Wild Swimming in Berlin

Jessica J. Lee on her project to swim a different Berlin lake every week for a year…

In a region with thousands of lakes (Brandenburg is said to have over 3,000 and Berlin itself nearly 100), swimming feels as natural as cycling.

I personally enjoyed my first Berlin swim in the late summer of 2014. One afternoon after work, I pedalled my bike to the Grunewald and locked it to a tree on the banks of Krumme Lanke. The shallows of the lake were warm and golden in the sun. After swimming into the centre — clear, still, and fringed with grass — I sat on the banks, dipping my toes as I dried off.

I continued to explore the city’s lakes throughout the autumn and early winter, returning to Krumme Lanke for a New Year’s Day swim with friends. Thick ice creaked along the edges of the lake as we moved into the windswept, blackened water. A crowd gathered on the shore: families and their dogs, children and grandparents, young friends, all aghast that we were in the lake as they stood frozen on dry land. Perhaps, in retrospect, it might’ve seemed a bit mad to the uninitiated.

Between then and now I made the decision to swim a different lake every week for a year, 52 in total, cycling to parts of the city I’ve not seen before, hiking nearby trails to find exactly the right spot for a swim. I’ll take in local history, the quality of each swim, and whatever else catches my eye, from Arkenberger See to Zeesener See. Rain or shine, summer and winter.

The Rules are: no pools, no wetsuits and the lake must be accessible by foot, bike or public transport. By all means get in touch with any suggestions you might have either by contacting me through Twitter and Instagram, or using the hashtag #52Lakes.

Krumme Lanke

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Image by Jessica J. Lee

Krumme Lanke rests at the end of a suburban road, at the end of the U3, southwest of the city on the edge of the Grunewald. This was my first Berlin lake, and it is here that I’ve returned again and again, alone and occasionally with others, to mark my time in the city. In early June, the lake is getting busy again — on a weekday afternoon, there are a few young families spread out on the beach and young couples sheltering in the woods.

I’ve come here with Canadian friends, and as we walk towards the shore, along the eastern edge of the lake, we breathe deeply and notice the swelling green of the trees, the light scattering along the path. The suburban streets near Krumme Lanke seem a world apart from Berlin’s centre, and the quiet of the forest seems at odds with the fact that, via U-Bahn, it’s so near to the city. The lake strikes a balance between nearby urbanity and sylvan rurality – making it so desirable that it was formerly the site of an SS settlement, Waldsiedlung Krumme Lanke, housing Nazi officials and their families from 1938 until the end of the Second World War. But now, street names quietly changed, the lake feels like a timeless summer scene.

We settle near one of the beaches halfway along the lake’s length, resting our bags next to a tree on the terraced shore. Stepping in, the water is cold at first, but the sand feels clear of debris, so I walk out before fully submerging myself in the greenish-blue. As I swim out into the middle of the lake, it feels warmer, and the sun cuts a glorious line along the shore. Grass fringes the edges of the lake, and trees lean out over the water’s edge.

The water at Krumme Lanke feels incredibly clean — so clean it’s used as a water source for residents nearby — but there is minimal wildlife. A few birds dot the edges of the lake, and some small fish dart around the shallows, but not much else. On a busier day, the swimmers here might outnumber the birds, but for now it feels quiet, like a safe corner of nature in the city.

Notes: They recently re-seeded the grass lawn on the south side of the lake, popular with sunbathers. The lake is popular with FKK swimmers. Some sections are fenced off for habitat restoration, but there are great swim spots both in the forest and along the beaches. In morning, the west side of the lake gets the best sun (and there’s a climbing tree for jumping into the lake), but the beaches on the east side get good afternoon sun.

Transport: Take U-Bahn U3 to Krumme Lanke Station, then walk 1 km down Fischerhüttenstraße. The lake is signposted on the right-hand side. By bike, it’s a 16 km bike ride from Mitte — bike to Hohenzollerndamm and then follow Clayallee to Argentinisch Allee and Fischerhüttenstraße.

 Templiner See

Templiner See
Image by Jessica J. Lee

A short bus ride from Potsdam Hauptbahnhof — or indeed, from the extravagant gardens of Sanssouci — is Templiner See, a lake traversed by an enormous stretch of the River Havel. Deep blue and rippled with waves, Templiner See is no rural hideaway, but rather an open, sun-drenched expanse of water, thriving with boaters, swimmers, paddlers, and beachgoers alike. The festive, holiday-town feeling seems rather at odds with the idea that, just 85 years ago Albert Einstein built a quiet summer house here, when it was just a village.

