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Three weathered Chukchi cowboys (you’d hardly call them deer-boys) skilfully round up the reindeer on foot, then with lassos cut out a lame beast. A short jab to the heart and the reindeer falls instantly dead. The Chukchi say a prayer to its spirit and to their ancestors, and almost as rapidly Lydia decapitates and skins it. A few passengers, principally vegetarians, express dismay at such a ritual. Without crops or a corner mini-market, it’s hard to imagine how else the herders might eat.
We reach the most northerly point of our journey, Dezhneva Bay. The weather is dry and the seas, mercifully, are mirror smooth. For the 19th-century whalers who hunted bowhead and sperm whales here, the experience was rarely this benign.
We are often on bear alert. Never run from a bear. But if you do, make sure you’re with someone who runs slower than you,’’ advises Frolov.
We scan the shore each time before landing and then move in groups of three or more. Only later do I learn that while we were here, a group of hungry bears attacked and ate two Russian men at a remote Kamchatka mine.
We spot perhaps 20 brown bears out of the region’s population of about 12,000. On the other hand we are overwhelmed by bird sightings. With a contingent of keen twitchers on board, and an ornithologist guide, Alan Berger, there’s much excitement about crested auklets, pomarine jaegers, red phalaropes and northern fulmars. Most of which are to me, as a non-twitcher, simply lbjs (little brown jobs) or bwjs (bigger white jobs).
With the exception of the magnificent Steller’s sea eagle, the flying things I identify most frequently are Kamchatka’s man-eating mosquitoes.
Heading further south, we reach the Koryak fishing village of Tymlat. Related to the Inuit, Koryaks (along with the Itelmen of Petropavlovsk, who we visit later) are among the few natives of Russia’s far east to strongly maintain their culture. We spend a half day with them, many dressed in ornate reindeer-hide kykhlianka smocks, while they perform shaman dances, folk plays and games for — and with — us. Their generosity warms our hearts. Lunch is a feast of fresh salmon, including jars of plump, golden roe the size of cod liver oil capsules. More drumming, dancing and sack-races follow. We are the only foreigners to have visited Tymlat this summer and will probably be the last. As we depart, one woman calls, When you come back, please bring more toothbrushes for the kids.’’
We head offshore to the Commander Islands, named for commander Vitus Bering, the 18th-century DanishRussian explorer who charted this region. On a slope of treeless tundra on Bering Island, we find his grave and those of 14 of his shipwrecked crew. Stranded here for nine months during the expedition of 1741, one survivor, naturalist Georg Steller, described their ordeal thus:
Hardship, bareness, cold, sogginess, weakness, impatience, disease and despair were our everyday guests.’’
Our cruise, clearly, has not been like theirs. My most vivid moments come during a morning’s sea-kayaking excursion at Severo Zapadni Cape. We’re paddling on a mirror sea where the milky sky and ocean repeat each other, the vision punctuated only by the bright colours
Mother ship: Former Russian survey vessel Marina Svetaeva, home to 100 during the two-week expedition
of our kayaks and lifejackets and, more spectacularly, by a dozen seal pups romping around us, alternately curious and cautious as they track our progress.
Towards the end of our voyage, we trek to a tidal hot spring (gumboots and swimsuits being very Kamchatka chic). It’s an odd sensation, with the water on one side of my body near boiling and, on the other, a chilly 8C. Ever a land of extremes. John Borthwick was a guest of Aurora Expeditions. Fly from Australian ports to Seoul then to Vladivostok, Russia, and on to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka. Aurora Expeditions offers three Russian Far East voyages in 2009. Prices for two-week voyages start at $US5490 ($7896) a person and include accommodation, meals, port taxes, shore excursions and expert lectures; air fares not included and sea kayaking is a separate option. More: (02) 9252 1033; www.auroraexpeditions.com.au.
Wild menagerie: Well-insulated sea otters