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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. In 2011, Herzen set off on his first extreme expedition, and since then has not “crawled out” of the Arctic and Antarctic. Alexander asked for Wrangel to the department of science, but the reserve needed strong men to the department of protection, and he agreed. What opened the island to him for 13 months of work - in a first-person story.

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Photo: Bathing season in the Arctic. Alexander Krasnov

"From Pevek (Chukotka Autonomous Okrug - прим. ред.) we flew to the Ushakovskoye village in April of the 2016, and in May of the following year left it. In the Soviet years, there was a reindeer herding state farm "Pioneer", but more than 20 years ago the village was officially recognized as non-residential. Remained buildings 60-ies, mostly unsuitable for life. New good houses were built on the basis of the reserve, they are also on cordons, the network of which is spread across the island. Also on the island there is a weather station and a military base, both - not far from the village.

People who first go to work in the Arctic, having seen enough of the films, often buy expensive clothes and equipment for climbing. But such things on Wrangel are impractical: they quickly tear, get dirty with oils and gasoline. Thermal underwear and fleece are good, but on top you need clothes to work in the Far North. Once we went to -30 ° C, and although there was absolute calm, the air rang from the 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 in the cold as in humidity, plus the wind. When the snow blows, very poor visibility, it is easy to get lost. But the blizzards on Wrangel are usually short-lived.

Near most reserves there is a city or a village, and there are many poachers, but there’s simply nowhere to get to Wrangel from. But with military, tourists and scientific expeditions, state inspectors need to be instructed, reminded that they do not need to walk on their own, get close to polar bears, feed animals, and tear plants.

The Wrangel and Herald Islands in the neighborhood are known as the clan den of polar bears. Every fall, pregnant females come, lie down and give birth in snow dens, and in spring they leave with offspring. The polar bear habitat is the ice of the Arctic. A bear catches a seal on ice, usually it sits near a hole and waits for prey, or, noticing it on ice, tries to sneak up and catch. From August to October, when last year's ice melted, and the new one has not yet grown, the island has the peak of polar bears. But there is practically no food for Wrangel for them, unless they beat a dead walrus or a whale to the shore, or there is a corpse of a musk ox or deer in the tundra. Therefore, the bear smells. And where does it smell best? Of course, in the village of Ushakovskoe! There are people, products, equipment, fuel and lubricants. The bears are more modest in the afternoon sitting on a hill or in the tundra, watching intently, and at night, when everything calms down, they come and walk around the village, look out the windows. Smelling edible, breaking into the house. There are bears poorer, they come at the height of the working day. Against bears, we use weapons exclusively with signal cartridges, a special anti-bear gas spray, raised fires, we also scare snowmobiles and ATVs. You can threaten with a big stick, the bear thinks it is a tusk or fang, and runs away. Still white are afraid of loud sounds, for example, the roar of the motor.


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 protection at home are grilles with spikes on the windows. They are safe for the bear, it touches them, realizes that it is spicy, and leaves. Ordinary lattices do not save, it is easy for the bear to catch on the lattice without spikes and just to tear it off, and then break the frame. Bear is very interested to know what is in the building, he knocks out windows and breaks out doors. Even if there is nothing edible, even if there is nothing at all, Misha will crawl, break, ruin, screw up, not close behind him, and then winter, a blizzard, and he will notice everything with snow under the ceiling. Over the year I had many meetings with bears. Once, on a polar night, I heard a creak of snow outside the window. This bear trampled on a snowdrift near my window. Misha stomped so hard that I woke up, took a weapon and a walkie-talkie, thought that he would break the window and climb into the house - but no! It turned out that he climbed into a snowdrift and rolled down on the pope. Apparently, he was having so much fun.

Bears on Wrangel are radically different in behavior from brothers from the same New Earth. Local bears are always fat, well-fed, and usually harmless and shy. After extremely thin and aggressive New Zealand bears, this seems fantastic. In general, 19 polar bear populations stand out, and Chukotka-Alaska 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: croaking, crying, whining, cackling, squealing. But most often arctic foxes bark. They bark when patrolling the borders of their site, moving around the territory, roll-call with each other. This comrade is never shy about being the first to approach, he is practically not afraid of people. The arctic fox attentively looks, sniffs, estimates on an opportunity to steal something and to eat. Usually feeds on small rodents, especially likes 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, a polar fox can pull several dozen eggs from geese.

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Photo: Arctic fox. Alexander Krasnov

Musk oxen were imported from Alaska and settled on Wrangel Island in 1976. Now there are about one thousand individuals on the island, yes, and they continue to multiply! The musk ox weighs 200-300 kg, usually it is slow and slow. In winter, herds of 40-50 goals, in the summer they are divided into 10-20 goals, male males are often found. They behave interestingly: in danger, the bulls form a protective square and cover the young, and in turn jump out forward, trying to pry off the enemy with horns. But the most spectacular is the battles during the rutting season. Male rivals from a distance of 20-30 meters scatter and rush at each other, encountering horns. The impacts are very strong, it is estimated that this is approximately like a head-on collision of cars at a speed of 60 km / h. When you look at such fights close, you feel all the power, the earth trembles, and the sound of horn blows makes you uneasy.