A large rail- and foot-bridge spans the width of the lake, and from here we walk along the forested path on its southeast shore. The size of the lake is overwhelming — it’s incredibly busy, but there’s enough room for everyone if only because it is so massive. While an official beach with facilities juts out on a sunny peninsula, we tuck ourselves into a clearing in the trees, avoiding the crowds somewhat.

The water here is relatively calm but for the surf from passing boats, and the sand is free of debris. A pair of mandarin ducks sit on a nearby log, and calmly paddle around as I swim out into the water. The lake itself is slow to deepen, so the less-confident swimmers in the group hang by the shore, still enjoying the sun and the breeze that sweeps across the lake. Nearby, a group of children paddle a bizarre, car-shaped boat, and not far in the distance, a party boat hums with techno.

We never quite feel like we’ve escaped at Templiner See, but there is a sense of summer celebration, and on a hot day the cool water is a relief. The blue of the sky and the water feels oversaturated, cut through only by the breeze and the surf. But tucked into the clearing in the woods, it’s a much-needed break from the searing summer heat.

Notes: The lake is massive and busy, so kids and families may want to stay on Strandbad Templin, the designated beach area on the east side of the lake. The lake is also popular for water sports, so keep an eye out for wake boarders and kayakers.

Transport: You can take the rather infrequent bus 607 from Potsdam Hauptbahnhof or cycle the 6 km to Strandbad Templin. There are clearings in the woods along the way. Potsdam Hauptbahnhof is served by S-Bahn and Regional Bahn, about 45 minutes from Mitte.

Habermannsee

Habermannsee
Image by Jessica J. Lee

At Kaulsdorf, we step off the S5 and wander out onto a quiet, residential street. Nearby, I’m told, is a fantastic local lake, which I’ve somehow never heard of before. About 2km from the station, a field of tall grass appears and the distant sound of swimmers hums in the air. There’s a path through the field, but my friend leads us through the grass instead, until we find ourselves trapped amidst nettles and thorny branches. I don’t recommend this route.

Once we find the path again, however, a bucolic scene emerges. Butzersee, the first of the three lakes that make up the Kaulsdorfer Seen, is still and blue amidst the grass, with families splashing at the edges. We won’t swim here today — though I plan to return later — so we follow the path around to Habermannsee, a short walk through the fields.

The lakes here, created in the 1930s through sand and gravel extraction, form part of the Kaulsdorfer Naturschutzgebiet and Wasserschutzgebiet, protected environmental areas still used for local water supply. The lakes are indeed pristine, but their popularity with locals mean that the beaches at Habermannsee are fairly littered, with the occasional overflowing rubbish bin.

The water is a stark contrast — clear and emerald green, the water is incredibly clean and refreshing. The sand is pristine, and small fish dart around my toes. I can see nearly to the bottom. Having settled on a small peninsula of the beach — having cross through the lake, water up to our knees, to get here — there is a sense of being far from Berlin, though we’re just on the outskirts of town. Tall grass lines the beaches, and ducks and coots make their way through the reeds. But for the nearby teenagers, who have brought a stereo, it is impeccably peaceful.

As my friends sit and paint watercolours of the landscape from the shore, I wander barefoot down the trail and find more sheltered enclaves in the reeds, with some beachgoers barbecuing and others sunbathing. The bulk of the swimmers are FKK and enjoying the sun while perched amidst the shoulder-high grass. We are the only people here speaking English on a busy Sunday afternoon.

We stay on the beach until dinnertime, and no one else seems to be leaving. Out in the middle of the lake and nestled on the shore, I feel as if I could stay here forever, but the sun dips low in the sky and our picnic supplies begin to run low. Only reluctantly do we pack up and wander back through the field, avoiding the litter that scatters the shore.

Notes: There aren’t facilities here and it’s far from shops, so be sure to pack a picnic, water, and some sunscreen. The beach isn’t massive, so not ideal for big groups, and can get quite busy on a sunny day. Be sure to take your rubbish home with you!

Transport: Kaulsdorf S-Bahn is on route S5 towards Strausberg Nord. The lake is a 3km walk from the station via Mädewalder Weg. By bike, Habermannsee is about 15 km east of the city, via Karl-Marx-Allee.

Liepnitzsee

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Image by Jessica J. Lee

The train trundles north of the city, through the dense forests of Mühlenbecker Land, and into the quiet town of Wandlitz. From here, Liepnitzsee is a twenty minute walk away, down a leafy residential street and along a leafy forest path. It’s a Thursday afternoon, so the forest is quiet, with only blackbirds singing above the snapping of branches underfoot. The trees here are remarkable, the lake itself taking its name from the Slavic word for linden.

