Dolomites Wilderness: Val Montina in Cadore, the Most Important ‘Wilderness Area’ of the Alps.

Val Montina: the Most Important ‘Wilderness Area’ of the Alpine Chain.

Since the early nineties, the whole area of the Val Montina has been declared a Wilderness Area, and maintains not only the characteristics of a wild territory, but it is also possible, at the same time, to come across, here, the traces of an economic history that was abruptly interrupted by the great flooding of 1962, which engulfed and buried the large electric plant (besides provoking the disaster of nearby Vajont dam). The vegetation is that typical of areas rich in water at valley floor level; on the rocky mountain slopes Black (or Austrian) Pine dominates (Pinus nigra). Among the mammalians, badger, fox, deer and roe-deer are present. This is in fact the most important ‘wilderness area’ of the entire Alpine chain (at least in the Oriental Alps). Since its institution as a protected area, nothing ever was built here, and there is no permanent settlement, either; therefore, the natural development is left to its own devices.

The most accessible trail is the one that from Macchietto descends in the direction of the river Piave (signposted), with some difficulty over the summer period because of the tall grass. With the help of a bridge built by the Ente Nazionale Energia Elettrica (the national electric company) — once overcome the initial uncertainty — one goes across the Piave, thus gaining the other bank of the river.

The signs that are present in the area are enough for allowing one to choose itineraries for different options and abilities: the nature lover may follow the simple tracks that cross through woodland and meadows rich in biodiversity; the excursionist will be able to trek the paths to the Bivacco Baroni or the isolated Alberghet, gracious and welcoming; or follow the trail which, with the help of two aerial bridges, gains the opposite bank of Col Svalut, then descending to the area of Ansogne, and returning on one’s steps to the starting point. The crossing of the Montina stream requires, in the last section, to use a ford, and therefore some care; usually, however, the water level is low enough to allow a safe crossing, and also the temperature of the water is usually not too cold (at least in the summer months).

Brief History of the Val Montina Reserve

Since July, 1st, 1994, the Val Montina is the first Alpine Wilderness Area in Europe. The concept of "Wilderness Area" was developed in the US, starting from the ideas of David Thoreau and John Muir already at the beginning of the 1800s, and it means "nature at a wild state, uncultivated and not altered by the intervention of man". The taking of conscience of the importance of natural heritage, the ever-stronger exploitation of natural resources by man, and the impact exercised by the growing pressure due to tourism on the first National Parks, prompted the growth of ideas related to the protection of wild habitats, which became concrete reality already during the last century, with a worldwide movement. The importance of this site is also recognised at community (EU) level. It is therefore included also in the Nature 2000 Network.

The environment of the Val Montina

The Val Montina is an impervious valley with little access, delimited by a small, narrow morenic mountain amphitheatre that only more internally widens up, becoming less rugged. The two mountain ranges that enclose it are: to the west, the ridge that descends from Monte Duranno (2,652 m), while to the east, the range starting from the Cima dei Frati (2,355 m); they both converge towards the Piave riverbed. The other river courses that cross the area are: the Valmontina stream, tributary of the Piave, the Ru de Tia, the Ru del Bosco Nero, and the Ru Bosco del Belo, all triubutaries of the Valmontina, which come down from the respective small side valleys.

Flora. Many of the plant species present here are so-called "glacial (ice-age) relics"; that is, plants which in the pre-glacial periods were typical only of the Arctic area, and then have moved their area of distribution in more Southern areas, where they have continued to thrive. The articulation of the area has implied the formation of characteristic environments and microclimates, thus creqating several endemisms (that is, plants typical of a given area), such as: Arenaria huteri, Campanula morettiana, the Alpine Poppy (Papaver alpinum), and the beautiful Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus). As for the forest formations, starting from the scree, we find the Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo) formations, colonising these inhospitable environments. As soon as the conditions become more favourable, amongst the mountain pine, we also find Larch (Larix decidua) growing. At lower levels, where the slopes become less steep, and the soil richer and more structured, we can find: Norway Spruce (Picea excelsa), Black Pine (Pinus nigra), Silver Fir (Abies alba), Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) and Mountain Laburnum (Laburnum alpinum).  

