Kayaking the Czarna Hancza

A family expedition to North East Poland

This summer we set out to kayak down the Czarna Hancza (pron. Charna Hanksa) in north east Poland. This small river flows through Wigry lake and its national park before flowing through a huge forest known as Puszcza Augustow to finally join the Augustow canal. The area is called Suwalszczyzna (and no I cannot pronounce it either!) which lies east of the more popular Masuria. Outside Poland this whole area seems to be little known. My wife Elke, being from former East Germany, had heard about the river many years ago so we thought it would make for a grand adventure…

Elke and the kids, Max and Carl, had driven to northern Germany a week earlier to visit her brother and family on the Baltic coast before driving on to Gdansk where I flew in to meet them. For some reason I had preconceptions of Gdansk being a run-down ship building city but was pleasantly surprised. It’s a beautiful city with that typical north European culture but very layback and unpretentious. Hint – well worth a visit for a long weekend.

From Gdansk we drove through Masuria to stay overnight in a village with the great sounding name of Buda Ruska. We stayed at the quirky Pensjonat Wigierski to check through our pre-packed kit before picking up our kayaks the following morning.

Figure 1 Loading up the kayaks

Information in English on the Czarna Hancza was a little sketchy. We had tracked down a kayak rental company called AS-Tour who were very helpful and with whom we had arranged the hire of a double and two single kayaks earlier in the year. For a small extra fee, they would also arrange drop-off and pick-up – perfect.

The plan was to spend the first couple of days kayaking from Bryzgiel on the beautiful lake Wigry to the river entrance. This would give us the chance to get familiar with the kayaks, make sure everything was stowed away and do some final shopping; there would be few shops or villages en route.

The light rain forecast overnight on our first night’s camp turned out to be a little more persistent and did not let up for most of the following day, so we decided to sit it out. Am I the only one or is there something magical about being curled up, warm and snug in your sleeping bag listening to the rain drumming on the tent?

Into the river

The entrance to the river itself was unassuming, just a small gap in the reeds. Motorboats are not allowed on either the lake or river and this has helped to preserve much of the environment.

The river here flows about walking speed and we spent the first couple of days slowly paddling through reed beds and open marshland. The water was crystal clear and full of plant life and fish. Otter and beavers also lived on the river.
Along the river there are small bivouac sites where you are encouraged to camp, which helps to minimise our impact on the environment. The locals maintain these sites for a small fee. Usually they are just grassy clearings with a firepit and the ubiquitous table-bench with roof. Some places even had old manual water ground pumps (which you need to prime first he says knowingly…) otherwise the river water is perfectly ok to drink once boiled.

Sunday and we had reached Wysoki Most where a small road crosses the river. From here to the village of Gleboki Brod, situated on the one and only main road in the area, was 8 km. So, it was not surprising that this stretch of the river turned out to be popular with locals, especially during the weekends, and who could blame them!

Although busy it did have its upside. Rounding a corner we saw an old lady sitting in a leather armchair on a jetty with a big sack. On closer inspection it turned out she was selling freshly home-cooked buns to those paddling by – delicious!

Figure 2 Fresh buns
Figure 3 Carl on a rusty old water swing

A little further down river we came across a building perched high up on a sandy bank. In the communist era this used to be a state owned holiday village but had now been converted into a café. Time for a break.
After a short stop we carried on until we reached the village of Gleboki Brod. It was here that many of the day kayakers finished up. We found a place offering some basic huts which we could not refuse.
In the early evening we decided to stretch our legs and walk to the village shop in Fracki, a couple of miles away. We finally found the shop but it was either closed and did not sell a whole lot anyway or had closed down. Apparently a new petrol station had opened up on the main road so we marched on. The petrol station shop was quite small and just sold basic food-stuffs. If you wanted something alcoholic though, you had come to the right place.
We made our way back to our accommodation, where the owner prepared a really tasty dinner of fresh trout and chips for us before we crashed out onto our mattresses for a good night’s sleep.
The following morning we packed up the kayaks (we were getting this down to a fine art by now…) and set off down the river once again. Shortly after the bridge, it began to run a little faster, the reeds being replaced by the steeper banks of the vast forest that lay just beyond.

