Summer on Russia’s sacred sea
By Calin Brown
For five days we ventured forth in a tiny yacht run by a couple from Moscow towards Mongolia — Putin haters with a plasma TV in their nautical-themed living room. We climbed to the top of a slope with a small Buddhist shrine. From this vantage point, the vast expanse of Lake Baikal filled the horizon. Images of the unforgiving Siberian winter and cruel gulags painted by Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky seemed a far cry from the serene lake that stretched out under us towards the Mongolian border.
I joined three professors and nine other Wellesley College students on a journey to the world’s largest freshwater lake in 2011. As our disheveled group finally clambered onto the banks of Lake Baikal and into the biological station that was to be our home for the next month, few among us could have anticipated what we would discover there.
Thought to be the world’s oldest lake as well as the deepest, Lake Baikal sits between the Siberian city of Irkutsk and the ethnic Buryat Republic. In fact, the lake is so deep that the ecosystems at its depths resemble that of deep ocean ecosystems.
We spent our first several days at the biological station exploring Bol’shie Koty, the nearby Siberian town where our biological station was located. We quickly learned which convenience stores to frequent for the cheapest, best-tasting Russian beer (the consensus was Baltika), which paths could best navigate us towards quiet areas of the forest for some solitary journaling time, and the names of common species of birds and plants in the area.
In the weeks that followed, we learned about the lake’s aquatic ecosystem, spending days collecting water samples and organisms in order to study them further. We jointly came up with a research question to study: how food cycles differ between the littoral and pelagic lake waters. Late at night we went out onto Baikal’s water and fished for tiny crayfish and golomyanka — an endemic sculpin species that lives in Baikal, its body containing so much oil that locals sometimes dry their bodies and then burn them as candles.
Meals consisted of the primary Siberian staples: potatoes, dill, fish and vodka. The Russians we lived with at the biological station had an insatiable desire to thank everyone and toast to everything that happened that day, something that was best achieved by forcing us to consume enough alcohol so that more often than not, we would teeter away from the dinner table in a somewhat drunken stupor.
Their desire to make us feel welcomed in Siberia was heartwarming, and their love for the lake and the surrounding land infectious. Many of the local Siberians in our group knew the plants and animals in the forests better than the back of their palm. They could pick out mushrooms for dinner from the forest — something many of them had learned as small children. It was a reminder of how our urbanized lifestyles separate us from the land and the environment. There isn’t the same understanding and knowledge of the land among American youths despite all of our romantic perceptions of our American natural wonders. When it comes to knowing the very species that live around us, we fail miserably.
So little is known about Baikal and the organisms’ relationships within its depths that changes to the fragile ecosystem within the lake could be easily ignored. Within the last several years, Putin decided to reopen a paper mill close to the Baikal shores, various companies now bottle Baikal water, and the local eco-tourism industry continues to climb. An increased human presence around Baikal presents a clear risk to the lake, but until research can help us understand the lake’s condition, little can be done to ensure the ecosystem’s well-being.
This post is also available in: Chinese