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Up Slovakia's Wild Koprovsky Dolina

european wilderness
Kmetov Waterfall, Nefcerka Valley

Vlado Vancura, volunteer wilderness ranger and member of the European Wilderness Society (EWS) pointed to lichen hanging from a spruce as evidence that things were indeed getting better. “You would have never seen that in communist days,” he said. Air pollution was such a massive problem before Slovakia joined the European Union that foresters even forgot that lichen on a tree was natural he explained to me.
“The EU has insisted that we clean our air and we are seeing the results.”
Yesterday, Vlado and I biked up an old asphalt road, hid the bikes in the trees next to the river and climbed several hours into the Koprovsky dolina, a valley in the Ticha dolina (Silent Valley) area of the Tatras National Park in northern Slovakia. For the past several days Vlado, myself, wolf biologist Gudrun Pflueger and her son Conrad have been hiking into the most remote areas in Europe, looking for “wilderness”…. or what could be “wilderness”….or SHOULD BE “wilderness….Wilderness being a pretty fuzzy term – more often than not a fluid philosophy rather than a set definition. But there we were, in a very wild Koprovsky dolina.  I shivered, a bit from the cold and a bit from the thrill of wildlands.

European Wilderness
The Base of the Krivan

The European Wilderness Society is on a long-term mission to identify, protect and restore the remaining wilderness areas in Europe. I’m trying to understand the complexity of the task they face. The High Tatras Mountains offer a perfect example of all of those challenges rolled into one magnificent mountain range. Each valley tells a different story.
The Ticha Dolina is on the positive side of the story. For several decades now this lush valley has been protected as “Zone 5” by the Slovakian government, which is the most strict form of management. There is no logging and no roads.  As a result, natural processes have largely been allowed to return to the several thousand hectare area.  The results, as you can see from these few pictures, are stunning.
The Ticha dolina stands in stark contrast to what is going on just outside the valley where – even here in the national park – massive clear cuts of mono-cultured spruce forests have laid waste to the mountain slopes and riparian areas. Where the timber has been harvested, it looks like an atomic bomb exploded.
For an American, seeing this kind of destruction in what is supposedly a national park is rather shocking.
Natural processes in the Tatras mean that whole stands of trees are knocked down and replaced by massive wind storms or bark beetle infestations that have a similar impact on the ecosystem as fire does on the forests of the western United States. As a result, the ecosystem processes are functioning more or less as they should, with healthy soils, high species diversity, a mosaic of forest types and a healthy, crystal clear stream born from the glacial falls high in the granite cirques near the Polish border. Vlado insists that just 20 years ago, this kind of “let it be” management would have been unthinkable.
Ever so slowly, Slovakia is moving in the right direction.
Our climb along the river was muddy and steep – and frequently interrupted by giant piles of blueberry laden bear poop. The European brown bear thrives in this valley. As do pine martens, marmots, chamois, lynx and even wolf. The wolf is Gudrun’s job and in the evening over a much needed beer and a plate of deer gulash she pulled out a mass of fur she had plucked from a bush along the river bank just above the park boundaries.
There is no wilderness without wolves.

European Wilderness
The “Bear Baths”

Lacking however are birds. I’m a bird guy and so I’ve been keenly aware that there is an unmistakable lack of bird-life in the Slovakian mountains. Several people have now said “oh, that is normal” but I question that very idea that anything can be normal without masses of birds. What does “normal” mean then? Is it just that people have gotten used to an interrupted ecosystem where birds are few and far between?
That is what I suspect. I’ve never been any place with so few birds (except Austria….). Without birds there is the feeling is that something vital is desperately missing from the landscape.
Up top amongst the blueberry, cranberry, juniper and heather on the ridge-line, Vlado and I had lunch under a pounding cold wind. The weather was pretty rough the whole day, thick, dark clouds hung lower and lower on the valley, making the photography portion of the trip rather challenging.

Mushrooms grow on a recently fallen old growth spruce. The fallen trees serve as a nursery for new trees to come up sheltered from wind and hungry herbivores.

In the mid to late 1800s nationalistic movements swept Europe. Key to these movements was that the unique landscapes of a “homeland” where emblematic of a larger national identity. At the center of the Slovak identity (then under the thumb of the Hungarians) were the Tatras Mountains. The peaks were large, unbreakable, magical and the mythological homeland of the Slavs in general.

“The motif of the Tatras can be found in the early 19th Century writings by eminent Slavist Pavel Jozef Šafárik (1795-1861) or in the texts by the author of the first literary Slovak language standard Anton Bernolak (1762-1813). However, the first to have eulogized the Tatras was Catholic vicar and writer Ján Hollý (1785-1849). In his epic Svatopluk….Hollý stresses not only the relationship of man and nature but also the close ties between the Slovaks and the Tatras….”

Wildlands, then, are part of the core of what it means to be Slovakian.  Not to mention human.
Over the coming ten days, Vlado, Gudrun, Conrad and I will continue to explore the different management styles at work in the Tatras, their effects on wildlands and ecosystems and how politics, economy and even nationalism impact the dream of creating a  European wilderness core for the future of this continent.
And we’re going to find us some wolves…… Gudrun promised.

Mountain Dwarf Pine (pinus mugo)

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European Wilderness
Vlado Vancura of the European Wilderness Society

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Koprovsky Dolina looking south east

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The upper reaches of the Koprovsky Dolina. The waterfalls source from several glacial lakes just above the granite wall. The Polish border is just there in the clouds.

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Blueberry or Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

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Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

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