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Don’t Be Food for a Bear: A Day in the Life of a Pathfinder in Kamchatka

The expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation to search for aircraft that crashed on the Alsib highway during the Great Patriotic War is not just a physically difficult undertaking. It’s also a risk. Especially in Kamchatka, where you can easily meet face to face with a bear. Expedition member and our regular author Alexei NIKULIN talks about his experience.

The world of bears and the world of people – these two worlds have long existed in parallel. They live their own lives, sometimes intersect, sometimes conflict.

I am a tracker and do not pretend to be a bear specialist, preferring to learn the character of a bear from cartoons. But, going, say, to Chukotka or Kamchatka, it is still worth studying the principles of our relationship in order to at least not become food for bears. And yet, penetrating into their world, it is advisable to try not to leave anything in it that can subsequently unbalance this system.

In Chukotka, it is somehow easier to communicate with a bear: there is mostly tundra, there is little or no vegetation at all, and it can be seen from afar – the appearance, as a rule, will not be unexpected. There is time to prepare and evaluate the intentions of the visitor. You can even have time to shoot on camera before he decides that he is not interested in us. Nevertheless, precautions are also needed there.

Almost all sorties of search parties in the expedition of the Russian Geographical Society along the Alsib highway took place under the protection of marines. We worked in groups and tried not to break away from the team. However, we did not get to know each other very well.

In Kamchatka, as it seemed to me, there are not many bears, but a lot. And this is felt even before entering their habitat. You go into the store, and there is an announcement: “Due to the increasing cases of brown bears entering the territory of the settlements of the district, it is recommended to the population …” Further, a list of precautionary measures and a phone number by which you can complain about an uninvited guest.

We are going outside the village, and there is a sign that clearly hints at a possible meeting with a clubfoot in the next 5 km. As, say, with moose in the Tver region. And, importantly, with a high degree of probability we will meet a bear.

If at first you peer and listen intensely, trying to keep the flare close at hand, then over time you begin to get used to their presence and even enjoy communicating with bears at a distance. After a couple of weeks of this life, you get used to their constant presence, starting to feel like an expert on brown bears. And here, according to our companion in the raids, the district inspector of the Kronotsky Reserve Nikolai Solovyov, the irreparable can come. I will not retell the horrors – read the local Kamchatka news and turn on your imagination.

A typical day of a pathfinder on this expedition of the Russian Geographical Society is a helicopter drop of a search party to the site of the death of another bomber. This time it is a four-engine American Liberator that landed on a sandy beach back in 1944. However, this beach is very far from a potential bather – wild game! Since our task is to search for aircraft, and not “adventures”, some survey the territory in search of aviation “iron”, while others insure and control the situation.

The owner of the taiga does not keep himself waiting long – unexpectedly emerges from a low “green” about two hundred meters from us. The bear watches us, slowly waddling from side to side, making shuttle passes back and forth. From time to time he raises his head above the grass and glances at us. After about thirty minutes of mutual study, we gradually reduce the distance: we move in his direction, and he – in ours. Then the shaggy sentry turns around to disappear into the “greenery”, and suddenly appears behind the sandy parapet quite close to us, sticking out of the grass a muzzle well-fed on redfish grubs. Having satisfied his curiosity, he leaves to pass the “guard” to the next guest, who settles in the grass near the beach itself, but from the other side.

However, we are guests here. This bear reacts sluggishly to us, to say the least: on the inspector and operator passing just a dozen meters from it, nothing at all. At this moment, another “artist” appears – a four-year-old bear cub, which, without paying any attention to us, runs into the ocean and starts splashing like a child. We are strangers at this celebration of life, and thank God – the bear tribe had a well-fed fish season, and we are of little interest to them. The size and frequency of excrement among the grass suggests the same thing.

However, this is not always the case and not everywhere. Kamchatka lives by fishing for red fish. And where a person behaves “environmentally irresponsibly”, stimulating the appetite of bears with discarded fish production waste, the bear invades the world of man and automatically becomes his victim. Animals are shot, giving rise to orphaned babies with a reduced ability to survive. Someone believes that such cubs are doomed – they had little time to learn from their mother. Nikolai still believes that there are chances to survive.

