When my husband and I arranged to visit Poland’s remote Biebrza National Park I certainly hadn’t expected to find myself two kilometers up in the icy winter air gazing down upon frozen water meadows and peering over the side of a wicker basket suspended from a hot-air balloon.
So we had a bizarre introduction to Podlaskie, the remote region of Poland marooned on the north-east border with Belarus – until the end of WWI this whole area was Russian. Within Podlaskie’s limits are two very special national parks; Bialowieza and Biebrza. The latter is a 150,000-acre patchwork of protected marshy flatlands, agricultural fields, and moose-concealing pine forests.
This land of wetlands and peat bogs borders the Biebrza River and harbors around 200 different resident bird species, thousands of insects, moose, red deer, wild boar, hares, badgers, beavers, rabbits, and even a couple of wolf packs and solitary lynxes. Created in 1993, the park exists for the protection of the indigenous moose and wild boar as well as the thousands of birds that migrate in each spring.
Spying on Moose
We had rocked up that bleak winter morning at the headquarters of Biebrza National Park in the minute hamlet of Osowiec-Twierdza to meet our guide, Kate Ramotowska.
In seconds we were engulfed in her enthusiasm for the wildlife of Biebrza. Wasting no time, we jumped into her 4WD, and headed off through the snow-strewn pine forest along the Tsar’s Road – built on the orders of last Russian Tsar Nicholas II. Soon enough we parked and trekked, frost crunching underfoot, through the silent columns of pine in search of elusive moose.
These slow-moving, long-legged, long-faced members of the deer family are the size of a large horse, the bulls weighing up to 700kg (1,500lb), and they have endless, mournful heads topped with curly antlers. They are not well known for their massive intelligence, as Kate pointed out; “they seem to think that hiding their heads behind spindly pine trees means we can’t see them.”
Just five minutes into our march through frosty undergrowth, we caught one moose peeking slyly round a tree at us. Then another. And another. All in all during the morning’s stalking of these shy but curious creatures, we counted eight lone beasts peering around trees at us. There are approximately 800 protected moose in Biebrza National Park, each consuming 50 pounds (20kg) of pine leaves daily.
Biebrza From Above
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 tussocks, we lunched on smoczki (pork meatballs) in Biebrza’s wood-panelled traditional hostelry of Dwór Dobarz.
Here we discovered the conditions were right to take a hot-air balloon ride to see the sprawling park from above and spot more wildlife. Kate noticed I had gone green – from an immense fear of heights. She kindly passed me a shot of local vodka flavored with bison grass.
And perhaps it helped, because soon enough I was propelled backside first into a wicker basket and swept upwards by its bright red-and-yellow balloon, the only splash of color in the gun-metal skies.
In calm, soothing silence, we floated gently up over the undulating river valley and flat green marshes that border the pine forest – still striated with ice from winter. The pilot released the burner and we swooped two kms up over the Biebrza river valley and the flat marshes bordering the pine forest, before noiselessly descending to brush the canopy of the pines to startle grazing moose. From the offset, there was no time to worry about the height. I was absorbed in watching the scenes change far below us and enjoying the peace and soundlessness; we saw eagles and buzzards circling to check us out, red deer grazing on the half-frozen flatlands, and wild boar scrumping in the woodland. In spring the meadows are carpeted with bright yellow flowers and the waters of the river run blue, but in this black-and-white wintery landscape there was a stern majesty of its own.
On the ground, 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 raw experience of flying above the few remaining wilderness in Europe.
Forest and River
The next morning we journeyed 40 miles (64 km) to Bialowieza, Poland’s oldest national park, to delve deeper into unexplored territories. Initially this estate was Russian territory, the private hunting ground of 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, Bialowieza was created to reintroduce European bison into the area and to safeguard the remaining wildlife.
We headed off by horse and cart to explore the national park’s primeval forest. Barely touched by human hand, it is fiercely protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and left entirely to its own devices. Trees grow old and die, falling onto the forest floor and remaining there to rot. This natural decay feeds insects and birds and takes part in a cycle that has lasted 8,000 years, in the last remnants of a lowland forest that coated much of Eastern Europe and Russia.
There’s no cultivation, no harvesting, and no hunting; all the species that exist here are native: trees such as spruce, oak, lime, pine, and 1,500 types of mushroom shelter bison, red squirrels, voles, wild boar, beavers, 180 species of birds, including eight different woodpeckers – and 29 different mosquitoes lurking in summertime bogs. Visitors enter by guided tour and follow wooden pathways through the undergrowth.
Later that day, we toured Bialowieza’s European Bison Reserve. Here the breeding program has led to the successful reintroduction of European bison and seen the re-establishment of a herd of dun-colored Konik ponies, an ancient breed that once roamed Europe. Shaggy Heck cattle, red deer, and wolves are also bred on the reserve.
Our guide showed us around the national park’s small Natural History Museum before taking us off to a secret site on the Narewka River to find some beavers. In the freezing twilight along the reed-banked river, we watched in amazement as a large male beaver washed in the icy water before swimming casually upstream and disappearing into his untidy, log-strewn bankside dam.
In Search of Wild Bison
Back in the park bright and early the next morning, we set off to track down wild bison in a 4WD with the Bison Reserve’s vet. The European bison was hunted close to extinction during the 19thand 20thcenturies, but descendants of the Bialowieza-bred animals have since been reintroduced into several European countries. They are Europe’s largest mammals, with the bulls weighing in at up to 2,000 lbs (920 kg), and have great shaggy necks, beady eyes, moth-eaten brown coats, and massive curling horns.
With 480 beast roaming freely at Bialowieza, the bison should have been easy to find. We searched high and low amid thick pine trees, on the sprawling, snow-flecked plains, and among the scrub – but there was none to be seen. Crossing icy streams and bumping along snow-laden trails, we spotted red deer, white eagles, and harriers, but no bison. Hours went by and disappointment filled our vehicle. Just as we were giving up the chase, we came upon a group of a dozen or so chilling out before us on a patch of sandy plain, munching quietly on hay and silage as they basked in weak sunshine. We stared wide-eyed in silence, observing the bison in their natural environment.
In three magical days we had encountered boar, moose, bison, and even beavers in the wild. We had veered off Poland’s tourist trail into Europe’s last great wildernesses – and while getting there wasn’t an easy ride, it was absolutely worth it.
Stay in Biebrza National Park at five budget campsites (10 zlotys or US$3 per day) or at the forest lodge in Grzedy for around 130 zlotys (US$37).
Sample some four-star luxury at the Hotel Branicki in Bialystok (www.hotelbranicki.com), with prices from 370 zlotys (US$104) for a double room.
In Bialowieza, dinner and rooms at the Restauracja and Apartmenty Carskie (www.restauracjacarska.pl) is not a budget option, with prices between 300-550 zlotys (US$80-155), but the glamor of the place compensates.
Photos courtesy of Sasha Heseltine.
- Sasha Heseltine