In the couple of decades I’ve watched environmentalists go to ever-greater lengths to get out their messages, I’ve seen few more wacky stunts than the one planned by two guys from Canada: Running the length of the world’s oldest and deepest lake, Lake Baikal in Siberia, in the wintertime. While pulling along 100 pounds of supplies behind them. And live-blogging the whole thing, of course. (What?!? No Twitter!?!)
Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely — shall we just call them “the wackos” from now on? — plan to set off on March 1, which means the ice will still be plenty hard on Baikal. (Fun fact: Less than a decade ago, Zahab was a pack-a-day cigarette smoker and couch potato!)
Their cause: to highlight the value and scarcity of fresh water. Nowhere else in the world does a freshwater lake hold as many gallons as does Baikal. It has more of the wet stuff than all of America’s Great Lakes combined.
You may have heard of these wackos before. They and two other, uh, guys spent 111 days in 2007 running across the Sahara Desert, which ended up as a Matt Damon-produced documentary called “Running The Sahara.” They also made in the fastest unsupported trek to the South Pole in history.
So although they’ve dubbed their Baikal run the “Siberian Express,” it also could just as easily be known as “And Now For Something Completely Different But Just As Wacky.” (Maybe I should trademark that?)
Seriously, though, you have to hand it to these guys, even as you wonder about their sanity. They’re trying to run through sub-zero temperatures, battling snow and ice and wind — and cover about 40 miles a day. For 10 days. Did I mention they’ll be pulling hundred-pound sleds behind them?
All this while taking time to stop and essentially teach class. They will be hooked up through various high-tech methods to classrooms with some 8,000 kids.
(And I thought I had it hard when photographer Sean Dougherty and I canoed the length of the Everglades. After word of Vallely and Zahab’s proposed feat, Everglades hypothermia and close brushes with alligators never looked so good!)
All this is being organized under the auspices of an outfit headed by Zahab, impossible2possible.com, which is really more an educational endeavor than an environmental one. Here’s what today’s press release had to say about the eductional part of the mission:
During the expedition, students will be able to see, speak to, and hear the pair in real-time, all the while learning about clean drinking water issues around the world. People around the world can also be part of the experience by logging on to www.SiberianX.com.
Today’s announcement comes on the heels of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would allow a notorious pulp mill on its southern shore to reopen.
A stop at that pulp mill is one of the adventures in an eye-opening book, “Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal,” that first made me a Baikalophile. It’s a journey story, one of my favorite forms, that takes a look at the fascinating aspects of Baikal — among them teeny-tiny shrimp-like critters that filter the lake’s waters and the world’s only exclusively freshwater seal, the nerpa. (Full disclosure: It was written by Peter Thomson, who I count as a friend and colleague; I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise, but once I had I couldn’t say enough about it. Check it out.)
So here’s to hoping that the wackos’ run will not only get across the importance of fresh water — no argument from this corner on that — but also help the world to understand about this special place called Lake Baikal. Here’s what Thomson had to say about the lake when he returned to the environmental radio show he helped found, Living on Earth, to talk about his Baikal odyssey:
We know enough not to make the same mistakes there that we’ve made elsewhere, to pull back from the industrial impacts in the region, to build an economy there that is based on an intact ecosystem rather than at the expense of the ecosystem, through clean, low-impact industry.
— Robert McClure