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Green on the Rampage Firtina Valley
2003 / AUGUST

Clouds descended, cutting us off from the rest of the world in this temperate rain forest, where sky and earth were both coloured entirely in shades of green. We were near İkizdere in the Firtina river valley, deep in the craggy granite heights of the Eastern Black Sea Mountains that soar up from the shores of the Black Sea to over 3000 metres. Fed by the ice-cold water of glacier lakes and mountain streams, the river has carved a broad valley for itself through the mountains to the sea. The valley is one of two hundred ecological sites around the world which scientists have designated as a priority nature conservation area. Now a national park, the valley is a place of plunging hillsides, ancient natural forest and rich flora and fauna. There is rain 250 days of the year here, and total annual rainfall is 2400 cubic metres, the highest of any region in Turkey. Not surprisingly the valley is like a natural botanic garden, home to 2460 species of wild plants.

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Green on the Rampage Firtina Valley
2003 / AUGUST
Before heading into the Firtina Valley you can purchase anything you need in the town of Çamlihemsin, famous for its stone houses, situated east of the coastal city of Rize. At Çamlihemsin two valley systems meet, that to the east belonging to the Hala (or Ayder) River, a tributary of the Firtina. If you are heading for the Ayder Plateau, which attracts many summer visitors, the road along the Hala Valley runs for 17 kilometres through beautiful forested scenery. Ayder lies in the Kaçkar Mountains National Park, where you can hike through flower covered alpine meadows with mountain peaks towering in the background, or explore the valley, discovering waterfalls that plunge several hundred metres down the steep valley sides. The spa hotels at Ayder offer comfortable accommodation as well as health-giving baths in the mineral springs here. Alternatively you can camp in the Lake District, which is another of the natural wonders in this wild valley. The loveliest of the five large lakes, which lie at an altitude of 2800 metres, are the Karadeniz Glacier Lake and the Büyük Deniz Lake.
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Green on the Rampage Firtina Valley
2003 / AUGUST
The latter is a three-hour walk across the Yukari Kavron high pasture, which is an hou's drive from Ayder. There is also a guesthouse at Yukari Kavron, where hiking routes pass spectacular panoramic views of the Kaçkar and Kemerli Kaçkar mountains. Even those who know the paths, however, are strongly recommended to take guides, and to use GPS if possible, because the weather in the Kaçkar Mountains can be treacherous. One moment the sun is shining brightly, and the next thick mist and rain can reduce visibility to zero. What is more the weather can sometimes remain like this for days, particularly in the Firtina Valley. I vividly remember one day in late June when dark blue and black clouds filled the sky towards noon and heavy rain poured unceasingly for hours. The Firtina Valley was our destination on this occasion, and we took the road through the lush green forested valley. Fifteen kilometres along the road Zil Castle comes into sight, perched on a 150 metre high escarpment.
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Green on the Rampage Firtina Valley
2003 / AUGUST
From this small castle, which was used as a watchtower and store for provisions, there is a marvellous view over the valley and surrounding mountains. The single-arch stone bridges spanning the Firtina River are one of the most fascinating sights along the way, and are thought to have been built by Armenian masons during the Ottoman period. Beyond the castle the earth road continues for a further 15 kilometres to the village of Çat at 1250 metres. In this village at the point where the Elevit River joins the Firtina there are pensions, and it makes a convenient centre for exploring the mountains and valleys around. Nine kilometres further on is the Elevit yayla or high pasture, a beautiful spot at 1800 metres where the local people spend the summer months grazing their animals and caring for their bees. Here they live in the wooden mountain houses typical of the Black Sea region, one of which is a restaurant where you can eat the delicious local cheeses and try the local speciality, mihlama, made of maize meal and butter.
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Green on the Rampage Firtina Valley
2003 / AUGUST
The road along the Elevit River climbs in an easterly direction through green meadows carpeted with alpine plants that flower throughout the spring, summer and autumn. In early June the yellow rhododendrons (Rhododendron luteum) blaze with colour throughout this region. Beyond Elevit you come to Trovit Yayla and Palovit Yayla at 2300 metres. If you take the road westwards out of Çat you come to the part of the Firtina Valley between Çat and Verçenik known as the Hemşin Valley. High in the Tatos and Cimil mountains beyond rise the many streams which feed the Verçenik, whose waters form the upper reaches of the Firtina. This area is also famous for its glacier lakes, of which there are around a hundred in the Kaçkar Mountains. The road continues as far as Verçenik Yayla, from where you can walk to the Verçenik glacier lakes, looking out for orchids, fritillaria, gentians, campanula and many other beautiful alpine flowers on your way.
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Green on the Rampage Firtina Valley
2003 / AUGUST

The Firtina, with its dozens of tributaries, remote valleys, glacier lakes, flower-bestrewn alpine pastures, and snow-capped impassable peaks, is one of the most spectacular parts of a spectacular region, and one of the most important habitats in terms of biodiversity in the world.

* Ali İhsan Gökçen is a photographer

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