THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY 2012 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET MAGAZINE (lonelyplanet.com/magazine).
It is the morning after the night before in the Romincka Forest. All around, the woods look worse for wear after a messy night: clods of earth kicked up by foraging wild boar; chunks of bark stripped from the trees by elk; timber chomped up and dragged about by unscrupulous beavers.
Inspecting the damage is Romek – a forester who helps visitors track the area’s wildlife – crouched by a patch of shattered ice on a frozen stream. A pair of paw prints show where an animal fell through the ice before scrambling out and scampering off into the woods. ‘Wilki,’ Romek says solemnly (it means ‘wolves’) before getting to his feet and bellowing out a long, sonorous wolf-howl that resonates around the forest.
It pays to be on good terms with the neighbours in this remote corner of Poland, one of the last tracts of wilderness in Europe where these animals still roam freely. Once upon a time, woodland like this covered the whole continent. If you could press a giant reset button on the European landscape, these forests are the template to which everything would return. The monsters found here could hold their own against the big beasts of America and Africa. Even in Britain, you could expect to get trampled by a bison less than a thousand years ago, mauled by a wolf as late as the 17th century and finished off by wild boar chewing your innards well into the Middle Ages.
Nowadays the majority of Europe’s wildlife could be classified ‘PG’ at most but, in recent times, the woods of Romincka Forest have grown wilder. With the collapse of Communism in Poland, industrial-scale forestry and farming have petered out and populations of wolf, boar, elk and even lynx have all gradually shuffled back in. To the west, one of the continent’s last remaining herds of European bison are growing in number. A one-tonne wrecking ball of a beast, this animal can comfortably bulldoze anything that dares cross its path.
It has begun to snow as we follow the wolf tracks further into the forest – big, fluffy, Narnia-esque snowflakes making the pawprints on the ground become fainter. Above us, pine trees sway in the wind, sending patches of sunlight scattering across the forest floor, their boughs creaking under the weight of the snowfall.
Romeck tells me about a night when he howled to a wolf he spied pouncing on a wild boar, only to hear a howl returned from the darkness in response. ‘He passed by my car, so he must have known I was human,’ he adds proudly.
However, those who live on the fringes of the forest aren’t such keen admirers. Local farmers tell tales of one particularly cunning wolf that grabbed sheep by their necks and marched them oneby- one into the forest, where they were promptly devoured.
We approach a clearing in the forest, and Romek stops. ‘The Russian border’ he announces, pointing to a red post half-submerged in the snow, meaning that we can go no further. During the Cold War, Soviet border guards left their sentry posts to sneak off to dances in Polish villages, dashing back to their positions before their superiors could catch them. Today there is little to see, other than a pair of wolf tracks leading over the border into Russian territory.
‘A wolf doesn’t need a passport,’ Romek says grumpily, before turning back into the woods.
Complicated borders are an unfortunate fact of life in the Romincka Forest, where the frontiers of Poland, Russia and Lithuania meet. Not so long ago, these woodlands were part of East Prussia, what was once the eastern frontier of the German Empire – a region known for its sprawling forests and good hunting. Traces of this lost kingdom can still be found: stations bearing German place names on a dismantled railway line or a stately home concealed among Communist-era farm buildings.
The former inhabitants of East Prussia, however, are long departed. As the Soviet Army advanced on the region in 1944, almost two million German civilians fled west – thousands of refugees drowned crossing frozen lagoons as Soviet warplanes bombed the ice from above. Stalin decided that East Prussia – now largely emptied of its population – would be split between the Soviet Union and Poland, with the border slicing through Romincka Forest. One of the most significant relics of EastPrussia’s past was eventually chewed up and spat out by the forest – the Jagdschloss, or hunting palace, of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Today, an avenue of slanting red oaks leads to the site where the Jagdschloss once stood – trees that were said to bow down before the Kaiser as he approached for the hunt.
‘It’s a very sad place,’ says historian Dr Andreas Gautschi. ‘Now, all that remains is the forest and the birdsong.’
A Swiss-born author, Dr Gautschi has dedicated much of his life to researching the history of Romincka, and he now lives with his family in a village on the edge of the forest. He shows me fading black-and-white photographs of the Jagdschloss in its heyday more than a century ago – foreign dignitaries posing in its banqueting hall, and German aristocrats with twirly moustaches standing triumphantly over fallen stags.
