Вперёд! Стоп! Левый табань! Правый вперёд! Стоп! Вперёд! Навались! Навались! Навались!
Our “captain” barked those words at us as we rafted the Bystraya (translation: quick) River down the middle of the Kamchatka peninsula. For most of the day, those are the only words we heard.
And, let me tell you, when the captain yelled “Вперёд Навались!” we pulled our oars hard as the current pushed us toward a huge, jagged volcanic rock jutting menacingly out of the frigid whitewater spray.
Have you ever seen Birkenstocks fly off someone’s feet like missiles? It’s hilarious. But after digging Jan’s hippie sandals out of the bushes — a solid 15 feet from where he slipped on a hillside staircase — I turn around and gasp. On his arm, where he’d caught his fall, a grotesque blob was rising.
We’d just gotten off a bus in Esso, a tiny mountain town in the center of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. It’s Friday evening, most everything is closed, and we’re now a nine-hour bus ride away — mostly along dirt roads — from the nearest city.
I’m convinced a broken bone (or a mutant mouse) is trying to push out of Jan’s bloodied skin. I panic.
Snow-capped volcanoes abruptly rise from a thick evergreen forest as we fly into the Kamchatka Peninsula. Framed by today’s rare sapphire-blue sky, the forest below eventually falls into the Pacific Ocean, save for a few islands in the bay.
I’m awestruck. My camera lay abandoned on the middle seat for several minutes before I suddenly remember to reach for it, fumbling with one hand because my gaze is glued to the window.
Here, in the wilderness of Russia’s eastern edge — nine time zones away from Moscow but only five from Los Angeles — the landscape is rugged and desolate. That adds to allure but also to the travel costs. A budget traveler’s destination this is not, but a mountain lover’s destination it is.