On Wrangel Island, shit is an inappropriate word »Explorersweb
Once upon a time, I joined a group of Russian scientists on an expedition to Wrangel Island in Siberia. The purpose of our trip was to document the flora, fauna and mushrooms of this isolated island in the Chukchi Sea.
Since Wrangel has the highest density of polar bear burrows in the world, we were required to carry a gun or can of Mace with us at all times. Being a bad move, I chose the latter.
“You also need vodka,” a Russian botanist informed me, pulling vigorously on a Troika cigarette. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to identify unusual species. He handed me a 1.75 liter bottle of Hammer & Sickle Vodka.
Here I must mention that the landscape of Wrangel has remained unscathed from Ice Age glaciers, so it is more or less unchanged over the last million years. Endemic species abound. The island has 23 species of plants that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and perhaps half as many endemic butterfly species. No wonder it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So there I was, wandering the sedge tundra on the east side of the island. In a rocky outcrop, I saw a Muir fleabane (Erigone muirii), a flowering plant in the aster family first documented by American naturalist John Muir during a visit to the island in 1881. Shortly after, I saw a small brownish mushroom growing was found to be a previously undescribed species of Inocybe.
Next, I saw a pile of polar bear poop (poo is an inappropriate word) scalloped with seal whiskers, berry pits, a delicate maze of bird bones, and what looked like kelp. What a magnificent work of art! I said to myself.
In no time a strong wind called a yuzhak began to hiss and growl and whistle across the tundra. Plants such as cotton grass, bladder silenus and alpine arnica as well as Muir’s fleabane swayed back and forth, repeatedly, as if performing some kind of exotic dance. None of them seemed in danger of being run over, while I felt like I was in constant danger of being swept away into the Chukchi Sea.
Suddenly I saw an ATV coming towards me. An ATV apparently running on its own, without any rider. Would the wonders of Wrangel Island never cease? Then I saw the botanist who had given me the vodka leaning against the wheel of the vehicle to escape the gusts of wind. He saw me and immediately stopped.
“Do you still want to see the northernmost toilets in the world?” He yelled, then motioned for me to get on his ATV.
Fifteen minutes later, we reached what turned out to be a relic of the Soviet-era toilet. Its wooden walls had mostly collapsed, its floor was a mass of moss, and its lichen-covered seat was not even a semicircle. What was left was tilted precariously to starboard. Northernmost toilets or not, he didn’t seem to care about being listed in the Guinness Book of Records. To hell with fame! its ruins seemed to proclaim. All I want is to be part of the bountiful faraway land.
About the Author
Lawrence Millman is a man who wears a variety of hats. As an explorer he traveled 35 times in the Arctic, but not once in Rome; as a mycologist he has a species of fungus named after him (Inonotus millmanii); and as a former prisoner of war in academia, he taught at Harvard, the University of New Hampshire and, most importantly, the University of Iceland.
His 18 books include titles such as Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Northern Latitudes, Hiking to Siberia, At the End of the World, and Fungipedia. Bruce Chatwin called him “the master of the remote” and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth describes him as “a true original who takes no prisoners.
He maintains a post office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.