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Wrangel: The Last Before the Pole

Stories of people for whom the distant Arctic island became home, at least for a while

Wrangel Island is one of the most inaccessible reserves of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a kingdom of ice, winds and radiance, a “maternity den” of polar bears, a land plot with an area of ​​7 600 sq. km in the Arctic Ocean between the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas. There is no permanent population, except for the shaman Gregory Kaurgin, who refused to leave the island at the end of the 90's. A trip to Wrangel as part of a two-week tour in Chukotka costs about 700 thousand rubles, but there are alternative ways for those who are in love with the gloomy beauty of the Arctic.

Wrangel: The Last Before the Pole
Photo: Alexander Krasnov

Spring, summer, autumn, winter and spring again. Work.

Our first story is from the polar explorer Alexandra Krasnova. Graduate of the Russian State University. Herzen set off on his first extreme expedition in 2011, and since then has not “crawled out” from the Arctic and Antarctic. Alexander asked for Wrangel in the science department, but the reserve needed strong men for the protection department, and he agreed. What opened the island for him in 13 months of work - in a first-person story. 

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Photo: Swimming season in the Arctic. Alexander Krasnov  

“From Pevek (Chukotka Autonomous Okrug - прим. ред.) we arrived in the village of Ushakovskoye in April 2016, and left it in May of the next year. In Soviet times, there was a reindeer-breeding state farm "Pioneer" here, but more than 20 years ago the village was officially declared uninhabited. Remained buildings of the 60s, mostly uninhabitable. New good houses have been built on the basis of the reserve, they are also on the cordons, the network of which is spread over the island. There is also a weather station and a military base on the island, both near the village.

People who go to work in the Arctic for the first time after watching movies often buy expensive clothing and equipment for mountaineering. But such things are impractical for Wrangel: they break quickly, get dirty with oils and gasoline. Thermal underwear and fleece are good, but you need clothing on top to work in the Far North. Once we drove to -30 ° C, and although it was absolutely calm, the air rang with frost. I changed the candle on a snowmobile, touched a piece of iron and a burn appeared! On the island, the problem is not so much the cold as the humidity, plus the wind. When drifting snow rises, visibility is very poor, it is easy to get lost. But snowstorms on Wrangel are usually short-lived.

There is a town or village near most of the reserves, and there are many poachers, but they simply have nowhere to go to Wrangel. But with the military, tourists and scientific expeditions, state inspectors need to conduct briefings, remind them that they do not need to walk on their own, approach polar bears, feed animals, and pick plants. 

The neighboring Wrangel and Herald Islands are known as the family den of polar bears. Every autumn, pregnant females come, lie down and give birth in snow dens, and in the spring they go out with their offspring. The polar bear habitat is the Arctic ice. A bear catches a seal on the ice, usually he sits near the hole and waits for prey, or, having noticed it on the ice, tries to sneak up and catch. From August to October, when last year's ice has melted and the new one has not yet grown, the peak of polar bears is on the island. But there is practically no food for them on Wrangel, unless they beat a dead walrus or a whale to the shore, or there is a corpse of a musk ox or a deer in the tundra. Therefore, the bear goes to smell. Where does it smell best? Of course, in the village of Ushakovskoye! There are people, products, equipment, fuels and lubricants. The more modest bears sit on a hill or in the tundra during the day, watching intently, and at night, when everything calms down, they come and walk around the village, look into the windows. Smelling the smell of edible, they break into the house. There are bears that are lighter, they come in the middle of the working day. We use weapons against bears exclusively with signal cartridges, a special anti-bear gas canister, hand flares, and we also use snowmobiles and ATVs to scare them. You can threaten with a big stick, the bear thinks that it is a tusk or a fang, and runs away. Whites are also afraid of loud sounds, for example, the roar of a motor.

