Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Germany. In which is described a kayaking expediton right in our backyard.
Brandenburg, July 2015
imagine paddling through some dense jungle river. Imagine manoeuvring your small canoe through watercourses among the shades of low-slung branches, filtering the bright sunlight. Imagine passing old, long abandoned floodgates, decaying and overgrown by greenery. Making camp next to the river, going to sleep with its gurgle in your ear and waking up to the first sunbeams breaking through the leaf canopy in the morning. Sounds not too bad, eh? Yet surely must involve a journey across continents, I can hear you murmuring. But … does it?
What if I told you that we found all of this right at our doorstep? Not literally, of course, but also not much farther away when a couple of kilometres you could count on one hand. There are many jokes about Brandenburg being one of the lesser populated German states, but in this case it’s definitely to be counted on the plus side. Right there, only a stone’s throw away from the capital we stepped into a landscape of wide meadows and fabulous woods bustling with colourful flora and fauna. An entwined riverland connecting a couple of larger and not-so-large lakes from the edge of Berlin in the northeast to the Spreewald in the south.
For about a week we were following the unchanged meandering course of Spree and Müggelspree with all their uncountable backwaters and branches in our 40 year-old folding kayak; we passed through the mosquito-infested rain forest and swamps flanking the narrow Gosener Graben right before the river leads into only the first of a couple of lakes to come before entering the long and winding Dahme river. The rain which just had set in was not much to worry about, yet upon leaving the rather quiet and sheltered ditch, dark clouds were greeting us – mounting up at the horizon across the lake. Soon we were caught in another raging storm, right in the middle of that lake. Well, not that this was much of a novelty to us, but it surely made this day’s final camp one of the most anticipated. And campsites can be found easily on the way – the riverside offering a picturesque ‘lay-by’ at every corner. Many of these quiet little spots right there at the water even particularly prepared for the travelling canoeist, river baths included of course
I’ve got to admit: I could easily get accustomed to that vagabond lifestyle. Getting out of sleeping bag and tent once the morning sun makes both too warm to doze. Having morning coffee with a river view. Striking camp and stuffing your whole stuff and home into handy yet watertight bags and squeezing all of this into the kayak. Departing – and, unhurried, moving on. Along rivers and lakes and rivers and channels and rivers and creeks. From station to station, from camp to camp. Just for the moment. Going with the current most of the time certainly helped to maintain a rather relaxed attitude (even the few occasions we had to work ‘against’ it, the stream remained a gentle flow).
No chance this could ever become boring as there were plenty occasions to take a break from paddling: Some half-hidden smoke hose down a quiet river branch complementing the stock of instant meals with fish fresh from the smoker. A watergate and lock every now and then helping to overcome different levels on rivers and canals. And the variety these things come in is simply amazing. There are the full automatic ones where you just hit a button (which more often than not is a bit too high to be comfortably reached from within a kayak), enter the lock and wait till the incoming water rises your boat and the gate on the other site opens. In other cases, a lock keeper ‘collects’ a couple of vessels, gathering small motorboats, yachts, and, yes, canoes alike in the sluice chamber. Quite a meticulous task, particularly if you are the canoeist trying to find (and keep!) a position somewhere between sluice wall and the next larger boat right next to you. Once the gates are closed and the water comes in, this time controlled by the honourable lock keeper, further progress is the same. Rising water level, waiting for the gate to open, finding your way out. Yet the third kind asks for a bit more commitment: these are the self-service locks. Quite tricky if you’re the loner kind of paddler since you’ve got to handle it all on your own – turning the heavy iron wheels to open (and close) the gates, pushing the rough-running cranks to flood the chamber … and somehow manage to still steer your canoe in- and outside. Glad who can count of some fellow paddler. Or, and that is actually not the exception, who finds a pensioner leaning over the sluice chamber’s handrail, offering his service (for a small donation). So, even the solitary kayaker is not all lost. Besides, you could still leave boat and water, unload it, and carry it around the obstacle. Sounds unnecessarily tedious, you say? Well, yes it is. But sometimes it’s inevitable, I’m telling you. At least in these more urban rivers, water management sometimes asks its toll. Every so often a weir across the river alters its flow and blocks the canoeist’s path, cascades plunging in stages. Trust me, you don’t want to mess with these rapids. So, it’s about casting ashore, getting the stuff out of the boat and the boat out of the water. If you’re lucky, there’s some heavy boat trolley on rusty tracks. If not … well, some workout carrying your boat is a welcome diversion, isn’t it?
Yet, these obstacles are rare, so essentially we really enjoyed a leisurely canoe tour. Easy-going in terms of current and strain, with manageable traffic. In fact, we rarely ever met other paddlers – or, for the record, any other boats as, outside the larger lakes, rivers and channels are too narrow for larger motorised vessels. We’re passing through a landscape alternating between meadows and woods, casually a bit more urban when picturesque villages suddenly appear along the riverside. Sometimes we’re passing beneath some motorway bridge, sometimes a decaying old watergate attracts our attention. Sometimes we’re hopping of the boat to have a look around, go for some cold beer or see what the next village might hold ready. Making camp right there at the river …
Yeah, I think I could really get accustomed to that vagabond lifestyle.