This is one of the best lakes, and indeed one of the more popular day trips from the city. Liepnitzsee forms a doughnut-shaped ring of clear turquoise water around the forested island of Großer Werder, which on a sunny day stands inviting in the centre of the lake. In 1896 Bernhard Thurn wrote in his Brandenburg travelogue, Märkische Bilder, that his journey to the island was marred by dark rain clouds and strong gusts of wind, but as I swim out towards the island, nothing but warm sun, bright sky, and jewel-toned, clear water surrounds me. The lake is big, but with the island at its centre it feels safe, sheltered, and bucolic.

Near the shore, a dense blanket of leaf mulch lines the shallows, but farther out the water is crystal clear, and sunshine drenches the open water. Small paddle boats occasionally pass by — idyllic as can be — and once in a while, the lake’s ferry makes its crossing. But for the few sunbathers that dot the woodland shore, the lake is quiet.

The trails here are plentiful and wind through a fairytale-like German forest, so after floating in the lake a while, we pack up our things and set off into the woods. Walking for an hour here is easy — you can easily pick up the route of the 66-Lakes Trail from here for a longer trek — and the trail markers gently guide us through the deciduous forest to a dense planting of pines. The forest north of the lake appears foreboding, a dense wall of brush obstructing the light, but a narrow path through the pines reveals a winding wood, fragrant with sap, pinecones crackling as we walk. A little way through the woods, and we’re back on a quiet street, just a few minutes from the train station and the ice cream cones that awaits us.

Notes: There is a beach with some basic facilities (ice creams, etc.) here, but it’s far nicer to trek through the woods to a more secluded spot. The trails are well-marked. There are places for boat rentals nearby, too, and there is a ferry that runs between the shore and Großer Werder in the summer and early autumn, from mid-morning until an hour before sunset. There are shops, bakeries, and a Sparkasse bank near the station in town, so it’s easy to pack a picnic for your journey, though rubbish disposal in the forest is sparse.

The RB27 train runs every half hour from Berlin Karow (S2) to Wandlitz See Bahnhof. From the station, it’s a 2km walk down Lanker Weg to the woods. By bike, the lake is 35 km from Mitte, but the forest itself is best explored by foot. If you want to hike a loop in the woods, you can enter the forest at Lanker Weg and follow the trails to exit the woods by An der Bogenheide, a few kilometres north.

Flughafensee

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Image by Jessica J. Lee

Just north of Tegel Airport, I duck onto a quiet cycle path and pedal my way into the woods. At the end of a wooded trail is Flughafensee, a small, grass-fringed lake that edges the airport runway. I’ve cycled up on my own and spend some time sitting on the water’s edge, bird- and people-watching, before getting my feet wet.

The lake itself is rather picturesque—a former gravel pit, the site is now a sanctuary for birds and dense with plantlife—but the water here is green with algae. Bird feather skims the surface and washes ashore on the sandy beach, which is itself covered with litter from previous visitors. As I wander around the shore, I notice a lot of walkers and bird-watchers, but only two long-distance swimmers training out in the middle of the lake.

Despite the grim look of the water, I step out into the shallows and paddle out into the lake’s centre. It feels cleaner here, and I float on my back as birds and planes take off into the grey sky around me. It’s a quiet Sunday, but the state of the beach makes me think it would be much busier here on a sunny day. For now it’s just birds—ducks, coots, and swans who weave their way around the muddy shoreline.

A short bike-ride from Mitte or Wedding, Flughafensee is remarkably easy to get to and idyllic for being at the edge of an airport, but it never quite feels like a great swimming lake. A young couple kisses on the shore and wander the tiny forest paths, and I think they have the right idea—more of a hideaway from the city, this is a place for a good walk and might be a great place for quiet contemplation in the wake of departing planes.

Notes: There is a designated swimming area on the beach, as the east section of the lake is a designated bird sanctuary. There is a small bird-watching/info hut, but not much else by way of facilities.

Transport: The lake is an 11 kilometre bike ride from Mitte via Chauseestraße or a ten minute walk from Holzhauser Straße U-Bahn on the U6.

