Slovakia isn’t world-renowned for its wildlife, but in the valley of the Western Tatras and beyond roam some 1200 bears, and all it takes to see them is a little patience...
The three most beautiful words in the English language aren’t ‘I love you’, nor even ‘Get one free’. No, they are ‘Fresh this morning’.
I was roaming high in an alpine meadow, a gentle breeze scenting the post-dawn air with pine perfume, when I heard this beguiling phrase whispered from beneath a pair of soft brown eyes. What made these words truly magical wasn’t the location, nor the person who uttered them – Roman Trizna, ranger for two isolated valleys in Slovakia’s Tatras National Park (TANAP). No, it was the fact that he was indicating a huge, deep-trod bear pawprint. If a heart can both lurch and soar in the same moment, that’s what mine did.
Roman continued whispering urgently to Peter Lapšanský, our Slovak guide, who translated in a soft tone: “These prints weren’t here late last night, he says – neither was the dung.” Roman nodded, gesturing at a glistening pile nearby. “They must have been left earlier today.”
Ordinarily, you might not be overjoyed to be told a 300kg-plus carnivore with such large claws was likely lurking nearby. But, since an ursine encounter was the main aim of my Slovak sojourn, the news was nothing less than electrifying.
Slovakia doesn’t top most bear-watchers’ hit-lists, but it should. Though this compact, rugged corner of eastern Europe spans a mere 49,000 sq km (that’s 2.5 Waleses, to use the popular international measure), 50 per cent of its land provides a suitable habitat for European brown bears – more than 1,200, according to recent estimates.
Crossing the Suchá Belá Gorge (Dreamstime)
While these bulky beasts roam much of Slovakia, their prime territory is the Tatras Mountains, the north-westernmost stretch of the Carpathian range. Here, Slovakia offers an alternative experience to better-known bear-watching hotspots such as Finland or Romania. There’s no baiting, no shivering for hours in hides. Instead, the trip I’d joined aimed to spy wild bears on foot.
The centrepiece of the itinerary was three days in Roman’s valleys, normally off-limits to the public, in the less-trodden Western Tatras. Before that, though, our compact group of five eased into Slovak life in Slovenský Raj National Park, south of Poprad.
Our first evening’s stroll yielded plenty of tasters: roe and red deer hoofmarks, mud grubbed up by wild boar, crossbills pilfering pine seeds. More thrilling were wolf prints (“Claws point forward from the pad, not splaying at the sides like dog paws”), though Peter was careful to manage expectations. Wolves are rarely spotted, he told us, being shy and wide-ranging, covering 60 to 70km each night. Lynx and wildcats are yet more elusive.
The next day, we climbed a stairway to heaven – or at least paradise – the flights of steps ascending the beautiful gorges of Slovenský Raj (Slovak Paradise) National Park. Through the gleaming limestone Suchá Belá Gorge we tramped, negotiating wooden boardwalks and metal ladders alongside waterfalls while juvenile jackdaws croaked admonishments. At the top we explored the ruins of medieval Kláštorisko monastery before descending via another exhilarating obstacle course of a trail along Hornád Gorge. Otters and kingfishers thrive here – or so the information boards declared. I was too intent on clinging to iron chains and not teetering off cliff-stapled steps to notice.
That night, we refuelled with some typically hearty Slovak fare: bryndzové halušky – mini-gnocchi with sheep’s curd and bacon – all washed down with crisp (and very cheap) pilsner.
Even if its cuisine is hardly haute, there are plenty of other reasons to explore Slovakia, from castles – nearby Spiš is one of Europe’s largest sites – to Renaissance-era towns such as Levoca, to thermal springs. But in truth, tourism remains a bit-part player here, even if its walking trails do draw visitors, particularly to the Tatras Mountains. That’s where we headed the next morning.
