We started our kayak trip on the 5th of May 2019. This article narrates the events of that day. Read how we came up with the idea to kayak the Danube river.
Morning in Donaueschingen
We got up at around 8 to eat breakfast at Wyndham Garden hotel. I over scooped my plate and Jonas didn’t have a big appetite. That affected my appetite, so I made a sandwich out of what I still had left on my plate. Maybe my excitement of this new endeavor took hold of my stomach.
We did our morning routine of brushing teeth and getting dressed for the real cold weather. Jonas already opened our balcony window to make it more real. The weather forecast told us that it would get sunny around noon. But at least there was no wet snow today. Tiny gains.
At around 9.15 we finished packing and got up to check out. Paddles high, I didn’t run into many roofs or doors on the way to the lobby via the elevator. Check out went smoothly and no one batted an eye. While standing there with my heavy kayak backpack, a man felt the urge to bump into me. I wasn’t having it.
We started walking in the cold, crossed the bridge over the train tracks and went down on the right side of the shore. We’d walk to the Egon bridge where there were stairs down to the water. This is because there’s a rule that you can’t enter the water in Donaueschingen where you can damage the embankment.
Once there, we realized the water was a bit too low, even though the “Pegel” said it was the minimum required 45 centimeters. Jonas said it was best to continue on to the tennis courts, where the canoe tours also start. I asked him about having seen a good way to reach the water from there, but he couldn’t answer that.
The parking lot near the tennis court did have some stairs to go down to the water, but they were overgrown with spikey bushes and slippery from wet rotting leaves. Not a good spot. By now, we were already so close to the Zusammenfluss (confluence) of the Brigach and the Breg that we might as well set up shop there. We already know there’s a nice flat space near the water.
After walking for about one hour, we enthusiastically begin unpacking the (very well-packed) kayak backpack. Jonas begins inflating the bottom air chamber – without the (tracking) fin. I was certain that one had to be inflated last… I assembled the paddles, knotted the rope to the bow, kept track of all our straps and hooks, and helped the boat get into its shape.
But the boat inflated fucking weirdly. When inflating the boat inside my mom’s home, it already looked a bit strange, but that only increased. So we deflated it and opened the side pocket of the troubling air chamber starboard side, which seemed to be twisted inside the fabric wrap around it.
We did this a couple of times and argued about how the boat is supposed to really look until we realized we couldn’t fix it. The boat is now asymmetrical, but it would still float. We did waste quite a lot of time and energy on both the long walk and the long building up of our kayak setting. Mind you, this was the first time we’d actually use this kayak for its intended purpose.
Some groups of people walk by to take photos at the Zusammenfluss and stare at us. We’re completely focused on pumping up the bottom and sides of the boat and the seats. The seats are killing us again, as the vent doesn’t trap the air inside. This means we have to immediately push the stop back on. An ungrateful task.
We install the seats, then install the hydration bladders and our personal bags. Our hiking shoes go inside smaller bags and we put on our water shoes. The grass is cold and wet, but we manage. Life jackets go over our many layers of clothing and we put our phones in the waterproof covers. It’s hard to operate the smartphone, so I end up launching the OSMand+ app and keeping it on the whole time on full-screen brightness. Quite wasteful, but the battery was fully charged beforehand anyway.
Then the backpack with the pump gets strapped in and now it’s time to launch our green boat into the water to fit the heavy waterproof bags in. The tip of the boat is floating in the water, releasing the pressure onto the bottom air chamber. The bags go under some straps in their full length. It fits so well, but there is very little leg space left for tall Jonas.
The First Strokes
Another group of people is watching us closely as we’re getting ready to go. I really wonder whether we look competent or clumsy to them. We lift the boat more into the water and put it parallel to the little shallow shoreline. There are some roots in the water and a sandbank nearby. I slowly wade into the water to seat myself in our canoe with a paddle in hand.
It’s the first time my feet get wet in this sub five degrees Celsius weather. The water rushes into my shoe and shocks only little; I’ve been walking around the cold wet grass for at least fifteen minutes already. Once I’m in, the cold subsides and the excitement begins. Jonas gets in next. He struggles to place his legs. After he settles in, we’re ready to paddle.
We both start with paddling left-right-left-right. The Breg adds some speed from the right side and we go past the kilometer stone on the left shore. I check the time to see that we only started paddling at 11:45, much later than anticipated. And we get stuck soon after departure. The boat scraped the riverbed somewhere very shallow. We manage to push off with our paddles and go inside the deeper stream. We’re learning.
The First Kilometers to Pfohren
We pass under the Donaueschingen bridge and get stuck again somewhere on the first kilometer. I use one foot over the edge of the boat to release weight from the front and get the boat moving again. Since I’m in the front, it’s my task to read the river and see where to go. There are many little rapids over the first stretch. The river is also quite narrow still.
