Life on Wrangel Island:
A place with one resident
Arctic.ru publishes a story by Rossiya Segodnya journalist Vera Kostamo, who returned from an expedition

to Wrangel Island

Local residents have great respect for Wrangel Island, or the Island, as they call it (just like that, with the capital I). It may refuse to let you in  and it may refuse to let you go. You just won't be able to leave - and that's it. You will fall in love with its blizzard, its loneliness, and its modest way of life; you will forget the mainland and will feel great affection for the fog, the wind and changeable weather. You will become one of the Robinsons: an inspector at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve.

All the new corners of your being will just no longer fit into reality and the bustle of everyday life. You will move to a different rhythm: the rhythm of the Chukchi and East Siberian seas, an unhurried step along the soft tundra and a conversation with the people of the north. The rhythm of a coherent and eternal world.

Igor, Ulyana and Gennady, each for their own reasons, once came to Wrangel Island and stayed there. For some it is their first season, while others have been here for 34 years.

A job somewhere else

Igor Oleinikov is the only permanent resident on Wrangel Island.

"Before army service I was a gamekeeper. After I was drafted, I was sent to Schmidt Island. I remember how I came ashore and there were no trees. This was my first encounter with such stark nature," Igor recalls.

Once, while he was in the army, Igor saw a TV program about Wrangel Island on "In the Animal World." He decided he has got to see it, whatever it takes. He applied for a job at the nature reserve and received a reply: "You should look for a job somewhere else."

"Our morale officer tried to talk me out of it: the pay is meager, and you'll be stuck in the North. But money didn't matter to me. I wanted to go to the island. I was prepared to work on any terms, so I applied again," Igor recalls

Igor Oleinikov, senior state environmental protection inspector at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve
Igor Oleinikov, senior state environmental protection inspector at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve © Photo by Steffen Graupner

Time went by but there was no reply. His army service was over. Together with a friend, Igor took a job as a reindeer breeder at a state farm. Once they bumped into the nature reserve's deputy director at the local airport. It turned out that the invitation had been sent to Igor but got lost - the morale officer hid it away. A month later, Igor and his friend were working on Wrangler Island. They took a kitten there to keep them company. A contract with inspectors (they were called gamekeepers at the time) was signed for two years.

"In the first two years I went to all the bird colonies, worked with a scientist and provided security for him. The contract was over and I realized that I hadn't seen everything on the island yet. I wanted to see more of it, so I stayed ... for 34 years," Igor says.

He got a college degree by correspondence, got married and brought his wife to the island. Their daughter was born there. "There were about 150 people in the village of Ushakovskoye and at the polar station. There were many families when the station was still operating. Once a woman was walking her daughter home from the kindergarten. The girl was wearing a white fur coat. A polar bear came up to them, grabbed the girl and started dragging her away. The woman took off her belt and chased the bear away. The girl didn't even get scared," Igor recalls.


He says he is fond of polar bears but in the years he's been working on the island he's had to kill four predators. In all of those cases, the bears had attacked and killed people.

"I don't know how people live on the mainland. Work-home-work? I don't have a lot of friends left on the mainland. I can't imagine myself working at an office or a plant"

Igor's family has lived on the mainland for a long time. He sees them only once every two years when he comes over for a vacation.

"You don't feel loneliness here. I was once left alone at the reserve - all the researchers had left after the season. I spent the whole winter there on my own. The polar station is a kilometer away. There was no light. I switched on the generator and charged the accumulators. I felt good. I read books most of the time. There were many different experiences. I had to spend a night in the tundra, hiding behind a snowmobile and got freeze burn, but I never wanted to leave," Igor says.

Gennady Fyodorov, state environmental protection inspector at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve
Gennady Fyodorov, state environmental protection inspector at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve ©RIA Novosti.Vera Kostamo
You’ll never be the same once you’ve been to the island

Gennady Fyodorov dreamed of visiting Wrangel Island for a long time. He worked at a nature park on Chusovaya River in the Central Urals. "I wanted to see environmentalism at work in Russia and to gain experience," he says. "The island is always different from what you think about it when you're on the mainland. Nobody talks about the island disrespectfully. People will curse equipment or their nature reserve but nobody will say a bad word about the weather. This is more than we are as individuals, more than our system. This is the Island. It will still be here when we are gone. The most we can do is try to fit into its world as best as we can, to understand the rhythm of its life, its pulse," Gennady says.

