Jen Martin is one of the few people at Lindblad Expeditions who has been nearly everywhere. But of all the regions we explore our Director of Expedition Development is especially passionate—and incredibly knowledgeable—about the Russian Far East. Drawing on her vast experience exploring the Bering Sea, Jen helped design, and implement, our new and innovative itineraries. She also recently returned from a rare chance to get out of the office and back into the field—as Expedition Leader on our voyage from Katmai to Kamchatka. Here, she shares her thoughts on why this richly rewarding region must not be missed—and some particularly exciting moments from this past season.
1.) The Abundance of Wildlife
A coastal brown bear revels on the shore of Katmai National Park. Photo credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins
The Bering Sea is an incredibly productive region, and a major breeding ground for multitudes of seabirds and marine mammals. On any given day, you might experience Laysan albatross circling the ship, thousands of sooty shearwaters becalmed on the surface of the water, and whiskered and crested auklets leaping into flight from rocky cliffs. Approaching some of the islands that ring the sea you can find playful northern fur seals, growling Steller sea lions, pods of killer whales, sperm whales, fin whales, and at the entrance of every river, spotted seals, with just the very tops of their heads and eyes showing.
On land, the coastal brown bear is king. And in Katmai National Park in Alaska, they seem to be completely unconcerned with humans. One of my favorite moments from this season was when we came upon a whale carcass washed up on shore and two juvenile brown bears, who had also discovered it, were rolling around in the thick, white blubber. Their paws and bellies were covered with it, and one of them had rubbed his face in it so much that he looked like he was wearing a white mask. It was simultaneously disgusting and hilarious, as they kept slipping all over the carcass—but incredibly inspiring to witness such fascinating behavior in the wild.
2) Unexpectedly Spectacular Scenery
Prepare for extraordinary views like this sunset seascape on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
I think many people are shocked by how beautiful this region actually is. There are steep-sided cliffs and mountains covered in a carpet of brilliant green vegetation; active, smoking volcanoes rising up in a perfect cinder cone shape; incredibly photogenic bays; and meandering rivers filled with salmon and patrolled by arctic fox, brown bears, and Steller sea lions.
It can be very dramatic to come upon these landscapes like we did one afternoon while cruising the Aleutian Island chain. Our pilot offered to take the ship through the small archipelago called the Islands of the Four Mountains. It was extremely foggy and there was limited visibility, but we began to make out the top of one of the volcanoes on one of the islands. We called everyone out on deck, sure that we were only going to get a small glimpse, but then the sky opened and the entire conical mountain came into view. That’s when we noticed that it was actually smoking from the top and as the ship continued on, the visibility improved even more to showcase another volcanic cone in the distance. We had rare views of both of them simultaneously before the clouds returned and we continued sailing on.
3.) Encounters with Fascinating Indigenous Culture
A beautiful Koryak welcome ceremony greeted us in Tymlat. We were “cleansed” of evil spirits with smoke and a willow branch, and then we placed something small of ours into the fire to help the process. Photo credit: Mike Greenfelder
The Bering Sea is ringed by many different indigenous groups, each with unique customs, languages, culture, and ways of harvesting food—from the Alutiiq people in and around Kodiak Island and the Aleut (or Unangan) in the Pribilof Islands, to the Chukchi and Siberian Yup’ik people around the entire coast of Chukotka, as well as others. Depending on the itinerary there will be unique opportunities to connect with these communities and learn more about life and culture in this sometimes-harsh region.
This past season we had one of those unforgettable moments in the village of Tymlat with the Koryak people. The entire town joined to watch the dance performance given in the local gym. Two of the younger kids who were dancers greeted every single person at the door with a handshake. The village prepared a huge amount of local food for us to try, including a hot fish soup, and we all shared it together. Guests tried many local specialties including some they didn’t anticipate. Fish heads were sticking out of the soup bowls and fry bread with salmon roe was offered. There was also hot tea and homemade jam. It was lovely and obviously a lot of work to create. And the best part of it all was that everyone in the village genuinely took part—it wasn’t just a put-on show for our guests.
4) Little-Known 20th-Century History
Experience urban exploration among cities like Provideniya, a once-thriving deep water port. Photo credit: Eric Guth
History buffs will be in their element on these voyages. There is quite a variety to delve into from a historic geological event to World War II and Cold War landmarks. In Katmai National Park, you’ll learn about the 20th century’s largest volcanic eruption—the 1912 eruption of Mt. Novarupta—which subsequently created the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in an area nearby. On a clear day you can even see an immense layer of ash that remains on the surrounding mountains. In the Aleutian Islands, discover the details of the Thousand-Mile War when Japanese forces bombed the port of Dutch Harbor. It’s also known as the Forgotten War since many Americans are unaware American soil was occupied during World War II. And on the Russian side, the city of Provideniya was a thriving, remote, deep water military port during the Cold War. As we explore, you’ll discover there are remnants of this that are still easily seen, and our expedition team will help peel back the layers to reveal the wonders of this lost era.
5) The Wealth of ‘Hidden Gems’
A symbol of Russian influence on Aleut culture and religion, the Holy Ascension Church is an architecturally unique addition to the Aleutians.
This region is ideally suited for expedition travel. On first glance it’s rugged and challenging but as you start to explore more deeply it begins to reveal incredible beauty and richly rewarding finds. I especially love the wooden Russian Orthodox Cathedral built in the 1890s in Dutch Harbor. It’s one of the oldest churches in Alaska and it’s incredibly ornate inside. If we’re lucky and the local bishop is in town, he offers a phenomenal tour complete with the history of the paintings above the iconostasis and on the surrounding walls.
And I have to mention Provideniya again. Though it’s very run-down with not much obvious infrastructure when you look past that there is so much more. Our guides took some of our guests to a local cemetery that has very unique gravestones and is situated at the headland facing out to sea. We also explored a phenomenal local museum created by a local teacher and historian. From the outside it didn’t look like much but after exploring it, most guests told me they couldn’t believe how much work and love had been put into it. And then there was the cultural dance performance—a combination of some Yup’ik traditions and indigenous throat singing, as well as Russian cultural dance, it displayed beautiful costumes, perfection in movement, and a tremendous amount of hard work. It’s a big surprise for guests to see how much pride is put into the parts of the city that really matter to its inhabitants.
Don’t miss this must-see region. Join us there in 2020 on one of three Russian Arctic & the Bering Sea itineraries:
Across the Bering Sea: From Katmai to Kamchatka
Bering Sea Wilderness: Pribilofs, Katmai & Kodiak
Exploring Russia’s Far East & Wrangel Island