer towards the bear and bears are actually not unfriendly as long as you keep your distance. We hiked further across the valley, spreading our attention between the stunning nature and the bear above us. And somehow I got used to walking between bears.

Little did I know, that I was litterally between bears, since there was an even bigger bear behind me! This one was even closer, somewhere around 25-50 meters away. Seeing a bear this close without the fences and no feeding signs of a zoo makes you realise pretty quickly that you are NOT on top of the foodchain anymore. I'm nothing more than a worm on a fishinghook. All kinds of natural reflexes like fleeing bubbled up from my brain. Fortunately the experienced bear expert Vitaly Nikolaenko was with us this day and he knew what to do and more importantly what not to do with this particular bear. I had only a small non zoom analogue camera with me so the picture below is actually with a slight WIDE angle lens!!

"My bear"

Thanks to Vitaly I could switch off my natural flee reflex and enjoy this bear for about 25 minutes, before it left us. It was absolutely one of my best experiences in nature ever to see such a great animal in it's own environment. I got into my faithfull chopper and flew back. We had a stop at Timonovsky hotsprings on the way back. It is nothing more than a small lodge with some warm mineral baths. Pretty boring, but the real hotspring is about 5km further into the wilderness. Again there were traces of bears, but we did not see any. The hotspring itself can be reached by an improvised bridge made of quality Russian birchwood......

After surviving the chopper, the volcanic eruption, the wild bears and the little bridge over white water on a friday the 13th I do not believe in this superstition.

The story did have a sad ending however. Two months later a Mi-8 chopper from Krechets sister company Khalatyrka (they share their choppers) crashed close to Gorely volcano, killing everyone on board. And on december 26th of that same year radio contact to Vitaly was lost and a search party found him the next day, killed by a male bear. Traces in the snow showed that the bear warned Vitaly twice before attacking. I will always be grateful for the experience Vitaly gave me. Spasibo bolshoye Vitaly.

Vitaly Nikolaenko