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Photo: Polar bear checks an abandoned house. Anastasia Petuhova 

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Photo: Anti-bear bars on the windows. Alexander Krasnov 

A reliable means of protecting your home is the studded lattice on the windows. They are safe for the bear, he touches them, realizes that it is spicy, and leaves. Ordinary grilles do not save, the bear will easily catch on the grill without thorns and simply rip it off, and then break the frame. Mishka is very interested in knowing what is in the building; he knocks out windows and breaks down doors. Even if there is nothing edible, even if there is nothing at all, Misha will climb in, break, spoil, stomp, not close behind him, and then winter, a blizzard, and everything will be covered with snow under the ceiling. During the year I have had many encounters with bears. One polar night, I heard the crunch of snow outside the window. It was a bear trampling on a snowdrift near my window. Misha stomped so hard that I woke up, took a weapon and a walkie-talkie, thought he would break the window and climb into the house - but no! It turned out that he climbed onto a snowdrift and rolled down on the priest. Apparently, he was having so much fun. 

Bears on Wrangel are radically different in behavior from their counterparts from the same Novaya Zemlya. Local bears are always fat, well-fed, and usually harmless and shy. After the extremely skinny and aggressive New Earth bears, this seems fantastic. In general, there are 19 populations of polar bears, and the Chukotka-Alaskan one is the most numerous and prolific.

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Photo: Polar bear. Alexander Krasnov 

The polar night on Wrangel lasts about two months. When there is no cloudiness, the northern lights are often visible. Several times I observed a multicolor and very large-scale radiance, this is a fabulous picture! Summer comes in July, it is short but bright. The tundra blooms spectacularly, everything comes to life. Ceps are. No mosquitoes. In the summer season come tourist ships that make a tour of Chukotka. The ship approaches the island, an officer of the security department gets on board, and accompanies the tourists at the landing, watching that the bears do not eat them, and that the tourists do not harm the nature of the island. Guests land at several points, look at animals, bird markets, take pictures and leave. Such tourism needs to be developed, perhaps this is the only extrabudgetary source of income for the reserve. Mostly wealthy European retirees are coming; there are also a lot of people from Australia and New Zealand. 

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Photo: Aurora over the village of Ushakovskoye. Alexander Krasnov 

Another curious animal on Wrangel is the Arctic fox. Very talkative, and makes a variety of sounds: rumbling, crying, whining, clucking, squealing. But most often Arctic foxes bark. They bark when patrolling the boundaries of their site, moving around the territory, calling each other. This comrade is never ashamed to approach first, he is practically not afraid of people. The Arctic fox looks carefully, sniffs, evaluates the possibility of stealing and eating something. It usually feeds on small rodents, especially lemmings, as well as birds and bird eggs. Fast and cunning. Life near a colony of white geese is a real feast for this handsome man! On a day, the arctic fox can steal several dozen eggs from geese. 

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Photo: Arctic fox. Alexander Krasnov 

Musk oxen were introduced from Alaska and settled on Wrangel Island in 1976. Now there are about one thousand individuals on the island, yes, yes, and they continue to breed! The musk ox weighs 200-300 kg, it is usually slow and clumsy. In winter, herds of 40-50 heads, in summer they are divided into 10-20 heads, often single males are found. They behave interestingly: in case of danger, the bulls form a protective square and cover the young growth, and in turn jump forward, trying to hook the enemy with their horns. But the most spectacular is the fighting during the rut. Male rivals from a distance of 20-30 meters scatter and rush at each other, colliding with their horns. The impacts are very strong, it is estimated that this is about the same as a frontal collision of cars at a speed of 60 km / h. When you look at such fights up close, you feel all the power, the earth trembles, and the sound of the blow of the horns makes you uncomfortable. 

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Photo: "The daring troika is racing across the tundra." Alexander Krasnov 

On Wrangel Island, natural nature, solitude, monotony, tranquility and quietness. This lifestyle is either like it or not. Some get used to it for a long time, but it is difficult to wean everything. The Internet in our village was satellite, slow and unstable. In the summer, we all rode around the cordons, there was a satellite phone on which you couldn’t talk much. At our leisure, we watched films, repaired equipment, washed ourselves in the bathhouse, ordinary life. Once a year a ship with food containers arrives at Wrangel. We ordered food, subtracted it from our field, it turns out, we ate at our own expense. 

Yes, the living conditions are rather difficult, unacceptable for some. For the same bath, you first need to find firewood, cut and chop it, bring water, then heat it. And if at the polar station everyone has a clear specialty and functions - a cook, a doctor, a researcher, a technician, a diesel operator - then at Wrangel in winter there are only inspectors. You cook yourself, you fix the equipment yourself. If there is something serious with health, then only evacuation by Sun Flight. Now there is a medic at a military base, but this is near the village, and something can happen to you on the cordon or in the tundra. The island is large, it is three days to ride an ATV from end to end along the longest part.

