The road from the Monastery to the Boat Station crosses the settlement and runs towards Sekirnaya Mountain and then forks to the right and past the Pityevoye (“Drinking water”) Lake. It’s about an hour’s walk through the forest. At Pityevoye a filtering system regulates the amount of water sent down a channel to the Holy Lake next to the monastery.
Lakes cover about 15% of the island. A system of about 200 man-made canals links the lakes. Construction was started by Phillip Kolichev when he became the Father Superior of the Monastery in 1548, and refined and expanded through to the early 20th century. The Solovki Encyclopedia notes “Philip possessed a great talent: organization“. Clearly so.
(Philip, later canonised as St Philip and one of the most important saints in Russian Orthodoxy, was not, it seems, as possessed of those other great business talents: tact and survival. He managed to annoy Ivan the Terrible (sent him into “an indescribable fury” notes the Encyclopedia) and he was sentenced to death by burning, later commuted to exile in Tver, and subsequently strangled in 1569 after what might be described as 62 full years).
The canal system had three functions: to enable production of hyrdo-electic power, to allow drainage of the land for agricultural crops, and of course to facilitate transport around the island. The hydro-plant supplied electricity to a timber mill, feed mll and other facilities on the island.
Much of swampland drained by the monks to grow crops has been neglected and become flooded again. This is evident from the mosquitoes who announce themselves as we get closer to the water.
The Boat Station at Lake Sredny Pert rents out rowing boats “day and night” during the summer months (effectively from 9.00 a.m. to midnight).
Exits to the adjoining lakes are through navigable canals, which are pointed out by arrows on signboards posted on the shore. There is a “long circuit” that runs for 11 kilometers through five of the lakes.
The second lake, Krugloye Orlovo (“Round Orlovo”) is actually round. The canal leads into Shchuchye (“Pike”) Lake and then to Plotichye (“Roach”) Lake, which is filled with water plants, and finally to Bolshoye Krasnoye (“Big Red”) Lake. Boat rental costs 300 rubles (about $10) per hour and the full circuit takes about 4 hours of good rowing to complete. The website notes “if the boat is sandbanked, you should move it backwards“. Well, actually you need to get out of the boat and push it, as we experienced. “The first canal could be followed through the usual way, right in the centre of it. When navigating in the canals, one should try not to touch their sides or bottoms“.
It adds, “The current in the lakes depends on the winds. So when experiencing head wind on a canal or lake it is important one should keep the boat facing exactly into the waves“. However, the water is calm and flat and there is also no sign of fish rising to the surface. A few ducks follow the boat and fly to catch up every now and again. They have an air of expectation about them so I imagine the visitors must feed them. On the way back, the sky darkens quickly, the wind comes up and there is thunder and lightening. We make it back as it starts to rain but it clears as quickly as it started and the lake goes calm again.
The canals are designed for small boats, quite shallow (about 1.5 to 2 meters deep) and constructed with walls lined with boulders. An astonishing achievement considering the work was done by hand.
We pay the lady who lives at the boat station. No, we don’t give receipts she says. No one gives receipts anywhere north of St Petersburg. There’s an empty bus standing at the boat station. Ask the driver she says. “Yes, I can give to you a ride back to town”, says the driver. Nice gesture, I think. “It’s 200 rubles each”, he adds. Everything’s got a price on Solovki. The locals need to make money while the sun shines.