Lowland hills

Sometimes, nature can surprise me more than I’d expect. Some places I’d expect to be either flat or lazily rolling hills with no steep parts, yet I can be proven the opposite. I roughly had an idea where I was to go this Saturday – I planned to go there last year at roughly this time, but weather and then other things happened and I had to postpone it, eventually to the next year at least as the place is nice in early April with the flowers blooming.

Warning: long post with lots of photos.

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Deforested

This will be a post that goes a bit into biology even though it’ll include photos and experience from my hikes. It’s about a fact that places I knew (know) are changing before my eyes, and might as well change forever, voluntarily or not.

Since 18th century, spruce forests started to dominate central Europe. The lumber they produce has wide use and they grow fast in the first 20-25 years. Yet, they have several vulnerabilities, the main one in normal conditions is shallow root system.

Spruces here in central Europe have much more problems. Easy to take root, they started to dominate the landscape, but pollution weakened them, making them easy target for bark beetles. Combined with the larger frequency of dry years in the last 10 years, the shallow roots mean the trees are becoming dry due to lack of moisture and even easier target for parasites. And to top them off (literally, in the end), the increasing amount of strong winds that can uproot the weakened trees or snap them in half.

The most memorable of many was the windy night in late 2004. It hit several places, but the devastation in Slovakian High Tatras was most prominent with strip two to five kilometers wide and over fifty kilometers long. The place changed forever, once shady forests below the hill giving space to low plants.

Tri studničky, Tatranský Národný Park, Slovakia (2017)

What survived the night in 2004 was not much and most of it was taken down by the following two or three nights that came in 2010s  (the second big one was in 2014, almost exactly 10 years later, with several minor in other years). The events, in turn, made the bark beetle infestation even worse as they could use the massive amount of fallen trees to breed even more and make the forests vulnerable for disasters that did not need much time to come.

The problems are even worse in east Czech republic, historically industrial area with pollution problems (even though the situation is getting better). As I mentioned recently, in the last hike I was crossing a place that was formerly spruce forest. Even three years after the 2015 wind, not all the fallen trees were taken away. Infrastructure suffers in turn as the village roads were not planned to carry several trucks with loads of wood every day for months, let alone years. Seeds of other trees are on short supply as the forest owners try to replace the fallen trees with something that would have better chances.

Former forest near Karlovice village, Czech republic (2018, destroyed in 7/2015)

Sometimes, more trees are destroyed before the results of one calamity are dealt with. I can say for sure that hikes when I’d not hear at least distant sounds of chain saw are getting quite rare. Even though making marked trails passable is often done just after clearing the roads, there were times when a trail was closed for three to four months after one windy day.

Destroyed forest near Králický Sněžník, Czech republic (2015, a week after the windstorm)

To make it worse, some places are hard to reach and even clearing the path is complicated, let alone helping the land to recover. The options to get heavy trucks to elevation around 1300 meters when the villages below are around 500 is quite complicated, as the places have roads that can carry an off-road vehicle or snowmobile at most and are used primarily by cyclists.

Uprooted spruces, Sušina peak, Czech republic (2016, year after the windstorm)

A few years ago, spruces made up to 90% of trees. The ratio in cultivated areas is decreasing with each harsh wind (I believe that most of the times it was somewhere between 100 and 200 km/h) as its obvious that re-planting spruces would most likely be wasted effort.


Some places change right before my eyes. What will they look like in a decade or two I don’t dare to guess…

April fools’ weather

As another month is coming, I am doing another retrospective look at this time of year. Early spring can be pretty much anything when it comes to it. From cold days to what feels like summer, it can be anything.

2013

This was strange one. Easter were timed pretty much like this year (Monday was 1.4.) and I planned to go to cinema on the Friday or Saturday before (not sure which). One day ahead, I booked the ticket and went to sleep, paying no mind to the light snowfall that just started. “Can’t hold this time of year and can’t be much,” I told myself.

I could not be wrong more. When I woke the next day, it was 30-45cm of fresh snow overnight, even here in suburbs! In the morning, buses were often up to 30 minutes late. It stopped snowing before I got up, but the massive amount of snow that fell that night lasted for almost 10 days before the temperature went up and it started to melt.

April fools joke, weather style

The Saturday after, I went for a hike where I expected to see some flowers blooming but instead it was about snow crunching under my boots.

2014

The exact opposite with extremely warm days. This time I could see some flowers as the weather peaked at 25°C on 4th April.

Willows on the riverbanks, 2014

Flowers, blooming willows on riverbank and generally the expected spring feeling everywhere with summer-like temperature. 25km on pretty much flat terrain, yet I was drenched as my body was not ready for such heat so early.

Willows on the riverbank, 2014

Also, it was just a week or two after I bought my current pocket camera, so it was a nice way to test the macro mode.

2015 and 2016 were very similar in that, the hike on 11th being likewise very warm.

2016

Ants being busy after winter, 2016

In 2016, the two hikes (2nd and 16th) were those I used to try a bit more macro photos, the weather once again proving cooperative for that.

