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Pristine surface of Karymsky Lake masks a violent past: A 1996 underwater eruption spewed an ash column nearly five miles (8 kilometers) high and forged a small inner crater (foreground). Ash choked the air. Wildlife perished when muddy waves plastered the shoreline and acid poisoned the water. As the lake's acidity dilutes, plants and animals gradually return—surviving the violent moods of this turbulent land.

More than 260 years later the Kamchatka Peninsula is still a hot and shaky place, a 750-mile-long (1,200-kilometer-long) scimitar of land frequently jolted by eruptions—big, explosive eruptions—in a string of volcanoes that is one of the most volatile on Earth. Of Kamchatka's hundred-plus volcanoes, 29 are active. The largest, Klyuchevskoy, pours out an average of 60 million tons (54 metric tons) of basalt a year.

Late last summer I spent a month in Kamchatka stalking volcanic eruptions with a team that included French explorers Franck Tessier and Irène Margaritis, German photographer Carsten Peter, and a Russian guide named Feodor Farberov. Carsten—41, blond, and buzzing with energy—has spent his life documenting volcanoes with a camera. The closer he gets, the better he likes it.

Not so Feodor, a stolid, muscular, bearded mountaineer of 39. The son of two volcanologists, he was born in a village at the foot of Klyuchevskoy and grew up with the dangers and discomforts of volcano research. In the field "volcanic ash covered everything," he recalled. "Our water, our air, even our food tasted and smelled of sulfur." Having seen "enough eruptions for a lifetime," Feodor likes his mountains cold, quiet, and covered with snow for skiing.

Bezymianny, one of the dozen volcanoes that make up the peninsula's Klyuchevskoy group, was thought to be dormant until 1955, when it suddenly began to shake and swell and spew. On March 30, 1956, it exploded, enveloping the vicinity in a shroud of ash. Within two days the ash cloud reached Alaska, and two days later it was detected over the British Isles. The explosion flattened trees 15 miles (24 kilometers) away. Like Mount St. Helens, it started with a giant avalanche, then blew out sideways, leaving a yawning horseshoe-shaped crater.

Since 1956 Bezymianny has continued to erupt periodically, and when we started out to explore its blast zone, I found myself leaning toward Carsten's view of things. Echoing in my ears was the dinner toast we'd heard in the home of a Kamchatka scientist: "Please God, send to us the dreadful eruptions!"

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