Expedition Diaries 2016

June 12. Day 6

June 12. Day 6

A hairdryer is a very useful item in the expedition, and I doubted whether to take it with me or not. I use it here to dry my boots. Some time ago in Mezen I used it to dry my camera. I hope, it won’t happen again…

The exiled are the first to land

The first landing group today are “the exiled”. This is how the expedition called the Medical module participants who will stay in Varnek to study health condition of the local population. Here live mostly the Nenets people, but also Russians and Komi. On board the Medical module participants have taken blood samples of 38 people. The samples are frozen, they will be analysed in Arkhangelsk. Those 38 people who have taken part in the research will give another blood sample on the way back. The expedition will pick the group from Varnek on its way back. Except for the medical group, there will be also a biologist and a sociologist conducting their research.

Our group is going to visit the mines. I am really excited as these mines were mentioned in the film which was shot at Vaygach by my father in 1988.

Some facts about Vaygach

  • The island is located between the mainland and the Novaya Zemlya.
  • The Yugorskiy Shar Strait separates the island from the mainland, the Karskie Vorota Strait separates it from the Novaya Zemlya.
  • Vaygach total area is about 3 400 km2
  • The maximum height above the sea level is 157 m (Bolvanskaya mountain)

In the Arctic mine

In 1921 polymetallic (lead and zync) ore banks were found at Vaygach. In the beginning of 1930-s the ore extraction started there. 5 mines were created there, in the mines, as you may guess, the prisoners worked. The mines didn’t work long as they were soon flooded. It was impossible to deal with the flood that is why the prisoners were sent to Vorkuta over ice. On foot.

As usual, the guards are the first to land. “Russian Arctic” National park inspector Igor Kotrekhov is observing the shore in his binoculars already on board. There is still a lot of snow. The bay was cleared from ice only 3 days ago. While the group is pottering around on the seashore, Igor climbs the hill range to watch the territory. Varnek is very close to this place. If you go along the coast, it is only 2.5 km away. It seems to be very close, but it is very hard to walk along the pebbled beach wearing heavy boots. I will get to Varnek later by boat.

The mines are located not very far from the coast. There are waste piles near them. The first one which we reached had been made in the form of a pentacle. You can take a look at the mine itself, even enter it, but that is all. The pit is flooded, water and ice are everywhere. Tundra is covered with the objects which date back to that period, 80 years ago: bowls without bottoms, tracks without tractors, hatchways leading nowhere, bricks, some fire-polished. By the ruins of one building our researchers assumed that there had been a melting house. But this is only an assumption.

It is believed that a stone from Vaygach brings luck during hunting and protects dwellings from evil spirits. I’ll take two flat ones and a round white stone with me.

I am unable to take soil samples. The ecological module students were taught today by the geologists how to flerry the rock with a geological hammer and to collect samples properly. It is important not only to flerry the rock, but also to understand what you are doing it for, what you want and can find, what conclusions you will make.

As Alina Nekrich from Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences, said to the ecological module (the research topic of which in the expedition is “Adaptability and possible risks in the context of current climate change in the Arctic”) they were lucky that day. The territory around the abandoned mines is interesting and diverse. There is a concept of vegetation communities locket pattern. We can see these lockets here. Though the height difference is only about 30 cm, the vegetation differs a lot. Flora which grows 30 cm higher, where it is relatively dry, doesn’t grow lower, and plants from lower level do not grow higher. They would have grown in harmony, but then man interfered. Here and there we can see track traces in tundra, and it takes vegetation very long to cover this area again. And where the tractors made U-turns, there is almost no vegetation at all.  

There are 6 students including three foreigners in the expedition ecological module. It is not obligatory to have special background knowledge or experience to choose a module at the AFU-expedition. There is an opportunity to learn something new. Andre and Mariangela Salles Schmidt Patto are involved in sociological research at home, in Brazil, to be more precise, they study the problem of poverty. In the expedition they successfully study physiography. Today they were involved in shooting a movie about the expedition and making terrain profiles.  In this territory the results of anthropogenic influence were clearly seen, especially in the form of numerous sinkholes due to permafrost melting.

Today the sun is warm like in summer, but Natalya Ryazanova advised everybody not to sit on the ground even if it is dry. The ground temeperature is only +2oC. It is really not very pleasant to sit or lie on the ground, but sometimes I have to: the flowers at Vaygach are very small, and I really want to make them a part of a picture.

One of the students today was lectured because it is forbidden to leave the group and walk alone. The girl got upset, but good behavior during landings can save your life. I also can be lectured: though I am really scared of polar bears, I forget about all the precautions when I see something interesting. Then I suddenly remember about them, look around, grab all my stuff and rush to catch up with the group. So today I rushed to the meeting point to get on a boat to Varnek.

So many dogs, so few reindeer

The settlement bay cleared from ice just 3 days ago. I can’t believe it. The water is blue and sparkling. I have not seen any ice in the sea during the expedition yet, only today I saw it in brooks and puddles. The group of hydrologists worked today at sea. They worked at 28 stations during 2 hours 40 minutes, they measured 4 characteristics of each station.