Fauna. Beacuse of isolation and the limited presence of man, the Valmontina presents an elevated variety of species. Many birds choose this area for reproduction or transit and rest during the long migrations. During the summer, for instance, once can observe Milvus migrans and Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). The majority of birds, however, are stationary; such as Accipiter gentilis, Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Tetrao tetrix, Capercaille (Tetrao urogallus), Certhia familiaris, and others. Amongst the mammals, instead, we find: Common Hare (Lepus europaeus), and Alpine Hare (L. tumidus), Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), Marmot (Marmota marmota), Fox (Vulpes vulpes), and a few ungulates such as Deer (Cervus elaphus), Roe-deer (Capreolus capreolus) and Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), the most represented species in the area. Receently, have also been introduced: Ibex (Capra ibex) and Ovis musimon.    

The Valmontina and Man. The Valmontina, despite being rugged and inhospitable, was exploited by man for a long time. In order to reach the innermost parts, were created trails, thus permitting the the exploitation of the high altitude pastures. These areas, however, were also soon abandoned. The woodlands were exploited for timber and for charcoal production. Timber was taken to the bottom of the Valmontina stream with the aid of three ziplines, and from there to the Piave. The production of charcoal, instead, was practiced by the carbonér (charcoal maker), who used to build, in designated areas known as aiàl, heaps of beechwod in order to form a sort of 'dome', the poiàt, inside which would happen the anoxic combustion that would transform wood into charcoal.

The Val Montina Nature Trail

The Nature Trail, for its orographic characteristics, can be walked by anyone, even without specific training for walking in a mountainous setting.

This trail develops around the Casera Valmontina, and it allows, within the space of about 1 h, to carry out interesting naturalistic observations, by allowing one to see all the main habitats that can be encountered in this wildreness area. The nature trail can be walked in different ways: it is advised, however, to take it just below the Casera Valmontina, by taking the track that goes towards the valley bottom, amongst tall grasses. After passing an abandoned building, the mule-track continues on a small ridge, towards the ravine formed by the stram as the track leaves it aside, and, by rising a few hundreds of meters along a steep ridge, it leads towards a viewpoint, where are a few benches and an information panel. The itinerary now continues towards the Casera Valmontina, roughly at half-slope level, until crossing the trail that leads ito the innermost part of the valley (described below). Once crossed this trail (from this point, the casera is easily reached within a few minutes' walk downhill), the trail continues in the woodland, always at half-slope level, crosses a few small side-valleys, probably once used to descend the tree trunks along the valley, and then a steep mountainside. From here, in a short while, one reaches the junction bewteen the CAI trail that ascends to the Baroni bivouac (two more information panels along the way) and a small trail that descends towards the casera, which is also used for the nature trail. In a slight descent, one reaches again the Casera Valmontina; after a few meters in a meadow, one rejoins the starting point of our description. A little distance away from the nature trail and the Casera Valmontina, is an old lime kiln, where another information board provides a description of its characteristics and the production process.

The Excursionist Trail

The excursionist trail, for the peculiar morphology of its track and an objective potential danger risk, is best walked by experienced hikers only, and is advised not to take it in case of snow, low temperatures (ice), and in bad weather generally. It is best taken starting from the Casera Valmontina, as from Ansogne one is forced to rise steeply for a long stretch, in order to pass the rocky outcrops that loom over the hydrographic right side of the valley. The vegetational landscape, in this rather demanding stretch, is constituted by characteristic and interesting pinewoods. The trail is now described taken from both directions.

