If you want to understand the world, walk. — Werner Herzog
During the summer, all the nature in Lithuania colors itself with a lashing green. It always feels like it wants to redeem the time lost during the cold seasons. Since the terrain of Lithuania is relatively flat, walking here is relaxing, easy and rewarding, but it is not as straight-forward to decide where to start looking for the right path. The fact that there is not much information online, it is hard to compare what different regions have to offer. You can find more information on different regions of Lithuania here. Basically, we just randomly picked a regional park near the Capital city and then looked for possible options with enough access to lakes or any other water supply.
Labanoras Regional Park
It might look like that should do, but this region of Lithuania is notoriously famous for its lakes. Only in Labanoras Regional Park alone, there are more than 70 lakes. The number might look small, but the same goes for its size. Covering 553 hectares is enough to make it the biggest regional park in the whole country, with around 80% of it are covered by the forest. With all the possible choices ended up picking twin lakes, which is actually a single lake separated by a small passage. Another good way to experience the beauty of the lakes in this region is canoeing or kayaking.
White & Black Lakajai Lakes
These two exceptionally beautiful lakes are right on the entrance to the park thus it looked like it won’t be that hard to get to them. The same logic led many people to shores of Lakajai. We should have gone deeper, but oh well.. The lakes share the name with River Lakaja — probably the most beautiful wild river in the region. Black Lakajai is also the source of the river, right in the small village called Lakaja. In short, almost everything around is called Lakaja and Lakajai is just a plural form of the word in Lithuanian language. Hopefully, at this point, you are already wondering what does Lakaja mean?
What does “Lakaja” mean in Lithuanian?
If it was up to me, I would explain it simply. In Lithuanian language “lakus” means something similar to fluid adj., so “lakaja” would be “fluid place”. Unfortunately, those who are rather more qualified to explain the origins of the name, associate it with word “lakatas” (I’ve never heard of the word too), which mean cloth rags. I imagine that sounds super random compared to my explanation, but once you look from the bird’s eye, the shape of lakes could actually resemble it. The only problem to me with this explanation that even though nobody knows who named the lakes, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have Google Earth yet.
The second theory is that the name derived from Lithuanian word lakna (nope, doesn’t ring a bell either), and that would mean something close to a swamp in terms of the place having a lot of dirt in it. I understand where it comes from, the lakes are somewhat muddy, but most of the lakes are. Maybe it changed over time, nobody can tell these days anyway.
The third explanation looks at the bigger picture and associate „lakaja“ with the same word that „lake“ is associated. Of course, I mean Latin „lacus“ for the lake in English and similar word in many other languages. Lithuanians just happen to be a bit more creative to come up with their own word to a big body of freshwater which would is „ežeras“.
Hiking around Lakajai Lakes
But enough about water, let’s talk about the trail itself. Since the terrain is relatively flat, it is easy to find your thoughts drifting, like a sweet dream wondering of the surrounding landscape. What kind of secret these blue waters hide? Why these two lakes, connected only by a small swampy passage, are called the white one and the black one? I hope to find the answer during the journey.
- Location: Labanoras Regional Park
- Starting point: Stirniai Village, but any point would do
- Distance: ~35km
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Duration: 1–3 days
Long, but not difficult Trail around Lakajai lakes
35km is a doable distance to any hiker with some experience within a day, but I cannot see a reason to do it this way. The whole procedure is not a city marathon, done in a few hours (just to save everybody’s extremely important time). Walking around Lakajai lakes should be a pleasant walk in a park, time goes slower here, so nobody should rush as well.
We chose to complete the trail within 3 days, dividing the route into 10km + 15km 10km distances, something between as-cold-as-ice and I’m-killing-myself-softly experiences. For that alone, the baggage increased around 10kg for each of us. Only to flatter myself a bit, I would say that doing the trail in this manner requires some physical capabilitie. Personally, I started with 16kg on my back and finished the trail with 12kg. You might wonder what I’m carrying, but some extra clothes for the cold night, sleeping bag, mat, tent, food, water, and something extra personal for each, do just that. You might also wonder how much water do you need to carry for three days?
