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Touched By A Grizzly

Can anyone really know what lurks in the heart of a grizzly? In the wilds of Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, Charlie Russell believes he is beginning to find out.

Expedition Planner: Kamchatka

Few outsiders have ever set foot on Kamchatka. It’s a giant wilderness waiting to be explored with backpack, paddle, or skis. Here are six trips and some helpful tips to get you started.

THE TRIPS

* Kurilskoye Lake (bear viewing): Russian guides will take you to the heart of Kamchatka bear country to view salmon-fattened bears from rustic platforms and trails, and by boat. Salmon season (mid-to-late summer) is best for bear and eagle viewing.

Access: Only by a 90-minute (each way) helicopter flight.

Contact: Explore Kamchatka, 011-7-415-31-666-01; www.explorekamchatka.com; contact explorekamchatka.com.

* Bakening Volcano (hike): A 10- to 14-day hike through the Central Kamchatka Mountain Range with alpine tundra, high country lakes, good fishing, nearly endless backcountry valleys, and a climb up an extinct volcano. This route takes you through the Timonovsky Snow Sheep Reserve, where you might see Kamchatka bighorn, and ends at Timonovsky Hot Springs.

Access: One of the easiest wilderness hikes to pull off, thanks to road access at both ends. The trailhead is a 3-hour drive from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka (P-K).

Contact: Explore Kamchatka (see above).

* Valley of the Geyser (hike): Second only to Yellowstone in geothermal attractions, this wonderland is preserved as a United Nations World Heritage Site and part of the Kronotsky Preserve. More than 20 large geysers erupt here, some every few minutes, and you’ll see countless mudpots, thermal pools, 100-foot waterfalls, and colorful geyserite formations. This 2-week hike includes an exploration of the Uzon Caldera, camping along the Sestrenka River, and a side-hike to the Pacific Ocean to look for bears fishing in the surf.

Access: Only by helicopter from Yelizova to Burlyaschy Volcano (60 minutes each way).

Contact: Explore Kamchatka (see above).

* Mutnovsky-Gorely Volcanoes (climb): This 3- or 4-day hike lets you climb two of Kamchatka’s 29 active volcanoes. At Mutnovsky, you’ll hike through fields of wildflowers and scorched earth right into the active crater of one of the world’s largest geothermal fields, where boiling pools bubble directly across from glacial ice.

Access: Drive 50 miles from P-K, then hike the last 6 (or hire a six-wheel vehicle).

Contact: Explore Kamchatka (see above).

* Bystraya River (float): The whitewater is moderate (class II+) on Kamchatka’s second-longest river, but the grizzlies, which occasionally swim it, can boost the adrenaline quotient dramatically. Good fishing, birding (think Stellar sea eagles), and scenery are highlights on this 4-day float. Add a day at the end to bag Avacha Volcano and a commanding view of both an active crater and the Pacific Ocean.

Access: Drive 90 miles from P-K to Malky, where the float starts.

Contact: Lost World, Ltd., 011-7-415-21-983-28; www.travelkamchatka.com

* Klyuchevskoy (ski mountaineering): At more than 14,000 feet, Klyuchevskoy Volcano is the tallest active volcano in Eurasia. It anchors a ring of 11 peaks including Bezyimyany, Plosky, and Karmen that dominates northern Kamchatka. A 3-week spring (May) ski mountaineering trip gives you access to thousands of vertical feet of virgin backcountry skiing. Also a great 10-day hike in summer.

Access: From P-K, drive 10 hours to the village of Kozirevsk, then helicopter 30 minutes into the peaks.

Contact: Feodor Farberov Mountain Guides, 011-7-415-22-704-03; contactfedia6@hotmail.com.

THE TIPS

Getting there: Magadan Airlines offers a once-weekly scheduled flight between Anchorage, AK, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka. Tickets cost about $1,300 round-trip. Contact: (907) 248-2994 (Anchorage office).

Paperwork: Passport and visa required. A letter of sponsorship (usually available through outfitters) must accompany all visa requests to the Russian Consulate (212-348-0926; www.ruscon.org).

Money: Most Kamchatka businesses prefer U.S. dollars. Credit cards and traveler’s checks are useless. Carry cash with you from home; cash advances in U.S. dollars are available at P-K banks for a fee.

Guidebook: Trekking in Russia & Central Asia: A Traveler’s Guide, by Frith Maier ($17).

Guides: The logistics of helicopter or six-wheel-vehicle shuttles remain daunting, as is the language barrier. A good guide service can smooth the way. Some guides offer consulting services for a fee to do-it-yourselfers.

Gear: Bring everything you need, including a multifuel stove. Most Russian backpackers forego hiking boots for hip boots due to frequent stream crossings.

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