Strausee

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Photo by Jessica J. Lee

I’ve been to Straussee in winter, when the Strausberger and Blumenthaler Wald is dusted with snow and the lake is dark and frozen at its edges. In summer, it’s entirely different—sun-drenched, blue, wind-swept, and joyous. Rowboats and sailboats bob on the small waves, and groups of swimmers tuck themselves into its tree-sheltered shore. More than anywhere, it reminds me of the enormous, pine-forested landscapes of my Canadian childhood.
Passing by a group of boys tracing arcs above the lake with a rope-swing, I wander on to the lake’s quiet beach, Freibad Strausberg, a quaint white-and-blue painted shelter with a small beach, diving platform, and wooden docks jutting out into the lake. There’s only one other person here, so I take an entire dock to myself and lay in the sun, dangling my feet over the edge. It’s quiet but for the distant sounds of summer—boats and laughter and the occasional splash.

I dive off the edge of the dock and into the clear, clean blue. I can see clearly in the lake, and though it’s deep the water is clean and free of debris. I swim out a fair distance but have no hope of reaching the middle—it’s a huge lake—so instead trace my way back to the shore before drying myself off in the sun.

Near the beach is a small snack hut, where the man behind the counter makes me the most elaborate Eisschokolade I’ve ever had and chats auf Deutsch about his life here at the lake. He lives in a cabin in the forest across the lake, he tells me, and boats over to the snack hut daily. Grateful for this small window into his life, I thank him before making my way back through the town to the S-Bahn station, where the train whisks me back into the city.

Notes: Freibad Straussee costs 3 euros for entry, but you could easily tuck yourself into a small opening on the lake’s massive shoreline. There is a ferry-crossing to the forest every hour—or you can walk the long path around the lake—which leads you to some of the best forest trails accessible by S-Bahn. The beach here is great for families and features a 5-metre diving platform and waterslide for more ambitious visitors. There are boat rentals on the eastern shore of the lake, near the beach.

Transport: Strausberg is served by the S5, but be sure to get the train all the way to Strausberg Stadt, as Strausberg station is a long walk or tram-ride from the lake. By bike, Straussee is 36 kilometres from Mitte.

Orankesee

Orankesee
Photo by Jessica J. Lee

I spent last autumn and winter swimming at Weißer See, a short bike-ride from Prenzlauer Berg. Arriving at Orankesee, just five minutes from Weißer See, I feel like a fool. Orankesee is beautiful, small, and tree-lined, with a pleasant beach at one end and nature sanctuary at the other. It is busy but not overwhelming, and the water looks far more inviting than its neighbouring lake.

I lock my bike and pay for entry to the small beach before finding a space on the sand. Families and couples line the shore, picnicking, playing, and taking in the late-day sun. Dipping my toes into the water, I find it clear and clean—so rare in an inner city lake—and swim out beyond the rope barrier. The lake is clean and clear, but for the leaves and branches that float near the surface after the previous day’s thunderstorm. Small rudd fish dart around the shallows as older, hardened swimmers swim the lake’s width.

Destroyed during the Second World War, closed during the early Soviet era, and destroyed again by fire in the late-1990s, the beach’s facilities have been frequently rebuilt and now feature a small snack bar, changing area, and lifeguard hut. But the overwhelming feeling here is one of simplicity—ticket sellers sit at a little plastic table under an umbrella, older couples pop open their folding chairs, and visitors enjoy the shade, warmth, and summer air.

Notes: Orankesee is only accessible for swimming from the beach, as the other half of the lake is a Naturschutzgebiet. After 5 p.m., however, tickets for entry are reduced from 4.50 euro to 2.50, so it makes an excellent after-work destination.

Transport: Strandbad Orankesee is 8 kilometres by bike from Mitte, via Greifswalderstraße. Tram M4 stops a short walk away.

Motzener See

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Photo by Jessica J. Lee

25 minutes into my bike ride toward Motzener See, I stop on the side of the road, convinced I am lost. I’ve glided through a series of beautiful, sorrel-lined fields, but the lake is still nowhere to be seen. But I needn’t worry—just a few kilometres further along a tree-lined road, I find Motzener See out in the middle of Brandenburg, between Teltow-Fläming and Dahme-Spreewald.

The lake is enormous and grass-edged, so I make my way to the beach in Kallinchen, a small town on the lake’s western side. The region is dotted with holiday homes, fishing boats, and farms, and feels miles away from the inner city lakes I’ve been swimming lately. The lake is part of the Galluner canal system, so is popular with boaters, while the beach here has an enormous grassy lawn, changing areas, bathrooms, and a small restaurant, mostly serving local, predominantly German holidaymakers.

