Sunday, 4 December 2016

Mr. Rodionov's garden

In the morning, Mr. Rodionov likes to drink a coffee just after waking up. If the temperature allows it, he goes out home, on the porch, with a cup of coffee and sits on an old chair, watching his garden. When weather becomes too cold, he enjoys the same morning routine, but from inside his house, watching through the window.

Anatoly Rodionov's garden has considerable dimensions: 150 km long and 125 km wide. And that's because Mr. Rodionov is the only person that lives year-round on the island of Wrangel, located at the eastern end of the Russian Arctic.

Wrangel Island is named after the Russian explorer, Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, who leaded three expeditions to the island (1821, 1822 and 1823) and  in none of them, he was able to find Wrangel Is. It was not until 1867 that an American whaler, Thomas Long, discovered the island, giving it the name of the poor Baron. Is said that Thomas Long discovered Wrangel, but it would be more correct to say that he discovered it for Westerners; for Chukchis, Siberia's coast native people, the island has always been known, as their territory was the closest populated land to Wrangel Island. Finally, in the early twentieth century, Russians claimed Wrangel Island, establishing a settlement there during the 20s, and a Red Army military base during the 60's.

During the 20's, the island was the center of a rescue operation that lasted four years! In 1926, the Soviets sent an expedition to the island with food and goods for three years. The arrival on the island was relatively easy because during the summer, the ice allowed navigation around Wrangel. What they didn't know was that 1926 had one of the most unusually ice-free summers in the eastern part of the Arctic Ocean. During the following years, the ice prevented the access of any ship, and in 1929, four years after landing, Moscow's government suspected that the expedition should be in a dramatic situation, or even dead by starvation and cold. A new expedition was organized, using an icebreaker rescue ship called "Fyodor Litke". This ship, rather than "icebreaker" should be called "ice-cutter" because, instead of breaking the ice from above, as icebreakers normally do, the "Fyodor Litke" had a sharp bow to cut the ice like a knife.

In September 1929, the "ice-cutter" Litke reached Wrangel after many vicissitudes and rescued in dramatic conditions, but still alive, all the members of the expedition arrived on the island in 1926. That feat made the expeditioners and the crew of the "Fyodor Litke" become one of the first heroes of the Soviet Arctic.

But let's go, now, to 1976, when Mr. Anatoly Rodionov's story begins. That year, the Soviet government designated Wrangel Island as a Nature Reserve. Don't think the Russians had a big environmental conscience; It was just that the military base and the tiny settlement  of Wrangel Is. had been already abandoned, and the island could not offer any other interesting resource. So a ban to access the island was set and a group of guards or "Rangers" was designated to monitor and protect the island's flora and fauna.

Anatoly Rodionov belongs to the last one of those Rangers promotions sent to Wrangel, and he's currently the only one of islands' four Rangers staying all year there. The other three Rangers only spend a few months, normally guiding scientific expeditions that work on the island during summer. Anatoly enjoys his work with passion and a high degree of responsibility. His sense of commitment was so big that, when his wife stated him the dilemma: "family or work," Anatoly chose Wrangel! So Anatoly's wife left... I cannot understand her reaction! Who comes up not wanting to live isolated on an Arctic tundra island with temperatures of -50º and surrounded by seals and polar bears! Women's behaviour is so unpredictable...

Among Anatoly's tasks, there's controling and counting wildlife, guiding tourists and providing support to scientific expeditions. But there's another very special task in his working contract: Anatoly Rodionov is responsible also, very patiently and step by step, of taking down all scrapped debris and garbage remaining from the dismantled military bases. Gradually, this man is cutting, separating and stacking all the junk that was left behind when Russian Army left the island: tanks, trucks, containers and cabins. For years and years, he has been the responsible of avoiding polluting spills and minimize the impact of waste and stacks while cleaning. Do you remember the robot from Pixar's animated film Wall-E? Well, Anatoly Rodionov is Wrangel Island's Wall-E!

The island is the paradigm of tundra. Miles and miles of plains and hills where only grass, moss and some small bush can grow. The fauna is a sample of what frozen steppes of Eurasia were: wolves and arctic foxes, seals and walruses, musk oxen, lots of arctic birds, and especially polar bears. In fact, this is the place with the highest density of polar bears in the world!

The most curious of all is that, because of Wrangel Is. is located at the northeasternmost point of the Euro-Asian continent, it has become the last refuge for species that have gone extinct gradually in Europe and Asia. The most surprising one is the mammoth. Yes, I mean the hairy prehistoric elephant! On Wrangel Island lived the last mammoth specimens only 4,000 years ago; so they subsisted isolated in Wrangel during 6,000 years after these pachyderms disappeared from Europe. To give you an idea: in ancient Egypt, they were already at the 11th pharaohs dynasty, and Wrangel mammoths were still alive!

But now, unfortunately, megalomaniacal delusions of current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, have made Wrangel Island again a point of interest. Last year Russians settled a new military base, consisting of a series of prefabricated barracks and an airfield. Russian aspirations in the Arctic have caused Anatoly Rodionov not enjoying his morning coffee as calm as before!

Meanwhile, the island has also opened to a controlled tourism. You can cruise with Heritage Expeditions to visit the island and discover the wildlife on board a scientific vessel. If you are interested you have to book quick, because there are few places for forthcoming departures!
Wrangel Island has also benn part of a dramatic legend, which is not known whether true or not. During World War II, the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews in Budapest from Nazi death camps. When the Soviets liberated the Hungarian capital, Wallenberg disappeared mysteriously and nobody never knew anything else from him. Although there has never formally been no Soviet prison camp in Wrangel, some Russian Jews who migrated to Israel have stated that they were confined to Wrangel and met there Wallenberg in the early 60's. But that mysteries will probably stay buried under the ice of Wrangel Island forever!
This post would not have been possible without the invaluable support of Jordi Fontbuté. Thanks for the idea and fonts!

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