Sunday, May 19, 2013

Kamchatka: A Remembrance of 'Bows, Bears, Beers and Black Bread

Both the fabulous Oz (Ozernaya) and the Two Yurt Rivers are now fully booked for the summer of 2013. It not too early to plan for 2014! 
Here's a little story from one great day in Kamchatka. Believe me, there have been so many others!

We had gone as far as we could go by boat. We had turned off the main river into a tributary and gone well past yesterday's high point. Now, the water was gin clear with riffled runs, log-choked bends and shallow braids. Antoine, our young Russian guide, peered nervously ahead, hIs eyes dilated and wide with adrenaline. He was afraid of misreading a run and damaging his beautiful new 40 hp Yamaha. As experienced Alaskan river runners, we were in our element. We pushed the young Russian to go higher and higher upriver. We told him to relax and go where we pointed. The higher we went, the more often we signaled Antoine to pull over. As the skiff coasted to a stop, we would swing our legs over the gunnels to begin the process of hauling our "War Eagle" up and over a shallow bar or an obstructed channel. Once we had cleared the obstacle, Antoine would fire up his Yamaha and we would continue up the trib. After each stop Antoine would plead with us to turn back. 

“One more bend”, we would say or “Let’s see what’s around this corner, then we'll stop.”

We were having a ball and in no danger although I’m sure Antoine’s perspective was much different than ours!

The War Eagle
Now, we were finally at the point where we could go no further. At the base of a steep cutbank, logjams and sweepers were stacked across the entire river and continued for as far as we could see. Without a chainsaw or a big handsaw, we were done. We told Antoine to pull in. Relief washed across his face. At least for the moment, Antoine would survive his day with these wacky Americans. We pulled in, tied the boat off to a tree and grabbed our "mousing rods". I looked upstream past the cutbank and saw a beautiful little riffle plunging into a deep pool formed by the terminus of an old back channel. I had to get there! The lure of virgin water is strong and was, after all, why we had come this far!
I kicked steps in the layered mud of the cutbank and climbed around the massive root balls of trees that had fallen from the rim, their anchors finally eroded by a river on the march. On the far side of the cutbank, I shouted "hello" repeatedly into a forest that held the highest density of brown bears on planet earth. Finally, I made it to the dark, deep pool. I was bathed in sweat. A halo of mosquitoes were my only companions. The pool looked good. I threw a hairy mouse with a foam collar and orange legs slightly upstream, then skated it into the pool. As my mouse swung into the eddy line, a bright flash vaporized the rodent. A quick hookset began a strong fight. Soon, I had a 23 inch Kamchatka rainbow at my feet as I saw my partner Scott begin to negotiate the slippery mud and loose gravel of the cutbank. By the time he had joined me, I had caught another 20" 'bow and a couple 19" grayling, their mouths barely big enough to fit around the mouse. Scott and I walked upstream to the next bend, then decided to fish our way to the boat. After that, we could fish the miles of water we had, perhaps a bit too energetically, motored past.

When we again passed the deep pool, Scott paused to try his mouse, while I re-rigged with a pale white and slightly pink, wooly bugger. Almost immediately, I caught a stout 22" white Siberian or Kundzha char. This beautiful fish had nickel-sized white spots somewhat reminiscent of a lake trout. This fish was a real treasure and this year's first Kundzha for me. A few more casts brought in a big grayling and another big rainbow. Scott had flashes on his mouse, but no takers. I thought I had probably ruined the run for him previously. As he reeled up, I made the proverbial last cast. The line stopped and I struck snapping line off the water in a shower of spray. Initially, The line didn't move. Then it pulsed once, then again as a big fish wallowed to the surface.

Siberian or Kundzha char
"It's a 'bow... a big 'bow!" I whispered.

"Whoa!" Scott added, more accurately summing up its tremendous size.

I can't say the fish fought exceptionally hard. He didn't rip off a lot of line and he did not jump. I got the feeling that this was a very old guy. An ancient creature wise to the ways of fishing bears and aggressive salmon, but not prepared to have his seniority questioned quite this way. He sulked on the bottom impossible to turn, then repeatedly rolled to the surface creating a massive boil that flashed silver with a slice of magenta. Eventually it was over, the fight more time consuming than difficult. The measure of this fish was not in the quality of the battle, but in the rarity of his length and girth. He was a monument to survival and sheer time.

"We need a camera!" I mumbled, knowing mine was far away stored in a dry bag on the boat.

"I'll get it!" Scott offered with a smile, approaching the difficulty of the hike back as he had every other obstacle or inconvenience on this trip.

“I owe you one." I said and I meant it.

Big bows and lots of them!
Scott raced across the cutbank. In no time he was back with Antoine and my camera in tow. As in turned out, Antoine was happy to join us as a big brown bear had just poked his head out of the forest not 50 feet from where he was laying out lunch. By the time they got to me, the big 'bow was fining comfortably in the pool. 

Antoine squinted into the water then exclaimed, "That's the biggest 'bow I've seen on this river!... he's huge!"

We photographed him from every angle taking extra care to keep him in the water. Copepods coated his gill filaments perhaps explaining why this old fella didn't fight harder. We measured him at 30 inches and estimated his weight at 5.5 kilos... around 12 pounds. We placed him back in the pool and for a time lost him in the mud that we had stirred up. Eventually, he swam slowly out of the dingy cloud and back into the fast clear water. He was fine, although I was left with the feeling that this venerable fellow wouldn't see too many more Kamchatka summers. 

After a few deep breaths, we marched back to the boat to dine on thick slices of black bread, salmon caviar and tallboys of dark #9 Russian beers. As we munched away, Antoine told us he could smell the bear before he saw him.

salmon caviar and black bread...


and bears.

That is Kamchatka!
"He smelled a swamp." He said as he bit into a hunk of bread smeared with a glob of bright orange eggs. My thoughts were not on lunch or bears, but were back upriver with a boiling flash of magenta and silver.

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