The lake remains shallow for some distance from the beach, so I walk out until I’m waist-deep before swimming to a floating platform anchored fifty feet from shore. It’s windy and a storm is rolling in, so I don’t stay here long, but climb atop the platform and dive back into the clear, brownish water. There aren’t many other swimmers here—I imagine it would be busy on a nicer day—but there also don’t appear to be many ways into the lake amidst the patches of grass that line its edges. In any case, I’m glad for the shelter on the shore, and enjoy a short picnic before getting back on my bike to explore the country roads and forested lanes of Brandenburg.

Notes: The beach here is great for families, and isn’t too busy as it’s quite far out from the city or nearest large towns. Entry to Strandbad Kallinchen is 2 euros. There are mini-golf courses, volleyball nets, and picnic areas, as well as the lifeguarded beach.

Transport: Strandbad Kallinchen is 13 kilometres by bike from Königs Wusterhausen, via Krummenseer Weg. Königs Wusterhausen is served by RB and S-Bahn (RE 2, S46).

Pätzer Tonsee

Tonsee
Photo by Jessica J. Lee

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a paddle-boarder gliding atop a surface of teal green. I’m biking along Fernstraße, a busy road leading from Pätz to Königs Wusterhausen, exhausted from a multi-lake bike trek through admittedly grim weather. But I pull over to investigate the glimmering green water, a lake I have overlooked in my research.

Ducking along a fence, I find a quiet wooded path winding along the lake’s edge. Tonsee is a few minutes away from Pätzer Vordersee, but far nicer—sheltered and quiet despite the nearby road, the lake feels a bit hidden. The water is incredibly clean, with only sparse grass along the sandy shore.

As the paddle-boarder floats leisurely atop the lake, I swim out and get a feel for the water, calm and more inviting than the other large lakes I’ve visited earlier in the day, and am grateful for having stopped. The lake, created from clay and gravel extraction in the early twentieth century, is one of twelve in the Bestensee area, which is dotted by small and large lakes, some of which are man-made. The lake is also popular with divers, who visit at all times of year to explore the underwater remnants of forest that rest on the lake’s clay bottom.

Notes: Pätzer Tonsee has a small swimming area with a playground, but the path through the woods affords a few spots to get right into the water. There is little nearby, as it’s off the side of a busy road, so pack whatever you might need for the day. Because the lake is small and near to so many other lakes, it makes an excellent addition to a day-long bike trip or lake trip around the region.

Transport: By bike, it’s an 8 kilometre ride from Königs Wusterhausen via Spreewaldstraße. Königs Wusterhausen is served by RB and S-Bahn (RE2 and S46).

Mühlenbecker See 

Muhlenbecker See
Photo by Jessica J. Lee

North of the city, a short train ride from Karow, is one of the most beautiful stretches of forest I know. The railway line runs through a densely-planted tunnel of pines, and it is here that you find Schloß Dammsmühle, an abandoned 18th century castle that has served, variously, as a party destination for wealthy landowners at the turn of the 20th century, a country house for a Unilever executive, a base for SS chief Heinrich Himmler and, later, as a base for the Stasi. Now abandoned, the house seems peaceful despite its history, with its tallest turret standing just taller than the mature woodland surrounding the site.

Just beyond the Schloß and some way into the woods, Mühlenbecker See sits at the base of a steep hillside, winding lengthily through the trees. The lake is a long way into the forest, so quiet on most days. I’ve come with two close friends, and after wandering through the pine and beech woods towards the lake, stopping to look at moss along the way, we’re ready for our packed lunches and a swim. Finding a sunny clearing by the grassy water’s edge, we undress and step out into the warm, golden lake. It’s incredibly shallow throughout—certainly no more than twelve feet deep at its centre—so it is warmer than most lakes, and its long, still surface reflects the midday sun. The water is toffee-coloured and smooth, and out in the middle of the lake I feel as though I were far from the city. Indeed, Mühlenbecker See feels a far cry from most other lakes around Berlin—quiet and isolated, wild is the best word I have to describe it.

Yet the space itself is intimate. I’ve brought two of my closest friends, having told them how much this place means to me, knowing that too big or trivial a group might diminish the magic of the place. It isn’t exactly a swimmer’s paradise, but rather a lake for hiding away, for privacy and quietude. We sit on the shore and eat our lunches, drying our feet in the summer sun. And with that, it’s time to pack our bags and wander back through these timeless woods towards the station, where our train to the city soon approaches.

