The Russian Arctic:
How to survive among the bears
Vera Kostamo

The icebreaker moves turning ice floes upward to show their turquoise bellies, from Murmansk to the North Pole. Every summer it carries along thisroute tourists and those who work in the Arctic.

On the way, it makes stops on the Franz Josef Land Archipelago and, weather permitting, drops off inspectors of the Russian Arctic National Park, meteorologists and scientists. You can come for a few weeks and end up staying for a few months. Logistics in the Arctic are complex. Hooker Island and Tikhaya Bay, where the polar station and the seasonal field base of the park are located, are situated quite far from the nearest inhabited islands of the Franz Joseph Land Archipelago - about 100 km from the Alexandra Land and Heiss Island. Communication with the islands is possible only by satellite phone.

A polar station on the shore of Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island at the Franz Josef Land Archipelago
A polar station on the shore of Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island at the Franz Josef Land Archipelago ©RIA Novosti.Vera Kostamo
In the neighborhood of Arctic foxes

Work at the polar station is a daily routine set against the background of almost cinematic landscapes and constant risk. There is the long polar day, which can actually be helpful, allowing for work to proceed for days at a time. And sometimes that's what is required in the Arctic. The Arctic doesn't care about what you want. Snow covers the ground in Tikhaya Bay, and the temperature is near zero. In winter, curious bears press up against windows and climb into houses. During the first ten days of work in Tikhaya Bay, we were visited by more than ten bears, three of which came during one day. Four of my hands can fit in the footprint of a large male bear. There are bear trails in both directions from the station, to the Sedov glacier and to Scott Keltie Island.

Bears usually appear unexpectedly, and so safety rules are strictly observed. We walk in twos and always with weapons. All windows in houses are protected by "hedgehogs" - boards with nails in them.

The unpredictability of the Arctic forces its inhabitants to be organized and calm. You look out into the street in the morning and see a snowstorm, snow or fog instead of yesterday's sun. But people always have a plan B in such cases. You can ask: "How is the weather?" And the answer will be: "Good. Today you can walk without a cap."

The Arctic is all around. You stick a shovel in the snow for the bucket, which you will melt and boil for tea, and see the turquoise color through the snow. The color of pure snow, which you can hardly find on the mainland. The color of icebergs, the color of glaciers. The color of ice that is hundreds or even thousands of years old.

We do not live alone at the station: a pair of Arctic foxes lives in a neighboring house. The male fox comes almost every day and is not afraid of people. Life on the island makes up for everything - the weather, snow and cold summer. Among the gray-brown boulders, saxifrage pokes out. A yellow buttercup has bloomed. The Arctic foxes have given birth to pups.

A polar bear at the polar station on the shore of Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island at the Franz Josef Land Archipelago
A polar bear at the polar station on the shore of Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island at the Franz Josef Land Archipelago ©RIA Novosti.Vera Kostamo
Bear porridge

"Bear! Beeeaaaaar!" Andrei Storozhilov looks in the window behind our backs. Everyone continues to eat their breakfast. In just two weeks at Tikhaya Bay, this is already the 11th bear.

The bear puts its paws on the "hedgehogs" and looks at us.

"Well, the porridge is good. So Misha (a bear means "misha" in Russian) came to taste it," said head of the expedition group of the national park Andrei Kunnikov.

Storozhilov and Kunnikov go out onto the porch. Here, at Tikhaya Bay, they have been working for more than one season. Andrei Kunnikov is working here for the sixth season. For him, Tikhaya Bay - with all its problems, tons of garbage to remove, tourists, bears and icebergs - is home. Every year he spends 3-4 months here and is responsible for everything.

"This is the first time in six years I've seen so many aggressive bears. The difficulty is that many of them come from the sea and from the part of the station that is poorly visible. You notice them only when they are already nearby, at a distance of less than 40 m, and you need to make a concrete decision, and there is only one right one for you," said Kunnikov. "All the expedition members are in good shape. Animals come every two to three days. This is useful both for us and for bears. We must learn to co-exist and to interfere with each other as little as possible."



The station and its secrets

For most of the year, the station is uninhabited. In autumn, moisture invades the buildings, and in winter, they are ravaged by strong winds. The snow, which flows into broken windows, turns into ice. There is a version that the hangar really has a plane buried under ice.

In addition to the repair and construction of ecological trails for tourists, the explorers started the installation of an alternative energy system at the station, which will be completed next year. A group of restorers was engaged in preserving two tractors, left here by Soviet polar explorers. Ornithologists also continued research there.

"During the first years of our cleanup, we found many things belonging to previous generations of polar explorers: pieces from caps and household items, from shaving brushes to belts, scales for children and a crib," said Andrei Kunnikov. "Most likely, the most interesting things may be found in landfills. I think we'll find many interesting things when we remove garbage."

Last year, the inspectors found a German mug with the stamp of a Bavarian porcelain factory made in 1942.

I came once and was hooked

The guys carry stones for the ecological path on the sled in the remaining snow. In the rain, clothes soak through, visibility goes way down, you have to look around more carefully, but the work goes on schedule.

"I'm the "dad" in the big family we have here. The "children" are all different, adoptive, as a rule, because they did not grow up before my eyes. The most important thing for me is that when we go to the mainland, the guys say that this was the best adventure in their lives," said Kunnikov. "It is impossible to forget the Arctic. You can't bring yourself to get off this train. Once you're hooked, that's it. I wasn't able to escape. I came once and then never stopped."

Those drawn to the Arctic by romantic notions usually stay here only for a season. In addition to the whitish Arctic rainbow, icebergs radiating in the sun, flowers growing among stones and walruses taking sunbaths on ice floes, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot to overcome.

"There are no difficulties here. On the contrary, everything is simple," Storozhilov spreads out carrots on a bed in the neighboring house to dry them. "It's just ordinary work in an extraordinary place"

Tikhaya Bay is like nothing we are used to. Communication is available only every ten days. Two minutes for each person. And all these days you think and decide who you want to speak to using this unreliable satellite link. There is no internet, no electricity and no water, there is no way to be alone, but the Arctic does not release its hold on you.

"For the first three years, I had this feeling of unreality. One day I went out on the porch of the house, looked at the bay, all the birds, and ice and thought ‘Lord, where am I...' I'm still captivated by the nature, the little flowers that grow on the rocks and landscape of the islands," said Andrei Storozhilov. "And the people. I have never met anyone like the people working here. And it's also very sad that few Russian tourists see the Arctic and know its history. I would like them to know what Russia really is."

Rubini Rock is drowning in fog. Tomorrow, the icebreaker will enter the bay, it will stay there for almost an hour but will not be able to launch boats. The ice has a vice-like grip on Tikhaya Bay.