From Russia With Love

My friends, it will be hard to compress the experiences of these last two months in Kamchatka into a single blog post.  One post is what I have time to give it though, so I will try.  General description up here and then a long series of photos with comments and descriptions interspersed.  Hope you enjoy!  Kamchatka, is an amazing place. I’ve been all the way around the globe once already and have seen quite a few places in the process; hell, I’ve actually guided in every hemisphere on Earth already this calendar year – but nothing that I’ve ever seen before quite compares to Kamchatka in terms of difficult to access totally inhospitable yet strikingly beautiful terrain.  I mean, it’s out there.  And if it weren’t for those awesome Russian MI8 helicopters we wouldn’t have access to it at all.  Those of you familiar with this blog from years ago know full well that I am no stranger to walking the Earth.  When I started it back in 2007 I was embarking on a six month walk up the Andes all the way from Cape Horn to the top of Patagonia.  But I am here to tell you right now and in no uncertain terms that such a trip would simply be impossible in Kamchatka.  The terrain is just too demanding.  Hikers used to an average speed of three or so miles an hour would see that average cut to one mile an hour if they were lucky on the tundra, and likely end up falling in a hole they couldn’t climb out of in the process.  Hell, tanks have trouble crossing this terrain.  What this means though is that floating the country’s rivers in a raft is all that much more fun, because there’s never, ever going to be a single other soul around.  And this works out well for us flyfishermen anyway because as Rat said to Mole in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows so many years ago “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”  So mess about in them we did, floating all kinds of rivers through that amazing country including some which had never even seen an oar or a fly in their lives.  And the fish were there.  Rainbows, Dolly’s, Cherry Salmon, Pink Salmon, Chum Salmon, Kundzha – you name it, they were there; they were plentiful; and they were hungry.  Then to make it all the more amazing – they were hungriest for mice.  Lots of fly fisherman back in the states have a mouse pattern or two in their boxes, and a couple of times a season they even consider for a second tying it on, then usually decide not to.  It just seems like such a stretch; is this really going to work?  In Kamchatka the answer is yes.  A short summer season coupled with a lot of very tall grass makes the mouse a fish’s favored and most sought after food.  Not that there’s any scarcity.  The first rainbow I gutted up there had a dozen of them already in his belly!  One way or another, as I said above, the stories are too many and too diverse to go into all of them in this paragraph, so if you feel like it, scroll down through the photos and take a look at the country yourself.

The reason we went – Oncorhynchus mykissHow we went – MI8 Helicopter Where we went – a sinuous and fish filled Kamchatka River What it generally looked like when we got there What we generally did when we got there And an indication of what the fish had been doing before we did My boat for the season, the Myrtle II  What we had to watch out for while we were fishing – Big. Beautiful. Kamchatka. Bears.  Coffee in Kamchatka is all that much better for its scarcity And the char make great filets and caviar  My good friend Jordan, on the one day we had this year to explore out on our own, to the headwaters of the Sedanka system, and a new lake off a side branch of the stream  Then more helicopters…  more rivers, more clients, more fishing, and more explorations.  The minimalist’s Kamchatka fishing kit – water purifier, rod, gun, and ammo belt  A Kundzha, or “white spotted char” Asian coast specific member of the char family My team Koriak people inhabited Kamchatka before the Russians knew it was there And today they make some very beautiful artwork with wood  Our wonderful dog, Hann – may he rest in peace Petrified wood from over 66 million years ago, and other neat little details…  Flies we liked  Breakfasts we liked  Cooked by our wonderful Chef Nadya, the butterfly lover  Parallel Russian style green wood fire architecture – long burn, much smoke, dry waders  The dawn The day  The afternoon And the night…

Now everybody send me an email and tell me all about your lives – I’ve been in the bush for the last two months!  Also, anybody interested in going and seeing this incredible place for themselves, give me a call or drop me a line and lets head up there together next year.

