Saturday, 4 May 2013

Ushakovskoye, Wrangel Island,
on far-eastern Siberia

Even for an arctic territory, this is a remote, bare and forsaken land, the kind of island where one would really hate to live. At least, it has been so, and its location in the arctic sea, north of eastern Siberia, doesn't help.

A community of native fishers and an army detachment had a temporary residence in Wrangel Island, in a settlement called Ushakovskoye. That was in soviet times. The hamlet was then abandoned and only now starts to a new life - a protected natural reserve and some adventure tourism.

Wrangel Island (Russian: о́стров Вра́нгеля) is an island in the Arctic Ocean, between the Chukchi Sea and East Siberian Sea. Wrangel Island lies astride the 180° meridian.

Coordinates: 71°59′ N, 179° 25 W

The International Date Line is displaced eastwards at this latitude to avoid the island as well as the Chukchi Peninsula on the Russian mainland. The closest land to Wrangel Island is tiny and rocky Herald Island located 60 km to the eas. The Siberian coast is 140 km away through the Chukchi sea.

Island map, showing the main features and the route from Ushakovskoye to Dream Head.

Wrangel Island is a protected nature sanctuary. The island, and their surrounding waters, were classified a "strict nature reserve" in 1976 and, as such, receive the highest level of protection and excludes practically all human activity other than for scientific purposes.

Several animal species are also protected, and the polar bear community is the largest in the world.

Find the bear !

As of 2003, there were four rangers residing on the island year-round. In addition a core of about 12 scientists conduct research during the summer months.

In spring and summer, most of the island is tundra-type, crossed by seasonal rivers that come alive from the melting snow and permafrost.

Wrangel Island is about 125 km wide and 7,600 km2 in area. It consists of a southern coastal plain; a central belt of low-relief mountains; and a northern coastal plain

The highest mountain on this island is Sovetskaya Mountain with an elevation of 1,096 m. The east-west trending mountain range terminates at sea cliffs at either end of the island.

The north coast at Dream Head.

In 2004 Wrangel Island and neighboring Herald Island, along with their surrounding waters, were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List

A sandy spit towards Cape Blossom, in southeast Wrangel


After some attempts from the U.K., Canada and the U.S. to claim possession, the Soviet Government, in 1926, declared its sovereignty over the island; and, to confirm this, Ushakovskoye was founded on August 14, 1926.

The initial population of the settlement included displaced Chukchi and Russian families, totalling about 60 people. The settlers established themselves on the island and few chose to return to the mainland after their first posting ended in 1929.

Indeed, so successful was the initial settlement that resulted in the founding of Ushakovskoye, that a second village, Zvyozdny (meaning Star) was founded some 30 km west of Ushakovskoye on the shores of Somnitelnaya Bay.

The abandonned Zvyodny setllement, where a house is kept functional to accomodate rangers and visitors.

Seasonal research and management are carried out at Zvyozdny.

Zvyozdny would later become the landing point for supplies delivered to the island from Mys Shmidta as well as mail, which would be delivered to Ushakovskoye along the dirt track which links the two settlements.

The abandonned weather station

Ushakovskoye grew and developed, until at the end of 1970 it had a school, club, shop, post office, hospital and electricity was supplied to the homes, as well as a modest museum of natural history, an underground repository in the permafrost for storing meat, the polar station "Rogers Bay", library and a communal bath !

Ushakovskoye as seen from the sea

In 1984 the population had grown to around 180 people. But in they 1990s, subsidies were reduced and in 1994 the last supply ship brought provisions and fuel to the settlement.

The settlement of Zvyozdny was being abandoned as well. However, a helipad had been constructed in Ushakovskoye in 1966, so the village could continue to be supplied. 

In 1997, it was decided to resettle the inhabitants at Mys Shmidta. The last resident was killed by a polar bear on October 13, 2003.

Ushakovskoye, Rogers Inlet

Residence houses

Ruins make good photos; this was the local shop

Restored hut with polar bear window protections.

Ushakovskoye is presently a ghost town on the south coast of Wrangel Island. It used to house up to 200 residents, but at the end of the Soviet era, was largely abandoned. The only human residents nowadays are the Wrangel Island rangers and the occasional scientific researchers.

Bear protection for window.

Regularly-seen animals and birds in town include snowy owls, arctic foxes, musk oxen, reindeer herds, and of course, polar bears.

A musk oxen among the ruins

A bear through the school's attic window

 Polar bears' tireless curiosity

 Snowy owl 

Snow geese in flight

Sea ice and birding cliff at sunset light

'Professor Khromov', prepared to face sea ice, is a frequent visit to Wrangel Island. The trips start at the local capital Anadyr.


Full moon over Zvyozdny

Fox cubs playing at sunset.