Notes: There aren’t any amenities nearby, so come prepared with food, drinks, and any other supplies you might need. On the weekend, Schloß Dammsmühle can be busy with walkers and anglers, but the forest is otherwise quite quiet.

Transport: By rail and foot, Mühlenbecker See is a 5 kilometre walk from Bahnhof Schönwalde, on the RB27 rail line from Karow. By bike, the lake is a 23 kilometre ride via Prenzlauer Allee and Blankenfelder Chausee. The trails in the forest are fairly clear and suitable for most bikes.

Krumme Lake (Müggelheim)

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Image by Jessica J. Lee

Early in the summer, a friend told me about his favourite lake: a small, hidden lake called Krumme Lake, often forgotten in favour of the popular Krumme Lanke. It sounded idyllic, but as the summer dragged on, we never made it. September arrived and I was swiftly told that swimming season was over. So bag packed, I set out alone.

Krumme Lake sits in the middle of a quiet wood, a ten minute walk from Müggelheim, south of Berlin. Fed by the River Dahme, the forest is a quiet flood plain, alive with moss, pine, and young oak. Restored in 2011, the nature reserve here is quieter than most, the forest entirely mine on a Saturday afternoon.

I find the small lake – ‘crooked lake’ – arcing through the middle of the forest, arched over by trees, and scattered with water lilies. Midway, I settle by a tree and step into the water, cool, cloudy, toffee-coloured. Swimming out, the wind picks up and the lake’s surface is whipped into light waves, so I float on my back a moment before moving closer to shore.

More than most lakes, I feel profoundly alone here; I don’t see anyone the entire afternoon. Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods – takes its quiet, gentle form. With a thermos of coffee and a hardboiled egg, I have a peaceful picnic on shore before setting off back into the woods.

The walk back through the woods, I discover, is as much a pleasure as the lake; quiet, empty trails, gently swelling with mosses and shrubs as the nature reserve develops. A modest forest, indeed, but the citrusy pine of the air and slowly unfolding trails make it ideal for a quiet Saturday—just a bus ride from town.

Notes: Don’t confuse Krumme Lake with Krumme Lanke. It sits in the middle of a nature reserve marked on most maps as Krumme Laake/Pelzlaake, just east of Müggelheim. There aren’t any facilities here; it’s a nature reserve, so be sure to have minimal impact and take any rubbish home with you.

Transport: Thirty minutes by bus (X69) from Köpenick. By bike, it’s twenty-six kilometres from Mitte, along the Spree.

Stechlinsee

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Image by Jessica J Lee

Exactly how far is too far? I’d asked myself this a number of times before deciding that I absolutely had to visit Stechlinsee. At the very edge of Brandenburg, it sits dazzling and clear at the edge of dense woodland—featuring little besides a now-defunct DDR nuclear power plant. Tinged with danger, but famous for having the best water in Brandenburg; it’s a complicated place.

Early in October I met with a research scientist working on freshwater ecology in Berlin, and he mentioned the remarkable clarity of the water at Stechlinsee. Riveted by his tales of the nuclear site and its impact on the landscape, I decide to set out, taking the long train journey north and the twenty kilometre bike ride to the lake. I’m not disappointed: tiny molluscs scatter the sandy bottom of the lake, glittering in the sunlight. Stechlinsee is popular with divers, and as I swim out into the cold transparency of the lake, it’s obvious why: the water’s depths continue to glint in the light. The warmth of the sun wanes; it’s now autumn after all. Cold but calm, I stay afloat for a while, hearing only the echoes of the occasional pair of hikers in the woods. There’s practically no one here today, and it’s incomparable.

The lake itself is quite large, so after drying off from my swim I pack up for a short trek through the woods. The diversity of life here, compared with anywhere else in Brandenburg, is incredible: verdant with mosses in every green, beeches and pines in alternation, fungi in every corner. A herd of deer startle me on the forest path, and as I leave the woods, a fox meets my gaze and lingers a while. There is solitude here, but it remains brimming with life. I think about the scientist’s remark, that the record of the nuclear site remains here in the sediment, and am incredibly moved to be here now, safe: amongst the trees, out in the water, and amidst the moss. An hour on the bike later and I’m on the train again—hurtling past the wind turbines on the autumn horizon.

Notes: Stechlinsee is popular with swimmers, divers, boaters, and anglers, but there’s little by way of services on the forested-end of the lake. Pack a lunch, as you can easily spend a day exploring here.

Transport: Stechlinsee is accessible via bike and train: the RE5 (every two hours) from Hauptbahnhof takes about an hour to Dannenwald, from which it is a 20 kilometre bike ride via Hauptstraße (along forested bike trails and country roads) to Stechlinsee.