The ruins of Spiš (Dreamstime)
Our first day in the Western Tatras promised little. Dour skies lowered as we ambled up the Kamenitsa Valley, first traversing a woodland path lined with blueberries (“Foxes eat them to clear their guts of parasites,” remarked Peter) before emerging into a rocky valley. Up into the murk we climbed, pausing intermittently to train our binoculars on the lighter green stripes that interspersed the pine-cloaked flanks.
“These avalanche chutes offer our best chances of spotting bears,” advised Peter. “They feed on the fresh grass and berries that spring up where trees are cleared by snow-slips.”
They’re essentially bear buffets, or so goes the theory. In practice, persistent mizzle dampened both our spirits and binocular lenses. A lithe, nervy red deer, antlers still sheathed in spring velvet, was our biggest sighting. So, when we found our path blocked by a barrier of snow after a few soggy hours, it was more with resignation than regret that we descended.
The following day, the bear-tracking began in earnest. That much was clear not just from Peter’s optimism but also our schedule: we were set to rendezvous with ranger Roman in the Kôprová Valley and start hiking before 5am.
The approach into the park was inauspicious. The route was guarded by a gargantuan hotel, and for the first few kilometres the road wound through a post-apocalyptic landscape of blasted tree stumps. This area, like others in the Tatras, is still recovering from the devastating 2004 storm that felled vast swathes of woodland and from the bark beetle infestation that followed.
Soon, though, the forest reasserted itself. By the time we had picked up Roman, who was waiting at the entry barrier, we were eagerly scanning the dense pine and those emerald avalanche chutes in hope of spotting anything not green and preferably brown and furry.
At that early hour, the mountain air had a nip. Fleeces were zipped, walking poles extended, bootlaces tightened, and off we set.
The trail into the Garajova side valley began wide and gentle before snaking steeply up into the pine forest, an enforced (and puff-inducing) detour necessitated by tree fall on the main path. No matter: the climb soon dispelled the chill from our bones, while blueberry sprigs whipped warmth into my bare legs. The path was littered with grey-green lichen, like so many thousands of cast antlers, and the woods chimed with the rat-a-tats of woodpeckers, the familiar two-tone calls of cuckoos and the strident trills of nutcrackers.
Emerging onto sparser mountainside, sweeping views opened up, stealing away the breath we’d just regained. Crepuscular beams tickled the dark conifers blanketing the Kôprová Valley, while to the south loomed granite ramparts dominated by Kriván peak. At 2,495m, it isn’t the tallest rise in the range, but its iconic form demarcates the western edge of the High Tatras range.
Roman’s job is to care for the Kôprová and Tichá Valleys, and it didn’t take long in his company to understand that he really, really cares for them – and their inhabitants, including some 40 bears. Following a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of droppings, he led us across an area of flattened grass from which the snow had only recently melted.
“This is a favourite hook-up spot for bears,” observed Peter wistfully. “Last year, we watched a pair mating here for over an hour.”
On this brisk late-May morning, the bears were less frisky – or visible – but other creatures showed up for us. Near the cirque at the head of the valley, Roman pointed up at a handful of chubby, horned creatures grazing above us. “Tatra chamois,” Peter explained. “Our critically endangered endemic subspecies, shaggier and bulkier than its Alpine cousin.”
A lone Tatra chamois surveys the hills (Dreamstime)
Reflections on ungulate body-shaming were interrupted by a loud parping sound, as a grinning Roman blew raspberries. You’ve heard of horse-whispering: well, this was chamois-farting – an attempt to lure them closer. Today, they merely skittered away towards a rocky ridge from where the whistling squeaks of marmots echoed down.
On we hiked, into the adjacent Turková Valley where signs of larger life came thick and fast in the form of the piles of excrement that studded our path in quick succession. Some were old, dried, pale green and grassy; others were dark and moist. This was the in-between season, Roman explained. After the bears emerge from hibernation in early spring, they feast on white butterbur, a yellowish flower packed with vitamins; then later in summer, they fatten up on sugar-rich blueberries before winter’s slumber. Now, though, they fed on whatever they could find.
