masthead
 

From Chapter 4: Into the LakeBShallow

...We haul our packs and tents and the bags of fresh bread and fish that we picked up down the shore onto the beach. What we"re not carrying is water. No need, Andrei tells me, we can take it right from the lake. As soon as we hit the shore, he leans down, fills his bottle, and hands it to me. "Come on, no problem," he assures me, figuring that I"d never drink unfiltered water most anywhere else. Where there are people, you have to worry about E. colibacteria, Cryptosporidium, or other pathogens, and maybe industrial and agricultural contaminants, as well. And where there aren"t people, there"s often Giardia bacteria from other mammals. But I remember what I"ve heard about Baikal"s built-in filtration system, and I have to trust that Andrei has no interest in making his customers sick. I take a swig, and then another, and it seems that still today, more than 300 years after Nikolai Spafary"s first account, Baikal"s water remains exceedingly good for drinking. It tastes unlike any stuff you find elsewhere these days"not a hint of silt or organic matter or chlorine or copper pipes or polyethylene or healing minerals or raspberry essence. It tastes like nothing at all. It tastes like water"the Platonic form, as fine and pure as if God, or the cosmos, or whoever, had just invented it...

The boat eases off the beach, the engine groans, and the Lonesome Boatman heads back for the open water of the broader bay beyond"the Chivyrkuysky Gulf, between the peninsula and the gray-green Barguzin Mountains to the east. Igor kindles a fire, hauls a big pot of water from the lake, and hangs it on a hook suspended from an iron rod over the fire pit. He starts scaling the fish"omul and sig, both Siberian relatives of trout and salmon that are mainstays of the local diet, and the ubiquitous pike. James and I and Elisa and Chanda set to work gathering firewood and peeling potatoes and onions for our lunch of fish stew while Andrei heads off down the shore toward a small wooden shack with a tin chimney, jutting out over the cove. It"s a banya, he tells us, a Russian sauna.
By the time he returns, steam is rising off the stew pot and there"s smoke coming from the banya"s stovepipe. Andrei points to it. "An entrepreneur built this," he says, "he gets permission from the national park." Andrei tells me there"s also a small hot spring just down the shore that someone has captured by lining two tiny pools with wood. And in the summers, he says, the fellow who built the banyahas begun bringing in a barge with a little cabin on it, sort of a floating motel, which has only recently weighed anchor and headed home for the season. When Andrei tells me this, I wonder aloud about the waste from its guests. "They declare that they bring all sewage to town," Andrei says, "but sometimes, if no control, they pollute it directly to the bay. Some people, they not care about nature." I think about the drink I"ve just taken from the lake and wonder how long since the barge pulled up anchor. I wonder whether in a few hours I"ll still think Baikal"s water is as fine and pure as Spafary found it. And Iwonder how many more of these loosely regulated businessmen are at work around the lake.
Andrei reassures me that the water here is still fine, but he says he fears that the little tourist barge and its possibly rogue sewage are a sign of things to come. The total number of tourists at Baikal is still tiny, but it is growing, and many of them are leaving their mark. "More and more people are coming.... It"s not good," Lula had told us. And as Andrei suggests, many of those drawn here don"t seem to get it. On a hike up the shore later in the afternoon, I find plastic bottles and paper trash. Among the artifacts, a faded label from a container of bottled water...

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