One summer at Khabarova

by Ken Catford


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



Khabarova is a remote Arctic outpost on the far north-east corner of the European mainland; that is if you regard Europe as extending to the natural continental boundary of the Ural mountains. Some 350 kilometres north of the Arctic circle, Khabarova lies on the shore of the Yugor Strait which links two seas of the Arctic Ocean – Barents Sea to the west, and Kara Sea to the east. On the northern shore lies Vaigach Island, and beyond that another strait separates Vaigach from the remote pair of islands of Novaya Zemlya. They in turn stretch for over 800 kilometres towards the North Pole, being divided by the narrow, fjord-like Matochkin Strait. Ships navigating the Arctic coast of Siberia therefore had a choice of three straits leading to the Kara Sea, and choosing the southern-most channel would bring them past our little outpost of Khabarova (sometimes spelt Khabarovo). Often of course the choice was dictated by sea conditions depending on which channel, if any, is unobstructed by ice.

As well as plagues of mosquitoes, the region in summer is home to the Nenets people, traditional reindeer herders who graze the deer on the huge expanse of tundra, both on the mainland and on Vaigach. In winter they migrate southwards, often towards the Pechora valley far to the south-west. In summer, a few Russian traders from the Pechora would travel to Khabarova to barter with the Nenets for furs and reindeer produce.

This pattern of life has been followed for centuries, but this article is going to pick out a tiny point in time near the end of the nineteenth century, when these local Nenets were brought into fleeting contact with a very different way of life.

The summer of 1893

The first indication that 1893 was not going to be an ordinary summer at Khabarova came on 10 July when the solitude was raucously disturbed by a team of more than thirty Siberian dogs barking and yelping across the tundra from the south. Their three-month journey had brought them 600 kilometres across the Urals from the valley of the River Ob’. They arrived with their leader Alexander Trontheim, anxious that he was behind schedule and that the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen would be waiting impatiently for them. “There’s no Fridtjof Nansen here,” exclaimed the locals, and as the days went by their scepticism became increasingly embarrassing for Trontheim. He wasn’t a complete stranger, having visited Khabarova five years previously on another unusual escapade – see “Twelve people asleep in a choom” (Polar Worlds, January 2004).

Alexander Trontheim seems to have been well-known throughout western Siberia, albeit with a rather dubious background. He was a Latvian born in Riga, but his father was a Norwegian sea captain based at Trondheim, hence (for whatever reason) his son’s adopted surname. He found himself exiled in Siberia for 7 years, after which he settled and made his living from the wildlife of the huge valley of the River Ob’ – fishing, trapping, hunting, and dealing in Siberian dogs. After he had supplied dogs to the Tsar, he was head-hunted by Nansen as the ideal man for the job of selecting and delivering the expedition dogs. Contact with him was made through another enigmatic local character, Robert Wardropper. The Wardroppers were an extraordinary pioneering family from North East England who early in the 19th century had settled in the remote and bleak little town of Tyumen. There, through several generations, they built up a trading enterprise based on a fleet of ships and barges on the extensive Ob’ and Irtysh river system. Their influence stretched west to the Urals and 1,500 kilometres east to Krasnoyarsk.

Trontheim’s patience at Khaborova was rewarded when on 29 July the Fram appeared from the Barents Sea. Today the Fram is proudly displayed in her dedicated Museum in Oslo. Her lasting fame is due to Nansen’s heroic scientific and exploratory expedition, allowing the specially designed ship to drift for three years embedded in the ice of the Arctic Ocean. This adventure was just beginning as the 34 sledge dogs were embarked in readiness for their sledge journey across the polar ice, which was still 20 months in the future. Final preparations were interrupted for a day on 1 August when the local religious festival of St Elias was celebrated by prayers and vodka, and then more vodka, and so it was 3 August before Nansen and the Fram disappeared from view into the Kara Sea.

Rather unfortunately, four days later the next ship to arrive was the Urania, her hold filled with coal to top up Fram’s bunkers. With Fram by now 250 kilometres to the east, Urania had no alternative but to return to Norway with the abandoned Trontheim as a grateful passenger.

An English debutante arrives on the scene

How an aristocratic young English woman came to be cavorting across the tundra of Khabarova on a reindeer sledge is explained by the gathering on 29 August of a convoy of no fewer than six vessels, and astonishingly is to do with the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway some 2,500 kilometres inland.

Over the previous two decades, attempts had been made to open up a summer trading route between western Europe and Siberia by navigating through the Arctic Ocean and then the great Siberian rivers, the Ob’ and Yenisey, to reach the heart of the country. Fraught with ice and hazards of every kind, these remarkable voyages demanded huge skills in navigation and seamanship, and two of the most tenacious proponents were the German sea captain Eduard Dallmann and even more so the English captain Joseph Wiggins.

