These events happened on Friday the 31st of May, 2019. We paddled our inflatable canoe from our riverside campsite in Dillingen an der Donau to Donauwörth, a distance of 28 kilometers. This was the first time we paddled this far and the first time we paddled two days in a row. If you want to know more about what this trip is about and why we’re doing it, I suggest starting here in Donaueschingen.
Packing Up Our Camping Gear
We woke up quite early at 7:00 in our beautiful tent. Soon after, we started our day of packing our camping gear and preparing for another day of paddling. Jonas went to the coffee machine to get us two cups to kick off our day. Despite the many cyclists and other traveling folks, we were the first people to get up.
This doesn’t mean that we were the first ones that left the campsite. Jonas wanted to seize the non-public holiday and visit Lidl to get some freshly-baked goods as road food. Lidl opened at 8:00 and is one kilometer away. Jonas left me in charge of packing the contents of our tent and taking care of our boat. First, I flipped the boat and measured the pressure loss of our boat since yesterday. We actually lost quite a bit of pressure in the bottom chamber and the side chambers, so I pumped them back up. Then I cleaned out the mud in the boat with some tissue paper and put back in the (already) inflated seats and installed some easy wins like the unused cooking gear.
The sounds of tent zippers opening replaced the sounds of snoring people as the camping started to awake. I removed some bird shit from the tent. Then I started deflating the mattresses and filling up our personal dry bags. I used my power bank to charge up my little action cam and my phone when Jonas returned with baked goods. Together, we took down the tent and hung a few items to dry. The sun popped out when we shared a pretzel (Brezel) on our tent’s footprint.
It still took quite a while to pack everything up. By now, several bike people including our neighbor lady had left to bike to greener pastures. A French man walked by and asked us (in English) about where we were going. We said we’d paddle to Donauwörth today. He said “Ah, Donauwörth. Such a nice camping. Too bad it’s one kilometer away from the river. You’ll have to walk much.” and his face turned to the emotion ‘pity’.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him we’d be staying at a comfy hotel, and that he probably stays at another camping with a “relatively dirty” men’s bathroom for the umpteenth night in a row. I guess I pity him a little bit too. So I responded with “It’s no problem, the kayak fits in a backpack.” and then he shook his head in disbelief, smiled, and walked on to continue his morning routine.
In these interactions with other outdoors people, we’re constantly dealing with many assumptions. One assumption is that we must camp every night, another is that we must paddle every day, and the last one that binds the two former ones together is that we can’t possibly earn money while being on this trip. Not satisfying the last assumption means that we don’t per se need to satisfy the other two. But it’s hard to explain our modus operandi – and I’m not sure I want to tell people I carry a laptop around.
We also assume quite a bit, but as opposed to them, we do know what it’s like to travel long-distance by bicycle. By and large, the bicycle is still one of the more ‘accessible’ forms of personal transportation, mostly because its infrastructure exists and people learn it from a young age. I wouldn’t say our canoe trip is easy peasy lemon squeezy, but it surely isn’t borderline impossible.
The Angry Cleaning Lady
All of this took an immense amount of time. But we still weren’t there yet. The biggest obstacle to us leaving was us both brushing teeth and for me to refill our hydration bladders for the hot and sunny day ahead. Jonas couldn’t enter the men’s room and refill the hydration bladders there since he judged the situation no bueno. So it was on me to wash and refill the hydration bladders, brush my teeth, and visit the toilet one last time before paddling away.
When I entered the bathroom there was a cleaning lady doing her thing in the toilets. She directly said something at me with the word “putzen” in it. I responded with my best US American accent “Sorry, I don’t speak German”, to which she mumbled something angry. I pointed at the sink and my toothbrush, trying to say I’d only use the sink. She nodded like a concession, and I brushed my teeth while she hovered behind me. She left before I could finish to angrily smoke a cigarette by the door.
