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Source to Sea: Wild Kamchatka Rivers

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Bryan Smith is leading a team of whitewater kayakers on a month-long expedition to Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Funded by National Geographic’s Expeditions Council, the team will be attempting several source-to-sea first descents of previously un-run rivers, plus working with a diverse team of scientists, NGOs, and locals to help show how important Kamchatka’s river ecosystems are for the long-term survival of wild salmon.

Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in Eastern Siberia is one of the last truly wild places on Earth. It is a place where between one sixth and one fourth of all salmon spawn, a place with some of the densest brown bear populations in the world, a place with no dams, no massive extractive resource operations, less than one person per square kilometer, and only one major highway on the 600-mile long peninsula. It is a place that is largely unexplored, a place that is worth protecting, and a place that needs attention now.

As the Earth warms into the coming decades, Kamchatka’s robust wild salmon populations may prove to be one of our best hopes of saving this iconic species from extinction.

For the next month, I’m leading an expedition of six whitewater kayakers as they explore the mountain landscapes the Kamchatka Peninsula in an effort to tell the story of the complex relationships between the place, its people, and its fish. The Kamchatka Project was born out of a passion for rivers and the wild salmon that depend upon them. Our goals: raise public awareness, collect scientific data, and generate media on Kamchatka’s rivers.

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Salmon populations are threatened by an alarming increase in poaching for caviar, industrial land use designations, and the lack of effective exploration and research. Working with biologists, conservation groups, fishermen, local Russians, and National Geographic, this expedition aims to contribute to the critical data, curriculum, and exposure needed to protect these river drainages and the salmon that depend on them.

The team of kayakers consists of myself, Robert Bart, Jay Gifford, Jeff Hazboun, Ethan Smith, and Shane Robinson. Over the past few months, the itinerary and logistics of our trip have become detailed and diverse. We have been balancing the demands of pure whitewater expeditioning with our science and conservation goals. It has taken some creativity to balance objectives and finances, as the cost to fly from North America to Kamchatka alone almost doubled since we originally started planning for the trip two years ago.

We have talked with countless people: fly fishermen, scientists, the network of folks from Wild Salmon Center, heli-pilots, and countless others. Through every conversation and email, it became clear that Kamchatka will be extremely challenging, but also rewarding in ways that I think we will only fully grasp once we are on the ground there.

Above all, we have learned time and time again that Kamchatka is expensive. With only two major roads on a 600-mile peninsula it is hard to get around, and money gets swallowed up just trying to access anything that resembles a river. Add a few bucks in for corruption and instantly a decent budget becomes minuscule.

We depart for Kamchatka from Seattle tomorrow. Though it may look like a short hop across the North Pacific, the shortest distance isn’t always a straight line, so we’ll be flying around the world in the opposite direction: Seattle to JFK to Moscow, and then on to Petropavlovsk (PK), 30 hours of flight time.

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Once we get ourselves on the ground in PK, we will begin 2 weeks of expeditioning that largely focuses on exploring drainages with potential for whitewater as well as scientific significance for salmon. We hope our budget will allow for 4 to 5 day expeditions on the Storzch and Shamanka rivers to the north. We will also make a trip to the Kol bio station on a river that sees more than eight million salmon return a year, indentified as a key stronghold for the fish in Kamchatka. On July 15th, we will head to the Zhuphanova River to meet up with fly fisherman Ryan Peterson and explore this prime salmon and bull trout habitat. Here we will work as a team to get the entire crew down the river and will be looking at flow and discharge, temperatures, river bottom substrates, and how salmon carry nutrients from the sea to help create a lush food web that goes well beyond the river itself.

Thanks to everyone who has helped make this expedition possible!

Follow Bryan Smith’s Kamchatka Project here on BlogWild, on the National Geographic Adventure Blog, on Outdoor Research‘s Verticulture site (with podcasts from the field), and on the Kokatat blog.

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Photos of Bryan Smith running rapids by Ethan Smith, of Bryan Smith by Phil Tifo, and of kayakers near a mountain stream courtesy Bryan Smith and Reel Water Productions