Jungle Boogie

 

As I write this I am sitting in my usual spot in the Lima airport, having just arrived from Iquitos to wait through an already excessively long connection time for my flight back to Atlanta, then receiving the news that said flight has been delayed an additional six and a half hours.  Travel to and from the jungles of the Amazon is an exercise in patience and contrasts.  For the last few weeks I’ve been “out there”, mostly at the camp I work with outside town in the jungle towards Nauta, but also with some time spent in Belen and the surrounding areas, which always provide a spectacular variety of experiences for the open minded traveler.  This time, I bought a monkey!  Found the little guy tied to a pile of fruit in the market itself and looking just like the “Charley” I had in mind from a conversation earlier that week, so my buddy Sunay and I each pitched in and made him ours.  I had always wanted a monkey you know?  I mean, why not?  Other highlights of the trip have included all the usual hanging out with street dogs, navigating native shamanic practices, dining in, on, and of the great river herself, and generally just having a hell of a good time in a place that is as unique as they come in the world.  Now it’s back to the states though for a week of heavy office work, then off to Kamchatka for a couple of months of different sorts of rivers that run at markedly lower temperatures and tend to host the kinds of fish that all of us think of first when someone says the word “flyfisherman”, which is a word I sort of like the sound of, if you catch my drift… Charley likes to eat Bananas as we walk around BelenWhich is understandable considering what most of the other offerings there look likeStill getting the hang of my new Nikon Digital SLR, but some of the screw ups look cool Typical Peruvian Amazon Architecture – Photo by Jen KeirCharley in the driver’s seat on Sunay’s hatAmazon PharmacyLittle dude gets grumpy sometimes tooJungle camp machetes – Photo by Jen Keir Carmencita (La Bonita) my newest preferred vendor of Mapacho  The tools of the trade  Charley’s new “Home Tree”  Iquitos Boats – Photo by Jen Keir  Dogs of Iquitos Calendar Candidate  “Still Life with Hat and Fruit”  Big Greens  “Mesa Elegante”

On the Sailing Vessle Gitana

I’ve just completed a course that has been a long time coming, and which left me (after some serious final exams) with three different accreditations from the American Sailing Association.  Those of you who have known me for a long time, or have ever seen my bookshelves back in Georgia or down in Patagonia, know full well that the idea of sailing occupies a lot of my mental real estate on a daily basis and has for over a decade now.   It’s no secret that I have ideas about doing a long and open ended trip in one of these vessels someday, but for too many years there has always been some other project which has gotten in the way.  Well, steps are steps; and this was one of them.  Having saved up for quite sometime with the idea of buying a boat, and then actually beginning that search for the perfect vessel several months ago, it occurred to me that actually spending some time on the deck of one might be a good idea as I sort out what I am looking for in terms of design.  And this course did not disappoint.  Lots and lots of hands on experience was the name of the game in the course I signed up for out of Fort Lauderdale, as I found out upon leaving the dock the first day when the captain put me at the helm straight away as we negotiated drawbridges and maneuvered our way around container ships on our way to open water and our route South into the Florida Keys on the sloop rigged Gitana.  It was a wonderful experience overall, and I think I got out of it exactly what I needed, plus a great deal more I hadn’t even imagined when I signed up.  My sincere thanks to Blue Water Sailing School for a well run experience. Nothing quite like the feel of a well heeled sailboat under way.Plotting a course for the day – who knew there was so much mathematics involved!Early mornings I spent studying my notes from the day before.It’s a cool feeling when all you need to get under way is a little bit of wind.Our crew was only comprised of four students and our captain, all good folks to be sure.Looking East from the galley as I pour my first coffee of the day.A point of view I intend to increase my use of in the years to come.And a corresponding vista that isn’t too bad either…

 

