[Part 7 of 14. Solovki 2013]
I was glad I chose to rent the high-performance mountain bike as I bounced my way up the roads of the main island to spend an afternoon rowing, paddling, and otherwise exploring the remarkable system of lakes and canals that run through the island. This was one of the most beautiful and peaceful systems of water I’d been to in years, spreading a calm serenity through me each time I pulled with the oars—definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Solovki.
At the boat rental dock, the young man asked if I was with the two young women who had arrived at about the same time. He responded with a forlorn face when I explained, inexplicably it seemed, that I was planning to paddle alone.
He handed me two oars and a paddle. “Why all three,” I asked, cursing yet again that I only had two arms. The oars were for rowing the lakes, the paddle for the narrow canals. “Lifejacket?” I inquired. “As you like,” the forlorn expression turning to perplexed.
There are no rivers on Solovki, but there are some 500 permanent lakes that fill high each spring from the melting snow. In spring, the lakes would often overflow and the waters would flow overland from one lake to another.
If the White Sea offered the monks a seemingly endless bounty of fish to eat, they had to work a little harder to ensure fresh water for their communities. And they did so through extensive hydrological engineering systems that connected the different lakes together to provide both fresh water and also water transport possibilities up and down the island. (Even today, plying the water in a small rowboat was much more pleasant than bumping my away along the roads on bike).
Over the course of the 15th to 19th centuries, about 20 lake-canal systems were developed across the archipelago.
As the first parts of the monastery complex were being built in the 14th century, the monks needed to ensure a constant supply of potable, fresh water. They dug out a lake on one side of the monastery to capture water and then filled that lake with water carried down island by canals dug through the forests. The water was then channeled through pipes and other water transport systems through the monastery (where a water wheel for milling was eventually set up, and where a collection tank for water was kept to ensure water in times of attack) and then back out through a weir to the harbor and sea.
The system of lakes and rivers that flowed down into the Sacred Lake next to the monastery connected from 70 lakes and canals up the island.
The system worked well. They ensured that the water in the collection lake didn’t sit stagnant but moved through the mill canal, powering the wheels, and then out to the harbor.
The hydrological works of the monks are a reminder to those of us accustomed to water appearing as if by magic from a tap in the kitchen, that extended effort was and is so often needed to make sure that there is sufficient, usable water available for communities. And that great physical efforts and reconfigurations of the land and waterways were/are often needed to achieve this task.
Perhaps most remarkable for me as I paddled along were the canals, built in the early 20th century by the monks for transportation purposes, that connected many lakes together.
Over the years, the monks had watched the natural flows of water over land when the lakes overflowed in the spring. And, when they decided to carve connector canals between the lakes, they followed these paths of least water resistance.
And the canals were a marvel. The monks dug out the canals to allow row boats and small steam powered boats to go through. They lined the banks of the canals with large stones. And they built underwater wood and stone foundations to keep the canals open and navigable.
They were both form and function. Boats could now navigate their ways up and down the islands through the lakes. And fresh water would be in uninterrupted supply. But the canals also created tree-covered aqua-pathways. As I paddled through I felt a certain warm embrace of the trees and green shores on either side.
True, I reminded myself, forests by any waterway offered ready camouflage for a surprise human attack—as had happened so often in history. But, the feeling of comfort from the surrounding trees and straight rock paths quickly banished such more fearful thoughts.