North of Siberia (Part 2)

Wrangel Island

Still on Wrangel Island (red arrow)

For those of you who read my previous bog post, I still haven’t left Siberia’s Wrangel Island. In the island’s tiny cemetery, among several rows of Russian Orthodox crosses, I noticed a Star of David. There was no name on the grave, so I asked one of the scientists on the island if he knew who was buried there.

“A Jewish doctor, Nikolai Vulfson,” he told me. “Killed by fascists.”

Later I researched Vulfson for a book I was writing on the Arctic and learned that he hadn’t been killed by the fascists. At least not by those of the German or Italian persuasion during the Great Patriotic War, so-called.

Let’s travel back to the 1930s. Vulfson was Wrangel’s doctor, a man who was dedicated to the health of the local Eskimos (Siberian natives never call themselves “Inuit”). In this, he was opposed by the island governor, Konstantin Semenchuk, who said: “If you give Eskimos what they want, they’ll become lazy or turn against us. Then we would have to shoot them.”

On December 26, 1934 Semenchuk seemed to have a change of heart. He told Vulfson to visit the village of Mys Florens and investigate an apparent typhus outbreak. The doctor left the main village of Ushakovshoe by dogteam, accompanied by Semenchuk’s henchman Stepan Startsev. Only Startsev reached Mys Florens. He told the Eskimos that Vulfson had somehow gotten lost in a blizzard. But there hadn’t been a blizzard at the time.

It wasn’t until January 4 of the next year that Vulfson’s bullet-riddled body was found. Someone, perhaps Vulfson’s widow, radioed for a government investigation, not believing the death was a suicide, as Semenchuk had professed. An investigator arrived and began collecting information about Semenchuk, who not only seemed to have been responsible for Vulfson’s death, but commonly raped young Eskimo girls and also promoted famine conditions on the island. He was recalled to Moscow.

At Semenchuk’s trial, his prosecutor called the governor “human waste.” Semenchuk protested. He was a visitor from Mars, he said, and thus was not subject to the same rules as a typical Soviet citizen. The court did not buy this defense. Along with Startsev, Semenchuk was declared an enemy of the State and executed by a firing squad.

If I had known Vulfson’s story in advance, I would taken a photograph of his grave. No, I wouldn’t have taken a photograph. For I would have been too saddened by the fate of this good man to reach for my camera.

North of Siberia

The more remote the destination, the happier I am, so in the summer of 2003 I joined a Russian expedition to Wrangel Island, a 5,180 square kilometer chunk of Arctic real estate several hundred miles north of Siberia. Such is the island’s remoteness that its first documented visit didn’t occur until as recently as 1881, when the American whaling captain Calvin Hooper briefly went ashore with the naturalist John Muir.

Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island (red arrow)

Wrangel is a state nature preserve, the Russian equivalent of a natural park. But unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite, it has no facilities for the public (no public, either). We first went ashore at Rodzhersa Bay, where there was a small Russian research station. For want of funding, this station was remarkably rundown. I got the impression that the half dozen scientists who worked here did so for love. They certainly weren’t here for the money.

Inside a makeshift barn were four baby musk oxen, descendants of 20 animals brought here from Canada in 1975. Something about Wrangel’s air must be aphrodisiacal, since now more than 800 musk oxen roam the island.

I asked one of the Russians — a lavishly-bearded man who resembled the young Dostoevsky — whether a large invasive species like the musk ox might have a detrimental effect on the local ecosystem.

“Is problem, da,” he replied, “which is why we will be sending these babies to the mainland. We have another problem — no womens.”

Before he could mention any more problems, a border guard approached me and said: “CIA?” The look on his face was very serious.

“Nyet,” I replied. “Ph.D.”

The border guard burst into laughter, and I was off the hook. But if I had been found guilty of stealing local secrets, such as (for instance) whether insects or the wind were responsible for early spring pollination, what could he have done? Send me to Siberia?

Later I decided to hike the several miles from Cape Litke to Cape Uering, where members of the 1914 Karluk research expedition had overwintered. I should say some of them had overwintered. Of the 25 expedition members, 11 died of food poisoning, malnutrition, and hypothermia. If it hadn’t been for Captain Bob Bartlett’s heroic heroic sledge journey back to civilization, all of them would have died.

