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The Baikal Project—A Freezing Cold Attempt at A Guinness World Record

Breaking a world record takes creativity, ingenuity, and—in the case of the Baikal Project—at least one Irishman with unstoppable perseverance.

In February 2019, Declan McEvoy arrived at the Russian border from Estonia with his motorcycle. He had with him the necessary documents for entry: temporary vehicle import papers, passport, and visa. Friendly border patrol officers helped him through the process of entering Russia. While waiting for his passport to be returned, Declan thought about his upcoming adventure, one that might earn him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

For the better part of a year, Declan—a motorcycle adventure rider—had been planning to ride his Honda CRF 250 across Lake Baikal during winter. Baikal is the largest lake on the planet by volume. It sits 1,800 miles east of Moscow, just north of the Mongolian border, and contains 5,670 cubic miles of freshwater. To date, no one has ridden the 485 miles by motorcycle from one end to the other.

Buoyed by well-wishing from friends, family, and the media, Declan was ready to go more than ever. Because of the impracticality of riding from Ireland to Moscow at that time of year, Declan put his bike on the back of an Irish truck bound for Lithuania then flew into Vilnius a few days later. There, he hired a van driver to transport his bike, gear, and himself over 300 miles to the Russian border. On the Russian side, another driver waited to bring Declan and his bike 500 miles into Moscow.

But when the customs officer gestured for Declan to return to the window, he had bad news.

“I’m sorry,” the guard said, “your motorcycle has been denied entry into Russia.”

Declan implored the guard why and was only told it was a matter of “secret protocol.” He tried to find a solution or an answer as to why this was the case, but in the end, Declan was forced to return home to Quin, Ireland.

“Was I devastated?” Declan asks. “The funny thing is, I wasn’t. I just thought to myself: Aren’t I really privileged to have such problems? A real first-world problem. Sure, I was disappointed, but I was philosophical about it.”

Those of us on the edge of our seats following his record attempt drooped our shoulders in dismay. But a glimmer of hope remained in Declan, and within weeks, he was planning another go of it for February 2020. This time, the Baikal Project would be very different.

A solo endeavor to ride a motorcycle across Lake Baikal in winter wasn’t an altogether sane idea, Declan recalls in hindsight.

“My family thought I’d gone off the rails,” Declan remembers. “I think when my bike was stopped getting into Russia, there was someone above thinking, ‘Okay, I need a way to stop this crazy event.’ I’ve little doubt now in my mind I would have fallen through the ice.”

Although the lake is most likely to be frozen over completely in February, open water is still a threat. The safest route is straight down the middle of the lake, which means shore could be as much as 20 miles away. If Declan and his 400-pound motorcycle broke through, even if he were lucky enough to get himself out, he’d be soaked to the skin. Walking to shore in temperatures averaging -13°F is not an option. Hypothermia would set in, and Declan wouldn’t have a chance

That being Declan’s main concern, his second try for the world record will be with a team. Five other riders will join the Baikal Project, along with a UAZ van driver. Two world records are now a possibility: one for the longest distance off-road on ice by motorcycle. The second is the same description, but with the UAZ—an off-road van commonly used in eastern Europe. The riders are unsupported, which means the van is simply there to participate, not carry the team’s gear.

The Baikal Project consists of members with impressive adventuring backgrounds. Gary O’Keeffe will be the UAZ driver. He is an Irish overland explorer whose aim is to visit every country in the world. So far, he has been to 86. Karolis Meliauskas is a cold-weather survival expert who recently completed a ride through the coldest place on earth—Oymyakon, in the Sakha Republic of Russia, where temperatures have dropped to -90°F. Fritz Kreis has completed two Arctic Circle expeditions via snowmobile and traveled around the world in an unmodified Mini Cooper. Mark Kemp is the founder of BAM Riders and led the 2014 BAM Riders Challenge. Kevin Emans has a World Record of his own for completing mixed gas dives on famous wreck sites like the WW1 Battle of Jutland and the Britannic. Mariano Carloni is an air force graduate who has covered most of the mountainous terrain in South America.

Declan himself has traveled much of the world solo on his motorcycle, including South America, the Yukon, and Central Asia. He has visited 18 Russian cities and is no stranger now to the tiring process of Russian visa applications. During one trip, Declan met a man named Maxim Anokhim, who he credits for being a huge help in securing the team’s invitation letters, mandatory for a Russian visa. There is also a lot of documentation to keep track of for Guinness. The team must have GPS trackers that can output KML files and be very diligent about paperwork.

The adventure will be filmed by Alexander Hicks, producer of Twin Galaxies, and executive producer, Russ Malkin, of Long Way Round and Long Way Down fame.

