SURFING SOUTH OF SIBERIA

Anna Ehrgott

PHOTOS: Dylan Gordon

LOCATION: Kamchatka, Russia

The acidic pools, steaming and gurgling up at us and the waterfalls as big as ten story buildings boosted our morals and made Russia an even more incredible and diverse journey than the surfing portion alone.

Anything is possible in Russia. You hear it everywhere you go, in any question you ask. But it also means that it is in the realm of possibilities for nothing to go to plan. Your entire agenda for the trip could be engulfed in the disarray. Close to nothing on our surf trip to the Kamchatka peninsula went to plan. I think that’s how things work there; trust in the chaos, bend the knees and brace for the dysfunctional turmoil of visiting a post-Soviet nation. If you are truly along for the ride, it’s enjoyable and an unforgettable experience to visit somewhere so wild.
Kamchatka is the far eastern peninsula of Russia. Just above Mongolia and North Korea, and across the pacific from Alaska. A corner of the world I admittedly hadn’t ever thought much about. But after studying a swell map and watching a hurricane make its way past the Hawaiian Islands and head straight for that distant corner of the largest country, I pulled the trigger and bought a last minute ticket alongside Cyrus Sutton and Dylan Gordon. I had two days to plan and pack for the venture. Normally that takes maybe an hour or two. But when you take into consideration camping for two weeks in brown bear territory and everything needed to surf water with temperatures hovering a few degrees above freezing, it takes every waking moment of those two days.
We flew in via Alaska, and got our first glimpse of the new land as our plane lowered in the early morning light. My nerves were on edge as we flew over the new landscape. I’d never been to Asia, so everything looked unfamiliar. Especially the military barracks, aircraft hangars, and tanks that were scattered across the lush, green ground. The trees looked like nothing I’d seen at home. We flew over picture-perfect homesteads and large bays with ships bobbing around. Before we even landed I felt the most culture shock I’ve ever experienced.
We spent the first night just outside the city of Petropavlosk and decided to set off to our Russian backcountry basecamp at a cove we had studied on Google Earth — a spot that had never been surfed before. I can say that with confidence, as you can count the number of surfers in Kamchatka on your hands, and we met the majority of them. The area of interest was four hundred miles from humanity. With no roads or railways in the area, our only option to get there was to hire an ex-military helicopter. After waiting a few days for the storm to clear (and, consequently, the best days of the swell) we were able to board the helicopter. They reportedly go down often, and ours was weighed down with surfboards, a couple hundred pounds of camera gear and all our camping supplies, food, and bear repellent needed for the next two weeks off the grid. Admittedly, a little nerve racking, but the flight was breathtaking. We saw more dense forest then I had ever imagined, families of bears ran down mountainsides beneath us, and the ocean was a milky turquoise lit up by the sunny sky.

We landed in a berry patch just up a bluff from the beach, unloaded all our stuff and picked a couple handfuls of the bitter “shikshaw” berries (which we later found out are poisonous in large quantities), set up camp, then hopped in the water. It was frigid and we were surrounded by hungry seals who wait at the rivermouth for the salmon to come downstream into the open ocean. Just across the river we could see another camp. We were expecting to be alone and had looked forward to solitude and silence along with the surf. The other “campers” came out of their yurts to watch us paddle around the lineup, we got a word in with them later. They ended up being a large group of poachers who were armed with shotguns, a pack of unfriendly “bear dogs”, and a fleet of zodiacs they’d speed up and down the river on to inspect their cross-river nets they used to collect salmon caviar to hand off to seafaring boats daily. We made sure not to show any signs of disapproval about their destructive activities, since we were helpless and alone in the absolute middle of nowhere and were heavily outnumbered by the burly Russians. They came over to our camp a number of times, always with seemingly friendly intentions, but their visits always kept us on edge. We were thankful for some of their local knowledge. Apparently we were sleeping on the bear’s side of the river… so they gave us a shotgun to protect ourselves. We’d always offer them food. They never accepted anything that didn’t have vodka in it, which was probably for the best; we barely had enough food for ourselves to get through the days. We had anticipated being able to fish and forage for most of our calories, but the river was fish-less thanks to the poachers, and those nasty (poisonous) berries gave me stomach aches worse than what I got from our dehydrated backpackers meals that we prepared over our firepit since we forgot a camp stove. The grizzly mountain men had been there on the riverbank for 5 months. The summer was coming to an end marking their last few weeks of camping out. Having been away from society and women for that long, they took a liking to watching my every movement. I kept bundled up and hid under hoods and beanies to deflect the unwanted attention. It was really taxing out there. Trying to surf while feeling unsafe and physically drained from lack of food, warmth, sun, and all other the luxuries we get spoiled with in California. You feel invincible once you get through something like that, but in the moment you’re questioning everything about why on earth you’d put yourself in a situation like that. I’ve never felt so vulnerable in my life.
After a good amount on time on “Mosquito Island” and watching the dwindling swell lap its last micro tube in our cove, we decided to move on, scrap our plans to stay our entire two weeks at the elusive eden and move on. Using our satellite phone, we called Martha who runs the B&B in town and she sent a helicopter to pick us up. She sounded relieved to hear from us, proof we were alive, and at least somewhat sane to have called it quits. Feeling a little defeated, we tore down our tents and bear fence and packed up the camping equipment amidst clouds of mosquitos while listening out for the whirring whup-whup-whup-whup of the helicopter coming over the mountains for us. The poachers brought us a parting gift, two massive salmon that must have been captured in their illegal nets, we couldn’t refuse and the boys ate well for the next couple days as we reassessed the trip. We had a week left. Kamchatka is difficult to navigate and it definitely wasn’t built with tourism in mind. The road network doesn’t expand far past the two main cities, meaning you need to take an expensive helicopter ride to most of the land’s prominent physical features, including some of the world’s highest densities of volcanic peaks.
We got the last days of surfable swell at the local beach breaks, some of which were on military land. We got hassled a bit by men in tanks, so we had to hide our cameras in bushes and pretend not to speak Russian. From the lineup we could see snowcapped volcanos that captured our imaginations enough to plan our last few days around summiting them. Our two-day offroading and backpacking trip was mind-blowing. Between the ice caves, wild blueberries (edible this time), turquoise lakes, snow fields and intense altitude sickness it was unforgettable, and the perfect way to experience Russia in such a different light. We saw some of the most beautiful things I’d ever dreamt up; thundering waterfalls, mama bears, endless miles of epic four wheel drive roads. Every turn in the rugged road felt like it could easily be the end of the Earth. The acidic pools, steaming and gurgling up at us and the waterfalls as big as ten story buildings boosted our morals and made Russia an even more incredible and diverse journey than the surfing portion alone. It was all punctuated by my visit to a Banya, one of the famous Russian bath houses, on the last day where I… well, nevermind.