On the Biebrza River, a river from the Middle-age

Flowing over 150 km, this Polish river has not been subjected to land settlements like the other European rivers. Such as draining and dyking for farm land, activities which extremely reduced the surface of wetlands, which are fundamental for many animals and plants species.

Here we are on the bank of the Biebrza river for our fourth navigation. This river of the plain, full of meanderings, and its huge wetland, full of reeds, was perfectly unknown for us only few months ago. But, in the digression of our research, we discovered the impressive list of mammals of this river. There is no doubt on the necessity of the navigation of this river located in the North-East of Poland. Moose, otters, beavers are the witness of the good conservation of the river.

Sunrise on the Biebrza river

Sunrise on the Biebrza river

But beyond the inventory, this navigation is the chance to pursue our journey in the time. Today, it will bring us to the middle-age. It is at this age that the man started to have an impact on his environment. To only talk about it, the wetland was drained to extend the farming [1]. This lead to a disruption of the fauna, some species disappeared or took refuge in some less populated country.

Sunset on the Biebrza river

Sunset on the Biebrza river

The Biebrza valley gets its good conservation first because it is a huge wetland. This area very inhospitable was populated later, at the XVth century. Then, the river was located during the history nearby the borders, between Prussia, Russia and the Poland. All these factors prevented some big land settlements which happened all around Europe. Nevertheless, the Biebrza River is not untouched by human. Our height days of paddling will be an alternation of agricultural area and natural area.

We left from the little town of Lipsk. The first morning was giving to the shuttle, a kind of migration well known by the paddlers. The aim : start for the departure of the navigation with two cars to let a car at the end of the navigation and come back with one vehicle to the departure point. This entire step takes time, and generally, the devoted drivers are welcomed with some sarcastic comments about the time spent in the different bars on the road !

The Biebrza River

The Biebrza River

We start our navigation in the beginning of afternoon, the river is only two or three meters wide and the meanders are very tight. It is not easy to navigate ! Every attention drops is punished by a getting pushed in to the reeds where the horse flies are waiting for you… Their buzzing in the reeds along the banks is by the way very impressive…

The Biebrza river is very narrow in its first kilometers downstream from Lipsk

The Biebrza river is very narrow in its first kilometers downstream from Lipsk

And when it is not the meanderings, it is the time of the duckweed to play with us. In certain places, they cover so much water surface that they brake our navigation. Unable to go in a right speed, we did 15km in five hours. We cursed by the way the middle-age rivers !

The duckweeds cover the entire river in some places

The duckweeds cover the entire river in some places

The wetland does not lend itself to the improvised bivouac so many dry lands are rare. So, the National Park sets some campsite up all along the river. We met today a Dutch family in canoe with whom we will do common bivouac many times. For the first time in our project On the rivers of Europe, we navigate in an identified river for wandering canoe. It is the opportunity for some meetings : a groupe of 30 years old Polish guys without wives and kids, a solitary German in his sea kayak…

The campsites in the Biebrza River bank are full of charm

The campsites in the Biebrza River bank are full of charm

The next day, waking at 6.30am, the two naturalists of the team, Carole and Jesse are already gone since several hours. They had a good idea, because they got the chance to see a moose. Its steps on the wetland, its breath and finally its appearance. Few magic minutes before the animal went back to the wetland. We decided to wake up also early tomorrow morning !

Moose surprised on the Biebrza River

Moose surprised on the Biebrza River

The moose survived in all Europe until the middle-age. It likes to spend the summer grazing with its feet on the wetland. The hunting and the draining of a big part of the wetland put down the population in the temperate climate countries of Europe. It took refuge in the North of Europe, mainly in Scandinavia. Here, the low density of the human population permits to the moose to fill its stomach. It was reintroduced in several places in Central European countries but it has never disappeared on the Biebrza area where we can count today 700 individuals. The idea of the reintroduction of the moose in France, in particular in the « Parc naturel régional des boucles de la Seine normande » was sometimes evoked.

3am, it is the time when we woke up the next morning to give our first paddles for the sunrise. Magic moments when we navigate slowly and quietly with the hope to see again a moose. One of the boat glimpsed by chance a beaver !

Sunrise on the water

Sunrise on the water

The wetland is giving the place to the agricultural fields. The river is not anymore edged by the reeds and our gaze goes far. We could see numerous birds such as common cranes, greylag geese, lapwings and storks which are not leaving us since our first steps in Romania one month ago. Alas, it is not question about moose anymore in this habitat. Our tiredness is perceptible and we regretted our early waking, we will adapt our navigation time in the middle. No need to shorten our night when the navigation is along the fields.

Common cranes

Common cranes

The work of draining the wetland was much intensified in the middle-age to give the land suitable of the agricultural work. The lands are drained means there are deep ditches inside the fields to collect the water from the soil. The wetland and the reeds disappear in favor of the farming.

