Polar bears gather on a hillside on Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island is a well-known polar bear gathering place and denning area. During field work last fall, researchers counted 367 polar bears on designated transects.

© Babiy Ulyana Vladimirovna/Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve

1/9/2020 4:15:53 PM

Life on Wrangel Island

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation.

Chop wood, carry water, pack, unpack, prepare food, ready gear, sleep, ride, count polar bears. Repeat, repeat.

Prior to last fall, I had never been to Wrangel Island, Russia, yet it felt immediately familiar. I had never participated in a multi-week survey by ATV—let alone in such changing and challenging terrain and weather—and yet it seemed completely normal.  Cabins were either simple and older, or modern with nice touches like wood-fired central heating and solar electric—yet both were equally comfortable and welcome sights at the end of a long day. The rhythms we settled into differed little between places or transects. Day passed to day as weather went from autumn to winter and back to autumn again.

I took part in field work on Wrangel Island this fall as part of a research project on polar bears led by Dr. Eric Regehr of the University of Washington. We were joined by colleagues from the Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve and the All-Russian Research Institute for Environmental Protection.

A typical morning would start with lighting the cookstove around 5 or 6 a.m. and heating water for coffee and breakfast. The cabins retained some heat from the previous night’s fire, comfortably cool. Coffee was instant or Turkish (grounds in mug)—smooth and strong. Lighting was by headlamp or kerosene lantern in older cabins and LED lights in modern cabins. Breakfast was typically leftover dinner or a porridge (buckwheat or oats).

Dr. Eric Regehr and Geoff York in front of a field cabin on Russia's Wrangel Island.

Dr. Eric Regehr, left, and Geoff York, right, bear-proof one of the island's field cabins prior to leaving by putting braces on the doors and windows. Photo copyright Babiy Ulyana Vladimirovna/Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

Most of the cabins had drinkable water nearby, but some required hauling water along with our gear (food, clothing, fuel, and oil). We generally carried a week’s worth of basic rations but could supplement our supplies at some cabins.

Weather permitting, and sometimes regardless, we packed our kit and reloaded the quads at dawn. We would head out to survey at first good light as our days were often long. Lunch was usually on the go: strong black tea with sugar, cheese, bread or sushki (a Russian staple that is like a crunchy mini bagel), and sometimes jerky or salami. Nuts and chocolate were special treats.

Each night we stayed in a hard-sided cabin, relatively safe from polar bears and with wood stoves for heat. On arrival one of us would check the wood stash and start a fire while others removed window shutters on older cabins. All of us stripped our quads of any gear, including the seats. Everything had to be secured each night from the mouths of curious bears; this included covering the ATVs. We tried to start early and finish by late afternoon, so that we had daylight for getting settled each night. Some cabins needed wood to be cut and split, some needed water hauled for our use or to replace what was used.

Geoff York on an ATV, scanning for polar bears.

Geoff York scans the horizon for polar bears as part of a population count on the island. At night, researchers covered their ATVs to prevent curious polar bears damaging them. Photo copyright Babiy Ulyana Vladimirovna/Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

We typically had an early main meal of soup, or a simple, hearty dish anchored with pasta, buckwheat, or rice. Before dark, we would have to re-shutter all windows in the older cabins, making bedtime come a little earlier as we cleaned up dishes, brushed teeth, and entered data. We read books and sometimes shared music.

Bathing was generally a simple washing up of hands and face, but we were fortunate to have two real banya (Russian sauna) nights, and three opportunities for a proper hot water clean-up at the modern cabins (one bucket of hot and one of cold in a shower room with a large tin cup for pouring). The banya experience is fantastic in this cold environment. A traditional banya involves at least three sessions in the heat, with temperatures typically between 110 and 120 F. These are followed by cooling off with the method of your choice, either standing for a bit in the cool room, taking a snow scrub outside, or my favorite: dousing yourself with a bucket of ice-cold stream water. Following the third round of heat, you stay in a middle “wet room” that is still quite warm and mix tubs of water for a proper scrub down and rinse.

Laundry was rare and done by hand, sometimes in very cold water. Initially hung to drip outside, we typically brought it in before dark as frozen solid bits of clothing, which we then dried by the fire overnight or hung in the banya. 

Geoff York inside a field cabin on Wrangel Island.

Inside one of the island's field cabins. Conditions ranged from simple and older, as in this cabin, to newer with wood-fired central heating and solar-powered electricity. Photo copyright Babiy Ulyana Vladimirovna/Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

Despite the primitive conditions, I loved every moment on the island. Wrangel is well known as a polar bear denning area and as a resting place for the bears during ice-free periods. Our field work focused on conducting ground-based observational surveys and obtaining genetic samples through noninvasive methods (hair traps). The results will be key for monitoring the health of this population and better understanding the island’s role as a polar bear sanctuary.

Dr. Eric Regehr is the principal investigator of the Wrangel Island study; for more information, contact him at eregehr@uw.edu. In 2019, primary funding for this project was provided by the University of Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Polar Bears International (thanks to the generosity of the High Point Community Foundation and Salesforce), the Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve, and the All-Russian Research Institute for Environment Protection. In addition to Regehr, fieldwork was conducted by Ulyana Babiy (Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve), Dr. Stanislov Belikov and Angelina Gnedenko (All-Russian Research Institute for Environment Protection), and Geoff York (Polar Bears International).

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