It’s amazing to think that where we are currently paddling was once dry land.
We’re in a kayak, navigating among what was once a thicket of tangled trees but are now the skeletons of the treetops poking out of the water. To understand what’s so special about boating in a lagoon at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, we need to go back in time – nearly four years, in fact. Back to the days of worrying about the lake’s water level.
From 1992 (the last time the Degania dam at the southern end of Lake Kinneret was opened) through to the winter of 2018, the lake endured a rather pitiful drying-out process. The water level fell, islands began to appear and the water kept receding from the beaches. But over the past four years, and especially thanks to the last two very rainy winters, the water level in the lake is on the up – which brings with it new opportunities for adventure. For example, boating in the lagoons of the Kinneret delta as if we were on the Mississippi River.
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This rise in the water level has basically united the outlets of the Zaki and Majrase streams – through which the Daliyot, Yehudia and Meshushim streams flowed into the Sea of Galilee from the Golan Heights – with the Jordan River and the Kinneret itself. This has created a sort of new area that allows for paddling between the different channels, above the area that was once the Kinneret’s northernmost shore – and which is today a collection of lagoons, water plants and fascinating stories about one of the most important regions for Judaism and Christianity, and Zionism and nature lovers, regardless of their beliefs.
In light of the high water level and creation of the lagoons at the northern end of the lake – and as a result, the establishment of a new habitat with quite a few animal species – the government decided in May 2021 to establish the Majrase-Betiha (aka Bethsaida Valley) Nature Reserve here.
Even before the new reserve was officially opened, and certainly afterward, a number of tour guides have been offering kayak trips that let you journey between what was once dry land and is now the Kinneret: between the freezing cold, flowing streams and the warm waters of Israel’s only true freshwater lake. Every point on this journey is not just gorgeous to see, as you might hope for from a viewpoint on the Kinneret that has not been available for at least 30 years. It is also fascinating, as befits an area that has drawn both Christian pilgrims and Zionists who have tried to lay claim to the site, not always successfully.
End of an era
At the beginning of the trip, deep in the cold waters of the Jordan River, our tour guide stresses that the Kinneret is always going to look like this from now on, no matter how wet or dry the winters are. Fears about the lake’s water levels have been banished forever thanks to Israel’s desalination project, where water is taken from the Mediterranean, processed and sent inland.
In fact, the flow of desalinated water to the Kinneret is scheduled to begin next month, and this will lead to an always-full lake – along with possible chemical changes in the water. But these worries are for the farmers, and maybe also the residents who have become used to being nearly the only people in Israel who drink water with magnesium and not desalinated drinking water. Everyone else will certainly celebrate the end of that national psychosis known as the “Kinneret water level.”
In order to avoid the oppressive afternoon heat, you really should start your trip as early as possible. In addition to saving you energy, there’s also a real charm to a morning on the Kinneret: It’s a refreshing sensation, accompanied by the soundtrack of birdsong and a Galilee-Golan hush.
Indeed, the birds are a constant presence throughout the journey. There’s a Dead Sea sparrow, who’s building a huge nest in the treetops sticking out of the water. There are also large cormorants, impressive herons and kingfishers whose mating songs bring joy to the human ear too. Only the sound of the paddling oars disturb this quiet, so we try to paddle more quietly in a bid not to interfere with the animals’ rest.
Our trip moves between lagoons whose depth is no more than a few dozen centimeters, and the cold streams and water of the lake – all while staying close to water plants that have begun to blossom along the route. Mother Nature waits for no one, and she has already begun to adapt herself to these new conditions.
Suddenly, we reach an area that was once a beach and entrance point to the lake. Today, though, tilapia fish rule these waves, along with a local form of sardine.
During a brief rest stop on terra firma, it is possible to gauge how full the Kinneret really is. Bear in mind, though, that the terms “full Kinneret,” and certainly “lower red line,” “upper red line” and everything in between, are nothing but the invention of Pinhas Rutenberg. He was the 20th-century engineer who built a pioneering system of dams for the Kinneret, in order to raise the water level and produce electricity and aid agriculture.
From here we continue on to Beit Habeck, which from the water looks charming and offers no hint of the tragic fate that befell the group of Ukrainian-Zionist pioneers who received permission to settle in the area – only to be hit by a mysterious, deadly disease that forced them to flee forever.
On our way back to the starting point, we pass close to minefields – both Syrian and Israeli – and also an abandoned fuel tank that was possibly the first instance of Israeli-Saudi cooperation. This materialized after Saudi Arabia asked, and Israel agreed, to continue transporting oil through the pipeline in the area after the Golan Heights was captured by Israeli forces during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Everywhere the eye falls, there is a piece of history or a natural wonder to be seen – just a step or two from Route 87, which runs north of the Kinneret.
As you get out of the kayak and into the cold waters of the Jordan River, the huge anomaly of nature in Israel is revealed. Inside the nature reserve, where nothing is supposed to be left, Israelis are lazing around among tents and huge amounts of trash – and without a single trash can to be seen. Why? Because this is a brand-new nature reserve and it’s yet to be decided what is permitted and what is forbidden here – and without anyone to manage it and enforce the rules.
This is another example of how a unique piece of nature has been abandoned to its fate. Or, to be more precise, abandoned to the Israeli public. One can only hope that it’s not just the flooded section that will be preserved but also the adjacent land – and that on the shore, it will as pleasant and quiet as in the middle of the large lagoon at the north end of the lake.
When we finally wean ourselves off worrying about the water level in Lake Kinneret, perhaps that will free up enough time for us to start focusing on preserving its beautiful environment.