Ditches of draining in the area of the Biebrza National Park

Ditches of draining in the area of the Biebrza National Park

The fourth day started at 6.30am, the landscape is agricultural: roe deer and wild boars mainly. One of these meetings is extraordinary. In need of a toilet immediately, one of us went to a bank to make a deposit when two young wild boars run away. One runs straight to the canoe which was in its way. The impact was violent but the young wild boar recovered from very fast and run away faster…

Roedeer on its flight

Roedeer on its flight

This agricultural part of the river is also the most populated. The lunch breaks and the bivouacs are now in settled beach in town. Swimming, sunbath and beers are involved. But, in its fourth night, some of us wanted to celebrate with the local population. The Polish are very warm people and our teammates were initiated to the Art of the vodka. One half glass of 60 degree vodka, following by a glass of beer. Starting with good intention, they lost quickly their mind. Drunk as French in Poland, they came back to their tent, with some growls late in the night or maybe early in the morning. Few hours later, the waking was hard. Finding the entrance of the tent was suddenly very complicated.

Beach in Goniadz town

Beach in Goniadz town

After few sermons, we took the road back ! Carole and Jesse had some advance and they already saw a raccoon dog when we caught them. This animal is to the South-est of Asia what the raccoon is to the United States of America [2]. Appreciated for its fur, the raccoon dog set up discretely in the west escaping from breeding center. He is now living in the wetlands where, opportunist, he feds on amphibians, young birds and cadavers. He is not welcome in the Biebrza National Park where its impact on the birds populations is feared. We arrived to the campsite where we weathered a thunderstorm. We are worried about a potential deterioration of the weather. We are going to enter in the earth of the National Park of the Biebrza, the reserve, where we hope to make some nice meetings.

Raccoon dog

Raccoon dog

At 3 am, we left for our sixth day, the river is wide and edged again of wetlands and reeds. On the muddy banks, we can see very easily the holes in the vegetation made by the beaver which are extended by a slope to go to the river. Is not Biebrza a derived old word in Polish for beaver ? We had the chance to see a mink swimming and we heard the breath of a moose in the reeds but it did not show up.

We arrived at the campground at 8am, the campground have often a mirador to permit to gaze at the wetland. The miradors are also a good place to meet the local population who uses them often by pleasure or to localize, at the time of the milking, the cows which are concentrated in the dry land.

View from one of the mirador built on the bank of the river

View from one of the mirador built on the bank of the river

We met a brotherhood of four big Polish guys. Three of them migrated to United-States of America 20 years ago, the fourth one takes over the family farm. He explained us that he receives some money from the National Park to cut the grass in the wetland. It is about opening some areas for the birds which would disappear if the bushes invade the place. These lands were used but the past, but the mechanization of the agriculture and the hardness of the work forced the Park to make program to maintain the open field. Who did that before the human ? The mammals who disappeared as the Aurochs was taking care of it ? Was the population of moose bigger than today ? Mystery. We are touching to the complexity of the situation. The human impact is more discrete here than anywhere else but it has to be maintained to keep the biodiversity of the valley.

Great egreet, grey heron and lapwings in a flooded field

Great egreet, grey heron and lapwings in a flooded field

We came back on the canoe at the end of the day for a hide at the nightfall. A beaver show its noise.

New departure at 3am for our second to last day of navigation. We have not talked about fishing since and because, it was pathetic. Just few fish taken thanks to a hook and earthworm. The luck is with us and we caught a nice perch and pike for our last (and unfortunately unique) fish dinner. Do we need to remind that the perches and pikes need the submerged vegetation to lay their eggs ? They suffered a lot of the dyking up of the rivers everywhere in Europe. This free river with its hundreds of flooded hectares in winter is so a extreme favorable. So, despite the two catches, our self-esteem for fishing is very low, no needs to justify ourselves.

Still life of Perche and Pike

Still life of Perche and Pike

We arrived in the morning in our campground located inside a charming village. The agricultural activity is intense but keeps a small scale. It is with a small wooden boat that the farmer are crossing the river to push their cattle from the pasture to the farm.

The cows and the farmer in boat

The cows and the farmer in boat

Our last day of navigation is in front of us. For the first time the landscape is hilly. We said good bye to the Biebrza River, river with two faces, one agricultural and another wild, when we arrived to the convergence with the Narew on which we navigated few kilometers to aim the end of our journey.

Common cranes

Common cranes

Text : Aurélien Rateau

Translation : Carole Duval, Jesse Gabbard (www.wildpics.net)

Thanks

To Carole Duval, Jesse Gabbard, Pierre-Antoine Hussherr, teammates of the navigation and directors of videos and photos,

To Nelly Bastide et Fabian Rateau, teammates of the navigation,

To Malgorzata Gorska et Piotr Marczakiewicz, Biebrza national park, for their explanations about the river,

To Mirek Witkowski (www.agrobiebrza.a3.pl) for his hospitality,

To Arno Rosinach (http://www.lemerlet.asso.fr/), David Prothais et Sofia Aliamet (Eclectic experience) who helped us in the writing of this document.

Bottom notes

[1] In the middle age, man started to harvest the forest and its resources on a grand scale. This was stimulated by a growth of the human population.

[2] Nevertheless, the raccoon belongs to the Panda family while the raccoon dog is a canidae. But these two animals share the same habitat, behaviour and camouflage in their respective areas of the world.

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