Russian designed and built, my kayak had materialized out of an oversized duffel bag as a bundle of aluminium poles, wire cables, green canvas and fastenings. Lying on the rusting deck of its mother ship, the Farbater, it had looked more like the makings of an archaic tent from my youth than those of a vessel in which to explore the greatest lake on earth. As the craft had begun to take shape in the hands of my guide, Sergei Palamarchuck, I’d apprehensively eyed the perished rubber patches on the hull as he’d stretched it over the frame. Of the ‘bear-hugging’ variety of Russians, Sergei had then alternately slapped my shoulder and the flimsy hull assuring me of its seaworthiness, before lifting it up and over the gunwale into the water.
Now more than a kilometer away, the old trawler disappeared into a rolling bank of fog and was gone – in twelve hours Sergei would return from one of the lake’s northern ports to meet me. It was with a strange sense of vertigo that I made my way towards Uzhakanyi Island, balanced as I was precariously aboard a piece of canvas more than sixteen hundred metres above the lake’s bottom. Long before I reached the sanctuary of the island, the fog consumed me – a white blanket that totally disorientated and seemed to suffocate sound so even the entry and draw of my paddle was dulled. Then the rugged outline of Uzhakanyi loomed above and as quickly as it had waylaid me, the fog rolled on revealing the island’s thick green hat of pines.
These rocky shores and crystal waters are the sometime sanctuary of Baikal’s most endearing yet most endangered inhabitants – the Narpa (Baikal Seal). It was the chance of encountering them that had originally drawn me to Siberia and to travel almost 400 kilometres northward up the lake from Irkutsk. Found nowhere else in the world and one of the only species of seal to live in fresh water year round, they share tranquil Uzhakanyi and it’s two neighbouring islands through the summer months with Baikal’s giant gulls. A relative of the Arctic ringed seal, they are thought to have moved through a series of waterways that connected Baikal to the Arctic Ocean between ice ages – a distance of 3,220 miles.