But we’re going! It’s incredibly exciting.
I make the luggage in our boat quite wet with my double-sided paddling, so we decide that I paddle on the left for an extended period of time, and then switch to the right at some point. Jonas steers and paddles mostly on the opposite side of me, also to avoid getting very wet at the hands. I also notice that the back support of my inflatable seat deflated itself. Annoying, but not urgent.
We pass a fisherman on the right side of the shore. He says “Not a bad day to do such a thing” and Jonas responds to him in agreement. I ask for a translation. The skies are grey but it’s indeed not a bad day.
Not soon after, we see a tree that has fallen into the water and is blocking nearly the entire river. We approach it carefully. I told Jonas I think we can get around it on the right side. Once close, I see a beaver on what used to be the top part of the tree. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beaver before. I’m in awe of the world and nature’s beauty. We simply pass around the tree and use it to pivot us back in the middle of the river.
We’re both wearing gloves and Jonas is wearing my headband. He’s very happy with it. I managed to make a very warm contraption around my face as well. We’re not cold. And then it starts hailing very lightly. The ice drops are tiny and look exactly like the salt on a Bavarian Brezel (pretzel). We thought snow or hail was our hard limit of when we’d not paddle. But here we are. It’s very light and not that bad, so we continue through it. I feel pretty badass about the whole situation.
We dip under a bridge which indicates we’re in Pfohren. If we had stayed at the Riedsee camping instead of a hotel in Donaueschingen, this is probably where we would have started our trip.
The First Dam in Neudingen
The hail stops and we paddle onward. I’m looking on my GPS to see how far we’re out from Neudingen. In Neudingen, the Danube splits up. The left side is the Danube river and the right side the “Gewerbekanal” that passes next to the center of Neudingen. Both arms are dammed off. This means that we need to carry our boat over land around it and then put it back in. And we have to take the left one.
We go under a major bridge that indicates we’re getting close to Neudingen. Since this is crazy-organized Germany, we kind of expected signage to help us see where to get in and out. But there isn’t any.
I’m navigating with my smartphone until we really have to get out. There’s another fisherman on the Neudingen side of the shore. He’s watching us as we struggle to get out of the boat, walk over the land to find a new spot to get back in, get all our shit on land, eat a cranberry granola bar, and get ready to paddle on. The dam was not something to meddle with as it was quite a steep drop.
We continue paddling at 13:45, two hours after we started.
River Bends and Dead Ends to Gutmadingen
I start to slowly realize that I’m living my dream. Kayaking on the Danube has been a wish of mine for a long, long time. Even though it’s hecking cold, it’s so beautiful. Swallows swarm over the water and we negotiate the right of way with several swans. A train from the Schwarzwaldbahn passes.
After Neudingen, the Danube turns directly east for a while. Then a part of tight loopy river bends. The river speed increases, but also the amount of scratching over the pebble-riddled river floor. We have to get out several times to let the boat lift higher out of the water. I see the butt part of my inflatable seat also deflated, and I’m basically sitting on the floor. I hold the front of the boat on a leash like I’m walking a pet. Every time we get in, we add a little water to the boat. Our feet heat up fairly quickly again once inside, but now my butt gets wet as I’m not sitting high enough. What a crappy seat.
There’s one place where the river splits up. The one to the right is how the Danube continues, and the one to the left is a dead end. With my continuously turned-on GPS, this isn’t a mistake we’d make. At the split is a little island with a swan’s nest and a white swan in it. Jonas thinks it’s a white sign we have to read and paddles closer, but I tell him not to approach and paddle away from it. He eventually sees the swan, too.
After the bendy parts, we see a church tower. Jonas enthusiastically asks whether that’s Geisingen. I don’t like having to disappoint him, but that’s the church of Gutmadingen, which is one town before Geisingen. He’s a little disappointed.
The river slowed down quite a bit and the wind picked up. It seems to be coming from the northeast now, which means we’re paddling against the wind. I check my phone and see my battery is down to 2%, so I quickly memorize the map and turn off the screen for now.
The Second Dam – Mühle
After passing under a large car bridge, we need to be on the left side of a river split to portage around a dam. Again, there are no signs. I go on shore on the left side and see some private terrain. Not good. I suddenly feel very tired and hungry. That granola bar didn’t do as much as I’d hoped.
But there’s a small stretch on the right side of the shore where we can still try to pass. With quite some effort as the current drags us into the dam, we manage to cross, turn our boat by backpaddling, and land on the right shore. I struggle through the mud to get out. I keep the boat on the leash while Jonas also gets out.
This side of the shore has a different feature: bee houses. I see one happy bumblebee flying around and munching on the flowers, but I’m afraid to get stung. Jonas scouts the next place to put the kayak back in. We lift the boat on land, carry our waterproof bags and paddles to the next place, then come back for the kayak. The bees left us alone.
