Another highlight- the wonders of the Biebrza. When looking for a place to go kayaking, there were several things to take into account. Franki had told me Greg would sink like a stone if he fell into the water, so we needed a place where he could put his feet down and touch the bottom. We also wanted a place without too many boy scouts and adolescent campers, since the school holidays had already started. Also, a place where Marcin hadn’t been before (he was once one of the adolescent campers.)
I had some misgivings about the Biebrza. The word ‘swamp’ did not fill me with delicious anticipation, and I couldn’t find a better English version of bagno.
After mulling this over for days, it finally occurred to me that marshes are marginally more attractive than swamps, and that I could have pulled off a PR coup by describing it this way to begin with. The description of the area as the ‘Polish Amazon’ did nothing to allay the fears induced by the word swamp; I imagined a shadeless muddy bog filled with malodorous brown water, plagued by clouds of biting insects (this part turned out to be true). The main lure was the possibility of seeing an elk, and the promise that this was a wild part of Poland.
Though I had quietly scoffed at the idea that any part of this densely inhabited country could be wild, I soon had to eat my words. Our route ran through a national park which limits visitors during the bird breeding season, which had only just ended. We paddled for 4 days and every day, had to walk at least half an hour to a shop for food. This had kept away the boy scouts, along with everyone else, so we didn’t see anyone at all on a longer trip apart from us.
It was hot and the heat and silence clamped down over the water like a lid. The river sent off its river-smell, stony and organic all at once. The whole area was alive with birds: a field full of grazing storks high-stepping their way between delicacies, ducks with their ducklings foraging along the banks, a little fine-boned beaky creature like a sandpiper beating up and down above the reeds and occasionally dropping down and skimming the surface for some invisible prey. Little eagles and herons; great meaty swans and their families. Everything was poison-green; the reeds, the grass on the banks, even the frogs had a metallic green sheen on their backs that gleamed for a second as they leapt for safety.
Camped in a bird hide at Biały Grąd on our second night, the others saw an elk picking its way through the marshes, and a pair of Danish twitchers (after informing us that Poland is paradise for them, since there’s only one stork left in Denmark) let us look at a rare black stork through their binoculars. Even a seven- kilometre round trip to the shop and a pile of empty beer cans under our haven couldn’t spoil the mood. Herds of cattle grazed in the bogs, smelling sweetly of hot grass. As they moved their bulk sluggishly homeward in the afternoon, I felt a sort of mindless bovine contentment myself: the hot sun, the tea-coloured water, the smell of woodsmoke, the (comparative) absence of nausea.
Needless to say, after 4 days of this bliss we were dirty and exhausted and sunburnt and ready to stop. But it was wonderful, and I hope the pictures show it.