Lubowsee

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Image by Jessica J Lee

There are some lakes you’ll walk all morning for. Lakes that stand in the middle of what feels like nowhere, that only reveal themselves after a long walk, after a stretch of woodland so deep you begin to lose yourself. Glittering at the end of an unmarked trail, Lubowsee is one of them.

I’ve been here before – once, last year, when it appeared just when it was most needed – and today, walking along the 66-Lakes Trail, I can’t stop remembering that swim. Then, the water was caramel-soft and cool; my legs dangling off the end of a private, windswept dock in the autumn. From Birkenwerder, it’s ten kilometres to Lubowsee, and I spend all ten in a state of intense focus, broken only intermittently when a copse of trees I recognise appears, or when a grassland I’ve been lost in before opens before me and I lose myself in memory.

I find Lubowsee more easily this time and find the same dock – finished with a single peeling, rusty ladder into the water – in the middle of the sunny lake. I haven’t seen anyone for nearly an hour; the busy stretch of the trail lays west of here, and the lake itself sits at the end of a marshy land reserve near a logging forest. There’s not much out here besides empty, overgrowing holiday homes. The quiet scares me a little, but it’s also why I’ve come here.

Dipping down low on the ladder, I’m in and find the water just right – warmer than some lakes in November, it doesn’t quite take my breath away. I swim out on my back, the sun streaming across me and the water’s surface, before climbing back onto the dock and drying off in the sun, a thermos of hot coffee and a sandwich close at hand. On my own, I lose myself a little out here, but a distant train whistle carries across the field and forest, and I gather myself and walk on, steadily.

Notes: Access points to Lubowsee can be a bit hard to find, as it sits just south of where the trails end on Google Maps. West of the lake is all marshland, so fairly inaccessible. It makes a great final stop, detouring slightly south, on the stretch of the 66-Lakes Trail along the River Briese between Birkenwerder and Wensickendorf.

Transport: Birkenwerder Bahnhof takes about forty-five minutes on the S-Bahn (S1). Wensickendorf is served by the RB27, hourly, to Berlin-Karow.

Frauensee

IMG_7563
Image by Jessica J Lee

Fourteen kilometres from Königs Wusterhausen, I find myself in a patch of perfectly planted pines. There isn’t a lake to be seen. But as I pedal my bike further into the woods, I see the bright sheen of silver ahead of me. Reeds stand in dense clumps around the water’s edge. And as the sun begins to wane in the winter sky, I step off my bike to take a good look at Frauensee.

I stop on the small beach near the local campsite, taking in the last bits of sunlight before it dips low beneath the trees. This lake is far from the road, tucked inside a good patch of forest, and there’s a stillness here. Stepping in, the water isn’t too cold – maybe six degrees – so I walk along the sandy bottom until I’m waist-deep and then swim forward. It’s silent in the middle of the lake, too, just wind in the grass, as if the winter is standing in waiting.

After drying off, I wander around the lake’s edge, catching up with a group of older day-trippers, bundled in scarves, and carrying fronds of mistletoe from the forest. One wears a Santa hat. Following them out of the forest and away from the lake, the steady silence of the place breaks: I’ve walked into a Christmas market, deep in the woods. I can’t quite believe it. Dean Martin’s ‘Let It Snow’ carries across the woodsmoke cold, and someone, somewhere, is jingling bells. The trees are lit with fairy lights.

The campsite and youth centre here is filled with life and light, an unimaginable surprise in a quiet wood. And as I trace my bicycle back out of the forest, the winter evening arriving, I find the road quite literally lined with candy canes.

Notes: Frauensee is fairly-heavily grassed on most sides so easiest to access from the small beach on its north-east side. Other than the campsite and youth centre, there isn’t much out here so pack whatever you’ll need for the day.

Transport: Frauensee is fourteen kilometres by bike from Königs Wusterhausen (S-Bahn, RB), via Seestraße/Körbiskruger Str. The alternate route via Senzig takes you along a sandy forest trail, so keep that in mind if you are biking.

Bötzsee

boetzsee

There’s a lake I’ve only ever seen in winter. I have it on good authority that it’s brilliant in summer, too, but it’s become a place I trek to when there’s snow on the ground, a thin coat of white on the pines, when no one is out in the forest. Bötzsee, at the end of a forest trail near Strausberg, is quiet in winter.

