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River of hungry salmon awaits in Arctic Russia

A river of salmon awaits in Arctic Russia: Ryabaga Camp isn’t easy to reach – unless you’re a prime fish. The sports resort is carved out of tree-free tundra-like wilderness.
A river of salmon awaits in Arctic Russia: Ryabaga Camp isn’t easy to reach – unless you’re a prime fish. The sports resort is carved out of tree-free tundra-like wilderness. Frontiers International Travel

Mollie Fitzgerald, 53, is co-owner of Frontiers International Travel (www.frontierstravel.com), an upscale leisure-oriented travel agency. She lives in the Pittsburgh area and is a 1985 Duke University grad. Her company operates Ryabaga Camp, a wilderness fishing resort in Russia near the Arctic Circle.

Q. Just how remote is this place?

A. Part of our business specializes in field sports – fishing, shooting, safaris and things like that. For 25 years, we’ve been the exclusive representatives for the Ponoi River Company. It’s on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, which sticks out into the White Sea, east of northern Finland. They hold the lease; we’re their U.S. voice.

This is a part of the country that was not open to visitors when Russia was closed and everything had to go through the government.

Q. Does it look like Alaska? Northern Canada?

A. It’s not like Denali; it’s not nearly as forested or mountainous as that national park. It’s more like Nome, Alaska – rolling hills covered with tundra-like permafrost – and it’s close to the sea. Not many trees, no big forests. There are lots of little lakes and a number of rivers.

Q. Russia is huge. Why did you choose this particular place?

A. A great deal of time and study went into picking the location, which is about 40 miles upstream from the coast. Atlantic salmon as a species is endangered; it’s getting harder to find them in rivers in reliable numbers. It seemed to many that conditions along that part of the Kola Peninsula would be similar to northern Norway, eastern Scotland and other places where salmon had traditionally been found. It stood to reason that the fish there would be going out into the Barents Sea – the same feeding grounds where Norwegian salmon go.

Here’s the thing: If you go fishing in Scotland for a week, you may be lucky to get two salmon. At Ponoi River, you may get as few as 25 or – if you’re a decent angler – as many as 125. Our site has a long and consistently reliable season – 19 weeks, from the end of May through the beginning of October. It can reach 85 degrees one day, 42 the next. Sunny days can feel very hot.

My dad was part of the early exploration trips in the early to mid-1980s. It was a vast wilderness with nothing there. The local people, called Saami, were nomadic reindeer herders who follow reindeer across the whole of northernmost Europe.

Ryabaga is actually the name of the creek that comes into the river where the lodge is located. We put in a tremendous infrastructure – a camp with individual cabins, a full staff, guides, boats, helicopters ... a logistical tour de force. It’s still in the middle of nowhere – a two-hour helicopter ride from Murmansk (Russia) – but Russia has opened tremendously in the last 25 years. We used to have to bring in every head of lettuce from Helsinki (Finland) every week; now most everything is obtained from within Russia.

Q. How big are the salmon?

A. They can range up to 30 pounds; the average is more like 9 or 10 pounds. It’s all sophisticated equipment, and fly-fishing only. It’s all catch-and-release, which has done an amazing job of helping preserve resources. We’re catching as many today as we did 20 years ago. The water is absolutely pristine. There’s no industry up there. There’s a tiny logging community 30 miles upstream from us that has a few people, but that’s it.

Q. And the skeeters?

A. Anywhere above the Arctic Circle, you have a healthy population of mosquitoes. The worst is usually in July and August, the two warmest months. Most people are willing to deal with that.

Q. What’s the Ponoi River like?

A. Big. But in midsummer, when the water level is lowest, it’s possible in places to wade in to fish the micro-pools. We have jetboats and a hovercraft to get people around. We have a crew of about 35 in the camp; half the guide team is Russian. At least three-fourths of the staff is Russian.

Q. What do folks at the resort eat during the week? Local fare?

A. One night usually has a meal with a Russian emphasis. It might be borscht or stroganoff. There’s good farm-raised reindeer there – quite delicious. We do lots of things with salmon, though prepared Russian style might be different.

By and large, it’s a very international menu because we have an international range of guests – from America, Europe and elsewhere.

Q. How many people at the same time – and what does it cost?

A. A maximum of 20. The price range is from $7,490 to probably $15,490 for a week. The different rates are based on seasonal catch expectations and how fresh the fish are. There’s a perception that silver salmon are preferable to those that have been in the river a bit longer. People think bright salmon fight better.

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