Top secret

Tentacles of the CIA spread all over our
country, penetrating its most intimate places.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The last push to the South.

The research institute I worked for in 1992 was a quiet and peaceful place. Due to insufficient funding there was no research to speak of, but just keeping the place from total collapse took a lot of time. One of my duties was to travel to Saint-Petersburg (still called Leningrad at the time), where our branch was located, every few weeks.

The branch occupied one floor in a building owned by the famous Institute of Polar Research. It looked more like a museum with stuffed Antarctic birds hanging in the lobby, and statues of Arctic explorers lining the staircase. In one of such trips, my train arrived ahead of schedule, and I had to wait for the place to open, sleeping in the guards' office. When I woke up, I saw that I wasn't alone: a man was sleeping on a coach across the room. He had a long gray beard, and was wearing Arctic Aviation uniform. He opened his eyes, looked at me with suspicion, and put on dark sunglasses. Then he asked what I was doing there. I explained I was a business visitor.
"Where from?" he asked. I told him the name of my institute.
"So, you are a biologist?"
"Why are you sleeping here? You don't know anybody in the city?"
"No, I don't."
"That's good," he said.
"What's so good about it?"
"Do you know birds and animals?"
"More or less. Why?"
"How can you tell a gray seal from a harp seal?"
I explained. That was an easy one.
"Do you have good eyesight?" It started to look like cross-examination.
"Yes, I do. Any problems?"
"Would you like to go to the North Pole?" he asked.
Now it was his turn to be surprised.
"Can't you be more specific?" I asked.
"No." Throughout our conversation, he kept looking around, as an escaped convict expecting an arrest. "You'll see for yourself later."
"I have to know what we are talking about."
"OK, but no more questions. Next Friday we go to Barents Sea for seal census. We need a spotter. We'll provide food, but not transportation to the airport. If you tell someone about this flight, you'll be very sorry. You'll have to sign a paper about keeping the secret, and that we aren't responsible for anything. Now."
"Who are "we"?"
"Good bye. I don't know you, you don't know me. I told you, no more questions."

But I was already intrigued, and wouldn't let him go. Eventually, he gave me the details of the flight. It sounded too good to be true. They were planning to visit the White Sea, Franz Josef Land, and Novaya Zemlya Islands, the most "closed" part of the former Soviet Union, the inaccessible land of nuclear testing grounds, submarine bases, and other dark secrets no newspaper dared mention. I didn't believe a word, but asked when they were leaving, just in case.
"Next Friday evening, from Pulkovo Airport."
"What time?"
"We'll tell you later."
"OK. What's your phone number?"
He jumped in his seat. "No numbers! I'll call you at your institute." And he left.

I soon forgot about that strange encounter. I was sure I'd never see the guy again. It was the time of crazy projects and wild ideas which floated in the air in large flocks and then vanished without a trace. I was really surprised when he called me in Moscow next day and said: "Friday, 5 am. Take warm clothes, food for a week, binoculars, and passport."

It sounded serious enough, but I was still skeptical. Then on Wednesday my boss told me I had to go to Leningrad again. Now the trip was paid for, and all I had to do was show up at the airport. At 4 am my new friend appeared, followed by two young men who looked like hippies. One of them had a strong accent, probably French.

Without saying a word, we got on a small plane, and flew to Lake Ladoga. For about an hour we were circling above the lake, looking for seals. Ringed seals of Ladoga race mostly spend winters in caves under the snow, with entrances from the water. But it was March already, the snow was melting, and we found one seal.

I kept trying to overhear what the others were talking about, just to find out who they were. But I never even learned their names. Who was paying for the flight, how did they get permits to enter restricted areas, and what were they planning to do with census results - I still don't know. And the most strange thing was that all three were undeniably knowledgeable zoologists. I decided that they were either biologists hired by the CIA, or seal experts pretending to work for the KGB.

But the greatest surprise was yet to come. When we landed in Arkhangelsk for refueling, I got a chance to talk to the pilots. The commander was a famous Polar ace with legendary experience and personal permission to fly in any weather he'd dare take off. There were only two or three pilots like him in all of the Arctic, and many local companies were ready to pay them in gold bullion, just to get an employee like that. Whoever was financing our "census" was very, very rich, so it couldn't be any scientific body. The Army still had that kind of money in 1992, but they would've hired a military pilot, not a civilian.

Then they told me it was a "jumping expedition". Landing on an ice floe is risky because you never know if it is solid enough. The "jumping" means that the plane doesn't make a full stop at first, just slows down to 15-20 km per hour to let one person jump on the ice, and takes off again. If the ice is good, the plane will come back and land. If not, it will touch the ice again, and slow down to let the scout get back onboard. It is all a bit scary, because you never know what might happen.