There is nothing to conquer here. To conquer is one of the vainest words and it sounds ridiculous here, Gennady says

People here do not cover long distances on their own. These rules were made years ago years and are official.  You are always on thin ice here. After all, this island is a maternity home for polar bears and there really are a lot of them here. There is also fog, blizzards, the wind and freezing cold.

"Sometimes you go a week without seeing another person. That said, I know for sure that if something happens to me, the guys will search for me to the very end. I had a really interesting experience on Cape Uering on February 14. I had to cover 60 km. The wind was blowing when I had travelled half the road. The engine throttle cable froze and I had to stop. The leading snowmobile had left. I burned a barrel of gas, tried to fill my snowmobile but couldn't pour much in because of the gusty wind. It was dark in the evening. I was five kilometers away from Cape Uering but the snowmobile wouldn't move. I had to walk. So I took a radio set, a flare, a signal pistol and a navigator. I ran the whole way. In such moments you don't think how dangerous and critical the situation is; it's as if you had a detailed plan in your mind and you simply following it step by step."


Inspectors get to the island in helicopters via the Long Strait, usually through the town of Pevek. The nature reserve can afford three flights a year by MI-8 helicopters: in March, September and October. The island is completely isolated from the mainland from October to March. Ships arrive in summer and early fall, bringing in the bulk of supplies.

"We often say the word ‘to survive' because we spend a lot of time on maintaining our living conditions, keeping our living grounds in good shape. There is a lot of routine work and repairs in summer. There are six of us for everything," Gennady says. "But we get a lot of help from the island's heritage - things that were brought here by residents of villages and military units. When we have to repair something, we look for spare parts and building materials from the old supplies. The island teaches us to be thrifty."

All islanders are fairly superstitious. Nobody tries to guess when he will get from point A to point B. Travel occupies most of the time and everyone understands that anything can happen on the road: you can lose your way in a blizzard, your snowmobile can break down or you can come face to face with a polar bear."

"Nobody here works for money. How can you measure with money those immaterial benefits that you receive on the island? What is the price of your knowledge about your abilities or about who you are? You'll never be the same once you've been to the Island," Gennady says

He lives in a separate house on the island, he put it in order himself. "I didn't even notice this past winter. I had too much to do. I moved into a house that had been empty for several years. This is my first house. I don't see it as a state-owned housing."

Few people stay at the nature reserve for the duration of the second contract. Two people arrived on the island together with Gennady but now he works here alone.

"What's really hard here is missing what is left on the mainland. You have to choose between your family and your job," Gennady says.  "People here believe in things that will sound ridiculous on the mainland, for example, that you need to protect little mice or cubs. We are doing a job that we are not ashamed of."

From Moldova to Pevek

We met Ulyana in Somnitelnaya Bay. She meets tourists there and leads them to the tundra. A girl with a rifle is not an inspector but a researcher. She tells tourists about Wrangel Island's fauna in good English. Ulyana was born in Chisinau, Moldova, became a biologist and worked in a zoo.

"When I was a student I went on my first hikes and realized that this is the right lifestyle for me.

 One summer I hitchhiked to Magadan, saw the North and decided this is where I want to live and work. The following year I went to Sakhalin as a volunteer and took part in a grizzly bear project, after which I fell in love with the North forever. Sometimes I think I should have been born here, where people are more straightforward and open," she says.

Ulyana sent her CV to different parks and nature reserves and spent two years on getting Russian citizenship and processing other documents.

"This is my second season with the white goose colony on the Island. I'm the only researcher in the reserve. Of course, it would be great if we had a serious science unit here," she says.

Ulyana bought a home in Pevek. She spends winters in this house and summers on the island. She laughs recalling how she saw the prices of fruit and vegetables for the first time: "One time I bought a cabbage for 400 rubles."

Ulyana Babiy, researcher at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve
Ulyana Babiy, researcher at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve © Photo from the personal archive of Ulyana Babiy

"Every day I learn from the nature and the island. I am very worried about the birds and get upset when nestlings get lost and cannot find their mom. There are so many dramas in nature," Ulyana says

"Once I punched above my weight and fell asleep in the tundra. It was raining and it took me a long time to find a place where I could cross the river. I had to walk for about 30 km. When there were only six km left, I got so tired that I threw myself down and fell asleep. I was woken up by an Arctic fox sniffing my legs. Animals have a different perception of you when you are alone."

Ulyana links her future plans only with the island.

"The North has lopped off everything superfluous - I feel this all the time. I noticed that people who spend only a few days in nature get to know themselves for the first time. On the island we all learn to accept ourselves and to work as a team. Here there is one life for all."