The last wilderness in Europe

A stone marker commemorating the royal hunt of King Augustus III in 1752 is the oldest monument to civilization in Poland's legendary Bialowieza Forest, Europe's only remaining fragment of primeval woodland. Carved into the stone in floridly detailed language are the numbers of moose, boar, and bison killed during the massive hunt—which involved hundreds of beaters flushing the forest, driving panicked animals through a chute below the royal hunting stand. According to one story, Augustus's queen shot 20 bison, reading novels between charges.

Bison still live in Bialowieza, a four-hour drive east of Warsaw. Uncharted and unclaimed for centuries, the lowland forest today covers some 500 square miles in eastern Poland and Belarus. A small section of it is a Polish national park, although only about 10 square miles at its core—the Strict Reserve—is completely protected.

Bialowieza's exploitation has always played a part in its survival. Most of the forest would have been plowed into farmland half a millennium ago if it hadn't become the private hunting preserve of the Lithuanian dukes, Polish kings, Russian czars, German Nazis, and Soviet Communists who have controlled, in turn, this tumultuous edge of eastern Europe. Serious damage to Bialowieza is relatively recent. Early in this century German loggers devastated the woods, as did the British before World War II and the Russians after.

Tourism may be the best hope for Bialowieza's continued survival. Its bison, boar, wolves, lynx, and eagles and its monumental stands of spruce, alder, oak, and hornbeam draw 100,000 people a year. Most are schoolchildren or visitors with a special interest in nature, including those statisticians-of-the-skies, bird-watchers. I came because I'd traveled enough in the region to know how rare it is to find nearly untouched wilderness in the shadow of the former Soviet Union.

The historic center of the forest is the Palace Park, circled by lakes and shaded by ancient oaks. The ornate hunting lodge of Czar Nicholas II stood here until Nazis destroyed it in 1944. A natural history museum and the Iwa Hotel now occupy the site. The czar's stables have been turned into a hostel, and an onion-domed Russian Orthodox church, built in the 1890s, is nearby. Another hotel, the Zubrowka, lies just outside the Palace Park in the village of Bialowieza. Beyond the Strict Reserve but still within the forest are several small farms, as well as an alarming number of logging operations that continue to thin the surrounding woods.

The European bison, the continent's largest mammal, is Bialowieza's most famous resident. It can reach six feet in height and eight feet in length and weigh up to a ton. It is the symbol of both the region and the locally made bison grass vodka, Zubrowka. Visitors may be surprised to find stuffed bison heads on the walls and bison pelts covering the floors of hotels here: the primitive mythos of hunting is still a big area attraction.

Fire parties—wintertime hunts—"are the best thing about the forest," said Wodek, the driver who took me there from Warsaw. "You hunt from horse-drawn sleighs with torches and cook the game over a bonfire. The way to eat wild pig is not with a fork in a restaurant, but like this!" As he spoke, Wodek laughed loudly and clutched an imaginary hindquarter in his fist.

The restaurants serve a lot of what scampers through the woods. During my stay I felt obliged to put away more meat than I had in months, including wild boar, red deer, and roe deer. (Red deer is European elk; roe deer is the equivalent of the American white-tailed deer.) Most of the game was flavorful but tough and, well, gamy—perfect for a forest feast eaten with your hands. The only tender meat was roe deer. The mushroom soup at the Iwa's restaurant was the most delicious I've ever tasted. Outdoors, wild raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries grow along every path and in every field, and all are superb.

If you look up at night you're struck by the hugeness of the stars; the surrounding darkness is so black and deep that you can't even imagine shapes in it. I easily understood how Bialowieza once conjured reverence and fear among its inhabitants. The evening I arrived a driving wind that blew open my balcony door was louder and more savage than 4 a.m. garbage trucks in New York. My first night in nature I slept with earplugs and a light on.

Seeing the Strict Reserve was at the top of my list, but I learned you can't just drive in. Whether you're traveling alone or with a group, you must have a guide, and you can enter only on foot or bicycle or in a horse cart. Guides guard the woods and also keep visitors from getting lost or straying across the border into Belarus. "Bring a compass," one botanist told me.

Scientists are the latest rulers of Bialowieza. At least three Polish research institutes are based there. The bureaucracy in charge—"the science mafia," the botanist calls it—is a threat at this time of political and economic transition. "They live for grant money from the West, which is more important to some than protecting the forest." I was told that guides have found an oak larger than any recorded in the Strict Reserve, but they haven't reported it for fear that scientists would bore a hole in it to determine its age.

When I asked Simona Kossak, director of the Forest Biodiversity Protection program (titles here are often more glamorous than the jobs they represent), how people outside Poland can help, she said, "Just tell them to come and see how beautiful our forest is." The Bialowieza National Park, the only natural Polish site included on unesco's World Heritage List, has been designated a Biosphere Reserve.

In the days it took to arrange for a guide, I explored parts of Bialowieza outside the Strict Reserve with my translator, Joanna, who comes from an aristocratic family in Krakow. When she said, "Eastern Poland has always been more Russian," what she meant was backward. Cycling through the mud-road villages was like riding through the 19th century: we passed worn flower-strewn gray-wood houses, antique wells, and enormous storks' nests on the gables of weathered barns sheltering plow horses tended by peasants.

