Odyssey of a Sixty-Per-Center

CANOE cruising has occupied my summers for the past four years. The sport gives me a range of some 8000 miles — from Lübeck in the north to Les Saintes-Maries on the Mediterranean, and from Budapest in the east to Nantes; and even within that area there must be at least another 4000 miles of worth-while waterways, to say nothing of Poland and Jugoslavia and Scandinavia and Finland, that canoeist’s paradise.

Let me state a case: suppose you had been mixed up in the mass idiocy of 1914-1918 and, as a result, found yourself with impaired health, precious little money, and a wish to see something of Europe, especially the less touristy parts. Steam yachts and motor caravans and even touring automobiles are excluded by the state of your purse; walking and cycling by the state of your health (‘Nothing strenuous, of course,’ warned the doctor. ‘And you must n’t get out of breath if you can avoid it’), since in both cases a definite amount of fatigue is inevitable in covering even short distances, particularly if a camping kit is carried. One possibility would be a lightweight motorcycle, which in many European countries needs no license or driver’s certificate; but at once you think of the roads to-day, full of ‘temperamental’ drivers and dust and petrol stinks. Yet another possibility, worth considering for certain areas, chiefly in Germany, is the postal automobiles which carry a few passengers and touch places that the tourist never reaches.

I

I had got to the stage of considering these, though neither of them offered me the gentle bodily exercise I desired, when one autumn afternoon as I sat in my garden at Herblay, on the Seine, the gate flew open and exploded an excited little twelve-year-old pal of mine into my boredom. Views voir!‘ he twittered, oscillating between my deck chair and the gate like a puppy asking to be taken for a walk. ‘Some people have come with a ... a machin on the train . . . and wheeled it down to the bank, and they’re going to make it into a boat. . . . Mais viens donc!‘

It sounded mad enough to be worth investigating, and proved to be quite true. They — two obvious Germans, in shorts and little else, aged perhaps twenty-eight and nineteen, respectively — had wheeled a contraption from the station, on two little wheels like a toy perambulator, and were undoing bags and bundles and taking out pieces of wood and canvas and rubber. As we watched they laid out a sort of rubber and canvas envelope, vaguely boat-shaped, but flabby, pushed builtup wooden frameworks into it, locked them into place with other wooden struts so that the cover became taut, and within fifteen minutes or so had produced a canoe. It was not like a ‘canadian’ in shape, being longer and narrower and partly decked, with an open cockpit large enough for two people. They had ignored us till then, busy with accustomed tasks, but when I heard one tell the other that it was n’t worth while packing all the other stuff into the boat yet (it did n’t look possible anyhow), but that they would leave it ‘somewhere’ till they came back from a short trial trip, I drew upon my scanty German to offer my house as a dump.

When they had duly deposited the gear (a tent, and cooking outfit, and provender, and spare clothes, and various unidentified bundles, and a spare paddle, and a mast and sail — they kept the sleeping bags to sit on), they carried the boat to the water’s edge, with one hand each, and, scorning our offers of help, put her into the water, stepped in without the tight-rope gestures I had expected, and set off, using double-ended paddles and not the single paddle that I knew from the canadian. Julien slid a small hand into mine and remarked, ‘ça ne me dit rien, tu sais!’ Incidentally, canoeing has since ‘said ’ so much to him that he did an eight-day trip with me last season and looks forward to coming into Germany for a fortnight this year.

The Germans returned in forty minutes or so, and accepted a bed and the shelter of a shed for the boat, so as to be able to stay with me later that evening than if they were camping. My efforts to get information were at first complicated by the fact that Hans, the elder, found Kampf um Odilienberg open on my table and wanted to talk about it, while Martin wandered around my bookshelves like a kitten in a strange room.

Where were they going? Oh, Rouen, about 120 miles. ... Is n’t Jlja delightful? Au, du dumpfes Rindschwein!

. . . And then Flaps, later on.

How long would it take? Oh, about four days, or a week, or ten days if we feel like it. . . . Yes, here, dictating to Erhard: ‘Mensch, da wär’n Se jut bedient.’

