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OVER my four years as a correspondent in the former Soviet Union, I enjoyed the great gifts that nature bestowed on that vast empire. I sailed up the untamed Amur River in search of rare cranes and storks. I tramped the boggy banks of the Volga to meet greater white-fronted geese as they traveled north. I surprised an Egyptian vulture in a Caucasus Mountain pass. And I was entranced by a flock of long-eared owls hunting prey from the saxaul trees of Turkmenistan's Kara-Kum Desert.

But as I approached my final departure, my Russian naturalist friend Sergei Smirenski reminded me: ``Dan, you must see Lake Baikal before you leave.''

Lake Baikal. The words alone are enough to evoke rapturous sighs from almost any Russian, even those who have never seen its crystal clear waters or wandered the taiga forests that gird it.

There is perhaps no body of water on this planet that can match the legendary quality of what some call ``The Blue Pearl of Siberia.'' The lake is a geological wonder, formed by a deep rift between two tectonic plates that are steadily pulling apart. Its great depths - 1.1 miles at its deepest point - contain enough water to fill all five of North America's Great Lakes.

Fed by hydrothermal vents in its cold depths, Baikal supports a phenomenal density and variety of life - some 2,000 species, about 1,200 of which are found nowhere else on Earth. There are hundreds of varieties of crustaceans here, including the Baikal epishura, which is responsible for the remarkable clarity of the lake's water. The creatures strain plankton, algae, and bacteria out of the water for food.

But this is more than an ecological treasure. Russians celebrate Lake Baikal as an embodiment of the nation's soul. Here in the center of Siberia lies the Russian heart, where nature is seen in all its raw power and awesome beauty. Baikal, now struggling for survival, also bears the marks of communism's command to man to dominate nature.

With this in mind, I set off on my own exploration of Baikal's ``sacred sea.'' With the help of naturalist friends, I embarked on a five-day ``ecotour,'' typical of those now being offered to visitors who combine a love of nature with their sense of adventure.

DAY ONE The Journey Begins Zaytunya Abrashytova, the bright and energetic international-relations director for the Pribaikalsky National Park and the organizer of our tour, meets us early in the morning in the lobby of Irkutsk's Intourist Hotel. We take a quick tour of Irkutsk, a pleasant Siberian provincial capital founded in the middle of the 17th century and populated, as many Siberian towns were, by political exiles.

Our tour takes us across a monument to Stalinist construction - the massive dam built in the 1950s across the Angara River, the only tributary that drains Lake Baikal. Not all Siberians reveled in the triumph of industry over nature. The great Siberian writer Valentin Rasputin's novel ``Farewell to Matyora'' bemoans the destruction of a village inundated by the dam's reservoir, as was his own birthplace.

At the docks of Listvyanka, we find our boat and its crew. The Professor Morozov is a doughty vessel, built on the design of a World War II patrol craft. It now ferries tourists and park rangers up and down the often calm but sometimes capriciously stormy waters of Lake Baikal.

Our guides await. The leader is Semyon Ustinov, a reknowned naturalist and deputy director of the Baikalo-Lensky Zapovednik (nature preserve), our ultimate destination. Ornithologist Viktor Popov, from the next generation of naturalists, became my guide to Baikal's birds.

We head north to the park-ranger station at Kadilnaya Bay. The lake shows the whitecaps of a northern wind. It is vast, empty except for our boat. The shoreline is quickly devoid of human habitation, rising sharply into steep slopes of birch, fir, and cedar.

A small group of cabins huddling on a point marks Kadilnaya Bay. Two lone ducks - a goldeneye and a green-winged teal - sit in a pond behind a raised shoreline of smooth rocks, thrown up by the autumn storms that swirl across the lake.

It is unspoiled nature, the kind that purifies and shrinks mortals to their appropriate proportions.

Over dinner we meet our hosts, ranger Vladimir Ignashev and his wife, Natalya, who lead a solitary but apparently happy existence watching for fires, feeding hungry deer in the winter, and hosting small groups of ``ecotourists'' coming here in growing numbers. Our cabin is comfortable, with narrow wood-frame beds and a wood-fired stove struggling against the early spring wind.

