Brown Bears of Kamchatka 2013 Part 1

A brown bear keeps a watchful eye on me as if feeds on a freshly caught sockeye salmon.

A brown bear keeps a watchful eye on me as if feeds on a freshly caught sockeye salmon.

The background

A couple of years ago I met two italian photographers while visiting the Farne islands – Valter Bernardeschi and Antonio Benetti. Our paths crossed throughout the week and we also met again at Bempton cliffs on the final day of their trip while we were photographing the gannets. During our somewhat comical conversations – I speak no italian and Valter spoke only a small amount of english, I was able with the aid of a bird identification handbook and my road atlas to provide some locations for them to photograph wildlife for any future visits to the UK. I have remained in contact with Valter since our first meeting and I check his website on a regular basis. Last year he uploaded a new portfolio of work to his website and it was seeing these images that made me decide to visit Kamchatka for my trip this year to photograph the bears. One of his images has been commended in this years BBC Wildlife Photographer Of The Year (WPOTY).

The same year I met my italian friends in the Farne Islands I had an opportunity for a trip to Alaska with some american friends to stay at Brooks Lodge and see the bears fishing on the waterfall. Unfortunately the date for the Alaska trip was changed to much later in the year. Having done much research, in the end I decided not to go. The salmon run would be over and the likelihood of any images of salmon jumping the falls would be nil.

The planning

The Kamchatka peninsula. Not so long ago rarely visited by outsiders due to the communist regime and the military strategic importance of this area.

The Kamchatka peninsula. Not so long ago rarely visited by outsiders due to the communist regime and the military strategic importance of this area.

Kuril Lake located towards the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula.

Kuril Lake located towards the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula.

Around christmas time last year I started to look into a trip to Kamchatka and many hours were spent on the internet trying to find information. There were a few people advertising group tours, some were hiking and hill walking trips with a couple of days of bear watching in-between. These were of no interest to me as I specifically wanted a trip that was photography orientated. I made contact with Martha whom I had stumbled upon online while I was  searching for information. Martha organises trips to Kamchatka and I explained to her what I was looking for. Martha said if there were enough people interested she would try to get a small group together to visit the kambalnay river. This was described to me as a similar location to Brooks Falls or McNeil in Alaska with a waterfall where the bears congregate to catch the salmon as they move upriver to spawn. Apparently a new ranger station/lodge had been built there and very few people have been granted access to this location. I immediately expressed my interest in the possibility of participating in this trip, especially the chance to go where very few have been before. Over the next few weeks Martha managed to put a small group of like minded travellers/photographers together and worked out the costs per person to run the trip. The first hurdle we had to overcome was a change in the dates. The trip would now run a week later than we were originally intending. This now meant that I would miss one of the events I attend every year here in the UK, I viewed this as a pain, however it was something I was prepared to do. A couple of the other participants could not accommodate the change in dates so decided to withdraw from the trip. Three Italian photographers were now interested in the chance to visit this location and I got the impression they all knew each other and did not really want an unknown outsider. Having been the one to enquire about the trip in the first place I politely said I had no problem being part of a group with them and left it at that. I think they must have made other travel plans. Eventually myself, a swiss photographer and a german couple were the total for the group. This made the individual cost per person quite high, I really wanted a minimum of five participants based on Martha’s costings for the trip to make things more economical. With time passing I asked Martha if she had any images of the bears photographed at this location. The swiss photographer had mentioned he was interested in underwater photography and questioned whether it would be possible here. Martha sourced a couple of images and e-mailed them to me, she also suggested I check out the website of Sergey Gorshkov. With the images Martha had sent and the images on Sergey’s website I was now unsure if this was the location I really wanted to visit for my first bear trip. I suspected the swiss photographer would withdraw when he saw the images, as the river appeared to be fast flowing shallow whitewater which did not look like it would be suitable for underwater photography. I contacted Sergey Gorshkov to ask his opinion on the Kambalnay river location and the Kuril Lake location. He sent me his views on both locations and I spent the weekend mulling over the situation. After much deliberation, on the monday morning I sent an e-mail to Martha informing her of my decision not to participate in this trip, however I was still very much interested in visiting Kamchatka especially Kuril Lake. I think the other participants came to the same decision to withdraw. Having spent so much time I was reluctant to give up completely. Martha understood the situation and came back with a proposal of a trip to Kuril Lake. Once again the costs would be divided by the number of participants in the group, however this dedicated photography group would share the helicopter costs with another group of tourists Martha had travelling to Kuril Lake. Eventually having spent several months trying to sort something out, myself and two other photographers committed to this trip. Martha sent me copies of the two documents I required in order to obtain my visa, which arrived without a hitch. I half expected the paperwork to be returned highlighting one error or another.

