Wilderness DiaryDiary of a Wilderness Volunteer

Wilderness Diary

Back to Eberswalde

What for a time! The training period with EWS is going well so far. For me, it is really exciting to get an insight of project work. And furthermore my mountain shoes are already broken in.

After a great first month working with EWS with and superb team I was visiting Eberswalde for a meeting with the BEECH POWER project team. I met Marcus (who was that day alone) in their beautiful office near the forest and botanical garden. I had a great time, an interesting talk with him and was getting helpful information. Even though I like living in Tamsweg it was also great seeing the city of Eberswalde and the University again.

As the weather was good, we went hiking in a climbing forest, which was fun and kind of adventurous, despite a short rain shower. On the next day we’d done a canoe trip down the ‘Finow’ river to the next city (8 km away) with quite a few sluices. As we were coming home in the evening I really was exhausted from paddling. However, it still was a nice day. Now I am glad being back in Tamsweg and going back to the everyday life.

A trip to Wilderness

Last week I was super excited for the first team trip to discover some Wilderness out of the office. This time, we didn’t go very far from home – I mean my own home, Ljubljana. We went to Soča river valley, one of the jewels of Slovenia. As the area is rather far and inaccessible from Ljubljana, I have wanted to go there on a trip for a few years now and never quite managed (two hours of driving one way is a veeeery long distance in Slovenia, as the country is so small that you get to Croatia, Austria or Italy in a bit over an hour from Ljubljana). So, on Thursday morning I got up at 5.30 am in Ljubljana, sat in my car and drove over to Kobarid through the Soča valley.

Beautiful rivers in Posocje

In Kobarid we were going to attend a Students for Rivers Camp that aimed to connect young passionate river conservationists. I arrived to Kamp Koren a bit earlier than the rest of the team, so I used the time to explore the surroundings. Soon I discovered that the camp was situated right above a beautiful river, so I went down to admire it. The river was so loud that I started singing loudly a song that was in my head, knowing that even two meters away, no one would be able to hear me. Despite the fact that the camp full of people was just a handful of meters away, I was alone by the river, and it felt like civilisation was far away. At the same time, the river’s strong current reminded me of how powerful and big nature can be and how insignificant we really are. 

Students for Rivers Camp

Soon, the team arrived and we went to listen to the presentations on river conservation and activism around the world. Especially interesting was a presentation on the declines and hybridisation of marble trout due to other invasive trout species in Soca river. A Slovene team of researchers put a lot of effort in selectively breeding “pure” marble trout and release them in the river, which led to the increase in the proportion of marble trout from 5% to 20% of all trouts in the river. However, there are additional problems for the fish in Soca, namely there are many barriers for their movement (dams), the majority of which they cannot pass. This is against the European Freshwater Directive and action is needed to remove the dams or make them passable.

For lunch we drove to a bakery nearby to have a typical Slovene meal: burek. For the record, burek is not Slovene, it’s Bosnian, but we have adopted it with pleasure, and it is one of our favourite fast food. Interestingly, it is something we always buy, never make ourselves. But it’s good regardless, if you know where to buy it. (The shop where we got it in Kobarid is NOT where you’d want to buy it though, a word of warning!) 

After lunch we went back to the camp and attended an interesting brain-storming session about how to empower river conservationists and connect them with the academic world. It was nice talking to such passionate young people full of ideas and enthusiasm for change.

Later on, we headed to our campsite in Bovec to set up tents and then went for dinner to a nice pizzeria nearby. The evening was well spent as an opportunity for the team to hang out together informally and have some fun together.

Exploring Prealpi Giulie

Next morning, we were all excited to visit the Prealpi Giulie Nature park. Nick volunteered to drive that morning, for which I was very grateful and happy once we started driving on this steep and winding road wide enough for just a single car. We were very lucky to have met only a handful of vehicles, as otherwise the drive would be even more interesting in a bad way.

The landscape of Prealpi Giulie is absolutely amazing. We stopped at this small church to admire the fascinating view. The region is also interesting from a cultural point of view – in Resia, a form of Slovene is spoken which is very different from the standard language to the extent that it may be considered a separate language. Indeed, when I was reading some boards written in Resian (that also has a different manuscript than Slovene), I was struggling quite a lot to be able to understand it. Apparently, only about 1000 people still speak it so it’s quite a small minority.