Siberians refer to themselves as ``Sibirsky,'' rather than ``Russky,'' as if they were a different people from the Russians who stayed west. Some of them, of course, came involuntarily: Mr. Ustinov's ancestors were exiled here at the time of Catherine II. They were Old Believers, a schismatic Russian Orthodox Christian sect that clung fiercely to its beliefs in scattered Siberian settlements.

Ustinov still observes some of their traditions: He does not join in the vodka toasts that mark every dinner, and he staunchly opposes the furious cigarette smoking that is so widespread here. His speech is eloquent, if bookish, laced with quotes from the Bible.

``On the advice of my father, I didn't do two things,'' Ustinov tells me. ``I didn't join the [Communist] Party and I didn't smoke. He was a wise man.'' He smiles.

Ustinov was born east of the lake, among the Buryats, in a village called Fox Place. Trained as a biologist, he has spent much of his life working in the zapovedniks.

Baikal is his true love. He has written numerous books and articles and is an expert on the fragile biology of Baikal's forests and the brown bears that stalk its shores. He is about to retire from his post at the Baikalo-Lensky Zapovednik. Mr. Popov will replace him.

Ustinov raises a toast with a glass of tea in his hand. ``Baikal has many faces, and it is bottomless. Every person can find what he wants to find in it.'' DAY TWO Kadilnaya Bay and northward

I get up at dawn to go for a birding hike with Popov and Georgy Pechalov, a park ranger accompanying us on this trip. Mr. Pechalov is one of the small community of ethnic Greeks who over the centuries came to live along the Black Sea and in the Caucasus.

We head up the valley. Above the forested hillside, we hear the high-pitched shrieks of a pair of falcons - northern hobby out hunting. We pass into the forested valley floor, a clear-running stream bubbling alongside. Tits, cousins to American chickadees, chatter in the pine branches above us.

Pechalov shows us a shale hillside which used to be spiked with salt to attract deer and other wildlife. Not 10 feet away, in a wooden blind sunk into the hillside with hidden gunports, party bosses and, later, ``hard-currency hunters'' used to come to blast away. It was hardly sport - just trophy hunting.

The area was under the control of the state hunting organization until the national park was formed in 1986. Local folk constantly complain that they no longer can come here to hunt as they did before. Popov and Pechalov discuss the going price that rich foreigners will pay these days to bag a bear just outside the park boundaries and sometimes inside them: about $6,000.

As we return to the shore, the wind has picked up. It is the infamous sarma, a wind that blows down suddenly from the northwest onto Baikal. It is strong enough, Ustinov says, to lift trees right out of the ground. Our captain, a cautious veteran of these capricious waters, had left the mooring early in the morning, seeking calmer waters up the coast. We wait for his return.

Over lunch, as the wet wind blows, Ustinov explains that this Siberian forest, while largely unpopulated by man, has a low density of wildlife compared with European forests. The reasons are many - the lack of food and the deep snows that make it hard for animals like deer to escape wolves and other predators. Even if hunting completely stopped, he says, the deer population would maybe triple but not more.

The Siberian forest rests on a thin, poor soil, Ustinov says. ``It is why we are so afraid of fires. Our European colleagues don't understand that it can take 80 years to restore a forest here after a fire.''

Our boat finally arrives. But the storm halts our journey by early nightfall. We take shelter in the abandoned logging port at Buguldeika, where cranes that used to lift the felled trees onto barges now rust in silence. DAY THREE Olkhon Island and beyond

We awake to find the boat moving briskly in bright, frosty air along a totally changed landscape. Huge dry mountains, with only scattered pine trees, come down in rocky cliffs to the sea. ``Like Patagonia,'' says Ustinov, who has never left his beloved Russia.

We are heading for the island of Olkhon, Baikal's largest. Over breakfast, talk turns to the threat to Baikal from man. Ustinov was among the small group of naturalists who braved the Communist hierarchy to launch the Soviet Union's first environmental movement in the late 1950s. They joined to oppose the dams built on the Angara, and then to try to halt the giant pulp and paper mill built on the southern coast.

The plant was built, and more like it. Despite promises by Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, it continues to pump deadly pollutants into the lake. Vital species are threatened, including microorganisms and the Baikal epishura responsible for the lake's remarkable purity. Fish populations have drastically fallen.

