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The Augustów Forest - an erstwhile tundra, Poland

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The Puszcza Augustowska (Augustów Forest), one of the most extensive forests in Poland, stretches to the north-east of the Masurian lakes . It covers 114,000,000 ha, that is almost the whole Augustów Plain in the southern part of the Suwałki and Augustów Lake District, flat but dotted with dunes. The outwash sands are dominated by pine and spruce, with many trees over 120 years old. The forest is bisected by the winding Czarna Hańcza, the region's main river, and shelters numerous lakes ranging from small ponds to Lake Wigry, biggest in the Suwałki region. With Lakes Necko, Rospuda, Białe, and Studzieniczne, all connected by the Augustów Canal, it is a major attraction for canoeists and boaters. The forest is excellent for hiking and biking. The area's main tourist centre is Augustów.

The Augustów Forest is dominated by pine and pine and spruce woodland, which account for as much as 80% of the tree stand. In the southern, water-logged part, you can find carrs of black alder, aspen and ash. The wildlife comprises roe deer, deer, foxes, wild boar and hares, all fairly common in other parts of the country, as well as elks, beavers, lynxes, martens, capercaillies, black grouse, black storks, grey herons and white-tailed eagles. The Augustów Forest has been declared a wildfowl sanctuary of European significance. Some species - the dunlin, crossbill, fieldfare, black-throated diver, greater spotted eagle and short-eared owl - have been living here for three thousand years. There are also some mud turtles, very rare in Poland. The lakes are home to rare fish like the powan and whitefish as well as to more common species: the eel, pike, bream, tench, perch and roach.

The biggest tourist attraction in the forest, and a remarkable engineering achievement, is the Augustów Canal, built between 1824- and 1839. The 102 km waterway, connecting the basins of the Vistula and Niemen Rivers, runs from the Dębowo lock on the River Biebrza to the Niemnowo lock in Belarus. The Polish section of the canal is 80 km long and includes canalised stretches of the Rivers Netta and Czarna Hańcza plus a few lakes. To negotiate the almost 55-metre drop in water level, 18 locks were constructed, of which 14 are today in Poland. Sadly, the 20 km Belarussian leg has been vandalised and needs repair. Out of the 14 locks in Poland, nine are practically in their original technical condition. There are pleasure-boats going up and down the canal, and it is also a popular kayak route which, when combined with the Czarna Hańcza route, is 98.5 km long and ranked among the most scenic in Poland, rivalled only by the Krutynia River. What makes it particularly attractive is the fact that it is very easy, even for absolute beginners.

There are many villages and campsites along the canal, but you will also find plenty of secluded spots here, where only humming water and chattering water birds can be heard. And there are numerous nature reserves accessible by walking and cycling trails and sometimes protecting entire lakes.

However, the two greatest treasures in this area are beyond any doubt the Czarna Hańcza River and Lake Wigry. The 147 km river, which is a tributary of the Niemen, starts on the moraine hills north of Lake Hańcza and flows through Lake Wigry. It has two dramatically different phases: the stretch from the source to Lake Wigry is wild, resembling a swift-current, high-gradient mountain stream. After the lake, the Hańcza is subdued into a lowland river, lazily meandering through the fields and woods of the Augustów Forest. Navigating its dark ribbon is a delight for canoeists.

Lake Wigry is large (2187 ha, maximum depth 73 m) and has sinuous shores. Its islands, coves and the woods around the lake have bewitched many a visitor. Indeed, the blue water contrasted with the mass of green trees stretching to the horizon is a breathtaking view you will not forget quickly. The area is dominated by a fine 15th-century hermitage that once belonged to the Camaldolese Hermits. Nearby are some 40 other lakes, among them some dystrophic lakes (low in oxygen and supporting little life), typically without any outlets or tributaries, filled with brown water and surrounded by peat-bog vegetation. Here and there you can spot a small hamlet, wayside cross, or shrine.

Both the river and the lake are encompassed by the 15,000-hectare Wigry National Park established in 1989. It is certainly one of the wildest and most scenic parts of Poland. The Park is the habitat of some 1,000 species of vascular plants, of which over 60 are under strict protection. On the lakeshores and in the forest, you can see over a dozen kinds of ferns, lycopods and plenty of flowers including 19 varieties of orchids. There are also rare plants like the insectivorous sundew, shrubby birch, marsh saxifrage, and Charles' sceptre.

The Wigry National Park is the habitat of 46 species of mammals. The biggest predators are wolves, living mainly in its southern part. There are also foxes, nocturnal raccoon dogs, otters, martens, badgers, ermines and American minks. Occasionally you can spot an elk. The most characteristic denizen is the beaver, which has become the emblem of this Park. The colony of these rodents, Europe's largest, numbers about 250 animals.

The Park boasts almost 200 species of birds, mainly passerines and water birds such as the mallard, mute swan, gull, tern, crane, goose, grebe, and cormorant. Birds of prey include the white-tailed eagle, osprey, buzzard, goshawk, and sparrow hawk. More info on: poland.gov.pl

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