This story appears in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Zodiac raft motors through the freezing drizzle, skirting large ice cakes, taking on wave after invigorating wave of Chukchi Sea as we grope our way toward a shore obscured by fog. Although our Russian guide insists that a large island lies just ahead, I’m doubtful. But then the mists dissipate, and suddenly it looms with a starkness enhanced by the refractions of the Arctic atmosphere: a formidable piece of real estate, 91 miles long, its golden mountains speckled with the bright blooms of tundra flowers.
John Muir, the first visitor to describe Wrangel Island to the world, waxed rhapsodic when he saw this vista in 1881. “This grand wilderness in its untouched freshness,” Muir called it, this “severely solitary” land in the “topmost, frost-killed end of creation.”
Today Wrangel Island is one of the world’s least frequented, most restricted nature reserves—a place that requires several government permits to visit and can be reached only by helicopter during winter or by icebreaker during summer. Waiting for us beside the landing site at Rodgers Cove is Anatoliy Rodionov, a strapping Russian preserve ranger in dun-colored fatigues who carries a flare gun and a can of Counter Assault pepper spray. Rodionov lives year-round here, more or less marooned with a few colleagues and a population of hungry polar bears.
“Privet and welcome to Ostrov Vrangelya!” he says, with the exaggerated cheer of a young man starved for sun and human company. “For nine months only three colors—white, black, gray. I doesn’t like the winter here!”
Rodionov leads us across a gravel beach strewn with the bones of whales and walruses to Ushakovskoye, a tiny ghost town from the Soviet era. Rusty barrels are piled everywhere. Weather-scabbed cabins, some of which have been cannibalized for firewood, are built upon a spongy turf of lichen and moss. Disintegrating radar disks lean toward the sea, and a radio antenna’s guy wires sing in the high wind. The windows of a Russian bathhouse are caged and spiked with five-inch nails to keep out the bears.
Three hundred yards away an alert young male sniffs with interest. Rodionov eyes him knowingly. “That rascal,” he says with a laugh. “He pay us a visit last night.”
Wrangel Island was declared a zapovednik—a federally managed nature sanctuary—in 1976, and it remains one of Russia’s coldest, remotest pieces of protected wilderness. The 2,900-square-mile island lying astride the 180th meridian just might be the Galápagos of the far north: Despite the severity of its climate, and in many ways because of it, Wrangel boasts an astonishing abundance of life. The island is the world’s largest denning ground for polar bears—as many as 400 mothers have been known to land here in winter to raise their young. With climate change making the ice pack much less reliable, polar bears have often sought summertime refuge on the island in recent years as well. Wrangel also supports the largest population of Pacific walruses, and the only snow goose nesting colony in Asia. It is home to snowy owls, muskoxen, arctic foxes, and reindeer as well as massive populations of lemmings and seabirds. And yet, in merciful contrast to the boggy Siberian mainland, there are no mosquitoes.
Since ancient times Wrangel Island has been felicitously perched on what might be called the ice cusp. Because the island was never completely glaciated during recent ice ages and never completely inundated by seawater during periods of ice retreat, the soils and plants in its interior valleys offer a glimpse of undisturbed Pleistocene tundra unique on the planet. “When you go to Wrangel,” says Mikhail Stishov, a Moscow-based WWF scientist who lived 18 years on the island, “you’re going back hundreds of thousands of years. It’s a place of ancient biodiversity, but it’s also very fragile.”
Paleontologists believe Wrangel is also the last place where woolly mammoths lived. A dwarf subspecies thrived here as late as 1700 B.C., more than 6,000 years after mammoth populations elsewhere became extinct. Their curved tusks can be found everywhere on the island, lying on the gravel beaches, in streambeds, even leaning against ranger cabins—trophies from another epoch. “When the pyramids were being built in Egypt, elephants walked around on Wrangel,” says Alexander Gruzdev, the reserve’s director. “Its proximity to, but isolation from, the continental patterns of Asia and North America created a unique natural structure. There’s no place quite like it in the world.”
