A dead nerpa. Unknown photographer.
The only one of Baikal’s endemic seals, called nerpa, that I saw in the wild was dead. It was on a beach near a town called Ust-Barguzin, a settlement on the edge of Lake Baikal. To get to Ust-Barguzin from Ulan-Ude was a two hundred and sixty five kilometer slog over battered pavement and, at the end of the drive, just before the town, up an axe-notch dirt road that was sliced through the trees around it. The town itself is peaceful. It sits a few kilometers away from the lake, with well-stocked grocery stores and a small school. It was unclear to me if the dogs that ran around in its streets were strays, had owners, or existed in some communal in-between state, but they seemed to be happy and healthy. Though we didn’t see any propellor planes bump their way down its knobbed-dirt surface, a small airstrip services the town, making it feel, somehow, that it is less far away from the relative metropolis of Ulan-Ude than it really is.
As in any discussion of a Russian town, it should be noted that we did not see Ust-Barguzin in January, when the ice on the nearby lake is thick enough to pull train cars over. I loved the few days that we spent in the town, with its proximity to the lake, but I very well may not have if the walk to the lake put me in danger of a hypothermic death.
On our second day in Ust-Barguzin, after a trip up to Barguzin, a town inhabited by two of the Decembrists, we spent the afternoon on a beach. A man named Evgenii Dmitrivich, a local hunter and fisherman with seemingly endless knowledge about the lake, joined us while we were there.
The beach at Ust-Barguzin. Unknown photographer.
Over the previous few days, we had spent a lot of time on our bus and the beach, stretching endlessly out around the bay that Ust-Barguzin sits near, was tantalizingly open. It didn’t take very long at all for us to all have kicked off our shoes and we romped up and down the beach, racing each other along the waters edge and diving into the lake. The lakebed was sandy, with a shallow slope, and we ran out into it and launched ourselves forward and sat submerged for a moment before sprinting back out onto the sun-warmed beach.
The nerpa was on the beach near where we were swimming. Decomposing, with its skull bare to the elements, the dead seal spoke, somehow, to the purity of the lake. Baikal is old and deep, with a sixth of the world’s fresh water. It is clean enough, too, that you can drink its water straight, putting your mouth into it with no fear of disease. Around it sit unrelenting, vast forests, the type that a person could walk in circles in until madness showed them the way out. The beach itself was empty of people and, save for two washed up bottles, I didn’t see any trash in the few hours we spent on it. And in the middle of all of that raw, unknowable majesty sat death, too, untamable and permanent, far outside of human control.
After we had our fill of frolicking up and down the lake’s edge we converged upon a campfire and a few logs for a picnic of roasted hot-dogs and a spread of vegetables. While we ate we joked amongst ourselves and listened to Evgenii Dmitrivich tell us stories of his existence on the edge of Baikal.
At the end of the day, when we left to go home, our bus had sunk into the sand. It took pulling it with Evgenii Dmitrivich’s gray adventure-van while six people pushed from behind to get the bus unstuck and, as we bumped down the dirt track back to Ust-Barguzin, I found myself chortling. The bus, a lumbering Hyundai, had been an intruder, and the lake had, in its own way, made it known that it didn’t belong there, in the land of big, raw trees and little, baking seals.