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Northeast passage: Varnak

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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 Neil Hamilton

After approaching the south end of Veygach Island we anchored at 3am outside one of the very rare villages in the Russian arctic, Varnak, and slept. This is Nenets territory: the samoyeds of historical legend, an indigenous people of the region between Archangelsk and Yamal peninsula. In the morning we landed, and met with the community leader and what seemed like the entire village: visitors are exceedingly uncommon, so we (especially dressed in our bright blue goretex ‘smurf suits’) were quite a novelty.

The village has about 100 people, and as was proudly explained, about 40 children, all of whom are shyly watching us from the windows as we pass.  The houses are wooden, ranging in age from early Soviet times to quite new, and either raw timber or painted bright colours, particularly blue.  The single street, ‘Moscow Road’, is a sea of wildflowers with a timber boardwalk footpath – obviously it gets wet underfoot quite often!

Alexander and his two sons offered to take us to see the reinder herd on the tundra about 7km away.  We walked with them across the rolling hills and valleys, glad of our rubber boots in the marshes.  It’s high summer here (despite being only about 5 degrees) and the upper layer of the permafrost is melted so there is plenty of water around.

With summer comes comes a burst of life to the Arctic unseen anywhere else.  24 hours of light ‘supercharges’ the ecology, so the entire annual cycle of reproduction, birth, feeding and growth takes places in a few short weeks.  Wherever we looked we could see evidence of this: lemmings as I have never seen them before, arctic skua families aloft, buzzards, and lots of snowy owls.

Snowy owls rank as one of my favourites birds and in most places I have been are rare.  Here I saw at least 10 without trying, openly sitting on high points in the tundra, or gliding low over hunting grounds.   We were able to approach to about 20 metres without disturbing them. Simply amazing!

Then to see the reindeer, about a thousand, with a single conical felt tent (a ‘chum’) for the herders to live in.  They use a reindeer-drawn sleigh and dogs to round up the stock, fat and healthy on the abundant lichen and grasses.  The animals surge in one mass, huge velvety antlers above them, down the hills and up the other side. When you imagine the weather here for most of the year (very cold, snow-covered and wind swept) you begin to understand the the adaptation of these, the oldest domesticated stock on earth, extraordinary animals.

Varnak reindeer herdersVarnak reindeer herders

The Nenets people of Varnak live simple lives, herding, hunting, and fishing.  They have electricity for light, coal for heating, TV, and a telephone for the village. Perhaps one resupply ship per year (which was due in February, but  hasn’t arrived yet) and few if any visitors. And for most of the year they are subjected to bitter cold and a frozen land.

We bought a few handmade reindeer skin articles, and gave some perhaps token gifts for their kindness in letting us into their lives for a day.  I certainly felt honoured to have met them and seen how they live in a harsh, arctic environment.

Then we returned to the ‘Explorer’, and sailed east through Yugoskiy Shar into the arctic Kara Sea.

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