Facilities and Re-supplement around Lakajai Lakes
Though we haven’t looked under every stump in Labanoras Forest, there is not much hope of finding a store on your way. Water streams successfully hid from us as well, which left us either carrying the water all the way, over-boiling the water of the lake or using some technological secrets. In our case, it was something in-between, though we didn’t have to use the latter one. I tried to drink 1,5l a day, but my colleague drank as much during the whole trip. There is no straight answer to this question, one just needs to know his/her body.
Around many of the plenty campsites, you’ll find outdoors bathrooms, trashcans, tables, benches, arbors, fireplace and good access to the lake. Everything is pretty straight-forward, just be sure to follow the rules of Labanoras Regional Park:
- Inform the park staff before doing commercial tourist hikes, big events, scientific research or other work.
- Do not enter the reservoirs — It is only permitted for the scientific research led by park wardens.
- Drive only on the marked roads, do not leave your car between trees or on grass further than 25m from the water.
- Build your tent only in the marked campsites and light the fire only in the designated areas.
- Do not damage any inventory in the campsites.
- Do not forget that everybody wants to enjoy the beauty of nature — do not pick flowers or listen to your music too loud.
- Watch your dogs as they can damage the local flora and fauna.
- Fishing is allowed only with permits.
- Do not approach boats and other water transport.
- It is forbidden to boat in any water body within the area of reservoirs.
- It is permitted to boat in other water bodies only from 21st of June to the end of the sailing if the water body is bigger than 50ha and the power of your boat is below 4kW.
- Leave a campsite as you found it, extinguish the fire and throw your trash away only to the designated containers.
Popular weekend refuge near Vilnius
It didn’t take that long for us to learn that Labanoras Regional Park is not exactly the most remote park in Lithuania. Quite the opposite. Located only 70km from the Capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, and in-between other regional centers, it is not shy of people. During the weekend people are not shy here either, and probably breaks one or quite a few rules of the park. I know the whole picture looks dull and if you have a better getaway in Lithuanian nature I would recommend trail around Plateliai Lake in Samogitia National Park. You can learn more about it here.
We started late on Friday evening, it was dark already, but most of the beaches were lighten by huge campfires, people were so noisy that it felt like they are trying to overshout each other, and the whole mix of, probably, the worst music one can find, didn’t exactly sound any better than the original.
Quite shocked by the sight, we had no choice, but to press on with a hope to find a calmer place to build our campsite. One thing I’ve learned during this trip is that a heavy backpack on the back is a good passport. When we somehow found a semi-empty spot near the lake, we were invited to join the people by the fireplace. The whole trip, people tired of the noise, came to talk to us sharing their own supplies or stories of adventures. It was a pleasant surprise, but in all that chaos, we were an odd cat, and odd cats attract odd cats in disguise.
Flora and fauna in Labanoras
Talking of cats, we haven’t seen any, not to mention wild animals, who would rather spend their time deeper in one of the two reservoirs in Labanoras Regional Park, which are closed to any unguided visitors. But once you see the fauna surrounding these beautiful lakes, it is not that hard to understand why it is so. Despite that, birds and fish populations seem to be healthy — scientists have found 158 species of birds, 5 reptiles, 11 amphibians and 43 species of fish.
Labanoras Regional Park proudly announces that in its territory grows more than 1020 species of plants, including some rare relics from the ice age. Nevertheless, I didn’t notice anything special during the whole 35km of walk in the forest. Maybe that is the exact number of species in any regular forest on this altitude, just I don’t happen to know this. Characteristic of the area varies between western taiga and swampy forests, filled with many lakes and rivers. White and Black Lakajai lakes are located in the Western part of the park, far from most reservoirs and protected areas thus filled with more people. Despite being not as protected as most of the park, both lakes look so clean that I baffled me for a while, why both of them are not called white. The mystery lies within Black Lakajai Lake.
