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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Take a Walk on the Wild Side in Tver's Forests




The last stretch of pavement ends abruptly and the road turns to dirt, reddish in the last rays of the evening sun and bumpy as a cheese grater.


As our car rattles and squeaks along, the guide explains that the road's contours are shaped less by man than by the creek that floods across it every year.


We are in the Valdai Uplands, in an area called the Great Watershed, from where flow three great Russian rivers f the Volga, Western Dvina and Dnepr.


Here, about 300 kilometers northwest of Moscow in the Tver region, lies the Central Forest Reserve, one of very few surviving virgin forests in Europe.


Dense and practically impassible because of generations of trees knocked down by the winds and interlaced with new growth, and dotted with immense marshlands and dozens of springs, this spot of southern taiga has not been disturbed by people for thousands of years.


We spent the weekend sleeping in log cabins and hiking in protected areas surrounding the reserve, accompanied by researchers who explained the plants and animals as well as the natural history of this region.


The region once lay along a trade route used from the ninth to the 11th century to travel from Scandinavia and the Baltics to the Black and Mediterranean seas.


In these upper reaches of the Volga, the streams were shallow, and sailors had to drag their boats across the plains and hills to the next river. Most local villagers at that time made their living pulling and pushing the vessels. As a reminder of those times, local maps are speckled with names derived from the word "volok," Russian for dragging.


The difficult terrain also saved the dense forest from falling victim to the timber trade. The marshlands made road-building difficult, and the tiny rivers were too small for transporting felled trees.


Throughout history, what was once the Okovsky Forest found itself on the border first of the Moscow and Lithuanian kingdoms and later of different Russian regions. Far from roads and cities, the forest stood untouched.


When we reached Zapovedny, a village housing the national reserve's administrators, researchers and rangers, the sun was almost gone. In the meadow right next to a blue log cabin that has been turned into a hostel, a corncrake f a medium-size speckled gray bird that lays its eggs in dense grass f started its croaking and screeching song in the dusk.


The next morning, led by ranger Alexander Kiryanov and biologist Sergei Rubtsov, who left Moscow eight years ago to study the trout and grayling in the reserve's fast narrow rivers, we followed a path lined with shaky wooden boards into the depth of the Staroselsky Mokh marshland.


In the mid dle of it, we came upon a sparkling spaceship-like module. A row of solar batteries fed computers taking carbon dioxide readings, as part of a German research program to study its circulation in nature.


The reserve has seen Norwegian, American and other researchers who have come to track the population of wolves, observe woodgrouse, elks and bears. Rare birds, such as the golden eagle and black stork, can still be found here, and lynx, wild boar and beaver live in the 24,000-hectare reserve and the 44,000-hectare protected zone surrounding it.


From a tall wooden watchtower on a hill, Staroselsky Mokh and the surrounding rolling hills covered with dark, bluish spruce presented a breath-taking scene. A border of yellow flowers lined paths running across fields f a curious testimony to how man changes the landscape, even by carrying seeds on the soles of his shoes.


About a dozen watchtowers and hide-aways are built in and near the reserve, some of them overlooking oat fields, planted to attract bears in August and early fall.


We returned to our car and drove to another part of the reserve, where we walked for about 30 minutes to the rangers' log cabin hidden away near the looping Nochnaya River. After unpacking, we set out on another walk, following the river through tall grass and purple, sweet-smelling flowers to a dam built by beavers.


We then veered off onto an old horse path into the dark forest. Listening to our guides chatting and impersonating animals, I suddenly felt boundaries of time dissolving and disappearing. These two men among these centuries-old spruce could have been hunters tracking animals with Ivan Turgenev in the 19th century.


Soon, through a line of dark tree stumps sparkled an almost martian landscape: As far as the eye could see, on tall, almost invisible green spears floated a cloud of white fluffy balls, the down-covered dry flowers of the pushitsa, or eriphorum vaginatum, which women from nearby villages used to come here to collect in pre-tampon times.


Here and there, stalks of dead trees, the color of steel, stick out of the marshland. Across fields of squelching soaked moss, past tiny hills covered with cranberry vines, we cut to a pine grove on the fringe of the marshland. Here was a path created by generations of elks. In the open spaces near the marshland, bull elks fight during the fall mating season. Sometimes in the fall, Kiryanov said rangers mimic the elks' burping noises, and they come charging through the young forest and bushes in a powerful display of strength and instinct to meet the challenge.


