Wrangel Island carries a certain profoundness, a divine story of a different sort. Life here is postapocalyptic, a kind of rebound. It portends the future.
My sponsor is Alexander Gruzdev, a big bear of a man with a nice smile, a throaty Russian accent, a Ph.D. in biology, and the ability to knock back a lot of vodka. Alexander is also the director of the Wrangel Island Reserve. He goes by Sasha, and is not the best communicator. On the occasions when Sasha tries to speak English—which I appreciate—much of his meaning is lost and so I don’t know what to expect on Wrangel.
One thing I do know is that, as part of the forgotten Russia east of the Urals, it will be primitive. I’ll be the Americanski in a beefy culture where tanks and testosterone rule. It’s a place where songs blare “I will drink your blood,” and where a large poster of a topless woman is shamelessly displayed on the office wall of Wrangel Reserve’s deputy chief. Russians who’ve never visited the States hold Americans in little regard, assuming that they’re unable to hold their liquor, hike up a mountain, or skin out a deer.
After my third security check in Pevek, I board an Mi-8 helicopter, which lifts off with a deafening whirl as blue and black exhaust strews across its darkly stained bow. Sitting beside me are four naked bodies, female and male: these reindeer, frozen solid and skinned, along with an equally dead white hare, offer a clue about Sasha’s food arrangements.
In the two decades that have passed since my last fieldwork in Russia, time here has stood still. Huge drums of gas are cabled to the inside of the helicopter next to the reindeer and me. Choking fumes move from the outside in. Chains dangle from the hull, a concoction to ensure our rotors’ aerodynamic efficiency. Seat belts are nonexistent, and there is no sound abatement. There are no rules. It’s cold and drafty and more miserable than exciting.
Prior to takeoff, there had been a heated shouting match on the runway, of which I understood nothing. Yelizaveta Protas—who is part Russian and part American, with fiery eyes and a beguiling smile, possesses both language fluency and calm, and will be my interpreter—explains, now that we’re finally in the air, that the uproar had to do with the fact that we are permitted slightly more than two metric tons of cargo, and we have three. The pilot had refused to take off, but his inclination to fly grew increasingly more positive with the promise of money discretely finding its way to him. Now, 30 minutes into the midday flight, Yuri and Mikhail open the vodka.
My feet—especially my heels—are quite cold, but the Russians seem never to complain, so I say nothing.
Three hours later we’re on the island. Two dilapidated snow machines greet us, their drivers in thick fur, wool, and camo. We haul the animal cadavers and our cargo to a cabin and spend two days making Somnitelnaya functional as our temporary base camp. Snow will be melted or, more traditionally, stored in rusted 55-gallon drums for drinking and cleaning. Wooden scraps, the leftovers from a bewildering array of ramshackle shelters, will be used to build a fire and melt it. Scattered among the buildings are rotting pieces of machinery and other Soviet remnants, some from when the United States and Russia were real allies—that is, during World War II. The outdoor commode is filled with eight feet of drifted snow and so, instead of finding shelter in times of biological need, I will meet only wind.
Our cabin is a sturdy old beast. Snow reaches the roof and blocks light from entering windows. Rusted spikes on the windows deter polar bear entry. The Russian flag flaps above. I’m eager to start my investigations, but help the team shovel, saw pieces of ice for water, and haul chunks of wood containing corroded nails to build a fire.
In Russian, muskoxen are called ovtsebyk, which literally means sheep and ox. This is not a bad interpretation of their true biology, except that muskoxen have no ox in them. I use the drifted snow to climb to the high point on the cabin’s roof. Black dots are in the distance—muskoxen.
Inside, the atmosphere is jovial. A choking haze of nicotine permeates the room, while a corroded stove pumps charcoal plumes sideways. Vodka has been out all day. Dinner arrives, which simply means that tins are opened and their savory wares are speared. More smoking and more vodka. Music from Moscow shrieks. A huge vat of drinking water boils away as darkened shards float from the ceiling into it. Lead or asbestos? Perhaps I’m the only one who notices. I retire early.