Do we camp? But natürlichl One always finds camping sites by a river, much easier than on a road. . . . Do you believe in the Olaf-Bernard episode?

At this point Martin broke in, from among the German books: ‘Aber, sagmal’ Du, he’s got Alf!‘ At this point also I struck, and, in one of the verbless sentences that are my stand-by in German, pronounced the ultimatum: ‘Till supper, Boat; after supper, Books!’ It then became possible to make progress.

Yes, they camped — in Germany and Austria not so much, because of the Canoe Stations. . . .

Oh, riverside inns that give you cheap food, half what you pay in France, and free garage for the boat, and you can sleep there for twenty pfennigs or so, on camp beds or in haylofts, so it really is n’t worth while camping.

Well, about three marks a day for us both, or perhaps five in Germany if we don’t camp and cook.

No, rain makes no difference. You see, we can close up the cockpit with a detachable deck that fits close to our waists, and then we put on waterproof capes with sleeves outside this deck and it can rain all Saint Peter wants it to.

Safe? Well, we can capsize her if we both want to, but it is n’t easy. If you do capsize, that extra deck comes off automatically, by the way!

Lord, no, not our first tour. Last year we went down the Danube from Ulm to the Black Sea, and the year before we were in Finland, and this year we have been doing short tours all over Germany.

But selbstverständlich there are guidebooks and maps for all the best rivers, for France and Germany and Austria and Czechoslovakia and so on, anyhow — you can get them all from the German Canoe Union. Yes, quite large, about 50,000 members. (I mentally queried this, but it is true, and gives an idea of what canoe cruising means to Germany.)

After supper we talked books, as promised, but long after I had seen them settled down for the night — in my huge ‘emergency’ bed that has at a pinch held four people — I sat thinking of questions I ought to have asked. I began to realize, in fact . . .

Next morning gave me little opportunity, however. First they had to pack the boat —and all that gear did go in, to my amazement. And then Hans offered me a short trip with him, while Martin and Julien watched from the bank. It proved very comfortable, sitting on and leaning against air cushions (which, as Martin unkindly pointed out, would serve as emergency life buoys), and the technique very easy, although I must admit I was incredulous until Julien confirmed it when they said I had brought her back solo upstream.

II

The more I thought it over, the more I liked it, though it was too late that season to do anything except to get catalogues and choose a boat, and spend long evenings with river guides and maps planning tours. The next spring, however, it really started, and I made, of course, all the standard mistakes of a beginner that season.

For example, I bought the boat in France instead of direct from the makers, and so paid an unnecessary agent’s profit, and customs duties far heavier than had I imported it as ‘used.’ (By the way, there are no duties to be paid when merely visiting a country; the worst that can happen is having to deposit the duty and get it refunded on leaving.) Again, I bought lightweight — and therefore more expensive — sleeping bags and tent and equipment, not realizing that the storage room available is almost, incredibly large, and that extra weight matters very little except at portages — and a proper choice of route will cut these down to a vanishing point. For example, there are 500 miles on the Moselle and the Rhine without a single carry, and 1500 miles on the Danube with one only. Even so, the complete outfit, boat and accessories and camping gear and all, cost me little over 2500 francs ($100, as it then was); and of course, had I been lucky enough to have a permanent canoe friend, we should have only had half this to pay each.

Most stupid of all beginner’s mistakes, I had the old wooden-boat idée fixe of going by water all the way. For instance, from Compiègne, where I now lived, to Rotterdam I took the Aisne and then canals, with one lock on top of another to get to the Meuse, whereas the transport of a collapsible is so easy and costless that one not only avoids canals except in quite unusual circumstances, but even ‘skips’ dull sections of a river by using the rail, so as to have more time for the better parts. Never again, for example, would I do by boat that part of the Danube from Regensburg to Passau.

It ought to be emphasized, to save others from error, that ‘costless’ is not an empty word: a collapsible packs so small that it is practically always possible to take it into the railway carriage with one as hand luggage, free of charge; and since it weighs, with all accessories, only some seventy pounds, it can easily be carried, either built or packed, by the two occupants. This, of course, if properly realized, makes the planning of a trip very easy, since there is no need to hunt for canals to link river to river or to bring one home at the end of a tour.

