Watery Wilds

Paddling Through Lower Lithuania

Nemanus delta
The Nemunas river is rich with color and biodiversity.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The stand-up paddle board offers a unique if challenging way to see the natural beauty – including swimming elk – of the remote Nemunas River delta near the Baltic Sea.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Nemunas River forms the border between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad area that belongs to Russia.
    • The river is known in English as the Neman and in German as the Memel.
    • The delta is almost devoid of people and is one of the most important wildlife sanctuaries in eastern Europe.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Using just her paddle board, Aurelija Jakstaite has journeyed through the delta region where the Nemunas River in eastern Europe drains into the Curonian Lagoon and from there to the Baltic Sea. The low-lying Nemunas delta in Lithuania is remote, sparsely populated, a wildlife sanctuary and, Ms. Jakstaite hopes, a growing ecotourism site.

In summertime, the area where the river empties into the Curonian Lagoon is so placid it’s difficult to imagine the dangers it poses in winter, when powerful winds drive water and ice floes far inshore. “Once the ice floes blocked the entrance to the church at Rusne,” Ms. Jakstaite said, referring to a building five kilometers (or about three miles) from the lagoon.

The 40-year-old used to be a ranger at Nemunas Delta Regional Park. A few years ago, she quit her job and, together with a girlfriend, started a business, Water Tourism Agency Upaite. Tourists used to be a rare sight in these parts, Ms. Jakstaite said.

Her method of transport around the delta looks like a surfboard, but you stand on it and push yourself along with a paddle. “The technique is quite simple. You don’t have to complete a training course. You step onto the board and get going,” she said.

Ms. Jakstaite has spent almost her entire life in the Nemunas delta area and knows its every season and stream. We paddled past green meadows so fertile that in some summers farmers can scythe the grass four times. The full spectrum of blues is striking: dark blue, green blue, ice blue and the mineral blue of the water.

Hundreds of gray geese rested in a meadow in front of the abandoned lighthouse of Uostadvaris. We spotted the nest of two gray sea eagles. In a nearby aspen grove, a dozen gray herons landed, scrupulously keeping their distance from a group of cormorants ― the two don’t get along. Two deer grazed in the thin reeds. A fox appeared and a hare bolted away.

There is almost no contact between the inhabitants of the Russian and the Lithuanian sides of the delta. Not even between the rangers of the regional park.

The Nemunas delta, a region almost devoid of people, is one of the most important wildlife sanctuaries in eastern Europe. Rangers at the park have counted 294 species of birds, including the rare and threatened aquatic warbler, which can be recognized by the three wide stripes of brown and yellow on its feathers. The bird is smaller than a human hand, and the local inhabitants are so proud of it that they refrain from harvesting hay during its breeding season.

The river forms the border between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad area that belongs to Russia. The river is known in Lithuania as the Nemunas, in English as the Neman, and in German as the Memel. Many people in the area call themselves Memellanders.

The remote border area is hardly a vacation hotspot ― in contrast to the Courland Spit, which is a long, thin, sand-covered land mass that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea and connects Lithuania and Kaliningrad. Every year tens of thousands of visitors climb on the spit’s famous white sand dunes and inspect the thatch-roofed vacation house of famous German writer Thomas Mann.

Ms. Jakstaite, however, is optimistic about the delta’s tourism potential: “We Memellanders have water, floodwaters and the animals that live near water. Today everyone is talking about ecotourism – is there a region more suited to that than ours?”


Video:  paddling on a SUP is a good way to get to know Lithuania.

In fact, the river estuary is not only a transit point for migrating birds, but also a retreat for countless other species of animals. The regional park’s homepage lists 12 species of bats alone. Polecats, minks and ermines have been spotted in the reeds. Beaver lodges can be found along every river and canal. But it takes luck to see one of the area’s elks. With even more luck, you can spot one swimming quickly and skillfully through the water.

Ecotourism has a long tradition in the Nemunas delta. At the beginning of the twentieth century, writers, painters and photographers felt a magical attraction to what was then the northernmost corner of East Prussia.

The lowlands, wrote the author Heinrich A. Kurschat, “are a landscape that is reminiscent of the third day of Creation.” According to the Old Testament, on the third day “God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.”

Nothing has changed much even today. The forests are so often flooded that the inhabitants of the region have invented a quite particular means of transportation.

“Up to a depth of 20 centimeters (about 8 inches), we drive with our cars through the water,” Ms. Jakstaite said. “And if it rises further, we use tractors to pull the car on a trailer through the water. We have to get to work in the city one way or another.”

At flood levels of more than a meter, even this measure is of no use. “If the water reaches that level, even a tractor can’t make headway. Then we stay at home — and work has to wait,” said Ms. Jakstaite and laughed.

The most challenging time in the delta isn’t the flood season, when boats, tractors and even stand-up paddle (or SUP) boards can help. “The most difficult period,” Ms. Jakstaite said, “is that of the schaktarp.” The schaktarp, Lithuanian for “island existence,” begins when the winter ice is no longer firm enough to walk on, but so many ice floes are on the waterways that even a boat is of no use. Then the villages become unreachable islands.

Every September, a fish soup making contest takes place in the city’s harbor.

Scarcely 100 meters (or about 110 yards) distant, separated by water, Russian territory begins. Fishermen were on both banks — Russians on one side, Lithuanians on the other. You could cross the river and visit the neighboring country, but no one does it because everything is monitored by cameras.

There is almost no contact between the inhabitants of the Russian and the Lithuanian sides of the delta. Not even between the rangers of the regional park. All attempts at cooperation, at least with regard to environmental protection, have failed.

Rusne could serve as a good starting-point for excursions into the delta. But Rusne, despite having a church and a cemetery, has neither a hotel nor a restaurant. It also proves to be difficult to rent a bicycle. Visitors who don’t want to spend the night in private lodgings have to travel eight kilometers to Silute, a city with 20,000 inhabitants.

Silute’s main street recalls that of an East Prussian provincial town. Structures such as the district court, fire station and the post office survived World War II and the Soviet era. Some of the buildings have been meticulously restored. Indeed, some historians believe there is nowhere else where one can get so good a sense of what life was like in old East Prussia.

Here as well, measures have been taken to attract tourists. In recent years a fish soup-making contest has been staged in the harbor in September. Herring and eel, bream and lamprey can be drawn from the water with a bucket. In order to preserve them for the chill isolation of the “schaktarp,” the fish are not only smoked, but also dried. Fish soup fans travel from abroad for the competition in Silute.

Our paddle excursion through the delta ended at the Curonian lagoon. The wind was so strong that it was difficult to clamber down from the SUP boards and climb up a small observation platform. From there, you can see the delta’s complicated waterways and the Curonian Spit’s sand dunes about 40 kilometers away. Would we be able to get there with our paddle boards across the lagoon? Even Ms. Jakstaite hasn’t dared do that.

 

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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