This trail also unfolds starting from the Casera Valmontina, from which the track rises with a relatively steady gradient, passing by a few charcoal pits, then rising quite high in altitude, to then continue with long stretches with very low gradients. One then skirts a jutting rock, that can also be used as shelter in case of rain (information board on vegetal charcoal production), to then reach a steep rocky little valley. The excursionist trail then continues by taking a wide wooded section that overlooks scenic and deep crags until reaching a metallic bridge created by the Regional Forestry Commission. In this section, the trail is also equipped with a metallic rope, even though it does not present particular difficulties. One then continues, always on a good track, to reach a wide area affected by a landslide, where in the past, in the first section, was present a small bridge, necessary in order to pass a modest side valley, periodically interested by the discharge from the derivation channel for the hydroelectric works in the Valmontina, of which one can see several parts along both the nature and the escursionist trail, with interesting architectural remains (artifacts of industrial archaelogy). Once passedthe landslide on a secure track, the trail reaches a junction; leaving the path that continues straight, one descends to the left towards the river bed. This section of trail can certainly be considered demanding, considering the steep ravines that flank it. Shortly, one reaches the stream, in order to pass which, a wooden boardwalk has been created. Once passed the stream, after an exposed section equipped with an iron rope, one continues for about another 300 m, to then reach the enchanting canyon of Bosco Bello, which is passed with the help of another footbridge. We are now in one of the most fascinating parts of the whole valley, for the presence of deep rocky ravines and gurgling waters. Once passed the bridge, the trail rises under a rock, leading to an exposed grassy bank. The itinerary continues to then reach -- after a steep rise -- a characteruistic jutting rock that forms a sort of cave, where it is possible to find shelter in case of bad weather. It also offers interesting vegetational and floral peculiarities. One then continues to rise in a beechwood, and, after passing another charcoal pit, one reachest the highest point within the whole trail: 860 meters above sea level. From here, the track becomes more readily visible, and despite crossing an exposed (but very panoramic) ledge, it appeas safe to walk -- at least in good weather conditions, After a few hundred meters, one finally gets to a mule-track that allows to end the hike in the hamlet of Ansogne, after a steep descent. 

Let's now see the description of the trail, if taken from the opposite direction, Ansogne. In this case, the trail starts from the "area attrezzata Ansogne" (the local productive unit). From here, one takes a steep trail that rises for a long stretch, in order to pass the rocky outcrops that hang over the hydrographic right side of the valley. The vegetational landscape, in this rather demanding stretch, is constituted by characteristic and interesting pinewoods. After a few sharp bends, one leaves the ancient mule track, in the most elevated section of the trail (860 m), to take an exposed and very panoramic ledge, at the edge of which one starts to descend into a woodland, inside which broadleaved species are more and more present. One then reaches a wide and characteristic charcoal pit inside a beautiful beech wood and, continuing to descend, a jutting rock that forms a cave, where it is possible to take shelter in case of bad weather (floral and vegetational peculiarities). One then starts to hear the sound of the gurgling stream that runs in the valley floor below, and -- after crossing a very exposed grassy ledge -- one reaches the gangway on Bosco Bello. Here we are in one of the most fascinating places in the whole valley, for the presence of deep rock crevices and gurgling waters. One then continues for about 300 meters, to reach the gangway on the Val Montina stream, preceded by a rocky ledge equipped with an iron rope. From the riverbed, one starts to steeply rise again to then continue, once in altitude, on another ledge, flanked by high rock cliffs, which allows to reach a landslide that is passed on a safe crossing (in the past, in the last section of the landslide, was a little bridge that was necessaryto walk in order to pass a small valley, periodically inundated by the discharge deriving from the waterworks that fed the small hydroelectric plant of the val Montina, of which one can observe interesting artifacts of industrial archaeology from several sections along both the nature trail and the excursionist trail). The trail continues to descend until reaching a metallic bridge created by the Regional Forestry Commission. In this section, the trail is equipped with a metallic steel rope, despite not presenting particual difficulties of transit. One starts to glimpse the valley floor, and from the trail, which descends in this section with a modest steepness, one can observe the pinewoods on the right side of the valley. One reaches, shortly, a rocky small valley, then a jutting rock, which can offer shelter in case of rain (presence of an information panel), and -- after a few minutes -- the Casera Valmontina