The early January snow has already melted in the city by the time I get to the Strausberger und Blumenthaler Wald. But here, there’s a sticky, smooth blanket of snow, disturbed only by occasional dog and deer tracks. It’s a good walk from the town — six kilometres in the snow and ice — but it is so silent that walking takes on a rhythm of its own.

The lake sits at the west end of the trail, and as we arrive it’s blue-white with ice. It’s a rare sunny day, so we follow the trail south in hopes of an open spot for swimming, but find the lake entirely solid. The city thaw hasn’t reached here. So we settle at a sunny bench on the lakeside, and I get to work with my hammer, chipping into the ice’s edge. Within minutes, I’ve formed a four-foot hole in the thick ice, and at least dipping into the water seems possible.

The lake is warmer than I expect—it always feels warmer to me under the ice—and I settle into the clean cold for a while, picking up chunks of ice that float alongside me. And just as quickly as I got in, I’m out again, drying in the sun, eating my lunch, and preparing for the long trek back through the pine wood. At the end of the trail, the Straussee Ferry—with its captain in a hat and woolly jumper, wielding Glühwein—takes us across the icy water, back to town, as a warm sun sets over the forest.

Notes: Bötzsee is in the forest and far from any amenities (save a hotel and some houses nearby). Pack anything you might need for the day, and take your rubbish with you. The Straussee Ferry, which allows you to avoid walking around Straussee on your way, runs every thirty minutes in winter.

Transport: Strausberg Stadt on the S-Bahn (S5) is the fastest and most convenient way to reach the Strausberger und Blumenthaler Wald. Avoid Strausberg station, which is near to the forest but will take you along a busy road with no pavement. From the town centre, it’s an hour-and-a-half through the forest on foot.

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Comments

  1. Lia says:

    Wow! I am moving to Berlin from Ottawa in a few weeks, just stumbled across your blog. There are a hundred lakes?? What a lovely adventure you’ve undertaken.

  2. Jessica J. Lee says:

    Thanks, Lia! Lots to explore. I’ve mapped the ones I’ve visited so far at 52Lakes.com!

  3. Isabell says:

    Cool thing! I especially like that you are only swimming in lakes that are accessible by public transport. Check out our website called http://www.naturtrip.org it combines free time activities in Berlin Brandenburg with public transport!

  4. Chris says:

    Hi Jessica!

    Cool that you are fearless swimming girl. I read your Zeit-article. How did the newspaper’s journalist notice you? I don’t know many girls who love bathing in cold water.

    You need to explore the lakes in and around Berchtesgaden in Bavaria: Lake Königssee, Hintersee and lake Lödensee. They are very cold but very beautiful, too, and look nearly like Canada.

    Kindly regards from Salzburg!

    Chris

  5. Bianca says:

    I read your Zeit article today and felt that warmly welcome -through your words-to discover the lake landscape. Amazing! Especially now that summer changes to autum, temperatures go down slowly, we love Swimming. It leaves best freshness of your Body. And our aperitives (Muscat from France, beers or Schorle and some crackers) that we take with warm us up while melting with the nature surrounding us! Keep on going, we love your blog :-))

  6. Bianca says:

    forgot to add: my husband and me we are the living german reunification – he from East-Berlin and me from Freiburg. We both love living in the South, to jump into Berlin scenery on a visit and discover other crazy People 😉

  7. Robert says:

    Hi Jessica, what a lovely project, along with some beautiful, almost poetic texts. Keep going!

  8. Jessica J. Lee says:

    Thanks for all the kind words!

  9. Kryshka says:

    I swam through most of last winter (except December-February) when I was living in Brandenburg, so I’d join you in a heartbeat, but come November I need my wetsuit 🙂

  10. pino says:

    Hey Jessica,

    I really love your reports – although I don’t think I’ll join with swimming in the pretty cold time of the year.
    I tried to find the path you walked to the Lubowsee, but I was not really lucky, even on OpenStreetMap the small paths look to be not yet present (http://osm.org/go/0MeAJdR4–). But it’s always a nice search to find where “in the middle of nowhere” you really went swimming!

    Great idea, and keep on counting the lakes!

  11. Jessica J. Lee says:

    Hey Pino, the stretch of trail runs along here: http://www.wanderkompass.de/Brandenburg/66-seen-wanderweg-etappe-4.html

    And then just before lubowsee weg, take the logging trail east. The dock is on the north side of the lake and is visible on google earth or whatever if you look for it. But it is *technically* private.

  12. Naomi says:

    Lovely! I came to Berlin this month determined to swim, and the info here is very useful.

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