A remote Arctic island makes an unusual honeymoon destination. But for one couple it was perfect, and led to a touching reunion with a long-lost childhood friend, writes Juliet Rix.
Walruses huddle in blubbery bonhomie, almost overflowing the little ice-islands on which they float. They nudge and scratch, gnarled brown skin and elegant ivory tusks glistening in the Arctic sun.
I am watching from a chartered icebreaker, one of just a handful of ships a year to visit Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, the northernmost Unesco World Heritage Site.
Wrangel is of crucial importance to wildlife, especially polar bears, many of whom breed here. We see them, from the deck of the ship or from a distance on land, roaming creamy-furred and curious across ice and tundra.
Herds of musk ox stare from beneath grey curved horns. Whales meander the coastal waters, and giant puffins flap from craggy cliffs.
It’s a spectacular place – but harsh too. There are no permanent human residents on this treeless Arctic island that lies off the coast of Siberia, deep in a tightly controlled military zone of the freezing Russian Far East.
It is not the sort of place you expect to find a young urban couple… on honeymoon.
I first spot Julia and Daniel, just visible through thick fog, freezing rain and a sea of rusting metal – at the island’s appropriately-named former military base, Doubtful Bay. But I don’t get to talk to them until they appear aboard our ship, hitching a lift back to the mainland, and revelling in the comfort of a cosy cabin and fresh food.
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I must have looked a little incredulous when they said they were on honeymoon, because Daniel laughed. “I know,” he said. “Our friends at home in Moscow didn’t understand it either, so we made a joke of it and said we were coming to look for Julia’s lost toy.”
Julia, it transpires, spent the first five years of her life on Wrangel, which then had a small civilian settlement. Her father, a scientist, was studying snowgeese – of which I’ve been fortunate to see a feeding flock, just a fraction of the million-strong population now present on the island.
When she was five, Julia was sent to visit her babushka – her grandmother – in Moscow. She thought it was for a few days’ holiday and she would soon be back, so didn’t take her favourite toy, a little fluffy walrus her father had given her.
In fact, her parents were splitting up and Julia never returned to Wrangel. For a quarter of a century, she says, “I dreamed of my island, and my walrus.”
Finally, as she contemplated starting her own family, she decided she had to return to Wrangel.
It wasn’t the simplest piece of travel planning. But eventually Daniel, himself a scientist, secured a three-week stint volunteering on the island – and this became their honeymoon.
Daniel’s first job on Wrangel was to renovate an old wooden cabin. It turned out that the last person to live in it had been Julia’s father. They found the family home too – now derelict – and explored the island, drinking in its raw beauty, and coming too-close-for-comfort to a polar bear.
They stood, they tell me, on the silent tundra amidst a glorious meadow of tiny Arctic flowers musing on how wonderfully irrelevant humanity was in this remote land.
They saw walruses too, of course, just as I did – but not Julia’s toy.
Sitting one evening with one of the island’s handful of seasonal rangers, Julia and Daniel told him the story of how Julia departed the island, leaving her beloved toy behind.
“Oh,” said the ranger casually. “We found that.”
Julia and Daniel didn’t believe him, but, the next morning he appeared clutching in his gloved hand her little fluffy walrus.
“I didn’t cry then,” says Julia, her eyes welling. Now tears roll gently down her smiling cheeks as she holds up a brown toy with soft creamy tusks.
Wrangel is a nature reserve with the highest level of protection.
Nothing must be taken from the island. But as we steam away from the prowling polar bears, the treeless tundra and ice-islands groaning with gargantuan brown bodies, one little walrus is on its way to Moscow to help Julia and Daniel explain to their friends about Wrangel Island – how it must be protected, how much it matters to the wildlife. And to Julia.
She sits cradling a little piece of her childhood, a piece of her island.
Their honeymoon was just the start, she says. And Daniel nods. They’ll definitely be back.
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