On Wrangel Island, Poop is an Inappropriate Word

Once upon an earlier time, I joined a group of Russian scientists on an expedition to Siberia’s Wrangel Island. The purpose of our trip was to document the flora, fauna, and fungi on this remote island in the Chukchi Sea.

Since Wrangel has the largest density of denning polar bears of anywhere in the world, we were obliged to carry a firearm or a can of Mace with us at all times. Being a lousy shot, I chose the latter.

“You need vodka, too,” a Russian botanist informed me, energetically puffing on a Troika cigarette. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to identify unusual species.” He handed me a 1.75-litre bottle of Hammer & Sickle Vodka.

Here I should mention that Wrangel’s landscape remained unscathed by Ice Age glaciers, with the result that it’s more or less been unchanged in the last million years. Endemic species abound. The island boasts 23 plant species found nowhere else in the world, and perhaps half as many endemic butterfly species. Small wonder that it’s become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photo: Lawrence Millman

 

So there I was, wandering the sedge tundra on the eastern side of the island. In a rocky outcrop, I saw a Muir’s fleabane (Erigone muirii), a flowering plant in the aster family first documented by the American naturalist John Muir on an 1881 visit to the island. A short while later, I saw a small, brownish mushroom that turned out to be a previously undescribed Inocybe species.

Then I saw a heap of polar bear shit (poop is an inappropriate word) festooned with seal whiskers, berry pits, a delicate maze of birds bones, and what looked like some kelp. What a splendid work of art! I said to myself.

A moody afternoon on Wrangel Island. Photo: Lawrence Millman

 

In a short while, a powerful wind called a yuzhak began blowing, snarling, and whistling across the tundra. Plants such as cotton grass, bladder campion, and alpine arnica as well as Muir’s fleabane sashayed back and forth, repeatedly back and forth, as if they were performing some sort of exotic dance. None of them seemed in danger of being blown down, while I felt like I was constantly at risk of being swept into the Chukchi Sea.

Suddenly I saw an ATV coming in my direction. An ATV seemingly running on its own, without any driver. Would Wrangel Island’s wonders never cease? Then I saw the botanist who’d given me the vodka hunched low against the vehicle’s wheel to escape the blasts of the wind. He saw me and immediately stopped.

“Want to see the northernmost outhouse in the world yet?” he shouted, then gestured for me to hop into his ATV.

Fifteen minutes later, we reached what turned out to be a lavatorial relic from Soviet times. Its wooden walls had mostly collapsed, its floor was a mass of moss, and its lichen-covered seat was not even a semi-circle. What remained was tilted precariously to the starboard. Northernmost outhouse or not, it didn’t seem to care about being listed in the Guinness Book of Records. To hell with celebrity! its ruins seemed to proclaim. All I want is to become part of the remote bounteous earth.

Lawrence Millman is a man who wears a variety of hats. As an explorer, he has journeyed to the Arctic 35 times, but not once to Rome; as a mycologist, he has a fungal species named after him (Inonotus millmanii); and as a former prisoner of war in academia, he has taught at Harvard, the University of New Hampshire, and — best of all — the University of Iceland. His 18 books include such titles as Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Northern Latitudes, Hiking to Siberia, At the End of the World, and Fungipedia. Bruce Chatwin called him “the master of the remote,” and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth describes him as “a true original who takes no prisoners. He keeps a post office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
13 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago

I am the administrator of the Estate of Ralph Lomen, who was the sole own of Wrangell Island (formal known as “New Columbia Land” between 12 August 1881 to 29 July 1901) between 1965 to 1976. The Lomen Brothers of Nome, Alaska went on title to the whole of Wrangell Island on 1 April 1924. Stef sold the whole of Wrangell Island to the Lomen Brothers of Nome, Alaska in a meeting with Carl Lomen at the Explorer Club at New York City that Spring Day of 1 April 1924. The island entered Alaska on 17 May 1884 by resolution… Read more »

L. Millman
L. Millman
4 months ago

Naturalist John Muir came to Wrangel on Calvin Hooper’s boat The Corwin and was either the first or second person to set actual foot on the island.

