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Northeast Passage: The New Siberian Islands

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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

Waking for the midnight watch is quickly becoming a comfortable routine. Using our satellite phone to upload this blog is another story. I continue to struggle with technical issues in linking my PC to the phone, technology on the high seas and in the remote Arctic is never easy nor works as planned! Fortunately, Ola has a tested system on the boat that continues to work well and I will have to rely on his help to update you on our progress.

In the last four hours, the water temperature has dropped from 2.8 down to 0C. Captain Anders is concerned we may be approaching some drift ice, but there is none yet in sight. We spend the next two hours peering into the dim light of evening with extra care. The seas are also becoming calm and by 1 AM we are in some fog.

Dawn comes around 3 AM and we soon sight our destination: the southernmost of the New Siberian Islands that separate the Laptev from the East Siberian Sea. There is grounded ice all along the shore and 100 m from shore. At half past three we can see the Russian weather station on shore and a few lights on buildings. We wake Ola and prepare to drop anchor. The fog comes and goes all morning.

Niklas appears from below and quickly sets the table for a light breakfast and coffee as the rest of the crew awake and prepare for a landing.  Seven of us shuttle in to explore the station and the captain stays onboard. With ice around and fog, you cannot leave the main boat unattended.

The scene around the settlement is one common throughout the Arctic. Rusty fuel drums are piled all around, representing many years of accumulation. Several rusted vehicles in various states of disrepair lie scattered on the beach and up the hillside along with various generators and miscellaneous discarded items and scrap steel. You never know what you may be able to salvage from broken equipment. There is no store, and resupply can be months away, so you tend to keep everything. It makes sense in such a remote area, but is visually startling to the unitiated.

All is quiet as we stroll up the hillside towards a cluster of weather-worn buildings, old vehicles, and more drums. It is not long before the station dogs grow leery of our approach and come barking. We know that the owners will soon follow and are glad to have Victor with us to make introductions! In short order we are sitting inside the largest of the buildings in a common dining area as sleepy members of the station crew appear from various rooms. Having visitors is quite a surprise and we are warmly welcomed. After explaining our trip we are invited to a feast of freshly baked bread, butter, smoked whitefish caught and prepared on the island, and locally picked and pickled mushrooms. Accompanied by some strong Russian tea, it was a fantastic experience and confirmed that Northern hospitality is alive and well in the Sakha Republic.

Travelling to new places, meeting people, and experiencing local cultures – I come away with how much we all share in common. Our humanity, daily lives, and aspirations are much more alike than not, despite the differences in language and customs. I feel completely comfortable in this remotest part of the Arctic, with people I cannot understand in words, but whose acts of hospitality are universal.

When I think of all of the problems the world faces today, from rising temperatures, rising sea level, and looming scarcities of basic resources, I am somewhat comforted to reaffirm this common bond among people. The kindness of our island friends renews my hope that we can yet come together across nations to solve some of our most pressing concerns. We are incredibly resourceful and compassionate when at our best! As we depart for the boat, we receive one last generosity as our hosts ask that we take any fish from their net which is set nearby. We will have fresh whitefish for dinner and continue our travels into the East Siberian Sea!

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