Flisacy and their rafting culture
text: Lidia Pańków
archive photos: National Digital Archives
When gunshots were fired and echoed among the rocks in the valley of the Dunajec around the massif of the Pieniny mountain range in the 1930s and the 1940s, it was clear that rafters were carrying tourists. Each raft trip was a triumph; the participants celebrated their win against the forces of nature, and occasionally – their escape from mortal dangers. Salutes were fired from mortars and short guns. Then, Romani music was played. Among other things, the orchestra played the Hungarian national dance – the csardas. This was an homage to the Hungarian origin of the aristocratic family residing in the Niedzica Castle. Its members are said to have originated the idea to organize recreational raft trips on the river, to gain profits from them and to promote them as a new pastime among visitors and locals.
We know about the indulgent, extravagant lifestyle of the lords of Niedzica from historical sources: Baron Palocsay would host there what were more than sumptuous and bibulous parties for Polish and Hungarian landowners. Rafting on dugouts completed the feast and provided a desired adrenaline rush, a sense of breaking up the everyday monotony.
However, other researchers studying local documents claim that the first one who lunged “into the chasm of the labyrinthine lime rocks” of the Dunajec River Gorge was adventurous artist and politician, deputy to the Sejm, ethnographer Jan Nepomucen Rostworowski. He recorded his exciting experiences in his memoirs titled Diariusz podróży odbytej 1813 roku w Krakowskie, Galicyję i Sandecki Cyrkuł (Diary of a Journey Made in 1813 into the Cracow Region, the Galicia, and the Sandecki District). He was motivated not just by a desire to have a good time and a thrill – he set himself goals that today we would call ethnographic.
Theatre of Nature amid the Mists
A raft trip on the Dunajec aroused excitement. The river’s swift current induced anxiety, and the world of the highlanders (Gorals) – until then impenetrable and shrouded in mystery – was suddenly within reach.
The deep Dunajec riverbed in which the current is churning today had been carved over millions of years by waters running through soft limestone. Trips organized for tourists are an invention of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, related to the progress of mass travel. Thanks to the emergence of the railway network and the growing wealth of society, people travel with enthusiasm, enjoying their leisure time and company. Then, they write down their impressions, publish them as memoirs and guidebooks, and illustrate them with drawings and watercolours, and from the end of the 19th century – also with photographs.
The work of the aristocratic family of the Palocsays in promoting tourism is continued by Józef Szalay (his estate included Szczawnica). A group of spa patients travel down the waterway in 1831. They are delighted, and the news of the possibility of rafting down the Dunajec spreads fast. After all, the 19th century is the era of grand adventures: rail travels, flying, expeditions into high mountains and deserts, and finally – photography and film. Józef Szalay won guests from all sides by actively promoting the health resort in articles for German, Hungarian, and local, that is, Galician
A fashion for Szczawnica, and consequently – for the somewhat risky raft trip down the Dunajec – spread beyond the circles of aristocracy and landowners. It pervaded the elites, writers, researchers, and beaux sabreurs hanging around European mountain towns, health resorts and spas in search for adventures and thrills. The travellers share their impressions in lively accounts of daytime and night raft trips. The descriptions multiply and encourage ever new enthusiasts.
It is at that very moment that rafters emerge in collective imagination as a separate subculture with its own rules. Their stamina and uncouthness fascinate, but also inspire reserve.
Hardships of the Craft
Before the fashion for tourism emerged, the Dunajec had lived a different life. And neither that earlier era nor the one that was to come and last until today would have been possible without the rafters’ dexterity, commitment, and professionalism. Their craft requires discipline, fortitude, and watchfulness.
Time goes by and rafters still, just as in the days of yore, have to personally carve out their spryca – a type of oar with its shape adapted to the rapid current of the river – and pass an exam before a commission. It is thanks to their devotion that the tradition – its metamorphoses notwithstanding – stays alive. For centuries, rivers were the primary means of transporting goods, not people. The Dunajec was used to float timber for construction, firewood, coal, and barrels with tar pitch, grain, or dried fruit, to name but a few. Chroniclers recorded the existence of those routes as early as in the 16th century.
The hierarchical structure of the professional group of rafters as we know it today had not yet emerged then. The elements we now associate with rafting – the need to complete an apprenticeship and prove one’s skill as well as the degrees of mastery of the craft – appeared only in the interwar period, when the region was discovered by tourists enchanted by the richness of Poland as it was rebuilt after the partitions, and sometimes by adventurers bored with anything related to everyday life.
