In Bohemian Switzerland, I hiked through beautiful, dense forest — and discovered a path to something deeper

Community Sep 25, 2021 by Sneha Chakraborty Toronto Star

As we came close to the end of a steep climb up a very narrow sandstone ridge, David, an arborist and fellow backpacker, shouted at me from a landing above.

“There is a local legend that tells you if you are healing or if you’re a healer, based on which trail you choose for your journey,” he said. I finally made it to where he was standing, catching my breath and rethinking my diet. Beyond, lush pine cover stretched to the horizon.

“If you make your way toward Dresden, you are recovering from life,” he said. “And if the trails take you to Decin, you might want to stay and help this place, solely because you can.”

He was pointing to the Elbe mountain range, a highland nestled in the northwestern Czech Republic and a prime attraction for those who visit the surrounding Bohemian Switzerland National Park. Declared a protected area in 1972, the sandstone landscape straddles two countries: Germany (where it’s known as Saxon Switzerland National Park) and the Bohemian terrain of the Czech Republic.

The resulting hiking corridor — naturally carved out by the Elbe River — is the proverbial backdoor to Western Europe. Popular with backpackers, it’s home to craggy limestone cliffs, rocky ravines, deep gorges and acres of forestland.

Typically, a trek from Prague lasts a day or two. But those who can extend it to two weeks — and have undaunted stamina — can walk through roughly 100 kilometres of one of the world’s densest broadleaf forests while turning to nature for some divine guidance.

Pre-pandemic, about 500 people a day made their way through Bohemian Switzerland. Yet despite the national park’s popularity, there aren’t any guides indicating which of the 12 trails is the most recommended or walked. Instead, most visitors rely on the local legend to guide their visit — and I was no exception.

After leaving a corporate copywriting job and saving enough to freelance, I’d travelled to the Czech Republic to start a photography project I’d been planning for years. But sudden closures due to the pandemic left me unable to work in the cities. Wanting to escape from my month-long creative rut, I headed to Bohemian Switzerland.

When I met David at the park’s entry in Prague, I discovered a new-found sense of purpose after listening to his story. The 34-year-old had travelled from Hanoi, Vietnam, with a group of conservationists to protect the forest in the fight against bark beetles. I decided to join them.

Between the 18th and early 20th century, roughly one-third of the Douglas and white pine trees in the park’s German territory were lost to a bark beetle epidemic. Even the German army was called in to fight the invaders. Today, the beetles once again pose a threat to the forest cover, and efforts to reduce their rampage are underway.

David had originally planned to spend only a few days in Germany, pitching a bark beetle management plan to the forest authority. But when the pandemic intensified, he decided to stay on.

“We are arborists. And with rangers and federal conservation workers unable to do the important work that helps the [forest], we couldn’t not help. We couldn’t walk away from this,” explained David, adding, “I found out that I am a healer, if you are wondering.”

Rather than heading for the park’s most-visited attractions, such as the Tisa Rocks Labyrinth — a filming location for 2005’s “Chronicles of Narnia” — our team of five was travelling to build habitat corridors, meant to increase the flow of wildlife in the area and, in turn, reduce the number of destructive bark beetles.

Our route would begin in lower Saxony and loop around Desden and Decin. It was up to the trails to lead me to my fate — and to determine whether I was a healer or healing.

For the first week or so, we hiked every day. We made our way out of the gorges to where the trails led us, planting pine saplings and removing beetle-infested bark from trees and logs along the way. After that, the trails became less directional and more ad hoc, crossing the Kamince River and then climbing almost vertically for 900 back-breaking feet.

One evening, I photographed the trees with Ray, a 41-year-old conservationist who has worked on projects around the world and now guides tours of national parks. Last year, after bushfires swept through Australia, Ray was forced to resign from a conservation project he’d been involved with for 11 years. Then, he lost his father to COVID-19.

“I was losing my faith in nature and myself,” he recalled.

He described his initial journey through Bohemian Switzerland as a “major shift in perspective,” one that was more of an emotional experience than a spiritual one.

“I knew I was hurting — far from healing — and when I landed in Decin after my first trek, I scoffed at the revelation that I was a healer,” he said. “Then [more lockdowns] happened, but I could only think about helping to save the pine forestation in any way we can. Somehow, the ‘being a healer thing’ made sense.”

Before starting my own journey, I believed the experience would result in a revelation, as portrayed in books or movies, helping me navigate through the next, uncertain stage of my life. But once we left the base, I couldn’t think of anything but how beautiful the panoramic views of the forests were.

For two weeks I scraped bark, planted trees, collected samples and focused on being a healer, like most of my fellow arborist backpackers. Things may not have turned out as I thought they would, but now I was helping a nature habitat thrive again. I wasn’t anxious about my lack of control, but rather learning that everything leads to something.

I was healing. The proof was in the Dresden valley mountain range, which towered at the end of our final trail.

Travellers are reminded to check on public health restrictions that could affect their plans.

