The Russia Diaries

The Russia Diaries

Fishing in the Atlantic-salmon fiefdom of a mysterious millionaire

  • By: James Prosek

From Stockholm, Sweden, James Prosek and I board our chartered Embraer 145 jet to Murmansk along with 50 or so of Peter Power's handpicked guests from Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and the United States. Power, of course, is the millionaire former British industrialist who has leased two million acres on Russia's Kola Peninsula, property that includes the Kharlovka, Rynda, Eastern Litza and Zolotaya rivers, among the finest Atlantic salmon waters in the world. On the plane, there is chatter all around about our host, who seems to grow more mythical, more mysterious, with each foot of elevation gained over the Finnish Laplands."It's like he's the lord of a fiefdom," an Irishman in the seat behind me says with eyes incredulously wide. "It truly is." It's his third trip to Power's camp on the Kharlovka. "I heard he knows Putin personally, that he can call him anytime he likes,"I overhear a Brit in front of me tell his seat mate over his third gin-and-tonic. There are other rumors, of Russian women and big silvery salmon. Luckily, I find myself sitting next to HÃ¥kan Stenlund, the Swedish photographer, who seems to be among the more levelheaded of the bunch. He is unruffled by the alcohol-at-elevation-inspired talk around him, despite the fact that James has already insisted on calling him "Swenson," for no obvious reason other than liking the sound of it. Swenson has been to Peter's camps on the Kharlovka and the Rynda, dozens of times. He quickly sets us straight. "Peter is a nice guy. You will like him," he says in his impressive English. What about the rumors? "Well, you will find out for yourself," he says, and gives us a mischievous grin. The passengers on the plane are split up in groups. In the front is Peter's son and fifteen or so of his mates, all in their mid-twenties, all of whom appear to have just walked off Bond Street in their pressed oxford shirts and tasseled loafers. It's young person's week, we're told. They're headed for Peter's private camp on the Rynda. In the back are the older men, the Irish, the Scots and the Americans, all successful in their respective careers in their respective countries and all wearing cargo pants and multi-pocketed shirts, the universal uniform that says "fly fisherman." They're headed to the Kharlovka camp. James and I are in the middle of it all. We are known as "the journalists." We get the questions from everywhere. "What are you writing about?" "Will I be in the story?" We're headed to the Kharlovka camp first, then Rynda. My head is already spinning. Neither James nor I really knows what's in store for us, so we sit back and pour a Johnnie Walker and try to soak it all in. But I do know this: I suddenly feel like James and I are two Marlows, sent by the outside world up the Congo to give a report on the charismatic and larger-than-life man at the headwaters. Every story I've ever read about fishing for Atlantic salmon in Russia has begun with a scene at the tarmac at Murmansk, the gateway to the Kola Peninsula. I am underwhelmed when we finally get there. It's like going to a movie that everyone has told you absolutely must see. Expectations will never be met. Nonetheless, it is memorable. The bartender, a homely old woman who serves us steins of beer as we wait for the helicopters that will take us to the camps, is sad-looking, with downcast eyes beneath heavy, dark lids. The bar is dank and dirty. The 1980's pop tunes piped in from the speakers above, J. Geils Band and Foreigner, seem somehow fitting, as if the Russians are just now catching up on all the fluff of freedom they missed out on during the Cold War. I buy beers for James and Swenson from the sad old lady. Three of them cost $4. I give her a dollar tip. She smiles, flashing a twinkling rack of gold teeth. When we arrive at the Kharlovka camp, we go straight to our wooden cabin, but we're told by camp manager Justin McCarthy not to unpack. Justin is an American, young and wiry, who's pursued his passion for fly-fishing all over the globe. He's worked camps in Argentina and New Zealand and now Russia. He is a treasured commodity in the fishing camp world, bright and energetic, and his prowess with the rod is legendary. He tells us we'll helicoptered up the Eastern Litza and spend the night at the spike camp halfway down the river. James and I throw some essentials into our daypacks and join Swenson and Vassily, our guide for the week, on the MI-2 helicopter and fly above the tundra to the impressive falls on the Eastern Litza, one of the best salmon pools in the world. We get out, string up our rods and cast our bright yellow lines into the frothy water. We don't even raise a fish, so we move down to Flat Stone pool, another fine stretch of water, where the river forms a V off the putting green-sized rock. It's rumored that Peter Power lands his helicopter here when he fishes the pool, though I find that hard to believe. James immediately hooks into a fish and expertly plays the 20-pound male to Vassily's net. Then he grins and beckons me over. I take his spot and cast and hook into an identically-sized fish, though a bit darker. But I have trouble bringing the fish in. It's the biggest salmon I have ever hooked, and my single-handed flyrod feels like a flyswatter. As the minutes tick away, I start to feel embarrassed, and Vassily does not seem pleased. He rubs his blond-red beard, and mumbles to himself, something he will do often over the next week. His blanched-out blue eyes stared vacantly toward the horizon. When I finally pull the fish in, I am more relieved than happy. We walk the tundra, a brutal hike, and fish the pools down to the camp, hooking and losing and landing many salmon. Back at the spike camp, Swenson, James and I drink vodka and feast on reindeer tenderloin cooked by Vassily over an open fire, before turning in to the pleasant