When I asked Declan how he felt about the Baikal Project now becoming a team instead of just him, he said there were pros and cons.

“When I’m a solo rider, I get on with all the people involved,” he chuckles. “It’s just me. What I like most about being solo is you are one hundred percent owner of the journey; you are the architect of something fantastic.”

“To do something that is such a team effort, the first thing a solo rider has to say is: ‘I’m no longer in control of all the fine details.’”

During the planning stages, the team members—scattered all over the world at any given time—need to organize for a Skype call every two or three days. Sometimes everyone shows up, sometimes not.

“I’d prefer fewer people,” Declan says. “As the planning is now, it’s chaos.” All told, there are 16 people actively involved in the project. “But maybe chaos is good? Everybody has areas of expertise. You play a role in the area where your expertise is best.”

In December 2019, the team did a “shakedown test” on the Arctic Circle in Finland. Karolis, the cold-weather expert, had everyone dunking themselves into a frozen lake to train for the possibility of falling through. A telling quote from Karolis on the team’s website says, “If you fall through the ice, after one mile, you are still drowning.” At its maximum depth, the lake is 5,387 feet deep.

One major plus Declan notes about not going alone is although the threat of falling through the ice is still there, help is not far away. It takes the risk factor down considerably, and Declan doesn’t have much concern about falling through the ice this time.

So, what remains as the Baikal Project’s biggest challenge?

“With six motorcycles covering more than 430 miles (the world record distance requirement), which one will be the record holder? We’ve thought a lot about this. Obviously, the record holder will be the one with the greatest mileage, and we’re measuring miles down to .001.

“We thought we’d select the person who wanted to pay for the Guinness application (about $800 USD), but if that person goes into the water or breaks a leg, there’s our chance gone. We’ve decided we’re all going to chase it, and in the end, the Project will have the record. Who’s will it be individually? We’ll argue that out later.”

After his first goal to motorcycle across Lake Baikal thwarted, Declan might have more riding on this second shot. But it’s more than just getting another chance at the record. It’s also about fulfilling a childhood dream.

Since he was 12 years old, Declan has been intrigued by Russia. He acknowledges being a “fish out of water” in boarding school, both academically and socially. But one subject that did hold his interest was geography.

“My way of escape was to study the atlas,” Declan says. “I would look at Ireland, then turn the page and—‘oh look, that’s where London is.’ I’d continue turning pages into Germany, Poland, Latvia. Before I knew it, I was in far eastern Russia—crazy, faraway places.

“Then, with a slap on the back of the head from my teacher,” Declan laughs, “I was brought back into the reality of where I was.”

At 13, Declan’s class was asked to write an essay on Malcolm’s line in Macbeth: “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”

“Imagine giving an essay with that title to someone 13 years of age?” Declan says. “So, I thought, Right, I’m going to show this teacher. I’m going to write an essay about a big motorcycle trip.

“I wrote about the very route I traveled on some 40-plus years later.” In 2017, Declan rode his motorcycle from Quin, Ireland, to Magadan, Russia. “I traveled on the roads of that essay, through Russia to places like Tinda, Yakutsk, and Magadan. How crazy that I’m now 58 and have made that journey.

“I love Russia; I think they’ve had it hard in history. You see stone-cold faces on the people who control the airports and borders; it’s very intimidating. But once you crack that and get inside, the people are just fantastic.”

As for the initial issue Declan had getting his bike into Russia, the team’s solution was to acquire bikes within the country. They are set to use KTMs, which will already be in Irkutsk when the team arrives.

“Secret protocol”was all it took to erase Declan’s dream the first time around, but the real secret lies in what it takes for man, machine, and a mission to succeed in a Guinness World Record attempt.

To follow Declan and his teammates during the Baikal Project, visit thebaikalproject.com or find the Baikal Project on Facebook.

Read the follow-up story here.

Heather Lea has traveled to over 60 countries, 40 of which were on a BMW F 800 GS during a 708-day round-the-world motorcycle adventure with now-husband, Dave Sears (Trip Blog: Riding Full Circle). Heather has been a freelance writer for over twenty-five years and a book and magazine editor for more than fifteen. Aside from Expedition Portal, her stories can be found in Overland Journal, Canadian Geographic, Kootenay Mountain Culture, and Canadian Alpine Journal. She loves doing anything in the backcountry, including backpacking, four-wheel-driving, ski touring, and climbing. Heather is a Canadian now living in Bellingham, WA. Find her on Instagram @writer_heather_lea or on Facebook @heatherleawriter.