Each year, at winter’s end, I gaze upon the drift ice that arrives off the coast of Shiretoko, the easternmost tip of Hokkaido. I had heard the ice was an annual visitor from distant Siberia, but always wondered where, precisely, its pilgrimage began.
Standing on a slab of solid ice that stretched from shore as far as the eye could see, I found myself contemplating whether I might be able to simply walk across the horizon, all the way to Russia. Every journey has a beginning – it was only a matter of time before I would embark on the same long journey myself, eager to retrace this curious ice floe’s voyage, back to the source.
Relatively speaking, the Sea of Okhotsk is not particularly deep. Diluted by a deluge of freshwater coursing in from the Amur River, the sea also has a low salinity and thus high freezing point, making it uniquely prone to ice floe formation. In this sense, the Amur River is intimately related to the Shiretoko drift ice. That said, the mouth of the Amur freezes to an utter standstill come wintertime. Evidently, any hopeful observer would himself freeze before witnessing any sign of movement.
Instead, their origin can be traced even further north, where smaller clumps of frazil ice and crystalline skims can be found floating off the coast of Magadan, a Siberian port town. It is these infant platelets which gradually make their way south, past the eastern shores of Sakhalin, morphing into full-fledged floes by the time they drift into Hokkaido.
After reading up on the subject, I felt compelled to behold the scenery with my own eyes. Intent on experiencing firsthand that pivotal moment when the ice springs to life, I flew to far-flung Siberia. In Siberia’s coldest season, the dead of winter. All to fulfill one burning goal: to be there for the birth of the Shiretoko drift ice.
I’m no stranger to the cold, having journeyed through the Himalayas and Arctic Circle countless times. However, none of my travels prepared me for Magadan’s winter. The air temperature already dipping precariously below a mere -20℃, each gust of wind sent the windchill plummeting to around -40℃. I had to remember to keep blinking, lest my eyeballs freeze in their sockets. Unless swaddled in an earmuffed hat and thick gloves, photography would be out of the question in such an inhospitable environment. Walking out over Magadan’s frozen port, I spotted a handful of solitary men scattered across the ice, fishing for rainbow smelt through holes leading to the sea. Alas, no drift ice here.
I drive away from the port, up along the coastline. From a hilly outcrop, I spot a thick band of slush suspended on the sea. Could this be what I’ve been looking for? I excitedly began to set up my tripod, but the unforgiving cold soon chilled my enthusiasm. My hands stung as I loaded a new roll of film. Soon, I could barely move the joints in my fingers. The piercing wind stung my cheeks. Time to seek refuge back inside the car. My finger on the shutter, I think about Shiretoko, far beyond the vanishing point in my frozen lens.
Each year, this mighty cold calms a sea fed by the Amur, ferrying untold wisps of crystalline ice in little bands of frozen waves on a mass migration bound for Shiretoko. Bearing a gift of nutrients in their wake, these ice packs steadily grow on their voyage, until they blanket the coast off the little fishing village of Utoro.
I let the wind wash over me as I bid farewell to the same cold ice that breathes new life into Shiretoko at winter’s end.