Case in point: after studying wolf faeces flecked with bone fragments and hair, we examined a bear dropping from which poked a chunk of deer hoof. “Probably the deer was killed by wolves,” explained Roman, “then the bear found the carcass.”
Flat-cropped grass alongside the trail hinted at the bears’ more usual summer diet and teased with hope of a sighting. Sadly, none was forthcoming, and after four delightful, if carnivore-free, hours we descended through the woods only to meet with a surprise.
Our voices, barely raised above a whisper on the higher trails, had by now increased to a low murmur. So it took a moment to register the crack of a nearby branch before the hiss went up: “Bear!” More snaps and rustles, then a glimpse of shaggy mid-brown fur and that distinctive lumbering, rolling gait. Just 50 paces away – upwind of us, thankfully – a bear emerged, seemingly in no great hurry, and shambled up the slope before evaporating into the shadowtackle of the forest. “A young male,” assessed Roman, “perhaps five years old.” Not huge, by bear standards, but today size was never less important.
A bear sighting is a bit like a Chinese takeaway: hugely satisfying at the time, but it’s not long before you’re itching for another. So it was over the following two days that we tried not to let our bear obsession colour our enjoyment of the walking, but as we roamed, Roman and Peter treated us to ‘Bear 101’. There were paw prints and droppings, of course, plus butterburs, blueberries, nibbled grass stalks and ‘bear trees’.
Landscape of Western Tatras mountains (Dreamstime)
Next morning, hiking up into the Tomanová Valley, Roman paused alongside a mature pine, its bark slashed and scored to a height of over two metres. Using his hand for scale, he indicated the immense gape of the fangs that gouged these wounds.
“Bears tear off the bark,” said Peter, “then rub their backs against the sticky sap to deposit hairs and scent.”
Understanding of these animals has advanced hugely thanks to the work of ‘Project Bear’, backed by Peter and his business partner David Guthrie. In 2008, they raised concerns about human-bear conflict and the lack of accurate population information.
“After so much forest was wrecked by the 2004 storm, bears became more visible,” Peter recounted. “They foraged around rubbish bins. Some even injured people and were shot.”
Though there have been no fatal attacks by bears in Slovakia in over a century, hunters claimed overpopulation and called for a cull. In response, Peter and his colleagues set about studying the bears, providing GPS collars for half-a-dozen animals. Through monitoring them between 2008 and 2012, tracking data showed that they don’t stick to limited territories, but roam vast distances. Together with DNA sampling, this provided evidence that Slovakia’s bear population was well below the unsustainably high levels quoted by hunters.
Despite pawprints, poo and bear-tree frisson, by day three we’d caught just two glimpses of bearkind – our first ‘claws encounter’ having been augmented that evening by a distant sighting of a young grey male hoovering up the grass in a lofty meadow. We wanted more.
On our final evening in the mountains, we got it. The weather softened, with a golden light setting the rocky ridges aglow, and the bears were making the most of it. As we strolled, Roman’s tips honed our spotting skills: scan the high meadows for movement before wielding binoculars; rocks and shrubs can look convincingly bear-like to overexcited wildlife-watchers, he advised.
Just minutes after we set out along the Tichá Valley, those brown eyes lit up: a burly black male (“Over 200kg”) meandered high above us. Then a mother emerged from the woodland with two cubs, grazing obligingly as we trained our binoculars. Finally, another young male joined the party.
In the space of an hour, we’d tripled our count. True, I would have been thrilled if more of our encounters were closer up. But as both the sun and our group descended, I reflected that it was for the best. Even now in Slovakia, bears and humans don’t always share space happily: days later, Peter relayed the sad news that a female with cubs had been shot outside a nearby village. The hope of Peter and Roman, though, is that trips like this, which raise both funds and awareness, might help secure a brighter future for bears. Paws for thought, indeed.
The author travelled with Walks Worldwide on its eight-day Walking with Bears trip. Prices include flights, accommodation, local transport and guides, breakfasts and some other meals.
Main image: Brown bear in High Tatras mountains, Slovakia (Dreamstime)