“I wanted to do something for Baikal, for infrastructure, for ecology, and this was a chance,” says Irkutsk native and local entrepreneur, Sergei Redkin, as he explains his reasons for volunteering with the Great Baikal Trail (GBT).
GBT is an organization whose name may seem evident at first glance. It is a trail-building establishment near Lake Baikal in Russia’s Siberia. In addition to trail building and maintenance of pre-existing paths, the group also promotes ecological education in the region.
Despite spending his whole life in Irkutsk, Redkin only recently heard about GBT, an indication that the organization is still relatively secluded from mainstream awareness. “I first heard about GBT this winter from a friend. And it’s good that I heard about it because I planned to go to Lake Frolikha [northeast of Baikal] for a long time, so I decided to do this project. It was great timing.”
Every summer for the past eight years GBT has organized dozens of projects spanning across the entirety of Lake Baikal. To give some perspective, Baikal is the oldest, deepest, and contains the most freshwater out of all lakes around the world—a staggering 20% of the Earth’s freshwater. All of North America’s Great Lakes can fit inside Lake Baikal.
There were sixteen volunteers, including myself, who signed up for the most northern project GBT offers, “The Path to Lake Frolikha.” On the opposite shore from the town of Severobaikalsk, Lake Frolikha is roughly a four hour trek from the shores of Baikal to the ancient glacier lake.
Redkin hints at the seclusion: “There are not many people we met here because it is remote and far from big cities. There are many other projects of GBT, and not just near Baikal, some in the mountains about 50 kilometers from Irkutsk. There are many places for rock climbing, and paths for trekking built by GBT.”
But those projects didn’t interest this group as much as the prospect of being in the great wilderness of Siberia. Marc Achermann was one of three foreign volunteers (the rest were Russian Siberians). “I always liked nature,” he recalls. “I grew up in a small village outside Zurich called Obervil-Lieli, and so I was always close to nature.”
“But here it’s really pure nature without any human traces.”
He continues, speaking of the peaceful area. “Frolikha—there was nothing there. It was the first time I saw it. They don’t have it in Europe; not a lot of tourists, no power lines. And our trip to the waterfalls, in the middle of nowhere – I think we were the first Canadian and Swiss guys to go to these waterfalls.”
Achermann describes it well. It is estimated that only 2,000 tourists trek through the path to Lake Frolikha every summer. The vast majority are Russian nature enthusiasts trekking with massive backpacks with rows and fishing-rods strapped to them. There is also a German organization called F.A.C.T which operates in the area. They scout for new trails deeper into the wilderness, and bring in a hybrid of eco-tourist/volunteers, usually from Europe.
So how, and why, does a Swiss man exile himself to the wilderness of Siberia? “I was studying Russian at school,” Achermann explains. “I met someone who works for ISIC and told me there are some projects in Russia, including the GBT.
“I thought GBT would be a good experience, two weeks outside of civilization, meet new people, campfire life, some guitar – ukulele. The main reason was to be in nature and to meet new people, but the last thing I came for was to work.”
This echoes the mindset of most of the volunteers: returning to nature, meeting new friends, and giving back to Baikal.
Two locals from Severobaikalsk, Masha Bambuyeva and Ksyusha Yolshina completed their third year of volunteering at Lake Frolikha this summer.
Bambuyeva, who studies in the faculty of foreign languages and teaches English, supports Achermann’s statement. “I wanted to meet new interesting people, and have a rest in the wild nature.”
She does not, however, allude at all to the six hours of work to be done in the swamp, even after her third year of volunteering.
Her running partner Yolshina (as veterans, they were both in charge of rationing the food supplies), graduated from economics in tourism this year. She explains the reason for volunteering three years straight at Frolikha.
“First time I volunteered for GBT was for my internship from the university. The second, I went with a friend to the same place but with half of the people on the project. The third, we decided to do another one near Irkutsk, but it didn’t happen because we couldn’t buy the train tickets, so it’s been three times at the same place and with the same team leader, Vova. I don’t regret it. Everything that is done is done for the good.”
