The Tisza River has been called the "heart and soul" of Hungary. Petofi Sándor, the country's most-beloved poet and author of the national anthem, spent years drawing inspiration from its beauty and wildlife.
But following a series of disasters, there were dire predictions for the Tisza. First, a cyanide spill at a gold mine in nearby Romania in January wiped out aquatic life for miles. More than 100 tons of dead fish - carp, tench, bream, and roach - were pulled from the Tisza and downstream from the Danube, Europe's second-longest waterway. Then in March, floodwaters rose to an all-time high. Summer followed with a record-breaking heat that sparked wildfires across southeastern Europe.
Curious about how the river, and those who depend on it, were faring, I set out in early July from the capital, Budapest, with an overstuffed pack, a map, and a camera on a 230-mile adventure.
Hundreds of fishermen eke out a meager living on the river, which is also a backbone of the agricultural industry from the Tokaj region's noted vineyards in the north to fertile farmlands of the south, where much of the world's paprika is grown. Tourism, especially recreational fishing, is another main source of income.
But renting a canoe proved a challenge. At travel agencies in Budapest I was told repeatedly, "No one wants to go. Did you hear about the cyanide?" I had to travel north to Tokaj, which was not affected directly by the floods.
On the second day, after paddling for eight hours in the rain, it was time to stop, eat, and sleep out the bad weather. On my map, the village of Tiszadada looked to be the ideal spot, complete with a small beach, campsite, and a buffé, where food is sold from a trailer with a few aged picnic tables for seating. Huddling under a tree for shelter, I asked an older man for directions.
"No camping. No tourists," he replied, adding that "TV [reports] said the Tisza was dead."
This scene repeats itself. Nearly every day I am told, "Camping? Maybe [a few miles] downriver." When found, hotel owners are working with friends to clean and rebuild flood-damaged campsites and bungalows. Asked about accommodations, they say, "Maybe next year." It is almost a given that floods will return, however, a result of heavy logging in Ukraine at the river's source.
Many fishermen headed elsewhere for summer angling. But Gabor Csoma, manager of a fish hatchery in Szolnok, is sure they will be back. "The taste [of Tisza fish] is like nothing else," he says. An official ban prevented fishing before mid-June. While the Hungarian government offered some compensation to fishermen, it was not nearly enough. "We had many buyers from Italy and elsewhere," Mr. Csoma says. By March, he claims, the cyanide was no longer a threat, thanks in part to the floods.
Besides helping to flush out the river, the high waters provided the depleted fish population new spawning grounds in lakes separated from the river for generations. While the river will likely take years to recover fully, if the large numbers of small fish caught are any indication, it's off to a good start. I met a group of nine fishermen who planned on camping along the banks for several months.
As the memories of this year's disasters fade, so too will the reluctance to visit one of Hungary's greatest treasures. Sitting at a near-empty buffé in Csongrad, I meet Attilla and Istvan, who vacation here every year. "The cyanide and the floods scared everyone," Istvan observes. But "in two, three years, you won't be able to get a table."