Half a mile into my hike, I came upon a group of tumbledown wooden huts and an outhouse, perhaps the northernmost structure of its kind in the world. A broken anemometer suggested another Russian scientific station fallen on financial hardship.

Soon I was walking over seemingly endless rolling tundra. Birds were everywhere. Screaming tour-a-wee, tour-a-wee, a female black-bellied plover feigned a broken wing, a maneuver designed to lure me from her nest. Wildflowers were everywhere, too. Blue harebells. Red rose root. Yellow poppies. Bright pink bistorts. Lilac fleabanes. Buttercups. Such an explosion of color gave the lie to the notion that the Arctic is a dull, achromatic place.

And then I reached Cape Uering. Whatever might have survived of the Karluk expedition was gone, either picked up by the Russians or reclaimed by the Arctic itself. The site was now buried beneath a veritable carpet of moss campion, harebells, and purple saxifrage. This pleased me more than any Karluk artifact would have done. But then who would not be more pleased by a small, perfect wildflower vibrating in the wind than by a scrap from an old tent or a rusty tin can?

A living trilobite

Here, at last, is a bog posting set in a bog — specifically, Chickering Bog in Calais, Vermont. Like many so-called bogs, it’s really an intermediate fen, which means that it’s not isolated from ground water like actual bogs are.

Recently, I visited Chickering with my friend Charles Johnson, author of Bogs of the Northeast, and his naturalist wife Nona. As we strolled past buckthorn, golden saxifrage, and bog rosemary, I asked Charles how he became interested in bogs. Nona answered for him, saying, “But how can a person not be interested in bogs?”

Bazzania trilobata

Millipede weed: Bazzania trilobata, by Bob Klips

Soon we were surrounded by pitcher plants, and I bent down and sniffed one. Ah, what a sweet perfumey smell! People who’ve never sniffed a pitcher plant have no idea what they’re missing.

“While humans are a threat to bogs, maybe a bigger threat is dogs,” observed Charles. “They jump in, splash around, and drive out the small amount of oxygen that exists in a bog’s upper layer.”

“That’s why I prefer dogs in satay sauce rather than in a bog,” I said, citing one of my previous bog postings.

Charles and Nona, who loved dogs, understood. A bog (or even an intermediate fen) is a sacred place and should not be defiled.

I needed to answer nature’s call, and rather than defile Chickering with my uric acid, I ventured back into the woods. All at once, in a grove of hemlock, I saw a trilobite! Ancient though it was, the trilobite seemed no less alive than I was. Likewise, it had the distinct odor of sandalwood.

I delighted in the trilobite’s small teeth at the tip of each leaf. I delighted in the way the leaves overlapped each other like shingles on a roof. I even delighted in its resemblance to a millipede, so much so that in some place it’s been called “the millipede weed.”

Okay, I’m being a bit disingenuous here. What I saw was not a marine arthropod, but the liverwort Bazzania trilobata, and I somehow didn’t think “A Living Trilobata” has very much caché as the title for a bog posting. Still, Bazzania trilobata and trilobites are not altogether unlike each other. For liverworts are among the most primitive of all plants, perhaps even the most primitive, and their ancestors were almost contemporaneous with trilobites.

What’s the moral of this little tale? Heed nature’s call, and nature herself might come calling…


thanks to Bob Klips, a fellow admirer of wee green things, for kind permission to use his photo.

Wild dogs I have eaten

With a bog, you can write things that would be banned or at least censored elsewhere. Consider this particular posting. The editors to whom I proposed it some years ago rejected it so quickly that I didn’t have the chance to say that I never ate (perish the thought!) a wild dog (Lycaon pictus), but that my title simply paid homage to Ernest Seton Thompson, the estimable author of Wild Animals I Have Known.

If a sled dog in Greenland has outlived its usefulness, it can be useful again, as cuisine. In fact, the first dog I ever ate was a former Greenland sled dog. The hunter who offered it to me suggested that it was not nearly as good as seal. I had to agree. The meat was tough, stringy, and extremely greasy. It tasted not unlike the way a wet dog smells. Note: As the custom of using sled dogs declines in Greenland, so does the custom of eating them.