murmur of a salmon river. The next day, we hike and fish the rest of the way downriver, catching more salmon on green and orange bombers, mostly grilse this day. It is spectacular Atlantic salmon fishing by any standard. The helicopter picks us up within sight of the ocean, and we fly back to the Kharlovka camp, where we meet up with the others in the communal room of the lodge. After dinner, we sit down and drink vodka and share stories. Fishing has been good on all rivers. Men are happy, and one drink turns into two, then three. I find myself talking to an Irish industrialist who runs the largest nuclear plant in that country, something I find somehow incongruous. I get a bit lost somewhere in the discussion about the pros and cons of fusion versus fission. I look over at James, who's talking to the Americans. He's in the process of shattering the image that many Americans have of him as the young oracle of fly-fishing-something I've seen him do a number of times. It's as if some people who have seen his art and read his books expect him to be wearing tweed and smoking a pipe and giving a lecture on the virtues of Ephemera guttalata and Epeorus vitreus. But that's not him. Emboldened by the vodka, James has become loud and funny, and when someone in the room mentions that they caught a huge cock fish, James breaks up into loud shrieks laughter. I look at the Americans. They're laughing now, too. So is everyone else in the room. The next morning after breakfast, a great black bird of a helicopter swoops down from the sky and lands at the camp. "Peter's here," says Justin. As the blades chop-chop over his head, out steps Peter Power. Already wearing his waders, he's flanked by two guides who walk a half step behind him. The Russians in the camp rush to greet him and he shakes hands and says hello to everyone as he walks by. Peter is very tall, maybe six and half feet. He has long, graying hair that he has to constantly sweep away from his large blue eyes, and he smokes what seems to be an eternal cigarette. James, Swenson and I jump in the helicopter with him, and our first stop is at Peter's new dacha, one he's building on the Kharlovka to complement the one he already has on the Rynda. "Some people collect art," he tells me. "I collect houses on salmon rivers…and art." We fish that morning for native brown trout on the upper Rynda. The trout are absolutely beautiful, with big black spots on their flanks, and James is fascinated by them. When we stop for lunch. Vassily and another guide cook blood-rare Moscow beef over an open fire, which we eat greedily with our hands. Peter tells us about his evolution as a salmon fisherman, and about the thrill of memorable salmon. "Great salmon are like a great woman," he declares. "No man, in the course of an interesting life, is entitled to more 30-pound-plus salmon and beautiful women than he can remember." Peter initially leased his two million acres to get in a bit of good fishing, but soon saw something much grander for himself and the land. Last year he deemed this property an Atlantic Salmon Reserve, meaning it will be managed with the survival of the species first and foremost, set aside in perpetuity as a haven for the imperiled species. It's an ambitious and grand and necessary plan, the first of its nature, and one, it's abundantly clear, the 64-year-old Power will make his life's work. That night, we move to the Rynda camp and join the festive "young person's week." Peter's son and his friends are fishing hard, but also clearly having a good time. We eat a sumptuous dinner of fresh king crabs, and drink more vodka. The Brits tell hilarious stories about their prep school days. Rupert, Angus, Duncan and the rest welcome us into the fold. Someone produces a guitar after dinner, and we stay up late singing songs at the top of our lungs. We sing Don McLean's "American Pie," a half dozen times. Perhaps the Brits are just being polite. James, Swenson and I fish with Peter for the remainder of the week. James and I get great stories from this compelling, strong-willed man. We figure out that the rumors about him mostly originate in the Kharlovka camp, where the guests only see Peter once or twice during the week, and have the rest of the time to fill in the blanks with their own versions of his life, like partygoers at Gatsby's fantastic mansion. James and I both grow very fond of him; he's become, in some odd way, a sympathetic figure, and even quite fatherly, even when he reprimands us for not being "serious" salmon fishermen yet. Though it stings a bit to hear it, compared to the other fishermen in the camp, with their more practical two-handed rods, he's right. On our last night in Russia, Swenson and I decide to fish after dinner, in the haunting gray gloaming of the late Arctic summer, and we hike a few miles upstream, then hopscotch our way down, fishing each pool with intensity. At midnight, I stop at Peter's Pocket, a small pool boxed in a canyon like a present from the salmon gods, and take a short cast. I think my line is hooked on the bottom, and I throw repeated overhand casts to try to dislodge the fly. But the rock suddenly starts moving and I hold on for dear life. For ten minutes, the contest is a draw, with neither the fish nor me budging. I can tell that this is the biggest salmon I've ever hooked into, possibly over the 30-pound mark that demarcates a "serious" fish. I want to catch it, for myself and to prove something to Peter. I yell in vain for Swenson, but the roar of the rapids soaks up all noise not its own. After 20 minutes, the fish makes its move. It starts slowly upstream, then suddenly accelerates like no fish I've ever hooked toward the rapids above the pool. It leaps, suspended for a moment in the air, then shakes it's head and my line goes slack. All I can do is I sit on a mid-stream rock, my head in my hands, dazed and exhausted. Clearly, it will be on another fishing trip that I finally prove myself to be a "serious" salmon angler.