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Northeast Passage: Landing in Tiksi

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Geoff York

Following three flights and two long stopovers, I finally lumber into a cloudy, wet Tiksi in a packed plane. Staring at the pile of unsecured baggage to my front and side, it is one of the few landings I feel like clapping for. It is all self service in the North, so I wait with the plane load of passengers as two people start to hand out bags. I quickly spy two men in the blue expedition gear, our leader Ola Skinnarmo and the famous Russian arctic explorer Victor Boyarsky. Following a warm welcome, we are off to “town”.

Tiksi is a Soviet era settlement on the eastern side of the Lena delta. In its heyday, it was a community of 15,000, but now is closer to 3,000. Many of the large concrete buildings are empty and boarded over. You can feel the uncertainty of the place. The surrounding landscape is attractive and familiar to my Alaskan eyes: rolling tundra hills, river, and ocean. I am very glad to be here as it has been only a plan, a word, until today.

We change vehicles in town and join three very friendly men who will help us with some final provisioning: local reindeer and whitefish. Following a short drive into what looks like an old barracks, we stop in front of a wooden shed. Inside is a stump with a broad axe stuck in it, another door, and a very modern digital scale. Behind the interior door is a series of corridors that are cut into the permafrost hillside.

The floor and walls become ice and we find ourselves in one of the local “freezers” replete with fish and meat – a technique the Inuit have used for generations. A quick, but fascinating look into local life and I can’t help but think of climate change again. Warming temperatures are already thawing permafrost around the Arctic, putting centuries-old traditions like this at risk of failure within my lifetime.

The port is quiet save for the loading of scrap iron of which there is plenty in the area. Our new friends drop us at the waiting Explorer where I meet the rest of the crew and quickly the boat. Within an hour of arriving, I am oriented, unpacked, and we are under way.

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