A Winter in the Bahamas

This winter I was lucky enough to spend several months in the Bahamas chasing bonefish and tarpon and sharks, as well as shooting teal, swimming with wild dolphins, exploring with the kayak, and running mile after mile after mile of beautiful island trails.  Anyone interested in joining me for such activities on my next trip there send me an email and we’ll see what we can get set up.One of the unlucky bones.A Bahamas Oriole – less than three hundred of this species remain on earth.My digs, most of the time that I was there.One of my favorite fish on Earth – the Barracuda.The sea-kayak, an excellent mode of exploration on the flats.The last thing a bonefish sees before his release from the barbless hook.The best weather for duck hunting is the same no matter where you are in the world.Lemon sharks like flies too.I must have tied at least a thousand Crazy Charlies.And the bonefish ate them like they were candy.Sometimes you have to just outrun the storm, and it’s a good thing flats skiffs are fast.This is a sight that rocks any fly fisherman’s world – tarpon on the surface…Swimming with wild dolphins is an experience I will never forget.  They just appeared.  And once I was in the water with them, they hung around.  Their voices are amazing, and if I could have wished for anything in the world as I twisted through and between them down there, it would have been to understand what they were saying.

In the land of Fidel and Raul, a recent trip to Cuba

Travel always has a way of making me feel simultaneously appalled and enamored of my ignorance.  Appalled in the sense that the sheer tonnage of what I do not know anything about can feel overwhelming, and enamored, because all that really means in the end is that I get to enjoy the learning of whatever I can reach of it between this moment and the one in which I eventually die.  My first clue that this trip really was going to be something different came when I called the Cubana Air office in Nassau to book the flights.  “Hello?”, said the lady who picked up the telephone.  I gave her my name, told her the dates I wanted to fly, and it was as simple as that;  she put me on the list.  No credit card deposit, no passport numbers, no “how many checked bags”,  just a nice “see you this Friday” and goodbye.  Honestly it was kind of heartwarming.  Just a few days later boarding the aircraft, a twin engine prop plane the likes of which I hadn’t been on since I think a flight out of Finland what now seems like a lifetime ago, it was more of the same: we chose our own seating, some buckled up and others didn’t, I left my backpack on the seat next to me, and it was all just no big deal.  I could get used to this, I thought.  We flew pretty much right over the Lodge while crossing Andros, and at an altitude far greater than that of the Otter I am used to seeing it from.  So I couldn’t help but for a moment think again about the relativity of perspective, not so much in terms of velocity (although the entire flight to Havana would take an hour and twenty minutes, the exact amount of time it takes me to jog eight measly miles down on the island every other day) but in terms of perspective in the broader sense.  I was looking down at the immense and intricate spread of coastline, canals, and tidal ponds that I spend most of my days guiding clients through now, but from this altitude it was very easy to see the whole of the thing; whereas from the poling platform of a flats skiff, it is just as easy to get lost.  This sort of thing always makes me think of the tiny creatures all around us every day which are possessed of extremely limited mobility and hardly any field of vision, like the ants, or the dust mites in our pillows.  But of course thinking in cosmologic terms, we are hardly any different.  This is hardly an original observation, but it holds my attention sometimes nonetheless, often to a degree that is annoying.  It can be quite easy to envy the ants when one is lost in the effort of trying to manage all the minutia of daily life like getting fed, and paying the bills, while at the same time preoccupied with electron valences on one end and the expansion of the universe as a whole on the other.  But, as usual, I digress.  Arriving at the airport in Havana I went through all the usual processes and lines to get in, but somehow this only took around five or so minutes, and then walked out to the curb to find my good friend Colin waiting there for me with an enormous smile plastered across his amiable face.  I’d not seen the Captain, as I call him, in several years.  In fact not since a particular back-country exploration he had done with me and Tweed down in Patagonia, which we all remember quite fondly but which from the curb there in Cuba seemed a million or so miles away.  He looked good though, all two meters   of him, and before I knew it we were stuffed into a rental car and careening our way through the streets of Havana with his good friend Mario the domino master.  The Captain has been coming down to Cuba in his off season and while not engaged in other far flung travels for the last fourteen years or so, and Mario was born here, although he now splits his time between Cuba and the United States.    