I’m being jarred about in a wooden box on runners, the Russian version of a sled, pulled along by a primitive snow machine as we scour mountains and river valleys for muskoxen. The sled actually works well, except that I’m reminded that sitting still when the standing temperature is −20 degrees Fahrenheit is a bad idea. The feeling is worse when sitting in wind chill of −45 degrees Fahrenheit. My feet—especially my heels—are quite cold, but the Russians seem never to complain, so I say nothing.
Numbness spreads to my fingers. I take heart that my goggles—only half frozen by inner fog—allow me to see half the landscape. A wolf pack has been traveling past, and I wonder what I’ve missed in the foggy other half. The wolves obviously crossed a lot of pack ice to get here. Is their major prey the island’s reindeer or muskoxen?
Before glacial melting led to sea level rises, Wrangel connected with the mainland as part of the vestigial bridge joining Asia to North America. We bounce over tundra where lichens and grasses pierce a mantle of snow. I think: African plains. Though here there would have been saigas instead of gazelles, bison and not Cape buffalo, wild horses and no zebras. Wooly mammoth, no elephant.
Among our group is Olga Starova, the reserve’s 27-year-old lead scientist. Motivated and fit, she’s equally game to walk 10 miles or bounce on the back of the carriage that now drags us and Yelizaveta Protas, or Lizza as she is generally known. The only problem is that Olga knew nothing about this project before I arrived. Sasha, the great communicator, had not mentioned it.
She’s keen to learn photogrammetry. And our sturdy guide is intent on keeping alive our badly beaten Buran—an early version of a snow machine that is now wheezing. It’s the snow equivalent of a 1970s Honda 50 dirt bike with no guts. It breaks often yet assures the luxury of getting one field day out of every four days.
Today we abandon the stalled Buran and summit a thousand-foot high ice dome to scan for muskoxen. We step over wolverine and polar bear tracks. No one knows how many bears are on Wrangel. A week earlier, we saw three mothers, each followed by a pair of cubs. Some bears are more than 20 miles inland. A 2004 survey tallied 261 bears. I counted more than 20 in a single tundra patch clustered above bird colonies in a 2011 photo. That scene was reminiscent of whalers’ reports from the 1870s of high bear numbers on Saint Mathew Island, south of the Bering Straits. In 2017, Alexander Gruzdev snapped photos of more than 240 bears on land near a whale carcass that washed ashore.
Polar bears walk up and down what was once the main street.
Bartlett expedition members on Wrangel were understandably troubled by the white carnivores. Ada Blackjack wrote: “Polar bear and one Cub very close to the Camp and I didn’t take any chances.” The Russian Pomors did take chances: Stranded for four years on Svalbard in the 1600s, they speared the white bears with nails mounted to wood. Why would we ever worry about ice bears now? We have a single modern weapon, a torch that shoots flames 15 long inches.
One early morning, I enjoy some calm before our cabin’s crowd bustles. I depart for bathroom duty. The wind is blowing, and it’s about zero degrees out. My exposed butt grows numb, but finally I cinch up my pants and head back.
Two sets of bear tracks cross those I made en route here from the cabin. Damn, that was just moments ago. In a muted panic, I survey the area, but the only thing I see moving is a waft of snow. Two bears, where? I quickly scan nearby debris for something to climb—heaps of wood, a tower, an old tank, shipping crates, a rusted container, anything.
It’s 150 yards across no-man’s-land back to the cabin. My heart races in high gear. I reach the cabin. Once in, I see two large, white furry faces peering through the spiked window.
Olga, Lizza, and I continue our pursuit of data while we are lugged in the wooden box by the Buran, climbing hills and measuring muskoxen head sizes at close distances. My eyes have grown puffy and my fingers are cracked and swollen from the cold. Some days, we’re beaten back by sudden whiteouts. On other days, we don’t even make an attempt, and it’s not always because of the Buran. When there are ground blizzards, we simply can’t see.