We then went for a nice hike in the park where we saw a beautiful waterfall, nice beech forests and found some forest strawberries (my favourite fruit!). Although a short storm caught us, we did not mind it too much and stayed rather dry under tree crowns. After the hike we drove further to meet the park director for a coffee and visit the lovely museum of the park’s visitor centre. On the way back, we stopped on a mountain saddle to have dinner in a small restaurant. The place was heaven on earth – delicious home-made food at a lovely house covered with flowers in the middle of the mountains, with no one else around. A place of peace where you can forget all your worries while swinging on a swing.

Climbing higher and higher

On Saturday, we had a long hike in Triglav National Park ahead of us so we got up earlier and drove to the starting point in a small valley. From there, it was a four hour hike up to 2050 m high hut. The hike was very enjoyable with nice views and perfect weather, but as it is always tiring to climb 1400 m of altitude we were all very happy when we saw the hut in front of us. There, we had some delicious food (pasulj and goulash) after which I felt reborn, fuelled up with energy again. We started exploring the meadows surrounding the hut to have a nice view on the lake just beneath it, to find some nice edelweiss and we even saw an ibex in the distance! However, at one point you always have to leave the alpine paradise and go back to the real world in the valley.

On the way down we stopped by another beautiful lake, entertaining ourselves with throwing stones as far as we could. The walk down took us another good three hours, but it was easy walking down and it soon became a routine, enabling me to completely shut my brain off and get lost in the rhythm of my steps. At last we arrived to the car at about 7 pm all rather tired after having walked 21 km. We then drove back to our campsite, stopping to see an amazing gorge created by Soca river on the way.

Before heading back to Tamsweg we drove to one last nature reserve that we wanted to visit, Riserva Naturale Val Alba. Despite the very short visit we were all impressed by the majestic landscape and the apparent absence of human influence – pure wilderness. Equally, it was nice to stretch our legs before the 2.5-hour long drive home.

Overall, we all had a great time at the trip as we saw many beautiful natural areas. After all, the reason why we all work for European Wilderness Society is because we love wilderness and want to protect it, so who wouldn’t enjoy a fun trip to wilderness then? Equally, it was nice to spend some informal time with the team and to get to know them better, as both me and Jonas have only joined a few weeks ago.

Can’t wait for a new Wild adventure!

A rough arrival, but smooth start

My name is Jonas, I am one of the many new volunteers of the European Wilderness Society. I had my arrival in Tamsweg on the 30th of June to start my volunteer period here one day later. I chose one of the hottest days of the year to travel to Tamsweg from my parents’ place in Frankfurt, Germany. So instead of a smooth train ride, I had to endure a cancelled train, a broken AC and the concern not to arrive in Tamsweg the same day. Luckily the EWS was kind enough to pick me up in Bischofshofen and I made it to my room at 11pm.

Smooth start

During the first days after arrival my main task was getting settled in at the EWS and in Tamsweg. Fortunately, I live in a hotel room, which I can rent cheaply on a monthly basis. So, I didn´t have to find a flat beforehand and my room was ready to move in on arrival. However, I still had to figure where everything is in the shared kitchen, which apparently nobody has really used for years, and where I can find everything, I need, in Tamsweg. In the office, everybody made it very easy for me to start my work, so I got settled in quickly.

Knights and mountains

My first weekends here were packed. As Biff and Ziva already wrote, we went to the “Mittelalterfestspiele” in Mauterndorf on my first weekend after arrival, and on my second one we made a 4-day trip LINK! to Slovenia and Italy. Last Wednesday I experienced my first “Z’sammnsitz’n”. During summer on every other Wednesday, there is food, drinks and music on the market square in Tamsweg. So, the whole town gathers, enjoys a beer or “Spritzer” (wine with sparkling water) and each other’s company. We went there together with all the volunteers and had a good time, until rain forced us to go home.

Surprise visit

This weekend was supposed to be my first quite one, but it turned out differently. On Wednesday a friend of mine from Munich decided that she wants to visit me, so she arrived here Friday afternoon. We had a weekend full of hiking. On Friday evening we just went up a hill next to my hotel, but on Saturday we hiked up the Preber, one of the highest (2750m) and most prominent mountains around Tamsweg. That was a beautiful, but also long hike, so on Sunday we went up to the beautiful church St. Leonhard above the town and further on to the top of the mountain (only around 1500m), where every hiker can write their name into a book and take a zip of Schnapps.

So, I really had exciting, enjoyable and packed first three weeks here at the European Wilderness Society and I am really looking forward to my at least five more months here in the beautiful Alps.  

