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.