This first season, too, I did things that I should be scared to do now, such as starting off down a fastish unknown river with no guidebook, or taking a novice down the Rhone, myself being little more experienced. It was on this Rhone trip that I met real current for the first time, and found how difficult it was not to get through too soon. Even on a lake, twenty miles a day is easy, far less tiring than ten on foot, but on the Rhone it jumped to fifty and sixty. My records are ninety, on the Danube, and two, against a storm on the Lake of Constance — and the latter was far the more tiring. All this, be it noted, without breaking doctor’s orders and being ‘strenuous’ or ‘getting out of breath.’

On the Rhone trip also I realized what an advantage canoeing has over walking or cycling in hot weather — and a Provence summer is certainly that. First, there is no dust, and it is always cooler on the water than on land. Then, not only does one of course strip to the waist, but even shorts or bathing drawers are superfluous, since from the banks no one can see into the boat. The sun can, however, so that one gets a good bronze all over without a disfiguring white area. The only trouble is that one grows so used to being naked that one forgets it: witness a German boy who could n’t make out why passengers on a Rhine steamer grinned at him, or an English companion who stepped out at a portage before he remembered his shorts.

Other trips that first year were down the Oise (Stevenson’s Inland Voyage), and then on down the lower Seine to Rouen, like my initiators. And a most amusing trip this is, with perpetual lost and forgotten side arms where no traffic can pass to disturb the kingfishers, and unspoiled villages where our arrival was the sensation of the year. At one such we nearly wrecked the patronal procession, I regret to say, because the acolytes had no eyes except for us. Afterward, too, they could n’t even wait to unvest, but dashed out, in lace cottas and red cassocks and all, to see the boat; and the curé himself arrived soon after them, and blessed her for me when he learned that this had never been done.

Another was on the Loire, where we could do only some fifteen miles a day, so much was there to see — not only the famous châteaux, but also towns like the unknown Beaugency and the oppressively dead Chinon (which ought to be the place in Blackwood’s ‘Sleep and Cats’ story, if it is n’t), and churches like that gem at Cunault where no one ever seems to come; and where the navigation is a continual guessing as to which arm to take past a sand bank, error entailing halfcarrying, half-floating the canoe over the shallows that end the false channels.

III

It was a good season. The next I broke new ground, and had all my planning to learn anew, since as soon as I got into Germany it was obvious that camping was a mistake except in emergencies. Half the fun was the unknown food, ‘whirlpool soup,’ and ‘mouth pockets,’ and mutton with caraway seeds, and salad with sweet whipped cream, and ‘cannon balls,’and ‘peasant’s breakfast,’ and ‘blind hen.’ This is no cookery book, nor do I myself know how most of these dishes are made. One fact remains, that when they arrived they looked like portions for six, but rarely proved too much for two after long days in the sun and air; and once, when we cleaned up all the plates, the hostess promised us fine weather for the next day — so the local saying had it. And then the little unknown wines, made by the owner of the inn from his own vineyards on the Moselle and Main; or the Heuriger, wine of that year, on the Danube. And the inns themselves, in Austria with frescoed walls and vaulted stone ceilings under which the monks once ate; or a riverside wine booth in Hungary where we ate under a trellis, visited by hens and dogs and a pet lamb, and at moments a too friendly cow; or on the Saale, a combined Canoe Station and Youth Hostel where some hundred schoolboy guests swarmed over us all the evening and gathered on the terrace to sing us farewell next morning, till I felt like a visiting monarch; or, near Berlin, full of fellow canoers and with guest books with rhymes and drawings going back to before the war. Nor did the use of these Canoe Stations, instead of camping and cooking, overload my budget too heavily. The average cost, for a huge supper, quarters on camp beds or in the hayloft, and an egg-reënforced breakfast, was around four marks for the two of us.

