A few years back, a boat trip to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska had impressed me; it offered a genuine opportunity to find new waves, amongst landscape that I didn’t know existed. To explore these parts further, it seemed logical (and exciting) to aim for the Kamachtka Peninsula in Russia next, located in the Far East, in line with the Aleutians in the Bering sea (just 2000 kilometres away). The dream was to winter surf with a backdrop of snowy volcanoes, and hopefully, to understand why some people choose to live in such regions where the cold (and the bears!) might make life difficult. It was a bit of a gamble to go in the middle of winter as snow storms can make everything a bit difficult (and did!).
Kamchatka is the size of Sweden, but often unknown to the rest of Russia, since it is a 9-hour flight from Moscow. During the Cold War, and until 1992 the region was a military zone and closed to foreigners and most Russians. In the last couple of years, keen skiers and snowboarders have started flying there to enjoy the backcountry runs that 300 volcanoes (many of them still active) offer and a small group of locals started surfing.
Kamchatka has one key city of 200,000 people; Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski, located close to the Pacific Ocean, and surrounded by volcanoes as high as 3,400 metres. I was based there.. what a base! It certainly has a strong soviet look to it, but this is what makes it unique; colourful and somewhat weathered apartment buildings (built low due to the frequency of earthquakes) spread along a large bay, populated by tough and adventurous Russians. At least the ones I met were, who all made me feel incredibly welcomed; inviting me into their homes (and beach huts!) and letting me tag along on a variety of missions. These were mainly surf and sometimes snowboard trips… and riding a snowmobile to reach a spot to hike up and snowboard down in minus 25 proved to be quite a challenge. Somehow surfing felt warmer – go figure!?
Given the limitations of my basic Frenglish, I struggle to capture in words how these amazing people made me feel; I loved them. We loved each other. They inspired me. Imagine a Russian giving you a hug after a cold surf, telling you that they will miss you when you go; it seems surreal but this is what happened every day, with so many of them. Here are three descriptions that hopefully give you an insight into the Kamchatka people:
Anton: you would never guess he used to be a lawyer! Heavily involved in the Russian snowboard community through national competition in his youth, judging at Sochi Olympics and running a snowboard coaching business, he became obsessed with surfing 10 years ago. You could say he is the true Russian surf
pioneer, certainly the guru for the Kamchatka surf “scene”. He started a surf school a few years back and his ambition is to develop a culture for his “surf family”. He is obsessed with progression; progression of his own impressive surfing skills on all kind of boards (including finless), or with starting a winter surf competition that attracted 10 surfers this year, or in “guiding” pro surfers that venture to this part; helping them set sail for surfing some bear-infested coastline. He and local surf photographer, Anya, even started their own surf clothing brand which has the authentic feel that I guess Quiksilver or Billabong once had. Anton treated me like a celebrity; he wouldn’t even let his friends sit in the front seat when driving to the surf…it had to be me! If only I had the surf skills to match the celebrity status!
Lyda: the only local girl who surfs in winter; keeping in mind that surfing here in winter means outside temperature of minus 10 to minus 20 degrees celsius (then you add the windchill!) and a water temperature rarely above 1 degree celcius. Getting changed outside makes you feel almost nauseous when dealing with a frozen jaw, fingers and toes and the not so soft offshore wind blowing straight from Siberia or somewhere that way! Most breaks are beach breaks too, guaranteeing the mother if all ice cream headaches on every duck dive. And the Northshore-style shore break was enough to fill your wetsuit with water within the first seconds of your session. Lyda makes time for surfing (several times a week) when not teaching climbing or salsa dancing! She once picked me up at 9 in the evening, dressed in her Spanish dress and heels after a salsa show, to go for a night surf… just picture it! Four wheel driving though snow for 45 minutes, to get to the beach, and surf in 0 degree water and -15 outside temperature! During the summer months, Lyda lives in a tent on the beach to teach kids how to surf and surf as much as possible. Lyda and Anton took turns every day to take me surfing, and we always did find surf…sometime small, sometime too big, but always offshore and often with sea lions!
The Kamchatka Freeride Community: a bunch of ski guides who decided to create multi-day tours for visitors, either heli-boarding or utilising their recently acquired sailing boat to find waves along the way, or even kayaking along the Peninsula. One year ago they finished building their own guest house with a restaurant, allowing their guests to simply live the whole adventure with their guides. Perched on a hillside in town, overlooking the harbour with the mountains on the horizon, it was an easy spot to be locked inside for 4 days when the snowstorm hit at Christmas time. I lived with them for 3 weeks and not once was a Vodka drunk (… this is almost not a lie – there was NYE to celebrate!) It was all about skiing (surfing for me), working on the house (the guys are currently building a sauna) and shoveling mountains of snow!
All of these Kamchatka legends showed such drive to live the dream and to share it. They all travel where visas are not impossible to obtain for Russians, but always come back with the same conclusion… here is the best.
Super special thanks to:
Anton, Lyda, Katarina, Misha (amazing footage), Anna Gavrilova (amazing photography), the many Anya’s, the many Sasha’s, Kirill, Lera, Ulyana, Andrey, Igor, Ed, Pasha, Helena, Yury, Kisya…all the Bratishkas and Sistrishkas.