The little pasture on the other side of the canal is hidden in cold haze. In the quietness of the morning only a few noises can be made out: a slight splash down by the water, a rustle in the brambles along the pathway, the distant mooing of a cow, whose pale shadow appears from time to time on the meadow on the other river bank. The fog will persist for hours. It forms a white wall above the pasture, in which the dike and behind it the polders and even further in the distance the valley slopes on the Polish bank of the river Oder disappear completely.
In the Lower Oder Valley the morning fog banks are gorgeous and a reason for me to get up early. The cold, damp air tingles on the skin. It smells of wet leaves and wood, of dark earth and mushrooms. Somewhere above the fog, geese and cranes make their way with their chattering and trumpeting calls. A blackbird flits across the dew-damp shore path and disappears into the bushes. From the other bank, the muffled, laughing call of a green woodpecker can be heard.
The small place is called Alt-Galow. The house in which the apartment is located, with a magnificent view of the Hohensaaten-Friedrichsthal waterway, is already in the national park. The only bridge within a radius of three kilometers leads only a few meters away across the canal onto the dike, behind which the flat meadows extend to the Oder river.
The play of colors in the autumn sunsets along the canal is just one of the many beautiful facets that nature offers in the Lower Oder Valley.
The Lower Oder Valley National Park was designated by the state of Brandenburg in 1995 and today comprises around 60 kilometers of river and meadow landscape between Hohensaaten and Stettin, both on the German and on the Polish side. It can therefore be called International Park, a success that can be traced back to the years of voluntary work by ornithologists from both nations who have been collecting data on the bird population in the Oder Valley since the 1970s.
Along the course of the river, the Oder valley is bordered by slopes made up of the sediment marl from Ice Age glaciers. In between, the Oder made its way into the Szczecin Lagoon in ever-changing courses until the beginning of the last century. The annual, extensive flooding of the Oder valley contributed to this unsteady course of the river. Around the half of the 19th century, the river began to be straightened out on a large scale, which shortened the strongly meandering course by 190 kilometers. What remained were oxbow lakes and small watercourses that still characterize the valley today.
Oxbow lakes in the polders are the result of river straightening and dike building along the Oder.
Ducks – gadwalls and eurasian wigeons, but also northern shovelers and teals – tumble in the standing waters. Their carefree chatters blow up to the dike. Well hidden behind the tall stalks of the reeds, they dabble in the glistening shallow waters, always on guard. From the dike I try to get a line of sight through the vegetation on the banks and lose myself once again in the vastness of the valley, over which the sky always seems to hang somehow low. Old willows protrude from the landscape like spots on a green canvas, forming here and there small groves or hedges with wild bushes or cord along pasture fences and moats. Occasionally, white and brown spots indicate the herds of cows in the vast landscape. From the dike I can see dozens of deer roaming the valley. Buzzards and white-tailed eagles circle above, accompanied by ravens or hooded crows.
It is these many images that can be enumerated endlessly in the Lower Oder Valley, which change as the sun rises and sets, in the moving and piling up of clouds, in the fog as in the sunlight and in the blaze of colors that autumn brings. Images that do not leave you untouched, even more, that somehow fill you up with something big and difficult to grasp.
Perhaps it is the history of the earth, the tens of thousands of years that pushed themselves across the continent in the form of glaciers and then disappeared again, leaving behind mountains of glacial till and sediment, hills and the typical small, almost round ponds, and also this open valley. Or it is the vastness that the gaze tries to limit, fully aware that the cranes and the geese migrating southwards overhead still explode this vastness by effortlessly bridging the distance, stretching the arc much further than the eye is able to grasp.
View from the dike into the Oder valley along the polder between the localities of Stützkow and Criewen.
Maybe it is simply the sadness of autumn, of saying goodbye to those wandering away, of lingering behind, which even the blue sky cannot hide. Soon everything will be withered and cloudy. From November the polder between Schwedt and Stützkow is flooded and within the cold months everything sinks into an ice-blue silence, gnaws frostily on the banks and lingers for weeks in winter fragility. One can already foresee it when looking over the valley.
Development of the floodplain national park
The national park is a legislative work of art, a razor-sharp balancing act between the Federal Nature Conservation Act and the National Parks Act of 2006, which was amended by the Brandenburg state government. The background to this was the discussions about expanding the total reserves, i.e. those areas in which no economic use whatsoever may take place, but nature is left to its own devices without intervention.
According to the Federal Nature Conservation Act (§§23,24BNatSchG), these core zones must meet the requirements of a nature conservation area and hold a majority share of the area in question. Since the Lower Oder Valley is used for agriculture as well as for water and fishing, there were reservations from these sides about the idea of the law passed in 1995 to keep half of the national park area free of economic use. So after two years of debate, it was agreed that 50.1% of the national park area should be set aside as total reserves in Brandenburg’s national park law.