It is hard not to have the first thing you notice in Havana be the cars.  Up in the states, or for that matter just about anywhere else in the world, when you see a 57’ Chevy driving down the road you slow down and take a good long look.  But Havana!  Havana is just chock full of these sorts of cars!  Chevy’s, Fords, Chryslers, the whole catalogue in fact, all of them manufactured in the 50’s and not so much “restored” as “spotlessly maintained”.  At least half the cars on the streets, and really the majority of the taxis, are what we would generally call museum pieces in my homeland.  Our first stop then, just to take it easy and settle in a bit, was the house of a couple I now call Tío y Tía (Uncle, and Aunt), in whose upstairs guest bedroom I would sleep the majority of my nights in the new country.  Super nice people, and accommodating in a way that we normally only expect from close family, hence the natural transition into nomenclature that corresponds.  Their house is located in one of the nicer neighborhoods sort of between downtown and the district where high ranking government officials tend to live, and only seven or so blocks from the seashore, which I walked to frequently in the mornings.  One senses rather immediately in pretty much all areas of Havana that there really is no danger to watch out for.  Petty theft occurs, and as such most of the homes have gates and fences, perhaps even with some barbed-wire at the top, but in terms of actual robberies, or violence, crime is practically non-existent.  In fact, for all that the government in Cuba could be considered perhaps quite a bit more intrusive than in places like the US, I have to say that I probably saw less than ten percent as many armed police officers throughout my stay there than I would have in a comparable American city over the same period of time, and one percent of what I always see in western Europe.  I actually didn’t even end up carrying my passport around with me, or any form of identification whatsoever, the majority of my stay.  Not something you can really get away with in Argentina, or hell, even back up home for that matter.  And on that note, I’ll go through sort of a disclaimer here:  I’m going to try and avoid going into the whole question of analysis and judgment concerning how the Cuban governmental system works, or doesn’t work, and what all of that might mean in terms of the communism vs. capitalism question.  For one thing, I am far too ignorant of the history of how it all went down in Cuba to even make any educated guesses about how the revolution and development of Castro’s government might have happened for the better of the worse; and for another, my sample size even in the first-hand experience of visiting for a week is of course far too small.  While it seems true one has the opportunity to get much deeper into the culture of Cuba in the space of a week than in just about any other place I have been, that still doesn’t constitute a platform from which to start opining, at least not for me these days.  So I’ll record my first hand observations in terms of what I actually saw, heard, and experienced, of course in a subjective sense (there’s no such thing as objective observation anyway, not even in physics) but without the addition of judgment.  One of the first things I noticed about my experience in terms of the culture in Cuba itself was how lucky I was to be with Colin.  Not in the sense that I needed another American at my side, but in the sense that if I had not been with him and as such the benefactor of his many years of experience in the country, it never would have occurred to me to simply walk up to any and all situations I encountered and engage myself in them.  We just don’t do that in the states.  And we don’t do it hardly anywhere else, either.  But in Cuba, if you are strolling past a classroom of elementary school kids in the middle of a lesson, and feel like popping in to talk with them and their teachers and see what sort of interesting things are going on, you can!  It’s as simple as that: you just walk in, say hello, and ask them what they are up to.  Next thing you know they are telling you all about it, and the conversation takes a dozen fascinating turns, until you feel like moving on.  Same thing with open residential windows on the street, elderly folks sitting inside them in living rooms watching baseball on the television.  You just walk up, stick your head in the window, watch a minute or so of the game, and the next thing you know you’re discussing philosophy with the grandmother!  The Captain showed me this in a deliberate way over my first few days, and as a result we enjoyed many excellent exchanges in places ranging from government housing offices to tire repair shops to the street corners in between, and the Cubans that we talked to all seemed to think it was the most natural thing in the world, hardly something about which to even comment.  Meanwhile, what few other foreign tourists we saw were for the most part doing what I always have done in the past, walking around and snapping photos, or shopping, or staring into their little lonely planet guidebooks.  