I walked back to the tent and dropped off the toothbrush to get the hydration bladders. I did not want to go back in there, but I had to. For the team. Because the men’s bathroom was in a state of ‘disappointed, but not surprised’. Jonas had already finished packing the backpacks and was now wondering what took so long. It was really hard to explain.
When I got back to the women’s bathroom, she was there again, with a mop, ready to fight me. She again said something with “putzen” and I responded with “Wasser“, pointing at the sink again. I’d already given up on visiting the actual toilet to relieve myself one last time. I refilled both hydration bladders and managed to spill quite a bit on the floor in the process. I swear she was either going to hit me with the mop or slip and fall and die on the wetted floor.
While she went into one of the shower cabins to clean them, I snuck into the toilet to make a quick stop. I washed my hands casually while she walked through the wet patch. She didn’t seem to notice. Phew. But then she came back and definitely noticed. Those eyes. Oof! It was now or never; I grabbed my hydration bladders from the window sill and returned to our site. I’m not sure if I was followed.
“Jonas. We need to leave. Right now.”
Leaving for Donauwörth and Paddling Hydroelectric Dam One
We were finally ready to leave at 10:00. I grabbed the back of the kayak, and Jonas the front. We carried the boat into the water, then Jonas returned to our campsite to pick up the luggage. By 10:05 we were paddling towards Donauwörth. The weather was cool and quite pleasant.
We passed our first hydroelectric dam (Wasserkraftwerk/Staustufe Höchstädt) on the right-hand side by 11:20. A singular tent was pitched next to our reentry point, with no sign of people. A very eerie sight.
Jonas and I were swift and on fire. We were left unfazed by everything on the river, except for the few overprotective swans with younglings in the area. That being said, we experienced déjà-vu levels of familiarity; all of the dams looked the same. Our experiences in between them were quite the same. The mirror-like surface was aesthetically pleasing and very good for making long sessions of rhythmical strokes. The time had come for us to not get excited at every new thing, but to improve what we already knew. A refinement of technique. Streamlining of processes. Removing the creases.
The current had subsided since the day before. On sunny days like these, the water levels declined quite rapidly. The dams often had all or some of the drop-over points closed. The opposite of Hochwasser (high water levels) are of course Niedrigwasser (low water levels), and our app didn’t warn us of those. The wind blew mildly, and again we experienced headwind instead of the promised tailwind. It’s looking more and more like the kayak sail we’re carrying is just a funny gimmick rather than a tool.
Passing Hydroelectric Dam Two
Between dam one and two (the one near Schwenningen), there was a good stretch of about 10 kilometers. That was the first time I reached a state of flow in my strokes and paddled – without counting – around 2000 strokes without interruption or losing rhythm. There was once a big angry-looking cloud, so we tried to out-paddle it. This only worked partly.
By now, we were accustomed to portaging around a dam every 6 or so kilometers. But the dams are thinning out as we progress across the river. At some point, the acronym for the company that runs these Wasserkraftwerken also changed names: from Obere Donau Kraftwerken (ODK – Upper Danube Power Plants) to Mittler Donau Kraftwerken (MDK – Middle Danube Power Plants). Our geographical progression had always felt a bit abstract until we crossed the border between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, but now it became even more ‘real’.
We passed the second dam at 13:00 and completed our portage within ten minutes despite the great fuckery around. There was one fishing guy in camouflage before the dam and a group of shirtless guys fishing and barbecuing right behind the dam. We were right to think that the manly men of German men’s day would take a bridging day to make a Thursday till Sunday binge.
We were friendly and polite with them, which they returned. But they and their pickup trucks and their chopped-up wood and simmering shisha were quite the obstacle course to maneuver around with a big ass canoe. We used the ramp to get back in and paddled on, but then saw something weird in the water: hovering river debris.
It turned out those were dead plant leaves stuck on the fishing lines of those same dudes. No bobber to indicate a place to dodge or paddle around. Just the plants on the lines. At these reentry points, our first priority is always paddling out of the back current zones, so we’re not paying attention to dodging fishing lines. And it’s really hard to dodge something that’s basically an invisible enemy for my shit eyes. This would be a pattern during the day.
