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.