Friday, August 22, 2014

Into the Realm of the Polar Bear

Greetings All,
Our expedition to the Russian Arctic began in Anadyr in the Siberian region of Chukotka on August 8.  Here is a map which shows our intended voyage route.

Voyage Route
A two-hour charter flight from Nome, Alaska brought us across the Bering Sea to Anadyr situated on a spit of land jutting into Anadyrskiy Bay.


The weather was sunny and warm as we explored the city, stopping first at a Russian Orthodox Church built with wooden logs.

Russian Orthodox Church

We sat on benches along the Anadyr River where to our delight Beluga Whales were swimming past on their way back to the sea.  We waited for the last ferry/barge to deliver us to The Spirit of Enderby, our home for the next two weeks.

Boarding The Spirit of Enderby

The Belugas were swimming around the ship and Marc did his best to get a good photo of them.

Beluga Whale

On board we settled into our cabin on the 4th deck then prepared for the mandatory lifeboat drill. 

Marc in Our Cabin

Overnight we headed north along the wild Chukotka Coast encountering heavy seas.  At daybreak the seas were still rough and all I could do was drag myself to the bathroom where I spent the morning retching.  Midafternoon we dropped anchor in Preobrazheniya Bay where the swells had eased and I finally felt better.  Marc was doing marginally better lying in his bunk for most of the day.  It was too blustery to do any landings or zodiac cruises so we continued our journey north.  The following morning we had our first landing on Yttygran Island, home to Whalebone Alley.  In the 14th-15th centuries the Eskimos hunted Bowhead Whales here.  They processed the whales and stored the meat in stone pits until winter when their dog sleds could carry the meat back to their villages.  Seven tall bones were stuck into the ground.  They looked like Mammoth tusks but Nikita, one of our guides, told me that they were the jawbones of Bowhead Whales.

Peggy at Whalebone Alley


The Eskimos used them to create a rack that was high off the ground on which they stored their baidaras or walrus-skin boats so that their dogs would not eat them.  The next day we arrived at Cape Dezhnev, the northeastern-most point on the Eurasian continent.  

Cape Dezhnev

A lighthouse stands as a historic monument to Semyon Dezhnev, a Russian Cossack, who was the first European to sail across the Bering Strait in 1648.  His great accomplishment was forgotten for almost a hundred years and Vitrus Bering is usually given credit for discovering the strait that bears his name despite having sailed through it 80 years after Dezhnev!

Lighthouse at Cape Dezhnev

On shore we climbed to the abandoned village of Naukan.  In 1958 the Soviets forced the Noukan people to resettle in another village that could be more easily resupplied.  The remains of their subterranean houses with whale bone and drift wood roofs lay testament to a community that once thrived by hunting whales.

Subterranean House in Noukan

The seas were still rough so Rodney, our expedition leader, decided to skip a few landings and head north to Wrangel Island, our ultimate destination.  We were north of the Bering Strait and had now entered the Chukchi Sea.  I had been anticipating reaching Wrangel Island for months after reading Jennifer Niven's historic novels "The Ice Master" and "Ada Blackjack".  The novels were gripping and once I started reading them I couldn't put them down.  One hundred years ago the Karluk set out on a Canadian Artic Expedition only to get stuck in the pack ice in August!  She kept drifting north and then west until finally being crushed by the ice and sinking in January 1914.  The 25 passengers including the crewman, scientists and an Eskimo couple with 3 and 8-year old daughters made their way over the pack ice to Wrangel Island.  Some perished on the way, others got lost and perished on nearby Herald Island and others died after reaching Wrangel where they struggled to survive until being rescued in September 1914!  Among the 14 survivors was the Eskimo family and the expedition cat, Karluk.  Finally, on August 10, 2014 I got my first view of legendary Wrangel Island!

Wrangel Island

We made our first landing on Wrangel Island where 5 passengers from the first cruise of the Spirit of Enderby were waiting to be picked up.  They had spent 10 days on an overland trip across the Island.

First Landing on Wrangel Island

I was surprised by the number of buildings and junk left behind during the Soviet Era.  At one time there was a village, airstrip and meteorological station here.  Huts stood abandoned and hundreds of barrels and machinery, including a steam shovel, sat rusting in the Arctic sun.  

Remnants of the Soviet Era On Wrangel

We took a short walk across the tundra where a few wildflowers still bloomed and two muskox bulls sparred among the rubble.  "To see more wildlife we'd have to explore the ice floes" Rodney told us.  We left 5 new passengers ashore to go on a 2-day overland trip.  How I wished I was going but there was no space.  I reluctantly returned to the ship not wanting to leave the island I so much wanted to explore.  My spirits lifted just as soon as we entered the ice on our quest for wildlife.

Zodiac Cruise Through the Ice

Rodney had spotted a group of Walrus on a floe and we weaved our way carefully through the ice in search of them.  We approached slowly not wanting to startle them into a stampede.  Walrus are easily disturbed and it's best to view them from a distance.  This was a small haul out of about 20 animals.  

Pacific Walrus

Pacific Walrus, the subspecies we had encountered, prefer to haul out on ice where they feel more safe.  Here they are hunted by humans and Polar Bears and are more wary than their Atlantic cousins. They haul their immense bulk, up to 2000 kg, out of the water to sleep and rest after forging for mollusks on the bottom of the sea floor.  They grab the sediment with their front flippers and feel for mollusks with their long whiskers.  When they find them they suck them out, like eating oysters at a bar.  We left them in peace and went of in search of more wildlife.  Suddenly, Meghan, our guide, shouts "Bear!"  Somehow she spotted a white polar bear sleeping on a white ice floe a half-mile away!  As we approached the bear rose to her feet and we could see she had a cub! No - 2 cubs! Hold on - 3 cubs!  

Polar Bear Mom with 3 Cubs!

We watched in awe taking many photos.  Wrangel Island is a magnet for polar bears, particularly females looking for a place to den and have their cubs.  When the sea is frozen, they hang out on the ice hunting mostly seals and the occasional walrus.  When the ice is gone they are forced ashore to wait for freeze up or to hunt lemmings onshore.  What a privilege to see such a beautiful bear and her three cubs in their natural habitat!  We can't wait to see what tomorrow will bring.

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

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