Female elks have a small window of fertility. The best mating time lasts just about 24 hours, and is timed to ensure that the young are born in April, when the weather is already warm, the snow has melted and food is easy to find.


Over decades, the reserve's specialists have collected skulls of animals shot by hunters or killed off by predators.


Study of the skulls' teeth proves that predators kill weakened animals. At least 46 percent of elks killed by wolves had serious gum disease, an indicator of their poor health. Among the animals killed by hunters, skulls of only 8 percent of the animals bore signs of similar health problems, said Pavel Koroblyov, who studies the skulls.


At Zapovedny village, we saw three tiny furry wolf cubs who were living in a giant basket in Koroblyov's house.


Following an old habit left over from Soviet-era wolf extermination efforts, some hunters in Tver region still kill wolves and give their cubs to the authorities.


The government doesn't pay for the killed animals anymore, but wolf cubs still turn up in villages.


One of the reserve biologists bought the cubs from a hunter to raise them at the reserve. They may become a part of educational programs that the reserve runs to teach schoolchildren about wolves to overcome prejudices about the predators.


The Central Forest Reserve was formed in 1931, so even before World War II, during which the Soviet Union desperately needed lumber, this patch of forest was saved.


Not far from here in areas less remote, old timers remember how hundreds of peasants in the Tver region were forced to line the banks and f in the shadow of guard towers f push the logs down the stream.


In 1985, the United Nations designated the forest a part of the international network of biosphere reserves, which provide a standard against which man's impact on the environment can be measured.


After perestroika, funding of national reserves in Russia was drastically cut and now federal funds barely cover the meager salaries of reserve rangers and researchers.


Before the August financial crisis, Inkombank financed some of the reserve's scientific projects and even helped publish a collection of scientific articles written by Central Forest Reserve researchers. To return the favor, reserve rangers took the bank's president, Vladimir Vinogradov, hunting in pristine woods on the fringes of the reserve. But now, with the bank lying in dust, its help for the reserve is no more.


The reserve has found support from regional and federal ecological funds, said Anatoly Zheltukhin, the reserve's director. But the state has begun pushing the reserves to generate their own revenues, so with help from international organizations Zheltukhin's reserve created a sustainable development business plan that links its future with the growth of eco-tourism.


At night, our guides stoked up a banya near the log cabin, and in the dark, we took turns sweating in the steamy small dark cabin, whipping ourselves with oak and birch branches and rushing to the river to cool off.


As they cooked over the fire, waving away mosquitoes buzzing in the dusk, Kiryanov, the ranger, and Rubtsov, embarked on a long trickle of tales about the forest, the animals and villages nearby.


The next day, after a long hike through the hills and across rivers, we return to the researchers' village.


On its edge, hidden behind dense bushes and surrounded by wire fences, stands a small mink farm where for the last 10 years Vladimir Kachanovsky has been studying European mink and trying to find a way to get them to reproduce in captivity.


Until 1930, European mink populated forests across the continent, but under a Stalinist program designed to "reform nature," Soviet scientists introduced American mink in Russian forests, hoping that the animals would breed and produce a stronger animal with thicker, more luxurious fur.


But it turned out that the two types of minks did not mate. And soon, the European mink, much smaller than its Northern American counterpart, started disappearing. By now, of about 7,000 mink living in the reserve, only one in seven is European.


Researchers are trying to reverse the trend. On Kachanovsky's mink farm, two of the European females are pregnant and the researchers tiptoe around cautiously: When disturbed, some mink have been known to kill their young.


How to Get There


ViaLogo, an "adventure" travel agency, organizes environmental tourism tours to the Central Forest Reserve. English-speaking guides are available. A weekend trip, including transportation from Moscow, food and lodging, costs $150 per person. A weeklong trip costs $350. Tel. 132-7409 or 132-7408.


For research trips, volunteer environmental work or summer internships, contact Central Forest Reserve directly at 8-266-224-33 or okovfors@mail.ru or okovles@chat.ru


What You Need


A pair of good waterproof boots and clothing that protects you from mosquitoes are essential. No sleeping bags are necessary since the reserve provides bed linens and even f a surprise for those familiar with travel in Russia f toilet paper.