With the visa in my possession I paid my deposit and started to look for flights. With all the delays in sorting out the trip by the time I was in a position to book the flight my options were limited. Flights from London to Moscow were no problem it was the leg of the journey from Moscow to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky that was problematic. I weighed up the possible alternative of avoiding Moscow and traveling through Bejing, Tokyo or Hong Kong instead. I soon realised these routes were no better.

Any photographers know that traveling with camera equipment is a major hassle in the current climate we live in and airline carry-on weight restrictions are a nightmare. I contacted Valter to ask which lenses he had used for his trip to Kuril Lake. I was debating whether to leave the 600mm f4 lens at home due to the weight and use my 300mm f2.8 with extenders. I considered purchasing the 2XTC extender to take with me, I already own the 1.4TC and 1.7TC. Valter advised me to take my 600mm f4. It would take some crafty packing to ensure I could carry all the items I would require. In the end I purchased the new 80-400mm AFS VR lens to take along with my 600mm f4 and opted to leave my 300mm f2.8 at home.

I always try to fly with British Airways when I fly as they have no weight limit on the carry-on baggage only the bag dimension limits. My Gura Gear kiboko has no problems getting my equipment on board flying this way, however I would only be able to fly from London to Moscow on the first leg of my journey with British Airways. I would then have to use a russian airline for the internal flights. The idea of standing at a check-in desk in the middle of russia to catch the next flight and being told my bag is to big/heavy for carry-on and I have to put my camera equipment in as checked baggage was a worry. Would the lenses get there in one piece or even get there, should this situation arise.

About to board the flight from London to Moscow.

About to board the flight from London to Moscow.

In the end I booked my flights with Transaero which covered every leg of the journey out and back. This was the cheapest option although still expensive and meant I would only have two flights in each direction to contend with, whereas some of the other options meant three flights in each direction. There were several downsides to traveling with Transaero one was the paltry 8KG carry on limit, the 600mm lens weighs 5KG alone never mind all the other lenses, camera bodies and accessories required! The second was a change of airports on my outward journey and the third was the extremely long stop-over times between flights. The time between arriving in Moscow Vnukovo airport, changing airport to Domodedovo and the flight leaving was just over 23 hours with a night spent in the airport lounge. If I had booked my flights earlier I may have been able to catch the later flight from London which was fully booked, this would have reduced the time by another 6 hours. Hey ho lesson learned for next time.

After many sessions of packing/unpacking and weighing I worked out how to carry my equipment, also which items would be in my checked bag or which items would be carry-on. Several years ago I purchased a hunting jacket in the USA. This jacket has a zip out winter liner and a goretex outer shell which has many large pockets. I intended on taking the jacket with me but originally planned on packing it, however I decided to use it to carry some of the items from my backpack while passing through airports in order to keep the weight of my backpack to the 8KG limit. Once through the check-in and security I placed the items back in the backpack. I was not sure if I would encounter any problems trying this, no problems were encountered apart from the july heat. I never realised how large these pockets were until I packed for this trip.

The equipment taken –

 Carry-on Luggage –

Gura Gear Kiboko backpack –

– in the Kiboko – 600mm f4 VR lens with lenscoat hoodie cap (Lens shade removed)

– 1.4TC extender

– lens shades for 18mm/24-70mm/80-400mm lenses

Cabelas whitetail scentlock goretex 3in1jacket

in the pockets – D4 body

– D700 body

– 80-400mm AFS VR lens

– 24-70mm AFS lens

– spare camera batteries

– memory cards

– card reader & lead

– external hard drive & lead

– netbook

Checked luggage –

– Gitzo tripod & Arca ball head

– Wimberley sidekick

– 600mm lens shade

– 18mm lens

– SB800 flashgun & batteries

– battery chargers & leads (both cameras)

– 77mm circuler PL filter

– PL-1 drop in filter for 600mm lens

– SC-28 off camera flash lead

– Arca Swiss plates for both cameras (removed for traveling)

