WIDE OPEN SPACES SOVIET SOJOURNS Kamchatka is a wilderness, vast and unspoiled, where brown bear and eagles roam It was the last place in the Soviet Union Americans weren't permitted to go. A two-year battle resulted in a visa


The map shows Bear Island to our right. Spawning salmon shadow the shallows. "Sergei, isn't it about time we saw one of these brown bears?" My companion sits facing downstream in the stern of our inflatable rubber boat. In reply, he puts a finger to his lips, pointing with his other hand to the bank.

I turn slowly. About 150 feet away, the dark form of a Kamchatka brownie, the largest bear on the Eurasian continent, bends over the water. In slow motion, I pull my camera from beneath my jacket and snap the shutter. As the bear rears up on his hind legs and disappears into the woods, I notice the film window shows number 37. While I reload the film, Sergei steers us noiselessly toward the bank. The only sound is the crunch of branches just inside the row of birches lining the water. We're 10 feet from shore when the adult grizzly plunges out of the forest again and into my viewfinder. This time, there is no question as to whether he's seen us; with an earth-shaking whoompf! he beats a fast retreat.

The river is low in late September. We float unhurriedly, watching for rocks, watching the woods and the sky. Boris and Mark and Bill are upstream and out of earshot. We see lots of ducks, Pacific eagles and, once, a rare white falcon.

Sergei Alekseev is one of those naturalists who can see a dot move in the trees a mile away and tell you its Latin name. He's a game biologist by trade, a transplanted Muscovite who manages what he proudlycalls"the most beautiful zapovednik in the Soviet Union -- and probably in the world." "Zapovednik" is a nature reserve, a very restricted designation that prohibits virtually any exploitation, including recreational.

The Kamchatka Peninsula is the U.S.S.R.'s farthest outpost, extending from the northern tip of the Kurile Islands nearly to Nome. We're floating down the Zhupanova River in eastern Kamchatka, south of Kronotsky Zapovednik. Already several days into the trip, I'm still pinching myself to make sure we're really here. Not only the zapovednik is closed to the curious; Kamchatka itself has been off limits to visitors, including Soviet citizens, for decades. But the authorities finally started granting Westerners visas to Kamchatka and, after two years of tangling with red tape, I'm here with four companions: Bill Dawson, fisherman and photographer; Mark Dudley, explorer and Russian interpreter; and our Soviet hosts, Sergei Alekseev, superintendent of Kronotsky Zapovednik, and Boris, who spends the better part of the year trapping and hunting.

The pure challenge partly fueled my two-year bureaucratic battle for a visa to Kamchatka, the last place in the Soviet Union an American couldn't get permission to go. But, besides the challenge of the impossible, I had it on good authority that there ++ was some wilderness out here worth seeing. So far, we haven't been disappointed.

Few places in the world can be called untouched. Wilderness everywhere is under siege, and even the well-meaning usually leave some trace of their passing. Thanks to its remoteness and a totalitarian government intent on protecting its military secrets, Kamchatka has escaped the onslaught of the curious. Here, you can go for days without seeing people or signs of them.

Which is not to say the woods are deserted. You feel like an invader just stepping into the forest. Well-trod trails follow the river, coming right down to the water, and in the mud, big tracks . . . and I mean big tracks.

I'm snapped out of my reverie by Sergei's pulling madly at the oars. The rubber raft is nosing down a chute at an angle far too vertical for comfort. Then we're sitting horizontal again in a boatful of water.

Luckily, the cabin where we're spending the night is only a half-hour farther. The cabins along the Zhupanova sit at intervals of 10 miles or so, each section of land assigned to a trapper who sells his sables to the state.

We hang our wet clothes up to dry by the wood stove. Boris eyes our state-of-the-art Gore-Tex and polypropylene blends condescendingly, saying, "That stuff won't keep you dry, but it sure will scare the animals."

He slaps the leg of his leather pants. "See, these don't rustle at all in the bushes. Keep me warm when it's minus 40."

Boris has never met foreigners before and is trying his best to show us a good time. Several times a day he asks if we'd like to shoot a bear, finding it hard to believe that the only trophies we want to take home are pictures. Like everyone we've met, he's warm and generous, with that realness of character you find in people who live close to nature and are at home in the wild.

The best part about cabin-living on Kamchatka, without question, is banya. The banya isn't just a sauna in the woods, it's a ritual the Russians have raised to an art form. Boris arrived before us at the cabin and had already been stoking the banya for several hours. Steam rises from the stove and a caldron of water for washing is already near boiling.

Venniki -- cut and bound boughs -- soak in hot water to soften them. After everyone's warm to the bones and glistening with sweat, Sergei takes the venniki and performs magic, slapping us each in turn with the fragrant boughs so that the pores open and all bodily aches and pains are drawn out and finally we're overpowered by the heat and -- for the icy stream beside the boathouse. The night is pitch black, punctuated with stars. Cooling off, I lay outside stark naked in the deep drizzle, feeling like a free woods creature and contemplating the cosmos.