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

A man in the north should show himself well as a man. Making a specialist a good person is much easier than the other way around. It is necessary in a difficult situation not to give up, help others, maintain good spirits. For me, the Arctic and Antarctic are a comfortable environment, I strive to spend more time here, this is mine. There are no families yet, everything is ahead. Soon I'm going on a new expedition, and I can hint that it 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 once again preferred the aesthetics of the Arctic holiday on the Cote d'Azur. And not only because the deputy head of the department of environmental education and the development of educational tourism of the Wrangel Island nature reserve works. The office of the reserve is located in Pevek, “Nobody drives“ into the wilderness, into the tundra ”; 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 them - roundabout around the island by ship. Tours are organized by Travel Pacific and Pacific Network. Due to the inaccessibility of the island, travel must be planned in advance, because it is very expensive to bring tourists to the Arctic. Tourist ships come from the end of July to the end of September, and, if weather and ice conditions permit, they approach the Wrangel island, land passengers on the shore for walks and sightseeing, and also approach the protected island of Herald. At the beginning of the tourist season, the island does not always manage to break through, and sometimes almost no ice remains towards its end. Clothing for travel is needed not just warm, but wind and moisture. You need to be prepared both mentally and physically, because in a day there can be several landings for long walks. Fortunately, energetic, inquisitive, conscious guests come to the reserve, able to 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.


Photo: Arctic 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 Land of “Doubtful”, the Land of Kellet, the islands of Plover, the “Land of Wrangel” calmly lived before us and will live after even longer. Let him give a damn about us, and perhaps life without us would be better here, but we care. Perhaps we protect 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 the last to leave the village of Ushakovskoye. Ksenia has been living on the other side of the country for many years, but she dreams of one day visiting the island of childhood again. 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.

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Photo: from the Ksenia Ozhinsky family archive

In the Polar expedition to Wrangel, there was 50-70 man. My parents worked for two years, and returned for six months to the relatives of the special dispatches in the Moscow Region, in which it was written that they were not parasites: after all, there was an article that you should not go down the street in the middle of the working day and idle. Plus they had a certificate that they are employees of the reserve, and they are doing certain research. They were crazy money at that time. Dad always said that not only children, grandchildren will remain. But the 90s arrived, and even the working experience - a year or two - Yeltsin removed, and all the polar explorers were in shock. Because before that, having worked 15 years, you retired at 35 years, and with money. But it turned out that 15 years froze the priest for the good of the country, and there was no money or pension. Litigation for a long time, and to no avail. And my parents, and everyone else, barely barely took their feet from there. Even the icebreakers that sailed every two weeks almost stopped walking. And the island was secret, you just can’t get away from there. After the default, we were left with a penny, dad got to the traders from physicists, the first time they clutched at any work.

Now I would try to get there - several years ago they told me that I have an advantage as a native of Wrangel Island, that I can go for free - but this does not apply to my family members. Perhaps this is utopia, and such a privilege for the natives is no longer there. And I would really 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 sleep in cabins? A helicopter costs fabulous money, plus flight weather should be. I remember when we were in Magadan, Pevek or at Cape Schmidt, waiting for the weather, there were storms, storms, storms, then bam! - silence, and at that moment the helicopter or plane refuel at the airport, enough passengers and go. My brother and I were asking all the time: well, when to grandmother, to warmth, to the sun? Then we, like all children, wanted a swing, trees, flowers, cottages.

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Photo: from the Ksenia Ozhinsky family archive

Almost all Chukchi from Wrangel were relocated to 90, and in 2003, my classmate Vasilina Alpown, 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, whose name was Rymtymtumgi, lingered on Wrangel. He didn’t want to leave! Shaman for many years, predicted the weather, tambourine dispersed the clouds. 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 engineer at a weather station - прим. ред.).

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

And remember, a few years ago they showed on television how the military threw a torpedo into the mouth of a bear on Wrangel when he came to the polar? That's so cruel to take off, burn, spread. I was shocked. We have never had such cynicism. And we had a story about how mom went for a walk with her five-year-old daughter next to the house. There was fog that day, practically no ocean and hills were visible. And she lowered her eldest daughter from the hill. A bear walked by! He, apparently, was not hungry, ate seals or walrus. He sniffed, he liked the smell of a fur coat, and he took the girl by the collar, thinking that it was a teddy bear, and dragged him along. My mother beat off a child with me, beat the bear with a belt, the polar explorer jumped out, and shot the bear. He was then immediately handcuffed, in Magadan, judged God knows how much time. As a result, they were acquitted. Think about it: both animals died 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.

This is such a heartbreaking land. I would love to go back at least a couple of days. This is a different world, another dimension. How many years have passed, but if I see these parts, I will cry sobbing. Everything was different there, people are purer there, all open, good-natured, because the north rallies people. In big cities I like it — I don’t like a person — that's all, the paths have diverged. Friends, acquaintances are lost, and on Wrangel support. The island is a special love and a special pain, it is a pity that there is no track 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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