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A “family teambuilding” trip through the swamps of Polesie accompanied by horseflies

Author: by Irina Gruzdilovich
Photo: by author

26.07.2021

According to Wikipedia, the length of the Stviga River is 178 km (110 mi), of which 66 km (41 mi) is on the territory of Ukraine, and 112 km (70 mi) is in Belarus. In four days, or a little less than three days (to be more precise), we have passed 88 km (55 mi) - from the village of Dzerzhinsk to the village of Richev.

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I heard about Stviga about a year ago. I was told that this river flows through the impassible Olmansky fens, where almost no human has ever set foot, and therefore birds and animals are really numerous around; wonderful oak forests delight the eye; and the murmur of water delights the ear. In addition, the river is not easy in terms of rafting: the forest is untouched, old trees fall into the water, and these obstacles need to be passed through somehow... and I got excited!

We found a company, chose a date – the May holidays - agreed on renting kayaks and a transfer. But my husband Slava got sick, the doctors strictly did not recommend spending the night in a tent until he would have recovered completely. The deadline has shifted to the beginning of July. And at the last moment, friends failed to go with us due to some circumstances.

We were ready to go together on the scheduled dates, but ... the transfer was canceled (it wasn’t our fault) since the agency decided that it was too far, long, and unprofitable. I was really upset! But it happens for me sometimes: even if logically I understand that nothing will work out, my inner "I want to" appears to be stronger: “I don't know how, but it SHOULD work out!" At some point, we made a decision: Slava postponed his vacation a week later, and we had a five-day gap free from other events. The day before the rafting, we mounted a roof rack on the car, rented a kayak and solved the problem with the transfer.

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- Hello, Stviga!

The first day fell on Sunday. We were in no hurry, on the advice of experienced people, we planned to make about 10 km (6 mi) on this day and stay in the forest for the night. Then the swamp starts, and it was recommended to leave it for the second day to pass through. So we arrived at the border strip (between Belarus and Ukraine) around 4 pm; Slava drove the car away to keep it away from local tractors and logging trucks; things were loaded into a kayak. Of course, I should have been alerted by the abundance of insects outside the car window, when we had slowed down to take a picture of the white sand in the forest. But I've seen wonderful photos of people in shorts and T-shirts in Internet: they were floating down the Stviga with a smile! We sprayed ourselves with repellents," just in case ", and put our mosquito hats closer. Also I put on a long-sleeve shirt (well, you never know, mosquitoes, they always find me everywhere) and we started the water trip. And we even went through a couple of turns of the river, enjoying the unusual silence, admiring the white lilies (Nymphaea alba) and yellow Least water-lilies (Nuphar pumila). We even saw the red-listed Water Chestnut (Trapa natans)!

But then the nightmare began… I do not know how insects notify each other about the source of food. However, a swarm of horseflies crowded near us after a few minutes of rafting. I have never seen such a large number of insects in one place (mosquitoes during the search for Spotted Eagle nests do not count). I continuously and abundantly sprayed myself with an anti-insect spray, but the horseflies did not react to this at all. I buttoned my shirt up and lowered the net of the mosquito hats, loudly protested and desperately waved the paddle. I was in hope that if we quickly pass the "terrible place", the horseflies would leave us alone. Oh, no! Already at home, I read that a fertilized female horsefly has an instinct to search for prey, and she does not feel any danger at all: the insect can chase the prey for a long time and either bite or die. In addition, the horsefly likes an actively moving target more: a person with a paddle looks quite satisfactory to it.

