Battling for Bulgarian Rivers

Venturing into a pocket of the Balkans not yet explored, the Balkan Rivers Tour team had no idea what to expect as we drove south to Bulgaria. We broke up the drive with a few days on Montenegro’s Tara and Piva rivers, enjoying in the fun and friends at Kayak Fest Tara, before we rallied the winding roads from Montenegro’s Tara Canyon to Bulgaria’s Kresna Gorge. With over 10 hours on the road, the crew has plenty of time to brainstorm, visualize and plan for the week ahead. But no amount of dreaming could prepare them for the wild river defenders they would meet in the Kresna Gorge…

Day 1 | The road from Montenegro’s Tara Canyon to Bulgaria’s Struma Valley was long and winding. Hours in the car were well spent, brainstorming, scheming and preparing for a week of action! 

Driving into camp in the dark, we got a few hours of rest before being greeted first thing the next morning with some bright views of the Pirin Mountains. While the first round of coffee was being consumed, six eclectic Bulgarian river defenders arrived to welcome us. The first presentations of BRT4 Bulgaria introduced us to the geography, history and current struggles within the Kresna Gorge and on the Sturma River. Threats to the rivers of the region vary from mega highway development, cross-boundary industrial (predominately mining) pollution and the rampant construction of small hydropower dams.

Members from the fishing-club-turned-river-conservation NGO Balkanka, showed us their online database with photos, stats, flow measurements and info on almost every small hpp in the country (check it out here!). They were the recipient of Free Rivers Fund funding this year, which they used to purchase flow monitoring equipment and now monitor water flows downstream of dams, notifying the EU Commission for the Environment when dams are not meeting their minimum biological flow requirements. How’s that for organized, motivated and rebellious fishermen! We were super impressed by their stories and work. Their presentation was packed with images and stories, about how Balkanka has become the most successful group protecting Bulgarian rivers from small hydropower dams. These guys are the coolest, bravest and most effective group of fishermen out there and they have our full respect and support! They went from stocking rivers to protecting them and have stopped the construction of many small hpps on Bulgarian Rivers. What is often known as a selfish sport, has been transformed in Bulgaria into a sport where respect towards rivers and action to protect them has reached a new level of strength and success. Thank you for all you do fishermen of Balkanka! If every fishing club in the world was like Balkanka, rivers would be very well defended!

Conservation organizations fighting for the Struma include Balkanka, Za Zemyata/Friends of the Earth Bulgaria, Nature School Vlahi and Balkani Wildlife Society and together they form a crazy group of fisherman, conservationists, scientists, and nature lovers who have created a web of river defence in Bulgaria. It quickly became our goal for the week to do whatever we could to support the efforts of these groups and get their messages heard nationally and internationally. And to experience their river, of course!

Day 2 | This morning we were joined by six dedicated defenders of Bulgarian rivers. The threats to their home rivers and surrounding wilderness range from highway projects to pollution to small hydro power plants. But these passionate and clever organizations form a web and we are excited to be a part of this battle. An afternoon on the Struma River showed us a river full of birds and fish, proving life will find a way!

So, later that afternoon, they put kayaks in the water for a quick paddle, and were greatly surprised by the Struma, a river teeming with aquatic and bird life, proving there is a lot to be fighting for here.

When people join Balkan Rivers Tour, they get to paddle, learn first-hand about the destructive effects of hydro, but also learn about resilient and dynamic rivers of the region. On day 3 we swapped paddles for hiking boots, and walked the riverside with a personal bird watching guide. Slowing down and looking around isn’t something kayaker often do, so taking in the river in slow motion opened up a world of creatures. King fishers, lizards, insects, and aquatic invertebrates made for a day spent like kids, flipping over rock in the river, sneaking up on birds and even coming across a Balkan tortoise!

We explore rivers of the Balkan through kayaking, but local populations are often more connected to their rivers through fishing. So, this group of kayakers tried our hand at fishing for the morning, enjoying in the simplicity and challenges of fly fishing with a tenkara rod (a reel-less, collapsible version of the original fly fishing rod). And in the afternoon were treated to a special introduction to fish species of the Struma with the lead fish scientists from the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History.