The group works for about three hours, then we decide to stop and continue the search in the afternoon closer to the water. We arrange a simple meal inside the aircraft wing in order to cover the fire of the tiles from the ocean breeze. The meal is simple, but nevertheless involves some food waste. Their destiny is a plastic container. Anything that can become food for a bear should be taken with you. Otherwise, a bad association between food and a person may arise in his head. And then for those who come after us, the meeting with the animal will not look like a picnic. Bears, having tasted human flesh at least once, forever lose interest in grass and fish. And then the only means is shooting. In the States, for example, such bears are also shot. And not only those. All individuals infected with the “virus of aggression” are shot with all proletarian ruthlessness, otherwise the offspring will most likely become the same.

There are no traces of a bear in the greenery, but the whole space is dotted with its trails and beds. These “highways” are especially well visible from a helicopter – there are many paths, and the bears do not look like couch potatoes.

After the meal, we move to the beach, but not snow-white, but to a wide strip of rich black volcanic sand. And here it clearly shows the entire age spectrum of the bear tribe, ranging from large males to youngsters of different categories: underyearlings, luncheons, thirds (a year, two, three, respectively). Small ones, according to Nikolai, sometimes become the prey of males – for them cubs and food, and the opportunity to continue the race by mating with their mother. In general, cubs have enough enemies, both natural and man-made.

The tracks of the bears converge, intersect, lead to the ocean and back, go along the water’s edge to the beach infinity. Beach sand is a visual aid for exploring the world of bears. They are not visible, but they are here, very close. At this moment, a funny thought comes to my mind: Kamchatka is a place where you are always welcome!

But besides the bears, we are still interested in the plane – where did it disappear after eight decades? The debris we found in the grass is only a small and relatively light part of a huge four-engine bomber.

After examining the beach with a metal detector, we come to the conclusion that the plane landed directly on the beach. Moreover, he successfully landed, as evidenced by the undamaged landing gear. Large and heavy parts of the bomber, especially the engines, went a couple of meters into the sand, and the fuselage was torn apart by an ocean wave and thrown in parts a good hundred meters deep.

At 16:00 we contact the base by satellite phone – there is no connection yet. The next session is in an hour. We decide to move along the water towards the river, closer to drinking water. Even on the approach, we noticed a small beam – perhaps we can spend the night there, if suddenly they don’t fly for us. This is our plan B. In an hour it becomes clear that we are acting according to it – they definitely won’t fly for us.

We examine the district – it would be nice to understand who our neighbors will be. On the advice of Nikolai, I sniff with my covid-damaged nose into the local atmosphere – it is better to bypass rotten meat, otherwise the bear may decide that we are contenders for its delicacy. Bears are individualists: they have their own areas of habitat, rest and feeding. That’s where they can be seen in a big company, so this is the carcass of a huge whale thrown ashore – there is enough food for everyone, and no one conflicts. But approaching, and even more so trying to cut the claws of a dead bear, is a very bad idea.

It’s evening. A long-drawn-out horn blast is heard from across the river – as it turned out, the guys climbed into the greenery in search of glass Japanese floats from the nets thrown ashore by the storm and ran nose to nose with a huge bear. Which of them was more frightened, we did not understand, but the smell was suspicious. It is better to warn the bear about your presence, but with natural sounds. Without a real danger, it is better not to use special equipment, and even more so not to shoot – the bear gets used to these sounds and subsequently, in case of a real danger, will not consider it a threat.

After dinner on the shore, we settle down in a cramped “dwarf’s house” – it is designed for only four people, but we will try to spend the night with seven of us. Having melted the stove, we have sincere conversations: Kolya talks about the life of bears, and I talk about Alsib planes that disappeared in Chukotka.

His philosophical view of nature and his place in it is very close to me. Our companion talks about the lifestyle of bears, their diet, their behavioral deviations. It turns out that there are “gopniks” among them – those who prefer to take away their prey, rather than extract it themselves.

According to Nikolai, in most conflicts between a bear and a person, the person himself is to blame. Enlightenment, in his opinion, is a very good word and very relevant and necessary in this case. It is not at all necessary to be friends with neighbors, but to live nearby and not conflict – here you have to try.

While we are sitting in a tiny beam, protecting the human world familiar to us, the bears walk their centuries-old paths and will hardly notice our absence the next morning. Although how to say – the sense of smell of a bear is seven times sharper than that of a bloodhound, and her sense of smell is 2100 times better than that of a person.

Conversations end well after midnight. In the morning we will return to the world of people, but I will definitely want to return here …

The author thanks the staff of the Kronotsky Reserve and personally Nikolai Solovyov for their help in conducting the expedition of the Russian Geographical Society. More stories – on Alexey Nikulin’s channel “Russian trace” in Zen.

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