The Lime Kiln (Calchera

Lime Kilns are a recurrent element in the Dolomitic mountains: besides areas where the production of lime took on almost industrial characteristics (such as in the Val Canzoi, near Cesiomaggiore), there are other areas where where one can spot isolated lime kilns, created maybe (in some cases) for the realisation of a single building. Lime was being used as a binding material, in order to paint houses and, most especially, (as whitewash) as disinfectant for the sanitation of barns, for the treatment of some plants and bovines' illnesses, as well as for the conservation of eggs. The lime kiln is a very simple artifact, normally built with stones that are heat-resistent, skilfully disposed in a dry-stonewall manner so to form a vaulted cavity. Closed on all sides, it would then present an aperture on the side facing towards the valley bottom, through which the fire would be fed. In order to produce lime, the oven would be filled with calcareous stones: lower down would be placed the bigger stones, disposed as in a cone so to form a vault, able to withstand the weight of other stones of smaller and smaller dimensions, with which the lime kiln would be filled up until the summit. One would then proceed to the lighting of the fire, which had to be fed continuosly for about 4 days (in order to activate a furnace, the employment of more people was necessary).The fire was kept alive with the constant introduction of wood bundles; an operation which was being carried out with a double-pointed pitchfork; the bottom of the lime kiln was to be kept constantly clean from embers, which were extracted with the help of a particular tool. The fire had to be kept in such a way as to bring the temperature up to 800°/1000°. During combustion, the rocks, at first, rise in volume, to then diminish once the cooking had taken place, with a loss of weight and volume of about 40%. At the end of the combustion process, after a cooling period, which lasted a few days, the rocks were taken away, and wetted in order to be transformed into quicklime (at the contact with water, the rocks would react by 'boiling'). A long extinguishing process (about 3 months long), which took place in a pit, transformed the quicklime into slake lime, which could then be used for the most diverse purposes. Prior to the days of cooking, the lime kiln could also be blessed by a priest, following a precise ritual (the Benedictio fornacis calcariae), taken from the Roman Canon.

The Exploitation of Forests 

The Val Montina has always constituted a precious reserve of timber, and the woods of the area have long been subjected, since the remote past, to forms of exploitation that have sometimes been intense. By roaming this territory, one can observe ancient loggeries, as well as the departing and arriving stations of ziplines and cables (one can actually spot one along the trail, beside a large Black Pine on whose trunk nails are still inserted). In the so-called Bosco Bello (literally, Beautiful Wood) was present, in the past, also a stua -- an artificial barrier that had been realised in order to favour the flotation of timber along the streams. It is interesting to observe how one of the systems of exploitation of the forest resources, until after the second world war, consisted in the production of vegetal carbon (charcoal). Charcoal, in fact, while conserving the same calorific power, was lighter to transport than wood and therefore, until the arrival of ziplines, in the most isolated stretches of woodland, this form of woodland use was preferred to logging. During the course of the carbonization process, in fact, wood loses about 40 % of its volume and 80% of its weight. Charcoal was being produced in small flat areas, known as "charcoal pits" (era or aial in the local patois), which still today can be recognised whilst walking through the woodland, also as, by rustling through the leaves, one can still spot the black soil, or even the rests of ancient combustions. 

The Tools of the Charcoal Maker

The charcoal pit was being realised with great mastery, by piling up the wood so to form a sort of dome, which then had to be covered with leaves and earth so to favour the combustion of wood even without the help of a flame. At the center of the pile, was realised a rudimentary chimney on which were being stacked the wood pieces, about 1 meter long. Inside the chimney, was then lit a fire, which then had to be consistently fed with pieces of wood, until the chimney was completely full of red-hot embers, and its subsequent closure with leaves and earth. The function of the leaf cover was that of rendering the charcoal pit impermeable, and thus allow the stability of the reported earth, above which, by impeding the circulation of air, the flamewould choke. The carbonization process would take place in three phases: 1) water evaporation; 2) chemical decomposition of the wooden fibre; 3) transformation in gas of the oxygen and hydrogen contained within the same fibre, thus allowing the retention of carbon only. These processes were kept under strict surveillance by the charcoal maker, who, on the basis of of the smoke's colour, was able to assess the different phases of the process, and their correct development. With this goal in mind, some holes on the earth cover were being realised. The carbonization process lasted 8-12 days, and all wood species were being used, with a slight preference for beech wood. Charcoal was then being packed into jute bags, and then transported to the valley floor.

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