**We’re now publishing full feature articles from WildJunket Magazine! Here is a Dispatch article about Poland by our contributor Sasha Heseltine.
Look beyond Gdansk and Krakow to the highly protected national parks in northeast Poland – home to elusive wildlife, back-country adventures and Europe’s last primeval forest.
By Sasha Heseltine | Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Aug/Sep2012
F resh snow, as sparkling as salt crystals, coated the ground like a sea of white. In the midst of it, patches of dark green firs rose tall and straight like columns in a cathedral.
Crossing icy streams and trudging through thick snow, we followed trails and spotted herds of red deer, harriers and the occasional white-tailed eagle above our heads; we even saw a large male beaver swimming in the river before disappearing into his dam – but there was not a sign of what we were looking for. No sign of black fur. No giant hoof prints. Not a single hint of the European bison.
“We’ll find the bison, no problem,” our guide, European Bison Reserve’s vet, Michał Krysiak, said in a hushed voice. “The only time they are elusive is during ‘love time’ – the mating season in spring.”
My husband and I had planned our visit to Poland’s Bialowieza National Park for late winter, both the best time and place to track the European bison. Marooned in the north-east corner of the country, Poland’s oldest national park is home to over 480 European bison – out of the few thousands remaining in the wild.
Marooned in the north-east corner of the country, Poland’s oldest national park is home to over 480 European bison – out of the few thousands remaining in the wild.
Originally a part of Russia, Bialowieza was a private hunting ground for Tsar Nicholas II, who eradicated the existing herds of bison and laid waste to almost all wildlife in the area. Incorporated as a national park in 1921, it was created to reintroduce European bison into the area and to safeguard the remaining wildlife.
Untouched and unmanaged by human hand, the protected primeval forest in Białowieza has survived due to its remoteness. It is fiercely protected as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Left entirely to their own devices, trees grow old and die, their rotten remains serving as food for insects and birds. For over 8,000 years, this natural cycle is what keeps the forest alive.
Just as we were about to turn back, a loud snort caught our attention. We parted the tangled firs to find a group of a dozen bison gathered less than 300 feet (80 meters) away from us. The shaggy, motionless herd stood quietly on a sandy plain, munching on hay and silage as they basked in weak sunshine and disregarded us indulgently. We stared wide-eyed in silence for what felt like an eternity, observing the beasts – all of their beefy bodies, hairy shoulders and thick, black necks.
A blizzard arrived as we continued to watch the gentle giants. But this rare glimpse of the bison made it all worthwhile: the freezing cold; the long trek to Bialowieza; and even the fierce snow now swirling down upon us.
Boars, Deer and Moose
The next morning we journeyed 40 miles (64 km) to Biebrza National Park, a 150,000-acre patchwork of marshy flatlands, agricultural fields and pine forests protected under the Ramsar Convention. Created in 1993, the park protects the indigenous moose and wild boar as well as thousands of migrating birds that fly here each spring.
This park borders the Biebrza River and harbors over 200 different bird species, moose, red deer, wild boars, hares, badgers, beavers, and even a couple of wolf packs and solitary lynxes.
We had arranged our wildlife trek with Eco-Travel, an eco-conscious operator that leads visitors through the park and introduces them to the conservation issues of the region. The minute we arrived, our guide, minidynamo Kate Ramotowska, rushed us into her 4WD. “Quick, the moose will be active now because they are feeding at this time of the morning!”
Heading off through the flat, snowy landscape along the Tsar’s Road, we soon left the paved road behind and began trekking on foot through thick pine forests in search of the elusive moose.
These lugubrious, long-faced members of the deer family are about the size of a large horse, the bulls weighing up to 1,500lb (700kg). Their heads are topped with large curly antlers and aren’t much given to turns of speed. They are not well known for their massive intelligence either. As Kate pointed out, “They seem to think that hiding their heads behind spindly pine trees means we cannot see them.”
Just five minutes into our trek through the frosty undergrowth, we caught one peeking shyly round a tree at us. Then another. And another. In less than two hours, we’d spotted eight lone moose – some chewing on tree barks, others grazing on dry grass, and a few of them just staring at us cluelessly.
“We have around 1,000 protected moose in Biebrza National Park,” Kate explained. “Each of them consumes nearly 50 pounds (20kg) of pine leaves daily, creating a resource issue for our park.”
For several years there has been an agreement between the park rangers, who work ceaselessly to conserve the number of moose within the region, and the forestry commission, who now want to cull the beasts to stop the damage they cause to the forestry stock. Young trees are stripped of their bark, the tops are eaten off saplings and mature trees lose their leaves. To cull or not to cull, the battle continues. I watched the moose, and pondered sadly if they knew what possibly awaits them.
Rising Above Biebrza
After an invigorating morning of catching moose off guard, spotting majestic red deer as they sprinted away from us and following the tracks of wild hares through the icy shrubs, we lunched on smoczki (pork meatballs) in the park’s wood-paneled tavern, Dwór Dobarz.
Here we discovered the conditions were right to take a hot-air balloon ride over the sprawling park and hopefully spot more wildlife. Kate noticed I had gone green – from my immense fear of heights. “Here, have this. It’ll help,” she said, handing me a shot of the local Żubrówka vodka flavored with bison grass.
And perhaps it did, because soon enough I found myself being propelled backside first into a wicker basket and swept along by a bright red-and-yellow balloon, the only splash of color in the gunmetal skies.
In calm, soothing silence, we floated gently above the undulating Biebrza river valley and flat green marshes that border the pine forest, still striated with ice from winter.
In calm, soothing silence, we floated gently above the undulating Biebrza river valley and flat green marshes that border the pine forest, still striated with ice from winter. The chilly wind whipped our faces like needles, but the beauty of the landscape was too distracting. We glided up and down, brushing against the canopy of the pines at times, startling grazing moose and wild boars that roamed beneath our feet.
Even on a grey afternoon such as this, there was no time to worry about the height. Despite my severe vertigo, I was absorbed by the raw, pristine scenes before us; eagles and buzzards circling in the air, red deer moving across the half-frozen flatlands below us and wolves howling in the far distance. In this black-and-white icy landscape, there was a stern majesty of its own.
Back on land, in the freezing dusk of a Polish winter’s day, we pulled out the vodka, huddled around the balloon’s burner for warmth and toasted to this rare experience of flying above one of the last remaining wildernesses in Europe. Nobody knows how long this wilderness will remain, but at least its resident wildlife, including the elusive bison, can proudly call it home for now.