In the footsteps of the woolly mammoth

Inger Vandyke | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 4
A tufted puffin welcomes visitors to the Russian Arctic.
Russia’s Wrangel Island is a pretty desolate place, once home to the woolly mammoth, now a refuge for another threatened species – the polar bear.

High in the Russian Arctic, Wrangel Island was one of the last places that the woolly mammoth roamed the earth. Peering at the vast expanses of Wrangel’s tundra through a blustery, icy wind, it was easy to imagine a four-metre high elephant wandering across that wild and open terrain. Although they had survived on the island until 2000BC, up to 1000 mammoths lived on Wrangel at any one time. It is an island that has been isolated from the mainland for almost 6000 years.

Visiting Wrangel, you feel like you are displaced from civilization. There is no Wi-Fi and only a scattering of buildings providing accommodation for scientists and rangers – the fortunate few who get to spend time living alongside the island’s snowy owls, musk ox, lemmings and the largest population of polar bears in the world.

Classified as one of the Arctic’s biodiversity hotspots, Wrangel Island is a haven for tundra wildlife, the main reason we joined a select group of international guests onboard the Russian flagged Professor Khromov, operated by Heritage Expeditions, for the two-week long journey north through the Bering Strait.

Our approach to Wrangel was indirect. Just six days earlier we were in Anadyr, the administrative capital of Chukotka autonomous region, Russia’s easternmost federal territory. At first glimpse Anadyr is a dump. During the height of the former USSR, Anadyr probably had its highest number of residents, around 18,000 people. When the regime collapsed, many people lost their jobs and that, along with high inflation, forced them to leave the city in droves for places where they could find work and prosper.

They left their homes and workplaces as they lay. Ruined buildings are scattered across the countryside. Disused military bunkers, rotting vehicles, old fuel tanks, scraps of barbed wire, contorted pieces of unidentified metal and crumbling constructions now blot the landscape. Anadyr rises from it all like a phoenix, the city’s once bland communist high-rise apartments now painted a myriad of colours that imbue the city with a friendliness, defying the harsh landscapes that surround it.

Exploring Anadyr for a few days before boarding the Khromov, we found ourselves being drawn to the belugas and seals on the other side of the bay. Joining them on the salmon run, local Russians and Chukchi fishermen had established summer camps in some of the old military people-carriers that lined the dirt road adjacent to the area’s coastal beaches.

In the height of summer, the sun lingers longer in the skies over Anadyr, but the warmth it brings is short-lived. Within months of our visit, the daylight will dwindle to only four hours in the middle of winter. Temperatures vary from a pleasant 10°C daily average in summer to a bitter cold of -20°C average in winter. The waters of Anadyr Bay freeze over by December and the city’s isolation increases even further as the ice on the river isn’t stable enough to allow vehicles to cross. People can only access the airport by helicopter.

SETTING SAIL

Running the last wave of decent weather before the big freeze, we set sail for the Bering Strait at sunset. In stark contrast to the rough seas of Antarctica, the land masses encircling the seas in the Arctic temper the ocean swell. Our passage to Preobrezhaniya Bay overnight was smooth enough to allow everyone a good sleep and still enough to allow a band of fog to shroud Preobrezhaniya’s gigantic coastal sea cliffs, softening their steep and needle-like appearance from a distance.

The cacophonous sound of thousands of seabirds, including resident puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars heralded our arrival at Preobrezhaniya. Boarding inflatable dinghies, we motored closer to the shore where we peered upwards into a cloud of birds swarming around our heads like a Hitchcock scene.

The next day we sailed into a narrow sound further eastward and anchored up off Yttygran Island, the location of an ancient archaeological site called Whale Bone Alley where, for hundreds of years, bowhead, grey and other whales were hunted during their migration by native Yupik Inuit people. The jaw bones of large bowhead whales, standing almost four-metres high, stand upright at Whale Bone Alley. During the peak of ancient whale hunts, these were mainly used to keep traditional whaling boats, or baidaras, off the ground to stop their walrus skin hulls from being chewed on by the local dogs.

Further into the fjord, we sailed past numerous northern humpback whales to a tiny coastal camp at Gilmilmyl. Here we met Ivan, a former Chukchi reindeer herder, who spends the warmer months camped on the tundra in a tiny shack called a uranga near the beach.

From his base Ivan has everything. He can catch salmon from the shore while his wife collects field mushrooms, berries and tundra greens from the local area to eat. We are generously invited to join the family for lunch. Sitting on the grass floor of their tepee-like dwelling covered by reindeer skins, and warmed by a fire, we are served the most magnificent meal of unleavened bread, cured salmon and a salad of greens that is tart, fresh and harvested straight from the tundra.

SPA TIME

Ivan generously allowed us to go and take a dip in his ‘bath’ so we wandered over a nearby hillside to a local hot spring where he had carved a bath from wood and sunk it into the ground. The changing stools next to it were actually fashioned out of whale vertebra.

We plunged into steaming hot water that initially took our breath away. None of us quite expected it to be hot enough to flush our skins with colour. The braver members of our group took occasional breaks to cool off by swimming in the nearby icy river.

