In early morning hours “Professor Molchanov” with the Nansen Memorial Expedition made her way through the eastern Kara Sea to Dikson. This legendary town was during the Cold War the northernmost strategic outpost on the Russian mainland.
Fridtjof Nansen also made a stopover here hundred years ago.
You lose hours of sleep when sailing east so high up on the globe. Distances between the time-zones are short. Our ship’s clock follows Moscow-time, but here in Dikson, local time is in reality three hours east of Moscow, or five hours east of my Norwegian watch. No matter; we don’t sail the Arctic to sleep.
“Professor Molchanov” couldn’t dock at the pier in Dikson. This town’s days-of-glory as an important transshipment hub in the Russian Arctic are gone. The pier is in so bad condition that the captain decides to drop the anchor at sea instead.
Coming onshore by zodiac confirms that Dikson has seen better days.
The people in Dikson are very troubled this morning. A young polar bear has tried to enter the door to a house and attacked a man only hours before our arrival. After being shot at, the bear ran into the tundra. This was the second day in a row that a polar bear had tried to attack someone in Dikson. A woman managed to run away from a bear in the streets the day before.
A local policeman confirms the increasing problem with polar bears in the streets of Dikson. Global warming can be one explanation. The bears have not yet adapted to the climate change and fail to follow the ice as it retreats, earlier than normal, from the mainland. Others, especially young male bears, stay onshore for curiosity. And can’t get away until the sea again freezes.
Polar bears depend on the ice for hunting seals, walrus or beluga whales. No ice; no food.
Similar problems with more polar bears coming into urban areas are seen in the Hudson Bay in northern Canada where the sea ice also melts way earlier than before.
Anastasia (10) and Svetlana (10) live a few blocks away from the house where the polar bear tried to enter the door this morning. They have spotted polar bears several times. Fear for polar bears is becoming everyday life here in Dikson.
“Yesterday, a woman working in our school kitchen was attacked by a polar bear when she was walking down the street. The polar bear came from behind. She managed to find a safe place. The bear ran towards the tundra after warning shots were fired,” tells Svetlana.
For her, Dikson is great; many friends and lots of outdoor play in the snow during winter.
Svetlana’s friend, Anastasia, agrees that Dikson is a good town for children. Two big Siberian dogs walk in between the legs of the two girls wagging their tales. Dogs are playing with the children all over the town.
If the dogs are street dogs or stay indoor during the night? Anastasia rolls her eyes at my question and says: “Don’t be stupid. Of course the dogs can’t be in-door; they have to be out and scare away polar bears.”
Later, we are shown a smartphone recorded video of the polar bear attack. From the film, it’s obvious that the man attacked first tried to fool-play with the bear in the door, likely a three or four year old male on one of his first seasons away from the mother. Luckily for the man, it was not an adult bear. The largest males can be up to 700 kilos. Unluckily, this young bear looked seriously hurt by the shot before it ran away. I believe it can hardly survive with such injuries.
The film was recorded by a neighbor.
Another woman shows us photos of a large adult polar bear swimming from the town towards an island on the other side of the bay. The date of the photo shows it was captured the day before we arrived.
Outside the city library, I meet Igor Safronov, a man that has lived in Dikson since he came from army service back in 1968.
“You should have been here in the 80ies and taken photos. Then Dikson had its days-of-glory,” smiles Igor. At its peak, Dikson had 5,000 inhabitants. Today, there are less than 500. Very visible in fact; most houses are abandoned, with their doors and windows sealed off.
Igor is working in Diksonstroi, a local construction firm. He has built houses all around the Russian Arctic, including on Novaya Zemlya. Today Igor is dissatisfied with the authorities in Moscow. “You have to get permission for everything today because Dikson is included in the border zone regime. Earlier we could fish at sea and hunt on the tundra. Not so anymore. We are not allowed to go to the tundra,” says Igor Safronov pointing to the new border zone rules that was introduced last year.
In a block of flats near the port lives Luba. She came to Dikson from Norilsk in 2000. “Life in Dikson is better than in Norilsk. Clean air, good school, the children like it here and the winter is no problem; we have lights in the streets,” she says holding her two year old daughter Anja.
“But the regulations here are not made for us living in Dikson. It is not allowed to fish at sea, only from the shore,” explains Luba. She has seen big changes since she arrived at a time when the population was three times higher.
Both she and her husband works at the school.
During Soviet times, the port of Dikson was busy in August when the waters were open for navigation. Not so any more. Scrap metal, run-down buildings, oil-barrels and a pier we couldn’t get portside at tells its own story about today’s Dikson. Even the light-green house of the port administration, likely the coolest architectural building in town, is abandoned and the windows broken.
The only two boats at the pier are sailboats, one Polish and one from Finland, both waiting for the ice around the north tip of the Taimyr Peninsula to melt. When the ice is gone, likely next week, both boats will sail towards the Bering Strait. Private sailboats exploring the melting Arctic are something new for Dikson. The lady in the local shop is sorry she doesn’t have any souvenirs to sell.
Increased traffic along the Northern Sea Route could give new hope for Dikson. It is already decided that one of Russia’s Arctic search- and rescue stations will be located here. The first tug boat is already on stand-by, ready for mission. We met it when approaching Dikson this morning.
We returned to the ship by evening and then bid farewell to the local immigration and coast guard officials. From here, the Nansen Memorial Expedition sails south towards the Yenisei River. It was along Yenisei the Norwegian businessman Jonas Lied traded before the revolution. Lied was the one inviting Nansen here in 1913.