Monday, 1 September 2008

A Walk Along the Schwarzenberg Canal

The Schwarzenberg Timber Canal is a source of some pride to the Czechs. They talk about the engineering prowess of its creator Josef Rosenauer in designing the canal to descend from the Sumava to the River Vlatava in the Czech Republic and the Muhl River (a tributary of the Danube) in Austria. This he achieved using the contours of the land, gravity and water from Plesny Lake and local streams to bring the timber gradually to their destinations, so gradually that at times when you are walking along it you hardly notice you are going downhill.. However Manchester Ship Canal it ain't, in fact it is not a canal for boats at all. Rather it is only about 4 metres wide and about 1 metre deep. I walked over it the first time I visited, before realising that this was the "great" Schwarzenberg Canal. And yet it certainly is quite a feat, with its granite lined walls, its shutes and the functionality of its design – it did its job very efficiently for over 100 years. As the Czechs would point out big isn't always best.

The Canal makes a popular walk for Czech families (the gradual slope makes pushchair handling easy) and cyclists. Yesterday I took advantage of the last day of the summer bus timetable to take a bus from Nova Pec (which I had gone to on the little train) to Jeleny Vrchy. The little village of Jeleny is the starting point for a number of excellent waymarked trails, of which the Canal one is the easiest. Grabbing a bottle of the superior Czech version of Coke – Kofola – I proceeded to walk down the blue-waymarked path back to Nova Pec via the canal bank. I recommend this walk as an easy-on-the-legs introduction to the Sumava forests. The slopes are covered primarily with fir, interspersed with silver birch, under which are mossy banks on many colours and the occasional large granite slab. Throughout the seasons you will see a range of flowers – the rare (and protected) Alpine snowbell, the more common violet, lupin (sometimes in huge swathes), bellflower, ragged robin and fireweed.

The canal whispered beside me as I walked, dyed brown by peat, whilst from time to time came the sound and glint of forest streams. Sometimes a vista would open up to show the wooded slopes of the Sumava or a lonely farmhouse. To enlighten the walk there were information boards every mile or two, in Czech with a German translation. These fortunately also had graphics which helped my rusty German and even worse Czech. They showed how the logs were transported, the canal built, about the animals of the forest, Plesny Lake, etc. Having had my fill of the canal and its environs I took another track, waymarked yellow, and descended through the forest a little more quickly. Now instead of the canal I had a stream to accompany me, that gushed among the moss-covered rocks, forming little pools and torrents, catching the light or descending into gloom.

I was reminded that I had read that it was here in the Sumava that the Czech otter population had survived in streams like this one. And in the forest the linx once more prowled after a successful reintroduction, though no such effort had yet been made for the lost animals of the Sumava - the wolf and the brown bear, both of which were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. After a while the track flattened out and I found myself in the peaty stream valley that I had passed on the bus coming up . The trees opened up to reveal tall grasses and flowers, reeds and the occasional fir or birch.

The track crossed over the brook, which was brown and freckled in the sunshine. And I rejoined the road to Nova Pec. Even here I found much to delight me. Little lizards left their basking places on the tarmac and scuttled into the grass at the approaching thunder of my footfall. Dragonflies darted and the air was full of the sweet scent of pine resin. At last the huts and houses of Nova Pec lined the road, and I walked to the station and home.

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