That year I also learned not to worry about companions, till then, in France, the cause of elaborate searches and letter writing and changing of dates and disappointment. In Germany I found that I merely needed to walk into the nearest Youth Hostel or similar shelter and offer a trip of two or three days, then picking the nicest-looking of the volunteers and, if he proved amenable, keeping him on for as long as it suited both of us. The technique of the double paddle is so easy that by the second or third day he was doing his full share. One of these chance companions came with me that year on the Main, that most German of all rivers, with its rococo saints on every bridge, — especially Saint Nepomuk, who often takes a Janus form with two faces and four arms so as to protect simultaneously the travelers by road and by river, — and with witches’-hat towers and half-timbered houses peering over the same city walls that Dürer passed on his boat trip, from Nürnberg to the Netherlands; and I took him on with me to the Neckar, with its heron forests, and with Heidelberg to crown the trip. And another was with me on the Lake of Constance (the storm included), another on the upper Rhine down to Coblenz, — a vastly overrated river, — and another on the Lahn, which would be ideal were there not so many locks.

Once only did I hit on a ‘dud,’ and he left me after one day. All the others were jolly, simple, friendly working lads, and first-class companions in every way. Some, indeed, proved far more than casual companions. One such did the placid Moselle, the best of all rivers for the beginner, and then the lower Rhine down into Holland with me that year, and later cycled to Paris to visit me. And again in 1932 he did the Spreewald with me, that quite unbelievable forest where there arc no roads and the baker and butcher and postman all come by boat, and where you can paddle for hours under a green tunnel of oaks and alders without seeing a soul. And then, this last season, we did the Trave together, a far too shallow little stream where an unseen rock in a rapid knocked two holes in the outer cover and broke a stay (repairs effected in ten minutes on the bank — another advantage of the collapsible).

Another lad was with me on the Wcser in 1931, a harmless river with happy towns — Hamel in of the Rat Catcher above all; and the following year on the Unstrut and Saale; and last season on the Oertze, where fallen trees often blocked the passage, and it was too narrow to turn the boat and often so shallow that we had to wade with her, but where the forests amply recompensed us. He also inherited my first boat, after some 7500 miles of service, and will probably use her for two or three years more on easy waters.

IV

Better, however, than a catalogue of river trips may be the more detailed description of one, from Innsbruck to Meissen, by Inn and Danube and Vltava and Elbe. I did it in 1932, and with variants in 1931 and 1933 — and, all being well, shall do it again in 1934. I choose it for description for two reasons: one is that I consider it the best long-distance tour in Europe, and the other is that I have not only my own log, but also a copy of that kept by my companion, an English boy of fifteen. I ought, however, to add that there are dozens of other long trips that are far easier than this one, and nearly as fine, in order that mentions of rapids and whirlpools may not put off the beginner.

We built the boat and launched at Innsbruck, after sleeping at the Canoe Station there, and the strong current took us down thirty miles that day to Rattenberg, despite the fact that ‘we bathed five times, and it was so lonely we never needed to dress to bathe,’ which puts it rather nicely. Most of these stops were on the quiet, currentless backwaters, sand banks below dense willows, with ‘kingfishers and herons and ravens.’ Several baby rapids amused Peter vastly: ‘They were quite small, but we had the deck on and one just got up to my stomach. It is funny to feel the little waves patting at your feet through the skin of the boat.’ The navigation was so amusing that we had little time to watch the scenery, though the flattish banks here give wonderful distant views of snowclad peaks at every instant. The only really tricky part was just above Rattenberg, where a sizable whirlpool occupies the right half of the river, and one has to edge by on the left bank, feeling the current enticing one away from safety all the time. Peter, being a beginner, never noticed anything, nor did I tell him till we had landed and garaged the boat — free, as always at the Canoe Station; then ‘ we walked up and looked at the wirlpool [sic], and went back and had supper,’ as he puts it. The Canoe Station inn here was a joy, with a life-sized crucifix in the eating room and the recent funeral cards 2 pinned to it, and century-old metal guild insignia — hammer, or meat axe, or last — hanging from the ceiling to mark the tables of the crafts. This room had a huge bay window overlooking the main street, which, as in all towns that are market centres, is full of other inns, each with its wrought-iron and gilded sign. We slept on camp beds here, costing us, say, five cents each. I do hope it is clear that these Canoe Stations are inns, and nothing to do with the overrated and much more expensive Youth Hostels, so that one can smoke and drink and go to bed and get up when one pleases.