In Bohemian Switzerland, I hiked through beautiful, dense forest — and discovered a path to something deeper

Community Sep 25, 2021 by Sneha Chakraborty Toronto Star

As we came close to the end of a steep climb up a very narrow sandstone ridge, David, an arborist and fellow backpacker, shouted at me from a landing above.

“There is a local legend that tells you if you are healing or if you’re a healer, based on which trail you choose for your journey,” he said. I finally made it to where he was standing, catching my breath and rethinking my diet. Beyond, lush pine cover stretched to the horizon.

“If you make your way toward Dresden, you are recovering from life,” he said. “And if the trails take you to Decin, you might want to stay and help this place, solely because you can.”

He was pointing to the Elbe mountain range, a highland nestled in the northwestern Czech Republic and a prime attraction for those who visit the surrounding Bohemian Switzerland National Park. Declared a protected area in 1972, the sandstone landscape straddles two countries: Germany (where it’s known as Saxon Switzerland National Park) and the Bohemian terrain of the Czech Republic.

The resulting hiking corridor — naturally carved out by the Elbe River — is the proverbial backdoor to Western Europe. Popular with backpackers, it’s home to craggy limestone cliffs, rocky ravines, deep gorges and acres of forestland.

Typically, a trek from Prague lasts a day or two. But those who can extend it to two weeks — and have undaunted stamina — can walk through roughly 100 kilometres of one of the world’s densest broadleaf forests while turning to nature for some divine guidance.

Pre-pandemic, about 500 people a day made their way through Bohemian Switzerland. Yet despite the national park’s popularity, there aren’t any guides indicating which of the 12 trails is the most recommended or walked. Instead, most visitors rely on the local legend to guide their visit — and I was no exception.

After leaving a corporate copywriting job and saving enough to freelance, I’d travelled to the Czech Republic to start a photography project I’d been planning for years. But sudden closures due to the pandemic left me unable to work in the cities. Wanting to escape from my month-long creative rut, I headed to Bohemian Switzerland.

When I met David at the park’s entry in Prague, I discovered a new-found sense of purpose after listening to his story. The 34-year-old had travelled from Hanoi, Vietnam, with a group of conservationists to protect the forest in the fight against bark beetles. I decided to join them.

Between the 18th and early 20th century, roughly one-third of the Douglas and white pine trees in the park’s German territory were lost to a bark beetle epidemic. Even the German army was called in to fight the invaders. Today, the beetles once again pose a threat to the forest cover, and efforts to reduce their rampage are underway.

David had originally planned to spend only a few days in Germany, pitching a bark beetle management plan to the forest authority. But when the pandemic intensified, he decided to stay on.

“We are arborists. And with rangers and federal conservation workers unable to do the important work that helps the [forest], we couldn’t not help. We couldn’t walk away from this,” explained David, adding, “I found out that I am a healer, if you are wondering.”

Rather than heading for the park’s most-visited attractions, such as the Tisa Rocks Labyrinth — a filming location for 2005’s “Chronicles of Narnia” — our team of five was travelling to build habitat corridors, meant to increase the flow of wildlife in the area and, in turn, reduce the number of destructive bark beetles.

Our route would begin in lower Saxony and loop around Desden and Decin. It was up to the trails to lead me to my fate — and to determine whether I was a healer or healing.

For the first week or so, we hiked every day. We made our way out of the gorges to where the trails led us, planting pine saplings and removing beetle-infested bark from trees and logs along the way. After that, the trails became less directional and more ad hoc, crossing the Kamince River and then climbing almost vertically for 900 back-breaking feet.

One evening, I photographed the trees with Ray, a 41-year-old conservationist who has worked on projects around the world and now guides tours of national parks. Last year, after bushfires swept through Australia, Ray was forced to resign from a conservation project he’d been involved with for 11 years. Then, he lost his father to COVID-19.

“I was losing my faith in nature and myself,” he recalled.

He described his initial journey through Bohemian Switzerland as a “major shift in perspective,” one that was more of an emotional experience than a spiritual one.

“I knew I was hurting — far from healing — and when I landed in Decin after my first trek, I scoffed at the revelation that I was a healer,” he said. “Then [more lockdowns] happened, but I could only think about helping to save the pine forestation in any way we can. Somehow, the ‘being a healer thing’ made sense.”

Before starting my own journey, I believed the experience would result in a revelation, as portrayed in books or movies, helping me navigate through the next, uncertain stage of my life. But once we left the base, I couldn’t think of anything but how beautiful the panoramic views of the forests were.

For two weeks I scraped bark, planted trees, collected samples and focused on being a healer, like most of my fellow arborist backpackers. Things may not have turned out as I thought they would, but now I was helping a nature habitat thrive again. I wasn’t anxious about my lack of control, but rather learning that everything leads to something.

I was healing. The proof was in the Dresden valley mountain range, which towered at the end of our final trail.

Travellers are reminded to check on public health restrictions that could affect their plans.