A person in the north must show himself well as a person. It's much easier to turn a good person into a specialist than vice versa. In a difficult situation, you need to not give up, help others, keep your spirits. For me, the Arctic and Antarctic are a comfortable environment, I strive to spend more time here, this is mine. There is no family yet, everything is ahead. Soon I am going on a new expedition, and I can hint that this will not be Thailand again, ”the fan of harsh lands ends his story.

How I spent this summer. Tourism.      

Our second interlocutor knows everything about tourism in Umkilir, or the island of polar bears, as the Chukchi call Wrangel. Anastasia Petukhova this summer, I once again gave preference to the aesthetics of the Arctic to rest on the cote d'azur. And not only because the deputy head of the department of environmental education and development of educational tourism of the Wrangel Island reserve works. The reserve office is located in Pevek, “Into the wilderness, into the tundra” no one drives, rather, the workers themselves mentally adjust the time until the annual meeting with Wrangel. 

“Shrouded in eternal fogs, the island, like a proud Sphinx stands guard over its treasures. Surprisingly, Wrangel was not captured by glaciers, never flooded, and therefore retained the unique nature of the Pleistocene era. But every spring, along with the snow that streams from the mountains directly into the sea, a terrible Soviet “legacy” comes out in Ushakovsky: tons of fuel barrels. They piled in piles on the coast. An ambiguous picture: on the left, the voices of the tundra rustle, streams sparkle in the sun, and on the right are tin installations that deprived the seashore of virginity. We have to correct the miscalculations of our ancestors. Every year an eco-platoon arrives on the island, which has already driven two presses to collect and dispose of barrels. How long it takes to clean up the island is a mystery.

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Photo: Compressed barrels on Wrangel Island. Alexander Krasnov

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Photo: Polar poppy in the cleared area of ​​Wrangel Island. Alexander Krasnov.

Ecotourism in the Wrangel Island nature reserve began to develop back in the 90, but he found a great response right now. People - both foreigners and our compatriots - are more resolutely sent to distant extreme tours. People often take professional photo equipment on a trip and take amazing photos with them, which then fly around the world.

Now we have 9 ecological routes, the most popular of which is the circular one around the island by boat. Tours are organized by Travel Pacific and Pacific Network. Due to the inaccessibility of the island, travel must be planned in advance, as it is very costly to bring tourists to the Arctic. Tourist ships arrive from the end of July to the end of September, and, if the weather and ice conditions permit, they approach Wrangel Island, disembark passengers for walks and inspection, and also approach the protected Herald Island. At the beginning of the tourist season, it is not always possible to get to the island, and sometimes there is almost no ice left by the end. Clothes for travel need not just warm, but wind and moisture protection. You need to be prepared both mentally and physically, because in a day there can be several landings ashore for long walks. Fortunately, the reserve is visited by energetic, curious, conscientious guests who can appreciate the fragile beauty of the Russian Arctic.

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Photo: A ship with tourists. H. & J. Elston

In the summer, the Arctic awakens from a long polar night, and when the first tourists arrive, the Wrangel Island blooms with a bright carpet of arctic plants, striking with a variety of species and colors! I can look at it forever. As long as the ice surrounds the islands, polar bears, walruses, seals and lahtaks fall into the camera lenses here and there. Thousands of seabirds are stunning when approaching the bazaars - their clusters on steep cliffs in several areas of both islands. The largest white goose nesting colony in Asia occupies a vast territory inland. Herds of musk ox slowly move around the reserve. Everywhere life boils, and it is important not to harm. For example, during the nesting period of birds, even the reserve staff walk, bending down. Fortunately, responsible tourists come to us. Before the landing, the employees of the security department introduce everyone to the norms and rules of conduct on the territory of protected areas. Safety is especially important when meeting with a polar bear, you need to work as a united team.

We have ground excursions inland to Wrangel Island. The most popular two-day route starts from Doubtful Bay, where tourists disembark from the ship, and together with the reserve staff depart on an all-terrain vehicle in the direction of Tundrovy Peak, then the guests move to Drem Head. Here you can stop, observe the fauna of the island at all 360 degrees, ask questions, see the life of the reserve employees.

