National Geographic : 2009 Jan
Pearls of mist frame a bog star in a river-edge meadow, one of more than 750 plant species found in the reserve. Collecting is prohibited here, but in other parts of Russia, folk medicine prescribes infusions of bog star for intestinal illnesses. and of those, only half make a stop in Uzon Caldera. Regulations limit the number, but so do logistics, lack of infrastructure, and cost. For starters, there is no road into Kronotsky Zapovednik from the more settled parts (which are not very settled) of Kamchatka. No roads within the reserve either, notwithstanding the legend of Uzon. e in-and-out transport con- sists mainly of Mi-8 helicopters, thunderously powerful machines such as once ferried troops for the Soviet Army. Sitting in an Mi-8 as it powers up for takeo , strapped into a rickety seat beside a porthole window, you feel as you would in a crowded school bus with a sizable sawmill bolted to its roof---until the whole thing levitates. Tourist ights leave from a heliport 20 miles from Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka s capital, and are permitted to land only on helipads in the caldera and the Valley of Geysers. Neither place offers over- night accommodation for tourists, so a visit to the reserve constitutes a very pricey ($700) day trip with lunch. e customer tra c seems mostly made up of wealthy Russians, Europeans on adventuresome holidays, and the occasional American. Five hours in Kronotsky isn t some- thing that ordinary families in Petropavlovsk could normally a ord; it s not like loading the kids into the van for a summer trip that includes an ice cream cone at Old Faithful. Choppering in to see geysers and volcanoes and maybe a few brown bears ( eeing across the tundra as your pilot hazes them at low elevation to provide a good look) is nature appreciation for the a u- ent, sedentary elite. It s dramatic and thrilling and privileged and rude. It makes me dyspeptic, but...how would I know that if I hadn t been there and done it myself? e authorities who manage Kronotsky and the scientists who study it are sensitive to the downside of such tourism. Everybody leaves a footprint of some sort, the crucial questions being how deep and how many. At the beginning and the end of each summer season, investigators look for impacts at the caldera and the geysers. eir report helps inform decisions about the next season s visitation limits and dates. But the greater conundrum of Kronotsky, the one that provokes thought and not just sour belly, is how the concern over human-caused degra- dation should be reconciled with the inherent, violent dynamism of the place. This conun- drum came to a point on June 3, 2007, when a massive wall of rock, mud, clay, and sand broke loose from a high ridge and slid, roar- ing, down a small creek valley, obliterating a hundred-foot waterfall, damming the Geyser- naya River (all in a matter of seconds), and burying much of the Valley of Geysers beneath the resulting new lake. George Patton s army, marching through in hob- nailed boots, couldn t have made such a mess. Pervenets, Ustinova s rst- born geyser, is gone. So are a few other famous spouts. e rest remain. Vitrazh, the stained-glass mosaic, is intact. Alarming reports reached the inter- national press, vacations were canceled, and people immediately disagreed about whether the slide was a tragedy or simply a fascinating natural shrug. "We scientists believe we are quite lucky to witness such an event," according to Alexander Petrovich Nikanorov, a researcher who briefed me at the zapovednik headquarters near Petropavlovsk. "Our lives are very short, and yet we witnessed it." Geologists have good reason to feel that their lives, relative to the phenomena they study, are short. Rock usually moves slowly through time. But of course it s true for the rest of us also: Life is short, the world is big, and we re lucky to wit- ness as much as we can. Whether that means we should all climb aboard the helicopter is another question, which I can t answer, not even to my own satisfaction. What I can tell you (and what Michael Melford s photographs show you) is this: Kronotsky Zapovednik is an extraordinary place, fragile and magni cent and changeable. Maybe you can take that on faith? j THE WORLD IS BIG, AND WE'RE LUCKY TO WITNESS AS MUCH AS WE CAN. WHETHER OR NOT WE SHOULD ALL CLIMB ON THAT HELICOPTER, I CAN'T ANSWER.