Fattening up for winter, a brown bear waits to snatch salmon in Kuril Lake.
The Kamchatka Peninsula, rugged and remote, is a vast blade of land stabbing southwestward through cold seas from the mainland of northeastern Russia. Its coastline is scalloped like the edges of an obsidian dagger. Its highlands rise to cone-shaped volcanic peaks, snow-streaked in summer, and to ridges of bare, gray rock. Its gentler slopes are upholstered in boreal greens. It's a wild place, in which brown bears and Steller's sea-eagles thrive on a diet rich in fatty fish. About 350,000 people inhabit Kamchatka Krai (its label as a governmental region), and they too are highly dependent on fish. In fact, you can't begin to understand Kamchatka without considering one extraordinary genus: Oncorhynchus, encompassing the six species of Pacific salmon.
Then again, it might also be said: You can't understand the status and prospects of Oncorhynchus on Earth without considering Kamchatka, the secret outback where at least 20 percent of all wild Pacific salmon go to spawn.
Although larger than California, the peninsula has less than 200 miles of paved roads. The capital is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, on the southeastern coast, containing half the total population. Across a nicely protective bay sits the Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base, Russia's largest, in support of which the city grew during Soviet times, when the entire peninsula was a closed military region. Travel to most other parts of Kamchatka is still difficult for anyone who doesn't have access to an Mi-8 helicopter. But there is a modest network of gravel roads, and one of those winds upstream along a narrow waterway called the Bystraya River, amid the southern Central Range, to the Malki salmon hatchery, a complex of low buildings surrounded by trees.