[T]he most desolate looking place I have ever seen, or ever wish to see again.
Ernest Chafe, The Voyage of the “Karluk” (unpublished manuscript)*
The Khromov is an Akademik Shuleykin Class ice-strengthened ship. She was built in 1983 in Finland, as a polar research vessel for the USSR. Along with several of her sister ships, she was sold off in the early 1990s during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and converted for tourism. She is owned and operated (sometimes under the name Spirit of Enderby) by a New Zealand company, Heritage Expeditions.
Aboard her, we were heading to Wrangel Island, north of the Chukchi Peninsula:
This sort of trip is called expedition cruising. Exactly where you end up depends on the weather, and the sea and ice conditions encountered. Just the process of getting ashore is something of an adventure, often involving a wet beach landing from a Rigid Inflatable Boat.
If the surf is a little higher, then sometimes a stern landing is required (the bow of the RIB floats high and prevents waves breaking into the boat).
Or sometimes you can just cruise around somewhere that would otherwise be inaccessible:
Getting to Wrangel involved sailing around the Chukchi Peninsula and through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. What we did and saw during that time (and during the return journey) is the topic for my next post. Here, I’m going to concentrate on the six days we spent circumnavigating Wrangel itself. As you’ll see from the pictures above, we were blessed with freakishly good weather—there was stable high pressure in the Chukchi Sea almost throughout our time there, and the only problem we had was the occasional sea fog, and a little light snow on the last day.
Wrangel is a big place—125 kilometres from west to east, with rolling central hills that rise to 1000 metres. The coast alternates between cliffs and lagoon-trapping sand-spits. It was inhabited at one time by the ancestors of the modern Inuit (whose settlement dates, 4000 years ago, corresponds suspiciously with the extinction of Wrangel’s dwarf mammoths, the last survivors of that breed). But even the Inuit withdrew from this remote spot, and by the nineteenth century, when Russian explorers were expressing an interest in the north Siberian coastline, Wrangel was no more than a working hypothesis for the Chukchi and Yupik people on the mainland—an explanation for where migratory birds and reindeer were heading, when they travelled northwards across the sea ice.
The island was claimed by America in 1881, by Russia in 1911, and sorta-kinda by Canada in 1921, during a doomed colonization attempt. In 1926, Russia set up semi-permanent camp there—two villages, Ushakovskoye and Zvëzdnyy, were established on the south coast, with Yupik and Chukchi people being translocated from the mainland to live there. But the island became a Federal Nature Reserve in 1976, and the population dwindled to a group of wardens and visiting scientists. And it might have stayed like that, but it has since developed an unfortunate geopolitical importance. It’s situated at the east end of the Northeast Passage along Russia’s Arctic coast, and as that route has become increasingly navigable (because of the retreating pack ice), the Russian navy has become increasingly interested in maintaining a presence there. In 2014, they started constructing a naval base on the site of Ushakovskoye. The National Park wardens are based in a couple of buildings at Zvëzdnyy.
So here, in no particular order, are the broad themes of our visit to Wrangel:
There’s a beautiful simplicity to a tundra landscape (albeit an appearance that’s belied if you get down on your hands and knees and examine the complicated plant community). We got to see it in its autumn colours and never got tired of wandering through it.
The ranger station at Zvëzdnyy (on a site known to American whalers by the splendidly evocative name of Doubtful Harbour) stands amid the remains of the shortlived community there. It’s a bleakly picturesque place, all the more so when a sea fog rolls in. The rangers have been slowly clearing the remains of human occupation from the hinterland, so the decaying buildings are surrounded by a sea of rusting oil drums and discarded machinery parts. Some day, perhaps, this stuff will be moved off the island entirely. Apparently there’s a functioning drum crusher on the building site at Ushakovskoye—so there’s a possibility that the new military invasion might actually benefit the rest of the island.
There’s also the story of the Karluk survivors to think about. An ill-conceived Arctic expedition ended in 1914 with their ship, the Karluk, crushed in the pack ice. Crew and scientists trekked across the ice to take a sort of refuge on Wrangel Island. Their captain, Bob Bartlett, set off on foot across the sea ice to the Siberian mainland, supported by an Inuit hunter named Kataktovik. While Bartlett and Kataktovik completed an epic thousand-kilometre trek to summon a rescue party, the remaining personnel quarrelled their way through the Arctic summer, gradually falling victim to malnutrition before Bartlett’s rescue ship arrived at the eleventh hour.