Day 3 | Bird day! Despite low water levels and hot sun, we were blown away by the biodiversity we found on our bird watching hike today. Kingfishers, lizards, praying mantis, caddisflies and even a tortoise, the Struma River and Kresna Gorge is teaming with life! You just have to slow down, hop in a kayak or lace up hiking boots and take a look.


Day 4 | We spent the morning trying to get the attention of the fish using flies and rods. And in the afternoon, we let the fish command our attention fully. First we heard from fish expert from the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History, Tihomir Stefanov who taught us about the endemic and threatened fish species of the Struma River.
And then Ivan Pandakov walked us through the bad ass river conservation that the Bulgarian fishing club turned river defenders Balkanka are doing. 

Science and direct action. These two opposite sides of river conservation collided on day 5 of BRT4 Bulgaria. In the morning we got to see (and even touch) some of the endemic fish species of the Struma, and in the afternoon we got our hands dirty examining macroinvertebrates, comparing diversity of species above and below a dam on a tributary of the Struma with Helena and Pencho who are part of the River Intellectuals initiative and are involved in Balkanka’s river conservation efforts, as well PhD research.

Small hydro and mega highway development are threatening to kill the Struma River, and so the group put their passion into action, with a ‘sign restoration’ action. Putting our paintbrushes to work, we helped the local NGO’s fighting to keep the mega highway out of the Kresna Gorge, encouraging a bypass or a tunnel. Conservationists here aren’t against development and understand the needs of this mega highway connecting Vienna to Athens. But being smart about where the highway goes –therefor keeping it out of this biodiverse and rich river valley.

Day 5 | We got up close with endemic fish of the Struma River with Tihomir, and then got hands on with macroinvertebrates, comparing diversity above and below a dam on Gradevska Reka a tributary of the Struma.

On the day of international climate strikes. when students around the world gathered to protest against short-sighted, unintelligent and reckless decision makers, the BRT4 crew took action in support of the climate change adaptation characteristics of wild rivers. We put our paintbrushes to work refreshing the roadside sign, reminding everyone – from politicians to motorway traffic – that the Kresna Gorge should be honoured and respected and alternative plans for the new motorway need to be considered. MOTORWAY OUT OF THE GORGE!

The final day of BRT4 Bulgaria saw over 50 people take to the water in celebration of the Struma! In true BRT style, the news cameras followed and Ivan, president of Balkanka, spoke to two national TV stations about three main threats that the river faces; small hpp, industrial pollution and the highway project. Then, we gathered at the put in with whistles and banners, and paddled and played our way down the Struma River. Local kayakers, fisherman, rafting companies and even the Bulgarian National Rafting team all made their voices heard, shouting loud and proud that the Struma River is an important Bulgarian waterway that should be respected and protected! The flotilla was followed by more interviews and beer and food at Reflip Rafting base, who provided free rafts and gears for flotilla participants.

Day 7 |  Wet, loud and rowdy – that is how we made our way down the Struma with local kayakers, fishermen, rafting companies and the Bulgarian Women’s National Rafting Team.

The week in Bulgaria ended with a screening of The Undamaged under a night sky scattered with stars and with homemade local cognac keeping us warm. It’s slow moments like these that made this new format of BRT4 so enjoyable, and the camaraderie that was formed by spending a whole week in one river valley, so effective. A special thank you to Borislav Paunovski from Reflip Rafting and Ivan from Balkanka for spending the week with us and sharing your river, stories and home.

And just like that, BRT4 is officially done. With wet kayaking gear (and wet paintbrushes), we drove back to Slovenia, and spent much of the 10+ hours in the car scheming plans for BRT5.

Thank you to all the wild, brave and creative river defenders of the Balkans who hosted us during BRT4 and shared your rivers with us. The Balkan River Defence team draws inspiration and ideas from each interaction, and will carry the good energy, crazy ideas and peaceful defiance from each of the communities visited this tour, into next year’s tour…which promises to be big, bold, and paddling-packed.