The first accounts of Kamchatka reached Western Russia around the middle of the seventeenth century. They came from Cossacks who had made their way to the north-eastern perts of Siberia and settled on the river Anadyr. The first Russian to set foot on Kamchatka seems to have been the merchant Fedor Alexeyev, a comrade in arms of the famous Cossack Semyon Dezhnev. However, he went there involuntarily, when his sailing ship was driven south from the Anadyr in a storm in 1648. Alexeyev and his companions were never seen again. The remains of two winter huts on the banks of a river in Kamchatka were not found until much later. They have been built by Alexeyev .
Be that as it may, the honour of being the first to make the geographical discovery of Kamchatka and provide the first account of the peninsula goes to the Cossack, Vladimir Atlasov – an able man in search of fame and fortune on the borders of Siberia. He was appointed commandant of anadyr in 1695. Two years later he erected a wooden cross on the banks of the Kamchatka river, symbolizing the acquisition of the peninsula by the Russian empire. He was the first to force the native inhabitants to pay tribute. With his troop of Cossacks he made his way to the south coast of Kamchatka. The yasak (tribute) consisted of sable, fox and kalan furs; the kalan was the Kamchatkan sea otter. Anyone who refused to pay tribute was killed and his settlement burnt down.
It was no accident that Vladimir Atlasov, the “Russian Cortes”, was murdered by his own Cossaks during one of the many minutes that took place in Kamchatka. However, Atlasov had a clear mind and good gift for observation. His first account of the native peoples and natural treasures of Kamchatka aroused the lively interest of scientists and the even livelier interest of merchants and, in particular, of hunters.
2. Bering’s expedition
In December 1724 Tsar Peter I ńommissioned the first expedition to Kamchatka. Vitus Bering, A Dane who had as a captain in the Russian navy for twenty years, was appointed its leader. The object of the expedition was to discover whether there was a land bridge between Asia and America to the north. However, it did not achiieve its goal.
The horse-drawn carts of the second expedition left Petersburg in 1733, again under the leadership of Vitus Bering. It include two naval sections. They were to reach the unknown coast of America and find the sea route to Japan, while a land-based contingent was alloted the task of exploring Siberia and Kamchatka. Bering himself, with the two ships he had built, anchored off Kamchatka in Avachinskaya Bay. Here, is one of the best natural harbors of the world, the foundation stone for the building of the port of Petropavlovsk was laid. In 1924 the city was given the name of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
Bering’s two ships put out to sea in the summer of 1741. Their goal was the coast of America. This voyage saw the discovery of the Aleutian Islands and the Commander Islands, where Vitus Bering died of scurvy in December 1741. Since then the largest of the Commander Island has borne his name.
3. The Geography of Kamchatka
Size and population
The entire peninsula covers 472,000 square kilometres and is thus almost as large as France. However, only about 350,000 people live in this area, three-quarters of them in the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, which does not leave many over for the rest of the country.
Politically, Kamchatka is a province in the Russian Federation. The northern part, in this turn, constitutes the Koryak Autonomous District, with its capital Palana.
Together with Russians and members of other peoples of the former Soviet Union, the ramnants of three indigenous peoples live in Kamchatka: the Itelmens (also called Kamchadales), Koryaks and Evens. However, they make up barely 4% of the entire population.
The origin of the name
The version of the story given by Stepan Krasheninnikov still sounds likely: the Koryaks who lived in the north of Kamchatka called their neighbours in the south, the Itelmens, “Kronchalo”. Russians coming south from the mainland to the north acquired their knowledge of the peninsula and its population from Koryaks, who acted as interpreters when they first made contact with the mouths of the Cossacs, and the country inhabited by Kamchadales became Kamchatka. The name Kamchatka first appears on the “ Map of the Land of Siberia” printed in Tobolsk in 1667. On this map? Kamchatka is the name given to one river that flow into the Pacific Ocean.
The mountains make up almost three-quarters of the land area. The western Sredinny range is the largest mountain massif, stretching southwards for over 900 km. The Vostochny range, 600 km in length, runs parallel to it in the east. In between lies the central Kamchatkan plain. The Kamchatka river, the largest waterway in the peninsula, flows through the plain. The belt of active volcanoes runs from Cape Lopatka, the southern tip of the peninsula, to where Kamchatka river turns abruptly east to the Pacific Ocean. The second volcanic belt runs along the Sredinny mountain range, but almost all the volcanoes here are extinct, with the exeption of Ichinsky. In all there are 29 active volcanoes and 300 extinct volcanoes on Kamchatka.
Forests occupy about a third of the surface area of Kamchatka. They are chiefly forests of birch, Betula ermanii (Erman’s birch), the kind grown in parks. The grass is very tall in these forests. More rarely one comes upon woods of larch and of poplars and alders. Kamchatka has a single wood of fir trees which has been the subject of constant research by botanists, and is protected. Forests of sedar and alders two or three metres high grow on the mountain slopes.
The climate is harsh, as might be expected from Kamchatka’s exposed geographical position. The long winter is followed by a short summer. Rainfall is up to 1, 100 mm a year. The climatic features of the coast are thick fog, strong winds and heavy rains. The winter is relatively mild; the temperature seldom falls below minus 150 C. In the central section of the peninsula the climate has marked continental features. In the valley of the Kamchatka, sheltered to east and west by mountain ranges, temperature falls to –300 C or lower.
The fauna is low in animal species: only forty species of mammals have been found in the water and on land, and little more than two hundred nbird species. Some species, however, occur in unusially large numbers. For instance, the population of brown bears on Kamchatka, about 10,000 individuals, is the largest in Russia. Foxes and sables thrive in the forests, and the wolf can live well too by culling the small herds of wild raindeer. The Kamchatkan snow sheep is seldom found. However, there are a great many hares,ermines and ground squirreles. Steller’s sea eagle is the largest bird on Kamchatka. There are many whooper swans and white gyrfalcons. Waterfowl and ptermigan are also present in considerable numbers, much the delidht of hunters. There are no poisonous spiders and no any snakes on Kamchatka.