Saturday, August 23, 2014

Conduit to the New World

Greetings All,
We were treated to smooth seas on our way back south along the Chukotka Coast.  We made a landing on Kolyuchin Island now part of Beringia National Park formed by the Russian Government last year.  The island is a treasure trove of wildlife.  On the northern tip are cliffs teeming with bird life.  We climbed to the top of the island, crossed over to the cliffs and finally got great views of Horned Puffins.  They look like tiny clowns with their bulbous beaks, outlandish eyebrows and big red feet.

Horned Puffin

The Murres or Guillimots as they are also called lined up along narrow cliffs in their smart tuxedos.  Here they are the "Penguins of the Arctic".

Murres or Guillemots

A closer look revealed that there are two species.  Brunnich's Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre) with a white stipe on the bill and the white on their breast culminating in a "V" under their chins.  Common Murres of Guillemots lack the white stripe on the bill and the white on their breasts does not end in a pronounced "V".

Common and Thick-billed Murres

There was also a second species of Puffin here.  Tufted Puffins have creamy tassels on the side of their heads and lack the white breast of the Horned Puffins.

Tufted & horned Puffins

Black-legged Kittiwakes were still rearing chicks on the narrow, over-crowded cliffs.

Black-legged Kittiwakes

Evening was approaching and we boarded the Zodiacs to travel to the southern end of the Island to see a large Walrus haulout.  The Zodiac was bobbing, the light was low and the Walrus were about 100 yards away but Marc managed to get some good photos.

Walrus Haulout

There were about 800-1000 Pacific Walrus resting on the rocky beach.  It was not the largest haulout by any means, 60,000 animals once hauled out on Cape Blossom on Wrangel Island, but still very impressive.  It was getting dark and we headed back to the ship.

The next day we arrived at the Chukchi village of Uelen, the sun was shining, the seas were calm and the Gray Whales were spouting all around us.

Gray Whale

They would come to the surface exhaling a puff of water vapor about six times before diving with a flick of their massive tails to feed.

Gray Whale Fluke

Unlike similar sized whales, Gray Whales don't have a dorsal fin.  In the summer they come to the rich Arctic waters to feed before returning to Baja, Mexico in the winter to give births to their calves.

When we arrived on the beach in Uelen, the village hunters had just killed a Gray Whale and were in the process of dragging it ashore to process it.

Gray Whale Hunt

It was sad to see after watching many live whales feeding happily in the harbor.  The International Whaling Commission has granted the following catch limit for aboriginal subsistence whaling: Eastern North Pacific gray whales (taken by native people of Chukotka and Washington State) - A total catch of 620 whales is allowed for the years 2008 - 2012 with a maximum of 140 in any one year.  People here have been hunting whales for millennia and today the tradition lives on. (Note: no mention of quotas after 2012 was found on the IWC website)

We visited the school which at this time of year is not in session.  We did visit a classroom where the Chukchi language is taught from grades 2-9.  The language is dying out and there are efforts underway to revive it.  Before the Russians arrived in Chukotka, the Chukchi language was only spoken.  Now it has been written with the Russian alphabet plus two new letters.  I asked the Chukchi teacher in attendance if she could speak her native tongue for us so we could hear how it sounds. Here is a short video clip of the Chukchi language so you can hear for yourselves.

Next stop was the museum.  On the way we passed the local "delivery tank" that had just brought up a supply of apples and oranges from the south.

Delivery Tank

A few baidaras minus the walrus skin were stored on top of shipping containers, not Bowhead jawbones like the old days.

Stored Baidara frames

The people of Uelen are famous for carving walrus ivory.  Intricate figures are carved from the tusks of walrus using special tools although today dentist drills are more commonly used.

Walrus Tusk Carvings

Stories are carved into whole tusks then colored with special pencils.  There were a few trinkets for sale but we all refrained.  Even though there is no ban on walrus ivory like there is for elephant ivory, there is a Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits the import of walrus ivory into the US.

We gathered at the Community Center to watch a native dance performance.  The young girls were dressed in their kamleikas or traditional cotton dress in preparation for the dance.

Chukchi Girls

The weather was so nice their performance was moved to the beach where the Bering Sea provided a beautiful backdrop.  Five men, 3 of which beat seal skin drums, and 11 women and girls danced and sang for us.  Many dances were performed including the "welcome dance", the "walrus dance" and the comical "squirrel dance".  Here is a short clip so you can enjoy the performance as well.

Watching the performance I couldn't help thinking "this is where it all began".  People from present-day Chukotka made their way to North America to begin life on a new continent. It was widely held that humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge after the last glacial period approximately 13,000 years ago the so-called Clovis Theory.  New evidence suggests that they sailed their boats south along the coast crossing the present day Gulf of Alaska to the shore of what is now Washington State before the last ice age ended around 14,000 years ago!  Whatever theory you believe Chukotka has served as a conduit for humans, animals and plants to enter the New World!