We used this method to pay a brief visit to harp seals (they gather in hundreds of thousands in the northern part of the White Sea). We only had few minutes on ice, but got a chance to pet some white seal cubs. Then we followed the Kolsky Peninsula coastline, counting harbor and gray seals in small fjords, stopped for refueling at Iokanga nuclear submarine base, and turned north.

Most of Barents Sea doesn't freeze over in winter because of the Gulf Stream, so it is a favorite wintering place for many Arctic seabirds. We were flying low enough to see hundreds of gulls (mostly kittiwakes), eiders, murres, guillemots, and fulmars. Killer whales, belugas, and dolphins could be seen in the water from time to time. I spotted more of them than other guys, and our chief began to trust me. He even let me know that the census was conducted by the International Fund for Seal Conservation (later I found that such a fund didn't exist).

There was more wildlife in partly frozen areas further north. Bearded and ringed seals were everywhere. Large flocks of gulls, fulmars, guillemots, and dovekies were feeding in open water between the floes. We even saw minke whales once. We landed on the ice three times to take snow samples. Then we spotted a walrus in the water, a sure sign we were over the shallows. A few minutes later we saw a rounded ice cap ahead. It was Victoria Island, halfway between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.

There is only one ice-free place on Victoria, a narrow beach with a closed research station on it. A few years later, ivory gulls occupied it, and were said to be nesting in the abandoned buildings. There were no gulls in March, but we saw four narwhals not far from the island.

We got to Franz Josef Land just before nightfall. There were few birds and seals there, but we met a polar bear, followed by two ivory gulls. We also spotted a family of hooded seals, extremely rare in Russian Arctic. They preferred thick ice with rough surface, so we couldn't land there.

The research station on Franz Josef Land was still open. We were instantly provided with fuel, food, and a cabin to spend the night. The day of surprises wasn't over yet: I met three guys from the Urals, the ones I'd once gotten to Geyser Valley with. For the second time we were able to help each other. They came to Franz Josef to try scuba diving there, but their only flashlight started leaking in cold water, so they couldn't get under the ice. There were some flashlights at the station, but they were too precious to share. So my friends, who had spent their six months' salaries to get there, were desperate. I had a flashlight. We put it in a plastic bag, and sealed it tight by ironing through a newspaper.

Next morning we went diving. My plane won't wait, so I could only spend twenty minutes in the water, but it was a great dive. Gray pillars of plankton were floating in bright light under the openings in the ice. The bottom was covered with soft corals, sponges, and hydroids. There was even some fish there. My friends later told me that the flashlight kept working until the end of the day.

We spent the day exploring the archipelago, landing on large ice floes, flat glaciers, or snow-covered beaches. There were lots of seals and walruses in the channels between the islands. Once we saw two male narwhals fencing. The islands themselves were mostly covered with ice shields. There were so-called oases of ice-free land in the southern and western parts, but they were all under snow in March.

I occasionally solved a century-old mystery of rock ptarmigans on Franz Josef Land. They occur in very low numbers on two or three islands out of about a hundred. Nobody could understand how they could survive the winter. It is dark 24 hours a day from November to February, and the snow is rock-hard because of the winds. Some experts suggested that the birds migrated over the sea to either Svalbard or Novaya Zemlya. But I discovered that they spent winter at the seashore. There are huge seabird colonies on some coastal rocks there. They are deserted in winter, but the fertile soil allows the vegetation to grow as tall as in the tundra much further south, and the winds blow away the snow from narrow rock ledges. There is enough sedge and dwarf willow there for a few dozen ptarmigans to survive the winter. They graze on the rocks like tiny snow goats, and spend the rest of the day in snow burrows between boulders.

We visited another station (it got closed two months later), then headed straight north. Seals and belugas disappeared together with the last patches of the open water. A few hours later we landed at the North Pole. It was March 16, so there were six days left until sunrise. But because of the atmospheric refraction the sun seemed to be higher in the sky than it really was. We could see the edge of it by climbing on a wing. The place looked very quiet, clean, and beautiful. We took snow samples and then watched in silence as the golden dot of the sun's edge moved along the horizon, reminding us that the planet was spinning under our feet.

The route to Novaya Zemlya was mostly over pack ice, so we didn't see much wildlife. We made a few more landings. I got used to "jumping", and it didn't seem as scary as before. In 15 ice landings we had only one light trauma: one of the "hippies" fell and hurt his knee while trying to get back on the plane.