Achermann seems to agree with the two women. “The team was great. I mostly enjoyed the team – to see how we worked together, and fulfilled our project. Sharing, cooking, siestas, doing everything together.”
“We were in the wilderness and you become more humane, and with strangers,” he admits. “In the city everything is fast, but in nature people relax, they become more natural. If you really want to know people, spend two weeks in the wild with someone, no masks, nowhere to hide. I never had such an experience before.”
Vova Hidekel is the team leader. “People come to [see] the lake not the swamp,” he says. “It is difficult to assure them that they are in paradise.”
Our project mission was to build a wooden turnpike in an area prone to flooding after heavy rains. In other words, a swamp. This consisted of excavating the path of stones and roots, cutting down select trees away from the trail, stripping them of its bark, cutting them into pieces, and then finally installing them in the ground.
“And this task was very complicated. This was one of the most complex and hardest projects I think I have ever done,” the experienced Hidekel admits. “I had almost forty projects, but all of them were much easier.”
“Because here everything in one: It is a remote area; the middle of the trail, and the middle of nowhere in the swamp.”
For some, like Bambuyeva, the swamp was a pleasure. “My favorite thing about the camp was our trip to the waterfalls, and walking to our work camp in the swamp every day.”
She then told me her least favourite thing was when we had to leave.
The other volunteers felt similar when asked about their favorite and least favorite things.
Redkin agrees, “I think that the best thing about the project was the community, how the team worked together, how the team was organized, I like what each person gave to the team. Of course nobody is perfect, but most part of the community I liked very much. Everyone was really well self-organized.”
For Yolshina, “My favourite thing is meeting new people, the good relationship in our camp. My least favourite thing is the break between working hours where we were stuck at the work camp in the swamp.”
I was surprised no one said mosquitoes as their least favourite thing, to which I received laughs in return.
“We are use to it here; we live here. Mosquitoes are like elephants in Frolikha. Can’t let a few mosquito bites bother you.”
Hidekel is a great outdoors man and experienced leader, so he knows what he is doing in the wilderness. He has developed his leadership philosophy which he follows with a scientific rationale.
“I think that [volunteering with GBT] is like a camp for kids. If it is longer, like more than 15 days, people become a little crazy about other people and it starts conflicts. It’s a psychological thing – psychological extreme situation describes it very interesting. That’s why everything is scientific based in my approach as team leader; the way to deal with problems.
“[As team leader] you have to read all the thoughts, each brain, each mind. You may clean it or eat it [a Russian phrase] or remove disease or put disease back, all for regulation. You can’t read minds, so you have to be always ready to go.’
Though everyone got along great it still required orchestration from our team leader to keep everyone content and the work progressing.
“You are not people, you are volunteers. So you should put them on a higher level and trust them, and put hope on them, and it’s a real responsibility, it’s real work.
“Volunteers think similarly – it’s a method of how to organize a group. If you can’t think similarly than you will not survive. It is the spirit of the team. When everybody comes together as a team, everybody can get experience from someone else and it doesn’t matter which part of life or activity. We became rich very quick without any money.”
That is when everyone is on the same page, however, and unfortunately this is not always the case.
“Every year each group has an outsider. Someone has to play this role. Every group has one, it doesn’t matter. The main task of a group leader is to find this person at once and put this person in the right direction.
“Otherwise there will be another leader and split the group. If it is more than eight people it is easy to split into two or three groups, micro-groups, and no work in this case, just discussions.”
The solution is simple enough: put the person in a situation to succeed in front of their peers.
“It depends on the situation, but you should put the outsider inside the group and give him an activity he can afford, and then we will see what he will do. All the time you need to put him in a situation where he can be self made man. Then they become assimilated by the team, no problems.
There are many labels we can use to describe a volunteer who ends up working in the swamps of Baikal.
Achermann explains his:
“I never considered myself volunteer; I thought I was going there to work. For me, because I had to pay for this, it was more like expedition trip. They needed our foreign aid, too much, three Russians. It’s more like expedition. Most people don’t really go to the wilderness. I rather like the name ‘explorer’ than ‘volunteer’.”