September 18, 2009 ~ Baikalski Nature Reserve ~ 6 p.m.
|The highlands of the Baikalski Nature Reserve, destination of the new Great Baikal Trail Association pathway.|
Four days ago we drove from Irkutsk around the southern end of Lake Baikal to the village of Tanhoi. Roma was at the wheel of the Great Baikal Trail Association van. Along with Jennie and me were Natasha, Sveta, and Tanya – all with at least several summers' experience leading GBT trail crews.
We stopped at a grocery store to lay in provisions of potatoes, rice, barley, dense brown bread, small cucumbers, and cans of meat and vegetables. At a roadside café we lunched on borscht, posies (meat-filled dumplings), and salads made of grated carrots, cucumbers, and fresh beets. For beverages we had mors, a sweet juice made primarily of cranberries.
Tanhoi is a long, narrow village paralleling both the coastline of Lake Baikal and the tracks of the trans-Siberian rail line. It is a railroad town that includes a boarding school for the children of company employees up and down this part of the lake. The switching yards give Tankhoi a gritty industrial feel, but turn away from the lake and you see the land rising into the forests and high peaks of Baikalski Nature Reserve, one of the gems of protected land in the Lake Baikal region.
Nature Reserves in Siberia are the equivalent of wilderness areas in American national parks and forests. In fact, they are even more heavily regulated. Almost no one goes into the reserves except rangers and researchers. Groups of visitors are allowed, but they must be accompanied by personnel from the reserve. The nearly complete lack of hiking trails in Baikalski Nature Reserve also limits the options of those who might want to go to the backcountry. Rangers have scramble paths that they know about, but travel for average visitors is daunting.
|Vika Krasnopertseva, director of environmental education for the reserve and a terrific backcountry wanderer.|
For a number of summers the Great Baikal Trail Association has been fielding crews of volunteers to construct a trail along the Osinovka River to the alpine meadows in the center of the Reserve. They have done tremendous work, but are entering a stretch of the project where the Osinovka River tumbles through a steep-walled valley. The location of future lengths of trail will require careful planning and design. Our goal was to survey enough new trail location for next summer's crews to build, and to extend the route as far as possible toward the alpine meadows that are the ultimate destination of the hiking route.
With heavy backpacks we hiked from the park headquarters four kilometers into the Reserve to a tiny cabin called Winter Hut. Built by the rangers with trees they had felled and shaped, the rustic shelter had sleeping benches and a small wood stove. Several of us chose to pitch tents and hope that bears were less scarce outside the hut than the mice were sure to be inside.
We were joined by Vika Krasnopertserva, director of environmental education for the Reserve and a friend from my travels here last year. Her parents were also park naturalists in the Baikalski, and her grandfather a professor of biology at Buryat State University in Ulan-Ude. She is an expert in the flora and fauna of the region. I told her I was glad to be back in the Baikalski Reserve. "It is my home and my work," she replied.
We settled in for the evening at Winter Hut.Roma got a roaring fire going and Vika pulled a big plastic bag from her pack. The bag advertised cat chow – she told me she has five cats at home – but this time the bag contained a dozen omul, trout-sized fish from Lake Baikal that are a staple of the local diet. She cut the fish into thirds and dumped them, heads and tails and all, into a pot of water boiling over the fire. To that she added sliced carrots, potatoes, and diced herbs, all harvested from her garden. A few minutes of simmering and a pitch of salt later, and we were learning about the heads and tails of big, rich bowls of omul soup.
|Tanya Yurchenko surveys a perfect eight percent grade trail.|
The next day we followed Vika up the Osinovka Valley to a joining of river tributaries that marks the beginning of the climb to the alpine meadows. It was terrific and rugged traveling, sometimes on bits of trail but often picking our way along the cliffs of the shoreline or slipping into the forest for short stretches of cruising through big cedars, pines, and aspens. There were many stops to pick berries from trees and bushes, and everyone keeping an eye out for cones filled with pine nuts.
At the confluence of the Left Osinovka and Right Osinovka Rivers we found the remains of another winter hut. We kindled a small fire and had lunch nearby—soup, tea, bread, and lots of sweets. During the return trip we used a GPS receiver to set waypoints and measure distances where streams tumbled down into the Osinovka—critical first information for designing a trail.
Throughout the following days we've been going to the end of the trail work completed this summer and laying out the route for next year's crews. The Siberians are developing a good mastery in using clinometers to maintain appropriate grades, and have an improving understanding of choosing trail locations that will offer the best hiking and least impact on the land.
In the evenings we've gathered around the campfire - cooking, eating, telling stories, and enjoying the company of one another. There have been lots of good stories about life in Siberia and a few from us about what happens in Seattle. We had one rainy evening, but the other nights have been ablaze with the stars of the Siberian sky.
|Hiking into the Baikalski Nature Reserve|
It's raining now and getting colder. After the banya we'll adjourn to a park visitor center that was once a brick building of the railroad and now is a hostel for visitors like us. There's the promise of a late-night dinner of potatoes, carrot salad, and more omul, and then plenty of big blankets piled on soft beds—a fine conclusion to this part of our journey.