kourils is­land

Adventure - - Contents - Words by Thibaud Dushosal Im­ages by www.stephane-godin.com

From Rus­sia

To the west of the north Pa­cific, on the belt of fire, the Kuril Is­lands (Shaka­lines) snake be­tween the ex­treme north of Ja­pan and the Kam­chatka penin­sula. On board an 11.5m sail­boat "Dumbo" we trav­eled more than 1500 km be­tween Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Petropavlo­sk to ex­plore the area and ski some vol­ca­noes. Storms, iso­la­tion, ex­treme con­di­tions is our daily menu in the heart of this wild and al­most un­ex­plored na­ture.

Ar­rived in Moscow, the hub of all in­ter­nal flights, we take off April 27 to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the city at the far east of the coun­try where we will em­bark on the boat. It takes 8h30 flight to cross this huge ter­ri­tory. The time dif­fer­ence on ar­rival will be 9am. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a medium-sized town whose streets are drawn with a straight line and in­ter­sect at right an­gles. No real city cen­ter and no en­ter­tain­ment. The shops are hard to find and are often lo­cated in the base­ment. Af­ter long walks in these un­sightly ar­ter­ies, we find what we are look­ing for: flares, bombs against bears and waders fish­ing to dock on the is­lands.

It is at the Mega palace Ho­tel that we meet the rest of the team: 3 Rus­sian – De­nis, Va­leriy and Kse­nia the only woman on the trip - and Leonardo the Ar­gen­tinian. All are pas­sion­ate about ski­ing and trav­el­ing.We go for a din­ner to­gether and take this op­por­tu­nity to eat Kam­chatka crab. Those gi­ants can reach 2m wing­span and the flesh is de­li­cious. We'll fin­ish the night in a night­club to come back only around 6am and sleep the rest of the day. Jet lag ef­fect!

The "Dumbo", our sail­ing boat will ar­rive late to the fish­ing port of Kor­sakov (about one hour drive from ho­tel). Boat is as­signed one more day for causes of re­pair of the elec­tri­cal sys­tem. It is bet­ter to wait one day as the weather is not fa­vor­able to go to sea.

Af­ter a last walk in the small port city to buy food and drink, we de­part on April 30 for two days of nav­i­ga­tion to the first of the is­lands. The 11.5m sail­boat is wait­ing for us, al­most tiny next to big trawlers. Board­ing is not easy. We are seven and the crew is made up of three rus­sians, which makes ten peo­ple in a boat op­ti­mized for eight... It is al­ready well loaded and we will have to find space to pack our ski and travel gear. The skis will re­main strapped at the back of the boat at the con­tact of wind and spray dur­ing the whole travel. The cov­ers, cram­pons, ice axes, shoes will end up un­der the beds and in all avail­able nooks. Thibaud, Ni­co­las and my­self oc­cupy the back room. We will have to sleep all of us on a two peo­ple bed size and the rest of the space will be used to stack the bags. Lit­tle room, dif­fi­cult to ma­neu­ver and al­most im­pos­si­ble to hold shoul­der to shoul­der in this bed. In the end, I will in­stall an in­flat­able mat­tress to sleep in the cor­ri­dor.

We are leav­ing the port at night­fall. The sea is calm and the wind is weak. The nav­i­ga­tion is done with the help of the en­gine be­tween 6 and 8 knots of speed. It is quite cold, the wa­ter is about 2 de­grees. In case of a fall the sur­vival time is 5 min. We do not see a life­line so we do ask the cap­tain why. He does not an­swer soemthing we were ex­pet­ing: "With the wa­ter at this tem­per­a­ture, you have five min­utes of sur­vival time. With the life­line, 12 min­utes... Time to turn around and pick you up and it will al­ready be too late! " This tar­verse is un­hin­dered and we cross many whales and or­cas. A stow­away, a young ex­hausted pere­grine fal­con comes to rest on our mast to en­joy a few hours of rest.

May 2nd: We see the first snow-capped moun­tains. We dock at the port of Kurilsk. We will have to stay there for 3 days be­cause of a big storm is on the way. The winds are 50 knots (90 km / h) and the boat is moored against a con­crete wall shel­tered from the wind. The waves are some­times more than 2m high in the har­bor! The vil­lage is 2km away from the port. We go there to do a Banya, Rus­sian tardi­tional sauna, which is a fairly hot and slightly hu­mid Sauna. The most tra­di­tional ones are heated with a wooden stove. A pool of cold wa­ter serves as a re­fresh­ment and a mas­sage is lav­ished by flog­ging with leafy twigs. The fol­low­ing­day we do visit a hot spring. The ther­mal wa­ter loaded with many min­er­als comes out very hot and it is tri­an­gu­lar basins ar­ranged in cir­cles that col­lects and are filled reg­u­larly. Af­ter this pleas­ant mo­ment, we will taste the lo­cal Borsch, a red beet soup with cream and we sa­vor lo­cal red caviar and hal­ibut, a very com­mon fish here.