Today, both weather and Buran cooperate. We hike more mountains and drifts and cross bergs of ice. We check our camera traps. White bruins are the most regular customers, some male, some female, and some chewing on the carcasses of muskoxen. Three of the bodies we check have bones with good marrow, a sign that the muskoxen did not starve to death. There are photos of bears with cubs and bears without them. One day, after the Buran fails, we still manage to gather data on muskoxen, but then posthole, sinking into the snow again and again, for an unarmed, stressful, six-mile trek to safety. Our database has grown to 42 measures of young muskoxen. It’s time to shift from photos to analyses.
To do so, we’ll snowmobile 30 miles from Somnitelnaya to Ushakovskoye, a nearly abandoned village with the old meteorological station. It has a constant supply of electricity, and neither asbestos nor lead precipitate from the ceiling.
Some 400 miles away, along the Alaska side of the Chukchi, biologist and coworker Blake Lowry and I had earlier come up with an ambitious plan: to attempt to simultaneously gather data on muskoxen along the shores of both continents. I’m keen to maintain my annual continuity of data in Alaska. The best time to do this is late winter. Since I’m already in Chukotka, Blake will lead on the eastern Beringia sites. He knows the data drills, having worked there previously with me. This way we can contrast body sizes and growth for populations on both sides of the Chukchi Sea.
Back in Ushakovskoye, Lizza and I enter the weather station by stepping down three feet of drifted snow. The chamber has four residents, none who’ve met an American. I’m ”Jo-uhl” to them, a test.
Leanna, the full-time cook, is already happy. With Lizza, the island’s female population swells to three.
Igor, too, is there. Ex-navy and current weight lifter, he’s the station’s mechanic. Most days he’s tucked away in his tiny parlor, watching TV. In kindness, he insists I join him. We communicate by dictionary and hand gestures. His brother is still in Ukraine. Igor worries. The weather station has no Internet or phone. He calls his brother on my satellite phone.
In a land roiling in white, a green and breathing plant adorns Igor’s small windowsill. I admire the pride he takes in his meticulously watered specimen. His favorite possession is a different color—black: 70-year-old vintage binoculars. One lens is corroded. The other carries the appearance of a fogged periscope in a Red October movie. How he sees polar bears and wolves with those optics remains a mystery.
With Lizza and me, Ushakovskoye’s eerie human colony climbs to 13 current residents. The island’s three pet dogs double as bear deterrents.
Might a new predator-prey dynamic be emerging as a consequence of climate change?
Once a fishing and mining village that housed a small gulag, Ushakovskoye now consists of abandoned buildings that sit idle among concrete rubble. Drifting snow fills most of the structures, just as sand might fill a saloon in an old Western ghost town. Doors should swing open and close in a stiff breeze, but they don’t—because everything is frozen. There is an old school with broken windows, its paint peeled away, a government building with spiked metal grates, and a post of ice. The library is dormant, filled with books coated in snow. The inside temperature there registers −9 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tires and rusted chains are generously distributed throughout the town. Where the ground is swept clean of snow by the wind, shards of broken glass and plates appear. Thousands of corroded barrels leach oil, gas, and countless other toxics. Oxidized pipes and fuel tanks find camaraderie with shipping crates and bins. Primordial satellite dishes on rooftops creak. Battered boats that will not float, overland trucks that will not move, and engine parts that won’t ever work again add macabre ambiance. Accretions of all that has been left behind cover the land from the water’s iced edges to the nearby hills.
Amid this coastal devastation, the land has returned to nature. Arctic foxes move freely, their only worries being dogs and the next meal. Polar bears walk up and down what was once the main street. Their heads poke through windows or whatever else they wish. Muskoxen rub against the cemetery stones. This wintry Armageddon holds a surprise of a different sort from the freely roaming animals, hinted at by what we can now see from Igor’s window: smoke puffing from chimneys.
Remarkably, seven souls call Ushakovskoye home, among them Olga. Another of the seven, Petrovich, whose first name is also Igor, has lived here for more than 25 years. All seven work for the Wrangel Island Reserve, the World Heritage Site, scavenging wood and molding parts from forlorn equipment to heat the very drafty huts that serve as their homes. On this island, Mad Max characters have real faces. They use generators to produce their electricity for a few hours each day because they cannot use weather station facilities. In one of the tumbledown buildings is the equivalent of dial-up Internet, but it rarely works.