We'd like to thank the staff and crew of Heritage Expeditions for an extraordinary expedition.  This voyage opened a whole new world for me, the amazing Arctic.  Global warming is causing profound changes to this fragile environment.  As the ice melts ships can venture further and further north.  It's great for us but it also opens the area to oil and gas exploration.  The animals and plants will learn to adapt to the changing climate or move into new areas but humans ultimately hold their fate.  I hope that we will choose to preserve rather than exploit the cultural, anthropological and natural history of this wondrous place, the high Arctic!

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Friday, August 22, 2014

Trekol Traverse

Greetings All,
During the afternoon of August 15 we were taken ashore by Zodiac boats to rendezvous with the first overland group.  On the way we spotted a Polar Bear swimming towards shore.

Swimming Polar Bear

The ice has melted and they have no choice but to go ashore. The first overland group had arrived by a Trekol, a Russian made vehicle built to travel across the tundra with minimal impact.  

The Trekol Awaits

We were to follow the same route going in the opposite direction.  We would start at Drum Head (also known as Dream Head) on the northwest coast and cross two passes to reach Doubtful on the southern coast.  Here is a map showing our route.

Trekol Traverse (click to enlarge)

As we approached the beach I was amazed to see an Arctic Fox brazenly approach.  

Hungry Arctic Fox

After we landed we were told that this desperately thin fox had followed the Trekol for the last 10 km.  A big man all bundled up in a parka and accompanying the Trekol on a quad bike tossed a hunk of salami to the hungry fox.  I was surprised to see the wildlife on Wrangel being fed as it is a federally protected wildlife reserve but I was happy to see the starving fox getting some food.  The first overland group had a great trip and I was eager to start.  We piled into the back of the Trekol and set off with our driver Vova and guide Oksana. 

Our group in the Trekol

Oksana told us the man on the quad bike was Sasha, the director of the reserve, and he was to accompany us.  Not long after we started we spotted a Polar Bear on the beach.  He looked a little thin and untidy as we drove past.

Polar Bear on Beach
We entered an area where Snow Geese abound.  Up to 60,000 pairs breed on the island, the only large breeding colony on the Eurasian continent.  This year has been hard on the geese.  Spring came late and many pairs did not breed.  We spotted one pair with 5 gray chicks in tow.

Snow Geese with Chicks
We passed a couple of Arctic Fox dens where the inquisitive kits came to check us out.

Arctic Fox Kit

In the late evening we arrived at Tundra Hut.  It's not clear when the hut was built but over the years it has housed numerous researchers. This year Olga, a park scientist who is studying Snow Geese, lived here.

Trekol and Tundra Hut
The following morning Oksana cooked oatmeal and toast for breakfast to fuel us for the day ahead.

Breakfast at Tundra Hut

We left the Tundra River and entered the Mammoth River Valley.  It's easier for the Trekol to travel along the gravel river beds and causes less damage to the tundra.

Tundra River Valley

A hatch was cut through the roof and Marc and Jens squeezed through to photograph the many birds and animals we encountered.

View from the Trekol Roof Hatch

We passed more Arctic Fox dens but in the morning fewer kits are up as they are too sleepy to play.

Sleepy Arctic Fox Kit

Two Snowy Owls were engaged in a squabble over what we did not know.

Dueling Snowy Owls

Most of their chicks have already fledged but we encountered three.  They could not fly yet and scuttled across the tundra to get away.  They lack the white plumage of their parents and their eyes are a more intense yellow.

Snowy Owl Chick

For lunch we stopped at a hut that was used back in 1975 by scientists introducing muskox to the island.

Muskox Introduction Hut

The corral that once held the 15-20 muskox brought over from Nunivak Island in Alaska remains near the hut. With the coming of winter, the muskox escaped never to return to their enclosure.  Only 6 of the original muskox survived but were prolific breeders.  Today there are 800 muskox on the island.  As we neared Doubtful, our final destination, 6 Arctic Fox kits emerged from their den on top of a river bank.  They stared at us inquisitively before resuming their play.

Arctic Fox Kits at Play
Back at Doubtful we stayed in a new hut under construction.  It lacked the character of Tundra Hut but was more spacious and comfortable.  The next morning we headed out on our last drive toward Doubtful Pass.  Not far from the hut a herd of 8 muskox were grazing on the tundra.  They stopped and assumed the defensive posture at our approach.

We stopped at an abandoned forest rangers hut.  Yes, at one time there was a forestry project being conducted in the island even though there are no trees!  We headed back to the rangers station at Doubtful.  An Arctic Fox approached the Trekol looking for a treat but we had nothing to give.  He was a beautiful healthy fox capable of feeding himself.

Arctic Fox

Back at the station Sasha took us for a tour.  A mammoth tusk had been washed down from the hills and still lay where it had come to rest.  Wrangel Island may have been the last place on Earth where woolly mammoths survived!

