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A Picture Postcard From Wild Wrangel Island

May 6, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2013 9:19 pm

If something seems impossibly remote, you call it Siberia. And if Siberians want to make the analogy, they could call it Wrangel Island. About 90 miles off the coast of northeastern Siberia, the 91-mile-long island has been inhabited by some humans over the years — but has been home to a superabundance of wildlife such as polar bears, Pacific walruses and musk oxen.

In the May issue of National Geographic magazine, Hampton Sides writes about the Russian federally managed nature sanctuary. And images by Russian photographer Sergey Gorshkov show what the words can't.

In an interview on All Things Considered, Sides explains that Gorshkov made a fortune in the oil business before deciding to become a photographer.

"He lives in Moscow and has more money than he probably knows what to do with," Sides adds on the phone after the interview. "Some people have described him as an oligarch."

But unless he could afford to hire a helicopter, these photos probably wouldn't be possible. Wrangel Island is prohibitively difficult to access — except by helicopter and icebreaker (not to mention all the required permits).

"This is a guy who has dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars and so much of his time to getting these images right," says Sides.

Although Gorshkov had been to the island several times before Sides, the two traveled together for the purpose of the magazine story. For photographers and scientists, the draw to such an inhospitable place is that the island has remained unchanged in many ways for epochs. Traveling to Wrangel Island is like traveling back in time.

"You're looking at a kind of nature that has been ... largely this way since the Pleistocene time," Sides says. Plus, he describes Gorshkov as a lone wolf. "He likes to get away from humanity, and this is about as far away from humanity as you can get."

For aspiring photographers, Gorshkov's story might be inspiration. He didn't pick up a camera until his mid-40s.

"He's pretty fearless," says Sides. "Some of those images you just can't get unless you're right up there with these animals."

Like the images of musk oxen head-butting and polar bears denning. This is just a tiny selection of Gorshkov's work, but you can learn more about Wrangel Island in the National Geographic article and see more on Gorshkov's website.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Let your imagination wander north, way north to an island in the Arctic Ocean, some 90 miles off the coast of northern Siberia. Wrangel Island, a frozen wilderness that teems with an astonishing abundance of life, so much so that it just might be the Galapagos of the far north. So writes Hampton Sides in the May issue of National Geographic magazine. Sides visited the island last summer and describes a remarkable Russian nature sanctuary: It's the world's largest polar bear maternity ward and possibly the last place where woolly mammoths lived. Hampton Sides joins me to talk about his adventure. Hampton, welcome to the program.

HAMPTON SIDES: Great to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And this is an island so remote, it was an ordeal in itself just to get there.

SIDES: Yeah, it was. I mean, there's really only two ways to get there: by helicopter or by Russian icebreaker. And we went by an icebreaker. We smashed through a bunch of ice, took us a while to get there. And when we finally got there, it was shrouded in mist. You couldn't see it, and you couldn't see it, and you couldn't see it, until you finally came up on it. And there it was, 91 miles long, this pretty significant piece of real estate.

BLOCK: Well, it's a Russian federally managed nature sanctuary now, and you described the wildlife there. And it's just extraordinary, and the pictures in the magazine are incredible. We have them also at npr.org. Talk a bit about the animals that you saw there.

SIDES: Well, we saw a fair number of polar bear. It is considered the, you know, the largest denning ground for polar bear. It has the largest population of Pacific walrus. It has large populations of snow goose and snowy owl and arctic fox and musk oxen. We saw all these animals over the course of the four, five days we were there.

BLOCK: How many polar bears would you say you saw?

SIDES: Well, here's a funny thing. I mentioned the ice earlier. There was a record amount of ice in that part of the Arctic that particular summer, and one of the reasons people have been going to Wrangel of late is to see the polar bears who have been going to Wrangel because there's no ice. But this year, there was ice. So where were the polar bear? Out on the ice, where they prefer to be. And so where we saw the polar bear was, you know, five, 10, 20 miles off the coast of the island.

We saw 40 polar bear out on the ice, doing just what they love to do, which is, you know, eating seals. But in other years - and this has unfortunately been the pattern of late - is there's very little reliable ice during the summer, so the polar bears go to Wrangel.

BLOCK: You described this island, Hampton, as a raw place to see landscape. And it really does sound like a real - a journey back in time if you get there.

SIDES: If you get there. And the thing is it's the only island in that part of the Arctic that was - it was never inundated and was never glaciated. And so you kind of have this, you know, you just - you feel like not only are you at the end of the Earth, but you're going back in time considerably.

BLOCK: And you sent along a photograph of yourself holding a 10,000-year-old wooly mammoth tusk. And the way you described it, you find them all over this island. This is no big deal.

SIDES: Yeah. They're really everywhere. And really, the only people who go there with any frequency are scientists, and many of them are people who are studying mammoths. It's the last place where mammoths lived. There was a kind of a stunted pigmy version of mammoth that lived there considerably later than any other mammoths have been discovered on the mainland.

BLOCK: Well, Wrangel Island went undiscovered for a really long time, right? It was rumored to exist, and expeditions would go out, and they met with pretty disastrous ends. Who ultimately found Wrangel?

SIDES: The Chukchi natives, who live on the mainland of Siberia, referred to it as the invisible island. It was a place that was visible only when atmospheric conditions were absolutely perfect. And somehow, you know, this thing popped up, and you could see it magically, maybe one or two days a year. Early explorers heard about these rumors of an invisible island and kept trying to find it and kept failing - the Russians, the British. Ultimately, it was Americans who first landed on Wrangel.

In 1881, a vessel out of San Francisco that was looking for a lost - a voyage of American explorers landed on the island, raised an American flag over it, declared it American soil. Among that party was the great conservationist and writer John Muir, and he writes about it beautifully in a travelogue that he wrote. So for a long time - and I think legitimately - people have claimed that it is rightfully American soil, but we didn't do very much to press our claim to the land. And ultimately, it fell into Russian hands, and it's been essentially Russian soil since the 1920s.

BLOCK: That's Hampton Sides. He writes about his trip to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia in the May issue of National Geographic magazine. Hampton, thanks so much.

SIDES: Great to be with you.

BLOCK: Hampton Sides traveled to Wrangel Island with photographer Sergey Gorshkov. You can find a slideshow of Gorshkov's images - and they are gorgeous - at npr.org.

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