Next day was Corpus Christi, and the town was decorated with flags and greenery, and the women had brought out their inherited costumes, with silk aprons that would have stopped a bullet and impossible hats like the miniature child’s sailor hat or ‘boater’ a clown wears, but decorated with gold lace and gold tassels and perched insecurely on a bun of hair at the back of the head. We waited till nearly noon to watch the procession, but still managed thirty miles quite easily, to the German frontier near Erl. Again there were little rapids, and also a vicious double whirlpool where the river makes a very sharp S-curve; again we crept by in the dead water near the bank, almost whispering lest ‘it’ should notice us. Erl has a Passion play, senior to that at Oberammergau. We did not know this, so that it came as a surprise to find everyone with flowing hair and well-tended beards, our waiter at the Canoe Station included — he was Saint Luke, he told us proudly.

Peter writes: ‘We had a wonderful tea, with coffee and milk and rye bread and butter and jam and a sort of homemade cake in the shape of a ring. For supper we had scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. We slept on straw mattresses on the floor of a big room they use for concerts sometimes. It all cost, with eggs for breakfast, eleven schillings for us both’ (then about $1.20). Incidentally, his preoccupation with food is not at all to be attributed to his age; after a canoeing trip I too find that meals are often remembered when landscapes are forgotten.

But I must abbreviate. Three more days finished the Inn, an average of forty miles a day, although we bathed, and visited towns (Wasserburg, with its gayly painted town gates and stepgabled houses with balconies over the river; and Mühldorf, with one of the curiously Italian arcaded market places typical of the region; and Braunau and Schärding, with their walls still protecting them from river raiders), and ran aground twice on sand banks (getting off is ‘like starting a motor bicycle when you run beside’ — he means that if you board too soon the stern regrounds, and if you leave it too late you find yourself swimming), and made the one portage of the trip (with apologies to those who know what real portages are — here on the more canoed rivers one finds floats to land at and reembark from, and often a boat car on rails to connect them), and photographed, and ate our lunches on sand banks (bread and butter and cheese and fruit and chocolate), and generally lazed, letting the river do the work.

We spent half a day in Passau, and then had two days and a half on the Danube, averaging about fifty miles a day. Peter fell in love with this part of the river as thoroughly as I had previously. First of all there is a ‘romantic’ section, allegro appassionato, — but not so much so that you cannot look at the view, — the sort of thing you expect on the Rhine and don’t get, with castles and ruins perched on incredible sites halfway up steep hills so covered with forests that they look strokable, and where you feel sure the beauty cannot last. But it does, for forty miles or so. And then come about fifty miles of a minore movement, melancholy, with dead arms between willows in every direction, so extensive that the local clubs play hare and hounds in them in their canoes. And then another change, to forty miles of andante semplice country, rich pastures and happy orchards set with rococo villages and churches, and with rolling hills behind cut up into crazy-quilt patterns by hedges. Add to this that the navigation is only tricky enough to be interesting; that the Canoe Stations are excellent and simple and cheap, with nice people and good food and wine; that tourists are few, the rail seldom touching the banks and only about one steamer a day plying; and that every village has something to offer, be it a castle, or a ruin like that at Dürnstein, where Blondel found Richard, or a legend-soaked church like St. Johann, or a monastery palace like Melk, baroque at its most grandiose, or merely a name like ‘Crooked Nut-Tree Town.’ But, as Peter sadly records, ‘The Danube is n’t blue — it is a sort of pea-soup color.’

At Krems we unbuilt and took the train into Czechoslovakia, the boat traveling in the rack above our heads — free, of course. Three days on the Vltava brought us to Prague. It was a superb trip. The river is what we in Europe imagine a Canadian river to be like — steep pine-clad slopes above still black water, varied by mile-long rapids. ‘We had to have our waterproof capes on as well as the deck, and one wave went right over my head,’ says Peter, and his yell of glee was worth having made the trip to hear. Language was a trouble. At one Canoe Station, Spanish, of all things, saved us. Our bill here came to under a dollar for both of us, I see from my log, for supper and real beds and breakfast.

