Pilot Journal
Thursday, July 1, 2004

The Bears Of Kamchatka

A pilot in the wilderness re-learns the lesson that the most dangerous animal on earth is man

The Bears Of KamchatkaFor Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns, it had been a mostly sleepless night. Straight winds of more than 100 miles an hour were not uncommon in remote southeast Russia, and the storms that came with them could last for days. Their tiny homebuilt cabin perched on the tundra was barely a refuge from gusts of air that found their way through the tiny imperfections in the walls, the roof and even the floor, bringing with them deposits of snow, dust or rain. At first light, their worst fears were confirmed: The wind had put their airplane on its back.
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Even after the partial blessing from authorities, Rebenko gave Russell a list of areas from which he needed to stay away. On top of that, Russell was not allowed to use a radio.

“We couldn’t put any English-speaking voice out over the airwaves. So it meant living and flying in the backcountry without support, which was pretty hairy,” shrugs Russell.

Enns left Petropavlovsk in late June in a chartered Soviet Mi-8 helicopter stuffed with provisions for the summer, while Russell tagged along in the Kolb. With a storm approaching from over the mountains, they pitched a tent on the spot where they would ultimately build their cabin on the banks of Kambalnoye Lake, home for their research for the next seven years, until a heart-stopping day in the spring of 2003.

At times, each of them entertained thoughts that the whole idea of dragging themselves and an airplane thousands of miles to the middle of nowhere to live with bears was sheer folly. Russell was forced to start from zero to acquire local flying knowledge, but the float-equipped Kolb turned out to be the perfect companion.

“I could land on water or I could land on the tundra if it was damp,” discovered Russell. “Sometimes, I got trapped if it was too dry and I’d have to wait until the morning dew until I could take off again.” In addition to the winds and rain that could arrive with devastating unpredictability, the lake could also be sealed into the mountain valley by a deep fog.

“One day, when I was trying to get back to our cabin, I spotted this hole in the fog. I put out some flaps and began circling to get down,” smiles Russell. Then the Kolb stalled and entered a spin. “I realized I had spun it and was turning, but I had to let it spin to where I knew I’d be facing away from the rocks. I had to really control my panic to make sure I didn’t pull it out at the wrong moment.”

That “hole” that Russell had found formed fairly regularly and, over the years, became an important corridor from which Russell can come and go from the lake on foggy days. He did, however, drop the spin from his daily techniques.


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