During one of many occasional refreshments in White Lakajai lake, a local man overheard us talking about the transparency of the water. “This must be the white one because it is so bright!” — we shouted to each other. “The black one is just as bright!” — answered old guy while opening another can of beer. I bet he spends here most of his summer weekends and cannot allow some visitors from the city to misunderstand the economics of these lakes. I wanted to ask him why the names then? But he switched to teach a lesson to his daughter and wife so quickly, that I decided not to bother. Typical douchebag just wants to be listened to. I bet the lakes will reveal themselves to us without his help anyway.
Legend of White Lakajai Lake
At his point, at least, I have learned the mystery behind the White one. Not that ancient legend speaks of hard times when the local Lithuanian population was oppressed by cruel serfdom. It was so rough that people of Mindūnai village and surrounded areas had no other option, but to rebel. Like any movement, they had a leader — young peasant — who soon had a price put on his head by the authorities. Many mercenaries had tried to catch the young leader, but he was a clever one and successfully evaded all the ambushes until one night they waited him out by the road. Once the young peasant saw what is coming, he quickly whipped the horses and zipped through ambushers without them being able to put their hands on him. The mercenaries tried to chase him, but the horses were so fast that even the agile peasant was unable to control them on a sharp turn. Both horses and their master fell from the road to a lake nearby where they all drowned.
Even today, on a silent night, it said that young leader could be seen riding his horses across the lake. The horses are told to be white ergo the White Lakajai lake.
Beneath the White Surface
Too bad the night I spent by the White Lakajai lake was not a silent one. People in the surrounding campsites were heard across the lake, so the peasant probably hid in the depths of White Lakajai, which after some time of being unable to fall asleep sounded like a good idea to me as well. While there is no proof of living ghosts in White Lakajai lake, it is a popular destination among diving enthusiasts. Besides many artifacts found in the lake, the most interesting object underwater is a pine forest. How it got there, I’ll leave it for your own interpretation.
Remote Corner before a Black Night
The second-day route took us from the white one to Black Lakajai lake. Nothing has changed that much from the first day, or at least, not until our first camping spot when we finally had some time to look around. Black Lakajai lake feels and looks like it is deeper in nature. Our camping spot was near a steep hill, which suggests that at least in this location, the lake goes deep fast.
I don’t know if it is because we stayed at the edge of the lake or just pure luck, but once we settled down, we never saw a person again until we left the campsite to complete the trail next morning. It was exactly what we wanted, so I dare to proclaim that in the end, all the struggle was not in vain and that our itineris inter album et nigrum lacus was nothing less, but a success. Finally, we’re able to feel like we are somewhere remote.
The mystery of Black Lakajai Lake
One of the best things in nature is to wake yourself in a lake before you actually have woken up. Swimming in a lake does not only warm my muscles but refresh my memory as well. What a night it was. Without even mentioning the peace you get in a refuge like this, the August sky had completely opened above of us, not a single cloud. We saw more shooting stars than we could think of wishes. The irony is that you get an opportunity of your dreams to be fulfilled only when you are satisfied with what you have.
When I was close again to the shore of the lake, I stopped swimming and shifted to the upright man I am. Step by step I was getting close to the place where I have left my towel, I would dare to say that it was not as warm as I would like. As the water flowed down my body back to the lake, it was only then I realized, looking at my feet that with every step I took I uncovered the mystery of the lake. Beneath the white layer on the surface, laid a black mud — ergo the Black Lakajai Lake.
Why we seek refuge in nature
Though we get used to it, cities are quite stressful environments to be in. So many things have to work in harmony in order to avoid unnecessary tragedies. It is so easy to forget that you’ve already forgotten what the silence sounds like, how does the starry night look like, we no longer celebrate access to freshwater and totally forgot how the famine tastes like. When was the last time you appreciated a warm bed before you get your 8 hours of safe sleep, would that ever happen if it was not for the voyages in the tamed-untamed-wild nature? A man needs to strip himself of comfort to appreciate everything our species had reached so far.
Just wherever you are, close your eyes for a second and imagine that once you open them, you’ll find yourself in the darkness, floating on the water looking straight to the eye of the cosmos — the Milky Way. If you happen to see a shooting star, what kind of a wish you would think of? What does your heart truly desire?
Now open your eyes and ask yourself what are you doing?
Originally published at https://ctdots.eu on September 3, 2019.