The Białowieża Forest has been on our bucket list for years. It is one of the few remaining primeval forests in Europe and the last stronghold of the wisent, the European bison. With our return to Lithuania and Poland, it was finally within reach. We reserved a tour months in advance and counted the days until we boarded a bus in Vilnius, en route to our rural escape.
Arrival in Białowieża
It took all day to reach Bialowieza by way of Białystok. Our first stop was at the PTTK office to confirm and pay off our tour. They warned us repeatedly to come prepared for a long day of hiking. Bring plenty of food and water, and dress for the weather. Forecast: thunderstorms.
Traveling is hungry work, so we got busy enjoying our stay in Poland with one of our favorite meals, perfectly-prepared pierogi. Ruskie (potato & cheese) are always a classic, but these bison-stuffed ones came with a side of delicious irony.
Dwór Na Otulinie, our hotel, was the nearest lodging to the park entrance. Bison sometimes wander right up to their yard, but we weren’t that lucky. Still, it was a cute family-run bed and breakfast and a good value, the perfect base for exploration.
Białowieża National Park
Bialowieza Forest consists of two parts – a larger, managed section and a reserve that can only be entered with a licensed guide. Naturally, we came to see the oldest and most-protected areas. For that reason we booked a private, 6-hour tour with an expert who would talk us through what we were seeing and answer our many and varied questions.
Our guide met us at 5 a.m. and walked us to the forest gate. It didn’t take long for our hopes to falter. He came way underprepared, no rain gear or supplies of any kind. Though he spoke English, he recited a litany of facts rather than engaging in a dialog. Half the fun for us had been the promise of picking the brain of a forestry expert. Instead, he couldn’t answer most of our questions.
But we were still determined to enjoy this incredible opportunity. The forest was serene and beautiful at at dawn, and we had it nearly to ourselves. It felt a lot like home. We usually associate hiking with elevation gain, but Bialowieza is remarkably flat. Kilometers of trekking felt like… a walk in the park?
Primeval forests (or as we’re more familiar with them, old-growth forests) are defined by their age and relative lack of disturbance by human hands. This one survived to the present day primarily because Polish and Russian royalty kept it as a private hunting reserve. In Washington they are mostly evergreens; this one was populated by massive hardwoods like oak, maple, and linden.
Soon enough, the predicted rain started to fall. At first it was just a light mist, but it quickly turned into deluge. We donned our raincoats and opened an umbrella. Our guide, however, got soaked.
Without big mountaintop vistas to look forward to, we busied ourselves observing smaller details. Our guide pointed out several different types of mushrooms and many trees that had been thoroughly hollowed by woodpeckers in search of a meal. Most of our wildlife sightings consisted of bark beetles and tiny frogs. Bison are of course rare to see in the best of conditions, but we did spot a curious pine marten flitting through the brush and a few birds.
As a former private hunting reserve, the “untouched” wilderness of Bialowieza was quite a bit less wild-feeling than we were used to. Only 105 km² of the forest is actually under strict preservation, and even that is criss-crossed by roads, dotted with concrete markers, and surrounded in its entirety by a fence.
We came in expecting big, sprawling old oaks like a fantasy book. Instead we discovered that they grow very tall and narrow in the competitive environment of the forest, with surprisingly small crowns and relatively little underbrush.
We saw many beautiful sights, some familiar and others entirely new. Nurse logs fostered mushroom colonies and the next generation of trees. Deep in the forest, some artifacts of the old honey trade still hung around. Breaks in the rain gave us a chance to look around at our wooded surroundings. They smelled mossy and damp, like fresh earth.
Mosquitoes were, unfortunately, a constant nuisance. Thankfully we came prepared with bug spray (applied liberally before entering the reserve). When the rain let up we kept our coats on for extra protection. Even more obnoxious were unfamiliar critters that looked to us like giant ticks with wings, but which we later learned were probably deer keds↗. They don’t necessarily target humans, but when they were digging around in our hair and deftly evading our smacks we didn’t much care.
We arrived back at the main gate after just 5 hours of our supposedly 6 hour tour. Kevin hid his disappointment for this photo.
Outside the reserve, the landscape changes instantly. Just in front of the gates hay bales populate an open field and trees grow wider and fuller. We were haunted thinking about how much of the vast Polish countryside once looked like the forest we’d just left, and saddened that one delicate little patch was all that remained.
After some debate about our unsatisfactory hike and the even-worse weather to come, we opted to leave a day earlier than planned. Swapping bus tickets was no problem, but now we only had that afternoon to see bison in person.
Rezerwat Żubrów – Bison Reserve
We had no expectation that we’d actually glimpse wisent on our forest tour. Like most wild animals, they usually avoid humans. Fortunately, Bialowieza has thought of that. An entire reserve just outside of town caters to folks searching for an up close and personal look at the elusive creatures.
Though the Bison Reserve has been around for decades, even playing a pivotal role in their reintroduction to the wild, the visitor center and educational exhibits were brand new.
The animal’s enclosures are large but not expansive. We quickly got our wish, spotting bison and one of their calves wandering around. They are slightly smaller and slightly more clean cut than their American counterparts, but giants of the forest. Bulls average around 1400 pounds.
The reserve houses many more creatures native to the area. There are red deer, boars, lynx, wolves, moose, and even wisent that have been cross-bred with cattle. Known as żubroń, the name is a pun on żubr (the Polish word for European bison), similar to American beefalo.
Unfortunately for us, the road to the reserve was not made for walking. Most visitors drove or rented bikes in town. We hiked nearly four miles back with thunder rolling ominously over our heads.
Restauracja Stoczek 1929 offered a refuge from the impending downpour, as well as a taste of Polish haute cuisine. Delicious plates of mutton and roast duck materialized as we watched the rain fall and the thunder boom. Every bite was delectable. We felt underdressed for fine dining in our most-presentable hiking clothes, but it didn’t matter – we had the place to ourselves.
We ended our day with over 20 miles of walking under our belts. The storm clouds settled into a much calmer evening mist, and the sky glowed pink and lavender with the hues of sunset. We slept as soon as our heads hit the pillow.
Białystok & Gloom
Our decision to leave a day early was validated by heavy rain the next morning. The bumpy local leg of the ride turned our knuckles white in parts, as the driver blasted through massive puddles that caused our bus to shake and swerve wildly. The forest blurred by as we sped back toward Białystok.
The weather was thankfully kind during our three hour layover in Białystok. We shouldered our bags and made our way to explore the center of town. The time passed easily as we wandered the streets, listened to an organist practicing in the cathedral, and ate a satisfying sushi lunch before the long ride back to Vilnius.
Gently rolling wheat fields dominated our view for the next 6 hours. Along the way, ubiquitous white storks nest high at the tops of poles. We passed a crumbling checkpoint at Lithuania’s border, rotting away in disrepair as open borders rendered it obsolete. One passenger nursed a minor injury that caused a stir in Kaunas. Security officers found her bleeding, paramedics were called, and our bus was held while they fussed over her for far longer than she wanted to let them.
The delays added up, but Lithuanian summer days are long. We arrived back in Vilnius↗ around 9pm. In time to catch the sunset, if it weren’t completely overcast. The evening was stormy. The bus station largely deserted. We had a quick dinner nearby and caught an Uber to avoid the barrage of drenching cloudbursts.
In the end, it was impossible not to be somewhat disappointed by our excursion. Bialowieza’s forest was quiet and beautiful in the damp weather, but a knowledgeable guide would have made it come alive. Even setting aside the missed opportunity to geek out a bit, we were seriously shortchanged on time in the restricted area. The whole thing hung like a cloud over what should have been a truly wild experience.