Our glorious sun disappeared by the time we arrived at Cape Dezhnev a day later. Splitting the Bering and Chukchi Seas, Cape Dezhnev is the easternmost mainland point of Eurasia. From this isolated outpost it is possible to look into yesterday as you peer out towards the Diomede Islands that are split by both the international dateline and the border between Russia and the United States.

Traditionally Cape Dezhnev was a centre for trade in whale and fur products between Alaska and the native Yupik and Chukchi peoples of Chukotka, but this trade has long since vanished and all that remains at Cape Dezhnev are the sunken remains of dwellings, ruined military buildings, gravesites and a monument to Semyon Dezhnev, a Russian Cossack, who was the first European to sail through the Bering Strait in 1648.

Approaching Uelen by sea, we were escorted by numerous humpback and grey whales. On a distant shoreline we saw a line of industrial-looking buildings whose chain was broken by the spire of a Russian Orthodox church. This was the main street of Uelen, a native village of the Yupik Inuit and Chukchi people in Chukotka. Living among them are a handful of Russians, instantly recognisable by their western appearance and a flicker of the occasional blue eye.

We arrived on the shore and were instantly greeted by the town’s children. Rough seas prohibit many landings at Uelen so visiting tourists are a novelty. We were escorted down to the local school where we learned more about the local traditions of the people in Uelen and how they survive in this remote place.

I left the group and decided to wander down the street alone. Around the corner of one building, I noticed a bare Baidara, waiting to be covered by walrus skin and used for hunting. Hanging from the window of another were pieces of seal meat and a pair of seal flippers being cured for the winter. An old woman, probably a village elder, sat watching the new work being done on the road.

Absorbing the life of Uelen, I was eventually caught by the rest of the group and shepherded towards a makeshift stage in the centre of the village where drums and music erupted into a performance of traditional dance and song. Colourful dresses were donned and we learned how the various dances were attributed to the shamans of the Chukchi culture and the various animals that were hunted by the villagers.

There isn’t a lot to keep the young people of Uelen in town. When they grow older, they invariably go to larger cities for work or education and never return. It’s a story that is echoed by so many remote and isolated communities worldwide. Thanks to a local teacher, we learned that the young people of Uelen are taught a normal curriculum with a heavy emphasis on native traditions, ensuring their cultural survival into the future.

BEAR’S WORLD

Two days later we arrived on Wrangel Island in a blustering northwest wind that forced us to anchor on the southern side of the island. Wrangel’s stark beauty isn’t archetypical of the glacier-clad scenery that adorns other Arctic islands. It is a vast expanse of open tundra punctuated by several hill ranges, a landscape that can whip the skies into a fury of lenticular clouds or throw snowstorms at you within seconds. It is the world of the polar bear.

We approached them slowly from downwind, trying not to alarm them. From the bridge of the Khromov, a group of 13 polar bears had been spotted feasting on the rotting carcass of a beach-washed grey whale. Polar bears are highly tuned for hunting on sea ice, but in the spring when it recedes, many of them are left stranded on islands like Wrangel where they eek out an existence on terrestrial prey or carrion until the oceans freeze over again later in the year.

Polar bears are like the beagles of the Arctic. They are largely driven by their acute sense of smell and a curiosity for anything new in their world. Our inflatable dinghies aroused them from their incidental feed. Some turned and looked at us, others snoozed on the beach, others kept gnawing away at the sinewy carcass, while an occasional bear wandered down the beach away from it all to take a break.

For about an hour we stayed floating off shore watching them, beguiled by their majesty, feeling fully immersed in their world.

From a safe distance polar bears are magnificent. One could easily forget that these gentle faces mask the apex predator of the Arctic. During the winter, the main prey of polar bears is ringed and bearded seals, but these are rarely able to be caught by bears swimming in the open water. Instead, itinerant polar bears stranded on land will seek out alternative foods like plants, geese, bird eggs and even the occasional lemming or caribou.

On Wrangel, polar bears have been observed attacking hauled-out walruses on the beach. The grey whale carcass was an unexpected bonus and we delighted in watching this group of bears sharing the meal without argument. Always respectful, they seemed happy to share their bounty with other bears.

Sadly the decline of polar bears on Wrangel echoes that of many other islands across their Arctic realm. Enviromental pressures are translating into less cubs being born. Each year fewer females are in good enough condition to den and raise cubs after long summers without enough food.

On Wrangel Island, at least, they are protected from other pressures, particularly disturbance by humans. Mercifully the island is largely devoid of people and it is blessed with a lack of exploitable resources so it is unlikely to ever become a target for anything other than small-scale eco-tourism and research.

Recalling our days on Wrangel from the comfort of my home, a smile washes across my face as I remember the little Arctic fox that bounded towards me when I called, the solo wandering muskox that approached us on our trek into the island’s interior and the shy snowy owls we accidentally flushed from their roosts during our meanderings.

Soon the sea ice will once again embrace the island’s lonely shores, Wrangel’s polar bears will enjoy a time of bounty and their long months of fasting and scavenging on the tundra will be over.

I can only hope the group of bears we saw on that remote Wrangel Island beach continues to prosper. The memory of those wild polar bears will stay with me for the rest of my life.


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