The train beats like some great mechanical heart as it rolls jarringly over the rails, the carriage shuddering with each pulse that propels us north. A distance marker in the town of Kotlas informs us that we are 1128km from Moscow; just another thousand to go.

We were bound for the former gulag town of Vorkuta in the Russian Arctic. “You know they have free accommodation there, well-guarded,” a man had quipped to us back in Moscow.

I look out through the window. Dark clouds laden with rain sit over the mountains out of sight to the east. Mires filled with brilliant white cotton grass roll away like a vast carpet. Momentarily through the cloud I spot a streak of snow rising above the spruce-fringed horizon – the first fleeting glimpse of the Urals in the far distance. I feel a pang of anticipation, but also trepidation. I’d spent years looking at Soviet-era maps dreaming of this place, inhabiting its blank squares with the projections of my imagination.

I’m suddenly shaken out of my reverie. “Aren’t you scared of the bears, what about the wolves … why don’t you want to go somewhere warm like Sochi?” objected Tanya, a twenty-two-year-old Russian girl we were sharing our train compartment with.

None of our answers – above all the desire to experience wild country – seemed to please her, as we tried to explain our intentions to visit the Polar Urals, the most northerly part of the Ural mountain chain. She picked up, however, at the thought of the berries and mushrooms growing on the tundra.

On arrival, it seemed that getting to the mountains at all would prove a challenge. Suspicious of our intentions, with some of Russia’s largest gas reserves nearby in what was classed as a strategic zone, we were promptly escorted back to town in the back of a police car. We eventually made it, however, spending the next three weeks traversing this remote range by foot and packraft.

I wrote a feature about the trip for a 2016 issue of TGO Magazine. Now five years ago, it remains one of the most memorable journeys I’ve undertaken. In these times of containment, amidst life’s other commitments which keep us rooted, I now view such trips as a rare privilege. I hope the photos and descriptions below give a small taste of what it was like.

We disembark from the train, asking for the directions ahead. We would have a 90 km march to get into the heart of the Polar Urals.
The first of many river crossings over the next three weeks.
The remains of an old tundra “tank”
A brief moment of sunshine illuminates the grasses of the tundra. The copse of trees in the distance were at the northernmost extent of their range.
A reindeer skull – a victim of the elements or perhaps a wolverine.
The mosquitoes were unbearable sometimes. We often longed for wind to sweep them away.
Getting deeper into the range.
It was tough going carrying three weeks of supplies. Our rucksacks weighed around 35 kg. The highest peaks of the range were only 1200-1300 metres but could nonetheless be impressive.
The snow lingers long into the summer even at the bottom of the valleys.
We deploy the packrafts for the first time, a relief for our backs.
We come across two Khanty boys fishing in the river. Rejoining their parents in the summer months, they leave for boarding school in the town during term time.
At home on the tundra during the summer months. Inside we met Alexandra, who explained that they had arrived three weeks previously after a 400 km migration from the lowlands to the east.
We also had some luck fishing for Arctic char and grayling, a nice complement to our freeze-dried meals
The first ten days of the trip saw a lot of rain and wind. Björn passes the time reading while we wait for a window in the weather
The going could also be easy when crossing flat stretches of tundra in the mountains.
The local means of transport in these parts. Far superior to ours.
A bright day finally dawns!
A flower-filled meadow brings colour to the tundra.
Close to the watershed between Europe and Asia. The Arctic Ocean lies just a few dozen kilometres to the north.
Ice floes in a high mountain tarn.
Snowfields, even if heavily corrugated, often made the going easier.
We ascended some of the surrounding peaks when we had the energy. This was taken on a freezing July day.
Temperatures could get up to twenty degrees, however, when the winds weren’t blowing off the Arctic Ocean. Our red tent amidst the grand scenery.
The river snakes its way out of the mountains. We would paddle down it for the next few days on our return to habitation.
The crystal clear waters of the river as it exited the mountains made paddling a joy.
A Nenet camp on the riverbank. We were reminded that for the indigenous reindeer herders here, this is no wilderness but their home.
Paddling under cliffs as the river burrowed ever deeper into the tundra.
Returning to the town of Vorkuta. Infamous as a gulag town during Soviet times, it remains a major centre for coal production, as the statue symbolises.
Apartment blocks stand on concrete stilts. The permafrost lies just a foot or two below the surface.
The local shop in the neighbourhood where we stayed enjoying the warm
hospitality of our hosts.
The graves of forty Lithuanians executed in 1953.

All photos ©Alec Forss and Björn Nordkvist

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