The development of tourism did not eliminate the floating of goods, with timber being the main product transported by river in those times. Once hierarchy was established in the profession, it was maintained chiefly for the sake of the safety of the load, and later – of the passengers.
A rafter’s ability to pilot a raft on their own was testified by the senior rafter’s licence. It was granted exclusively to professionals with many years of experience and perfect self-control, able to perform manoeuvres and resist eddies and the current. Moreover, a senior rafter had business duties, such as buying and selling timber and watching over the transaction.
In order to obtain the precious licence, a candidate had to train rafting with load for at least seven years and obtain recommendation letters from three already licensed rafters. During the practical part of the exam, the candidate had to cover a part of the route under the eye of a civil servant from the Water Management Authority in Tarnów.
In the first decade of the 20th century, attempts were made to organize the rafters’ community, including in the Pieniny Branch of the Polish Tatra Society in Krościenko. This is also the period when rafters become more visible in the eyes of the authorities as a separate social, professional, and cultural group worthy of support and promotion.
Representatives of local and central authorities are treated with respect and rafters proudly undertake representative tasks. This is an account of one such event: “Here, they were expected by the entire Dunajec fleet, some forty boats tied together in fours and adorned with fresh conifer twigs (that also had insulating properties). The first four-boat carried the rafters’ standard-bearer presenting the white-and-red standard with Kinga of Poland on one side and Poland’s emblem on the other. Rafters in festive highland-style dress with white-and-red armbands, carrying long poles, agile and handsome, aroused the interest of the visitors”. Yet the account also mentions accidents on the river, squabbles, quarrels, and bad atmosphere resulting from rivalry between the “boatmen from Krościenko and from Szczawnica”.
A Man of Unblemished Reputation, with a Watch
However, rafters were capable of uniting in the face of common threats, for instance in protest against motorboats, which appeared in large numbers on the river. A rafters’ deputation was sent to the Ministry of Public Works in 1928. The clashes and disputes had a positive result: by order of the district head, “Regulations for Boat Transportation on the Dunajec and in the Pieniny” come into force in 1932. The document stipulates: “A boatman can be a man of at least 21 years of age, of unblemished reputation, without a criminal record and not suspected of border offences, sober, in tidy and clean dress, skilful at rafting, with no repulsive external disabilities, and free from contagious diseases. A boatman is obliged to be thoroughly familiar with the regulations and tariffs and to have a watch”.
Yet the codification of rules fails to suppress enmity between groups from various localities. There are no rules specifying which boat has priority to take passengers on board. In search for solutions and in the face of the toxic atmosphere, a group of rafters from Sromowce Niżne turn for mediation to the Kołodziejskis – a couple of local social activists who care deeply about improving the lot of Pieniny highlanders.
Together, they establish the Society of Polish Pieniny Rafters on the Dunajec. The organization is intended to help fight for equality and democracy among the groups. Nevertheless, the animosities do not vanish, albeit they are moderated with the help of a programme of financial aid for rafters’ families: It requires the candidates to manifest willingness to negotiate. Furthermore, a precise stipulation concerning professional training is adopted just before World War II.
Today, a rafting apprentice first becomes an assistant. After three years, they are entitled to take the first exam. If they succeed, they obtain a licence. “No one is born with such skills”, admits Stanisław Migdał, deputy chair of the Pieniny Rafters’ Association. “An assistant becomes a master only after they have passed the exam. Before that, they may work in the stern only. They need to learn the waves, and only then may they move to the bow of the raft”. Mr. Migdał, an experienced raftsman himself, lists the dangers that lay in wait in the rapid waters: swifter currents, sharp bends, and high waves. And boulders, of which the rafter has to steer clear. “You can never let the stream carry you onto the riverbank! And that’s what the river does, of course. A rafting candidate has to be able to recognize how the hectic depth will behave. And know how to cope with strong wind, which tosses the boats about”.
On top of that, there is the unpredictable river traffic, with ever more canoes and dinghies whose passengers cannot deal with the secrets of the rapid current. This is no sport for featherbrains with slow reflexes.
The Secrets of the Raft Landing and Strong Water
The solidity and stability of a raft were essential for the services and the business, so rafters looked after their boats with great care.