The First Time Being Overtaken
We paddled on joyfully. We were about to pass under the bridge at a village called Donaumünster when I heard Jonas say “Servus” in his deep voice and not directed at me. I looked over my right shoulder and got spooked when a middle-aged man in a fast-ass kayak overtook us.
He was so fast.
He looked very familiar with what he was doing. We thought we had our shit together, then there’s this guy: a long and skinny kayak that lies deep into the water. Two dry bags that exactly fit in the luggage holes. A feathered paddle fitted to his personality. A spray skirt covering the man, the myth, the legend. This guy got wheels, for portaging. And he had a foot-powered rudder for maintaining direction. He had a relaxed expression on his face. He propelled it alone.
I know, I know. You can’t compare a hard-shell plastic kayak to an inflatable canoe made of friction-full fabric. But it crushed my soul ever so slightly that a single human could reach such speeds compared to us two relatively young amateurs. I applaud the man for his dedication. But he also spooked me because I didn’t see it coming. And I expected the overtaking to hurt my fragile ego less than it did.
The Last Dam Before Donauwörth
We took our time since the Great Overtaking of 2019 to casually paddle to the final dam, named Wasserkraftwerk Donauwörth. We still saw the other paddler for a while on the horizon, as he passed through the river bends in a fucking straight line. Our last sign of him was the swans he spooked that flew up in our direction.
The stagnated lake in front of the dam had lots of floating fluffy seeds from the surrounding trees. Some bugs that should be too heavy to float, floated against all odds as we disturbed the water with our paddles. It was hard to maintain a rhythm with the paddle because a few bugs flew into my eyes or eyelashes and another few attempted to bite me. We’re almost there.
At 15:10, we arrived at the final hydroelectric power plant. By 15:25, we were through. But we weren’t yet through the jungle of fishing lines of mediocre fish hunters yet. Jonas yelled a bunch of times to look ahead and spot the invisible fishline. Then he’d say “Above us!” and I’d look back and see the actual line that we barely missed with our heads. Jonas told me to use my paddle as a fishline breaker like I use my arm to break spidey webs when hiking on a barely used path (sorry, spooders). I didn’t catch any fishlines, but the whole ordeal stressed us out enough to be on high alert for our final landing.
Our Arrival in Donauwörth
We passed under one car bridge and then one train bridge. Our destination was at the left-side shore, but in Donauwörth, the river Wörnitz would enter the Danube. We had no idea how strong the added current would be. Our first idea was to get out around or right after the train bridge. Our alternative best-case scenario would be to exit the river at or around the train bridge. And our never-gonna-happen scenario was to paddle up the Wörnitz a little and exit on the river island to our left so we’d have to walk less to our hotel.
The embankment before and after the train bridge was steep, full of stinging nettles, and generally shit. We spotted the confluence of the Danube and the Wörnitz and saw some rapids. We aimed to land at the punta, which is usually the place where there’s a slight back current towards the land or no current at all. A man on the shore looked us dead in the face as we tried to land there, where he was… fucking fishing. We barely dodged his line as we saw that the Wörnitz actually had zero currents, and would be easy to paddle up. We paddled it up for a short fifty meters when we spotted some stairs into the water.
Again, this spot was taken by the young fishermen of the fishing club of Donauwörth. Two young guys, an indiscernible number of fishing lines. As we paddled slightly against the current and tried to dodge the lines, Jonas had to communicate our desire to land right next to them. The guys were cooperative and helped us spot the lines for landing. We got out, lifted our luggage out up the muddy stairs, and lifted our boat out. Our arrival time was 15:40. Not bad for such a late start and our first time paddling 28 kilometers.
We dried our boat, ate our last sandwiches, and packed it all up to check into ‘Hotel Buena Vista’. Our room ironically faced a dead wall. I petition to rename the place ‘Hotel Medianeras’. Two nights, then we’ll paddle from Donauwörth on to Neuburg an der Donau and on to Ingolstadt.
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