Built in the 1820s, the Augustów Canal (Kanał Augustowski) is a 104km-long waterway connecting the Biebrza and Niemen Rivers. Linking lakes and stretches of river, it's a picturesque route marked by old locks and floodgates. No longer used commercially, it's now a popular tourist attraction and kayak route.
The canal was built by the short-lived Congress Kingdom of Poland. It was intended to provide the country with an alternative outlet to the Baltic Sea, since the lower Vistula was in the hands of a hostile Prussia. The project aimed to connect the tributaries of the Vistula with the Niemen River and to reach the Baltic at the port of Ventspils in Latvia.
The Polish part of the waterway was designed by an army engineer, General Ignacy Prądzyński, and built in just seven years (1824–30), though final works continued until 1839. The Russians were meant to build their part from the town of Kaunas up to Ventspils around the same time, but the work was never completed.
The Augustów Canal ended up as a regional waterway, and though it contributed to local development, it never became an international trade route. Its route includes 28km of lakes, 34km of canalised rivers and 40km of canal proper. There are 18 locks along the way (14 in Poland), whose purpose is to bridge the 55m change in water level. The lock in Augustów itself has an extra twist to its history: badly damaged in WWII, it was rebuilt in 1947 in a different place.
The whole Polish stretch of the canal is navigable, but tourist boats from Augustów go only as far east as Lake Studzieniczne – the locks beyond this point are inoperative. By kayak, you can continue to the border with Belarus.
Worth a Trip: The Deep, Dark Augustów Forest
The Augustów Forest (Puszcza Augustowska) stretches east of Augustów as far as the Lithuania–Belarus border. At 1100 sq km, it's Poland's second largest continuous forest. It's a remnant of the vast primeval forest that once covered much of eastern Poland and southern Lithuania.
The forest is mainly made up of pine and spruce, with colourful deciduous species such as birch, oak, elm, lime, maple and aspen. The wildlife is rich and diverse, and includes beavers, wild boar, wolves, deer and elk. Birds abound and the 55 lakes are well stocked with fish. It was virtually unexplored until the 17th century, but today is criss-crossed by paved roads, dirt tracks, and walking and cycling paths. Despite this, there are large stretches that are almost untouched, and if you want to get far off the beaten track in Poland then this is a great swathe of nature in which to do it. (In fact it was a hiding place for underground fighters during WWII.)
You can explore part of the forest using private transport; roads will take you along the Augustów Canal to the Belarus border. Many of the rough tracks are perfectly OK for bikes; on foot you can get almost everywhere except the swamps.