Below Prague the Vltava is far duller; I should take train to the Elbe if I did it again. Still, it was only one day, and then we spent four on the Elbe to Dresden, of which two, however, were spent on foot in the ‘Saxon Switzerland,’ glorious country despite extreme ‘ touristification ’ — with booths for souvenirs everywhere, and cascades that are turned on to order only. The river here is superb again, gray cliff bastions rising sheer from the water, or from the woods and meadows that line the banks. We camped considerably here, chiefly because Peter wanted to, but continued to eat at the Canoe Stations; they nearly all have their own camping grounds to just this end.

Finally, after two days at Dresden (sleeping here, as at Prague, on bunks in the canoe clubhouse for about seven cents a night), another day brought us to Meissen, where we unbuilt, after about 500 miles of rivers, and took the train — Peter to join his parents, holiday making in Berlin, and I to pick up the Mulde and a casual companion at Eilenburg.

V

But I despair of conveying in cold print the charm of the sport: sun and air on one’s naked body, baths five and six times a day, the scenery changing at every turn of the river, the comradeship of one’s companion and of other canoeists (since one is a fellow sportsman and not a mere tourist), people unspoilt by Fremdenverkehr, the huge meals and the appetite one brings to them, long evenings in the Canoe Station inns, lazily chatting with other canoeists or local worthies, or the host, on everything but politics, and then nights in the hay, with the scrunching of cattle below promising cow-warm milk for breakfast. . . .

To take one point only, the enormous variety that the sport offers: from real danger, as much as you can want, on rivers like the Lech and upper Garonne, to ‘armchair’ rivers like most of those I know, safer than the average road to-day. Again, from popular rivers like the Moselle — where there are so many canoeists that the railway station at Trier has a special exit for them and the municipality at Berncastel induces them to visit the town by providing a landing stage with free changing rooms and guardian, and where one can be sure of jolly companionship all the way — to unknown streams like the Drage, where even the German canoeist rarely comes, and the local paper sent a reporter to interview us. Or again, from the Main and the Werra, which were trade routes before roads and where there is a village every few miles, so that one is sure of supper and bed, to areas like East Prussia and Finland and the Landes, where one has to camp and cook. And again, from the Seine through Paris or the Spree through Berlin, where all is movement and bustle and you have to keep a sharp lookout for motor boats and passenger steamers, to solitude, as on the Oertze or the lower Danube, where you hardly dare paddle or speak, so still it is; and the herons and kingfishers and buzzards wait to watch you; and the deer come to look at your camp fire.

Again, you can go right across Europe, Turin to Hamburg, or Denmark to the Mediterranean if you wish — or you can fix a central camp in an area like the Mecklenburg Lakes, marvelously deserted, though so near Berlin, and tour from there week after week. I personally am lazy, letting the river do the work — but the enthusiast for exercise has merely to choose a slow river or a lake and set himself, say, forty miles a day.

Finally, to come to ‘debits.’ Once only have we had a serious personal accident, a badly cut foot. One should, of course, always put on shoes before stepping out, and one of course always forgets. Once only have we sprung a leak, though minor scratches have been frequent — as easily and quickly repaired as a bicycle tire, and in the same way. Once only have I been held up by the river police — near Dresden, for not having the name of the boat painted large enough; but they accepted my membership of the French Canoe Club as having equal rights with their own registered clubs, members of which are exempt from this rule. Incidentally, the boat’s name is croide dilish, in Erse characters; as I pointed out to them, it could be in letters a meter high and they not be able to read it. And once only in the four years have I had a capsize, and that through sheer stupidity — not on a difficult river, but on a backwater of the Rhine, and caused by getting too close to a low bridge and being driven athwart it.

  1. I am what the French call an invalide, — in English slang, a ‘crock,’ — that is, a partially disabled person, but not a sick man. My disability is 40 per cent. — AUTHOR
  2. Black-edged cards announcing death, date, and time of funeral, and asking for prayers — which last is, of course, why the inn keeps them on view for some months. — AUTHOR