Several of the survivors published accounts of the experience (including Ernest Chafe, whose opinion of Wrangel Island introduces this post). Jennifer Niven drew together all these narratives (and some unpublished diaries) to produce her book, The Ice Master (2000), which tells the story in detail. But I took William Laird McKinlay’s Karluk with me to read on this trip. McKinlay was one of the Karluk survivors, who eventually published his own account of the disaster in 1976, when he was in his eighties. The opening sentence of the summary on the back cover of my edition pretty much says it all:
High above the Arctic Circle, two men lie huddled in a blizzard-blown tent, with the decaying corpse of a comrade they haven’t had the heart to drag outside for the foxes to eat.
That image becomes all the more compelling when you’ve stood on the site of one of the bleak Karluk camps:
These photos are of the Dragi Bay camp site, on the east of the island. In the survivor accounts it’s always referred to as the “Cape Waring” camp—a reference to the rocky promontory on the south side of the bay. There were also camps at Icy Spit (one of the long gravel spits that run along the northeast coast), at Skeleton Island (at the mouth of the Klark River) and at Rodger’s Harbour in the south, where Ushakovskoye would later be built. The split camps were conceived as a way of maintaining adequate hunting—small groups, widely scattered, would put less of a load on the scant resources of the island—but they quickly turned into a way of keeping men apart who had grown to hate each other.
There’s a Karluk memorial on the Dragi Bay site:
The name of the ship is misspelled, and the date is wrong—this camp wasn’t established until June 1914. But I’m rather charmed by the notion of the ship being “squashed” rather than “crushed”. It sounds like it might, just possibly, have sprung back into shape again once the ice pressure had relented.
Wrangel has the highest density of polar bear den sites anywhere in the world. Polar bears are everywhere—on the tundra, up the mountains, on the beach, on the scree slopes, in the water and on the sea ice. And although we’ve seen plenty of polar bears, we’d never seen them en masse in the way we did at Wrangel. Watching the social behaviour of what we’d come to imagine to be solitary creatures was fascinating.
Another fascinating thing was the difference in “polar bear management style” between the Russian Arctic and other parts of the Arctic we’ve visited. In Svalbard and Greenland, the “correct” behaviour is to carry a gun but to retreat early and avoid confrontation. On Wrangel, the rules are exactly the opposite—no guns, never retreat (you’ll trigger hunting behaviour) and if necessary make a vigorous movement towards the bear to frighten it away. It’s guidance based on the long experience of Nikita Ovsyanikov, a polar bear researcher who has spent a lot of time on Wrangel. Here he is, in action:
The other big land mammals we got to see on Wrangel were musk oxen. Picture, if you will, one steely Russian warden walking slowly towards a little group of musk oxen, who are watching his every move. Behind him follows a little huddle of brightly coloured and overexcited photographers. Every now and then the guide stops; the photographers bunch up and click their shutters; the oxen swing their heads a little and then settle down again; the guide advances again; the process repeats. And then, finally, the musk oxen decide they’ve had enough and walk away from us. Show over.
This tilted slab of rock at Dream Head was just the right height for a musk ox to scratch against:
And here’s the close-up to prove it:
We were too late in the season for many birds, unfortunately. We did see a solitary snow goose, which seemed to be scanning the horizon anxiously, wondering where its thousands of buddies had disappeared to. Both species of Pacific puffin were still around in large numbers, and just as charming as their Atlantic cousin. (Few experiences can match that of sitting under a towering bird cliff with hundreds of puffins coming and going overhead, like bees from a giant beehive.) Kittiwakes were noisily omnipresent. There were lots of phalaropes, too, scooting around madly on the water like little wind-up toys, but difficult to identify precisely (for me, at least) in their drab eclipse plumage. And flocks of snow buntings swirled around us everywhere as we walked. Rarer sightings include snowy owls, long-tailed ducks and peregrine falcons.
AND FINALLY …
Wrangel happens to straddle the 180º meridian, exactly opposite the Prime Meridian, which runs through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England. Unlike the Prime Meridian, there aren’t many places you can go to stand on the Antimeridian, because it runs mainly through ocean. It crosses land at Wrangel, the Chukchi Peninsula immediately to the south, and then just three Fijian islands before it reaches Antarctica. On Wrangel, there’s a handy bilingual marker on the beach at Krasin Bay, although it’s in slightly the wrong position:
And that’s it for now. The next (and final) installment will be about the rest of our journey, from Anadyr to Wrangel, and from Wrangel back to Anadyr. More animals! More landscapes! Some geophysics! And a bit of culture!
* The phrase doesn’t appear in Chafe’s published memoir, The Voyage Of The “Karluk,” And Its Tragic Ending (The Geographical Journal 1918, pp 307-16). Jennifer Niven quotes it in The Ice Master, from unpublished material held by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.