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Photo: Snowy owl. Anastasia Petukhova 

We abandoned firearms in favor of light-noise rockets and pepper cylinders, preferred hunting products brought from the mainland to hunting, and we get electricity thanks to modern solar panels. For tourists on the island, new guest houses have been rebuilt. Soon we will open a hospital for birdwatchers in the Popov lagoon. For movement, spacious and nature-friendly all-terrain vehicles on low-pressure tires (tracks) are used. But what is our help compared to how the Arctic self-heals and transforms thoughts? “Wisdom comes in solitude and in overcoming obstacles,” as the Eskimos say. A limited space and a closed circle of communication at the same time fetter and give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in introspection, discarding the husks that fill the mental stream on the mainland. In such harsh conditions, which are too good for classical polar explorers and too bad for a modern person from the mainland, you either consolidate the best that you have, or break down and degrade without the ability to roll back. It is interesting that you are weakening imperceptibly, but you are growing clearly.

The Arctic island on the edge of the earth, once called the "Doubtful" Land, the Kellet Land, the Plover Islands, the "Wrangel Land" lived quietly before us and will live even longer afterwards. Let him spit on us, and perhaps life without us here will be better, but we do care. Perhaps we are protecting him from ourselves. "

"Heartbreaking land." A life.

Third story  from a person for whom Wrangel is also not just another “tick” in the travel wish list, entry into a labor and exotic whim. Ksenia Ozhinskaya one of those who were the last to leave the village of Ushakovskoye. Ksenia has been living on the other side of the country for many years, but dreams of once again visiting the island of childhood. Try to see the recent past (and, possibly, the future) of the Arctic Earth through her eyes.

“I was born on Wrangel Island and lived there for 12 years with my parents. They were polar explorers, it was pride, like astronauts! With us, this amazing island lived, boiled, and closer to 90, when it became clear that the wind of change was blowing, the island was closed due to the collapse of the USSR, and funding stopped. Research was curtailed, the country was in discord. My dad graduated from the Leningrad Arctic School, which was in the Konstantinovsky Palace, it was closed in the 91 year. Now there is a presidential residence. And this was the only university in the country that trained polar explorers for the Arctic and Antarctic.

Photo from the archive of Ksenia Ozhinskaya_ Wrangel Island (5) .jpeg

Photo: from the Ksenia Ozhinsky family archive

There were 50-70 people on the Polar Expedition to Wrangel. My parents worked for two years, and for six months they returned to their relatives in the Moscow region with a special dispatch, in which it was written that they were not parasites: after all, there was an article that one should not go down the street in the middle of a working day and sit back. Plus, they had a certificate that they were employees of the reserve and were conducting certain research. They were paid insane money at that time. Dad always said that not only children, grandchildren will remain. But the 90s came, and even the work experience - a year in two - Yeltsin removed, and all the polar explorers were in shock. Because before that, having worked for 15 years, you retired at 35, and with money. But it turned out that for 15 years they froze the ass for the good of the country, and there is no money or a pension. They sued for a long time, and to no avail. And my parents, and everyone else, barely got away from there. Even the icebreakers that sailed every two weeks practically stopped walking. And the island was secret, you just can't get out of there. After the default, we were left with a penny, my dad from a physicist became a tradesman, at first they grabbed for any job.      

Now I would try to get there - a few years ago I was told that I have an advantage as a native of Wrangel Island that I can travel for free - but this does not apply to my family members. Perhaps this is a utopia and there is no longer such a benefit for the natives. And I would very much like to show the children my homeland. A trip to round-the-world ships costs about 700 thousand rubles per person for 10-15 days. A huge amount! This is a tour of Chukotka, with a stop at each place for two to three days. Why do I need this outlandish tour in which I need to spend the night in cabins? The helicopter costs fabulous money, plus the weather should be flying. I remember when we sat in Magadan, Pevek or Cape Schmidt, waiting for the weather, there were storms, storms, storms, then bam! - silence, and at this moment at the airport a helicopter or plane is refueling, enough passengers and go. My brother and I asked all the time: well, when will we go to grandmother, to the warmth, to the sun? Then we, like all children, wanted a swing, trees, flowers, a summer residence.