Medieval festival

One weekend I was greeted with glorious sunshine and the prospect of medieval shenanigans and steam trains.

Snacks packed and a bottle of water I made my way down to Sankt Andrä im Lungau. Along the way I met one of my other colleagues Hanna. She walked the last stretch with me and soon we found ourselves at the steam train. While I was busy marvelling at the train Hanna got a phone call, and in a bit of turmoil she shot off. Later I would discover that her best friend had arrived in Tamsweg to surprise her.

So while Hanna disappeared, I bundled onto one of the old wooden coaches of the steam train and began to enjoy the smells. Steam and fresh Alpine air, simply wonderful; and with a toot of the whistle off we set. As we trundled along towards to medieval festival at Mountaindorf it was astonishing to realise that less than 5 months ago, everything I could see was covered in a deep layer of snow.

The medieval festival was a really nice change of pace. Having plodded around the stalls looking at the many items for sale, I found myself a nice bench. With some of the others at European Wilderness Society we sat under the delicate shade of a tree and I watched the world pass me by.

From under the tree we could see some of the performances but we got up to see the Spanish flag tossing. I was told that it really is a fantastic show, and while it was very entertaining it was to windy for them. So regrettably they had to cut their show short. Non the less after a nice steam train journey, a fun time medieval window shopping with shows thrown into the mix, it was time to call it a day and head home and enjoy the rest of the setting sun in the garden.

Amphibians, Reptiles and Medieval people

Amphibians in Mariapfarr

As the snow began to melt and the signs of spring started to emerge, so did the herps. On one of my walks I found myself around the lake of the Der Outdoorparc Lungau. It was the breeding season of the common toad, Bufo bufo. Thousands (or so it seemed to excited me) of them had gathered to call and find mates. Heaven for a herpetologist and I spent hours marvelling at them all and seeing their eye shine with my torch.

Reptiles in Tamsweg

After finding toads I wanted to find reptiles. With spring well underway and the sun burning brightly in the sky, I set forth to see what I could find. After a bit of walking I found myself in the mountains as you always do when living in the Alps. Tucked in the midst of all the planted pine forest I found a clearing. With a nice mixture of vegetation I thought it a good spot and set about looking for something scaly. It wasn’t long until I found myself in the middle of a small population of healthy common lizards, Zootoca vivipara. With the hot weather they were all scuttling around looking for food or mates. For the first time I was also fortunate enough to catch a pair mating; quite cool if you are a nerd like me. And if you don’t know, mating for common lizards is somewhat violent. The male bites the female around the waste to pin her down… google it 😉

Learning to ski

As a passionate and amateur herpetologist I was very keen to start exploring of Austria to see the various snakes, lizards and amphibians the country has to offer. But with the largest dump of snow the Lungau had had in many years… it meant I had a long time to wait and a lot of time to kill.

So what to do in the snow laden mountains of the Alps? Learn to ski!

So after a quick visit to the local Intersport to rent ski boots (and get them fitted), skis and poles while buying the all important helmet, vital when you’re an enthusiastic idiot, we hit the slopes. But first I had to spend 30min figuring out how to get my boots on at the car and walk in the clunky things.

Now when I say hit the slopes it was a literal. I hit them fast and often. With my face if I out did myself. Getting off the button lifts turned out to be a monumental task of its own (taking photos of waving to friends certainly didn’t help). However, soon I went from floundering around on the floor, to a Hobbit giraffe on roller blades and eventually, after a long while, I started down my first slope at Fanningberg. As I became more competent (or so I thought) and certainly more enthusiastic I found myself barrelling down the mountain faster than I probably should have been going…

All of this culminated in me asking Nick, at the time one of the other volunteers, to video me. I shot off doing the fast crouch-y thing (schussing) down one of the slopes, trying to build up speed with Nick somewhere behind me. Focused on my feet, I remember catching a glimpse of something in the corner of my eye; turning my head for a quick double take, I realised it was Nick. This temporary distraction threw off my balance, and suddenly my left foot burred into the powder causing me to very nearly wipe out. However, somehow I managed to stay up right and not crash face first into the snow.

Not a bad way to waste time until the amphibians and reptiles come out to play.

Getting to Austria

My time here in Austria started officially in February but first I would need to get there. Volunteers before me moved with a suitcase and backpack; taking only the essentials and necessities. With a year ahead of me, a want to visit friends old and new along the way and having always wanted do a long road trip, I decided to move to Austria by car. A casual 1,014 miles; 1,631 kilometres to our continental friends.