Now scientists have detected air pollutants from thousands of miles west that have fallen into the lake.

Ustinov presents a clear agenda: Close the paper mill, stop the dumping of wastes into the Selenga River and the northern end of the lake, prevent the construction of resorts and vacation homes on the shoreline.

But he is not optimistic. ``The government is preoccupied passing resolutions, and that's all. There is no trust among the people in such a government. Maybe a new generation of leaders will bring some changes.''

We sail past cliffs into the Olkhon Vorota, or gate, the channel that leads into the Maloye More, or Small Sea, which lies between the island and the mainland.

On the western shore, where the Sarma River flows in, a 43-mile gap in the territory of the national park marks the most popular rest spot. Here the water is shallow, warm enough to swim in during the short summer, with fish still plentiful enough for the angler. In the old days, some 2,000 cars would line the shore with tents erected alongside. But now the high cost of gasoline and the fees charged by the park to enter this area by road have sharply cut the traffic.

As we move north along the coast of Olkhon Island, I sit for a while in the tiny wheelhouse to warm up. Our captain is a burly man, his round face and narrow eyes evidence of his partly Chinese origins. Grigory Cherepanov has been sailing Baikal for decades. The farther north we sail, the more beautiful it is, he tells me.

We head for dock in the town of Khuzhir, which sprawls to the shore like an Alaskan fishing village. Boats are tied to the dock, idle for lack of fuel. The canning factory stands by the dock, its smokestacks cool for now. There is not enough diesel fuel to supply electricity to the plant, much less the town. The island's population has almost halved, to 2,700 people, because of economic troubles.

The men lounge on the boats, not friendly to the appearance of a National Park patrol boat. I take a short walk with Popov on the steppe-covered plateau above the port. Buntings, wheatear, and larks dance on the rocks poking out from the steppe. The view from the clifftop is stunning - the Maloye More, the waters below a clear light blue more akin to the Mediterrean than these northern climes, deeper blue where the depth increases.

Nearby is Shaman Rock, a massive outcropping worshipped as a place of great spiritual significance by the Buryat Mongols who archaeologists believe have lived here for at least 8,000 years. According to some scholars, the Amerindian peoples who came to North America across the Bering Strait originated among the Buryat Mongols of Lake Baikal. Today the Buryat mostly live in the autonomous Russian republic of Buryatia, across the lake, but many still inhabit these shores.

Beyond the village, on a sandy slope beneath the forest, stand the abandoned barracks of a lager, part of the network of prison camps that Alexander Solzhenitsyn indelibly described as the ``Gulag Archipelago.'' This camp operated from the Stalin era until the late 1950s. People who ``showed up late for work,'' as Popov puts it, were sent here for a few years' hard labor in the forests and at a fishing cannery. Lithuanians and Latvians who resisted Soviet occupation were also imprisoned here.

Around 9 p.m., still light at this time of year, Ustinov arrives at our cabin to excitedly announce that we are reaching the border of his beloved zapovednik. Here, once again, the painting of the Baikal shoreline has been drawn by some other artist. Above a dry, steppe-like shore, snow-covered mountains rise sharply past a line of fir trees. Beyond the peak, wreathed in low clouds, lies the source of the great Siberian river Lena, which flows west from here and then north to the Arctic Ocean.

The mood at dinner is upbeat. Plates of fresh omul, fish endemic to Baikal, await us at the table. The toasts are brief - ``to the zapovednik!'' - and the conversation muted as everyone relishes the meal. After dinner we gather on deck to watch the last rays of sunset disappear over the mountain range. DAY FOUR Up the Brown Bear Coast

I come out on deck at 7 the next morning into crisp sunlight. A spectacular landscape is spread before us - low mountains covered with forests of larch, pine, and cedar, a range of snow-capped peaks stretching down the coast beyond. This is the Brown Bear Coast, known for its Baikal brown bears, the largest ursine concentration in this part of Siberia. It is spring, and the bears are just emerging from their long winter hibernation in the caves above, hungry and in search of a good meal.