The second one was especially interesting as apart from flowers, there were some caves and lookouts and those who’d see the GPS log of that day’s hike would think I was lost because I zig-zagged around to see all those places. Still, it was great day.

2017

2017 decided to balance things out, being very rainy for my hike days. The one story I can tell from my 8.4.2017 hike was that there was a woman walking her german shepherd, who decided to give me a hug. Being wet dog, she apologized to me for the stain on my hiking jacket, which I just shrugged off with “the rain will wash it away in no time” which was exactly what happened.


I’ll probably post a bit more about April hiking in two weeks or so, aimed at the hikes I’ve done around Earth day. Those are often much more vibrant and the warmer weather allows me to go higher in the hills without wearing too much clothing.

Goodbye, winter… again

Three weeks ago, I made a blog post called “Goodbye, winter” as the weather seemed to be getting closer to spring. The first March weekend was warm and it seemed spring would come early. Nope, weather fooled central Europe (maybe more than just central) again. Snow showers the next week, the weekend around 17th being really cold…

I originally planned to do a March photo look back, but  this month is often spent in lowlands, searching for the first blossoms, often in vain and so there’s not that much to share. Two hikes happened since then, on 10th and 24th, both being similar: remains of snow in landscape that tries to wane into spring but seems to be lacking strength for the final push.

10th March hike

This was return to place I knew from past but in early summer. Short ascension, then a bit of walking on fields partially covered in snow, followed by  most of the hike in forests, hence only a few photos, even less worth sharing.

Still, it was a nice day spent relaxing outdoors.

Not being something that noteworthy, I decided that it won’t get its own blog post and thought that I might leave it for some retrospective that would focus on the area as a whole.

24th March hike

This one was quite close to the first one by distance, starting not so far away, but going in different direction. Despite good forecast the day started with a lot of mist and minimum visibility, not good when the hike starts near a lookout, from which we could not look far away…

I hoped that Murphy’s law would eventually force the weather to the original forecast as I intentionally left my sunglasses at home. Trick I use often when it’s on a verge like this, and one that often works.

This trickery might have a price to it this time as my early parts of the hike were made a bit inconvenient by some digestive trouble, but once that was solved, the rest of the day went really well. Diversity was not missing, early parts in the forest as well as fields, up and down. After a short stop at ski slope where the last skiers were using the very last bits of snow(I’d guess the layer at 10cm or so) before the season ends there (elevation around 500m ASL, above 1000 the skiing season might go on for a week or two more).

Eventually we reached a place that was greatly devastated by harsh winds. Crossing the deforested area took quite a while, it was over 2km, and the area was wide as well. It caused some challenges with marking the trail and I had to use my GPS and intuition to go on. Along the way, it lead me to think about some aspects that make spruce forests vulnerable to winds (especially due to dry years and bark beetle infestation, deadly combo) and the observation that most of those that remained were larches – identified by the tiny cones.

Due to the deforestation, I could look around a bit more, even though the visibility distance was not large. I believe that the photo above is roughly aimed at the place from the first photo, from distance of maybe 10km.

Eventually, the trail led us to a small quarry, abandoned and flooded when the mining went too deep and it was flooded from below. Flooded quarries turned into lakes are frequent, but most of the time it is by being abandoned and letting the rain (and snow) do its work over time, not by being flooded from below. By what we were told by our guide, some fool drowned a car there but being in shade, the lake was covered by a sheet of ice and there was nothing to see that would prove this.

Then followed a descent to the village that was our destination. The lower pace and mixture of warmer passages (fields or deforested + sun) with colder (in forest with snow cooling the air from below) made me drowsy and even a cup of black tea did not seem to rouse me. Having almost three hours left before departure, I decided to improvise and go for a small (original intention) bonus round that eventually raised the total length from 22 to 31 km. It was originally intended to be a stroll around the village but I eventually walked up a hill with transmitter above it, looking down on the village for a short while before taking a scenic route back down.


While I’d like this to be my last “farewell, winter” post this year, I can’t rely on that. There’s no telling what will come in the next month and show in mid-April might be rare yet I’ve seen that too.


Including map this time: orange is 10.3. hike, green is 24.3. original hike, blue is 24.3. bonus round. Zooming recommended for details, the default zoom level is far to make it easy to see both.

Closing thought: I might make a post about abandoned (even if not flooded) quarries in the hills of Czech republic and what kind of scenery can they make at some point in the future. They are not always just a place of devastation, especially if they are small and the nature is left to its own devices afterwards.

Goodbye, winter

February was cold. Compared to January, really cold. At least here in central Europe. But it seems that with the shortest month gone, so will be the winter. On Saturday, even still on Sunday morning, it was around -15°C, as it was for more than a week before. Today, it’s around zero and forecast estimates rise to +15°C by the end of the week. It seems that my coming hikes will be devoid of snow from now on.

Late January, first snow…

Even though the waif for first snow was really long, and even longer for it to be in decent amount, it seems that winter did not give up easily and I eventually had some chances for winter-y photos. Now, I guess my gaze will go down in search for some first blossoms. But before that happens, I’ll repost my most favorite photos of this winter…

More snow up in the hills…

…less of it in the lowlands


That’s it from me for today.

