Thursday, December 9, 2010

Down the Kronotskaya river...

The distance between my current ranger station and the Pacific Ocean coast is only about 3 miles (5 km). The ocean is so close that I constantly hear the roar and taste its salty smell, and I can even see the white spoondrift on the tops of big waves during the strong storms. But we are separated by maritime marshy tundra and the estuary of the two largest rivers in the Kronotski reserve: Kronotskaya and Bogachevskaya. Therefore, the only access there is by water.

When I first arrived at my service here in September 2010, large salmon runs were passing through the estuary on their way from the ocean for spawning, and I was patrolling the situation there, at the estuary and the three-mile coastline of the reserve, almost daily. Now, in the beginning of December, I still go down to the ocean, but much less frequently. The fish have already gone upriver, and I do not want to disturb the thousands of ducks and hundreds of swans wintering in the estuary without a good reason.

I always depart before dawn when the eastern sky above the ocean is barely turning green. The inflatable rubber boat I use is equipped with a tiny five-horsepower motor, but I always row down the river in order to be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb animals or possible poachers. In September and October the bears are fishing right in the river, and I peer into the darkness of early twilight to have time to avoid collisions. On the way downstream I encounter up to ten animals, on the way back (upstream) I use the motor against the strong current, so I see fewer bears. Snags, brought by the rapid river, are also dangerous, but I know all their locations by heart.

Seagulls are flying just above the river to the ocean under the sky that is still full of morning stars. Every now and then my boat comes up to flocks of ducks on the water, and they fly away into the river fog. Powerful crease marks often appear on the water surface near the boat – this is the indication of the large chum and soho salmon species going upstream in their runs. Pink (hunchback) salmon, smaller in size, have already finished spawning, and now thousands of the white bodies are visible in the riverbed. Therefore the morning mist is full of rotten fish smell, but the human nose gets used to any smell, and with time you don’t even notice it.

The sound of twigs snapping under bear feet is coming from the alder and willow brushwood along the riverbanks. Sometimes you can hear a powerful animal roar. Most of the times it is a young bear soliciting his mother for fish. You would never think that such a strong and deep bass is coming from the one-and-a-half-year-old cub that is no bigger than a medium-sized dog.

After the Lebyazhyi mouth the river broadens out to about 200 meters (656 feet) across. The ducks do not fly away anymore; they just swim to the far shore. It is brighter now, so the snow-covered volcano summits appear out of the darkness and their reflections are seen in the calm surface of the water. Here, there are no more trees on the banks of the river; even the Steller's sea eagles are forced to sit and wait for their prey on coastal mounds, overgrown with red bilberry.

After the final sharp turn the river comes very close to the ocean; only a sand dune 200 meters (656 feet) wide are separating the two. This area is already affected by the tidal waves. The sand bars that appear at low tides are occupied by hundreds of gulls, ducks and seals, well-fed during the salmon spawning season.

After rowing another two miles along the estuary you can see the entrance to the ocean with its huge waves breaking on the shore sand bars. After heavy rains the water in the estuary seems to be divided into two streams: one containing the crystal clear spring water from the Kronotskaya River and the second containing muddy water, the color of hot chocolate, from the Bogachevkaya River. These streams do not mix until the entrance to the ocean. Gray whales like to enter the estuary for some reason; I saw them there at every visit in September and October. The seashore is low here; the nearest cliffs are on Kronotsky Peninsula tens of miles away. The beaches are empty and flat with low dunes of black volcanic sand, from which the sea waves wash away any the traces of animals and birds.

Nowhere else on Earth have I experienced such a complete feeling of presence and, at the same time, feeling of almost non-existence as here, next to the whales and the bears. And every time, I am very grateful for the happiness of experiencing it myself and the ability to share this beauty with people...



.Swans and ducks at the sunrise.

.The seagulls are waiting for the leftovers from the bear's breakfast.

.Bolshoy Semyachik Volcano.

.Kronotsky Volcano from the estuary (Kronotskaya Sopka).

.The seals in the estuary.

.Such a stare!

.Serene morning on the Pasific Ocean shore.

Original post is by Igor Shpilenok (both text & images) in Russian here.