On the northeast margin of Lake Baikal in Siberia, a scattering of log buildings fills the narrow strip between shore and mountain. Blue and turquoise window frames sport elaborate matching fretwork in true regional style, and on eaves and gables folk carvings of bearded men, bonneted peasant women, and strange, fanciful animals appear.
There is no one about, and shoulder high grass fills most of the yards and gardens. The vegetation casts the three dozen structures in a sea of pale yellow-green that waves in the breezes off the lake, while around the clearing the silent taiga forest stands guard. It is a place on the doorstep of decay. Its purpose would be opaque to the casual visitor, but there are no casual visitors here. In fall and spring, for nearly half the year, the place is inaccessible because of the thin and shifting ice. In winter, trucks can be driven a hundred miles on the surface, like the temporary railroad that once carried the Trans-Siberian across the frozen lake to the south. In summer, boats can gamble the crossing, but rarely do anymore.
This is Davsha — Давша — and it has been abandoned for almost a decade. Once, more than 200 people lived here: scientists, rangers, families, schoolteachers, radio operators, and huntsmen. In this land of extremes — of extreme solitude, and extreme weather — these people looked after the animals of the forest. In 1916, Czar Nicholas II was so worried that the sable was going extinct that he carved out a wilderness on the shores of Baikal, declared it forbidden to hunters, natives, and settlers, and built Davsha, a miniature village in the heart of the reserve for the rangers and biologists he sent to manage it.
The indigenous Evenki were moved out of the reserve and relocated north of the Tompa River, echoing similar moves in the early days of the National Park System in the United States. This was the first zapovednik — or nature reserve — in Russia, and it lasted long after Nicholas’ execution and the fall of the Empire the following year. Throughout the Soviet era and into the Federation, it was a revered — and well-funded — post.
Why protect the sable? This small fur-bearing cousin to the marten and the weasel was the key to Siberian settlement for hundreds of years. Its priceless fur was the golden promise that drew the Cossacks over the Ural Mountains in the 1580s, and what spurred them to the Pacific in only 60 years. In contrast, it took the trappers, explorers, and settlers of the United States four times as long to go half the distance. As a result, this little black-furred creature — martes zibellina —was in steep decline by the start of the 20th century. Long before the idea of environmental protection took hold elsewhere, this landscape of mountain, taiga, and lake was set aside to shelter one of its smallest — and most valuable — denizens.
Today, the Barguzinskii Biosphere Reserve has no permanent residents. In 2005, its funding was cut, and the tenuous existence Davsha had maintained for almost 90 years was finished. Almost overnight, the settlement was evacuated by boat, the population leaving many of their possessions in place.
The year-round average temperature there is about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, but on the day I visited it was closer to 70. Central Siberia is so far from the moderating influence of the ocean that it experiences wild seasonal swings in temperature. In February, the forecast predicts a high of -24 degrees Fahrenheit, while in summer some areas can reach 100.
We were in Davsha to deliver a CD of accordion music to a man named Yuri. We were told that this place was empty, but that we would still find her there. Several days before, we had pushed off from the Holy Nose Peninsula (Святой Нос), and paddled north. Everyone we talked to about the northeast coast of Lake Baikal told us a different tale. The only English language guidebook to this part of Siberia told us in five lines it was infested with bears, beautiful, impossible to get to, and illegal to land on shore. Guides and rangers and paddlers all told different stories. It would be fine, you need permits, it is 70 roubles a day, you can’t touch the shore, abandon all hope. But when we reached Ust-Barguzin, the last village and the end of the road, we found the park headquarters to be in better shape than many in the United States.
Andrei, one of the park staff, ran us through a five minute process, showing us on our maps where to look for hot springs and freshwater seals, and handed us the signed and stamped permits for an eight day crossing of the northeast coast, including the Barguzin Reserve and Zabaikalsky National Park. It is 350 km (217 miles) of pristine lake shore without a village or road anywhere.
