One of the highest items on my list of things to do during this trip was to visit one of the last swaths of primeval forest in Europe. The Bialowieza Forest consists of 548 square miles of designated UNESCO-protected forest, straddling the border of Poland and Belarus, with another 644 square miles of buffer zone to insulate the delicate ecosystem from the effects of encroaching human habitation. It is home to the largest population of free-roaming European Bison in the world, protecting a quarter of the remaining beasts that had been hunted out of existence in Poland by the German occupation of World War I.
Bialowieza owes much of its current untouched state, ironically, to the various kings and tsars who used the property as their personal hunting grounds. As early as 1538, there is evidence that the local royalty had implemented penalties for illegal hunting in the forest, and in the centuries to follow, various attempts were made to implement forestry services, preserve the land, and protect the valuable bison living there. Some of the more misguided efforts included the killing of all predators and the introduction of desirable hunting species, but through it all, the core of the forest remained attractive enough to be protected by those with the means to do so.
Our bus to the forest started in Bialystok, a nearby city where we spent the night and rolled out of bed at the crack of dawn to make the 6:00 AM departure to Bialowieza village. Unfortunately, the early departure listed on the bus company’s website didn’t seem to exist, as a bus driver directed us to an updated schedule posted on the bus stop itself, which indicated the first departure was closer to 8:00 AM. Wistfully thinking about the extra two hours of sleep we could have had, we eventually hopped on the later bus and enjoyed a pleasant ride to the park.
The drive there was mostly filled with huge swaths of farmland, rolling green and brown fields of corn and wheat. It seemed endless, until the landscape suddenly transformed before our eyes, instantly replaced with dense, green forests, mysteriously dark under the thick canopy. At random intervals, small footpaths snaked off into the shadowy undergrowth, teasing with possibilities. While we absorbed the passing sights, the bus driver slammed on the brakes, bringing the vehicle to a halt to allow a family of deer to bound across the road. It seemed that we had arrived in Bialowieza.
Our first afternoon was mostly spent in the small parks and walking trails scattered around Bialowieza village. Though there are many hiking trails distributed throughout the forest, a lot of visitors remain in the more easily accessible parks and walking paths on the outskirts of the protected zones. These attractive parks are full of shaded tracks, dotted with informational signs explaining much of the history and natural habitat of Bialowieza. As we wandered out of the park and into the village, we spotted an enormous pile of sticks perched somewhat-unsteadily on the chimney of the town post office with a handsome, if somewhat bedraggled, white stork standing on it. Over the next few days we saw these huge nests, and majestic storks, seemingly everywhere – often balanced precariously on rooftops, where it seemed like the slightest breeze should send the 3-6’ tall construct sliding down the pitched roof to crash into the ground below. A placard in one of the parks proudly stated that, though the numbers of the white stork are declining, a 2004 census indicated that there were 52,000 breeding pairs nesting in Poland, “thus making every fifth stork in the world Polish.”
The next day we rose early for a guided tour through the “strict reserve” in the forest. While the outer areas of Bialowieza can be hiked independently, the reserve area requires a licensed guide, and the longer hikes to the deepest areas of the reserve require both a guide and permission from the park office, ensuring that traffic through the protected sections is kept to manageable levels. The colors and sounds of the morning were muted by a thick blanket of fog that slowly burned off as we walked through the tall, grassy fields towards the forest, passing under a large wooden gate to enter into the damp, cool air of the protected reserve. Our guide told us that the few Americans who visit the park are often disappointed that, despite the preserve’s age, no great sequoias or redwoods tower overhead. Though indeed the trees were of a different scale from the imposing hardwoods of the west coast, I found it breathtakingly beautiful. The different ecological zones of the forest were wonderful, shifting from towering oak trees, into pine forests, to marshes and wetlands and back again into groves of oak. The smells, too, changed – the sharp odor of pine sap, rich scent of rotten wood, and slight musty aroma of a wetland. Occasionally, the pleasant odors of the forest were interrupted by the stench of a stinkhorn mushroom – a smelly but edible fungus that, when mature, reeks of rotting meat – accompanied by the harsh buzz of a swam of flies. Fallen trees abounded, providing moss-blanketed homes to fungus, snails and tiny frogs. Occasionally, a clearing in the canopy and an abundance of tiny saplings marked where a great tree had fallen, rotting away to provide the light and nutrients for new growth. Birds twittered cheerfully from the thick canopy while woodpeckers drummed overhead, barely even acknowledging our passing. It was magnificent – nearly 18 kilometers of hiking with hardly another human being to be seen.
Throughout the forest, the mosquitoes hung thickly in the air, a persistent whine that quickly reminded you of their presence when you paused to take a photo. Fortunately, they seemed to be respectful of the substantial layer of DEET we kept applied – a welcome relief from the DEET-substitute we were forced to experiment with in Southeast Asia, whose formula apparently included mosquito pheromones and picaridin (completely useless, and never again). What was not repelled by the spray, however, was the horrendous quantity of ticks, who dropped from the leaves in a multi-legged rain as if out of a nightmare. We queasily slapped and grabbed at the nasty little parasites, waylaying them before they climbed down our clothes and into our eyes – and as our guide just chuckled and suggested we take a long shower when we got home.
Total distance: 10.6 miles
Elevation gain: 68 feet
The next day, we rented bicycles and headed out to take advantage of a newly-opened area of the park: a visa-free pedestrian crossing into the Belarusian side of the forest. Though some paperwork is required – an approved application, insurance and a small entrance fee – it provides an easy way to spend up to 3 days exploring the Belarusian-owned area of Bialowieza. The border crossing was easy, quickly stamping us out of the Schengen region and into Belarus, and in just a few minutes we were pedaling through Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park – the Belarusian name for Bialowieza. The arrow-straight access roads are lovely and virtually empty, and since the border crossing does not admit vehicles, we saw only a few cars the entire day. The deep forest seems to encroach on the narrow roads, and only a couple feet away, huge trees bow over the paved path, as if trying to reclaim the cleared space. Amusing little carved men point the way towards noteworthy sights – a 600-year-old oak tree known as the Patriarch Oak, and a 350-year-old pine tree that’s thought to be the oldest pine in Belarus. Eventually we made our way to a small town, Kamieniuki, on the edge of the forest, where I tried a bison stew and, naturally, a local Belarus beer.
Total distance: 41.5 miles
Elevation gain: 507 feet
As the afternoon wore on, we headed back to Poland to visit the bison reserve. We hadn’t been lucky enough to see one in the wild, so we pedaled to a nearby reserve that helps participate in breeding and recovery programs for the huge animals. While it’s always better to see something in the wild, it was still fun to watch the lumbering beasts for a little while, and the reserve provided viewing enclosures for a number of other local animals, such as deer and wild boar. Eventually, we rode back to Bialowieza town to return the bikes and catch our bus to Warsaw.
I suppose it’s inevitable with such a wild and undisturbed place, but as our bus sped back out of the forest, I couldn’t help but feel as if we hadn’t even scratched the surface of the park. Perhaps this, like Mongolia, will go on our list of places to return one day, to see the bison in winter, or the wolves with their spring litters. Whether we return or not, it was surely a unique place, and worthy of a spot on any wilderness enthusiast’s “life list.”