– tripod foot/collar for 80-400mm lens

– allen keys and spare screws

– lenscoat rain cover

The journey begins

A friend picked me up at 6.00am on the thursday and dropped me at the station to begin my train journey via Kings Cross to Heathrow airport. At the airport I had no problems with my baggage, the plane was soon in the air and I was on my way to Moscow. Landing in Moscow I was surprised by the thick forest surrounding the city. It looks like the city has been built in the middle of woodland. There was no mistaking the drab square apartment blocks on the horizon, these bore all the hallmarks of a former communist eastern bloc country. Even the new ones under construction looked pretty bleak. Vnukovo airport was not busy and passing through immigration/customs was trouble free, more pleasant than some of my journeys through US immigration. At this point I now had a change of airports and over 23hours to kill. I had done my homework so I knew the first aero express train in the morning was at 6.00am. I decided to snuggle up in the lounge then catch the first train into Moscow in the morning, making the most of my journey by doing a bit of sightseeing. The only problem with the need to change airports was the fact that I had to collect my checked baggage and now had to carry it with me. I was on the first train in the morning for the 45min journey to Moscow, the train was almost empty. Seeing things at eye level made it look even more bleak, some of the buildings on the outskirts of the city have seen better days to put it mildly. Single storey flat roof garages/ outbuildings seem to line great lengths of the railway. These are all covered in bright New York style graffiti forming one long artwork, surprisingly the stationary rolling stock is untouched.

I took the underground and headed for the kremlin, this was an experience – living in a small market town whenever I walk through town I know lots of people who stop and chat or wave as they pass by, even people I don’t know smile pleasantly. Having worked a lot in London I know big cities can be less friendly and hard, however Moscow or Russia in general is something else. People just push through to get where they want to go. You can’t stand back and be polite or you get nowhere, I was glad to finally get off the underground and back above ground.

Changing guard outside the Kremlin. Moscow 2013.

Changing guard outside the Kremlin. Moscow 2013.

Guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Moscow 2013.

Guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Moscow 2013.

The gardens outside the Kremlin. Moscow 2013.

The gardens outside the Kremlin. Moscow 2013.

St Basil's Cathedral. Moscow 2013.

St Basil’s Cathedral. Moscow 2013.

St Basil's Cathedral. Moscow 2013.

St Basil’s Cathedral. Moscow 2013.

I walked around the square and took some photos of the cathedral. It would have been nice to photograph this at night however that was not possible. I watched the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Eventually I was getting tired of carrying my heavy holdall and it slipping off my shoulder all the time. I decided to catch the next train to the airport and just sit and wait for my next flight. The train to Domodedovo airport was packed. The train pulled into the platform at the airport the there was a surge of people heading for the airport departure area. This was a completely different experience to Vnukovo airport. My advice to anyone travelling through Moscow would be to avoid this airport at all costs. The flight status boards and check-in desks are to close together and there’s so many desks in too small an area. People trying to read the boards are in the way and people push through with luggage trollies, it was all extremely claustrophobic and annoying. As soon as a flight is called there is a rush to the desks with little concept of queuing in an orderly manner. This is without doubt the worst airport I have travelled through. After the scrum at the desk and the scrum at the gate to get on the plane, I was glad when we were finally in the air. (I could elaborate however I’ll leave it at that on this one)!

This flight lasts around 8 1/2 hours, when you realise that you are flying over the same country for the entire flight you begin to comprehend how big Russia is.

As the plane descends for landing you get the first glimpse of the rugged landscape that makes up Kamchatka. Looking out the right hand window as the plane touched down I could see a row of military helicopters and in the background rows of military aircraft. The airport had a military feel about it, the concrete runway was cut through trees. When the aircraft turned off the runway onto the taxiway which was also cut through woodland there were a number of what looked like Mig-25 jets clustered together in a clearing. On the flight back out after my trip I could see out the other side window and it looked like a row of Mig-31 jets lined up along the main runway. Having been interested in military aircraft since I was a boy I would have liked to have taken a few photos had I known what to expect. At the end of the taxiway the plane swings round on a concrete hardstand area in front of a small airport terminal before coming to a halt. The only other passenger aircraft present was the earlier Aeroflot flight, not exactly a bustling airport. After disembarking the aircraft we were shown into what I would describe as a side room on the building which was the baggage collection area. As soon as the baggage from our flight started to arrive the scrum started again! Having spent the best part of two days traveling to reach this destination I was just glad to be there, so I was happy to stand back for a minute while the rush subsided. As I had already passed through customs and immigration in Moscow all I had to do was collect my bag and walk out the gate. Martha was there to greet me and take me to the guesthouse. One of my fellow photographers on the trip whom I had not met before, had arrived on the Aeroflot flight so he was already waiting in the car. Martha introduced me to Marco Urso and informed us that the third member of our group had e-mailed the day before to say he was not coming.