Ustinov appears, and we start searching the hillsides of scattered forest and bare grass. He spots deer high up on the crest. Then suddenly - a bear. Big, black, he plods out unconcerned from a line of trees into an open slash on the hill. Soon the entire boat - naturalists and crew alike - are perched along the railing, watching the bear and talking excitedly. Finally, the bear turns and lopes back into the woods.

Soon we set out along the trail. ``Brown Bear Coast Ranger Station,'' proclaims a sign nailed to the side of the log cabin set on a small bay. Two rangers in well-worn khaki uniforms emerge.

Here the nature is as wild as we have seen. The mountain range stretches into the distance, dramatic and rugged.

The Professor Morozov steams in to pick us up. Bad weather is coming again, the captain reports. Unless we start back now, we may not reach Irkutsk in time to fly back to Moscow. Reluctantly, we leave these stunning vistas.

But the captain is ready to oblige us on our way down the lake in our only remaining goal: to find the elusive nerpa, the world's only freshwater seal, endemic to Baikal.

Popov and I take count of the bird species we have seen here today - 38 for me, 43 for him - a good day by any standards.

Around 6 in the evening, we approach the northern cape of Olkhon Island where nerpa can sometimes be found. It remains an evolutionary mystery how the seals made their way here, as it is presumed they must have, from the salt seas. About 8,000 live on the lake, down from perhaps 100,000 before man began hunting them for fur. But the numbers are up somewhat from their lowest point.

No nerpa are in sight. The captain is determined to find us some and heads for ice floes where they like to lie. Finally - the unmistakable dark form appears, supine on the ice. With our approach the seal disappears underwater with a disdainful flip of his tail. Soon we spot many more nerpa as the captain sails through the ice fields, ice chunks crackling and scraping against our hull.

As darkness falls, we move past rocky islets where colonies of herring gulls nest, before turning once again into Olkhon Vorata. As soon as we head into the wide waters of Baikal, the waves grow rougher, lifting the boat and slapping it down with a shuddering thunk. DAY FIVE Back to Listvayanka We pull in at a small ranger post on the coast.

Where are Baikal's squirrels, funny-looking creatures with tufted ears, we ask. Ustinov explains that the wildlife population rises and falls in cycles. When the population builds up too much, the squirrels have been known to fall off cliffsides as they migrate en masse in search of food. Now their population is at a low - even at the zapovednik, you can stay for days and not see one.

These scientists are fighting what seems to be a constant rear-guard action to maintain these nature conservation gains. Their foes range from hunters and poachers to the local administration and giant state enterprises that covet the land for development. But it is ignorance of the value of their work that haunts the men the most.

From the crest of the hill, the drop is almost vertical to the lake. From this great height, using binoculars, we see fish swim through the clear water.

The captain calls us back with a blast of his horn. He wants to take us down the coast to Peschanaya Bay. Peschanaya is an example of what not to do for tourism on Baikal: It's a sprawling ``tourist base'' of wooden shacks built along the shore, and large barracks-like buildings in the trees beyond.

Popov takes us on a trail over the crest of the hill, to a beach that could be an ad for a Caribbean vacation. Sea-green waters lap a deserted stretch of white sand. In summer, when the waters are warm enough to swim in, the beach is crowded with tourists.

We head home, soaking in the sun on deck as the forested shoreline of Baikal slips slowly by. The lake has been all that it was fabled to be and more. And for all of man's intrusions, it is still incredibly unspoiled, perhaps because of its size and remoteness.

The march of man has also been slowed by the economic depression that has accompanied Russia's transition to a market economy.

In this case, man's ills are nature's bounty. But this is only a breathing space until the Russian giant regains its feet, as it inevitably will. If Baikal is to be preserved as the jewel it is, the struggle to do so must take place in the next few years, while man's rapacious urges are constrained by lack of means.

Our final lunch is filled with the warmth of camaraderie. The crew and the naturalists all join for a farewell toast. The captain raises his glass to thank us for sailing with him, wishes us the best - a brief toast by Russian standards - and returns to the wheelhouse.

``We touched upon only a small part of the secrets of Baikal,'' Ustinov says, ``but I can see that even this small part made a deep impression upon you and will force you to come back.''

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