I’m suddenly very cold. We get back into the boat. Wet feet again… This time, the middle and ring toes on my right foot lose sensation. The foot doesn’t heat up no matter how much I wiggle it.
The Last Bridge – Geisingen
From the Mühle to Geisingen isn’t that far anymore. That’s where we booked a place to spend the night while the nighttime temperatures drop again to -2 degrees Celsius. We now know that if we see a train bridge, that’s our cue to get out on the left side. We’d researched where to walk into Geisingen was best with images from Google Earth.
Sooner than anticipated, we see the train bridge. A beautiful moment, as the red IC train soars over it. We get ready to disembark. The currents are quite strong again, so we do the same trick where we slow down by backpaddling, turn around, then paddle forward to get parallel to the shore. It’s quite some effort, but we manage to get out.
We lift everything on land, disassemble the two dry bags, and carry the boat up the steep and stubby path. I still can’t feel my toes and walking is difficult. Once up, we’re in the sunshine. We made it! And it’s exactly the anticipated arrival time of 16:30.
Checking in to Geisingen
We can’t agree on how to continue. My suggestion is to keep walking short 30 meter distances with the boat and then make it to the place we booked. Jonas tells me he wants to dry his feet and put on shoes, deflate the boat, pack it, then walk to the arena where we have to pick up the key. Eventually, Jonas walks to the arena to pick up the key while I flip and deflate the boat to get the water out.
An older couple walks by and asks me something in German. I respond in German-ish that we kayaked from Donaueschingen and that the weather was beautiful except for the… Schnee? They know what word I’m looking for and respond with “Ah, die Schneeregen” and both nod. We conclude our small talk and say bye.
Jonas comes back with the key and even better news: the nearby arena has a restaurant where they serve currywurst. I’m game. We pack up the boat in a lousy way and stuff it in the duffle bag. Then we pack all the smaller loose items into the CabinMax and walk to the arena.
We both drink a large Hefeweizen to celebrate our first paddle day. I still can’t feel those toes, but the surrounding foot is slowly heating up. The currywurst comes right after I took off my wet clothes in the women’s changing rooms.
The arena is a funny place. The wooden building looks brand new. There are a few children and adults doing inline skating inside the pitch. It’s very warm and dry inside compared to the outdoors. There are wall sockets next to our table. I plug in my phone and it happily announces it’s still at 14% battery. It must have been the cold temperatures.
The Arena Manager
The man who runs the arena’s restaurant also manages the sort of hostel associated with the arena. He already gave Jonas the key. Since it’s only another 300 meters to the hostel, Jonas goes to check it out to see if we might want to stay two nights. He leaves but unfortunately forgets to bring one piece of luggage.
Jonas returns with good news about the room. It’s nice and spacious and looks very decent. If it’s private, we’d definitely want to stay two nights. Now we turn to the man who runs the arena and ask him whether it’s possible to stay two nights, for which he has to check the schedule. Jonas asks him if our four-bed dormitory is a private room or shared. It’s ours. That means we’re interested in staying two nights. The first night costs €40 and the second one €34, which comes down to a decent €10 per night per person if the room was full.
Paying by card is somehow still very rare in Germany. The cash Jonas had retrieved in Donaueschingen was already nearly gone. I had enough cash to supplement his to pay for both nights directly, but it was all the way down in the dry bag with the laptops. We’re halfway through unpacking the dry bag when I realize that it’s literally easier for Jonas to walk to the nearest ATM than unpack this dry bag to retrieve the cash.
The owner notices and says to Jonas “It’s always in the hardest-to-reach place”. We make light of it. But now we have the cash and can pay the man for the two-night stay and our double currywurst and beer.
We walk to the guesthouse. It’s really no distance at all, even with all our heavy luggage. Jonas leads the way to the room. There are two bunk beds with thick blankets and towels. I roll down the blinds to get more light in and put the heating on max.
Knowing that the whole room is ours, we’re comfortable to spread out our stuff and start drying our things. My clothes go onto the heating and so do our water shoes. My life vest is dry while Jonas’ somehow is not. More things are wet than anticipated. Once everything hangs, I crawl under the blanket in an attempt to heat up my lower body. Only with dry socks I finally manage.
I sleep a few hours before bedtime, which messes with my clock. The Arena Gästehaus only has paid WiFi (€1 per hour, one device). My mobile data tells me I’m in “Edge” (E) mode, which means the signal isn’t very strong. Maybe it’s time to do research into which SIM cards have the best coverage in south Germany.
When it’s time to go to bed, I’m fully awake. We brush teeth in the shared bathroom and see two other guests checking in. Jonas goes to sleep and I stay up to write about our experiences of today.