Unexplored Territories – An Interview with Kirill UmrikhinFrom The Field
Russian photographer Kirill Umrikhin has recently ventured to a sparsely populated and largely unexplored part of the world: the Commander Islands in Russia.
The team sailed by yacht over the 6,000m-wide Aleutian-Kamchatka Depression, evading storms to reach the islands and become the first documented group to kitesurf the waters of the Bering Sea. Kirill also saw amazing wildlife, including beaked whales and orcas, rare seabirds, and over a quarter of a million seals. We asked him to tell us a little more about the expedition.
Sidetracked: Why did you want to visit the Commander Islands?
Kirill: Growing up in Russia, I had heard about the Commander Islands – one of the most distant, unique, and unexplored territories of our country.
The history of these islands is fascinating. When they were discovered in 1741 by Commander Vitus Bering, they were completely uninhabited. It wasn’t until 1825 that Aleuts from the nearby Aleutian Islands relocated there, and today, approximately 800 people live in the small village of Nikolskoe.
When the opportunity to pursue a dream project came about, I knew I wanted to visit somewhere truly remote where few adventurers, explorers, or photographers had been to before. These islands were the perfect example of a lost world just waiting to be discovered.
What’s more, they’re a haven for many species of animals – including 350,000 seals, orcas, and rare seabirds. Then of course there are the amazing waters, which I’d learnt no-one had ever kitesurfed before. The project would give me a chance to take my photography and love of adventure to another level.
How much planning did you have to do for a trip such as this, given the remote nature of the location?
Finding a remote and unfrequented location is great, but it does place more pressure on planning. For any adventurer wanting to travel somewhere few have been, I would advise speaking to people who either live there, or have travelled there before.
I contacted a captain based in Kamchatka – not only had he visited the islands four times before, he also had a boat we could use. It became apparent during my conversations with local travel advisors and the Komandorsky Nature Reserve that sailing to the islands from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky would be tricky. The Commander Islands are renowned for their unpredictable weather, so we had to select appropriate clothing, equipment, and cameras for the conditions. I chose the Nikon D850, Nikon D5, and the new mirrorless Z 7 – light to transport, yet robust against the elements.
Luckily for us, the weather held out. Our crew of seven made it safely to the islands after two days of sailing.
How much kitesurfing and sailing had you done in the past before you visited these waters?
I’ve always wanted to sail yachts, yet, for some reason, I only tried it for the first time a few years ago on Russia’s legendary Barque Kruzenshtern, which has a 100-year sailing history. After that, I fell in love with sailing, and my knowledge and experience of how to utilise it as an adventurer and a photographer have gone from strength to strength.
Kitesurfing was a new experience for me. I had windsurfed before, but the weather conditions in the Commander Islands weren’t right. It helped that I chose to work with two athletes who were experienced in kitesurfing flat waters – they helped me get to grips with it. Capturing this world first was a life-changing moment.
When visiting the village of Nikolskoe, what struck you most about the people and their culture?
Nikolskoe village is the only settlement on the Commander Islands and the only village in the Aleut region of Russia. Around 700 people live there. There is a school, a hospital, and even an air service (although this is only used for special types of aircraft). A ship brings in products and cargo once a month, although the weather can cause delays.
It was amazing to be part of a community that lives by the elements. The extreme weather determines whether they can take their boats out to fish or work on the reserve.
There are also several native Aleuts who live in the village. One of them is Nikolay Gennadievich, who was born in Preobrajenskoe, a village on Medny Island (which is now completely abandoned). They call their home ‘a Vatican’, because they have their own way of life, their own traditions, their own laws – and they’re extremely proud of this.
It looks as though this project started as an action and sports brief, but the wildlife of the Commander Islands offered something you didn’t expect. Is that a fair observation?
Absolutely. As a sports and action photographer, what initially attracted me to the Commander Islands was the potential for kitesurfing on waters no one had ever surfed before. Yet when I arrived, the wildlife and people that call this island home opened my eyes to a side of photography I had never really focused on previously – both portraits and wildlife.
The combination of the Nikon D850, which was perfect for high-quality wildlife shots (I even used it with an underwater camera protector to help me capture the up-close shots of seals), the Nikon D5, every action photographer’s best friend, and the new Nikon Z 7 camera, which let in levels of light I never thought possible, meant that I was ready for any shot that came my way.
This project has inspired me to take on more wildlife and portrait work in the future.
What advice would you give to other adventurers looking to carry out a similar project?
Getting the planning, timing, and equipment right is key to success. We prepared as much as we could in advance, yet also had to leave ourselves room to be flexible depending on the weather, wildlife, and landscapes we encountered each day. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and consider new forms of working and shooting. This project pushed me to my limits as a photographer, traveller, and even as an athlete.
Do you have any other adventures in the pipeline?
I can’t end one adventure without having another one on the way. Earlier this year I worked on an amazing snowboarding photography project in the Alps, and I’m currently in Hawaii working on some surfing imagery.