ANDREY Solovyev keeps a lonely all-winter vigil in Yakutia in search of the legendary Labynkyr Devil.
Braving temperatures of below minus 50C, and with no other living soul in a radius of 150 kilometers, this 32 year old adventurer walked for ten days to reach one of Russia’s most remote and mysterious lakes in a one-man search for the monster that is reputed to inhabit its deep waters.
He has regularly met brown bears roaming these wild shores, although they are now ready for hibernation, and wolves are never far away.
But it is a different beast he is seeking to see and chronicle -- Siberia’s own Loch Ness monster.
Home for him through the winter is a simple wooden hut overlooking the ice-covered lake. Expeditions here are rare, but usually academics and others seeking to prove or disprove the Labynkyr Devil’s existence come in summer, when the waters are unfrozen, and then stay a week or two.
Winter temperatures here in the coldest inhabited district in the world are likely to plummet well under 50C, although this week the nights are milder, only minus 32C or so. Yet Andrey, from Voronezh, is undaunted, having already spent 103 days in solitude on the lakeside, living on fish he catches, wild onion which he gathered and pickled earlier, as well as mushrooms and berries he collected before the big freeze.
Does he believe in the Labynkyr Devil?
‘I am not claiming anything, but I think that perhaps it does live here,’ Andrey told representatives of the Oymyakon branch of Russian Geographical Society who ventured here recently to check on his progress. ‘And I’ve got a chance to check it out. I didn’t meet the devil yet.’
Yet then he qualifies his statement, feeling that he may have glimpsed it.
‘Two weeks ago when the ice was still not completely frozen some dark creature swam out of the lake -- but I couldn’t identify it,’ he said.
Nor did he manage to capture it on camera, although he is ready to do so if he gets a definite sighting.
Could it have been the Labynkyr Devil?
‘It is quite possible, but I can’t be certain,’ Andrey said. ‘Some strange things were happening here, like in September when I set very robust nets and they were torn to shreds, like I could never imagine.I saw huge -- meters in diameter -- holes on these nets. It definitely wasn’t done by a fish, even a pike couldn’t bite through this net.’
So Andrey has the impression -- as many others have before -- that something large loiters beneath the surface of lake Labynkyr.
‘What would I do if I meet the devil? I’ll be taking pictures,’ he hopes.
Reports reached the outside world of a ‘monster’ in one of the most remote lakes in Yakutia in the 19th century, although possibly locals told such tales earlier than this.
It was a Soviet scientist Viktor Tverdokhlebov, who popularized the notion of ‘Labynkyrsky Chert’ (Labynkyr Devil) here some 5,000 km east of Moscow. Lake Labynkyr is in the same district of Yakutia as Oymyakon, known as the Pole of Cold, the world’s coldest permanent human settlement.
In the Stalin era, Tverdokhlebov wrote: ‘There have been all sort of hypotheses about what kind of creature it could be: a giant pike, a relic reptile or an amphibia.
‘We did not manage to prove or to disprove these versions, we managed to find remains of jaws and skeleton of some animal.’
A number of modern-day scientists have examined the lake’s depths. Associate Professor of Biogeography, Dr. Lyudmila Emeliyanova of Moscow State University, recorded ‘several seriously big underwater objects’ with sonar readings on a trip to Labynkyr. She is not the only researcher to have done so.
‘It was our fourth or fifth day at the lake when our echo sounding device registered a huge object in the water under our boat,’ she said. ‘The object was very dense, of homogeneous structure, surely not a fish nor a shoal of fish, and it was above the bottom.
‘I was very surprised, but not scared and not shocked, after all we did not see this animal, we only registered a strange object in the water. But I can clearly say -- at the moment, as a scientist, I cannot offer you any explanation of what this object might be.’
The readings were repeated and she became convinced there was more than one large living object in the pure waters.
‘I can’t say we literally found and touched something unusual there but we did register with our echo sounding device several seriously big underwater objects, bigger than a fish, bigger than even a group of fish.’
Dogfish and salmon trout are known to inhabit the lake. Two years ago, divers reached 59.6 meters in the lake, in cold March, without meeting anything larger than a few dogfish.
On the basis of ‘sightings’ there has been speculation that Labynkyr and its neighbor Vorota lake which has identical water level, suggesting an underground connection, and its own rumors of monsters -- might be inhabited by a school of ichthyosaurs, prehistoric marine reptiles resembling dolphins or sharks, or plesiosaurs.
Another version has speculated that relic killer whales could have become marooned in Labynkyr. Some accounts even suggest the ‘creature’ makes a primeval cry as it attacks its prey.
‘Personally, I do believe that when the information about something strange circulates among local people for so many years, it just can’t be groundless, it means something is there,’ said Dr Emeliyanova. ‘I know the local people very well -- they are ingenuous but they do not lie.
‘I have been on a dozen expeditions to this region and I can say I know the character of locals well.
‘They are emotional -- but are not intended to show their emotions, and they are very true and honest by nature, often more honest than is necessary. This is why I am not ready to reject all these stories.
There are more than 800,000 lakes in Yakutia, yet only two have rumors of monsters.
An expedition in August 2006 used a Humminbird Piranha MAX 215 Portable fish-finder to examine Labynkyr.
‘Often the device showed the long chain of big fish some 4 meters above the bottom of the lake, when the depth was about 30-45 meters,’ said a participant.
Some ‘object’ was detected at a depth of 30 meters, appearing to be seven metres wide.
‘I switched off the ‘Fish ID’ and we watched just pure scanning. Soon we registered a ‘shadow’ some 15-17 meters under our boat, it was about 6.5 meters long.
‘It was pretty clear, it was not a fish and not a tree. There cannot be fish that big, and a log would have been registered in a different way. How can it swim under the water?
‘The most active ‘shadows’ or ‘bodies’ were registered in certain parts of the lake when the depth was 42 to 60 meters.’
Meanwhile, Andrey is conducting his own lonely vigil which may or may not end in success. He arrived in summer on his ten day walk from Tomtor with no warm clothes, let alone a gun or satellite phone.
‘Why did I decide to spend a winter at lake Labynkyr? First of all, because of the Labynkyr phenomenon, as this is a very unusual lake. I got intrigued by the Labynkyr Devil’s legend. Apparently many saw it. Secondly I wanted to test my survival skills, as I am a tourism and a survival instructor. I wanted to get new experience in severe climate of Yakutia, test myself and learn new things.’
In the past he has visited all the great Russian mountain ranges, and claimed he is ‘physically and morally’ prepared for the deep winter.
‘My family is used to my lifestyle so they didn’t panic about this idea to spend winter at Lake Labynkyr,’ he said.
Being here, the main threat is not the harsh climate but his own resilience, Andrey said.
‘Most difficult is the psychological part of it. It’s not at all about physical tiredness, not the wood chopping, or fishing, not looking for food but the solitude.
It’s the sensor deprivation as there are a very limited number of emotions, every day is the same.
‘This is the most difficult in getting over yourself.
‘Every day I wake up 6 a.m. Before the lake froze, I used to either swim or had a cold water bucket; now I rub myself with snow. About 7 a.m. I have breakfast and go to chop wood. The sun rises about 8 a.m. and around lunch time I go and check fishing nets, then walk around the lake and try to climb mountains. This is my way to bring some kind of diversity into the day. Every day I walk about five or seven kilometers, not far. Every day I write a bit to add to my book, and also keep a daily log of water level and air temperature.’
How does he keep warm? Andrey was gifted a kukhlyanka -- a coat typical for people in northeastern Siberia, made from two layers or either reindeer, or dog, or marine animal skin.