Russophiles rejoice: Air bridge between Alaska and Kamchatka to be restored

Lex Treinen/Sun Star Reporter
April 3, 2012

A group of travelers pose outside a large helicopter after arriving in Kamchatka, Russia. Photo provided by Pavel Izbekov.

While it has been millennia since the Bering Land Bridge that connected Alaska and far eastern Russia disappeared, not even five years have passed since the collapse of an air bridge – direct flights between Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The air bridge is not gone forever. Yakutia Air plans to offer Anchorage-Petropavlovsk flights starting in July, permitting direct travel to the isolated Russian peninsula for researchers, adventurers, businessmen and Russian expatriates living in Alaska.

“We are really excited about this,” said Dr. Pavel Izbekov, a research associate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, “This will make our lives a lot easier.”

Flights will be scheduled once a week each way between July 12 and Sept. 13, according to a press release from the Ministry of Sport and Tourism in the Kamchatka Krai, the regional government. The round-trip price for the once-per-week flight will be about $1,750, which is about the same as traveling to Kamchatka through Moscow. It will save more than a day of travel time, an exciting prospect for Alaskan Russophiles.

That’s assuming the flight ever begins.

“They keep delaying the date the service goes on sale,” said Ed Plumb, one of the eager travelers, with a laugh. “Nothing in Russia is ever certain.”

The new route faces several hurdles. A U.S. company, North Pacific Aviation, organizes the flights – working its way through travel licenses, logistics and the Russian bureaucracy – and relies on a Russian airline to execute the plan. In February, the original airline partner, Vladivostok Air, merged with Aeroflot, the Russian airline giant. Organizers then were forced to turn to a different carrier, Yakutia Air, to take on the Kamchatka flights.

“We would have liked to have this done a while ago,” said Mark Dudley, general director of Interpacific Aviation and Marketing, Inc., of Seattle, which is handling this end of the arrangements. The U.S. Department of Transportation is not expected to approve the route until sometime this month, three months before the intended first flight. Still, he said, “we are confident this is going to happen.”

Flights to Russia began in the early 1990s during the chaos of the fall of the Soviet Union. From the beginning, the flights seemed precarious because of the instability of the new Russian order.

UAF’s Izbekov remembers traveling from his hometown of Yakutsk on his way to Fairbanks when he saw black smoke rising from the airport. “Within an hour, the airport had burned down,” he recalled. Nonetheless, he managed to show up on time for an exchange program at UAF by flying through the city of Khabarovsk, which also once had direct flights to Alaska.

The first phase of flights ended in 1998 with the collapse of the Russian banking system, but another carrier, Mavial Magadan Air, filled the niche. Those flights continued until 2006, when that company went bankrupt. The Alaska-Kamchatka flights probably were not the reason for the company’s bankruptcy.

“Every time I ever flew, the flight was full,” Izbekov said.

Vladivostok Air ran a charter flight until 2008. Since then, the intercontinental air bridge has been out of commission. Meanwhile, Russian tourists, students and permanent residents continue to stream into Alaska, and tourists, researchers, and businessmen from Alaska continue to look for a way into Kamchatka.

“I spent $3,000 to see my son’s wedding in Khabarovsk,” said Ekaterina Bezkorovaynaya, a Russian expatriate who came to Alaska in the early ’90s. She hopes that the flights will make visiting her family easier, she said.

Ed Plumb, an adventure enthusiast from Fairbanks, has long dreamed of traveling to Kamchatka, but “it’s just not worth it if you have to fly around the world,” he said.

Ending direct flights from Alaska reduced tourism in Kamchatka by 15 to 20 percent, according to the Ministry of Sport and Tourism for the Kamchatka Krai.

Ryan Peterson, a fly-fishing guide from the California-based Fly Shop, saw his client base drop from around 400 people a year in the early part of the decade to 38 in 2006, the year the Mavial flights ended. Peterson said his clients spend anywhere from $9,000 to $15,000 per trip, two-thirds of which goes directly to people and businesses of Kamchatka. He expects the new flights to restore the former tourist numbers within a summer.

Interpacific’s Mark Dudley said that the American, Japanese, and Russian airlines he works with sensed a demand for hunting and fishing opportunities in Kamchatka.

Dudley was surprised by the interest at a recent travel exposition in New York City. “We had a bunch of people approaching us even though they had never even heard of Kamchatka,” he said.