In Bohemian Switzerland, I hiked through beautiful, dense forest — and discovered a path to something deeper

Community Sep 25, 2021 by Sneha Chakraborty Toronto Star

As we came close to the end of a steep climb up a very narrow sandstone ridge, David, an arborist and fellow backpacker, shouted at me from a landing above.

“There is a local legend that tells you if you are healing or if you’re a healer, based on which trail you choose for your journey,” he said. I finally made it to where he was standing, catching my breath and rethinking my diet. Beyond, lush pine cover stretched to the horizon.

“If you make your way toward Dresden, you are recovering from life,” he said. “And if the trails take you to Decin, you might want to stay and help this place, solely because you can.”

He was pointing to the Elbe mountain range, a highland nestled in the northwestern Czech Republic and a prime attraction for those who visit the surrounding Bohemian Switzerland National Park. Declared a protected area in 1972, the sandstone landscape straddles two countries: Germany (where it’s known as Saxon Switzerland National Park) and the Bohemian terrain of the Czech Republic.

The resulting hiking corridor — naturally carved out by the Elbe River — is the proverbial backdoor to Western Europe. Popular with backpackers, it’s home to craggy limestone cliffs, rocky ravines, deep gorges and acres of forestland.

Typically, a trek from Prague lasts a day or two. But those who can extend it to two weeks — and have undaunted stamina — can walk through roughly 100 kilometres of one of the world’s densest broadleaf forests while turning to nature for some divine guidance.

Pre-pandemic, about 500 people a day made their way through Bohemian Switzerland. Yet despite the national park’s popularity, there aren’t any guides indicating which of the 12 trails is the most recommended or walked. Instead, most visitors rely on the local legend to guide their visit — and I was no exception.

After leaving a corporate copywriting job and saving enough to freelance, I’d travelled to the Czech Republic to start a photography project I’d been planning for years. But sudden closures due to the pandemic left me unable to work in the cities. Wanting to escape from my month-long creative rut, I headed to Bohemian Switzerland.

When I met David at the park’s entry in Prague, I discovered a new-found sense of purpose after listening to his story. The 34-year-old had travelled from Hanoi, Vietnam, with a group of conservationists to protect the forest in the fight against bark beetles. I decided to join them.

Between the 18th and early 20th century, roughly one-third of the Douglas and white pine trees in the park’s German territory were lost to a bark beetle epidemic. Even the German army was called in to fight the invaders. Today, the beetles once again pose a threat to the forest cover, and efforts to reduce their rampage are underway.

David had originally planned to spend only a few days in Germany, pitching a bark beetle management plan to the forest authority. But when the pandemic intensified, he decided to stay on.

“We are arborists. And with rangers and federal conservation workers unable to do the important work that helps the [forest], we couldn’t not help. We couldn’t walk away from this,” explained David, adding, “I found out that I am a healer, if you are wondering.”

Rather than heading for the park’s most-visited attractions, such as the Tisa Rocks Labyrinth — a filming location for 2005’s “Chronicles of Narnia” — our team of five was travelling to build habitat corridors, meant to increase the flow of wildlife in the area and, in turn, reduce the number of destructive bark beetles.

Our route would begin in lower Saxony and loop around Desden and Decin. It was up to the trails to lead me to my fate — and to determine whether I was a healer or healing.

For the first week or so, we hiked every day. We made our way out of the gorges to where the trails led us, planting pine saplings and removing beetle-infested bark from trees and logs along the way. After that, the trails became less directional and more ad hoc, crossing the Kamince River and then climbing almost vertically for 900 back-breaking feet.

One evening, I photographed the trees with Ray, a 41-year-old conservationist who has worked on projects around the world and now guides tours of national parks. Last year, after bushfires swept through Australia, Ray was forced to resign from a conservation project he’d been involved with for 11 years. Then, he lost his father to COVID-19.

“I was losing my faith in nature and myself,” he recalled.

He described his initial journey through Bohemian Switzerland as a “major shift in perspective,” one that was more of an emotional experience than a spiritual one.

“I knew I was hurting — far from healing — and when I landed in Decin after my first trek, I scoffed at the revelation that I was a healer,” he said. “Then [more lockdowns] happened, but I could only think about helping to save the pine forestation in any way we can. Somehow, the ‘being a healer thing’ made sense.”

Before starting my own journey, I believed the experience would result in a revelation, as portrayed in books or movies, helping me navigate through the next, uncertain stage of my life. But once we left the base, I couldn’t think of anything but how beautiful the panoramic views of the forests were.

For two weeks I scraped bark, planted trees, collected samples and focused on being a healer, like most of my fellow arborist backpackers. Things may not have turned out as I thought they would, but now I was helping a nature habitat thrive again. I wasn’t anxious about my lack of control, but rather learning that everything leads to something.

I was healing. The proof was in the Dresden valley mountain range, which towered at the end of our final trail.

Travellers are reminded to check on public health restrictions that could affect their plans.