It was Wiggins who was leading all six vessels as they anchored in the strait off Khabarova. His ship was Orestes, her hold and deck piled high with steel rails brought from England and intended to be transferred to river barges on the Yenisey then taken 2,400 kilometres up river to the railway construction project in the middle of Siberia. A smaller cargo vessel was bringing British mining equipment for Siberia, and three of the vessels, having been built in Britain, were being delivered to become Yenisey river craft. The sixth member of the convoy was a private ice-strengthened pleasure yacht, Blencathra, owned by Francis Leyborne-Popham. All this comprised the most ambitious trading expedition and cargo so far to attempt the Kara Sea route to Siberia.

Three guests of Leyborne-Popham were enjoying the Arctic cruise on Blencathra: Mr and Mrs E. C. F. James, and Miss Helen Peel (grand-daughter of former British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel). Mrs James and Miss Peel were about to become the first western European women ever to cross the Kara Sea.

As Helen Peel’s godfather, the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, expressed it: “That a last year’s débutante should thus exchange the shining floors, wax lights, and values of a London ball-room for the silent shores of Novaia Zemlia and the Taimyr Peninsula, with their accompaniments of ice-floes and winds fresh from the cellars of Boreas, exhibits the untameable audacity of our modern maidens.”

That quotation is from Helen Peel’s delightful book Polar Gleams (Edward Arnold, London, 1894) in which the “modern maiden” describes her excitement as she stepped ashore on that “bright but damp” morning at Khabarova to meet the local people: “Our reception was most friendly; they shook hands in a most cordial manner, and, not withstanding their somewhat repulsive appearance, particularly in the case of the women, one could not help taking a lively interest in their condition.”

Within a few minutes, Miss Peel was experiencing the exhilaration of reindeer sledging, in spite of the absence of snow: “A Russian merchant [one of the four traders who were there that year from Pechora], a tall handsome man in Samoyede dress, offered to take me for a drive in his sledge, drawn by six reindeer. I immediately accepted his kind offer, seating myself on the narrow seat beside him. No sooner were we ready to start than the reindeer, all harnessed abreast, began to gallop at full speed. No snow was then covering the ground, so heedless of obstacles, we bumped and jolted in the most fearful manner, so much so that to prevent being thrown off the sledge I had to cling with both my arms round my companion’s neck.”

It was surely not surprising that, having looked on enviously at his companion being embraced by an admiring young English debutante, another of the Russian traders: “. . . seemed anxious to sledge with me, and as it was difficult to resist his pressing invitation, I set off on a second trial”

By early afternoon the frivolities were brought to an abrupt end when Wiggins spotted ice floes encroaching into the strait. Immediately all but one of the passengers were ferried back on board, and the vessels were disappearing through the strait towards the Kara Sea and Siberia.

A passenger left behind

Their departure was watched from the shore by a figure who was suddenly feeling very much alone – the remaining passenger whom we haven’t yet mentioned. Englishman Frederick Jackson was planning ahead for a future exploration of Franz Josef Land. This Arctic archipelago which lies to the north of Novaya Zemlya had been discovered only some twenty years previously, and Jackson had declared his intention to mount an expedition in 1894. He was now making a preparatory trip to gain experience of Arctic conditions, and had ‘hitched a lift’ with Wiggins on Orestes. He soon set off on trial expeditions, crossing the strait to explore the then uninhabited Vaigach Island.

By 21 September Jackson was back at Khabarova, and a few days later Blencathra and Orestes (frustratingly still with more than a thousand rails on board) arrived on their return from the Yenisey estuary where, amid very stormy weather, some rails had successfully been transferred to river vessels. Others had sunk with their barges to the bottom of the sea, and the decision had been made that the remainder should be delivered instead at Archangel’sk on the White Sea (some 4,000 kilometres from where they were needed!).

Dinner on Blencathra, and a comfortable night’s sleep on board, were brief comfort for Frederick Jackson before he was again waving good-bye to Miss Peel and the others as the yacht, being towed by Orestes, disappeared from view around the headland. It was 26 September, and winter was rapidly setting in.

The Nenets were making preparations for their annual migration southwards, and eventually it was agreed that Jackson would travel with one of the groups. In the meantime some 400 reindeer, which in the spring had been herded across the frozen strait to Vaigach Island for summer grazing, were now gathered to swim the three kilometres back across the bitterly cold sea to Khabarova. By mid-October everyone was ready, and a large herd of reindeer, with their herders, the four Russian traders, and one Englishman, all set off across the tundra. Little did anyone know that an even greater expedition, with a large number of foreigners, would be making the same arduous winter crossing of the snow-covered tundra in 1894.

