Our doubtful arrival at Wrangel was thankfully a brief hiatus; the island didn’t freeze us out for long. A little further round the coast, we took a Zodiac in and steered around an ice hummock, crouched like an Arctic dragon.
The desolate-looking shore turned out to be a meadow of tiny delicate tundra vegetation. Snow buntings flitted around us as the ship’s botanist bent low pointing out some of the islands 417 plant species, 330 mosses and 310 lichens that cover flat faces of rock with intricate patterns in near-fluorescent shades of orange, red and yellow.
We spent five days circumnavigating Wrangel, landing once or twice a day, mostly in glorious sunshine. The island has almost every habitat the Arctic can offer and we wandered stark grey beaches and snaking shingle spits, foothills of lowering mountains and cliffs marble-cake layered in creams, greys and pinks.
We stalked a snowy owl perched on a hillside like a fluffy snowman; sat still and silent in wait for lemmings and cute little pika; and crept up on a herd of primeval-looking musk ox. On verdant green tundra dotted with wispy-white cotton grass, we observed a feeding flock of white snow geese – some of the record one million estimated to have resided on Wrangel this summer.
There were millions of other birds too. The ptichy bazaar is appropriately named; these seabird cliffs were crammed with noisy, busy birds attending chick-filled nests like competing stalls, perched precariously on precipitous ledges. Kittiwakes, cormorants, glaucous gulls and all sorts of guillemots, were joined by plump bright-faced puffins, horned and tufted.
Mist rose and fell, drifting along valleys creating cloud-roads across the landscape. “It’s like the edge of Mordor,” someone commented as we were told to stay together. You couldn’t see polar bears because of the weather, but wherever we were on Wrangel there was always a creamy presence lolloping, observing or lazing somewhere in the vicinity.
This is still the ‘land of the white bear’ that John Muir had described nearly 150 years earlier. So too is Herald Island. As we approached Wrangel’s smaller, even more remote and rocky neighbour, the mist lifted to reveal a sleek white bear parading along the island’s ridge. Muir landed here in 1881 and somehow scrambled up its steep sloped side to build a cairn and hide a copy of the New York Herald.
It’s a very odd thought – that little bit of human ephemera once tucked away in the least human terrain. We didn’t land – it was too windy – but circumnavigated the island, only later finding out that the north coast is literally uncharted. Around us drifted ice-bits like paper sailing boats and floating meringues, while constantly shifting light on sea, sky and striated rock, created an ever-changing gallery of natural art.