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago
Reply to  L. Millman

L.Millman, John Muir was not the first or second person to set actual foot on New Columbia Land at Cape Corwin. In August 1866 a landings from the ship W. C. Talbot out of Honolulu under an Hawaiian Flag which was under the command of Captain E. Dallman a citizen of Hawai’i set foot 15 years earlier that William Edward Reynolds in the same landing party that Muir was a party . Cape Corwin is clearly seen on the map 1505NR1,2-1 issued by the Army Map Service of the United States Army Corp of Engineers in 1966. I first viewed… Read more »

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago

Map 1505NR1,2-1 is a map of both Wrangell Island and Herald Island of the Arctic Ocean.
Until a few month ago it was classified as Secret by the US Government. I first viewed the map to help locate the location of Raoul Wallenberg who was held on that Alaskan Island by Soviets in a GULAG on the Nasha River near Cape Hawai’i. Nasha is Russian for “Our”. The river name is “Our River” in English
The US Senate hearings on Wrangell Island took place on 1-2 February 1973.

L. Millman
L. Millman
4 months ago

My bad. I confused the expedition that planted the US flag on Wrangel with the first planting of feet on the island.

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago
Reply to  L. Millman

The first US Flag raising on Herald Island to the East of Wrangell Island took place in 1855 by Watts off the USS Vincennes. However, formal possession with “Three times Three and a Tiger” did not take place until 2-3 June 1881 at Cape Melville.

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago

Where was the outhouse on Wrangell Island and the location of the Polar Bear scat?

L. Millman
L. Millman
4 months ago

Outhouse was near Cape Litke. Have you been to Wrangel?

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago
Reply to  L. Millman

I have been to Wrangell Island three times. L. Millman my first arrival was in 1995. When were you on Wrangell Island. Spelling issue,.it was by a resolution of the United States Board on Geographic Names dates 29 July 1901 that the spelling was set as “Wrangell” with two letter ‘l’s”, viz , “Wrangell Island” because Baron von Wrangell spelt his own name with two letter l’s. When were you on this Wrangell Island? How close was the polar bear scat to that outhouse? It was nice to know that the Muir fleabane was growing still on Wrangell Island. I… Read more »

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago
Reply to  L. Millman

What do you believe the current area of Wrangell Island is in the Arctic Ocean. In 1988 the Alaska Department on Natural Resources published it was 1,740 square miles. However in 1932 the USGS published that Wrangell Island was 2,925 square miles. Prince of Wales Island in Alaska is published as 2,577 square miles. On 25 May 2021 the SurferToday published that Wrangell Island was 3,037 square miles in area. Jack Anderson in 1981 stated the governments of the United States and Alaska had no clue as to the actual area of Wrangell Island in the Arctic Ocean. Yet it… Read more »

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska.
4 months ago

In the refutation published 5 January 2022 entitled “World Northern Outhouses” also published in {explorersweb.com} by Jerry Kobalenko you commented “my bad!” noting other Outhouses were farther to the North of Cape Litke on Wrangell Island (alternative known as “New Columbia Land” between 12 August 1881 to 29 July 1901). What I would like to know is the date you view the outhouse near Cape Litke? I got no closer to Cape Litke than Cape Corwin at the mouth of the Clark River on Wrangell Island. Where else were you on Wrangell Island that you located polar bear scat? My… Read more »

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska
4 months ago

The report Jack N. Anderson reported in the Daily News on September 13, 1981 that “[o]ne of the strangths of Wrangel Island is the near hopeless confusion that surrounds it. Authorities can’t agree on its size.” The Alaska DNR gave it 1,740 square miles in July 1988. The USGS in 1932 gave the area as 2,925 square miles. Yet SurferToday gave the area as 3,037 square miles while other current sources state it is about the size of Crete. Crete island is listed on line as either 3,219 or 3,260 square miles. Any one out there that knows the area… Read more »

Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska
Mark Seidenberg of Anchorage, Alaska
4 months ago

It was on 17 December 1883 that US Senator Benjamin Harrison told Ezra W. Clark, Jr. he wanted five islands that were to the North of Siberia added to Alaska. That took place at a meeting of the Alaska Board of the US Department of the Treasury on 17 May 1884. The authority for those addition to Alaska was Section 1 of the Harrison Alaska Organic Act. It was on 17 February 1868 that POTUS Andrew Johnson by memorandum to Secretary of State William H. Seward informed him he wanted “Wrangell’s Land” a possession of the United States. It 1880… Read more »