Really roughing it in the wilderness of Sakhalin

by Lucille Craft

Few people would associate “tourist paradise” with “Sakhalin.” The lobster claw-shaped island lying just 40 km from Hokkaido is best known for the rush to exploit resources on its northeastern shelf, a repository of crude oil and natural gas.

Tourist pamphlets at Hakodate airport, the sole entry point into Sakhalin, are brutally honest: A section titled “Enjoying Yourself in Sakhalin” confesses that aside from the odd Japanese-designed museum or Soviet war monument, there is “nothing of great interest to see.” The twice-weekly flights from Hakodate deposit passengers in potholed, pockmarked and dusty Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, an exemplar of decay even by Russian provincial standards.

Drive an hour outside the capital, though, and the landscape improves dramatically. Forests and mountains blanket most of the 950-km-long island, which is home or migratory destination for just under half of all bird species, a third of all mammal species and nearly every species of whale in the former Soviet Union. Whooper swans, spoonbilled sandpipers and sea lions, walruses and several varieties of seals can be found here.

For fish-eating fauna, conditions are excellent: Sakhalin’s wet climate and steep terrain have formed over 16,000 lakes and 65,000 rivers, many of which are critical spawning grounds. Humans also depend on this marine bounty, which accounts for most jobs and exports on the island.

Colonized by Russia in the mid-1800s, Sakhalin served as a penal colony through the turn of the century. It has drawn at least two famous writers: Anton Chekhov, who visited in 1890; and a few decades later, Kenji Miyazawa, whose “Night on the Milky Way Train” may have been inspired by the island’s star-filled skies.

In 1905 southern Sakhalin was seized by Japan, which took control of the entire island by 1918. Russia recovered the northern half of the island in 1920; the Japanese would spend the next two decades clear-cutting the south. Russia regained Sakhalin at the end of World War II, and seized the southern Kuril Islands, precipitating a territorial spat over Japan’s “Northern Territories” that continues to this day.

Nature conservation contacts on Sakhalin steered me to entrepreneur Kristina Tarasenko, who opened perhaps the island’s only ecotourism agency 18 months ago.

“This year the government is finally paying attention to tourism,” says Tarasenko, a petite but formidable woman whose working uniform includes a black San Francisco 49ers cap. “But they have no idea how to go about it. They just want to get rich quick.”

Tarasenko isn’t going to announce an initial public offering anytime soon. She refuses to escort visitors on bear-hunting expeditions, unless the shooting is through the lens of a video camera. Her groups tend to be small, dwindling in frequency to one assignment or so a month during ski season; then up to perhaps one or two a week in summer, when caving, birding, mountain climbing and white-water rafting return to the itinerary.

As a lifelong Sakhalin resident and guide (she led her first “tour,” of classmates, at the age of 12) she feels driven to pursue ecotourism, particularly at a time when poorly managed oil and gas drilling, commercial fishing and forestry on Sakhalin threaten to destroy the island’s unusual natural beauty.

“State reserves get a financial boost when tourists visit,” she notes. “And there are lots of places with beautiful scenery which don’t receive federal protection.”

A former math teacher, the schoolmarm in Tarasenko occasionally surfaces as she delves into a dizzying reservoir of facts on everything from hiking old Japanese rail tunnels to the folklore of the indigenous Uilta reindeer breeders. My custom-tailored tour started with the Mud Volcano, a heaving and burping bunch of oily cones not far from the city. The volcano blew its stack several decades ago, gases bursting with enough force to uproot and hurl trees into the air like pieces of Styrofoam. Now quiescent, the mud is prized for its mineral qualities, applied in judicious quantities to clients at the nearby Sinegorsk Sanitarium.

Lunch was spread in the shadow of the mud volcano. Undaunted by my vegetarianism (Russians are unrepentant meat-and-potatoes types) Tarasenko had gathered a feast of fine Russian khleb (bread), Finnish cheese and other delicacies.

For someone just arrived from fetid Tokyo, the spring-like temperatures in Sakhalin were intoxicating. We hiked in view of the Pushkin and Chekhov peaks, the latter a 1,145-meter traditional climbing destination on Lenin’s birthday, April 22. Back in the SUV, we drove down a section of road so crooked and deadly it’s known as “mother-in-law’s tongue,” before ending up at Mordvinova Bay and the Okhotsk Sea.

As Vadim the driver boiled tea, the conversation turned, as it invariably does in the Russian Far East, to wildlife encounters. Vadim regaled me with a story I heard in one version or another from just about every Russian male acquaintance, about the time he calmly “talked” a bear into leaving him alone. Tarasenko recalled swimming in the Okhotsk Sea. Sensing someone nearby, she came up for air, and found herself staring into the startled face of a fur seal.

The sun doesn’t set until nearly 10 p.m. during a Sakhalin summer, but the day seemed to end as soon as it started.