We landed at Cape Desire, the northernmost tip of Novaya Zemlya (New Land). People at the research station had to use candles because they didn't have enough kerosene for the generator. But we got refueled in minutes. Next morning we moved south in zigzag, trying to see the most of both eastern and western coasts.

The islands are the continuation of the Ural Mountains. In summer they are an oasis of life, with huge seabird colonies, walrus haulouts, and hundreds of thousands of geese nesting in the tundra. There are deep, beautiful fjords along the western coast. One of them is so long that it cuts Novaya Zemlya in two islands. It is called Matochkin Shar (Uterus Channel). In summer it is used by herds of belugas to get from Barents to Kara Sea and back. In winter it freezes over, and reindeer migrate across it between islands. At any time of the year the wildlife prefers the western coast, because it is warmed up by the Gulf Stream. We saw uncountable walruses, seals, belugas, eiders, gulls, even some bears at the western side of the islands, but only a few seals and walruses on the eastern side. We also made a risky landing on a snow-covered beach to get a better look at a herd of small island reindeer grazing nearby, and found a flock of tiny sandpipers wintering at the water edge there.

It was interesting to move south along the islands. At first the ice shield looked very smooth, then mountain ridges began to stick out, and soon the ice was only in deep valleys and on high peaks. Everything else was pink snow, blue floes in fjords, black rocks, and gray talus fields. The southernmost part, called Geese Land, is flat and boggy, and looks very desolate in winter.

We got to the mainland and were surprised to find the sea ice-free along the coast. All ice floes had been forced away by southern winds. The airport in Amderma was closed because of side wind, but we were out of fuel and had to request an emergency landing. While we were refueling, the wind grew even stronger, so we couldn't risk taking off. We were stuck in that small town at the Kara Sea shore. I was late for both my jobs, but there was nothing to do except to check in at the hotel and wait for the weather to change

No hotel in the world is such a great place to stay as tiny inns in remote Arctic towns. The food seems delicious no matter what it is made of, talking to other guests is like reading adventure novels, and the colder it gets outside, the more cozy your room feels. Three days passed as three hours. Every morning someone would call the airport to check the weather forecast, and the rest of the day was quite relaxed. After lunch everybody would gather in the hall and tell stories until dinner, while the building was shaking and rocking. On our second night there, the wind broke the window in my room, and it was instantly filled with snow. It was impossible to fix the window until the weather changed, so the administration had to turn off the heat to prevent flooding, and everyone had to sleep in the hall.

It was sunny and warm (just minus ten Centigrade), but even a short walk outside was a difficult task because of the wind. White rivers of drifting snow streamed across the sterile surface of the tundra. There were no signs of life there, except for tiny openings of ventilation shafts, leading into lemmings' tunnel systems. The only place where it was possible to walk without risking being blown into the sea was under the coastal cliffs. But the snow was too deep there, so I had to hike on pripai - belt of sea ice frozen to the bottom along the shore. It was safe at low tide, but there was some danger of pripai being torn off and blown away at high tide. The cliffs were used by animals, too. Old tracks of Arctic foxes followed the shoreline. Most foxes had already been trapped by villagers, but ptarmigans still preferred to spend nights at the outer edge of pripai, a few hundred meters away from the cliffs where they were feeding during the day. I found their burrows in piles of snow on ice surface, not far from angry black waves of Kara Sea.

Among the guests at the hotel were three bikers from Moscow. Their plan was to cross Yugorsky Peninsula and get to Vorkuta City in the Polar Urals foothills. By spring, the snow gets hard enough in the open tundra to ride a bike. The only problem was the wind. You could only ride north, and any attempt to turn south resulted in being rolled over. One of the tourists had already broken his arm, and was taken to the hospital. One of the bikes was now vacant, so I decided to join the group. We arranged a ride thirty kilometers to the south on an armored carrier, to return by bike using the tailwind.

As soon as we got south, we found ourselves in Pai Hoi hills, the northernmost part of the Urals. It was less windy there, so the snow was soft. It took a few hours to get back into flat tundra, but then we were carried by the wind like fallen leaves. We were back to the town before the carrier's track we were following got erased by drifting snow. The only living thing we saw in that trip was an Arctic fox.