The first night of our trip would be spent in a guesthouse before our flight by helicopter to Kuril Lake in the morning.

Martha’s guesthouse and Andrei’s guesthouse where Marco and I would be staying are located in the town of Yelizovo which is about 20mins from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky airport. I would describe Yelizovo as something like a frontier town, the main roads are tarmac albeit not perfect. Turning off the main onto the side roads reveals a surface of hard dirt and lots of potholes, 4WD vehicles are the requirement here. Looking into the distance the volcanos and mountains dominate the horizon.

Having been dropped off at our guesthouse Marco and myself had a chance to shower and cleanup before we headed round to Martha’s for an evening meal. we were introduced to the other group of Swiss/German travellers who would be heading to Kuril Lake with us.

The minibus collecting us from the guest house before for the helicopter flight.

The minibus collecting us from the guest house before the helicopter flight.

In the morning we were all collected by minibus and driven a short distance out of town. The bus turned off the main road down a bumpy track, there in a field what seemed to be in the middle of nowhere were two MI-8 helicopters. We loaded all of our baggage and the supplies we would need for the duration of the trip into one of the helicopters. There was much excitement and we were all swarming round the helicopter posing for photos up against it, some sitting in the cockpit leaning out the window. Eventually everything was onboard and we were ushered on. At this point I was told by one of the other passengers “they stopped making these things twenty two years ago.” Nice so if I’m on one of the latest ones it’s 22 years old, what if this is an earlier model? I got the feeling if you were to scratch the paint it might be army green underneath. We all found a place on the bench seats mounted on each side of the helicopter, with our luggage and supplies piled up high in the middle of the cargo floor in front of us. Ear defenders were passed along to those who wanted them. A loud whine filled the cabin as the engines were started and the rotors began to turn. The noise inside the helicopter grew louder as the power was increased and the rotors reached speed. It seemed as if the helicopter was struggling to take-off, I did think it might be overloaded. Eventually the helicopter started to lift, tipped the nose forwards and headed off towards the mountains. During the flight some of the passengers discovered that some of the windows could be opened so they could take photographs without obstruction. Unfortunately I was not sitting by one of the windows that opened so all of my onboard images were taken through the dirty window. I was also sitting on the side facing into the sun which didn’t help. The journey to Kuril Lake lasted about an hour and took us through the mountains of Kamchatka, the landscape is spectacular and remote. I shot some video and took some still images with the D4 of the scenery below and my fellow passengers. Snow was still present in the crevices of the mountains.

Loading the helicopter with the luggage and supplies required for the trip.

Loading the helicopter with the luggage and supplies required for the trip.

On board the helicopter en-route to Kuril Lake.

On board the helicopter en-route to Kuril Lake.

The rugged landscape of Kamchatka seen from the helicopter.

The rugged landscape of Kamchatka seen from the helicopter.

Mile after mile of mountains and valleys. Even in summer snow still remains.

Mile after mile of mountains and valleys. Even in summer snow still remains.

The beautiful wilderness of Kamchatka.

The beautiful wilderness of Kamchatka.

Rivers meander through the valleys below, where few humans have been.

Rivers meander through the valleys below, where few humans have been.

The helicopter started to descend and flew in over a large lake, I assumed this would be Kuril Lake. There was much excitement when two bears were seen running towards the trees having been frightened by the approaching helicopter.

A few minutes later we were on the ground at our destination. An ATV was waiting to ferry the supplies and baggage into the camp which we were all unloading from the helicopter. After several journeys with the ATV all the luggage etc. was moved inside the camp and the empty helicopter was heading back.

I used the D4 to shoot some quick footage during the trip, you can view it here

Part 2 to follow…..

You can view my images at

Copyright Derek Watt 2013.


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