This complied with the Federal Nature Conservation Act. However, this also prevented further development of the natural areas in terms of area, for example to the 75% core zone share that a national park must have according to international standards (which the Saxon Switzerland National Park also fails to meet due to its settlement structure). Another example: the higher water levels in the floodplains, which are relevant for the breeding success of certain species, cannot be implemented as long as the areas have to serve as cattle pastures.
The stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) is one of the regular guests of a floodplain landscape. The small, not very shy birds like to present themselves on perches such as pasture fences and wild shrubs near water bodies.
From the point of view of some conservationists, however, it is not only the interests of agriculture, fisheries and water management that are under criticism. It is also about tourism, which is supposed to generate income in the structurally weak and rural border region. For the transformation of the Lower Oder Valley into a floodplain national park, federal funds are also flowing – land consolidation funds – which, however, are mainly used for the expansion of roads. Conservationists also criticise that the increase in tourist offers such as canoe tours, action days and weeks, the expansion of cycling and hiking trails in the national park and the lack of use of the national park’s surroundings for tourist offers devalue the national park quality brand. Apart from some positive developments towards a floodplain national park, however, the conservationists‘ balance sheets are rather sobering.
Across the polder, one of the summer trails, the Auenpfad, leads from Criewen to the Saather Weir on the Oder.
Perhaps the time limits for the conversion of the valley floodplain into a national park were too ambitious. The change of land use is still the crucial issue and if one believes politicians and nature conservation associations, at least in the Oder Valley a mutual goodwill and willingness to cooperate can be observed among those involved.
Besides the Brandenburg state parliament, the main hubs of these developments are the towns of Schwedt and the tranquil Criewen in the southern national park. The national park administration is based there, the visitor centre is also located there and the Friends of the German-Polish Lower Oder Valley European National Park Association – doesn’t that sound like music? – operates from Criewen Castle with its diverse activities.
The former stables of Criewen Castle house the National Park Visitor Center with a small exhibition on the history and habitats of the Oder Valley. A highlight is the Oder Aquarium, where more than twenty of the 42 fish species of the Oder Valley are presented.
Criewen is also the starting point of two hiking trails, the Auenpfad and the Weg der Auenblicke trail.
The Lower Oder Valley is between two and eight kilometres wide, widening towards the estuary into the Szczecin Lagoon. At Criewen it is about two and a half kilometres to the Oder. The 3.7 km long Auenpfad trail leads through the polder landscape characterised by numerous oxbow lakes to the Saather Weir. The path is only accessible in the summer months until October, after which the entire width of the Oder valley is flooded.
Castle and Lenné Park in Criewen
The Auenpfad trail leads along a wide variety of habitats, which are presented in an accompanying brochure. The flyer can be taken from wooden boxes at the bridge in Criewen or at the rest area at the Saather Weir. Along the way, pictograms are installed on wooden posts marking the stations described in the flyer. The Auenpfad is not designed as a circular trail, but can be extended to a large tour of about 15 to 20 km.
Above the hedges of willows and wild shrubs along the dyke, a great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor) is seen hover-hunting, a rare and fascinating observation.
In principle, this is also possible by bicycle, but the old agricultural roads are quite bumpy anyway and nature observations are much more impressive on foot. Especially in the polders, numerous animals have a habitat (including many rare meadow nesting birds such as Montagu’s harrier, ruff and corncrake). Considerate behaviour in the national park is important in any case, whether on foot, by bike or canoe.
Within sight of the Auenpfad lies the town of Schwedt. Since 2013, it has been the first town in Germany to officially bear the title of National Park Town. Many guided hiking and canoeing tours through the national park start from there. However, the town is struggling with high unemployment, population decline and a large number of empty flats.
Attempting a bicycle tour on the Weg der Auenblicke trail is a much more difficult undertaking. The approximately ten-kilometre-long circular trail first leads from Criewen Castle on partly steep and narrow paths through deciduous forest towards Stützkow. The up to 30-metre-high Densenberge, also a glacial relic, are one of the most densely wooded areas in the national park. The trail runs close to the Hohensaaten-Friedrichsthal waterway and the wet meadows. There are numerous small watercourses and springs on the valley slope. One of them – Fuchsquelle (‚fox well‘) – has been designed as an educational trail, the Quellerlebnispfad. On this source-themed trail, visitors are led dry-footed over planks through the marshy-wet fringe area of a wet meadow called Fuchswiese. This wetland is home to herons and cranes, marsh harriers breed here and beavers also live in the floodplain forests between the dyke and Densenbergen.
The Fuchswiese, a wet meadow behind the canal, is fed by rivulets and streams from the beech forest on the valley slope.
