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Far Out Places: Exploring Urban Wastelands in Kamchatka

Kamchatka may be home to mind-blowing natural wonders, but Cam Riley and Clayton Vila sought a different playground for their Far Out Segment. 

In seeking a destination for the urban segment in Far Out, presented by REI, the creative team composed of double-threat skier filmmakers Cam Riley and Clayton Vila had one essential criteria for a destination: it had to be strange.

The duo wanted to get away from what people were used to seeing. Like it or not, most mountains look somewhat similar, so they chose to view the segment as a means to show the audience not just something new, but truly a little bizarre. There was talk of China and other locales, but ultimately, Kamchatka, Russia hit the sweet spot of reliable snow, rolling terrain and urban ruins that would likely be perfect for their craft. It looked promising.

But a trip to Russia mandated complex logistics.

Timing, the right crew, and snow on the ground were all variables — moving chess pieces on the board — that had to enter into consideration. There was a lot of scheduling to be done. For such a mission, Riley and Vila reached out to trusted childhood friends — now accomplished filmmakers — that they knew would have their back at the inevitable military checkpoint or in a scrap with a confused local.

Handrails with an extra side of consequence. Far Out still.

The Long Haul

LAX —> Hong Kong —> Vladivostok —> Kamchatka = 60 hours.

The boys opted to stage the trip from their home city of Los Angeles. Despite it never raining in LA, on the evening of their departure, the skies opened up with torrential downpours, complicating the process of moving 13 duffels full of expensive camera equipment and gear. Traversing the two miles from Riley’s office to the airport, in LA traffic, took 45 minutes.

“On top of all that,” Riley remembered, shuddering, “it was pouring rain, harder than I’ve ever seen it rain in LA, just dealing with 13 soaking wet duffel bags, trying to rush them off the curb, getting yelled at by cops. It was so hectic. My passport wouldn’t scan, and I thought to myself: I have a feeling this is a sign of what’s to come.”

That time of year, nobody is trying to go to the geographically remote Kamchatka. In the winter, there’s no way to access the arctic peninsula by train or automobile, so flying in is mandatory. Their itinerary included a 12-hour layover in Hong Kong (skateboards included) and another stop in Vladivostok before finally catching their flight to remote-as-f**k Kamchatka.

Riley knew that there were mountains in the region, but he was caught off guard by just how rugged the topography was of the peninsula. Vast ranges of mountains reared to meet their small plane in the sky, offering countless lines that would almost certainly never be skied. But they weren’t there for the big-mountain skiing.

The team landed at the small airport, and their smallish plane was dwarfed by a fleet of Russian military planes, cargo aircraft and fighter jets. The sight of the military hardware made a lasting impression on Riley — there was no doubt they had arrived on the Russian mainland.

Finding unique hits was not hard to do in Kamchatka. Far Out still.

Stop Russian Around

Although they had studied extensive Google maps and pictures of the Kamchatka environs, Riley and Vila still found the Soviet-era ruins to be shocking and a bit overwhelming. “I was surprised at how vast the expanse was,” Riley recalled of the decrepit state of the urban landscape he had found himself in. “It was literally throughout the whole city, and the city was a pretty good size, just all throughout it were these buildings that were decaying and falling down.”

When the team asked locals (through translators) what they thought of the state of the urban landscape, people seemed confused — that’s just how it was, and the Russian populace knew no other reality. Kamchatka’s remoteness had left its locals with no frame of reference, normalizing the state of the ruined backwater.

The days were still long, allowing Riley and Vila to establish a groove to get stuff done. However, they quickly found that the conveniences found in western society that enables a film shoot — and daily life — were either nowhere to be found, or at the very minimum much more of a heavy lift than back home. Finding batteries, fresh produce, food in the morning or even a cup of coffee proved to be a challenge. Everything was just a little bit (or a lot) harder.

“Things that are routine when we go shoot over here in North America or even Europe were always more complicated to find,” Riley explained. “We eventually found some workarounds, or the one restaurant in town where we could figure out what the hell we were ordering, but it definitely took some time to get comfortable.”

Clayton Vila making friends and posing for his rap album cover. Far Out still.

As a production strategy, Riley and Vila went into the project with an open plan. Besides knowing they’d have access to a translator, they sought to keep the creative side of the segment open-ended so as to remain flexible and work with what was available. In following this strategy, the filmmakers stumbled upon a local crew of youths in Kamchatka that rode dirt bikes year round, through the snow on studded tires, raging wheelies and donuts and being reckless. It was just the right vibe to supplement their urban segment.

In a skiing/filming sense, things went fairly smooth. The urban landscape was ideal for what Vila and Riley were looking to accomplish aesthetically. Hilly terrain and elevation change throughout the city made setting up shots a relatively simple process. It was urban skiing heaven, albeit, one you’d never want to live in.

“It was kinda hard to decipher which parts of the city were the bad areas,” Riley recalled, laughing at the semi-absurdity of the trip. “We’d get to one place, and our guide would tell us that ‘this is a really bad area.’ But to us, it would seem slightly nicer than the ‘safer’ neighborhoods we’d been to. So it was hard to figure out.”

Often they would go scope out a district, and would start getting looked at and mean-mugged by a lot of people. They knew that if someone came up and had a problem, they’d have no way of communicating, so they made it a point to not stray too far from their car. Throw in a ton of expensive gear and camera equipment, and the potential for trouble further multiplied. “There’s just no way to explain why you’re walking around looking at all sides of someone’s apartment — you put yourself in a pretty incriminating place doing what we were doing,” Riley said.

Setting up shots was no easy task for the team. Far Out still.

Two Black Eyes and a Cup of Tea

Toward the end of the trip, Riley, Vila and the crew were sliding a rail outside of an apartment building. Taking in the scene from her apartment window, a chain-smoking woman took in the whole session, periodically clapping and laughing at the urban exploits. Then, another guy from a separate apartment emerged. A cigarette hanging from his bottom lip, he was only wearing a bathrobe, plus two black eyes, and was obviously hammered. In terms of scary-looking Russian dudes, he was the scariest the film team had seen all trip.

As Riley walked back up the stairs, the inebriated, beaten man waved him down. The skier attempted to ignore him, but the man persisted, grabbed Riley by the shoulder, and held up a mobile phone with a russian-to-english translation on the screen.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE TEA WITH ME IN MY APARTMENT AFTER THIS, I WILL BE VERY OFFENDED!!

Riley smiled — happy to not be getting the same black-eye treatment by the obviously inebriated, bathrobed Russian — and several minutes later, the entire crew joined the hospitable local for tea in his home. 

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