Beringia National park
Eastern Chukotka is an amazing place—a fragment of Beringia, the landbridge that has at several points in history connected Asia and North America, rising from the abyss of the Bering and Chukchi seas, and again disappearing back into them.
In 1990, a nature- and cultural reserve (called “Beringia”) was established for the preservation and development of the unique Old Bering Sea hunting culture of the native Chukchis and Eskimos, as well as the conservation of biodiversity and the delicate Chukotka landscape.
The park covers more than 3 million hectares, and received National Park status in 2010.
The park’s territory lies in a coastal, medium-altitude zone, quite isolated from the Chukchi mainland and surrounded by the shallow waters of the Chukchi and Bering seas.
The terrain is complex; mountain ridges are scattered randomly across the landscape, smaller ridges are separated by wide valleys. The mountains are mostly sharp and jagged, with many pyramidal and conical peaks—remnants of ‘tabletop’ mountains may also be found. Peaks rarely exceed 900m, but are nonetheless inaccessible due to their steepness.
The climate is much harsher than neighbouring Alaska, due to stronger winds; the Chukchi side of the Bering Sea is one of the windiest places in Russia.
It is classified as a subarctic ocean climate with high precipitation, a lengthy winter and a short but quite warm (for most of the territory) summer. Average July temperatures range from +4ºC to +14ºC, and in January from -18ºC to -42ºC.
Flora and Fauna
Its unique geographical location at the juncture of two continents and two oceans has effectively turned the Bering Strait into a migratory crossroads for animals and sea creatures from all over the globe, as well as one of the biggest hotbeds for cold-resistant flora and fauna.
Beringia’s vegetation is desert-, mountain-, and tundra-based. The peaks of the mountain ridges are rocky and slopes are dominated by arctic tundra, which, on south-facing slopes at altitudes lower than 100m, turns into subarctic tundra. Bushy thickets of willow grow along the rivers and streams.
The idea that vegetation in the tundra is sparse is not quite correct—you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has actually seen the tundra in bloom describe it as poor or monotonous. Bright flowers blossom almost simultaneously and give the impression of a multi-coloured carpet.
In comparison to other polar regions, the park has a higher-than-average diversity of bird species: at least 200 species live here, 29 of which are rare, threatened, or endemic. These include the Emperor goose, the spoon-billed sandpiper, and the rock sandpiper, all of which we know were present in ancient Beringia thanks to evolutionary clues and the birds’ present-day range.
The picturesque sea surrounding the park is home to more than 3 million creatures, and millions more young birds and non-nesting species use the coastal waters as a hunting ground. The bird population is made up mainly of gulls (herring gull, black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull) and auks (guillemot, auklet, horned puffin, crested puffin), as well as the northern fulmar and the Bering cormorant.
Land mammals found here are what you might expect in the far north-east: brown bears, wolves, wolverines, arctic foxes, as well as rarer animals on the Red List: the polar bear and the Chukchi snow sheep.
Sea mammal species are numerous in the waters surrounding the park, including several kinds of seal (bearded seal and ringed seal) and walrus. There are also various whale species present, such as the grey whale, bowhead whale, humpback whale, sei whale, and others.
What to see
Native peoples, both in the ancient past and the present day, have left behind a vast range of archeological monuments, from Palaeolithic-era sites to more recent residential and ritual structures made from whale bone and beautiful creations made from walrus tusks.
The park also contains the world-renowned Eskimo cultural sites of Whale Bone Alley, Ekven, and Kivak as well as more than 100 coastal settlements from different eras, made from the bones of bowhead and grey whales. According to radiocarbon dating analysis, some of the sites may be more than 2500 years old.
Perhaps even more interesting is the living cultural heritage of the Eskimos and Chukchi—their languages; spiritual beliefs; religious, hunting, and everyday traditions; folklore; and knowledge. Eskimos and coastal Chukchi have preserved the main elements of their ancient hunting toolkit: leather boats with wooden frames on belt ties, rotating harpoons, seal-skin floats and dog-sleds.
Traditional celebrations, where you’ll see dog-sled races and Chukchi-Eskimo canoe competitions, are a hugely interesting experience, and at performances by folk ensembles you’ll have the chance to bring home unique souvenirs like figurines made from bone.
For the most part, carving and engraving the bones of polar animals is still done today on both sides of the Bering Strait. It is on Chukotka that this tradition is most strongly represented—here the stylistic traditions of the 2000 year-old practice have been preserved and developed.