The region's older residents, having suffered the loss of Communist security, are wary of science and tourism alike. Young people live with cold water and outhouses, watch MTV, and dream of escaping to Warsaw with its new corporate logos and Western fashions.

We had rented our bikes from Jaroslaw Kisielewski, a quiet bearded Bialowieza native typical of the young Green entrepreneurs trying to rebalance preservation and exploitation. He wants to open a hotel near the forest with an organic garden, a vegetarian restaurant, and a septic system, but he's been frustrated. "There are many wonderful old houses that are state-owned, empty, and going completely to ruin. Yet the government won't sell them."

His children were eating pea pods out of the garden and untangling wild strawberries from the back fence as we talked. Here in Poland's "Green Lungs," the only difference between bottled mineral water and what comes out of your hotel tap is bubbles—a remarkable thing in eastern Europe.

Socialist economic machinery was not efficient, but it was thorough. In this part of the world nearly every natural resource that can be exploited has been. In fact, Europe's most polluted region is in Poland just 350 miles southwest of Bialowieza—the coal and steel cities around Katowice in Upper Silesia. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook on Poland, the pollution in the area exceeds "all safety limits. Multicolored fumes, exhaled by forests of chimneys, turn sunny days dark; the air smells of acid; the leaves on trees are suspiciously gray; and your white shirt is likely to be unrecognizable by evening."

Isolation has, for the most part, protected Bialowieza's animals from contamination. The bison population suffered greatly during World War I when soldiers hunted them from 700 head down to 100. In 1919 poachers killed the last wild bison in the forest. After it became a preserve in 1921, Polish scientists spent 25 years breeding bison from zoos for release back into their natural environment. The preserve's first calf was born in the wild in 1956; now about 250 bison roam Bialowieza. They are still breeding at the Bison Reserve, a small zoo three miles west of the Palace Park. A new animal has been created here called a zubron—a cross between a bison and a cow that looks like an EXTREMELY BIG COW.

After three days Joanna and I finally obtained a guide and permission to enter the primordial core of the forest. The main gate to the Strict Reserve is a half mile north of the Palace Park across cleared farmland. The line of the woods stands high as you approach: it is a place you enter, and things change startlingly once you're inside.

The surroundings immediately darkened. As our bicycles swished through the grass up to their handlebars, time of day receded. It was like being in a black-and-white world except that everything was in distinct shades of green, from the gray-green of ancient moss-coated oaks to the fluorescent hue of new grass on the paths.

Thick vegetation was all around, familiar trees were in unfamiliar proportions: pines rose 150 feet, and 400-year-old oaks six feet in diameter lay on the ground where they had crashed at the end of their life spans. I saw a thin metal marker twisted around a tree. Elsewhere this minor detritus from a scientific study wouldn't have bothered me, but here it was wrong, damaging more than a few layers of spruce bark.

We left the bikes behind and walked farther in to where there were no paths. Age crept everywhere. The forest felt static even though green sprigs were popping from the rust-brown rot of decaying windfall. Despite our having seen the reserve's edges, the disorienting scale made the space inside seem endless.

Suddenly, the woods opened onto a peat marsh. The narrow straight trees catching the evening light were spruce. They looked like saplings, but the guide said they were 30 to 100 years old, growing slowly and solidly through a carpet of peat moss 15 feet thick. We made our way through a tangle of wet brush that plateaued at knee level until we came to a boar wallow, a watery patch of blue-black mud. The bark had been rubbed off nearby trees by back-scratching. If you are a wild pig, this is Eden.

On the way out of the Strict Reserve, our guide led us past a stone memorial and two crosses encircled by barbed wire where Nazis had buried the bodies of local villagers.

Later, while drinking tea and fresh raspberry juice at the guide's cottage, I mentioned that I thought I'd heard voices in the reserve. My companions had too, they said, but wouldn't volunteer an explanation. I felt drained, as though I'd been walking under a blanket, pushing through something denser than the high brush and dead trees.

The next day, back in the reserve, I saw my wild animal. About 20 yards ahead of us a young roebuck darted across the path, branches crackling, and disappeared quickly into the silence of the woods. I couldn't help but take this creature—all muscle, speed, and strength—as a sign. I stopped eating game in the restaurants—a small but hopeful gesture of respect for the primeval majesty of Bialowieza forest.

The Tips
It's best to rent a car in Warsaw for the drive to Bialowieza; buses and trains take six hours or more and involve at least two transfers.

The two hotels in the forest are:

Park Palacowy
Bialowieza, 17230, Poland
011 48-85 68/122-60 or 011 48-835/123-85
doubles $20, no credit cards
located in the Palace Park

4 ulica Olgi Gabiec
011 48-85 68/123-03
doubles $15, no credit cards
located in the village of Bialowieza

I booked my trip with
250 W. 57 St., New York, NY 10107
which has an office in Warsaw.

New York-based writer-photographer Jeremy Wolff has written for the Wall Street Journal, photographed for Newsweek, and traveled widely in eastern Europe and Asia.