The Captain’s been all over the world and tried out this “inside job” technique everywhere he’s gone, but says it is nowhere else he’s been as natural a phenomena as it is here in Cuba, where pretty much everyone is simply sociable, all the time.  But there were other things to see and do as well, and I must say Mario and the Captain intended to show them to me.  We drove all around the city, looking at interesting points like the enormous and intimidating Russian Embassy (pretty much the only intimidating thing I saw on the entire trip), the fort where Che Guevara shot enough prisoners after the revolution was already won that Fidel sort of realized he would need to send him on his way, since that sort of thing, oddly enough, didn’t fit within the new President’s concept for the future of the country, and even a bronze statue of John Lennon seated on a bench in an out of the way park, which was an interesting one to say the least.  The Beatles’ music had at first been “banned” in Cuba, I am told, but then later when their work had kind of come full circle they were embraced.  And when this statue was first christened it had a pair of actual eyeglasses on its face, of the style John Lennon always wore, but those tended to get stolen.  So these days, believe it or not (I do, because I saw it), there is a little elderly gentleman who is paid by the government each day to sit on a park bench just across from the statue, and whenever the odd tourist or local onlooker should appear, he slowly makes his way over, takes the spectacles out of a small case in his shirt pocket, and places them on the statue.  When the visitors leave, he removes, them, and returns to the bench.  I tell you, you really can’t make this shit up.  We drove out of the city quite a ways at one point early in the week as well, through countryside dotted with farms and cows which it is actually illegal to slaughter (long story) and eventually to a mountain range where we visited the island’s first coffee plantation, built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti.  Then coming back to the city we attempted a visit to Papa Hemingway’s old place, which was closed for repairs, but I got a peek at Pilar anyway through the fence, and she was what I had mostly come to see.  Papa was of course a boat man, like myself, and it’s a subject which occupies a great deal of my mental energies these days as I consider the attributes of different types of sailing craft and a possible upcoming change of lifestyle that has been waiting in the margins now for far too many years.  Other than the travels and explorations we also did a lot of sitting around on the Tío y Tía’s front porch with their Little dachsund, Cici, which was a wonderful activity in and of itself, and I was startled just a bit one morning to find in the local communist party newspaper, Granma, that there had been reports of bison hastily evacuating Yellowstone, this phenomena thought perhaps to be a sign of the impending eruption of the super-volcano there, which is the only one on earth not currently set beneath an ocean.  It was a short little paragraph, but I told the other sitters on the patio that if in fact the Yellowstone volcano did erupt, that would be the last piece of news ever printed in the government fish-wrapper, or for that matter any other paper in the world.  Later in the week two nights were spent accompanying Mario and his family to a resort on the northern coast a couple of hours east of Havana, and that environment was a stark cultural contrast to everything I had seen elsewhere in the country.  Lots of foreigners, beach chairs, enormous buffets, and all the usual Oceanside tourism scene.  I met some interesting people from other countries, chased a couple of big barracuda with my underwater camera, and had a few good conversations with elder Mexicans about the history of their own country; but apart from that the days there were mostly spent eating.  Then far too quickly it was time for my flight back to Nassau, and I left my final morning from the Tío y Tía’s house being driven to the airport by a retired personal bodyguard of Fidel’s in a mood that told me in no uncertain terms I wasn’t finished with the place, and would be back.  On my next trip I hope to travel most of the island over a period of at least a few months, and hopefully get to know the farmers better, as well as the land herself.  Mario tells me there are villages that no roads reach, where the fields are still plowed with oxen, and perhaps even salmonids in some of the high creeks that spill down from some of the four mountain ranges that scatter across the land.  He says the locals tell him about “truchas” which they say are wonderful to eat, so perhaps it is true?  We’ll find out.  Soon enough.  And in the meantime I am back in the Bahamas, ready to get out with my clients in the flats skiff yet again, and surprised beyond all belief that in my absence I actually won the lodge-wide March Madness Bracket, even though I’ve never seen an entire basketball game in my life.  There was even an envelope full of five dollar bills on the table with my selection sheet to prove it.  Now everyone write me back, and let me know what is going on in your neck of the woods; I’ll be on the water almost every day now until the end of May but look forward to hearing from each and every one of you soon nonetheless.