Friday, October 16, 2015

The bogs of Kemeri National Park

Ķemeri National Park contains one of the largest moss bogs along the Latvian coast. Located only 30 miles from the capital city Rīga and not far from the popular beach resort area Jūrmala, this biologically diverse area provides an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with the bog ecosystem. The Great Ķemeri Bog (Lielais Ķemeru tīrelis in Latvian) covers an area of over 12,000 of the National Park’s 94,000 acres and dates back about 8,000 years. The bogs are an integral part of the ecosystem, soaking up significant amounts of precipitation and preventing flooding, but also acting as water cleaning systems.

The Park still shows the scars of WWI in the form of trenches in the bogs & marshes and cemeteries in Smārde and Kalnciems. WWII saw tanks sunk in the bog, the peat layer 15-50 feet deep. The Ķemeri National Park was established in 1997 to protect these historically and culturally important areas, but also the famous natural mineral springs used for centuries because of their reputed therapeutic benefits. The springs led to development of many resorts, spas, and sanitariums in the vicinity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the newly reconstructed Ķemeri sanatorium bears testimony to the belief in the healing properties of the sulphur springs.

Forests occupy 57% of the total area of the park, and bogs another quarter. All three wetland types – fens, transition and raised bogs – are found in Ķemeri, making it an internationally important wetland. Rich in flora and fauna, the Ķemeri National Park boasts 897 species of plants, 202 mosses, 139 lichens and 521 species of mushrooms, the mosses and orchids especially prominent in the wetlands. The rare black stork and corncrake nest in the bogs, and sea eagles, eagle-owls and cranes are often spotted throughout. The Park’s streams contain a wide variety of rare native snails, mussels, fishers, storks and otters, and in the forests you’ll find beaver, lynx, elk, red deer, wild boars and wolves, the isolated habitat ideal for large mammals. 47 species of mammals including wild horses call the Park their home, and more than 250 bird species (67 of them listed as protected - such as the rare white-backed woodpecker) have been observed in the area.

The lowlands of the region are separated from the Baltic Sea by several rows of dunes which mark the shores of the ancient Littorina Sea. When the sea receded lagoon lakes were formed; the 100-foot deep Lake Valgums on the north end of the Park contains the history of the ice age in its depths. A combination of factors including these geologic beginnings were the foundation of the formation of the Great Ķemeri bog, one of the largest mossy bogs in Latvia. The most popular attraction in Ķemeri National Park is the Great Ķemeri bog trail (Lielā Ķemeru tīreļa laipa in Latvian), which lets visitors explore without harming the fragile bog ecosystem.

The trail consists of over 2 miles of boardwalks, a giant loop with a shortcut halfway resembling a giant figure 8 (can be seen in the aerial photo below in the upper left corner). Bear in mind that the shorter 1-mile loop does not include the watchtower, a highlight of the hike. The bog is characterized by a series of elongated lakes visible on portions of the hike, but the scenery is mesmerizing and suprisingly diverse along the entire length.

Aerial view from Google Earth

From the parking area it is a good ½ mile to the beginning of the trail down a sandy, forested road. Wild blueberries and raspberries grow sporadically along the ditches, blanketing the forest floor once you reach the trailhead. Only a short distance further we emerged from the trees into the bog and began our adventure into the stark milieu.

The first constructed trail to venture out into the bog was a Soviet era footbridge used to access the swamp meteorological station whose operations ceased in 1990. In 2000 the base of that walkway was utilized to build boardwalks, but they quickly deteriorated and by 2008 were unusable. Funds to restore the trail were granted by the European Union in 2013 and on our visit it was in impeccable condition. In some places the remnants of the old piers could still be seen.

Our midday visit yielded little in the terms of wildlife sightings, but was rich in plant life; a favorite was the carnivorous plant which was small but prolific along the boardwalks. According to the government webpage 86 of the more than 900 plant species in the park are protected.

Drosera rotundifolia, the carnivorous apaļlapu rasene or common sundew

Andromeda polifolia, bog rosemary or polijlapu andromeda

A morning or evening visit might allow for more waterfowl sightings, but we enjoyed our visit nonetheless, especially with the opportunity to get a different perspective of the bog – one from above. About halfway through the hike is an observation deck, a perfect spot for seeing the unique pattern the elongated lakes make over the landscape. The boardwalk creates an interesting contrast to the subtle hues of the bog, and even in the middle of summer the array of colors was stunning.

With its raised bogs, black alder forests, floodplain meadows and seaside lakes, Ķemeri National Park is a treasure, one every visitor to the region should go to. The views are glorious, the diversity easily observable, the beauty subtle yet memorable. All too soon we saw the forest looming ahead of us on the boardwalk, signaling the end of our hike through the bog and the end of our visit approaching, and although those with shorter legs might have been a tad relieved, the melancholy landscape had struck a chord within me. A sincere note of gratitude to our friends AKKM for introducing us to this enchanting locale!

PS I've truly never seen anything quite like these bogs up close and personal, except maybe the Hautes Fagnes of Belgium. You can read the post about that experience here.

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