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Watch the Bear! Arctic photographer’s notes

Getting out of the high Arctic is always a quest, the photographer points out

MOSCOW, June 11. /TASS/. While a student at the Medical University, Nikolai Gernet worked for the university newsletter. Once, he goes to the Kolguev Island in the Barents Sea together with scientists - to take pictures. Since then, he "is lost."

"We came to the Kolguyev in early March. It was for the first time in my life that I saw a true tale: needle-sharp hummocks are like from the Snow Queen tale. Passengers were warned: the air temperature is minus 30, the wind is stormy. As the door opens and this wind rushes into the plane, everyone shouted: cold! So, here I am, those pins stick into my face, and I understand clearly - this is where I want to be." Since then, Nikolai has been moving further and further into the North.

Red chum

Red Chum (tent) was his next project. Every year, a mobile medical team travels to visit reindeer herders in the Nenets Region.

"For more than a month, we roamed with reindeer herders - to that expedition Nikolai went as a culture expert - I showed films, spent time with children, made pictures. That was what I call penetration! It was 15 years ago, and the boys with whom I kicked the ball, now are grown up men, with their families. I come to see them, have just returned. Our friendship continues. They always tell me: you are one of us, come in!"

From Moscow to Franz Josef Land

As time goes on, Nikolai leaves Arkhangelsk to move to Moscow, where he worked at press services of the healthcare ministry and of the parliament’s upper house. The dream to return to the Arctic has never left him. And here is the chance.

"It was the time the Russian Arctic Nation Park was organized - that’s a dream! I arrive in Arkhangelsk, go to talk."

This is how in 2013, Nikolai joined a Russian-US expedition on board the Polaris to Franz Josef Land. He was lucky to see ideal weather in the Arctic: sunny and warm it was then.

"We have observed a few dozens of islands; we remained there for more than one month." It was during that voyage that Nikolai saw his first bears. The first one caused no problems. "It, it was a she-bear, was on a rock, and we called her Blondie. She would pasture on the grass, or rather on the mosses, just like a cow, and we used to watch her from the boat."

Another bear, on the Wiener Neustadt Island, was a quite different story. "He appeared from nowhere, right behind me. God bless Yuri Rurkausas, who guarded us. He managed to make the bear turn tail and disappear." At that moment, Gernet understood how sneaky polar bears could be and how important it is to watch out at all times. After the expedition, Nikolai worked at the national park.

He felt the Arctic’s all shades and details cannot fit into pictures. "I used to think pictures of landscapes are above all, but in the Arctic I saw everything there was alive: the ice is alive, the clouds, they cannot be shown in still pictures only."

Next winter, he studied making video and gained new photo skills. "I’ve learned how to make time lapses, how to cut, I’ve bought equipment to make video."

Quicksand on the Heiss Island

Nikolai appeared on the Heiss Island in early July - the polar day season in the Arctic.

Light is very important for a photographer. In the Arctic, one "well-lit" day is followed by four-five overcast stormy days. If you are lucky.

"Imagine, I sit there for the fourth day, watching the storm, and understand no job has been done. Then, all of a sudden, at 4 in the morning you see the sky is clear, run to the mate, make him drive, and here we are working to make a 10-minutes’ video. "

Ecologically clean mud

When on the Heiss Island, Nikolai learned a lesson of how important it is to care about the outfit, to listen to what more experienced colleagues say.

"Once, Yuri tells me: Kolya, put on high boots. I say - why, my boots would be fine. How could I know that the soil in the Arctic is filled with so many traps? You walk and cannot imagine the soil you see is a bubble, filled with frozen gas. Or - you walk on the permafrost which is firm enough for you and the bike, like asphalt. And then, in just 10 centimeters, you make a step and here you are in a knee-deep swamping mud."

I watch the bike stuck in the mud, going deeper and deeper towards the bottom. My friend tells me everything he thinks about me and my boots! No choice. I have to jump out…

Nikolai, covered with mud from head to foot, rescued the bike. "It’s good, the mud there is ecologically friendly, and there are practically no microbes in the mud on Franz Josef Land."

Walruses, a bear and Doggie

Planning anything in the Arctic could be tricky. It is a well-known fact that walruses prefer the Heiss Island for colonies.

"So, I think: great, I’ll take many pictures of walruses. But I was wrong: while in 2013 everything melted and walruses had fun in shallow waters on the sand, in 2014 the strait was covered with ice and no colonies were seen around. But my third attempt was lucky: here are four walruses. They are lying, relaxed. Allowed us to get to them at about 15 meters - I am lucky to make pictures. My misery was reimbursed."