Look back: February hiking

In my experience so far, January is usually the worst month when it comes to real hiking. It’s usually around zero, which means the uncomfortable mix of snow and mud. There were a few years when mid-February was quite a cold wave – 2006 comes to my mind, when the temperature remained around -20°C day and night for great part of the month, the lowest temperature here in the city being around -25°C during day. Or it’s not as cold, but there’s cold and strong wind. The unpredictability means that for hikes planned by the club, it’s usually short walk near the city where it’s not that hard to make some last-minute adjustments. And it was long before I decided to go out alone in this month.

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Walker among skiers

The last Wednesday got us some intense snowfall (took around 10 hours and was enough to get quite some snow even in the cities) and so I was decided to go to the hills on Saturday. It took me some thinking to choose the best destination – while I had my preferred pick, I was not really sure I’d be able to do it if there was a lot of powder snow and considered going somewhere else, option I eventually tossed aside for now.

Photo taken from the train some 20 minutes before getting off (~9:10)

When I usually keep closer to home on winter hikes, this time I was to a bit further away and so my preparations were at similar scale as the hardest summer hikes and maybe more than that. I took food that would last me for 24 hours in the worst case and even headlight in case I’d not manage to reach my destination before dark, which fortunately did not happen.

Birch at the ski slope

The main reason I did not back away from my original plan was that I planned to use paths I know, at least in summer. Well, I make mistakes, and this time I made one just one kilometer after starting. I did not notice the turn of the path I knew was “somewhere around here” and instead of going around, I walked right up the ski slope. While ski slopes are quite perfect for going downhill, they are the worst possible way to walk uphill.

 

Good part was that it was side branch of the main ski slope that was not being used much, at least at that moment. For a while, I followed a guy that had mountaineering skis and just used these to go up (I presume to then go ride down somewhere away from the slope).

With heavy breathing and actually surprised how well it went for me (I was not really sure about my condition as the last time I went for serious hike was in late September), I eventually managed to reach the slope’s ski lift mid-station quite fast, even overtaking the guy on skis half-way through the slope. Finally there, I returned to the originally intended path.

Walking up a ski slope, not the best idea…

Back at the trail

From there on, I enjoyed some solitude. I presumed that those going for cross-country skiing on the main trail up there just used the ski lift to save them of the ascent.

The forest’s upper end

Since it was supposed to be around -10°C during the night, I hoped that most of the snow will be frozen through enough to carry my weight on foot (fortunately my weight is not much for an adult). In that, it turned out that I was right.

Shortly after, I was once again surprised how well it went. Short distance from the photo above, the main trail connects, and I was meeting many skiers on the trail. For the short while the path went straight or a bit downwards to the pass, they were faster than I was, and some even surprised what am I doing there in just boots…

The situation changed drastically when the path started ascending to the highest peak of this portion. It’s not that steep, but I guess going uphill on cross-country skis is not that efficient. In the ascension, I was overtaking them easily, to which one woman commented something like “seems he made a good choice not taking skis”.

Photo at the ‘Keprník’ peak (1423 meters)

I took a short 10-15 minute break at the peak, hoping that some of the clouds might go away and allow me to see further, but the opposite happened, so I went on. The descent was quite fast as well. It changed after reaching another pass, after which the path goes on a side of the next peak instead of over it, and the narrow path was quite uncomfortable with all the snow, regardless of what kind of gear were people using.

This part of the trail ends at a place that once hosted a chalet and chapel, but they were destroyed in fire I believe 3-4 decades ago and due to the harsh terrain they were not replaced (though some plans appear every few years).

These days, the only thing here is the small structure looking a bit like chapel that covers the spring there (welcome in summer). This time, as visible on the photo, it was a bit covered by the snow.

Anyway, after another very short break, I continued. The trail changes here from narrow path to wide one, leading towards the ski resort that is some 3,5km away from it and easily reached by car. That fact makes the path overused in summer as the terrain is easy and many people just go to the spring and back.

Fortunately, it’s not that overused in winter, or at least it was not that day. Going from there was relaxing and quite easy as the road’s width made passing others in both directions not an issue. Eventually I reached the last stop of my hike.

‘Červenohorské sedlo’ ski resort

There, I took a bit longer break, having a hot mint tea in one of the restaurants there before going for the descent. For the train I wanted to catch, I had almost 2,5 hours, which was definitely doable unless the terrain would be awful. Again, knowing the path in summer, the only risk would be that it would be completely unused and I’d need to push my way through.

Fortunately, it turned out to be mostly the opposite and the 6 km on continuous downhill trail was quite easy. Enough that I made it much faster than I expected, and managed to catch a train an hour earlier than I presumed.

To sum it up, it was really nice day even with the lack of sunshine, but knowing myself, it was probably better as snow reflects light very well and intense sunshine in snow-covered mountains can be almost blinding even with sunglasses.