More drama in 1894

In spite of the problems with the 1893 voyage, the Russian government ordered more railway track from Britain in 1894, and Wiggins set off from the Tyne with the Stjernen. He also escorted two Tyne-built paddle-tugs destined for river service on the Yenisey. After this time successfully delivering the cargo, Wiggins set off homewards with the crews of the tugs as well as Stjernen’s own crew – 49 people on board. Early in the morning of 22 September, in fog as they approached the Yugor Strait, Stjernen hit a rock and was wrecked.

Hugh Leyborne-Popham (brother of Francis) was on board Stjernen. He and a few volunteers gallantly set off on foot, and after trudging 70 kilometres along the coastline eventually arrived at Khabarova to seek help. The outcome was that all 49 men and their food and tents travelled on no fewer than 87 reindeer sledges for 600 kilometres over the snow to Pustozersk (near the present-day Nar’yan Mar) on the Pechora, and then by horse-drawn sledges another 800 kilometres to Archangel’sk, which they reached after three months travelling. From there they continued the remaining 800 kilometres, also by sledge, to St Petersburg. The only casualties were seven men who lost toes to frostbite, and two reindeer attacked and eaten by wolves.

Life-saving encounter on Franz Josef Land

For the various characters in these events, the saddest outcome was that of Nansen’s dogs – they participated heroically in Nansen’s expedition on the Arctic ice, but as the supplies which they hauled were consumed so the dogs were shot and fed to the others until none survived. By that time, however, Nansen himself was in mortal danger from exhaustion and exposure. In February 1895, when it had become clear that Fram’s drift with the ice would not after all take them to the North Pole, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the ship intending to travel by dog sledge across the ice to the Pole. By August they found themselves on the northern shores of Franz Josef Land. The months went by as they struggled to survive on walrus and polar bear meat.

By the following summer the two men were exhausted, starving and facing almost certain death, when an extraordinary encounter took place – more astonishing than Stanley’s famous African meeting with Dr Livingstone 25 years earlier. Sure enough, in July 1894 Frederick Jackson had set out on his promised expedition to Franz Josef Land, and in this desolate Arctic landscape two years later, on 17 June 1896, Jackson and Nansen by chance came face to face. This dramatic encounter saved Nansen’s and Johansen’s lives. The Fram in the meantime had become freed from the ice and eventually reached northern Norway to be re-united with Nansen in August 1896.

For dog enthusiasts, an unexpected outcome was the formal establishment of the Samoyed dog breed, which some authorities attribute to the surviving expedition dogs which Jackson brought back to England in 1897. Following Nansen’s initiative, Jackson on his outward voyage had called again at Khabarova to collect 30 dogs which also had survived the arduous journey across the Urals from the Ob’ valley. They were supplied through the same contacts – the Wardropper family and Trontheim – but on this occasion their overland delivery was led by a German named Räwing. The original sourcing of today’s Samoyed breed dogs is therefore another claim to fame for Alexander Trontheim.

What the 20th century brought to Khabarova

In the following years Wiggins and others made further voyages to the Yenisey with varying degrees of success. After Wiggins’s death, and inspired by him, a Norwegian, Jonas Lied, tried to develop the route. In 1913 he carried the now world-famous Fridtjof Nansen as a passenger across the Kara Sea again but on this occasion, in thick mist, they navigated north of Vaigach and so missed the chance for Nansen to revisit Khabarova 20 years on. Lied’s efforts to promote trade with Russia were brought to an end by war and revolution.

The most dreadful outcomes of all affected Khabarova itself as the 20th century progressed. One of Stalin’s Gulag prison camps was established in this utterly bleak and inhospitable location so bitingly cold in winter, and in the 1950s Novaya Zemlya became the scene of underground nuclear testing. Early exploitation of oil in the region brought oil pipes sprawling across the tundra, and for many years poor maintenance resulted in oil seepages and further disruption to the Nenets’ way of life, which was already in turmoil after the Soviet collectivisation of reindeer herding.

None of these horrors could possibly have been imagined back in 1893 when fleetingly East met West in an atmosphere of friendliness and optimism in this most unexpected of locations.

Map © K. E. Catford 2007

© K. E. Catford 2007. Ken Catford has had long-standing interests in industrial archaeology and historic waterways preservation. He is a Trustee of the Boat Museum Trust at Ellesmere Port on the Mersey, which displays the world's largest collection of historic inland waterways craft. His interest in researching the industrial archaeology and historical development of the Arctic derives from several visits to Arctic regions since 1990.



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