In search of the dragon of the lakes

Switzerland's only national park, in the east of the country, has been enlarged to include a high plateau with about two dozen lakes. Although small in size, Dale Bechtel found out that the legends surrounding the lakes are larger than life.

This content was published on August 4, 2000 minutes

The lakes sit on a high plateau above the town of Zernez on one side and the village of Lavin on the other. I followed the steep route up from Zernez.

Macun is the Romansch word for ibex, and there are plenty of these animals in the area as well as deer, chamois and marmots. But the creature I was most interested in was the legendary "Dragon of Macun".

The dragon is said to prey on stray cattle, and when it can't satisfy its appetite, it lets out a blood-curdling scream, which echoes across the mountains. However, sightings are rare and locals have had a hard time convincing outsiders of the truth of the legend.

I was there to attend a special ceremony to mark the park's expansion. It was a dazzling day, with the sunlight reflected in the lakes and snow glistening on the slopes. The sound of alphorns provided a musical accompaniment to the scene, causing ripples on the lakes as the noise vibrated across the water.

The setting inspired the president of the Federal National Park Commission, Martin Bundi, to wax lyrical about an "alpine symphony", while crowds of locals and journalists trampled over the fragile vegetation.

I was hoping to get a glimpse of the dragon, but the disturbance failed to entice him from his watery lair below the surface of Dragon Lake, the largest of the small bodies of water.

The lakes stretch across the high plateau like a string of pearls, but I'm told they are not the only treasures of Macun.

National Park geologist, Hans Lozza, says the real gems are literally at my feet. Without noticing, I had stumbled across them all the way up to the plateau. The path, like the rest of the Macun area, is made up of crystalline rock.

"We don't have any crystalline rocks in the existing national park and it's now very important to have a region - the area of Macun - where there are crystalline rocks like gneiss and amphibolites," Lozza says.

The acidic content of these rocks means that a few rare plant species are able to grow here, like "Ranunculus pygmaeus", which is almost as rare as the dragon, found only in the Macun area.

Other rare flora around Macun display strength and stamina only seen in myth. The Ranunculus glacialis is one of the most impressive, able to bloom at heights of 4,000 metres above sea level.

The symbol of the National Park is the Nutcracker bird. It's responsible for planting the Stone Pine well above the treeline. It stores on average 100,000 seeds a year in the steep mountain slopes, and is able to recover 80 per cent of them. The other 20 per cent take root.

Lozza says "it enables the plant to grow in places where it normally wouldn't be possible. It's a beautiful example of the symbiosis in nature."

I try not to lose my balance as I slip and slide through the snow leading down to the lakes. I'm walking beside a man who makes it his job to understand alpine slopes, although he's not much better at keeping his balance than I am.

Teiji Watanabe is a Japanese scientist studying permafrost in the Alps as part of an international research project on global warming. He has traipsed up and down and across the Swiss National Park, digging up plants on the way and sizing up their roots. His aim is to record any tendencies of flora to move to higher ground - work he can't do in Japan.

"We can't dig up alpine plants in Japan's mountain national parks because of the strict regulations. So we have to come here. The biggest difference between Japan and Switzerland in terms of regulations is I think the promotion of scientific research," Watanabe says.

"The Swiss National Park promotes scientific research. And this research helps us to understand the importance of nature. The Swiss should appreciate what they have here."

The inauguration ceremony is well underway by the time we reach the lakes. Suddenly a band of dwarves makes a surprise appearance, perhaps as a consolation for the dragon's absence.

The little people turn out to be costumed children, who hand out biscuits in the shape of stars. Legend has it that the Macun dwarves are responsible for the starry skies above the plateau. They magically transform alpine flowers into stars, which they hang from the firmament.

I reach the edge of the new park boundaries just beyond the lowest lake. Even with the addition of Macun, the park, at about 170 square kilometres, is still one of the smallest of its kind in the central Alps. No one pretends it's big enough to provide adequate protection for the diverse and fragile alpine environment.

Commission president, Bundi, says technological developments since the park's founding have had an adverse effect, including the motorised traffic on the highway that passes through the park and the hydroelectric plant that was built to harness its rivers.

"None of this existed when the park was founded in 1914. And the changes man has made to the landscape have led to species extinction," Bundi says. "That's why we want to increase the size of the park even further to protect species, or at least let them recover."

The Lakes of Macun are only on lease to the National Park. The area belongs to the village of Lavin (see Off Peak). The commission will now have to work out similar agreements with several other communities in the region if Bundi is to realise his dream of trebling the size of the nature reserve.

On this day anyway, there was hope. As the sun went down behind the mountains, the night sky above Macun filled with stars. The dwarves had been hard at work.

by Dale Bechtel

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