Saturday, 1 November 2014

Over the river and through the woods

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
27 April 2012

Walking through the woods near our house last weekend, I settled into a comfortable pace pushing a sleeping Samuel in the jogging stroller. After a month-long bout with sinusitis, I hoped a nature walk would energize my body and clear my mind, without setting back my recovery. If I timed it right, the newly reopened local brewery might even be serving lunch by my return trip.

It was a quiet Sunday morning and the normally heavily-trafficked wooded path was devoid of people, save for a few bikers who breezed past me. It was a treat to walk at my own pace, without having to slow down for the kids or to catch up to Radek, whose longer legs always out-walk mine. The 10-km round trip between our village and Roztoky can be divided loosely into three sections: the fishing ponds and summer cottages; a quirky strip of residential homes in Unětice; and the secluded forest of Tiché udolí (silent valley) with its swift steam and mossy banks. It was the first time I'd walked the whole path by myself; suddenly so many more details popped out at me.

I wasn't the only early riser. By the first pond I noticed a fisherman and his dog setting up camp. With the ice gone, the pond was small and murky. It had been partially drained post-winter and then presumably re-stocked with fish. Not a place I'd pick for a refreshing dip, but with the woods in the background and the sun peeking through the clouds, it was an ideal spot to cast a line and while away a pleasant morning. A heron is the most exotic creature I've spotted on the lake, though on this morning I didn't see anything beyond a few butterflies and the corpse of a dead frog.

Chickens roosting in the crooks of old knurled trees clucked contentedly as I passed beside the Unětice town hall. The local farmer who raises the chickens also has bee hives and a fierce looking snub-nose watch dog who growls every time I pass. The residential strip that connects the wooded path near our house with Tiché udolí is the least wild, but often the most interesting stretch of the walk. A few modern townhouses at the beginning of the neighborhood join a strip of ramshackle stone houses as well as a few newer constructions. Although when I first glanced at the strip four years ago, I found the crumbling brick foundations and run-down vehicles parked along the roadside depressing, I have since changed my tune.

The bohemian look of the neighborhood appeals to me. Here I often pass townspeople on their way to the new vinobar, an open courtyard serving fresh salads and savory pastries. There's an old German fire truck parked outside the café. When I pass the two authentic, but beaten-up, circus train cars parked further down the street, I always wonder what stories they have to tell about their past and what the future holds for them, here on the edge of civilization and the quiet forested valley. The front gardens of the older houses boast spring tulips, daffodils and hyacinths that have pushed their way through rocks and weeds. Once or twice, I pass a perfectly cared for garden patch, but mostly the flowers are left to flourish or founder at will. The houses wear their individuality proudly and the miss-match, helter-skelter attitude toward home and garden seems more artistic than neglectful.

I walk down the stretch without seeing another person and walk past another pond and under a bluff into the woods. At the rocky outcrops where climbers usually practice, all is still. An airplane buzzes over on its way to land at the nearby Ruzyně airport. I pass fresh horse manure, a dropping so big it looks like it could belong to an elephant. I've seen an older man and his wife driving a team of horses hitched to a cart in the woods here. The horses could even be retired Old Town carriage horses, as they usually come from the Suchdol path where I know the carriage horses are boarded. They often disappear down a side path that leads to an old mill where a few weeks ago a film crew stopped Radek on his run and directed him to stay on the main path. I don't see any ducks on the pond, but when I get deeper into the woods I notice a pair of ducks swimming upstream in the river. The female keeps her head down searching for food while the male paddles beside her. I wonder if they might have a nest nearby.

A few red squirrels chase each other around a fallen tree trunk and I marvel at the greenness of the moss-covered stream banks. Everywhere I look the woods are teeming with color. The farther I go into Tiché udolí the stronger the sense of peace and serenity. There is a slight burn in my legs, and I no longer would rather be running instead of just strolling. I'm nearing the part of the path where the hills slope steeply down to the green valley and babbling creek. Although the slope is covered with trees, there is still good visibility, as the trees haven't yet popped their leaves. The air is ripe for a fairytale.

From nowhere, I hear a loud rustling sound and then the clapping of hooves. I'm surprised to see an unrecognizable shape zigzagging down the steep terrain and darting back up into the protected trees on the other side of the hill. The animal moves like a mountain goat or an antelope, clipping along at break-neck speed on papery-thin legs. Its round brown belly has a white circular pattern on its side, and its long face reminds me a bit of a lama. If I'd been in the woods of Virginia, I would have known all the wildlife, but here I was perplexed. It's not often that I've seen a larger animal running wild in the Czech woods. Bears are common in Slovakia, but not the Czech Republic. I didn't really know what I'd seen, and I wondered if I hadn't imagined it. When I arrived at the end of the path I turned around to head back home.

On the way, I kept a watchful eye for other animal curiosities. By this time, the woods were dotted with dog walkers, cyclists and families out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. I spent more time people watching than nature-hunting. Still, I wondered what it was that I'd seen.

Later that night I searched the Internet and discovered the animal was a muflon, a mountain sheep, or "devil" of the forest as it's sometimes called in Czech. When I'd delivered my son at the Krč hospital years ago, I'd seen a flock of wild muflon grazing in the wooded meadow outside my window. At the time I had paid more attention to the thick, curling antlers on the male muflon and I hadn't paid attention to the feminine variety. Since they were grazing, I didn't noticed how they looked when they ran. The muflon I'd seen in Tiché udolí had been antlerless, so probably a young female.

According to a Czech nature website muflon were brought to the mountains of Central Europe from their native home in the mountains of Sardinia and Corsica in the 1860s. Their populations thrived and expanded across the mountains of the Czech and Slovak Republics to the point that there is no legislation protecting their existence. I discovered there is even a sizable market for hunting muflon in the Tatras and other local mountains during the breed's annual hunting season August through January, although I'm not a hunter and I couldn't imagine shooting one of these curious-looking creatures. I thought my muflon sighting was rare, but more likely most of my nature outings with the kids aren't such quiet affairs, and we scare the wildlife away before we can spot them.

In the serenity of the green valley, the muflon's fleeting appearance seemed like a foreteller of good things to come: warmer weather, better health and ordinary days made special by a hint of mystery.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.