There is no running water; the toilets are—hmm. The hearty Ushakovskians own not a single modern amenity. Whereas Alaskans split wood with axes, these Russians use a meat cleaver; instead of a lightweight avalanche shovel, they have the cast-iron version; instead of a vacuum cleaner, they fashion old grass into a broom. For rolling baking dough, they empty another vodka bottle. They are creative and generous survivors, with their government’s blessing. Best of all, they invite me for meals, each of them regularly. These tough workers make but a few mere rubles and still they share their bounty, embracing me.
From the ruins of Ushakovskoye, a human existence rises. The trammeled patches here represent 1 percent of the island. Beyond, nature is raw and wild, its Pleistocene heritage yet palpable.
One of the heaviest polar bears northwest of our study area beyond Kotzebue, Alaska, weighed just over 1,350 pounds, which is almost the combined mass of three adult female muskoxen. Male polar bears are scary. They’re also willing to tangle with any prey.
I wonder if muskoxen think about polar bears. Already our Alaskan work has revealed that they fear brown bears. Virtually nothing is known about interactions between white bears and muskoxen. Might a new predator-prey dynamic be emerging as a consequence of climate change? With more bears stranded on land, perhaps there are more interactions? From Hudson’s Bay, we know bears are eating more berries, more grass, and more goose eggs. They also chase caribou. But how would anyone know if interactions with muskoxen are increasing unless someone had been studying them for many winters? The past literature offers little guidance on this matter.
“In the stomach of a bear which was killed in Scoresby Sound [Greenland] I found pieces of meat and skin of musk-ox, and not far away the carcass of the beast on which it feasted.” So wrote A. Pedersen in the 1950s. What he didn’t know was whether the muskox died through predation or from some other cause. On Kuhn Island, a trapper told Pedersen that when he found bear and muskox tracks so intermingled, he interpreted it as a predation attempt, though from what he could tell, there was no terminal ending and the tracks of the two species led in different directions.
That wasn’t the case in 1932, when the following was written from elsewhere in Greenland: “Jensen found a musk-ox which had shortly before been killed by a bear. He had himself seen the bear while making the round of his traps. On his return he followed the tracks of the beast and came across a dead ox, still warm and showing marks which proved how it had been killed. All around the snow was trampled and bespattered with blood. With its claws the bear had badly lacerated the head of its victim.”
Gashes do indeed offer important clues when not obscured by thick fur. My ears perk up when, back in Ushakovskoye, Ilya Borisovich tells about a male muskox with deep striations across its back. Ilya and I had interacted indirectly through common friends in 1996, when I spent some time with moose in Russia’s eastern Primosrky Krai. Now, he tells me about the muskox bull that had been hanging around Ushakovskoye. One day the male showed up lacerated and lame. As a courtesy, he was shot. His loins were not wasted.
Elsewhere, polar bears do kill ungulates. On Svalbard, the Arctic Archipelago where the Pomors eked out their meager lives by eating reindeer, polar bears had preyed on at least five of these animals.
Interactions come with different signatures. Bears and muskoxen might exchange glances with, approach, flee from, or ignore each other. There can be charges, grouping, or passive expressions. The three muskoxen carcasses we had found earlier, all with good bone marrow, are suggestive of an intriguing dynamic—predation.
I pressed the issue, first with Ilya Borisovich, then with Petrovich, and then with another delight—a long-haired reindeer herder named Kaurgin, who is Chukchi. In 1962, the government mandated that names conform to “traditional” Russian ones. Little 8-year-old Kaurgin became the Gregoire Nikolaevich who I know as Grisha. Though related by heritage to Fred Goodhope on the other side of Beringia, much as my common heritage renders me a relative of Vladimir Putin, Grisha and Fred both having herded reindeer, but Grisha’s roots to Wrangel are deeper than merely as a herder of reindeer.