Assuming fuel prices cooperate, the companies involved hope to expand the range of the flights to start earlier and end later in the summer, Dudley said.

For adventure-seekers, Kamchatka holds a mysterious draw for Americans particularly. Whether it is the idea of wilderness that is even less developed than Alaska, the desire for atonement after decades of Cold-War hostilities, or simply the chance to get out of one’s comfort zone, Americans keep knocking at the door of the wild peninsula.

“Most of my clients are Americans,” one Russian manager of a hunting business said in a phone interview, “but they have to come all the way across the world.” Although his hunting business was affected by the flight cancellations in 2006, he continues to see a steady stream of Americans visiting his wild peninsula. “I have hardly any Europeans,” he said. Another Russian guide pointed out that coming to Kamchatka through Moscow brings problems with migration control. “There aren’t that many Americans who want to get here by going across the entire Earth,” she said.

While sharing many natural traits with Alaska, Kamchatka holds a certain foreign mystique.

“I don’t really know anything about Kamchatka,” Plumb said. He is awaiting the release of tickets so that he can fulfill a long-time dream of traveling to Kamchatka. “There’s no guidebook about it,” he said.

Not that the wilderness isn’t special. “Everything Alaska has, Kamchatka has, too, if not more,” said fly-fishing guide Ryan Peterson. Because the Kamchatka Peninsula was closed  during Soviet times, the region was never developed for tourism or anything else. “It was essentially a California-sized nature preserve,” Peterson said.

 The entire peninsula contains less than 200 miles of paved roads and has fewer people than Alaska, according to a 2009 National Geographic article. Although a few stories have been published about sea-kayaking and hiking, a lot of opportunities are unexplored.

“I couldn’t find anything about pack-rafting,” Plumb said. “They don’t have the full scope of things we do in Alaska,” He said he hopes to open up such opportunities this summer.

The exoticism of a different country and people is also attractive.

“I definitely don’t want to spend all of my time in the mountains,” Plumb said, “I really want to go to the cities and villages and meet some people.”

Research on Kamchatka will also benefit. In July 2006, when Mavial Magadan Air went bankrupt. Izbekov was on one of the last direct flights – a volcanic research trip commissioned with a budget of $2.3 million and involving 60 people. “When you have to fly now, you get there and for two days you are feeling like a zombie,” he said.

This lost time is crucial, considering the importance of volcanology research in Kamchatka, home of 29 volcanoes. Izbekov’s last Kamchatka project, for example, was designed to study the eruption patterns of Mount St. Helens, which has a similar geologic structure.

Understanding these patterns is crucial for aviation security, as underscored by the complete shutdown of European air travel after the eruption of an Icelandic volcano last summer.”They didn’t know how to predict ash direction,” Izbekov said.

Because of the proximity to Kamchatka, researchers will be prepared if a volcano erupts in the Russian Far East or on the American West Coast.

Businessmen and developers will also be eager to access the region, which is rich in natural gas. Ryan Peterson sees these intrusions as a direct threat to his business. A few years ago a developers built a natural gas pipeline to cross over a dozen rivers filled with salmon and rainbow trout. The problem is not the pipeline itself, he said, but the road that runs alongside. “Every river connected by a road is just fished to oblivion,” Peterson said.

Peterson sees development of sport fishing and hunting as the only way to keep the magic of Kamchatka, which was kept pristine during the restrictions of the Soviet Union, in a natural, healthy state.

“If we don’t get there first and instill our values of conservation in the natives, the oil companies will get in there and destroy it,” Peterson said.

Because of the federal nature of the Russian state, environmental policies are usually set from above. This often leads to mismanagement and uninformed decisions, according to Peterson, but it also provides opportunity.

“In Alaska, to make a nature preserve requires the consent of about twenty landowners,” he said. “In Russia there is one landowner.” If the federal government of Russia can be persuaded to protect Kamchatka, there is a lot of hope to keep tourists coming back to an area that is perhaps even wilder than Alaska.


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1 Response

  1. Joe Brunner says:

    Thanks for this very informative and timely article about travel from Alaska to Kamchatka. I’m trying to organize a fly fishing expedition to this wild and scenic destination for September of 2014. I will greatly appreciate it if you will notify me of any future posts on air service to Kamchatka from Alaska.

    Many thanks,

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