With less than five hours of sleep, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. to dress in three layers of warm clothing for our pre-dawn tour in eastern Poland. Outside, the temperature was 0 C/32 F.
Technically, it wasn’t the Polish bison we were in the pursuit of, but the European bison, that call the Białowieża Forest home.
This ancient forest, that straddles Poland and Belarus located 260 km east of Warsaw, is one of the last and largest remaining parts of a primeval forest that once stretched across most of Europe. On the Polish side, part of the Białowieża Forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park (Białowieski Park Narodowy), covering about 105 square kilometers (41 sq. miles). For centuries, the forest was used as a private hunting ground for Lithuanian and Belarusian princes, Polish kings and Russian Tsars.
We would soon find out that the forest seemed like a peaceful, magical place – almost as if you were traveling back in time hundreds of years ago.
Shortly after we moved to Warsaw, I read about the Białowieża Forest in The Zookeeper’s Wife and immediately knew we must plan a visit. The book describes the forest as “…that green isthmus linking different regimes, walking in the shade of trees half a millennium old, where the forest closes in, intimate as a tick, one fragile, fully furnished organism with no visible borders.” I wanted to walk amongst those trees too!
|One of the older trees in Białowieża Forest. Oh, only 300 years old or so.|
I also hoped to encounter the forest’s bison, a cousin to the American bison, on our private pre-dawn tour.
Less than 100 years ago, the bearded European bison, which is the unofficial mascot of Białowieża, were nearly extinct. In 1923, it was known that only 54 bison survived in zoos all around the world, none of them in Poland. In 1929, a small herd of four was bought by the Polish state from various zoos, bred and re-introduced to the forest. Now, numbering nearly 500 according to our guide, Joanna, the bison is probably the forest’s most recognized inhabitant.
During the drive from our hotel to the forest, we encountered a gigantic wild boar and a skittish fox running across the road in front of our car. I’m glad we missed hitting that boar, but I did enjoy eating a wild boar steak wrapped in bacon later that night!
Once we set foot deeper in the forest, our guide pointed out the tracks made by wild boar and deer as well as the bison. We also followed the fresh bison droppings, hoping to see the bison around the corner.
|Fresh bison tracks.|
And we did!
The bison was off in the distance in a grassy field just munching away.
|Hard to tell, but this is one of the European bison too.|
Later on, we would encounter two more bison just hanging out in an open field in the tiny village of Teremiski.
|This sweet Huskie, named Chester, acted like he wanted to play with the bison.|
The European bison are massive creatures, with the adult male weighing up to 900 kilograms (nearly 2,000 pounds). You don’t want to mess with them!
While I was crouched down in the bushes taking photos near Teremiski, one of the bisons stopped munching on the grass and stared right at me. Apparently, my flash had gone off and scared the animal. He did not look happy.
|This is when I received the bison stare down!|
I stopped taking photos and froze, trying to hide behind the scraggly bushes.
My husband slowly pulled up the car alongside the road so I could make a mad dash for the car if needed. Luckily, after a minute or so, the bison casually resumed eating his grass and ignored me long enough so I could slink back to the car.
That’s as close as I needed to get to see the bison in the wild.
|One of the Bison Refuge areas where hay is placed during the winter when it's more difficult for the bison to find food in the forest.|
Private guide recommendation
- We booked a 6-hour private tour, “Tête-à-tête with Bison,” through PTTK, a Polish non-profit tourist organization, in advance online. The website is in English, and many of the guides speak several languages. The office, located in the town of Białowieża, is open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
- Our tour cost 390 PLN ($128), and was worth every cent. Our guide, Joanna, who lived in the area, spoke excellent English, was very knowledgeable about the forest’s trees, flora and fauna and took us to trails we never would have found on our own.
- Spring, autumn and winter are the best seasons to visit the forest. We were advised to avoid the summer months due to mosquitoes and the heat.