Making your way to the Russian Far East, sandwiched between the Sea of Okhotsk to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, you will find the 1,250-kilometer long Kamchatka Peninsula. A place, filled with lush greenery, volcanic terrain, geysers, flowing rivers, and a vastly rich flora and fauna, the peninsula is nothing short of a picturesque sight to see. However, its natural beauty is not the only thing that draws in travellers from all over the world each year.
Within the peninsula lies Kurilskoye (or Kuril) Lake, which was formed about 8,000 years ago as a result of a series of enormous volcanic explosions which shook southern Kamchatka. It’s the second largest freshwater reservoir in Kamchatka: 77 square km (second only to Kronotsky Lake with an area of 242 square km). Its average depth is 195 meters, reaching 316 meters in its deepest parts. Located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Kronotsky Reserve, where several volcanic islands are dotted throughout its glassy surface.
Adjacent to the northeastern part of the reservoir is active Ilyinsky volcano of a perfect conic shape. Its lava flows directly into the lake forming several bays. On a clear day, a surface of the lake becomes a mirror that reflects volcanoes, creating landscapes of unimaginable beauty.
Though this aspect of the lake is quite impressive, its most notable and famed would be the fact that Kuril Lake is deemed one of the world’s largest locations of salmon spawning. Just how many salmon make their way here each year? An estimated number of anywhere between 2 million and 6 million! That’s a whole lot of salmon and as you probably know… where there are many salmon, there will surely be many bears.
The months of June to September bring about spawning season and along with it, hundreds of brown bears hoping to enjoy a few tasty meals each day. Unlike other typical conditions where brown bears avoid each other, this phenomenon, in fact, brings them together as they sometimes work in groups to catch their fresh meals, all the while they completely ignore all other surroundings including… you… if you so happen to be there. Given this, you are able to sometimes get anywhere within just a couple meters of up to twenty bears while they go about their entertaining salmon hunting techniques.
With various climate zones that are divided along coastal, alpine, and geothermal lines, the weather can vary from month to month with both Autumn and Summer being the most popular times of the year to visit. If your only reason for heading to Kuril Lake is seeing and photograph brown bears, then shoot for the end of summer (end of July – the beginning of September), is the best time, as you surely will not be disappointed in what you end up finding. As a rule, about 200-250 Kamchatka brown bears come to the area of the lake in August.
There are a couple of options, which allows you to visit the lake and enjoy brown bears watching:
1. Day-tour with a combined group of travellers
The 5-hours tour has a fixed number of stops (Kuril lake, the caldera of Ksudach volcano, Khodutka hot springs) and includes meals and bathing in hot springs. Groups consist of 19-23 people and are accompanied by a qualified guide during the entire tour. Departures are available 3-4 times in a week during high season and carried out by Mi-8 helicopters. The tour price is RUB 37,000 / USD 650 per person (2017 rates). The detailed itinerary of this 1-day tour you can find here.
2. Multi-day stay on the lake
For travellers who desire to immerse themselves in the kingdom of brown bears, the option of staying at the Kuril lake’s base camp might be worth considering. This is possible by securing one of the package tours (from 10 to 16 days), which usually consist of 16 people and also include trekking different volcanoes and other activities.
No matter how many brown bears you end up seeing, or what type of tour you plan on joining, your time on Kuril lake and Kamchatka is guaranteed to be unforgettable. Capturing as many moments as possible along with a mindset of knowing what a unique and rare opportunity it is to be in the presence of such expansive beauty and glorious wildlife, will only help make your time there all the more special. So, get ready to experience a trip of a lifetime and one to look back on for years to come!
For inspiration, have a look at this short stunning video below; the trailer of an upcoming documentary “The Bears of Kamchatka: The beginning of life”:
To experience brown bears watching at Kurilskoye lake, have a look into the following adventures, departing every year:
All photos from this blog took by Denis Budkov, a world renown photographer, based in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia. You can see more of his work on the NatGeo website.