I packed the things I needed, then things I thought might be useful and then filled the rest of the car with the things I wanted, comprising mostly of tea.(This is no joke I have run out already send more!)

Hitting the Road

My trip would take me past family and long lost friends. However, while it offered all these great opportunities, the timing wasn’t great. It turned out that I planned my travels smack dab in the middle of some of the heaviest snow that central Europe had had in years.

So from England to Belgium, to Holland, to Germany, I found myself heading into the heart of the storm. Having been given a lot of valuable advice and a survival kit packed by my friends in Germany, I set forth to Austria. Soon I started to see vehicles going to opposite way covered in sprinklings of snow and not long after, as I passed Munich, the vehicles coming towards me looked battle worn and increasingly became coated in snow and ice with worn and tired drivers.

Not long after I hit the snow, it had been piling up in the fields and tree’s next to the motorway but now it was on the roads. The poor lorries started to slip up the hills, losing momentum and getting stuck, while the ones that made it to the top slid down into snow banks out of control and unable to break.

A 6 hour journey soon became 7, then 8 and after being diverted from blocked road to blocked road, pulling out a stuck pickup and held up by avalanche after avalanche, I finally arrived, tired but safe and with a new world to explore.

The WILDArt Exhibition

Within my first few weeks at the European Wilderness Society we displayed some of the artwork produced during last year’s WILDArt project in Synevyr Wilderness in Ukraine.

Together with the team we had a short time to frame and hang up what felt like hundreds of prints, pictures and paintings. But with the whole team pitching in, from framers to carriers shuttling it all to the Rathaus and a few long nights behind us we got it all set up and ready with a day to spare. With everything nearly ready for the big night, the team went home to don our swanky orange shirts and camo trousers and assembled in the Rathaus. We all quickly prepared the last touches, straightening a painting here and there, but mainly buttering bread in the traditional Lungau style. Which, according to Verena the only true Lungauer in the team, should be lathered on so thick that you can see your teeth marks in the butter.

Before we knew it the people started to arrive and the once roomy space of the Rathaus became occupied from locals from all over the Lungau. With anticipation in the air we were all waiting for the appearance of the Burgermister to start the ceremony.

Something that I find particularly odd here in Austria is the thanks. Everyone and anyone involved in the event, including the giddy aunt, are thanked. One of these odd but fun quirks that are different of our cultures, for example in England we give thanks to the key members and catering etc. but the list isn’t all that long. In the closing thanking, two of the artists from WILDArt, which came to the opening of the exhibition, presented the Burgermister with a painting each one had made while here in Tamsweg, as thanks…

With the party well underway and the glasses of fizz being handed around everyone started to enjoy the atmosphere amongst the art.

Finally, we had a group photo for the local newspaper so you can all see the orange avengers.

European Wilderness Academy Days 2019

Academy days

Soon after the WILDArt exhibition we rolled straight into the Academy Days; 3 days of talking and listening to experts in the respective fields. From honoured guests John Hausdoerffer the founding Dean of the School of Environmental & Sustainability and Gary Oye, the former chief of the US National Park Service and US Forestry Service. We also heard from rangers of National Parks, managers of Wilderness Areas and tour guides about how they help contribute to conservation through their work.

It was fascinating to hear about some of the challenges faced. Typically, you hear about things on a global scale, plastic in the sea, climate change, 6th extinction event etc. not that I am diminishing their importance. Instead some of the discussions focused on intimate local issues of that between neighbouring countries and cultural challanges. Something I had never thought of let alone grasped. Particularly to me, the discussions of Pavel Bečka and the joint discussion by David Freudl and Zdenek Mačát were fascinating.

Pavel has to navigate a National Park bisected in the middle with the boarder of Germany and Czechia and the differences in management styles each country uses and funding that is available.

Meanwhile David and Zdenek had differences in priorities that each country wanted to focus on and sometimes entirely different methods. While David works in Thayatal National Park, located in Austria. Zdenek works in Podyjí National Park, located across the river in Czechia.

Time for river fun!

Sunday was sadly the last day of our trip, but we made a good use of it. In the morning we went rafting on the Soca river which was great fun despite the very cold water (apparently it had 11°C). Arguably one of the best moments of the entire trip was when Nick fell out of the raft, but his leg was stuck, so he was just kind of hanging out of the raft drowning. It took me and the rest of the team a few seconds to figure out what was going on and to pull him back in.