Mammoth Tusk

Some of the rangers, inspectors as they are called here, had taken up residence in what appeared to be abandoned cabins.  Many had relics from the Soviet Era and it was like walking back in time.

Kitchen and Sleeping Quarters in one of the Cabins
Brilliantly colored wildflowers were still in bloom amongst the "artifacts" left behind by the Soviets.


We watched as the Spirit of Enderby cruised toward us in the bay and all too soon our overland trip was over.  I can't think of a better way to have spent my birthday then on wondrous Wrangel Island!  

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

The Wonders of Wrangel Island

Greetings All,
We're still in the Siberian Arctic exploring remote Wrangel Island.  On the morning of August 15 we set off to explore the area around Komsomol on the west side of the Island.  There is an abandoned Arctic Fox trapper's hut here complete with a baidara with the walrus skin now eaten away.  Leg hold traps hang from the front of the cabin and the doors and windows are studded with nails to ward off Polar Bears.

Arctic Fox Trapper's Hut

We took a short walk along the beach where a Gray Whale was feeding just off shore.

Gray Whale

A raft of Long-tailed Ducks bobbed along on the surf.

Long-tailed Ducks

Daisies carpeted the shore of a tiny lake.  Plants here grow low to the ground to avoid the brutal Arctic winds.


Tiny flocks of Dunlins were feeding with their long beaks in the shallows around the lake.  


Tracks of a Polar Bear mother and her cubs were clearly embedded in the mud along the lake shore. You could even see the imprint of fur surrounding her footprint. 

Polar Bear Tracks

She was still there with two cubs resting on the far shore of the lake until our intrusion caused her to get up to investigate.

Polar Bear Sow with Cubs

She settled down shortly after once she saw we were no threat.  In the afternoon we landed at the Sovietskaya River and took a long walk.  We started along the riverbed where Pomarine Skuas were pretending to be injured in order to lure us away from their nest.

Pomarine Skuas

We climbed to the top of a ridge where an expansive view enfolded before us.  A Polar Bear sow with two clubs were on the valley floor below.  Even though we were far away, we disturbed her and she ran off with her two cubs in tow.

Polar Bear Sow with Cubs

Even though Polar Bears are fearsome predators, they are very cautious.  They tend to flee rather than confront potential danger.  We spotted another 7 bears dotted around the ridges in the distance.  The day was not over yet.  After dinner we did a zodiac cruise along the bird cliffs at Pitchiy Bazaar.  Thousands of Common Guillemots, Brunnich's Guillemots,  Horned Puffins, Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots and Kittiwakes were nesting on the rocky cliffs.  Thousands more flew overhead creating a deafening raucous.

Bird Cliffs at Pitchiy Bazaar
From above an Arctic Fox was attempting to raid the colony for chicks or eggs.

Arctic Fox

It was nearing 9:30 and the sun was setting, it was time to return to the ship.

Sunset at Pitchiy Bazaar

The next morning we continued our exploration of Wrangel Island.  We headed toward our landing site at Drum Head (also known as Dream Head) but were distracted by two Polar Bears on the beach.  We drew closer and closer but not so close that we would interrupt their friendly sparring. 

Sparring Polar Bears 

As we neared our landing site a lone Reindeer stag stood on the tundra.  Velvet hung in tatters from his massive antlers.  

Reindeer are now scarce on Wrangel.  They were introduced to the island in 1938 and the herd had grown to a whopping 8000 individuals!  In the winter of 2005-6 disaster struck when a staggering 6000 reindeer died!  A freeze/thaw/freeze cycle left the grass frozen in big chunks of ice.  After eating this grass the reindeer died.  Nikita explained to me later that the consumed ice froze and killed the bacteria that the reindeer needed to digest the grass.  Eventually the reindeer died with full tummies of grass.  Today only 400 reindeer remain on the island!  We crept ashore cautiously taking great care not to disturb the reindeer.  Suddenly, Nikita spotted a Polar Bear heading down the beach in our direction!  The reindeer was quickly forgotten and Nikita told us to sit down and remain quiet.  It seemed crazy to sit down and wait while a full grown polar bear approached but that is exactly what we did.  I figured out of 50 people that there was at least 1 person I could outrun.

Waiting for a Polar Bear!

I couldn't see the beach as we were sitting below a gravel bank but some of our group higher up were getting excited.  I partially stood and could see the Polar Bear cautiously approaching not more than 150 feet away!

A Polar Bear Approaches!

She finally figured out what we were, turned and ran a short distance down the beach.  She settled and sauntered off at a leisurely pace.

A Polar Bear Retreats Down the Beach

I can't imagine what more wonders were in store for us but I was eager to find out.  We had just learned that there were 2 last-minute cancellations on the next 2-day overland tour and the spots were ours!  We would get to see the interior and spend 2 nights on Wrangel after all!

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc