Discovering Kamchatka Geysers Almost Killed Soviet Geologist

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© kamgov.ru

The Valley of Geysers – a landmark of Kamchatka – was discovered entirely by accident. In believing hoary legends, local hunters avoided this place, whilst Soviet geologists basically could not get to such a remote area. Yet one day, Tatiana Ustinova, in a dog sledge, left to explore the territory of the Uzon volcano and saw something she had not expected at all.

гейзеры
© Из архива Кроноцкого заповедника

As far back as the 18th century, the area to the peninsula's east was closely guarded by the native Itelmen. They did not allow anyone to approach it. According to folk beliefs, a terrible death awaited anyone who dared to go there. In the 19th century, the land was still securely guarded against strangers, but no longer by the keepers of the legends but by hunters from nearby villages. They protected their land from poachers who were exterminating sables all over the region.

In 1940 the Kronotsky reserve was created in Kamchatka, where scientists were sent to study geology and seismic activity of the region. At that time, there was not even a map of the peninsula. There was only a scheme of its coastline, coordinates and heights of the large volcanoes. The rest was a white sheet. The region's poor state of exploration did not frighten Tatiana Ustinova, a 27-year-old geologist, and her husband, zoologist Yuri Averin. On the contrary, scientific work in such conditions seemed to them an exciting adventure.

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© Из архива Кроноцкого заповедника

In April 1941, Tatyana Ivanovna and local aboriginal guide Anisifor Krupenin searched for the sources and tributaries of the Shumnaya and Tihaya rivers. The geomorphologist wondered why the water in one of them was warmer than in neighbouring rivers and where the peculiar sulphur smell was coming from. She assumed that the Shumnaya had to be a left tributary carrying water from the Uzon. The irrigation tinge of the water, which usually occurs when mineral water is added to pure freshwater, gave her confidence in this.

Nowadays, one can get to the valley by helicopter, but such technology was not even dreamed of at that time: dogsleds were chosen for the expedition's transport. It is still winter in spring in Kamchatka, and snow covers the bushy thickets that are insurmountable in summer. At the end of the first day of the expedition, the geologist saw, as she had hoped, a large tributary flowing into Shumnaya from the volcano. (It was later named the Geyser River). Ustinova and Krupenin decided to explore it and find its source.

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© Из архива Кроноцкого заповедника

"... The weather was fine. We got up early and dressed, or rather, undressed according to the weather: overalls, camllеias - white knee-length shirts made of tent material, protecting against wind and snow, put on our high rubber boots, got on skis and set off. We ran briskly upstream the river. Soon we had to put off skis and walk by snow-covered slope, falling to the knees. We went, went, but still no source. We had to get out of the valley. While we were reflecting, ahead of a high column of steam rose; apparently, it was a large hot spring. We decided to reach it. The weather got worse and worse; we continued walking, but there was no hot spring; the camp was getting farther and farther away. The weather in the mountains is no joke, so we decided to turn back. We sat down on the snow to have a rest, to eat what we took with us. Suddenly, from the opposite shore, a stream of boiling water shot straight at us from a small soaring platform, accompanied by puffs of steam and underground rumbling. We were frightened, pressed close to each other, sitting, and did not know what was waiting for us. The behaviour of volcanoes is unpredictable. All of a sudden, the boiling eruption stopped, puffs of steam kept shooting out for a while, and then everything fell silent, and there was a small hovering area in front of us, unremarkable in any way. That's when I came to my senses and shouted in a voice not my own: "Geyser!!!" - recalled Ustinova in her book.

The emergence of geysers requires a combination of thermodynamic conditions rarely encountered. This natural phenomenon has never been found on our continent before. It's hard to imagine the intensity of emotions experienced by the young specialist when discovering the gushing spring.

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Despite the rapidly deteriorating weather, the geologist and his guide spent two hours observing the geyser named Pervenets. During this time, it erupted three times; the fountain of boiling water (97 degrees) lasting three minutes appeared every 45 minutes.

It was urgent to return to the village. But the explorers had no time to get to the camp as a blizzard had started; they found themselves without warm clothes, equipment or supplies. Anisiphor Krupenin made a cave in the snow for the night stay. Though he was an experienced pathfinder and knew his way around the peninsula, this was the first time he had been in the area. The explorers wandered for several days. On the third day, frozen and barely alive, they found a dog sledge and a tent. If not for the find, the discovery of one of the world's largest geyser concentrations could have been buried under snow, together with the discoverers.

The persistent Ustinova was able to continue her research in July 1941. The same group carried out the second expedition. They had to travel on foot, with one packhorse carrying the camp equipment and few supplies. They chose a different route - up into the high desert, walked around the cones of Krashennikov and Savich volcanoes and finally came to a cliff in a deep valley. From the height, they could see the whole canyon.

Numerous jets of steam rose to the clouds and dotted the valley floor and slopes. At times fountains of boiling water exploded in various places. Only then could Tatiana Ivanovna realize the scale of her discovery - there were several hundred geysers, hot springs, mud pots, waterfalls and lakes. They were all concentrated on a minimal area of 4 km². The biggest geyser, the Giant, threw up jets of water weighing up to 60 tonnes and 40 metres high (a 12-storey building). The geologist and her constant guide Krupenin spent all daylight hours studying and describing this unique natural object for four days.

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© Игорь Шпиленок, Из архива Кроноцкого заповедн

"The work was interesting but also scary. We did not know the mode of the springs. At any moment, a jet of boiling water could splash out on us from the slope we were crossing. It turned out that in our tent, the ground under our sleeping bags was so cold to the touch that we slept on the stove, and a few meters away from our tent, a grazing horse suddenly fell through with its hind legs, and steam was rising from the holes left by the springs while we were in the valley," wrote Ustinova.

On her return to base, she told her husband, acting director of the reserve, about the discovery. Averin sent a telegram to Moscow, but in reply, he received an order: to suspend all scientific work, switch to austerity and reduce the post of geomorphologist, which Tatiana Ivanovna held. The Second World War had broken out.

For two years, the geologist worked as an observer at the local weather station, which was under the authority of the Pacific Fleet. The researches were resumed only in 1945. In the following campaign, Ustinova made the elaborate scheme, descriptions, photos, and water samples. These materials formed the basis of the specialist's dissertation, and then the book was published a few years later in 20 thousand copies.

In 1947 the couple had to leave the Far East as their daughter, born during the war, became ill. They moved to Crimea, then to Moldavia. There the geologist studied seismic activity and geomorphology and taught at the Chisinau Polytechnic Institute. Fate took the scientist farther and farther away from the valley, to which she returned mentally again and again. After Yuri Averin died in 1987, Tatiana Ivanovna left for Canada to join her eldest daughter.

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© Из архива Кроноцкого заповедника

She visited Kamchatka several times: in 1951 with the hydrological expedition of Moscow Scientific Research Institute of balneology, in 1979, when there was the shooting of the film "There, where the wintering spring takes place", and in 1999. But the most recent trip was completely different. Ustinova died at the age of 96 in 2009. She willed her ashes to be buried at the discovery site, but It required permission from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation. The case was exceptional, and her wish was granted in 2010.

In 1951, the reserve status was abolished, and "nature lovers" rushed there to "explore" it uncontrollably. The fragile ecosystem had been irreparably damaged. Later, officials came to their senses and banned tourism in the Valley of Geysers for decades. In 1993 it was reopened for helicopter tours, but a strict system of regulations was introduced. Self-access for tourists is now severely restricted.

камчатка
© Jeskela, Википедия

The discovery of a vast thermal field with geysers and boiling springs was one of the last great geographical discoveries of the world. The only similar sites are Iceland, the USA and New Zealand. Today the Valley of Geysers is considered to be a trademark of Kamchatka. In 1996 it was included in the list of UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites, in 2008 - in the list of "Seven Wonders of Russia", which was summed up by online voting among the country's citizens.