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Baikal Watch

The Great Baikal Trail

 

The Great Baikal Trail
Two years ago, a handful of volunteers broke ground on a proposed network of ecotrails circumscribing Lake Baikal in Siberia. The idea for the Great Baikal Trail (GBT) had existed for over three decades, explains project leader Andrei Suknyov, but in a country with no major trail networks, no recent history of massive-scale volunteer projects, and little government or private sponsorship of such public works, it took until 2003 for the first spadeful of dirt to be moved. Since then, the trail has fanned across the region at an astounding pace.

Hikers enjoy a stunning vista from a bluff overlooking Lake Baikal. -Great Baikal Trail photo
Hikers enjoy a stunning vista from a bluff overlooking Lake Baikal.
Great Baikal Trail photo

Lake Baikal is no ordinary lake. At a mile in depth — four times that of Lake Superior — it is more akin to a sea. Its age (25 million years) also puts it in a class of its own; most lakes live only 30,000 years. It holds one fifth of all the world’s fresh water — more than all the Great Lakes combined — in a nearly closed ecosystem, sustaining 2,500 indigenous species and sub-species. With twice as many types of plants and animals as any other lake, calling it the world’s most biodiverse is something of an understatement.

That, however, is not what gets naturalists and conservationists excited. “How many natural attractions in the world are free of any industry or any major roads running through them?” asks Gary Cook of Baikal Watch. “Ninety-five percent of Baikal’s shores are completely undeveloped.” Somehow Baikal managed to survive the Soviet Union’s mad dash to industrialization, and concerned Baikal enthusiasts are working to make sure it survives the Russian Federation’s mad dash to resource exploitation.

A small group of people in Russia and abroad revived the GBT idea in order to promote ecotourism. “The great meaning of the GBT,” writes Yevgeny Maryasov, a local schoolmaster and GBT organizer, “is that [ecotourism] is an alternative to thoughtless destruction of the environment on the path to development.”

“[Studies show] the Baikal region could host up to 100 times more eco-tourists than at present, and not suffer from any overload on the

ecosystem,” says Cook. “The revenues from this level of ecotourism would dwarf all other potential business developments.”

The first obstacle was the lack of local expertise in trail-building and maintenance. “Russians,” laughed one organizer, “think 10 people push their way through the bush and you have a trail. If they are going up a mountain, they just go straight up.” An ecologically sound trail requires careful planning and special support structures, explains Robin Clark of EarthCorps, a Seattle-based ecotrail-building group. A series of young Russians went to EarthCorps to study trail-building.

The next obstacle was the relative absence of a tourism industry in Russia — something often poorly understood even by those in the industry, who have no basis for comparison. “We get lots of foreign tourists,” said one manager of an empty museum in Siberia, who proceeded to enumerate all the recent ones. Ecotourism supporters everywhere have to explain ecotourism to government officials; the GBT leaders had to start at a more fundamental level.

Finally, there was the difficulty in convincing anyone that the trail could be built with volunteer labor, as is typically done in the US. Russia has no real tradition of volunteer organizations. The Russian word for “volunteer” — dobrovolets — is so tainted by association with Communist-era mandatory labor that Ariadna Reida, a GBT leader, prefers voluntyor, a word borrowed from English.

“You expect me to work for free?” said Anya, a St. Petersburg student, after being told about the project. “I don’t think anyone will do that.”

“Most of my job is changing the mentality of local people,” comments Reida.

By 2003 there were funds, land on which to build trails, and experienced crew leaders. Though there were only six two-week projects — and one was nearly rained out — the work was considered an almost unqualified success. Forty miles of trail were laid by 87 Russian and 49 foreign volunteers. The following summer saw 16 projects, 350 participants and 90 miles of trail. Thirty projects are planned for the coming year.

Enthusiasm abroad has been growing, something that was not a given, considering Siberia’s rough reputation. Baikal Tour, a German partner group, signed up 100 German volunteers for the 2004 season — far more than the GBT could accommodate, despite its commitment to accept every able-bodied volunteer, most of whom return as enthusiastic Baikal “evangelists.”

“Baikal was absolutely beautiful,” wrote Brianna Tindall, one of the first US volunteers, “and I am so thankful that your organization gave me the opportunity to see it.”

“Experiencing the majesty and beauty of Baikal, whether in tranquility or turmoil, is an opportunity not to be missed,” added Josh Brann, a 2004 volunteer.

Others are as enthusiastic about the company as they are about the location. “Trails got built, friendships were made,” wrote Alan Meyer, a 2004 volunteer, “Also, I fell in love.”

Jon Green, another 2004 volunteer, enthused about “the camaraderie, the adventure, [and] songs around the campfire.” Brann, Meyer and Green plan to return for the 2005 season.

Local support is not yet universal. After a 2004 Irkutsk Rotary Club meeting where support for the GBT was discussed, one Rotarian complained, “Rotary should do good deeds. This won’t help villagers. I know what villagers will say: ‘God save us from crowds of tourists!’” Still, area residents are being increasingly won over (Rotary International is now one of the GBT’s primary benefactors) and the reception from many has been enthusiastic.

Wrote Nadezhda Potapskaya, an area volunteer, “Building the trail was the most brilliant thing that has happened to me for at least the last five years.”

“Many of [my project’s] volunteers became much closer to me than my friends whom I see every day,” added another.

Not only are Russians willing to work for free, but the GBT stopped advertising for Russian volunteers in the spring of 2004, fearing an unmanageable flood of applications.

Area student volunteers are stepping forward to provide the long-term structural support needed. After the first field season, a few local students, two GBT staff members, and one foreign volunteer founded the Friends of the Great Baikal Trail. Activities primarily involved drinking tea and the occasional ski trip.

“You won’t believe how our club has changed,” wrote one member a year later. “Now we work hard and are busy teaching elementary students and planning for the coming year.”

Take action: Learn more about the Great Baikal Trail at www.baikal.eastsib.ru/fgbt.

In contrast to Baikal Environmental Wave, which suffered a much-publicized raid at the hands of the Russian security police in 2002, the GBT has been warmly received by local governments and business interests. “I think that it is very important … that the GBT is supported by — and also involves the cooperation of — every one of the six protected areas around Baikal,” notes Cook.

Requests are now pouring in from all of the parks and nature reserves around Baikal to start building the GBT in their protected lands. As a result, the number of trail-building projects has been doubling with each new summer field season. Groups as distant as Kamchatka, some 2,000 miles away on the Pacific Ocean, are asking the GBT to help with starting a new trail system there. One might wonder if this trail-building momentum could reach a limit in Russia. After waiting 30 years to start building, nobody wants to break the momentum now.

   

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