On the morn­ing of May 3rd, the wind is still blow­ing. It blew up all night long with­out stop­ping. The boat, though shel­tered by the con­crete dock and well moored, is shaken by waves and bursts. The en­gine runs con­tin­u­ously to bring elec­tri­cal en­ergy. The damp cold the noise and the in­ces­sant jolts cause a dis­con­tin­u­ous sleep.

The wind fi­nally calms down! This storm was vi­o­lent and we are very happy not to have had to face it in the sea! Af­ter re­fu­el­ing, it's time to go. Di­rec­tion north! We have to go around the is­land and sail to north along the coast for 2 days.

We do ap­proach the is­land of Brou­ton, where a wa­ter­fall falls be­fore our eyes and a mul­ti­ple of birds squeak and fly in all di­rec­tions. It is at the be­gin­ning of the next morn­ing with a calm sea and misty at­mos­phere that “Dumbo” en­ters del­i­cately in the pass of the is­land of Shimushir. A mir­ror ef­fect re­flects the peaks cov­ered by morn­ing frost. A dis­used pon­toon al­lows us to dock in the old base and mil­i­tary town of Crater­niy. A real ghost town where ev­ery­thing has re­mained as it has been since it was aban­doned more than 30 years ago. This place was used as a mil­i­tary sub­ma­rine base dur­ing Cold War. It is a dive into the era of the great Soviet em­pire where the ef­fi­gies of Lenin and pro­pa­ganda im­ages still adorn the walls. We go for a day visit in this “museeum” and step back 30 years in the past! Amaz­ing feel­ing “to be part” of this his­tory Mon­day, May 7, af­ter a day of tu­mul­tuous nav­i­ga­tion by strong swell, we wet the ink in the morn­ing to­wards the is­land of Yan­kicha in Krater­nya bay. It is a vol­canic crater whose peaks ex­ceed 400m. The first meet­ing is a red fox, not shy and mas­ter of the place. The fu­maroles and a hot spring show that we are well on the belt of fire. The is­land is beau­ti­ful, a corolla of sub­merged peaks sur­round a cen­tral peak. Fur­ther off­shore, a vol­canic ex­tru­sion stands like a mono­lith. A mul­ti­tude of birds use them as nest­ing boxes. We are hik­ing on the top of the is­land be­fore to take a bath in the very hot bat we did dig. Wa­ter goes out bouil­ing and our bath is 100me­ters fur­ther. Get­ting in­side make our­selve as red as a lob­ster.

On the 9th we con­tinue sail­ing fur­ther north. A strong storm ar­rives from the south we are 24 hours ahead of it. A strong wind be­gins to blow and the sea be­comes stronger. The boat is shaken in all di­rec­tions and we come to shel­ter from the vol­cano and the is­land Onekotan. We de­cide to leave but af­ter 1 hour of nav­i­ga­tion we are forced to turn around to get back to the shel­ter. Af­ter many un­suc­sess­ful tries, the wind fi­nally drops slightly 4 hours later and we re­sume the course. The fol­low­ing night is ter­ri­ble. Ni­co­las has to put his har­ness to be strapped in the bed, the shak­ing is huge and it is im­pos­si­ble to stand up. I think were at the limit of what the Dumbo can face, de­spite its "un­sink­a­bil­ity".

We do ar­rive in the morn­ing to the is­land of Para­mushir. The weather is nice, the vol­cano is all white and we de­cide to go ski­ing. Ev­ery­one is pre­par­ing his equip­ment. The most dif­fi­cult is to find it be­cause ev­ery­thing has been dis­patched ev­ery­where in the boat. Con­trary to our habits, the dock­ing is dif­fer­ent. The cap­tain of the boat is nor­mally wear­ing a suit and pulls the zo­diac on the beach for the land­ing, but our rus­sian cap­tain stays on board and we do have to jump into the wa­ter with waders ... Beach is made of big peb­bles. The waves are strong, Ni­co­las and Leonardo are the first de­posited but un­for­tu­nately this tech­nique does not work and they end up in the wa­ter. Slava (boat cap­tain) comes back with the zo­diac to pick up an­other group. We put the waders and Kse­nia and my­self em­bark into the zo­diac. Ar­rived to the edge about 300m from the place where the first ones were de­posited, the en­gine stops and will not leave again. We are ap­proach­ing the beach and a wave re­turns the Zo­diac. Ev­ery­one falls into the wa­ter. We ar­rive on the beach to­tally wet. The wa­ter is icy. For­tu­nately the sun shines a bit and it is rather mild. Nev­er­the­less, ev­ery­thing is wet. Ski boots, cloth­ing, cam­era...

