Tolbachik – a 3,085 meter volcano on Far East Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. I had been told that, on a clear day, the top of Tolbachik crater is the best [accessible without a helicopter] viewpoint in Kamchatka. The mountain is surrounded by several other glaciated volcanoes, most of which are very active. There was a promising-looking half day of clear sky in the forecast, which would be just enough to complete the 2,000 vertical meter hike at a fast pace. I set out for the 600 km journey to the base camp, giving myself two days due to my late start and the final 60km of unmaintained road which takes 4 hours in a high-clearance truck.
Hitchhiking was easy, and my first drivers gave me tomatoes and warned me about bears crossing the road. At a small rest area, two guys invited me to have some local meat pies with them and decided they would help out by asking drivers to take me. Soon enough, I was in a car with Misha, headed towards the town of Milkovo, 200km away. Misha explained that he owns a fly fishing camp where he works in the summer and likes to travel in Southeast Asia in the winter. His son is almost my age and is also a hitchhiker, so he appreciates what I’m doing. After some more conversation, he invited me to stay at his house for the night and come to the fishing base the next morning to see the salmon run. He explained that there are two groups of foreign tourists and some guides who I could speak English with, and it would be a lot of fun (Misha didn’t speak English, and after several hours of conversation I was reaching the limit of my Russian). I hesitated, knowing that a clear day on Tolbachik wasn’t likely to happen again soon, but went with my gut feeling that I shouldn’t turn down such a unique opportunity.
The next morning we got in a jacked-up SUV and drove 150 km away from the town without seeing a single hint of civilization apart from the road. 6 km more through a swampy valley with no road and we reached the river. Here a boat was parked, and we packed up all of the gear from the car and rode off another hour downstream to the fishing base. Misha has a long-term contract with the local government to preserve the land for 30 km surrounding the base in order to guarantee the conservation of nature in the area and the abundance of fish. He showed me a small, hand-made cabin where I could sleep and started a fire in the sauna.
For the rest of the evening, we ate, drank, went back and forth between the sauna and cold river, and got to know the guides from Belarus and the fishermen from Italy and France. Seroga, a guide, took me out on his boat with two old Italian guys the next day. Salmon swam by in the hundreds – in the shallow inlets there was almost a constant stream of fish, searching for a place to lay their eggs and become bear food. Bear tracks lined the banks; this was a five star restaurant for them. I watched in awe as the two men stood in the water, doing the exact same casting and reeling motion for hours on end. I may not understand what excites people about fishing, but I was greatly impressed by their ability to not get bored. They caught dozens of sockeye and dog salmon, char, and trout. Most of them were released, but we kept three for lunch.
At lunch time, Seroga and I made a fire, gutted the fish, and wrapped them in tin foil to grill on the coals. Two of the fish were mothers-to-be, and we had well over a pound of fresh caviar from them. It was a feast. The salmon filets were incredible, and for the first time in my life I found that I had acquired the taste for caviar. The overindulgence of this feast required a few hours of lying around while the old guys continued to fish. Eventually, we headed back upstream to the camp, went in the sauna, ate more fish for dinner, and went to sleep.
Now I write this from the monster bus which picked us up from the river bank this morning, rattling along a gravel road frequented more often by bears than humans. As I head back to the city, I feel very happy with my decision to skip Tolbachik, as it’s people like Misha who give me faith in humanity, and experiences like this which open my mind.
I didn’t pay Misha any money for his food, space, and kindness. Rather, I’ll pay it forward, and give someone else a unique new experience in the way that Misha did for me. That way, his kindness will spread further into the world.
If fly fishing is your thing, I highly recommend planning your fishing vacation to Kamchatka on Misha’s website, www.kamles.ru