Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island

One small step for man and one giant step for mankind is what danced in my head as I set foot on the Wrangel Island tundra and the earth beneath me moved. It was like walking on a sponge, soft and light; almost delicate feeling. However the tundra was anything but delicate. I had just set foot on an island that only a few hundred people have ever seen or walked on. A visit to Wrangel Island is truly a unique once in a lifetime experience.

The island gained UNESCO World Nature Heritage Status in 2004. It was the first arctic object in the UNESCO list. It was chosen as an outstanding example of the evolutionary development of the arctic landscape and ecosystem diversity on the earth.

Since few people know of the island, and I’m writing extensively about my travels there, I thought I’d give you a crash course in everything you need to know about Wrangel Island.

Where is Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island is a part of Russia’s Far East. It sits above the Arctic Circle about 87 miles north of Russia
It is home to an extraordinary amount of animal and plant diversity, the greatest in the high Arctic. And the best part is that it’s relatively unknown.

Wrangel Island Map

wrangel island map

Wrangel Island History

Wrangel Island’s early history is full of failed expeditions, shipwrecks, and strife giving way to modern day history full of political collisions and big oil business.

The discovery of Wrangel Island wasn’t easy. Lieutenant Ferdinand Petrovich tried to ‘discover’ the mythical island in 1821, 1822, and 1823 by making sledge journeys over the sea ice to the northwest, north and northeast from Kolyma River searching for the unknown land. On his last expedition he was only 15 miles away from the coast but he didn’t see the island.
1867 a whaler Captain Thomas Long was the first European who undisputedly sighted and landed Wrangel island.
1911 Russian ice breakers, Taimyr and Vaygach, conducted a land and ocean survey including Wrangel Island. They also claim island for Russia at that time.
1914 the famed and fraught voyage of the Karluk occurred.
1921 – 1923 attempt of illegal colonization of Wrangel Island initiated by Vilhjamur Stefansson. The colony consisted of 4 men and one woman, Ada Blackjack. Ada was the only one who survived all by herself and was rescued in 1923.

Want to know more about the Karluk voyage and the Ada Blackgack story – read these books!

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

Ada BlackJack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

1926 The soviet permanent settlement was established on the island by Arctic explorer, Georgiy Ushakov. In the initial years the settlement was really only about hunting and surviving. It then evolved through many other periods after initial colonization; industrial development, militarization, and then strict ecological conservation from 1976 to present.
1996 the Ushakov village was removed and relocated for the mainland.
2000 the border guard station was removed.
2014 the Russian Navy announced plans to establish a base on the island
Present day has a Russian ranger station inhabited by 7 rangers

Sadly all of these various settlements left an immense amount of debris and abandoned building strewn throughout the island that will probably never get removed or picked up.

Wrangel Island garbage

The remnants left from military occupation of the island.

Wrangel Island Mammoths

The island was home to the last Wooly Mammoths to ever walk the earth. Bone and fossil discoveries show that mammoths persisted there until as recently as 3,700 years ago, taking refuge on the island in a watery, warmer post-Ice Age world. The woolly mammoths who lingered on the island, a site without land predators but also with limited food supplies, evolved over time into dwarves, a little over half the size of their Ice Age ancestors. They finally disappeared from the island, and the earth, at roughly the same time that humans are believed to have arrived.

However, you can still see a few remnants of the Wooly Mammoths laying around the landscape. It’s pretty crazy to look at this tusk and know that it actually belonged to a mammoth!

wrangel island mammoth

We were told this was a mammoth tusk. It was just laying in a riverbed.

Wrangel Island Wildlife

The island is home to an immense amount of unique wildlife. It’s referred to as the Polar Bear Maternity Ward because it has the largest density of denning of polar bears anywhere in the world, averaging between 300-350 maternity dens each year on the island, and even more on Herald Island. While I was there, the polar ice had just receeded and the bears had come ashore now for a few months. They were all getting used to their new surroundings.

In addition to bears, the island has:

  • 169+ bird species, including Snow Geese and the Snowy Owl
  • Mammals including lemmings, arctic foxes, reindeer, muskoxen, wolverine, wolves, and polar bears
  • Sea animals including ring seals, bearded seal, walrus, and 2 species of whales

Wrangel Island Plant Life

Glaciers did not cover Wrangel Island during the last Ice Age, therefore plants species have survived since the Pleistocene era; Wrangel Island has a wider variety of plants (417 species), including many rare species, than any other similarly-sized area of Arctic tundra. Due to the extremely short summer the Wrangel Island tundra is a carpet of flowers that all have to bud at the same time in a 2 or 3 week window. You won’t find a single tree or plant any taller than knee high on the island and most plants grow as vines close to the ground – even the willow trees.

wrangel island fauna

Flowers in bloom on the Tundra

How to Get to Wrangel Island

This is the hard part. You need a special permit to be able to visit the island granted by the Russian authorities. This is not an easy process unless you know someone. However Heritage Expeditions run 3 cruises a summer (in August) to Wrangel Island on their polar vessel, the Spirit of Enderby. The only other way to get to the island currently is to somehow get a ride with a working Russian ship in the area – and that is practically impossible.