In recent times, Dr Gautschi has scoured the forest for the ‘Kaiser Stones’ – monuments that mark the sites of Wilhelm’s greatest kills and heartily congratulate his majesty on his huntsmanship. He tells me it’s likely that there are more of these monuments waiting to be found in the forest, lost in the undergrowth and buried in moss. However, few other locals share his interest in a German emperor synonymous with bloodshed in Poland.
‘Kaiser Wilhelm was not a good man, but he was a great hunter,’ says Piotr Narloch. ‘And good hunters are part of the ecosystem of these forests, just like all the other animals.’
An insurance company executive sporting a high-powered rifle and a winning smile, Piotr is one of many hunters from across Poland who visit Romincka Forest. He and his camouflage-clad companions spend cold nights in the forest waiting for unsuspecting boar to trot into their sights – sheltering at Zytkiejmy Lodge, a former East Prussian forestry office with a pair of growling wolf heads carved over the entrance.
Lunch here is served on a scale to provide ‘insulation’ ahead of cold winter nights in the forest. Neatly arranged on the table before us are steaming bowls of soup, wild boar and venison sausages, stacks of pancakes, slabs of cheese and an endless heap of sauerkraut.
‘Hunting isn’t just about killing or tracking animals,’ says Piotr as he shovels sausages onto his plate. ‘I have two teenage daughters, so it’s good shooting practice in case boys ever try to sneak into my house.’
Twilight sets in and snowflakes dissolve on the windowsills of the lodge. Piotr and his fellow hunters pass dishes around as they exchange stories of their adventures in the woods, recounting a tale of one night when a wolf hijacked their hunt, ambushing a wild boar before they could shoot. Fortunately for the wolf, it enjoyed diplomatic immunity – hunting wolves is no longer legal in these forests. We slap our bellies contentedly, before more dishes are brought in. I soon realise that we’ve only eaten the first course.
Sinclair Dunnett is a Shakespeare-quoting Scottish naturalist who has been leading wildlife tours in northeast Poland for nearly 30 years. ‘It’s natural to be afraid of the woods at night,’ he says. ‘We humans are primates, and primates aren’t designed to function after sundown.’
Wolf, lynx and boar, on the other hand, are all designed to work the graveyard shift. After dark, you stand the best chance of seeing these animals, and at night the forest is at its rowdiest.
Sinclair drives me to a ‘high seat’ – a raised shelter where hunters stake out their prey, now often used by wildlife enthusiasts who spend long nights peering into the darkness through infra-red binoculars. It looks like a garden shed mounted precariously on six-metre-high stilts, and the ladder wobbles as I climb. Up here, human scent should go undetected by the residents of the forest floor – although Sinclair mentions a German hunter who spent a night on a high seat looking out across an empty meadow, later glancing behind to see a lynx waiting patiently at the bottom of the ladder.
‘Some people prefer to get picked up before the night is out. Of course, it’s not my place to ask them why,’ Sinclair says, raising his eyebrows cryptically, before climbing back into the car and speeding back to the warmth of the lodge. Gradually, a chorus of grunts, thuds, snorts and belches can be heard from all directions. Listening too closely can be deceptive. It’s easy to mistake your own heartbeat for the footfalls of an animal approaching, or to jump at the cackle-like snap of a branch breaking somewhere far away in the forest.
By the milky light of the full moon, Romincka Forest looks even more like the enchanted woods of European folklore. Sinewy roots stretch above the snowline and the skeletal frames of leafless birch trees tremble in the wind. Stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel might be fantasy, but in the days when wolves and outlaws patrolled the forest, they were cautionary tales: a warning for children to keep out of the woods.
After a few hours a small roe deer trots into the clearing ahead before abruptly turning and running, as if having suddenly recalled an appointment elsewhere in the forest. The real reason soon becomes clear – a gang of boar emerge from the shadows and barge their way towards a feeding station, knocking the trough around and gorging on its contents. They briefly jostle in the moonlight, guzzling loutishly, before losing interest and scuttling back into the undergrowth. Once gone, only distant owl calls interrupt the sound of wind rushing through the treetops.
Morning comes, and the boar tracks are buried beneath a fresh layer of thick, pristine snow. The forest is perfectly still – icicles sparkle in the first rays of the morning sun, and only a solitary red squirrel stirs. Soon, the rattle of a chainsaw fills the air and the staccato sound of chopping wood echoes around the forest.
For foresters, these few hours of daylight are a brief opportunity to make their own mark on the landscape and to tame the wilderness as much as they can. Yet for most residents of the forest, daylight will only mean a few hours’ rest – a chance to recuperate before one more big night out.
PHOTOGRAPHY: MARK READ