My parents arrived last Friday and after picking the children up from school, we headed straight for the Šumava Mountains. For the past week, Prague weather has been less than inviting with a thick, soupy layer of fog and mist covering everything in sight. Inversion is the technical term, but to the children and me, it looks like spooky Halloween weather in surplus. It’s certainly not the crisp autumn air, blue skies and softly falling red and yellow leaves that we’d hoped would enchant my parents.
From mid-October to mid-March, inversion-type weather conditions are common in Prague. Although this weather pattern wasn’t directly linked to pollution, I couldn’t help but think the city’s air quality wouldn’t be the greatest after several days of solid gray skies. The weather in Prague wasn’t ideal for showing off our favorite local spots either. Radek predicted we’d have a better chance of catching Czech autumn at its finest in the mountains since the inversion typically stays at the lower altitudes while the mountains remain clear.
Banking on good weather and cleaner air, we loaded up the car with our bicycles, running gear and plenty of warm play clothes for the children. Passing cars loaded down with roof racks and bicycles along the route, we realized we weren’t the only “Praguers” with the same leave-the-city mentality. Not trusting our predictions that the weather would be nicer in the mountains than in Prague, my mom packed her down coat, just in case. While the rest of us shivered during a bathroom stop, she stood comfortably in her winter gear. The drive to Šumava wasn’t promising though, with heavy fog everywhere making it hard to determine where the road began and ended. It looked as if Mom might have had been the smart one.
Yet, as we made our final climb in darkness to the mountain lodge where we would spend the weekend, a sliver of the moon came into focus. The skies cleared and although the fog still hung low in the underbrush, the tops of the majestic evergreen trees were dark outlines against the lighter-toned sky. Anna, being the only child who hadn’t succumbed to sleep, remarked that it seemed as if we were driving through a ghost playground. When we stepped from the car at the mountain lodge in the village of Modrava, the night was clear and crisp. We had made it above the fog. My parents remarked on how crazy the weather here was and that it reminded them of ski trips to Salt Lake City, Utah, where the inversion often lingered in the city while higher mountainous elevations had perfectly clear conditions.
At dinner that evening, we joined two Czech families from our village neighborhood in the lodge’s restaurant. Although I’d been worried about blending family and friends, American and Czech cultures, thanks to the international language of sports and the mutual appreciation for children, my parents and our neighbors managed to converse with ease. Of course, it helped that both couples (and some of the children) spoke or understood English. Still, my parents valiantly tried to throw in their knowledge of Czech whenever they could. While the adults were engrossed in planning the outdoor-activities for the following day, the children silently disappeared. Before we knew it, all six of the children were exploring my parents’ apartment accommodation, happily unbothered that there were no adults in sight.
When we met for an eight a.m. run the next morning, I was pleasantly shocked by the clear skies and welcoming sunshine. Although the thermometer registered 0 C, the sun warmed the path and we comfortably jogged several kilometers before breakfast. The forest trees and meadows glistened with heavy frost and an icy stream babbled along a grassy track that would be used for cross-country skiing as soon as the season’s first snow fell. Radek told me that some of the coldest temperatures in the country are registered in the nearby village of Horská Kvilda, although this day temperatures were predicted to reach 17 C.
It was my first visit to the Šumava National Park, the country’s largest national park covering 16,827 hectares and bordering the German Bavarian forest. I could see why many Czechs considered it their favorite of the nation’s mountainous regions. The grassy meadows and peat bogs reminded me of Yellowstone on a small-scale, although instead of mineral geysers or bison, we saw grove after grove of spruce forest. As we ran further, I was surprised to see vast chunks of decimated forest. It looked like the kind of destruction you might expect after a large-scale forest fire, but nothing was burned. Instead, row upon row of trees infected by the insidious bark beetle stood naked. Stripped of their bark by park officials in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, the bark-less forest had the appearance of a desolate ghost town.
On bikes after lunch, we continued to cross through acres of decimated spruce forest in our quest to reach the source of the Vltava River. My mother remarked that she was surprised all the trees in the forest were spruce, with no variety of needle trees or other foliage species. Later, we realized that by having only spruce trees the Šumava forest had become been more susceptible to the rampant beetle attack. As we climbed and descended on the gravel biking path, we saw groves of damaged trees as well as some evidence of logging. I didn’t know what to make of the damaged land or the logging efforts. Radek thought parts of the forest looked worse than it had three years ago when he’d biked through with a work group.
The intensity of the ongoing battle between park officials, locals and international environmental groups like Greenpeace was highlighted by placards posted on local buildings saying things like “Why are you saving the bug and not saving the people of Šumava?” The hotly debated issue attracted international attention back in the summer when activists chained to spruce trees were removed forcibly by the police, raising cries from EU officials about Czech tactics for handling the problem.
After one particularly long uphill, we finally reached the source of the Vltava River, a small circular spring that burbled into a stream. A wooden carving of a water mistress guarded the river’s mouth. It was relatively unimpressive, at least compared to the wide scale forest decimation, although I agreed with our friends that it was hard to believe that from this bubbling spring came the mighty Vltava River. I posed with Radek for a picture by the spring while another biker’s dog sniffed under the wooden blockade, trying to get a fresh drink, straight from the source.
When we returned to the gray haze and chilly air of Prague on Sunday evening, everyone agreed the weekend out of the city had been well-worth it. It was hard to believe we’d biked in tee-shirts and had explored the Šumava forest on foot and by bike in two glorious days of sunshine. Along the way, we’d learned a little of the region’s history and my parents had shared some of their reflections on the region as visiting Americans. The children had spent two days building a rock fort in the woods near our lodge, and we all agreed we’d come back soon. They wanted to check on their fort, and we wanted to check on the forest. Plus, we thought it’d be fun to trade our running shoes for cross-country skis.