As we were leaving, a young woman stopped us with smiles and the melodic English of someone knowledgeable but unpracticed. She asked us to deliver a small package to Davsha, where Yuri was posted temporarily for the summer, one of the handful of seasonal scientists and caretakers spread through the 1,000 square mile reserve. The package included a short note, the accordion music, and a soapstone carving of a Nerpa — the freshwater seal endemic to Baikal.
We pulled ashore amidst cedar and rhododendron, and climbed the rickety cedar stairs set into the bluff to begin our search. No one was around, but the main paths had been mown recently. Many of the houses were locked or boarded up, but in one we found old photographs, maps tacked to the wall, and a World War II-era radio set mounted next to more modern equipment. The gray photos were behind a sheet of plastic, showing harsh faces of men with ice in their beards cuddling sables or stacking crates next to a prop plane.
A poster of Lenin peeked out from the eaves of a large hut in one photo. These early champions of biodiversity went out by ski and snowshoe to tag, track, and jot notes with their bare hands in the depths of Siberian winters. They endured long periods of solitude out in the wilderness, and in their tiny, remote community created a home. They built a school for their children who ran the paths and duckboards, and watched in awe from the bluffs each July as the two trillion pound ice sheet broke up.
One photo on the wall showed a man contemplating the two infant sables in his large hands. His is Yevgeniy Mikhaylovich Chernikin, and he was the director of the reserve for more than half a century. Born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1928, he attended the Moscow Fur Institute and bounced around the USSR from Turkmenistan to Kamchatka as a wildlife biologist. In 1964, he came to Davsha and in the Barguzin sable found his life’s work. He served as director of the reserve for more than 30 years, eventually amassing more knowledge of the animal than anyone in history, and influencing a generation of Soviet biologists and ecologists. He fought for better living conditions in Davsha, for a school and for health care, and for energy and supplies to see the scientists and their families through the long winter. And he lived long enough to see the community he had created disperse as government funding dried up.
There is a sense of order in Davsha often absent in most Siberian villages, where rutted dirt roads cut across the landscape and squat houses run chock-a-block up bare hillsides. Surrounded by the wild, inhabitants cut back the forest and created order from which they could guard and study the brown bears, the sable, the elk, kabarga deer, wolves, lynx, wolverines, and 30 types of rodents, plus the ospreys, merganser ducks, eagles, and black storks in the air, as well as the sturgeon, grayling fish, omul whitefish, taimen salmon, and lenok salmonids in the waters.
We wandered for hours, exploring the courtyards of cabins and the ruins of a workshop, the glass from its long-gone windows melted into the rubble in shining blobs flecked with debris. Scarred enamel tableware littered the char, providing color to the destruction. I imagined a fire ten years ago starting in winter, and being watched with melancholy as it consumed a structure soon to be left behind anyway.
Someone had pulled a twisted bicycle from the scene and set it atop a fence post. Melted glass clung to the rusted spokes, glinting in the sun as the wind rattled. We peaked into the schoolhouse, wondering how the students could focus with snow-capped mountains out one window, and the largest lake on Earth out the other.
The path led to a lone house that had been maintained, and we knocked on the head-high gate. Minutes later, a woman answered. Her name was Olga, and she was surprised to see us. We followed her in past a thriving quarter-acre vegetable garden, removed our shoes, and were served black tea at a table built into the wall. Yuri was in the taiga, we were told, but we could leave the package with her. She plied us with bread, honey, butter, and a Snickers bar plucked from a cold cellar under the floorboards.
We ate, shared stories, and learned about her seasonal residence there, but language was sparse in our exchange and I wondered, glancing about the neat cabin, if she was a child here many years ago, and traveled back in old age to experience it again.
In leaving, we paced the paths of Davsha, again with only the wind to accompany us. We passed the school and the rows of boarded houses, the radio aerial strung between larch poles, the grave markers, and the Natural History Museum, probably locked forever. We couldn’t camp in the reserve, and so had to hurry to make the miles back before dark. Tourists are forbidden save at three spots on the shoreline.
We reached the bluff, able to see equally the emptiness of Davsha, the sharp cut glacial cirques of the Transbaikalia Ridge behind, and the deep chilled blue of the lake. Rounding the first point, the settlement disappeared and we were alone again on the border of water and taiga.