Canoeing & Kayaking
The paddling season is from May to September, peaking in July and August. The best time to paddle on the Biebrza River is in late spring. In the summer, the reeds shoot up and waterweeds clog the passage. To see the spring flooding on this river, you should aim for mid- to late April. Outfitters cater to one- and multi-day outings, delivering paddlers and equipment to the drop-off points. When you're done, call them, and they'll come to ferry you back to your campsite or hotel. Since you pay for the transportation (about 2 z per km for up to eight people), it makes economic sense to select an outfitter that is located closer to your chosen trail. In July and August, it's advisable to call at least a day ahead to book. Rental prices range from 25 z to 40 z per day. For the Augustów Canal, have cash available for the locks, about 3 z per vessel. Get the schedule of the locks' operating hours at the tourist information office. In Augustów, the Augustów Canoe Center (tel. 501/274-244; www.frontierpoland.com) not only will equip you, but also will load you up with tips and advice. Another outfitter with extensive experience is Szot (Konwaliowa 2; tel. 87/644-67-58; www.szot.pl), which mainly deals with large Polish groups. Lukowy Kat (Stary Folwark 44; tel. 87/563-77-89 or 693/705-487; www.wigry.info) has its base at the Lake Wigry starting point of the Czarna Hancza route. Bogdan Lukowscy, the amicable owner, says he speaks "easy" English.
Rivers (and Canals) Run through It -- The waterways are the perfect conduits for accessing the natural and man-made marvels of this area. The landscape varies from reed-filled marshlands to pine and coniferous hills. Connecting the 11 rivers and seven lakes is the Augustów Canal (Kana Augustowski), a heritage canal dating from 1823, which is older than both the Suez and Panama canals. From Augustów, it stretches east to the Niemen River in Belarus -- never reaching the Baltic Sea in Latvia, for work was interrupted by the November Uprising (1830-31). The 101km-long (63-mile) waterway is a hydraulic engineering marvel with lovely water locks along the way. Part of the fun of kayaking on the canal is to be huddled into the narrow lock channels, bobbing up or down as the water level rises or drops.
The Rospuda River, the second longest in the Suwaki region, is rated as an intermediate kayaking route and also is one of the loveliest. It takes 5 days to negotiate the route if you start at the village of Supienie (68km/42 miles northwest of Augustów). The Czarna Hancza River (to the northeast of Augustów) has a section for experts and another for novices. From Lake Hancza (the deepest lake in the country) to Lake Wigry is a 47km (29-mile) route of adrenaline-pumping steep drops. Beginners can kick off from the picturesque Lake Wigry and meander from marshland into the woods of Augustów Forest. Along the riverside settlements, local peddlers tempt you with paczki (donuts) and cold beer. The woody stretch from Fracki to Mikaszówka is considered the prettiest.
This is great cycling terrain because, even in the peak of summer, there aren't hordes of bicycles. There are plenty of well-marked routes, plus the Eurovelo (European cycle route) R11 crosses the region on its way from Athens to Oslo. The 1:85,000 laminated maps by ExpressMap are good resources. In general, the routes in Augustów Forest and Biebrza valley are flat tarmac, dirt, or sandy tracks. Farther afield in Wigry National Park and Suwaki Landscape Park, the undulating terrain means panting and puffing, followed by exhilarating freewheeling. Most kayak rentals have bikes for hire, too. Rent yours from the multitasking Andrew of the Augustów Canoe Center or Jan Wojtuszko (Nadrzeczna 62A; tel. 87/644-75-40; www.sprzetwodny.prv.pl) for about 25 z per day.
The leisure boats run by Zegluga Augustowska (29 Listopada 7; tel. 87/643-28-81; www.zeglugaaugustowska.pl) are a relaxing way to see the scenery along the lakes and canals. From May to September, the daily rounds start at about 9:30am. Tours last from 1 to 2 hours and cost 30 z to 40 z.
The Suwaki region is blessed with fish-rich clear waters. What makes it hassle-free for tourists is the consolidated information on where to fish and where to get your permits. The list of lakes for angling can be obtained at the tourist information office in Augustów or at the regional fishery office website (www.pzw.suwalki.com.pl). Permits (20 z per day) can be bought at the post office (Rynek Zygmunta Augusta 3; tel. 87/643-32-33) or at some fishing equipment shops, such as J. Kaminski (Mostowa 24; tel. 87/644-75-85). If you need gear, you'll find plenty of fishing equipment stores (sklep wedkarstwo).
The Augustów Forest is frequented by horse-riders throughout the year. Outings can be as short as an hour (30 z) or multiple days (100 z per day). Ostoja (Kalinowa 15; tel. 513/004-470; www.ostoja.augustow.pl) has an English-speaking owner who will saddle you up on Arabian steeds. The same family also runs a guesthouse; it's comfortable and fairly priced, but located by a busy road.
Winter in this region is much more severe than the rest of the country, giving rise to ice-sailing (bojery) opportunities. The sport resembles windsurfing on ice, an extreme sport practiced in very few places on Earth. For it to happen, the surface of the frozen lake must be snow-free, a condition that is harder to come by in recent years. The best chance is in January and February. If you're tempted, get a Polish speaker to contact Jarek Ossowski of Nord-Way (Zarzecze 1; tel. 608/504-974) at the Schroniska Modziezowe for equipment and user instructions.
Ornithologists from around the world flock to this region. The early spring flooding of the Biebrza River more or less coincides with the return of migratory birds when, in Augustów, cranes, storks, and graylag geese fill the sky. On the canals, there are goldeneye duck, mergansers, and marsh harriers. May is when the birds do their courtship song and dance. September, as the nomads get set to bolt for winter, is another great time for bird-gazing. The ultimate bird safari is in the marshlands of Biebrza National Park to the south of Augustów. Augustów Canoe Center has customized tours. So does Katarzyna Ramotowska of Biebrza Eco-Travel (Kosciuszki, Goniadz; tel. 85/738-07-85; www.biebrza.com), who specializes in the Biebrzanski National Park (www.biebrza.org.pl) area. She also has special programs for kids.