Franz Josef Land
Treasure of the Russian Arctic
"The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer."
- Fridtjof Nansen, "Farthest North"
More than two hundred islands scattered across the Barents Sea form the archipelago known as Franz Josef Land, the highest latitude landmass in the world. Locked in ice for all but a few weeks in summer, the Russian Arctic islands are home to polar bears, arctic foxes, walruses, and raucous colonies of nesting sea birds.
Voyage of the Fram
In 1893, a Norwegian scientist named Fridtjof Nansen set out to reach the North Pole by locking his team's ship, the Fram, in sea ice and riding it north with (scroll) the ocean currents. He and a crewmember eventually left the ship and used kayaks, dog teams, and man-pulled sledges to reach 86' North, a new record. They overwintered in a hovel on Franz Josef Land, surviving on walrus fat and polar bear meat before being rescued by a team of British explorers in 1896.
Nansen's survival was miraculous. Many other explorers were less prepared, and less fortunate.
Ruins of old Soviet research and intelligence stations litter the islands, frozen ghost towns of the Cold War.
Every so often, the crack of calving glaciers shatters the silence.
Striations in icebergs reveal settled dust from warm periods hundreds of years ago.
The landscapes swallow you.
I never would have expected to find so much life in such an austere place.
But life was everywhere I looked.
From pilot whales and belugas, to pillowy mosses and the fragile arctic saxifrage that blooms for just a few days each year.
And of course, polar bears.
The archipelago's volcanic basalt geology makes for fearsome rock features.
And some just plain weird ones, too.
Tourism is on the rise, but only a few dozen people visit the islands every summer ...
... because there are only two ways to get there: a Russian icebreaker ...
... or a thousand-mile journey by sailboat. I took the latter.
Daniel Gavrilov, my skipper, was the first to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean in one season without an icebreaker.
My Russian sailing companions made the journey richer still.
Saying goodbye to such a magical place was difficult, especially considering the grave future of the Arctic.
I sailed away feeling like I had seen a ghost.
Photos and text by Elliott D. Woods elliottwoods.com