Next day on the river is slower -- no rapids. Bill has a serious case of "mikizha [rainbow trout] fever." When he first pulls out his fly rod, our hosts take one look and say, "Mikizha won't bite on that."

The Soviets are a proud people, and you couldn't help but feel sorry for Boris and Sergei when, not five minutes after Bill's fly is in the water, a shiny, 5-pound rainbow snaps it up. He photographs the fish, lets it go, and has another one on the line faster than Boris and Sergei can wipe the disbelief off their faces. Boris argues with Bill not to let the fish go. To him, sport fishing is as foreign as looking at bears and not shooting them.

The whine of the motorboat shatters the stillness. It's Vadim, the keeper of Cedars hunting camp, coming to tell us the banya is ready. The mention of "banya" is enough to lure all of us, even our mad fisherman, to the lodge just down river where Vadim's wife Nina serves up a five-star meal. Crowding her table, which sits on a big bearskin in their cozy cabin, are six kinds of salmon: light-smoked, strong-smoked, salmon soup, fried salmon, red caviar and salmon cutlets.

We've been eating salmon three times a day, but Nina's salmon cutlets transform me, a confirmed eat-dessert-first person, into a greedy glutton. The crab and home-grown potatoes and homemade jam are afterthoughts.

Helicopters are the pickup trucks of the Kamchatka Peninsula. There is only one major road that runs north to south on the peninsula, which is isolated from the "mainland." A crew of three mans these Aeroflot big birds, braving the weather to deliver hunters and supplies to their cabins, hauling furs, fish and occasional seekers of adventure like us. Three days earlier, the helicopter had dropped us on the Zhupanova River, and now the same crew out of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky returns to pick us up.

As we fly north, the volcano cones rise to meet us. Kamchatka is full of volcanoes, known as "sopkas." Back in the '70s, Talbachik caused a lot of commotion when it breathed fire and poured lava over many miles. Now we get a close-up look at Zhupanovksaya Sopka, which lurked in the distance while we were rafting..

This is one elegant, well-built mountain. In all its years, it's been climbed by maybe a dozen people. Korimskaya, next in the chain, is the most active volcano on the peninsula, regularly spewing smoke. The pilot flies low over Korimskaya's crater, a 1/4 -mile-across, toothpaste-blue pool. Kronotskaya Sopka beck

ons on the horizon, too far away.

Our chopper tucks into the knoll overlooking the valley, next to a rustic, weathered cabin. We clamber out and run down the steps to the lower valley in time to see the first pre-eruption simmering of the Malyi Geyser. The stream of superheated water gains momentum, jetting higher with each thrust until it wraps itself in a cloud of steam. The Alice in Wonderful sensation intensifies as I watch, now dwarfed and awestruck.

At most places on the planet, one is only peripherally aware of perpetual motion. In this place, the earth's inner forces churn and bubble with an insistence that demands nothing less than awareness -- and awe. This is the Valley of Geysers, the centerpiece of the Kronotsky Zapovednik. In 1941, a couple of geologists discovered it when the geyser at the valley's edge FTC erupted underneath where they were skiing. It's one of only four such geothermally active spots in the world. It's Yellowstone before the days of interstates and tourists.

Twenty-two separate geysers are scattered over the 6-kilometer-long valley. The largest, Velikan, shoots steam 120 meters into the air when it erupts every five hours, give or take a few. These periodic outbursts from the guts of the earth are accompanied by the constant bubbling of dozens of "pulsating geysers" that spray from rock clefts, and the sounds of gigantic mud kettles that were geysers in former life.

Access to the Valley of Geysers is by helicopter or four days' hike. Thatpartly explains how its custodians have managed to keep the lid on this secret treasure all these years.

We're all pleased when rain descends on the valley and forces us to spend the night. Even when the helicopter makes it in the following day, no one wants to leave. At heart, we all envy Vitaly Naimenko, the keeper of the volcanologists' hut, who has spent the last 30 years there living among the bears and amassing an impressive documentary collection of bear photos.

Our last stop is the peninsula's Pacific coast. There is almost no tide there, and no flotsam on the barren sandy beaches. We trade our helicopter for motorboats and head for the sea lion rookeries. On the way, Bill photographs two killer whales.

Our last night in a cabin on Kamchatka is tinged with mixed emotions. Often I've traveled far away only to discover that I'm happy living where I thought I was bored. But once in a great while, travels take me someplace I never want to go home from. As I munch on fried, fresh-netted herring, dangling it daintily by the tail and dropping it into my mouth, I find myself agonizing over the question we've been asking each other all week: "Why would anyone in his right mind ever leave here?"

If you go . . .

Kronotsky Zapovednik will allow a limited number of Western visitors into the Valley of Geysers in 1991. REI Adventures has been selected by the management of the preserve to be the booking agent for these trips. For more information, call REI Adventures at (800) 622-2236 or write P.O. Box 88126, Seattle, Wash. 98138.

A number of adventure travel companies offer trips to other destinations in the Soviet Union.

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