On to the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia. If you see a teenage kid walking around with a baseball bat on Pohnpei, he’s not going to Little League practise. Rather, he’s looking for the island’s favorite feast food. Cooked in an umu (underground oven) and served without seasoning, Pohnpeian dog hardly tasted any better to me than Greenlandic dog. But De gustibus non disputandum est! The man seated next to me at the feast ate our entree with such gusto that no doubt he would have devoured Lassie or Rin Tin Tin had the occasion arisen.

In a restaurant on the Chinese island of Macau, I once ate a sweet-and-sour dog curry seasoned with noodles. The curry overwhelmed the meat so much that it tasted like sweet-and-sour ersatz. However, my host told me that the taste was not important. What was important, he said, was that the dish boosted one’s sluggish metabolism. Alas, my metabolism did not receive a spike or even a delicate nudge as a result of my having eaten the dish in question.

By far the best dog I’ve ever eaten was in a restaurant on the Indonesian island of Ambon. The animal had been raised on a “dog farm” as well as fed an exclusive diet of fruit. No kibble! Cooked in satay sauce, it tasted like high quality pork. I liked the dish (dare I call it a gourmet dish?) so much that I returned to the restaurant the following day and ordered it again. Here I might mention that only the island’s non-Muslims ate at this restaurant; for Muslims, dog is a prohibited meat.

How splendid that one person’s meat can be another’s poison! For if there were no differences in taste among different peoples in the world, the Golden Arches would be rising from every street corner instead of every fourth or fifth street corner.

Bon Appetit

Once upon a time I found myself sitting down to dinner in a tent not far from Tiniteqilaq. East Greenland. My hosts were an Inuit family whose food came from the land, the sea, and the ice. In Tinit, as it’s often abbreviated, you either hunt or you go hungry.

Our hors d’oeuvre consisted of square chunks of seal nose, an East Greenland specialty. We ate it by holding the attached whiskers as if they were toothpicks, then sticking the boiled proboscid morsel into our mouths. The resident elder, Avannaq, told me that this was the proper way to eat seal nose if you wanted to avoid greasy fingers.

ptarmigan shit, by Doug Holden

An Inuit culinary delicacy!

Then came the main course served up in a big bowl. It looked like some sort of meat casserole and smelled like a very ripe Gorgonzola. I found the flavor quite pleasant and asked Avannaq for seconds.

“Marmartuq?” he asked. (You like it?)

“Mamagiq!” I replied. (Delicious!)

At which point he provided me with the dish’s recipe:

  • Go out and kill a seal, then take a chunk of the meat, preferably from the flank, and cut it into small pieces
  • Chew each piece a number of times, then spit them into a bowl. Be sure you spit into the bowl too, as that helps the ingredients ferment and likewise serves as a sort of seasoning.
  • Mix in some ptarmigan shit. This ingredient should be dry. Fresh ptarmigan shit is somewhat astringent, and its viscosity is not pleasant to every palate.
  • Stir the aforementioned items for a few minutes, add a cup or two of slightly rancid seal oil, and –voila! –serve forth.

“Can you substitute something for the ptarmigan shit?” I inquired.

Avannaq shook his head vehemently. No less than Julia Child, he knew exactly what made a recipe work.

One culture’s prized entree is another culture’s visit to the vomitorium. I suspect Avannaq would have been appalled at the idea of eating a parsnip or cauliflower, not to mention brussels sprouts. And he might have asked me some rather pointed questions about what, exactly, lurks inside the skin of the American hot dog.

But there’s another point to this story besides the relativity of taste. The only hunting and gathering most of us non-Greenlanders do occurs within the confines of our friendly neighborhood supermarket. And if we do venture into the field, we take with us packets of freeze-dried ersatz probably processed hundreds of miles away.

I once offered one of these packets –I think it was beef stroganoff–to an Iban tribesperson in the jungles of Borneo. He ripped it open and poured the powdery contents into his mouth. The look on his face suggested that this cuisine did not compare with home-grown kitty cat.

Now back to the tent in Tinit. There was still some of our entree left. I declined a third helping not because I felt queasy but because I was full. I did not even have room for the salmonberry dessert.

After our repast, Avannaq and I, boasting literal shit-eating grins, gazed at each other with satisfaction. It was a satisfaction that can only come from putting into one’s mouth food snatched directly from the wild.

Many thanks to Doug Holden for permission to use his photo of ptarmigan shit taken atop Mount Cairngorm.