Analysis and Commentary
Olga Kapustina
© From Olga Kapustina private archive

I share my passion for the north with tourists – Arctic Travelers founder

More and more people are deciding to take to the wilds for their holidays rather than go to hot, comfortable resorts. They opt for the mysterious Arctic. Arctic.ru asked Olga Kapustina, founder of the Arctic Travelers project, organizer of tours in the Kola Peninsula, what draws people to the north and why they want to return to the Arctic again and again.

How did you get to organize Arctic tours and why did you choose the Murmansk Region?

Initially, I had no plans to organize anything. It was my personal passion. In my life, I always pursue exactly what interests me. I have a degree in political science. I enrolled at the Russian State University for the Humanities, Department of History, Political Science and Law. I was fascinated by the people there. In our first year we were told to choose a field of study to major in. I chose the history of Swedish culture and politics for my specialization. It turned out that I had an affinity for Sweden, and Swedish came naturally. I began going to Sweden, studying there, and it turned out that not only the Swedish language but also the Swedish culture and mentality were close to me. When I'm in Sweden I find its aesthetic environment the best I've ever experienced. In other words, for me, the Murmansk Region project started through Scandinavia.

Then I happened to see online photos of the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway by well-known landscape photographer Daniil Korzhonov. When I saw them I realized that I simply had to go there. I spent several years thinking about that and finally went there with that very photographer. The place charmed me. I used to simply hold my breath. I was so impressed by all the scenery. I realized that if I did not go back there again and again my life would be meaningless. While I was there I conceived the Arctic Travelers project. When I returned, I immediately presented it. I decided to take tourists there, explaining to them about the region. I know a lot about Scandinavia thanks to my education, and I have an interest in sharing my knowledge. I began to get tourists together and the first group went to Norway a year later, during the winter. It was on that trip that I understood what people were interested in and why they were going (sometimes they don't even know why they go). The first group was a bit of a challenge for me. However, then I took other tourists, including groups of artists. We went mainly to Norway.

Then at some point it occurred to me that I should go to the White Sea. I found a girl who rented a house on the sea shore, and two weeks later, I, my husband and two children went to an old house in the settlement of Lesozavodsky in the Kandalaksha Gulf, south of the Murmansk Region. When I first came there I knew nothing about the locality. Many people who lived there asked if we liked it there and we said that we did very much and that it was like a dream. We were constantly going somewhere, to marshes… It was something exotic for us and we all fell in love with those places. When I talked with people there, I was amazed by the special way they carried themselves… There has never been slavery or serfdom, no Mongol-Tatar yoke in this region. In other words, they have had none of the experience that people in the rest of our country have had. I was struck by their affection for their land, by the pride they take in it. Life there is not easy and many people leave but those who remain really love being there. Since then, I've been studying the history of the region and the region itself. Then I began to take tourist groups there. I became acquainted with a local guide who allowed me to use his itinerary but I constantly learn something new and expand it.

My original idea related to both Norway and Russia was to give people as much information as possible so that they understood where they were. When people come to a certain place they ask questions about the way things are organized there and why. So you need to know the place and understand its specifics.

My activity stems from my personal interest. I keep studying both this region and Scandinavia. Of course, I'd like my tourists to love all of this the way I do, but I realize that is not always possible. Still, I get my affection across to them and they become obsessed with the north.

What would be interesting for tourists in the Murmansk Region?

The Murmansk Region is primarily about nature. There are several aspects, and nature is one of them. When I plan an itinerary — first, we live in civilization and then we move away from it. The Murmansk Region has a very diverse territory in terms of landscapes: desert, tundra, forests, mountains, the White Sea coast and the Barents Sea coast. As we travel long distances we see this natural diversity. I want to show people how remarkably diverse this region is.

I bring together many interesting people who engage in local history studies. There are not so many wooden churches and houses left in the Murmansk Region as there are on the Arkhangelsk coast of the White Sea. Regional ethnographers on this coast are not into churches — they are into the reconstruction of everyday life. I collaborate with people such as Alexander Komarov. He has created an open-air museum on the Tersky coast and reconstructed a fishing compound, a place where fishermen and their families moved during the summer fishing season. They usually lived far from the shore, where it was dangerous because of nomads, who constantly carried out raids. However, during the summer, during the fishing season, a very simple house was built for the family while the fisherman was always at sea. They made salt. Komarov has restored such a fishing village and built different types of houses, and he reconstructs everyday life there, conducting a historical experiment. For example, he is interested to know how people made boats. Presumably, they put them together with juniper roots, but can you do it? He goes ahead and does it. Before telling anyone anything he does it with his own hands, the way people used to do it centuries ago. This is simply amazing. When you come to his museum, you can stay overnight there, and he makes a bath with seaweeds, provides a lot of information and conducts a highly stimulating excursion. I try to bring in people who exude love, so when a person leaves this region he (or she) has a personal relationship with it.

What about tourism infrastructure in the Murmansk Region?

Everything is relative. There is infrastructure, there are private hotels and guest houses there, but not many. However, whenever you want to come and there are no rooms available, you call this hotel and they say they'll find something for you. There's always a way out. However, there is great potential for infrastructure development there.

Your excursions include field trips. Do you encounter wild animals? Is that dangerous?

Once, when we were camping out in tents, a bear paid us a visit. It scattered our garbage everywhere. It was in a package that stood in the middle of our camp. When we got up we saw that it had been thrown all over the place. We thought it was the birds but then we saw the tracks. There are bears, but we've never had encounters with them, especially since they are well fed during the summer. Even so, when we travel around the Kola Peninsula we always have some local guides.

There are also seals, but they are not dangerous. You can also see white whales in the White Sea. They live in large herds and can be spotted when they move in the dark water.

Also, there are wild horses. There is a place where the Varzuga River empties into the White Sea. Back in the Soviet days, a part of the forest was cut and a desert developed, which began to advance on the remaining forest, taking up a vast territory. There is the Pomor village of Kuzomen there. The villagers used to keep horses there but then they were released and eventually turned wild. These horses bite and kick, but they are not really dangerous — maybe just not very nice. You have to be careful with them.

What kind of people take holidays in the north?

Usually these are people who have always dreamed of going to the north. Generally, everyone thinks that it's difficult to go with us, but in reality it takes just a little effort. You plan an itinerary. An open mind is crucial on such trips. Often the greatest challenge for people on such a trip is their urbanity — the wish to plan everything in advance and a lack of flexibility. If something changes, for example, the weather — and the weather there is unpredictable — people get upset that things do not measure up to their expectations. I often tell them: try to let things run their course and open up your mind. It seems to me that something changes within all people and many want to return.

They say the north is addictive.

It is. It doesn't let you go, that's right. Very many people who have been there once constantly think about it afterwards. Very few people are indifferent to it.