Checking Out the Bears Of Kamchatka

Apart from all the volcanic activity, Kamchatka Peninsula is also known for its brown bears, who are most prevalent fishing for salmon at a place where several rivers feed into pristine Kuril Lake. The region has become something of a mecca for bear experts from around the world interested in observing the huge mammals in such a wild, untouched setting.

One expert is a Canadian named Charles Russell, author of "Spirit Bear: Encounters With the White Bear of the Western Rainforest," (Key Porter Books, 1994) the result of an extended stay in British Columbia.

"I've been trying to find a truly wild place like this where bears are innocent of all the things that people do to them," Mr. Russell says, standing next to a small monoplane with which he flies around the area. "I want to figure out what it is that we do that makes them dangerous."

He and a companion have built a wood cabin far out in the wilderness in which they plan to spend another summer season next year photographing, charting, and observing the giant mammals.

The same species as North American grizzlies, Kamchatka bears are mostly docile, having had no contact with humans until recently, Russell says. But he says once they get used to human presence, smelling food, they can turn violent.

Unfortunately, his words turned out to be tragically prophetic. Just days later, a huge bear seen repeatedly in the vicinity of a ranger station near the lake killed noted Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino. Based for many years in Fairbanks, Alaska, Mr. Hoshino was considered one of Japan's top nature photographers. He was in Kamchatka working on a book about the bears.

Prior to the attack, salmon had stopped running up several nearby rivers, and the bear had been seen fishing unsuccessfully for days before the attack. The tragedy cast a pall over the Kamchatka scientific community, a group of scientists who work out of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, located about two hours' helicopter flight time away.

But the incident is unlikely to stem the growing popularity of Kamchatka, seen by many as even more of a "wild frontier" than Alaska.

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