For three days huge masses of air kept rushing north. Probably most of the air from European Russia had rolled over our heads. On the fourth day it got better. Our plane still couldn't take off, but military jets were already flying in an out. I hitched a ride on one of them to Narian Mar and then to Kotlas. Kotlas City is not in the Far North, so normally it would be impossible to get a free ride from there. But I got lucky again. When I crawled out of the attack aircraft I flew in on, I saw a bomber being loaded nearby. I was in a pilot's coat, so the passengers (a general with his orderlies) thought I was part of the crew, while the crew thought I was one of the passengers. We landed in Vyatka, then I took a train to Moscow, ran to another railway station, and paid a few rubles to a train conductor for a used ticket from Leningrad to Moscow, which I needed to get reimbursed by my institute.

I had no way of contacting the people I was on the census flight with, so I was sure I'd never see them again. I tried to find out what it was all about, by no one of my friend zoologists or Arctic pilots had ever heard about such flights. Then eight months later I got another call from them. They invited me on a second trip, this time to Siberian Arctic. Without hesitating, I got on a train and met with them in Pulkovo Airport.

The second flight was far less impressive. There were only two of us, the pilots were young and inexperienced, the plane was old and in bad condition. It took us hours of arguing with officials in small airports to get fuel. We apparently had to stop at the most remote places we could find along the way. In three days we got to Tiksi in Yakutia via Naryan Mar, Yamal Peninsula, Dixon, and Popigai. The only interesting thing we saw during the flight was Popigai Meteor Crater, sixty kilometers in diameter, with strange forest of "dancing" larch trees inside.

It was not a good time for such a trip. When we got to New Siberian Islands, we only had two hours of light per day. The sea was empty compared to European Arctic. In two days of flying over Laptev and East Siberian seas we counted about forty seals, a few belugas and walruses, and two bears. The islands were lifeless (even reindeer leave them for the winter, undertaking a dangerous crossing to the mainland). We saw a couple of lemmings there during landings, but not a single bird.

The geology of the archipelago is its main attraction. The largest island called Kotelny is made up of three parts, so distinct that they are often referred to as three separate islands. The western part looks like an overturned bowl (kotel in Russian), covered with small cone-shaped hills. They are formed by permafrost. The middle part, called Bunge Land, is sand desert with tall dunes. The eastern part, called Faddeev Island, is a sea of frozen clay with thousands of tiny lakes. The most interesting place in the archipelago is Greater Lyakhovski (Polish) Island. It consists of ice with thin layers of ancient soil. These soil layers are full of mammal bones. The eroded coastline of the island is covered with piles of mammoth, rhino, reindeer, muskox, wild horse, and bison bones.

Northeast from New Siberian Islands is another archipelago, known as De Long Land. There are only five small islands in it. Two are flat sand bars, and three are volcanic mountains covered with ice caps. The volcanoes were believed to be extinct, until a small eruption occurred on one of them in 1990. We landed at a tiny research station on that volcano (called Bennett Island), probably the most remote place in all of Siberia. The station was getting closed, and we were supposed to evacuate its personnel: three bearded men with a huge pile of wooden boxes. It would take two flights, so I decided to stay on the island. This way all three could leave it immediately (they could hardly wait), and I got a few hours to explore the place.

The plane left. One of the cabins was still warm, and I managed to sleep through all twenty-two hours of night. (They say you can only be considered a true Arctic explorer if you are capable of sleeping for 24 hours in a row). Next morning they called me on the radio, and told me that our plane was leaking oil, so I could have all the time I wanted. There was enough food left at the station to stay for a week.

I found a pair of skis, climbed one of three hills of ice that formed the highest part of the island, and skied down a glacier back to the coast. The sea was all frozen over. There was no open water in sight, not even "water sky" (dark areas of sky far away, where it reflects open water beyond the horizon). Ivory gulls looked beautiful on blue icebergs and black volcanic rocks. There were supposed to be polar bear dens on the far side of the island, but I didn't want to disturb them. I returned to the cabin late at night, read some books from a small library, and woke up next morning to the sound of engines. By the time we loaded the plane it was noon. Even from a few hundred meters' altitude we couldn't see the sun. It had left the sky until late January.

On the way back we got stuck again: the weather was bad over Taimyr. We had to take a more southern route through places not even shown on most maps, such as Nizhneyansk and Eiik. After four days of travel we got to a military airfield in Kirillov, hit the airstrip too hard, and started leaking oil again. We were just one flight from Leningrad, but it made no sense for me to wait: I visited a famous old monastery nearby, and hitchhiked to Kostroma on Volga River. The winter was just beginning there, but the first cold wave had just rolled over, and it was forty below. In both flights over the Arctic it never felt so cold. At the railway station people had to hug the radiators for hours while waiting for their trains.

I never heard from these mysterious people again. And I still have no idea who they were, or what we were doing out there in the North.

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