Having lived with the Prespa Lakes for almost a decade now, I feel a fierce love and allegiance towards them. It seems a natural exchange for what they’ve provided me over time, the give and take of long tenure. Yet there is one other wetland in northern Greece that attracts my attentions now and then; I suppose it feels like infidelity.
When Julia and I first journeyed to Lake Kerkini a few years ago, we spent our evenings talking over wine after long days of walking, birdwatching, and exploring. We spoke in quiet tones, equally feeling the pull: “What would our lives be like if we’d chosen to move to this lake, instead of those lakes.” Like most infatuations, though, it passed. But the lake had left a mark on us, and it sparked a torch that lit imagined lives.
For the first time since then, we returned to Lake Kerkini a few weeks ago with friends. Unlike Prespa, which was just emerging from its winter chrysalis when we left, Kerkini was brimming with spring. About 800 metres in altitude separate the two lake systems, and the difference was startling. Trees were in leaf on the hillsides lifting from the lake edge; lesser spotted and short-toed eagles circled overhead; butterflies traced the air, following invisible currents.
Kerkini lies on a major migratory route, channelling birds from the Aegean towards the narrow opening of the Strymonas River that cleaves the high Rhodopi mountains on the border between Greece and Bulgaria. Migrating birds follow the river through the alpine opening, fanning out over the Balkans. But they arrive by way of the lake. Many birds were already back – black kites readying to nest in the hills, egrets and herons filling the trees, hundreds of white storks in courtship atop village electricity poles. Equally there were those passing through, like the flock of hawfinches unfurling like a long ribbon over the meadows, their wedge-beaked, orange and brown forms bulleting through. A secretive black stork, the solitary and shy relative of the white, stood in an isolated field, a purple and green glaze spilling over its shoulders and head. Wildflowers sparked into colour, and creatures emerged from a long winter.
One of the striking features of Lake Kerkini are the herds of water buffalo farmed on the wet meadows around the water’s edge. Not only do they help maintain the ecologically rich meadows, they also provide the region’s noted culinary specialities: buffalo meat, cheese and yoghurt. They lend an epic presence to the lake-edge habitat as they wallow through the water, sloping through rivers up to their heads, then congregating in their hundreds on the flatlands, where birds gather around unconcernedly by their sides.
Talking of Kerkini as a lake is somewhat inaccurate; in fact it’s a reservoir. Historically the area was a great marsh, dotted with a number of sizable lakes, swamps and reed beds filled by the Strymonas River as it roared downed from its Bulgarian mountain source near Sofia. But in 1923, the future course of the wetlands was set in motion by a cynical political agreement. Four years earlier, the Greek government had embarked on an ill-advised war against Turkey in an attempt to wrest control of Constantinople back again. By the end of 1922, with the routing of the Greek army, the destruction of Smyrna (now Izmir) and the lost of countless lives, Greece’s war was over. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed by Greece and Turkey in 1923, set a terrible precedent that remains a framework for the resolution of ethnic strife. Called the Great Population Exchange, the agreement required the mass movement of ethnic populations between the two states, despite long histories and traditions grounded in regions on both sides. It is estimated that 1.3 million Christian Greeks exited Turkey, while 800,000 Muslim Turks were required to leave Greece. The only areas exempt from the exchange were the Christians of Istanbul (Constantinople) and the Muslims of Thrace, Greece’s eastern province.
What this colossal population exchange meant for many was a miserable arrival in a land they had little connection to, with little prospect of employment. Athens and Thessaloniki swelled beyond their available infrastructure; but many people tried to settle the land. In the extensive area around Lake Kerkini, 85,000 refugees are thought to have arrived in the years after the signing of the treaty. But trying to farm in the marshy sway of the Strymonas River was an unenviable task; the continual flooding decimated crops and the area was rife with malaria. An estimated 20% of the newly arrived died in the years 1923/24 alone.
The Greek government decided to act by draining the marshes and creating a reservoir. Along with containing the flood waters, in would also open up large swathes of arable land for the refugees to farm. An American company was hired and construction on the reservoir and dam began in 1928, which was intended to hold back the winter and spring run-off that could then be slowly released in summer for irrigation. What can’t be seen when travelling around the lake are the older villages that already existed amongst the marshes. They were sent to the bottom by the rising waters, lost to the visible world.
Lake Kerkini reaches its high water point in late spring and early summer, when it traps the melt-waters of winter. During the hot season water is siphoned off for agriculture, resulting in areas of the lakebed being brought to the surface again by autumn. The great film director, Theo Angelopoulos, used those areas to build a mud and stone village for his film, ‘The Weeping Meadow,’ that traces the difficult political history of Greece in the 20th century. Once the village was built, the crew waited for the rising waters of late winter to film the drowning of the houses.
This great ebb and flow of water levels has created a variety of unique habitats – mudflats, wet meadows, riverine meaders and marsh – but the most ghostly and alluring is the drowned forest. Located in the northeast corner of Lake Kerkini, it is a remnant of an earlier landscape – the boggy and alluvial edge of the river. The willows are now submerged for nearly half the year, and provide an astonishing refuge for pelicans, herons, egrets, cormorants, and terrapins. Willows naturally embrace water, but this inundation takes its toll – the area is under water far too long for offspring to survive. It is a landscape that will eventually go the way of the villages that nestle at the bottom of the lake.
When the waters recede at the end of summer the lake bed comes to the surface again. Marsh plants and grasses spring up, briefly and insistent, like my thoughts of the lake itself from time to time, and that never to be resolved question of what might have been.