The historical tafle (slabs), that is, logs nailed together, were made of the same timber that was floated down to merchants and markets. Once the tree trunks had been felled and debarked, they were pulled towards the river and stored at the raft landing, that is an outdoor storage. The logs were counted to prevent thievery. The timber waited until the spring thaw. Then, it left the landing in the form of rafts, which were constructed within one day, directly before floating.
The best floating conditions were on so-called strong water, which was the product of snow melting high up in the mountains. In spring, it was fed by snows thawing in the Tatras. Aside from that, timber transport was possible only on medium water – when its level rose due to the heavy June rains. The remaining months were not good for running services and therefore brought no profit. Depending on their weight, the following types of rafts were distinguished: byczki (bulls) – for the transportation of spruce, fir and beech logs; the larger, sometimes even twelve-meter long spinki, and pciki – the smallest rafts, which were used to cross the river or go short distances. These latter ones were built in no time. They consisted of only a few smaller logs.
The role of the oar is still played today by a three-meter-long pole called sprysa (also spryca or tycka), and the helm takes the form of a long oar called pojazda. Wylewka was used to bail out water, and when the raft had to be towed against the current, an odpychacka, that is an eight-meter-long pole, was used. The rafting tools are prepared in winter: the bars for sprysa poles are dried, and each rafter should process their poles on their own using a grinder and other available tools, with great attention to the effect. On the banks, rafters could take shelter in a jatka, that is a small hut that protected them against wind, frost, snow or blizzard. They would spend the nights in shacks or just in the open.
Stanisław Migdał emphasizes that rafting requires perseverance and alertness. The river never stays the same. Once, before the age of mobile phones, rafts would float down in caravans in case of danger or emergency, such as an eddy, problems in passing rocks, a weir or a dam, or a lengthy break caused by a boulder, so that help would always be near.
Mr. Migdał says that the rafting experience – and, consequently, its hazards and merits – would change depending on the time of year. It is a rough lesson about nature’s force, beauty, and ruthlessness. In autumn, as the stream narrows down, rafters are threatened by rocks piling up in the shallows. In summer and spring, the sky is ripped by storms. When thunder strikes and lightning flashes, it is crucial to stay in midstream and get the passengers safely to the landing place. The trees on the riverbanks can namely attract lightning strikes. Moreover, when the weather is unstable and the mountains are roaring, there is a risk of avalanches. This is why – as Mr. Migdał says – manoeuvring with the help of the sprysa continues to be considered the basis of the craft.
The Prayers of Kinga and the Blessings of the Fog
In the mountains, the weather is respected and paid homage to, as human lives can depend on the changing weather conditions. This is probably the reason why one of the most popular local legends is the one about Kinga of Poland, a Christian saint. To this day, rafters tell the story of how Kinga and a group of fellow nuns took refuge from a Tatar invasion in the fortress on the Zamkowa Mountain. Yet the enemy leader was not discouraged by the narrow paths among rocks on the edge of precipices. When the defenders had poured down the last portion of tar pitch and shot their last arrow, the nuns were seized with a mortal fear: they were about to face dishonour and murder. All they could do was hope for a miracle… And a miracle did happen: thanks to Kinga’s prayers, fog descended and enveloped the fortress, forcing the Tatar invaders to withdraw. As a result, Kinga could peacefully return to her monastery in Stary Sącz.
Another legendary hero who won the favour of nature, this time the river itself, was the most famous robber of the Podhale region – Janosik. As legend has it, while fleeing pursuit, Janosik crossed the Dunajec at its most narrow spot, where the riverbed is only eight meters wide, with one huge leap. This is why the spot is referred to as Janosikowy Skok (Janosik’s Leap) or Zbójnicki Skok (Robber’s Leap). A proof of the daring adventure (which had begun with Janosik breaking his fetters and forcing the dungeon’s door open) was found at dawn – it is the mark of his highland shoe, which remains visible in the rock to this day.
Could anyone on the route Sromowce – Szczawnica – Krościenko still fear the devil’s powers and a sudden storm? Now, rafters worry not about the wild depths any more, but for instance about low water levels associated with plans to build a power station across the southern border. A shallow and quiet Dunajec would mean the end of a beautiful era and a many centuries’ old tradition, which is a European-class phenomenon in the era of globalisation. Even though a raft trip on Dunajec does not guarantee the “sought-after surge of adrenaline” anymore, it is still a source of unforgettable emotions and aesthetic impressions, as well as of an invaluable sense of getting away from the everyday monotony.