I am writing this blog from Wrangel Island, Russia, as my third visit unfolds. Wrangel Island is a Russian national protected area and for this reason there is a large density of polar wildlife. It is difficult to get to because in the past wide fields of sea ice and fierce weather usually surrounded it. I have been on Wrangel Island on two previous expeditions to the northern Siberian coast but the ice was often nearly impenetrable making it dangerous to land. The Island has a detachment of Park Service Guardians, Rangers, who have 1 high-wheeled rough terrain vehicle and a number of ATV’s. One can only travel on the Island in the company of a Ranger who is familiar with survival and the wildlife on the island. They will only take five people with them to the interior where you are invited to sleep in one of the huts strategically placed around the island.
Ice is important to Arctic animals especially polar bears that spend most of their adult lives on the ice.
Because of the extensive ice in the past the last count of Arctic polar bears contained the largest number of berthing dens in the Arctic. Ice is a haul out for seals and walruses. Generally seals make up the largest percentage of polar bear diets. The bears are great swimmers and are known to have spent nine days swimming from one location to another. However, they do not appear to be skilled hunters while swimming as they are stalkers and ambush hunters on the sea ice. I do not want anyone to think I have described the polar bears and their habits as they also inhabit land areas around the Arctic where their diets are more varied. They will eat carrion of all sorts including the occasional whale when they become beached especially in their summer months.
When dense sea ice surrounds Wrangel Island the mother polar bears lead their cubs away from the island to distant ice regions where hunting is more bountiful. As the ice has withdrawn across the Arctic the bear populations appear to be shrinking. I found this relationship between bears and ice a partial explanation for the fact that the last populations of mammoth elephants died out on Wrangle at some point in the last 3,700 years. While crossing Wrangle, a 70-mile overland journey, on this trip we were allowed to walk around our vehicle to look at the mammoth bones and teeth that currently are uncovered because of the lack of snow at this time. Our Rangers always expressed concern looking around all areas and buildings where we were walking. Even in the vehicle when we came upon a polar bear we were to remain still and make no noise until the bear lost interest. I did photograph one polar bear around midnight that was “prowling” around on the beach near the vehicle, as I was the privileged inspectee of this bear peering through the window.
Note in the images of the polar bears there is usually no snow or ice either in the foreground or in the background – No Snow! No Ice! It was spring but it was as if the small rocks and sandy soil was just a replacement for the missing snow.
Wrangel is also home to a respectable number of snowy owls and musk ox. We saw many in the distance especially snowy owls as their natural coloring made them standout on the dark soil. Musk ox because of their size and living in herds also made them easy to locate.
I do not intend to create a wrong impression. The Russians in the recent past attempted to keep a settlement on the coast as well as military presence and weather stations. Much of the landscape is littered with the rusting remains of a place where everything had to be imported. In places there appear to be thousands of rusting 55 gallon drums. The surviving buildings are either wood structures or hulks of sheet metal buildings in the process of becoming junky monuments memorializing their attempt to colonize the last graveyard of mammoth elephants. The Rangers said that “Mother Russia” was cleaning these areas but I did not see much evidence of this. Given enough time and weather conditions this debris will probably sink into the earth in much the same way as the bones and teeth of the shrinking Ice Age animals that attempted to survive in this location centuries ago.
I intend to return to Wrangel Island.