Steamboat man returns from Great Baikal Trail

Naturalist helped build trail in southern Siberia

Naturalist and wilderness travel expert John Spezia returned to Steamboat Springs from southern Siberia this fall with an increased awareness of the powerful link between indigenous cultures and their natural surroundings.

Spezia spent a month with the Buryat people helping to build a short section of the Great Baikal Trail, which could someday surround the entire circumference of Lake Baikal in Irkutsk.

"It's a 40-year project," Spezia said. "The goal is to unite diverse communities. Lake Baikal is one of the most sacred, powerful places in all of Russia as we know it today."

Spezia will share his experiences with residents during presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday in Olympian Hall.

Lake Baikal is 300 miles long and one of the oldest and deepest freshwater lakes on Earth. There is evidence it was once part of an ocean; there are populations of freshwater seals in the lake that are similar to ring seals in the ocean.

Spezia read about the trail-building project and became intrigued. He believed his experience in trail building acquired through 18 years with the Student Conservation Association would be a benefit to the organization called "Baikal Watch." The organization agreed to pay for a portion of his airfare, and he was off to Asia via Denver, Cincinnati, New York and Moscow. He arrived to find himself among a group of volunteers from Canada, Ireland, Quebec, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and European Russia.

Spezia had listened to Russian language tapes for three months and was primed to give his hosts the benefit of all of the technical expertise he could muster in trail building. The trip turned out to be something different from what he had anticipated, though no less rewarding.

"I didn't know what to expect," Spezia said. "They wanted something less (than all of his expertise). The little I gave them, they were overwhelmed and grateful beyond belief."

The effort to build a trail around Lake Baikal, Spezia learned is almost a metaphor for a greater effort to preserve a rare environment and the culture that is interwoven into it.

"It's a rallying point for the cultural/environmental movement," Spezia said.

The people living around Baikal have formed a special relationship with the people living near Lake Tahoe in the United States, Spezia said. Both lakes are known for their extraordinarily clear water. California and Nevada have allowed development to crowd the shoreline of Tahoe, but the current yardstick for growth is that it will not be allowed to further impair water quality.

Baikal is blessed with an unusual bacteria that has the capacity to break down many pollutants, Spezia said.

"The water clarity is incredible," he said. "We swam and drank out of the lake for a month and never thought anything of it. I began sleeping by the lake, because that's who I am. The Buryats said, 'Hey this guy must be part Russian.'"

The people of Irkutsk are interested in introducing limited cultural tourism that would bring an infusion of cash, and Spezia said he told his hosts they could learn much from Tahoe's and Steamboat's experiences with the changes brought on a community by tourism. The indigenous people would like to develop a series of bed and breakfasts to house visitors.

Spezia was struck by the self-sufficiency of the people of Irkutsk. On a river trip, he observed trip mates who had made their life-vests out of corks saved from wine bottles.

"If they want a snowboard, they make it out of wood," he said. "If they break an ax handle, they make a new one."

The pace of trail building was quite slow after the other routine chores of the day had been accomplished. Spezia did his part by bringing along a selection of tools -- McCloud's, Pulaskis, climbing tools, and shovels.

Whether the trail is completed or not, Spezia believes the journey will be worthwhile. The creation of an international community interested in the future of Lake Baikal is the goal.

"The Mongols and the Buddhists believe Baikal is the birthplace of the Earth," Spezia said.

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