We rafted about 6.5 km (4 mi) along the river, when the forest landscape was replaced by shrubs and tall grass. It was not possible to go ashore and look around: even if we stood up in the boat, the grass was still twice taller. I began to doubt that we were still rafting along the Stviga: well, you never know – what if suddenly we had turned into some overgrown channel and there was a dead end ahead. Meanwhile, evening was falling, a thunderstorm was approaching. The thought that we had miscalculated the distance and were already passing through the swamp was getting more and more disturbing. From the bites of horseflies and mosquitoes (yeah, they also joined…) our hands and feet were covered with red spots and itched, the paddles were tangled in the water grass, the sky was darkening treacherously quickly… Slava and I supported each other by talking about even worse places we had been passing through... Well, it’s not a big deal that we were about to hold aluminum paddles during the thunderstorm… anyway we’ll somehow reach somewhere ... After all, we had flashlights packed, and I had taken as many as three cans of repellent with us…

And when at the next turn the salvation island of the forest appeared in front of us, we applied the maximal strength to the paddles… We had never been putting up our tent at such a speed! After all, blood-sucking insects are an effective element of family teambuilding. In a couple of minutes, we dragged all the things from the kayak to the tent and decided that we could quite limit ourselves to dry rations and go to bed early without cooking a dinner. But nature, apparently, had other plans. I do not have a panic fear of a thunderstorms, and I can admire the lightning flashes from a safe distance. But this time I had a strong feeling that we were being filmed close-up on a camera with a powerful flash - with a huge number of takes and a mandatory accompaniment of thunder from all sides. I managed to fall asleep only when the storm front had passed aside.

The morning of the second day turned out to be wet and gray. After hastily drying the tent and pouring out the water from the kayak, we set off, having been prudently dressed "according to the situation" – trousers, long-sleeve shirts and the main attribute - mosquito hats with nets. Slava even changed into old sneakers – his feet will still be wet, but the "animals" will bite less. It wasn't hot, but it was still stuffy in the mosquito net. But it allowed us to look safely into the eyes of the horseflies that crawled right on the net from the outside, and to ignore the mosquitoes at all.

Finally, the weather cleared up, and Stviga appeared to us in all its glory: a dark river sometimes calmly, and sometimes with little of bubbling was running, and winding, and hiding in the Polesie woodlands. Ancient trees along the banks of the river watch carefully for rare travelers. Sometimes they fall into the water, and their trunks resemble fairy-tale giants guarding these places.

Unfortunately, we did not see any animals, neither large nor small, and possible traces were washed away by the night rain. But the birds were singing and busily scurrying in the crowns of the trees. However, I expected more representatives of those winged things...

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Our constant companions were white wagtails (Motacilla alba), which were running along the bank without fear and jumped over fallen trees.

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A little later, they were joined by small Common sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos): modestly colored birds with white stripes at the base of the wings looking as if they were worn by the harnesses of small backpacks. With a soft squeak of "ti-ti-ti", the frightened sandpipers flew forward and waited for us around the next turn.

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There were so many turns that Slava lost count and not always was able to tell where we were.

8_1330.jpgHe had printed the route map on several sheets, and the distance traveled was measured not in kilometers, but in pages. For example, on the first day we covered only 2.5 pages (or 9.5 km – about 6 mi), and by the end of the second day we were already on the 7th page, which corresponded to 32 km (20 mi) that was covered in two days.

On this day, Stviga tested us for strength, putting more and more of fallen trees on our way. Oaks, birches, and pines were blocking the river in turn. They sometimes hung over the water, allowing us to pass under them without much effort, however, in other cases they bent very low, and it was possible to squeeze under them only by lying down at the level of the kayak.

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Sometimes the trees did not want to let us go, they played with us clunging to our clothes with branches, covering us with leaves, bark and cones.

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In those cases, we had to arrange things with them or to trick them: we were pushing the bow of the kayak into the right clearance, backing up a little, then we had to push trying not to lose the paddle, to pull up, to push off from the underwater log... That's all, I’ve passed, and Slava as well! We keep moving.

In one place, where two trees were in the water in a row, Slava lost a mosquito net. We went out on the bank, Slava searched for it – but not successfully. I was terrified. On this segment of the horsefly river, we were not much annoyed by insects, but what will happen next! They'll eat him up!! I returned back, reached the middle of the river by the trunk of a tree, and when I was about to turn back, I noticed Slava's hat below, it was slightly flooded, and completely invisible from the bank due to its camouflage colors.