Grisha was there when the 20 muskoxen arrived from Alaska in 1975. All of the muskoxen were less than 2 years of age and included 17 yearlings—essentially babes on new tundra. That first summer, three were killed by polar bears: One, a female, had malformed feet and another had lung lesions. I exclude both from my sample of victims of predation, knowing the fencing designed to protect them was flimsy. Nor was there a herd with adults for protection. The third of the three newcomers killed was obviously also unfamiliar with Wrangel. Grisha is not unfamiliar with the island, having lived there with thousands of reindeer and having navigated it without GPS for 30 years.
I try to synthesize these observations to understand whether Wrangel animals deal with polar bears the same way Alaskan muskoxen respond to brown bears. Perhaps there is regional variation, or maybe the responses go deeper in history, from when mammoths roamed here and Pleistocene lions preyed on bison and probably muskoxen and more.
Wherever muskoxen are present, females form groups. Male bands are smaller. Polar bears often ignore bulls, but the opposite is the case when they encounter groups that are primarily made up of females. One time, two polar bears approached a female group that also included two mature males. The group fled. The bears chased them but were unsuccessful in catching them. Those same polar bears then approached a group of three males who remained steadfast, and the bears veered. Another time, a single polar bear lying in wait surprised a mixed herd that bolted in lieu of forming a defensive huddle. A female straggler was killed. Five events in all involved bears approaching groups of three or fewer male muskoxen; none fled and the bears moved off. Three other times, bulls and bears seemed to ignore each other. There were also four observations of bears approaching groups of females that also contained males, and the groups ran off. And twice, I was able to decipher interactions from tracks. In one of those instances, it was clear that a group with just a few individuals did not run. The other time, the group was larger and ran.
While the observations may be absorbing, the sexes were imprecisely noted, measures were not taken, and conditions such as snow hardness went unrecorded. To develop more insight on how different factors shape outcomes and perhaps the degree of recognition between species, I’ll need to do playback experiments using visual models like I did in Alaska. I name my shamanistic reindeer Yakuts, in honor of the indigenous herders whose existence is reindeer. For the fake polar bear, I go with Eisbjorn, the Norwegian moniker for ice (eis) and bear (bjorn), something rolling off my tongue more easily than its name in Russian, belyi (white) medved (bear). I aim to do the playbacks when I next return to Wrangel.
As Lizza and I prep to depart the island, the crew at the weather station throws a party for us. I must have passed the Americanski test. Leanna wipes away a tear, and Sergey has imbibed more than normal. Koysta, the ex-rock musician from Moscow, delivers a bear hug. As sleds are loaded the next morning, I slip quietly into Igor’s parlor and remove his vintage binoculars from the sterile windowsill. Next to his green plant, I place a new pair of Pentax. I depart unseen, smiling.
Getting home proves tough. On the helicopter ride to Pevek, it’s only Lizza, a drunk, and me. He tries to assail her, she punches him in the face, and I intervene. The jet ride to Moscow is even more exciting. Two vodka-laden passengers brawl in the aisle until others halt the fisticuffs. The pugilists are duct taped to their seats. The remaining journey home lacks such passion but from start to finish requires a remarkable 18 days. I use the time to sum up the photogrammetry findings from Chukotka’s stunning island.
Wrangel juveniles were smaller than those from Alaska in every single year. That is, the 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, and 3-year-olds of both sexes were smaller than Alaskan counterparts across each of the eight years of measures. The probability that such size limitations would occur by chance is less than 1 in 1,000. The differences are not attributable to variation in genetic origin since all Wrangel and Alaskan animals are descended from the captures in Greenland in the 1930s and, ultimately, from Nunivak Island animals. Most likely, the short summer growing season and more frequent rain-on-snow events on Wrangel were responsible. While it’s not surprising that weather affects body size, what’s of interest is how nuanced and powerful the effects are. We found that rain-on-snow events that occurred during muskox pregnancy retarded individual growth for at least three years.
Olga and Sasha promise I’ll be invited to return.
Joel Berger is the Barbara Cox Anthony University Chair in wildlife conservation at Colorado State University and a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He is a co-author of Horn of Darkness and author of The Better to Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World and Wild Horses of the Great Basin.
Reprinted with permission from Extreme Conservation. © 2018 by Joel Berger. Published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.