Friday, August 22, 2014

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.

Daisies
 

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

Dunlin
 

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 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
 
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

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