Walruses are curious. "They come closer to watch tractors. Or if music is on, then I bet - here is a head with tusks sneaking out of the sea."

Walruses were not the only visitors to the Russian Arctic National Park.

"Once we receive a radio: a bear is on the shore. We jump on the bike, rush down and here’s what we see: all our guys sit in lines on the plane’s wings (an Ilyushin Il-14 remains on the island after an accident in February, 1981 - TASS), and a three-year-old bear is walking beneath - it is built already, though apparently, it is young. As the roaring bike approached, he chose to quit."

On the island, Doggie, a dog, was the biggest impression and fear.

"Meteorologists do not talk much to dogs, and if you come and stroke one - you become the friend of friends," Nikolai said. "Once, on a bad weather day, we found a very picturesque rock, and I wanted to return there on a bright day to make an interesting picture. So, here we go. Crossing the island. I lie down, get ready, and then, at a certain point I feel somebody is biting me lightly on the leg. That biting struck me through. I think: it’s a bear, here it comes, will smash me - here I am lying like a walruses, so, why not to smash me down."

At that very moment, the teeth on his leg loosened. "I turn around very-very slowly, preparing to fight. I turn, and here he is, happily waging his tail, our Doggie - he had followed us for ten kilometers and now decided to attract my attention. I lie, my heart is bursting out, adrenaline explodes, and I say: Doggie, you go, please, or I’ll kill you!"

On the Heiss Island, Nikolai got used to bears. "Imagine, you sit there, having dinner, and a bear may come and scratch the door asking to get in, or may nuzzle into the window. At first I would cry: what a picture!, but later on the reaction would change to another - stop it, go, I’m busy, it’s dinner time!"

No camera - see bears

His big dream was to get to the Zhelaniya Cape, northern Novaya Zemlya. In late summer, migrating polar bears come there. The Zhelaniya Cape is home of the Russian Arctic National Park’s base.

"The base there is wonderful - with the Internet, TV and a cell operator. Civilization. I came there to see the polar bears’ migration in September. I was sure I’ll make great pictures. A week goes by - not a single bear. Another week - none at all."

By end of the third week, he led a team of glacier scientists. He did not take the camera that day. On the way back, they hear on the radio: "Watch out! Bears!"

Right on that day, a bear family chose to stop on the cape.

"It was a beautiful sunny day, a hot Arctic day, about probably plus seven. The sun was blazing, not a wind, absolutely still. Here arrives an iceberg, carrying a mom and two cubs. They see this is the right station they want, jump into the water, swim towards our base, move around it and get ashore."

On that occasion, he made a picture of polar bears at large. "I called that picture Arctic’s Hot Sun. A cub falls on its back, the mom doesn’t see it, and the baby lies rolling. But in reality, that was an instant, she gave a roar, it jumps up and off it rushes after her."

To hitch a ship

Getting out of the high Arctic is always a quest, Nikolai said.

"We call the base, the Mainland say: around October, the Somov (the Mikhail Somov research vessel - TASS) will go by, it may take you. Well, I have to wait: I’m happy to have the Internet, the TV, and food - all is great. One day, I walk out and see - there’s a ship! I shout: Hey, hi, who are you? - Mangazeya. The Mangazeya is a legendary vessel from Arkhangelsk. Looking at it, nobody would say it gets far into the Arctic, but it does: carries both people and freight. Slowly though."

I learn they are on the way to Arkhangelsk, and idle. The mainland allows boarding, the captain gives us an hour to pack. We grab all people and food: the Mangazeya had not expected passengers. We’ve made it.

"It took us six days to Arkhangelsk. The aisle there is about seven meters, the cabins are very narrow, two people can barely pass, no real deck to walk, the galley is in the very end of the aisle. For six days we were wandering like prisoners - back and forwards. Finally, we get to Arkhangelsk, but we have to wait for another day. Here is the city, we can see it, the cell works, but we are not allowed in… But, anyway, if back then, I had not seen the ship, I would have remained on the Cape of Zhelaniya for another 20 days."

This year, Nikolai will go to the Arctic in late summer. His wife is about to give birth to another baby. His daughter Anna was born when the dad was on the polar islands, and he is very sorry to have missed the day. Thus, now Nikolai says the Arctic will have to wait a bit.