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Photo: from the Ksenia Ozhinsky family archive

Almost all the Chukchi from Wrangel were resettled in the 90s, and in 2003 my classmate Vasilina Alpaun, who remained one of the last there, was eaten by bears. In the blizzard, she did not see them. She was 25 years old ... Now none of ours was left there, everyone was scattered around the world. One Chukchi shaman, whom everyone called Rymtymtumgi, stayed on Wrangel. He did not want to leave for any! Shamanil for many years, predicted the weather, dispersed the clouds with a tambourine. Newspapers were brought to him, he took everything from the military, changed it. I can't imagine how he is there. (Rymtymtumgi, aka Grigory Kaurgin, a Chukchi with Indian roots still lives on Wrangel Island, works as a diesel operator at a weather station - прим. ред.). 

In general, the Chukchi were bullied in Soviet times, they were given Russian names, children were sent after the third or fourth grade to a boarding school in Magadan. Chukchi mothers even came to break windows for polar explorers. And they had their own culture, their names were special. Embroidery with beads on skins, our polar explorers often went to them to change. I still have such freaks at home - dad, mom and walrus-bone kids, amazing work! But, unfortunately, at one time the Chukchi got an intoxicating mixture called vodka.  

Do you remember a few years ago they showed on TV how the military threw a torpedo into the bear's mouth at Wrangel when he came to the polar? It's so cruel to shoot, get lost, spread. I was shocked. We have never had such cynicism. And we had a story about how my mother went for a walk with her five-year-old daughter next to the house. There was fog that day, almost no ocean and hills were visible. And she let her eldest daughter down the hill. And a bear was walking by! He, apparently, was not hungry, he ate a seal or a walrus. He sniffed, he liked the smell of the fur coat, and he took the girl by the scruff, thinking that it was a bear, and dragged her along. My mother beat the child off in front of me, beat the bear with a belt, the polar explorer jumped out and shot the bear. At that time he was right there in handcuffs, in Magadan, God knows how long. In the end, they were acquitted. Think about it: the beast died here and there, but the reasons are very different.

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Photo: from the Ksenia Ozhinsky family archive

My dad polar bears fed three years. They came up to the house, dad threw deer legs from a half-balcony to them, bones. But there wasn’t such a thing that they constantly went. But then the dipper appeared. The fact is that when three cubs were born, the mother feeds two, and the third can never, there will not be enough resources. Because the third dipper always brought us to the Pole and left for good, because they knew that there were all sorts of goodies that would help there. And we always had little bears at home in childhood, they were from time to time all of our polar families. Then they contacted the mainland, and they were taken to zoos. It sounds pretty cruel, but, on the other hand, such a teddy bear in the nature of 100% is doomed. We periodically fed these bears, and the third teddy bear roamed in different apartments. It’s more correct to say, in multi-unit huts, we had a common corridor, each with its own kitchenette, such as a communal apartment. Everything was warm, great, friendly. For me, all these pebbles, ice floes, walruses, buntings, all this Wrangel life is native.

It's such a heartbreaking land. I would love to return there for at least a couple of days. This is another world, another dimension. How many years have passed, but if I see these parts, I will cry bitterly. Everything was different there, there people are purer in spirit, all open, good-natured, because the north unites people. In big cities I like - I don't like a person - that's all, we went our separate ways. Friends, acquaintances are lost, but support is on Wrangel. The island is a special love and a special pain, it's a pity that there is no path there now ... 

Made such exotic for an hour, a day. I think: what does the island look like now? Yes, just like 30 years ago! The same flowering tundra, the same chic hills, the same beautiful Arctic Ocean. The nature is harsh, but when you visit there, you even look at the very Bulgaria, Turkey, all this dregs, where we periodically travel with children, look at people - vanity. Everyone is sunbathing, boasting about hotels, yachts, and you try to live on Wrangel Island, that's where the exotic is! It seems they say, but what to do there? Yes there are so many interesting things! Our arctic foxes came under the windows, we opened the condensed milk to them, threw out these cans, they licked this condensed milk, the eels flew under the windows, walked like sparrows or pigeons. It takes so much for the soul. This part of the coast on which we now live is like a park, and when you find yourself in harsh conditions, you understand the sailors who plow the seas from year to year and do not want a different fate, because they are drawn and scared. ”   

Wrangel Island_Alexander Krasnov.jpgPhoto: courtesy of Alexander Krasnov   

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