Dammed and doomed // Montenegro
In the late afternoon we finally spot it – on the crest of a slope. Its hair is raised; its large, dark eyes fix a point in the distance, alert. The herd is grazing further down on the first fresh grass of the steppes. Every few seconds, one of them lifts a head, sniffing the wind.
Suddenly, a piercing whistle explodes in the air. The chamois respond instinctively to the warning call, all jumping into action at once.
With my monocular, I follow their fluid movements as they race across the hill. When they enter a large snowfield, my heart skips a beat. A grey predator is giving chase with graceful strength. A lone wolf, bushy tail following his lean, fibrous body.
Mouth open, the wolf speeds behind the startled prey. But he has been discovered too early. In the pursuit that follows, the chamois dart through the uneven terrain leaving the wolf behind, defeated. The hunt is over.
«You won’t believe this! Come! Come!» – Next morning Brais returns to the camp from exploring the surroundings, eyes gleaming excitedly.
Now both his hands are covered in blood. With one, he holds the tibia, and with the other, he plunges the knife deep into the hip joint.
«This is the wildest meat we’ll ever eat.» – he asserts as one of the hindquarters falls away from the body with a loud crunch – «Chamois hunted by wolves!»
The animal fell last night – less than 100 meters from our tent. The head, internal organs and a foreleg have been devoured; the rest left for later. Both hindlegs bear teeth marks inflicted during the chase.
While Brais skins the leg and cuts it in chunks, I gather wood and get a fire going. We cook the meat with wild herbs and eat in the sun, eyes set on the peaks on the other side of the gorge.
“This is the wildest meat we’ll ever eat.”
“During the frosty nights, they leap in and out of our dreams.”
We are in the mountains of Montenegro to search for the Rupicapra rupicapra balcanica, a subspecies of chamois endemic to the region, half antelope, half goat.
And the reason why we are looking for them is that they are probably the most characteristic residents of this karstic habitat. The natives of a land where rain and melting snow slowly seep into the ground, disappearing in an invisible world of rivers and lakes. An underground reservoir that feeds the wells of some of the last free-flowing rivers of Europe.
During the day, the Balkan chamois water from those same springs. During the night, they leap in and out of our dreams.
When we finally climb down, we leave the winter behind. Beneath the steppes, the first trees shiver naked in the wind. But as we descend, more and more leaves burst out of their buds, forming a canopy of a green that is almost fluorescent.
Then the beech forest gives way to a meadow where water seeps and bursts from the ground. It carries the cold of winter but wears the perfume of spring. Frogs and toads croak by pools full of eggs. Newts hide at the bottom. A fire salamander watches over the scene.
This is the source of the Komarnica river, and we are here to follow its journey.
“It carries the cold of winter but wears the perfume of spring.”
“Waves of adrenaline hit me at the same time as the icy water.”
Steep limestone cliffs tower over us, hundreds of meters high. Lone pine trees clasp the precipice with exposed roots. Lush forest clings to the sides.
At the bottom of the gorge, I tighten my grip on the paddle. I am surrounded by frothy water, watching Brais’ raft appearing and disappearing under the waves ahead. The angry roar of the river echoes against the rocks like distant thunder. It is my first time packrafting in white water, and I am nervous.
Brais stops in an eddy and motions at me with a big smile. This rapid has been tough, but he has made it through. It is my turn now. He will be there in case something goes wrong.
I take a deep breath and steer my bow towards the chute. Once in, the surge picks me up and heaves me forward. The air is wet with spray. The water seems to come from all directions.
All of a sudden, a large boulder emerges, blocking my course. I barely skirt it, and the current almost topples me over. Waves of adrenaline hit me at the same time as the icy water. I am sideways now but still in my raft. With a few forceful strokes, I straighten the boat, drifting downstream, exhilarated.
After we make camp that day, I sit on a small beach of white-washed pebbles, observing a snake fishing close to the shore. Like her in the water, my mind keeps diving into the same questions over and over: How high will the water rise once they flood the canyon? Will those ancient trees up the slope be submerged? Where will the snake go?
A few kilometres downstream, state-owned electricity companies from Montenegro and Serbia want to build a hydropower plant, creating a reservoir more than 17km long, drowning everything we have seen.
I try to imagine the mass of water on top of me, guess the waterline on the sunlit cliffs. The dam would be 171m high.
“… drowning everything we have seen.”
“… fireflies light up the gorge like wandering stars.”
Seven days pass by as we paddle this threatened section of the river. Seven days of awe for what is and sorrow for what could be lost.
The rare richness of a wild habitat where furious white water runs through old growth forests. Where waterfalls sprinkle into quiet pools of translucent emerald. Where, at night, fireflies light up the gorge like wandering stars.
During this week, the canyon starts feeling like a world in itself – a refuge.
And this is what canyons actually are – safe spaces sheltered from human and climate stressors. Sanctuaries where flora and fauna can develop and survive without interference.
Then, one day, the flow stops. The pristine Komarnica enters an artificial lake and dies.
Its graveyard is the Piva, a reservoir created by an enormous hydropower plant constructed back in the 1970s. Once itself a free-flowing river, the Piva was dammed and doomed.
Fifty years later, it is nothing but a stagnant warm bathtub littered with floating islands of debris.
In its barren landscape, we comprehend more than ever why our partners at the Montenegrin Ecologist Society stand firm against the power companies now targeting the Komarnica.
Will we let the remaining wild rivers of Europe become another industrial site? Another source of profit for the few?
“The pristine Komarnica enters
an artificial lake and dies.”
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