Summers at the end of the Earth

A Russian biologist’s love affair with Wrangel Island

This photo of Vasiliy Baranyuk was taken on Wrangel Island, where he’s done his “lifetime’s work.”

This photo of Vasiliy Baranyuk was taken on Wrangel Island, where he’s done his “lifetime’s work.”

PHOTO courtesy of vasiliy baranyuk

In the summer of 2010, Vasiliy Baranyuk spent 87 days without seeing another human being. He saw plenty of snow geese during that time, though, as well as musk oxen, polar bears, walruses, wolverines, reindeer, wolves, Arctic foxes and snowy owls.

Baranyuk is a Russian biologist who for more than 30 years has been spending his summers on Wrangel Island, one of the two principal breeding grounds for the snow geese that travel the Pacific Flyway during migration. He was in Chico last weekend to give two slide presentations as part of the Snow Goose Festival about the all-important role the island plays in the lives of those geese.

Wrangel Island, part of the Russian Federation, is in the Arctic Ocean north of far eastern Siberia and the Arctic Circle. It’s a treeless, starkly beautiful place, mountainous in the middle and cold even in summer, but it supports a wide range of wildlife, including the densest population of polar bears in the world. The last wooly mammoths roamed the island only 3,500 years ago, and their tusks can be found there to this day.

Baranyuk, a compact man in his 50s with a silver-gray beard, first went to Wrangel in 1981, fresh out of state university in Moscow. Such was its pull on him that he’s been going back every summer, and is now the senior scientist on the island.

These days there are rarely more than a dozen people on Wrangel at any one time, half of them scientists, the others rangers at the Wrangel Nature Preserve, which includes the entire island and 24 miles of sea surrounding it.

As it turned out, Baranyuk met his wife, Yana, a microbiologist, on the island when she visited as part of a scientific crew. That was propitious because she at least understands why he wants to spend four months at the end of the Earth each summer.

This winter the two are traveling up and down the West Coast with their son, Vlas, 8, and daughter Sonya, 4, so Baranyuk can speak at gatherings like the Snow Goose Festival.

I caught up with them at the wildlife center at Rancho Esquon, a 6,000-acre farm southeast of Durham, where he was giving a presentation. The farm is a good example of environmental stewardship: There are 4,000 acres in rice production, 800 in almonds, and 900 acres developed into a habitat-rich wildlife refuge.

On Wrangel Island, life depends on the weather, Baranyuk said. Snow geese begin nesting at the end of May or during the first few days of June, and the more the snow has melted off, the more room they have for their clutches. Lately the weather has been warmer and spring has arrived earlier. Last summer, scientists counted 72,000 nests in the Tundra River colony that produced more than 150,000 birds.

Snow geese tend to locate their nests near snowy owls’ nests because the owls can fight off the Arctic foxes that are the greatest danger to both species’ nests. Baranyuk, who’s an excellent photographer, showed several dramatic images of airborne owls attacking the foxes.

Shortly after the goslings are born, the geese make an epic walking migration of more than 60 miles from their nesting area in a mountain valley to feeding grounds on the island’s northern plain.

Then, in late August, the snow geese and their surviving offspring begin leaving Wrangel Island. They go in two directions, with about half following the Pacific coastline toward the Skagit-Fraser estuaries south of Vancouver, B.C., and the rest following an inland migration route to California’s Central Valley on their way to wintering grounds in the Southwest and northern Mexico.

Snow geese mate for life and raise three to four young each year. The offspring stay with their parents until they are 4 or 5 years old, learning the migration route and how to survive from the older birds.

One of the problems Baranyuk has been noticing is that, because of the warmer weather and larger hatches, there are too many younger birds, they aren’t being educated properly, and they’re making mistakes—going in the wrong direction, resting in the wrong places, that sort of thing. He made it sound like an avian generation gap.

Another result of the warmer weather is that it’s become easier to get to Wrangel Island by boat. Until recently the only way in was by helicopter, but now ice-breaking ships can reliably reach the island from mid-July to September, and some companies have established tours to the area.

Baranyuk himself works for the New Zealand-based Heritage Expeditions, giving presentations and guiding short tours on land when a ship arrives. He says he enjoys the opportunity to share his “lifetime’s work.”

From Chico the Baranyuks went on to the Davis area and then up to Washington, where they were planning to visit the Skagit River and Fraser River estuaries. Thousands of waterfowl on the way back to Wrangel Island are gathering there at this very moment.