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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Big Chill: A Winter Dip In Lake Baikal

Why am I standing in just my underwear, shivering, on the banks of Lake Baikal in Siberia in January?


Was I really going to jump into that icy lake?


Excuse me for stating the obvious, but there were some very good arguments against taking the plunge.


First of all, it was cold, damn cold - minus 28 degrees Celsius, to be exact.


Secondly, there was my career to consider. Who was going to take me seriously after this? How could I ever hope to do hard news if I kept pulling cheap stunts like this? and then writing about them?


Finally, it wasn't as if I needed the material. I had already interviewed a Lake Baikal ferryboat captain and could write that up without getting my feet wet.


I did it for you, dear readers, so that you will know what it feels like to swim in Lake Baikal when the water is the consistency of a crushed-ice drink. I did it so that you will never have to.


My spot was carefully chosen: The very end of Lake Baikal. It is a spot that can be pinpoint with accuracy.


Though more than 100 rivers flow into the world's largest lake, only one flows out - the Angara. At the point where they meet stands a legendary rock. It was here that I chose to take my fateful swim.


The idea came from an old woman from the nearby Baikal village of Listvyanka. She explained earnestly that her mother had lived to 100 years thanks to the healing properties of the lake. She did not explain why everyone in the village who swam did not also achieve such longevity.


Still, her faith was not surprising. Lake Baikal, which marks the southern boundary of Central Siberia, some 90 kilometers from the Mongolian border at its closest point, is surrounded by many such superstitions and legends.


So much about Lake Baikal impresses. The lake's area, at 31, 470 kilometers, is roughly the size of Belgium. It holds 20 percent of the world's fresh water. Its maximum depth plunges to 1, 637 meters - nearly a mile. Its age, 20 million years means it was already ancient when humans were discovering fire.


For my mission, I hired a minivan, which I heated until it was unbearably hot inside. Then I stripped to my underpants, leapt from the van, and ran barefoot through the snow. I paused for just a second on the bank, and then dove into Lake Baikal.


As the waters closed over me, I realized it was not what I had expected. After my dash from the van, through the freezing air, the water actually felt warm. I swam several strokes against the swift current, and then headed back to shore. Afterall, I had a column to write.