Figure 4 Max in his Nifty 430
Figure 5 The river below Gleboki Brod

The Augustow canal

We had been told to make sure to turn right when we reached the Augustow canal. The border with Belarus was only 6 km in the opposite direction and apparently relations were not exactly friendly. There were stories of kayaks being impounded and worse. We would have loved to have explored a little …..
The Augustow canal itself has an interesting history. It was started in 1824 when Russia and Poland were on better terms and was conceived to get timber and other goods to the Baltic after Prussia introduced high customs duties for using its ports. The whole project to connect the Vistula and Neman rivers took 15 years and when completed enabled access between the Baltic and the Black sea.
Not long after its opening however, Prussia relaxed its tariffs, partly due to the rise of the railroads, and the canal fell into disuse.
It was not until the 1920s that part of the canal was rebuilt and became a tourist attraction. Only for many of the locks to be destroyed again during the Second World War. In the 1960’s restoration of the canal began on the Polish side and the canal was given protected status as a historical monument.
After entering the canal we soon reached the first of several locks, all beautifully restored. Each lock was looked after by a friendly lock keeper. Going through the locks was hassle free but you needed to hold on as they filled pretty quickly! Where else can you have so much fun for £1.50 a go.

Figure 6 Approaching the first lock at Sosnowek
Figure 7 Paddling in to our first lock

We stopped off at the small village of Mikaszowka for some provisions and to catch up with a local artist we had met the day before. The local art club was holding a painting exhibition in the village restaurant that morning, so we just had to check it out. Somehow Elke managed to buy a largish water-colour while I was distracted. Finding somewhere in a kayak to stow a painting proved a little challenging but it did survive and is now on our wall at home 🙂
Before our trip I thought the canal section was going to be a little, well, canal-like. In fact much of it has been allowed to flood over into adjoining land creating a series of lakes and a fantastic haven for wildlife.
The Stork
We had just finished packing up after camping out on the shores of one such lake, when we saw two large birds fighting high overhead. An eagle was harrowing a stork which was desperately trying to evade its clutches, weaving from side to side. We stood mesmerized by the battle above until the eagle grabbed the stork in its claws and plummeted straight down out of the sky. About a hundred feet above the water the eagle pulled sharply out of its dive and let go of the stork, sending it crashing into the lake.
We quickly dug out our binoculars to try and find the stork. After a while we saw something drifting towards the shore, pushed by the wind. It was still alive – just, it could do little more than hold its head up and drift into the reeds.

Figure 8 The injured stork

We needed a rescue plan. Jumping into the kayaks, we paddled along the shoreline until we found a lady camping with her son. After explaining the situation, she tried to call the local animal rescue centre whilst Max, Carl and the lad ran back along the shoreline to see if they could locate the stork again.
After some searching they found the stork stuck amongst the reeds, a short distance from the shore. By now we had been joined by a burly old local who was alternatively pointing at me and then the stork. I could not understand what he was trying to say until he threw his hands into the air with an exasperated look on his face and waded straight out in to the water – oh. He was up to his shoulders by the time he could grab the stork’s wing and pull it in. We took it back to the tent and left it wrapped in some blankets with the campers to wait for help. Hopefully it survived to fly another day.

Journeys end

We left the Augustow canal at Sucha Rzeczka where a small tributary flowed in from Lake Serwy. At the end of this shallow river we had to portage our kayaks over to the lake. As this was the only overland section of the route we had decided not to bring a trolley with us. The cottage nearby apparently had one for rent but as no one was about we ended up man-hauling all three kayaks the 300 metres – phew!

Lake Serwy was idyllic once we made it. Set in thick forest we could see several good camping spots along the shore. In the middle of the lake are several wooded islands and, as it was our last evening, we planned on staying on one which showed a ‘waterside hostel’ on the map. Strangely enough, the place did not seem to exist so we decided to spend our last evening at a lovely campsite near Malowiste.

Figure 9 Sunset on Lake Serwy

On our last evening the sunset was gorgeous, although black clouds started gathering in the distance as darkness fell. Carl and I were cooking up some soup when we were suddenly hit by what can only be described as a typhoon. The sudden wind and rain was ferocious and I had to literally hold onto Carl to stop him blowing away – it was all pretty scary. Grabbing the few things left we ran the 10 meters to the tent, already completely soaked from head to toe. Water was also pouring into Max’s tent so he to abandoned ship and climbed into ours. The weather had been fantastic throughout our journey, but obviously was not going to let us leave without reminding us who was in charge. At least the sun came out the next day and we were able to dry everything off before being picked up by the kayak hire people.
Our little expedition was a great experience and a chance to get back to nature for a couple of weeks. I have mixed feelings about not seeing any bison, moose or bears which roam the area. Carl thought he heard some wolves one evening and we did see beavers, kingfishers and deer.
Before the long drive back to the tunnel, we stopped off in the nearby town of Augustow for an ice- cream, already discussing what our next adventure should be…

Paul Duncan

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