A Picture Postcard From Wild Wrangel Island

May 6, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2013 9:19 pm

If something seems impossibly remote, you call it Siberia. And if Siberians want to make the analogy, they could call it Wrangel Island. About 90 miles off the coast of northeastern Siberia, the 91-mile-long island has been inhabited by some humans over the years — but has been home to a superabundance of wildlife such as polar bears, Pacific walruses and musk oxen.

In the May issue of National Geographic magazine, Hampton Sides writes about the Russian federally managed nature sanctuary. And images by Russian photographer Sergey Gorshkov show what the words can't.

In an interview on All Things Considered, Sides explains that Gorshkov made a fortune in the oil business before deciding to become a photographer.

"He lives in Moscow and has more money than he probably knows what to do with," Sides adds on the phone after the interview. "Some people have described him as an oligarch."

But unless he could afford to hire a helicopter, these photos probably wouldn't be possible. Wrangel Island is prohibitively difficult to access — except by helicopter and icebreaker (not to mention all the required permits).

"This is a guy who has dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars and so much of his time to getting these images right," says Sides.

Although Gorshkov had been to the island several times before Sides, the two traveled together for the purpose of the magazine story. For photographers and scientists, the draw to such an inhospitable place is that the island has remained unchanged in many ways for epochs. Traveling to Wrangel Island is like traveling back in time.

"You're looking at a kind of nature that has been ... largely this way since the Pleistocene time," Sides says. Plus, he describes Gorshkov as a lone wolf. "He likes to get away from humanity, and this is about as far away from humanity as you can get."

For aspiring photographers, Gorshkov's story might be inspiration. He didn't pick up a camera until his mid-40s.

"He's pretty fearless," says Sides. "Some of those images you just can't get unless you're right up there with these animals."

Like the images of musk oxen head-butting and polar bears denning. This is just a tiny selection of Gorshkov's work, but you can learn more about Wrangel Island in the National Geographic article and see more on Gorshkov's website.

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