Ni­co­las and Leonardo join us a few min­utes later. We are the 4 on the beach. Thibaud re­mained on the boat ob­serv­ing the op­er­a­tion with the binoc­u­lars. At the sight of the dis­as­ter, he de­cides to can­cel any new dropp off. The pri­or­ity is now to come back to re­cover, un­for­tu­nately the cap­tain has no re­cov­ery point! We find our­selves with­out any anti-bear bomb, with­out any walki,-talkie, with­out emer­gency equip­ment, with­out food, ev­ery­thing be­ing on the boat in the big bag that was sup­posed to be de­liv­ered by cap­tain. The waves force and we see big and frech tracks of bears around us. The cap­tain de­cides to look for a dock­ing point. The Dumbo goes to the right and we lose sight of it. He comes back af­ter half an hour and beck­ons us to fol­low him. I do per­son­naly think it's a bad de­ci­sion as where we are stand­ing seems much more se­cure. There is a small ac­calmi all 4 big waves and board­ing, even row­ing, seems pos­si­ble. As it is im­pos­si­ble to com­mu­ni­cate with the boat, we fol­low the or­ders from far hop­ing we do un­der­stand well. We do keep ski boots on and our equip­ment in the peb­bles for more than 2 hours of walk­ing to ar­rive in a steep cliff area. We are wait­ing when sud­denly a big block comes off and runs down a snowy cor­ri­dor. The rock does pass a few me­ters from me and my head be­ofre to end in the wa­ter. Uch! Half speed, we re­turn to a more fa­vor­able and less ex­posed area. The cap­tain def­i­nitely does not con­trol the sit­u­a­tion. Thibaud told him in ad­vance that his plan would not work, but he said that he is the one who gives order and that his so­lu­tion is the right one. Ten­sion is get­ting high! Un­for­tu­nately the area where he wanted to re­cover us is be­hind a cliff bar and we could never climb with­out suit­able equip­ment. They man­age to deposit Ko­lia, cap­tain as­sis­tant, on the rock be­fore to re­al­ize that we will never reach him. We will learn later that dur­ing this ap­proach the Dumbo keel struck a rock!

Fi­nally, af­ter all this time lost, they lis­ten to Thibaud's plan, which is the same as ours and the most ob­vi­ous, come and get us on the beach in a zo­diac by row­ing... No­body of the boat crew seems to want to get wet and fi­nally it's Thibaud who put the suit and come to the oar. It was time, as just above us ap­pears a big bear! He first ob­serves us and be­gins to de­scend to­wards us. The waves make board­ing dif­fi­cult. I go first into the zo­diac and a huge wave turn the zo­diac up­side­down and I fold on the beach. We must empty the zo­diac. We wait

a lit­tle, the waves go by se­ries. Quickly I jump in and row to get out of the rollers. I am to­tally soaked but safe. Thibaud re­turns to the shore for the oth­ers, Kse­nia is res­cued in turn. The bear is al­ways de­scend­ing. He gains in in­sur­ance be­cause the group de­creases. Bear reaches the beach just when Ni­co­las and Leonardo go up in the zo­diac. Thibaud is swim­ming to push the zo­diac away... and they fi­nally all come back safe on board. We do later hear by Ko­lia that he saw a shark fins in the area,... this prob­a­bly ex­plains why no one of the crew wanted to come to pick up us!

We need a night of nav­i­ga­tion to ar­rive to the only small city of of Para­moushir, last is­lands of the Kuriles be­fore Kam­chatka. Place is named Severo-Kurilsk. A city of 2500 in­hab­i­tants We are wait­ing here for the pas­sage of a new storm and the place is lo­cated at the bot­tom of a vol­cano, new op­por­tu­nity to ski. But we do first take a shower, dry the busi­ness and get a good healthy meal in the only cot­tage in the city. Only one restau­rant bar ex­ists here, with not more than 5 lines on the menu. Soups and meats ac­com­pa­nied by pota­toes. We take the op­por­tu­nity to look for crab dbut its dif­fi­cult to find some be­cause the limit of le­gal­ity. Af­ter some in­ves­ti­ga­tion, we find some pieces, huge pieces, and we buy some (2 ki­los) at the ridicu­lous price of 1500 rub­bles which is 20 €.

We do hear later than the vol­cano here spits ashes that darken the whole city. So NO ski... A pity. All that re­mains is not to ar­rive to Kam­chatka. We are ready to leave the Dumbo to go by ferry and win a few days of sail­ing un­for­tu­nately the next one is in 1 month! It is there­fore with re­gret that we re­turn on the sail­boat to fin­ish this trip, hop­ing de­spite all to ski a lit­tle.

May 28th: we are fi­nally re­warded! Although it is a white day and the snow is heavy, we can fi­nally put the skis on for a long day. We do ski­tour for 3 hours... Snow is slushy but it worth it! We are ski­ing at the end of the world!

Dif­fi­cult to tame eas­ily The Kuril Is­lands and their rep­u­ta­tion is not usurped. In win­ter, it takes a per­fect lo­gis­tics and heavy equip­ment that is much bet­ter suited to face the storms than to flee them. It is then pos­si­ble to wait for the fa­vor­able con­di­tions to dock the is­lands to ski.

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