Though Arctic animals have long flourished on Wrangel, people most emphatically have not. Lying 88 miles off the coast of northeastern Siberia, Wrangel was for centuries little more than a rumor, a mirage, a fog-gauzed dream. Perhaps it was an island, perhaps a continent, perhaps a magical gateway to the Pole. Throughout much of the 19th century “Wrangell Land” functioned as a kind of ultima Thule, a hypothetical realm just beyond the veil of the known world. Before its existence was proved, Wrangel Island went by a succession of tentative names: Tikegen Land, Plover Island, Kellett Land. Wrangel loomed in cartographers’ imaginations—some even surmised that it was an extension of Greenland that stretched clear across the Pole.
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s almost every exploring expedition that blundered anywhere near Wrangel ended up with the adjective “doomed” in front of it. In the early 1820s Chukchi hunters on the northeast Siberian coast told Russian explorer Ferdinand von Wrangel about a land to the north that could sometimes be seen when atmospheric conditions were just right. Wrangel sailed for the mythic land but was thwarted by ice and failed to snatch even a glimpse of it. Nearly 30 years afterward, the captain of an English vessel searching for Sir John Franklin’s expedition thought he spotted a large Arctic island shimmering in the distance. Later, various whaling captains insisted they’d seen it, although their claims were disputed, since the Arctic is notorious for fata morganas and other fantastical illusions.
An American Arctic expedition launched in 1879 drifted close to Wrangel—close enough for its commander, George Washington De Long, to determine that it was not a polar continent after all. De Long was never able to land on Wrangel, however; his ship, the U.S.S. Jeannette, was beset in the polar ice pack for nearly two years, until it sank some 800 miles to the northwest.
It wasn’t until August 1881 that a group of Americans aboard the steamer Thomas L. Corwin, scouring the Arctic in search of the lost Jeannette, set foot on Wrangel and proved its hard-soil existence once and for all. The search party, which included the young Muir, hoisted an American flag and declared Wrangel a new U.S. possession in the name of their President. (Unbeknownst to the explorers, President James Garfield lay slowly dying from an assassin’s bullet.)
The Corwin party called the island New Columbia, but the name never stuck. That same year Muir published the world’s first description of Wrangel in a San Francisco newspaper series, later collected in a piquant travelogue called The Cruise of the Corwin. Although he considered Wrangel a “notable addition ... to the national domain,” Muir thought the geography of the new land would not be known “until some considerable change has taken place in the polar climate.”
The island dwelled in near solitude for over 30 years. Then came another succession of doomed expeditions, beginning with the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913, whose survivors were forced to leave their crushed brigantine Karluk and trudge 80 miles over the ice pack to take refuge on Wrangel. By the time they were rescued eight months later, 11 of the 25 men had perished on or near Wrangel. A Canadian-led attempt in 1921 to settle Wrangel Island and claim it for the British motherland resulted in four more deaths.
In 1926 the Soviets, attempting to extend their sovereignty over Wrangel, forcibly relocated Chukchi there from Siberia. A tiny colony persisted until the 1970s, when, with the creation of the sanctuary, descendants of the original settlers started being repatriated to the mainland.
Because the Corwin party was the first to plant a flag on Wrangel, certain jingoistic groups in the United States have insisted the island is rightfully American soil. One Tea Party blogger last year ranted that President Barack Obama was giving away Wrangel to the “Putin regime” as part of an “apparent war against U.S. energy independence.” The U.S. State Department, however, has long maintained that the United States asserts no territorial claim to the island—and never has. The region around Wrangel is not known to have substantial oil reserves, and even if it did, its nearly year-round ice would likely make extraction prohibitively difficult and expensive.
Thus blessed with a lack of exploitable resources, Wrangel has been left alone. Thanks to climate change and the Cold War’s end, the island has become slightly more accessible in recent years, and the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has unveiled plans to develop ecotourism here, but that seems a long way off. For the foreseeable future Wrangel will remain a natural laboratory for Arctic animals and the humans who study them. Scientists who come here say there is something peculiarly haunting and powerful about this raw Pleistocene landscape secreted near the roof of the world. “You feel as though you’ve come to the end of the Earth,” says University of Michigan mammoth paleontologist Daniel Fisher.
“It’s such a pristine environment,” says Irina Menyushina, who has spent 32 seasons on Wrangel Island conducting snowy owl and arctic fox studies. “You feel yourself so close to the primeval processes of the universe—birth, death, survival, the ebb and surge of populations. Every year when I’m back on Wrangel, I am reinfected by the Arctic.”