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Hiking Kemeri National Park, Latvia
A vast sea of mosses, brown pools, and lakes spread out before me. Besides my guide and I, there is no one else in sight. From this top of the watch tower, I can see the Kemeri bog running for miles on end, fringed by green pine tree forests in the far distance. The sun sparkles from beyond, lighting up the entire bog in shades of gold. I’m in the heart of Kemeri National Park, Latvia’s most accessible wilderness just 50km from the capital city of Riga.
Earlier that morning, I hopped onto an inter-city train in downtown Riga, and headed west into the Jurmala province. This area is a popular resort town known more for its beaches and spas than the wilderness. Few tourists venture out to this end of the Jurmala province, but the wildlife reserve and national park at Ķemeri is one of the most impressive natural treasures in Latvia.
Just an hour later, I find myself deep in the Kemeri National Park, surrounded by hummingbirds, dragonflies and pristine nature. It comes as quite a surprise that such untamed wilderness can be found a quick hop away from the capital and just a few kilometers from the beach of Jurmala.
Sprawling across 36,000 hectares of area, Ķemeri is the third largest national park in the country by area. Its ancient raised bogs, swamps, forests and lakes were created roughly 8,000 years ago when the sea retreated to its current position. What’s left behind from the ancient sea are now lakes and lagoons, as well as the natural mineral springs and muds that are formed as a result of interactivity of dolomite bedrocks and large bogs.
History and Culture Behind Kemeri
At the Kemeri Information Centre, I meet park manager Agness, who is a wealth of knowledge on all things to do with nature conservation in Latvia. She has been working here since the park opened in 1997.
We start our bike ride from the Information Center, housed in one of those traditional wooden houses that used to be a sanatorium (a health resort or medical facility for those with long-term illness).
Paddling into the forest, Agness tells us the history behind Kemeri.
Kemeri was first started as a resort when the springs at Ķemeri became known for their curative properties in 1796. It became a popular spot in the Russian empire and attracted people from all over Europe.
As we paddle our way through the forest, we find asphalt paths, ornate wells and bridges. Agness explains that this area used to be the landscaped park of the resort, where patients would take long walks as part of the healing program.The development of Kemeri Park started in 1838 and walking trails up to 30 km long were built.
Today’s Kemeri Park
Sadly, the resort was devastated during World War I, when the battles between German and Russian forces took place just a few miles from Ķemeri. The newly created Republic of Latvia tried to restore the previous glory of Ķemeri. by building a special bathing facility in 1924.
In 1929, a 42m tall water tower with a sightseeing platform at the top was built near the bathing facility. The most impressive building constructed during that time was Hotel Ķemeri, known affectionately as “White Ship”, designed by famous Latvian architect Eižens Laube. The hotel switched owners several times but has been closed and abandoned for more than two decades now.
Today, the Kemeri park is a popular spot for newlyweds to take some photos with the beautiful backdrop of bridges and pavilions.
As we continue our ride, we come across a few traditional wooden houses. Agness tells us that unlike other countries, the Latvian authorities allows people to live in their national parks, as long as their activities don’t interfere with the environment.
That said, there are pockets of wildernesses within their four national parks that are closed off from any sort of human activities. These areas are called nature reserves and are usually very remote and hard to access. The nature reserve in Kemeri National Park only covers 6% of the total national park area.
The Kingdom of Moss and Bogs
The national park is criss-crossed by numerous hiking trails, boardwalks and cycling routes, with the most popular being the Slokas Lake walking trail, the Great Ķemeri moorland footbridge, and the Kaņieris castle mound trail.
We chose to hike the 3.4km Great Kemeri moorland footbridge that would bring us on a loop around the most accessible bog in Kemeri. The footbridge is made of wooden planks and is raised just a few inches from the ground to allow hikers to explore the wetland without getting stuck in the marsh.
The boardwalk was first built by a British woman who made a generous donation to the national park. But due to the lack of funding and maintenance issues, they had to close the boardwalk down in the 1990s. In 2013, when the national park received funding from the EU, they rebuilt a brand new one and now it’s a great trail for active hikers and families alike to head out into the wild.
The Flora and Fauna of Kemeri
As we weave our way into the kingdom of moss and lakes, I’m blown away by the sheer magnitude of the bog. It seems to be so vast that it’ll take days to actually walk from one end to another. Agness tells me that this raised bog is in fact the second biggest bog in Lativa, covering an area of 6,000 hectares (the biggest is in Eastern Latvia).
Strangely though, the bog isn’t packed full of vegetation. As she explains, the bog is very poor in nutrients, with just acid and not much of other organisms. Most trees can’t survive in such severe conditions, so you will find only a few tree species here and they don’t grow very big. The few plants that do grow here are small pines and birches, and small plants like the bog rosemary, leatherleaf and insectivorous sundew (yes it eats insects!).
Agness tells me that this raised bog is in fact the second biggest bog in Lativa, covering an area of 6,000 hectares (the biggest is in Eastern Latvia).
As for fauna, the bog environment doesn’t support diverse wildlife but it’s home to some very specific and rare animal species that are unique to the bog environment. In fact, it’s an excellent spot for birdwatching. Every species of woodpecker can be found here, as well as cranes, white wagtail and bog sandpiper.
Birdwatchers from around Europe come to Kemeri to spot these birds especially during the migration of birds in Spring and the wild geese migration in October. Many migratory birds tend to rest and recover in the bog for a couple of days before continuing their migration from the Arctic to Western Europe to spend winter.
In fact, Kemeri is such a great birdwatching spot that the national park organizes a birdwatching day in conjunction with the European birdwatching day to get locals and tourists out and about. Besides the birdwatching day, they also hold events to watch bats in the evenings as well as other educational activities for children. These are all part of the national park’s efforts to get people more involved with nature.
According to Agness, Kemeri National Park is the first protected nature area in Latvia that has been granted the European sustainable tourism charter. That means they collaborate closely with municipalities and local tourism businesses to promote Kemeri’s tourism.
It’s clear that they are doing a great job to introduce nature into the Latvian lifestyle. I’m sure Kemeri will continue to shine and draw in more and more people in future. Perhaps in a few years’ time, Kemeri will no longer be Latvia’s best-kept secret, but in the meantime, it’s still one of Latvia’s greatest natural treasures.
[box]Disclaimer: This trip is a collaboration between iambassador and Latvian Tourism Development Agency with the support of the European Union Regional Development Fund. As always, all opinions remain my own.[/box]