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Sometimes the trees blocked the river quite seriously; they placed thick logs right in the water, exposing sharp branches-twigs in all directions.

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And there was no way on the water - only "to pass by" by land.

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This was my least favorite obstacle. I have, frankly, not much strength. Sometimes there was simply nowhere to unload things. And our kayak weighed 40 kg without stuff, and when loaded, it was probably all 80. Usually we only had to drag the kayak along the sand – it's not difficult. Only once we had to carry the kayak overland, and even across a log. Slava managed it himself, while I tried not to get in his way.

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Each time I looked for the path of least resistance. For example, I liked to "step over" a tree. Yeah, I know one shouldn’t stand up in a kayak. But if you carefully hold on to the fallen trunk, then, as it turned out, you can. You need to stand on one leg in the boat, move the other over the log, and then gently push the boat forward. It turns out that the kayak swims (quite close) under the log, and we climb over the top. The key point here is that the kayak should move ahead at the right speed.

Regarding speed... On the Stvigva, it varies very much. On the third day, there were fewer blockages, more straight spans. It was easier to kayak now, but not too funny, though: there was simply nothing to overcome. The river became wider, deeper and ... unpredictable: the fallen trunks that used to stick out of the water were hidden underwater now. Several times we ran into them, the kayak turned around, tilted, but we managed not to turn over, although we still got some water inside the boat a couple of times.

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I had to stop, dry off and change clothes.

But the troubles were replaced by pleasant things. On this day, I saw more hoopoes (Upupa epops) than in my entire life – 7 ones!

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The birds we frightened away on the sandbanks, were flying up to the nearest trees or, sensing our increased attention, flew further away. One guy hesitated a little, jumped funny on a branch and reminded us of Woody Woodpecker from the cartoon.

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A couple of times and quite close, we saw the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla): while we were going around an obstacle with paddles in our hands, a large bird of prey with a white wedge-shaped tail was flying away almost from under our feet. A Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) was circling high up in the sky. That's all of the birds of prey, not too many.

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There was another great meeting.

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I accidentally noticed large bright butterflies with beautiful patterned wings fluttering over the flowers. Swallowtails (Papilio machaon)! I quickly looked into the water: it was shallow, there was no way to get out on the bank due to the tall grass. Okay, I'll shoot from the river. I asked Slava to run aground, and jumped into the water running to take pictures. You never know at which turn you will meet a miracle.

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On this day, we were kayaking for a long time - until the sunset – and recorded our highest achievement of 35 km (22 mi) on one day. We set up our camp on the snow-white sandy beach near the village of Korotichi. And in the morning, while breakfast was being cooked, Slava teased the Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) and the Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus).

They responded - however, they neither flew closer, nor showed themselves.

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Our fourth day of rafting turned out to be the easiest and the longest one. It was easier because the horseflies and mosquitoes were gone, and I was able to kayak in shorts, a T-shirt, and a cap; the snags and flooded trunks disappeared, fallen trees were very rare now. And it was long because we were tired and wanted to get to the finish as soon as possible. The river became smooth and boring, still winding, but new turns was not bringing any surprise. The landscape almost did not change: sandbanks, grassy banks, birch and willow trees...

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But there were more birds, at least they have become more common: the European Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur), Eurasian collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto), Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor), Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio), and the Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella).

Random passers-by were curious about where we were kayaking from and whether mosquitoes were angry on the Olmansky swamps.

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And our friend Natalia Karlionova was already waiting for us in the town of Richev. Thanks to her! While Slava and Natasha went to pick up our car from Dzerzhinsk, I washed the kayak, dried wet things and photographed butterflies – then I drank the cold kefir brought by Slava.

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What's in the remainder? A lot of impressions and 2500 photos. In fact, it is already many times less. We are happy – both with the river and with ourselves. Next time I'll take another can of repellent and maybe a spare mosquito net with us.

Translated by M. Shaturin


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