Russian Far East: Part 2 – Wrangel Island

Dragi Bay, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

[T]he most desolate looking place I have ever seen, or ever wish to see again.

Ernest Chafe, The Voyage of theKarluk” (unpublished manuscript)*

 

So. My previous post ended with our rather hectic embarkation on the good ship Professor Khromov, moored off the Siberian port of Anadyr.

Professor Khromov
Click to enlarge
The Khromov at anchor © The Boon Companion, 2016
Bows of the Professor Khromov
Click to enlarge
It’s behind you! The bow of the Khromov from a small boat © The Boon Companion, 2016

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:

Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Location of Wrangel Island (public domain map – original source)

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.

Boarding RIBs from the Khromov
Click to enlarge
Getting into the boats © The Boon Companion, 2016
Zodiac approaching Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Going ashore © The Boon Companion, 2016
Landing on Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Landing © The Boon Companion, 2016

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).

Zodiac stern landing
Click to enlarge
Stern landing © The Boon Companion, 2016

Or sometimes you can just cruise around somewhere that would otherwise be inaccessible:

Zodiac cruising bird cliffs
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Zodiac in a cave
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

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 Island obscured by sea fog
Click to enlarge
Wrangel from the north, with sea fog preventing a landing © The Oikofuge, 2016

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.

Wrangel Island Tactical Pilotage Chart
Click to enlarge
Wrangel Island, showing places mentioned in the text
(Detail from Tactical Pilotage Chart C-8A, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

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:

LANDSCAPE

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.

Wrangel Island hills from above Mammoth River valley
Click to enlarge
Hills above the Mammoth River © The Boon Companion, 2016
Krasin Bay, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Lagoon to west of Krasin Bay © The Boon Companion, 2016
Reindeer horn on tundra, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Kittiwakes on Saltwater Lake Kmo, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Kittiwakes on Saltwater Lake Kmo © The Boon Companion, 2016
Saltwater Lake Kmo, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Lake Kmo (the white edge is made of drifting bird feathers) © The Boon Companion, 2016
Ptichiy Bazar cliffs from Lake Kmo, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Ptichiy Bazar cliffs from Lake Kmo © The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Litke, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Cape Litke © The Boon Companion, 2016
Orographic cloud at Dream Head, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Orographic cloud at Dream Head © The Boon Companion, 2016
HISTORY

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.

Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Ranger vehicle, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Rangers’ tundra vehicle © The Boon Companion, 2016
Abandoned Building 2, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Abandoned Building 1, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear repellent window frame, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Polar Bear repellent window frame © The Boon Companion, 2016

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.

Cover of "Karluk"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:

Dragi Bay 1, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Dragi Bay 2, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Can you see the polar bear? © The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Waring, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Cape Waring © The Boon Companion, 2016

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:

Karluk memorial, Dragi Bay, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

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.

ANIMALS

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.

Polar Bear 1
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 2
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 3
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 4
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 5
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Click to enlarge© The Boon Companion, 2016
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 8
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear Tracks
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

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.

Musk Oxen
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

This tilted slab of rock at Dream Head was just the right height for a musk ox to scratch against:

Musk Ox scratching post, Dream Head, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

And here’s the close-up to prove it:

Close-up of Musk Ox scratching post, Dream Head, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
BIRDS

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.

Kittiwake
Click to enlarge
Kittiwake © The Boon Companion, 2016
Horned Puffin
Click to enlarge
Horned Puffin © The Boon Companion, 2016
Horned Puffins
Click to enlarge
Horned Puffins © The Boon Companion, 2016
Tufted Puffin
Click to enlarge
Tufted Puffin © The Boon Companion, 2016
Phalarope
Click to enlarge
Phalarope © The Boon Companion, 2016
Common Guillemots
Click to enlarge
Common Guillemots © The Boon Companion, 2016
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:

180 meridian marker, Krasin Bay, Wrangel Island
Click to enlarge
Note the whale vertebra decoration © The Boon Companion, 2016

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.

2 thoughts on “Russian Far East: Part 2 – Wrangel Island”

  1. That’s a holiday . I loved reading all of it, enlarged and zoomed in on the photos, played the U-tube video of polar bears. Very interesting the different approaches to these big beautiful, fierce animals , between Canadian and Russian . Their wonderful big paws make swimming look effortless
    Look forward to part 3.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it.
    I think an important thing on Wrangel is that the bears have never become habituated to humans – every human encounter has ended with the bear retreating in alarm; they never get food around human habitation, and they never see humans exhibit behaviour that triggers their hunting response.
    You might get into a lot of trouble trying to use Ovsyanikov’s experience on, say, the bears that wander around Churchill, Manitoba.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter the characters you see in the image above