Together with my family I hike through the forest in moderate rain. Protected by the dense canopy of beech trees, we reach the small village of Stützkow, nestling on the valley slope, as the sun breaks through. We cross the Stützkow bridge and could make a short 2.5 km detour to the wooden observation tower on the Oder. But since we still have a good five kilometres to go on the asphalted dyke path towards Criewen and the six children’s feet have already done a lot this morning, we decide to take the circular walk and are rewarded with wonderful impressions of the Oder valley.
With the construction of the Hohensaaten-Friedrichsthaler waterway between 1906 and 1926, a second watercourse enclosing the floodplains on the north-western side of the valley was created. The 17-kilometre-long canal serves to drain the floodplains, but also to regulate the water level of the Oder and as a shipping route.
The view from the castle hill in Stolpe over the Hohensaaten-Fiedrichsthal waterway and the wooded slopes between Stolpe and Stolzenhagen. Here in the southern tip of the national park, guided canoe tours start on the canal from Stolpe to Sützkow and further into the polder.
Between Alt-Galow and Stolpe, the canal passes several carp ponds that can also be circumnavigated. As they are not so overgrown on the banks, there is an opportunity for bird watching. Now in autumn, when the ponds are drained, great egrets and grey herons gather and various species of ducks dabble in the remaining puddles of water.
The small village of Stolpe offers a special feature in the Oder Valley. At the top of the slope, a red brick tower trusts like a stone barrel, thick and round. It is humorously called Grützpott, which means ‚groats pot‘, and is the remains of a 12th century castle. Its walls reach deep down into the mountain, like a well. The tower can be visited from Wednesday to Sunday. Climbing it offers a wide view over the valley and the hilly Uckermark scenery to the west.
The Stolpe Tower measures eighteen metres in outer diameter. This makes it presumably the thickest bergfried in Germany. The two to six metre thick walls of the tower fortress are also impressive. Of the thirty metres total height, eighteen metres rise into the sky above Stolpe. The rest of the structure is underground.
From Stolpe, you can cross the dry polder to the Oder and there hike on the cycle path to the observation tower near Stützkow. The route is about seven kilometres long and can be closed to form a circular route. The floodplains are more structured here, with more groves and hedges along ditches and fewer oxbow lakes.
Cranes can be seen here and there in the polders. In between, deer wander across the meadows, disappearing into the reed-covered ditches or the wild hedges. Above me I see the dance of a common raven with a white-tailed eagle, so finely tuned to each other, as if it were not the first time the two had glided along like this. Buzzards are also plentiful, each one unique due to its very individual plumage markings, so that one develops a strange desire to take a photo of each one and record the variety of plumage for all time.
Mountains of clouds push across the valley as the day draws to a close. I stand on the bridge nearby our holiday flat. It becomes even quieter in the already quiet polders. The soft plucking of cows‘ mouths on the grass is soon the only sound along the pasture. The first dull warm moisture creeps out of the meadows and rises in the cool air. Above the canal, large bats buzz silently in the gathering darkness.
From the hillside, hip hop rolls down the road towards the bridge, along with a bicycle and young man with a pout. The three cycle away on the dyke towards Stolpe, past the weir where an old woman lives with her cat. For now, because the woman wants to move away from the loneliness of the valley to Schwedt. The cat had accompanied us all the way to Stolpe that morning, seemed to love roaming around in the ‚Shire‘, and maybe us too. Or she already suspected, as cats do, the upcoming change and her accompaniment was an attempt to escape the impending fate. Whether she found her way back to the house by the weir remains a secret.
The floodplain landscape of the Lower Oder Valley is a picture book of the most beautiful natural moments. A place that is able to silence the restless spirit of modern man in a simple way. No mighty peaks, no phenomenal panorama, no dreamlike beaches. Just this rather small, rather inconspicuous alluvial valley, but bursting with life. As I said, it is hard to grasp what this place triggers inside.
Roaming the polders and walking along the dikes does not require action tourism, adventure days or canoe tours. Open eyes and ears are enough to open the heart. Experiencing nature as an extension of the senses really works well here.
Thanks for reading!
To the PICKLE JAR
Further informationen about the national park
Official webseite of Lower Oder Valley National Park
A very detailed statement (pdf file, German) on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the national park by the Verein der Freunde des Deutsch-Polnischen Europa-Nationalparks Unteres Odertal e. V. (Association of Friends of the German-Polish Lower Oder Valley European National Park) from 2020, which critically examines the development processes of the national park. Moreover, the homepage of the association is extremely informative if one wants to understand the national park as such and does not primarily associate it with a near-natural holiday destination created for human purposes.
Brochures – download links to maps of hiking trails in the national park
Many bird species can be observed during a walk along the canal such as green woodpecker, middle spotted woodpecker, dunnock, robin, mute swan, common merganser, grey heron and many more!