My father is surrounded with dogs on all his pictures from Vaygach. Now I understand why. It seems that there are as many dogs there as adults and as many puppies as there are children. Mostly all adult dogs are chained. The girl, on whose porch two puppies were lying in the sun and the most motionless dog I’ve ever seen sat by the wall, commented that they would all quarrel and fight if set free.

There are 107 people registered in Varnek now, about 95 people live here, and now there are about 65. There are 35 people of working age and a lot of children. Everybody who gets into Varnek pays attention to the new and bright playground. Children like it very much and spend time playing on the slides and swings.

And we went to the village. There is a monument dedicated to the class repression victims at the cemetery. It dates back to 1933 when the mass prisoner burial took place here. There is another monument dating back to 1938. On February 5 that year there was a plane crash at Vaygach due to thick fog. The plane “Stal-2” was on ice patrol and crashed causing the death of three people. The monument dedicated to the plane has been renovated, the first monument has not.

There are the remains of an old fence not far from the cemetery: the columns and torn wire-netting. It reminded me of a deer shelter, and Ilya Pavlovich Khatanzeyskiy confirmed this idea.

When we got back to the village, we were met by eight threatful dogs, but when Ilya Pavlovich, their owner, came, they got calm and even posed for the pictures. He told us about all his dogs and how he travels in a dog sled. He also showed us his house and explained that it looked so strange – as if it had been constructed of some random things in a random order – because it had been built by the prisoners. Nothing has changed in the house since that time, only the separation walls are new. There is his room, his granddaughters’ room and a special place for the fishing nets in the house.

Ilya Pavlovich also told us that life was really comfortable: they have Internet at home, though sometimes it is hard for him, but his grandchildren understand it really well and always help him. There is a telephone line in the settlement, but cell phones don’t work as there are few people living here. He would like to build a bath, but to do that he should buy land and it is expensive. That is why they have a common bath: men go there on Fridays and women on Saturdays. The bath is nice and new and is located at the settlement distant end.

There are also reindeer at Vaygach, but their status is not very clear for me. There are 1 500 reindeer on the island, but the breeding will start only when river condition allows that. So unfortunately we didn’t see reindeer at Vaygach.

Polar hummingbirds

There is only one street in Varnek, it is called Morskaya. The main landmarks there are a club, a shop and a village first-aid station. There is also a huge sign which reads that it is forbidden to stay in the border zone without a pass. We all have our passports with us, by the way. It is also forbidden to bring weapons to the settlement. In the very end of the street there is a nice yellow house which is the common bath. Near the bath there is house Nr. 1 from which a woman came out after hearing dogs barking. Her name is Alena and she and her daughters came here a week ago from Naryan-Mar for vacations. Her brother lives in Varnek and is not planning to move.

— But the prices here are so high! A can of skimmed milk costs 40 rubles in Naryan-Mar, but here it costs 144. Tinned meat costs more than 200 rubles. The food is very expensive here.

— Are you scared of polar bears here, on the outskirts?

— Sometimes. My brother and the dogs try to shoo them. We used to collect cloudberries, but we haven’t done that for several years already.

Last year specialists from one of Saint-Petersburg museums and a group of French came to Varnek. They even asked not to plank the house as it can be regarded as a part of cultural heritage. They also said that they wanted to buy the house. Alena’s house as well as the one where Ilya Pavlovich lives was built by the prisoners, which means that it had been built before 1940-s. The prisoners used to live in these houses and to work in the mines which are about 2 km away from the settlement. They went there on foot along the path which still can be seen in tundra.

Alena’s daughter Yulia who is a schoolgirl went to the settlement with us. Yulia likes it here: there are a lot of kids around and a good playground, and mosquitoes prefer to bite her brother Shurik who is one year older.

There are also very huge “hummingbirds” in the settlement. These birds fly with their wings above the head and produce jingling and whistling noises while they fly. Irina Pokrovskaya, an ornithologist, explained that these are little stints and their behavior means that they have already chosen a nesting place, they protect it and attract a female.

The insects are also flying at Vaygach. Today Maria Novitasari, a student from Indonesia, learned to catch them with a scoop-net. Andrey Przhiboro explained that you can use them to catch insects even above water surface but you should do that differently from the stereotypical way which we all have in our minds. You should make abrupt movements very close to the ground but you shouldn’t touch it. And it is very important not to let the capture go. Maria said that she had succeeded.

Don’t take bags of crackers with you

The expedition conditions are pretty comfortable. You can drink tea with crackers at any time in the common-room, of course if you haven’t failed to fill the boiler. On the one hand, we were praised today when we were told that we, in comparison with the previous expeditions, keep the common room clean and wash the tea-cups. On the other hand, the expedition participants, like hamsters or lemmings, take the crackers from the common-room to eat during landings. We were asked not to take bags of crackers with us and to make sandwiches during breakfast.

We are heading for Dolgaya Bay in the Northern part of Vaygach. There is an old uninhabited fishery village and a walrus rookery. The route is slightly changes as strong wind is expected near Fedorov meteostation where we were planning to get, so there is a risk of wasting time.  

Today during the traditional evening meeting almost everybody has a rosy face, we all are getting the Arctic tan. However, Ilya Pavlovich expects frost in accordance with the folk signs.


June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6
June 12. Day 6

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Updated 20.06.2016