Wrangel Island Population

There really is no real regular population on the island except the rangers who live in a few run down buildings. There are 7 rangers who work/live in the Ranger department, and normally 3 to 4 of them stay through the winter. Ivan, the ranger we met, has spent 2 years and 2 winters on Wrangel so far.

The main goal of the ranger program is to protect the territory from anyone who can disturb or damage the wildlife and nature on the island. They conduct ecological monitoring of the wildlife, support and maintain the field huts and work with scientific groups, researchers, photographers, videographers, tourist groups who visit the island. In addition they report on wildlife observations, clearing the reserve from rubbish (not a lot of progress on this), and development of the infrastructure of the island huts.  Basically they live among a lot of old run down buildings in one of the most remote places in the world.

They patrol the territory via snow mobiles (super old soviet snow mobiles) and in the summer they use quad bikes and special tundra vehicles. The rangers get food and fuel dropped off only once a year in the spring.

While we visited via Heritage Expeditions, 3 rangers came on board our ship and stayed for 4 nights while we made our way around the island. They accompanied us on landings both for educational purposes and for safety purposes. They also showed us images of what life was like for them in the winter which was fascinating. Polar Bears get quite curious in the winter and many visited the ranger buildings quite often. I felt weird when we left them knowing that they had a long cold winter ahead.

Wrangel Island is a special land and if you ever get the chance to go there – do it!

Books to read before you go:

Birds of Europe, Russia, China, and Japan: Passerines: Tyrant Flycatchers to Buntings (Princeton Illustrated Checklists)

The Last Voyage of the Karluk: A Survivor’s Memoir of Arctic Disaster

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

Ada BlackJack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

Lonely Planet Russia (Travel Guide)

An introduction to Wrangel Island  in Russia's far east.  I spent a week on this unknown wildlife and nature rich island. Learn about why it's so special and why it's called the Polar Bear Maternity Ward.
Back to Destinations

Read More About Wrangel Island Travel

Animals in the Arctic Wildlife Photography

animals in the arctic

He raises his nose in the air and sniffs at the air, trying to get our scent, but the wind isn’t cooperating with him. He knows we are there, but what we are is a mystery. Just as I’ve never seen a polar bear before, this polar bear has most likely never seen a human […]

Zooming in on Telephoto Photography

telephoto photography tips

Everything just felt wrong. I didn’t know how to carry the lens, hold it or even lock it into place! It felt as if I had grown a third arm or 11th finger; everything was awkward, and everything seemed to take longer and be so much more difficult. Over the last 9 years of doing […]

Small and Short Never Looked So Good

tundra plants

I pulled on my gumboots, bundled up in my layers of coats and raingear ready for a messy trek through the forest. Rodney, our expedition leader, announced today was the day we would do a long tundra hike. I had been waiting for this moment to get out and really stretch my legs on the […]

What it’s Like to Live in the Russian Far East

  I zipped my jacket trying to stave off the chill in the air blowing off the Bering Sea. It was a dismal gray day. I sat on a plastic chair on the beach next to rusty scrap metal, yet in front of me was a plate of food placed carefully on the impeccable white […]

The Collapsing Soviet Union

Derelict Places Russia

The Russian Far East is a place few people ever see…even for Russians. So it’s not surprising that it’s a bit neglected. Its history is one of exploration, doomed voyages, military positioning, and harsh conditions. It was either feast or famine in this area of the world. In the Cold War era from 1945 to […]

Bird Watching in the Russian Arctic

bird watching arctic russia

Meghan’s face comes alive as we approach the bird cliffs. She’s calling out bird species for the rest of the people in the zodiac and rattling off the extremely subtle differences between them. She finds different species in various little crevices with her binoculars as if it’s a Where’s Waldo book. I just listen and […]

How an Arctic Expedition Cruise Works

I stepped on board the Spirit of Enderby, an Russian arctic expedition cruise ship holding a maximum of 50 passengers and 25 crew, it had an industrial feel to it. No poolside bars, welcome drinks, or elegant entryways; instead there were loading cranes and zodiac rafts stacked up on top of each other on the […]

My 4 Best Days on Earth in 2015

best days on earth

I feel giddy like a 7-year-old at Christmas. I look out over the barren tundra, a new environment for me, and think about how it makes me feel free and hopeful. The clouds break and a crack of blue sky appears, as if the game of hide and seek is over and it can finally […]

And I’m off! Offline that is…

Reindeer

While you read this I’ve loaded up on sea sickness meds, motion wrist bands, and I’m headed out to sea. I’m cruising on a small ice breaker ship, the Spirit of Enderby, to Wrangel Island, a territory of Russia. This will be my first time above the Arctic Circle! Getting to make this trip is […]