Kayak Trip Day 15: Kelheim to Regensburg

This article relates to events happened on the 13th of June, 2019. Jonas and I paddled our inflatable canoe named Zucchini from Kelheim to Regensburg in Bavaria, south Germany. We covered a distance of about 30 kilometers. 

Taking Care of Jonas

Jonas had been sick since arriving in Kelheim on the 10th of June. He spent the next two days in bed with a fever and zero appetite. Luckily, we have a big box of paracetamol and unlimited tap water. So those two days we nuked that fever away with a regiment of medicine, a cold wet cloth on the forehead, and lots of Netflix.

Outside the hotel room, the days were mostly hot and sunny, with the occasional thunderstorm to compensate. At the confluence of the Altmühl river with the Danube, Kelheim proved a good place for a mosquito infestation. Only a few times we did manage to go out of the hotel and walk around or eat something. Then we returned with itchy bumps everywhere that needed tending to. It’s really depressing to spend that much time in a fairly dark room, but I had a backlog of blog posts that needed finishing. I didn’t really leave the room much either, which is wholly on me.

We tried our best to extend our stay in the hotel with another day, but it was booked out. That meant we’d probably paddle the next day, even if Jonas didn’t feel a-okay. Towards the evening of the 12th, he started feeling better. We got takeout and ate it with the last few episodes of the new season of Designated Survivor. I packed most things and we went to bed quite early to maximize the chances of Jonas feeling up to the daunting task of – what we thought at the time – paddling a distance of 30 kilometers from Kelheim to Regensburg.

Leaving Kelheim for Regensburg

Breakfast at the hotel only starts at 8:00, so we knew today wouldn’t be an early start. By 9:50, we’re at our old exit spot at the river. It’s very hot and sunny, and we need to take it slow. I take my time to inflate the boat to not break out in a sweat. Jonas is struggling with the work and the lack of shadow nearby. This is the first time we see our boat name Zucchini since I started working on this. Maybe when we arrive in Regensburg I have the time and energy to finish the starboard-side of the lettering. It looks half-assed right now, and that’s because it is half-assed.

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By 10:25 we’re leaving the harbor. We need to look left and right like crossing a street because it is a street now. We’ve already seen two big boats leave for Weltenburg or making a donut and then disappearing downstream. We cross over to the right-hand shore and enjoy the swift current coming from the narrowness of Weltenburg. That’s also where the shadow is at.

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Before we duck under the first bridge, we see a tiny motorboat traveling upstream all the way on the left side. There are some signs on the bridge and some green buoys. Jonas has a chart handy that tells us exactly what these symbols mean, and where we’re supposed to go. He also installs the boat mirror to have a better idea of what’s going on behind him. On our right-hand side, we see the harbor of Kelheim-Saal with its chimneys.

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The First Speedboats

We’re in the shadow from a generous cloud now. We lose our sweatiness and I reap the benefits of having put on my long-sleeved sweater against burning. These very hot days make it a challenge to strike a balance between dressing too warmly and not dressing up for enough protection from the sun.

A tiny speedboat with an awkward shape is about to overtake us. Jonas spotted it first. We turn our boat into the waves and we’re bracing ourselves for impact. I squeeze my camera between my knees to film the effects.

It’s choppy, but it’s OK. We wouldn’t want to be sideways though; too much wobbling probably.

We continue paddling until after about an hour we really need to make a proactive bladder relieve stop at a beautiful slipway. In the meantime, two big boats pass us by, causing relatively tiny waves. One of them has a Dutch flag and the words ‘cycling tour’ on the side. The other has a Bulgarian flag and is really quite long. By 11:30, we’re paddling again with a strong headwind towards the first and last dam in Bad Abbach.

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The landscape is very beautiful here and there are many small marinas for tiny speedboats just like we’d seen before. Even on a common Thursday like this, there are many people out and about with their boat. Sunshine must be the biggest factor. Some moored boats have wakeboard boards attached to their frames, something I’d totally forgotten about that exists.

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The water speed has slowed down quite a bit and we’re still not that close to the dam. We successfully pass several other tiny boats that cause us waves, using the same technique as before to stay upright. With every encounter, we learn something about the waves they cause and how much danger they really pose. I feel like it’s going alright.

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The Final Frontier

In truth, dealing with other traffic on the Danube has always been our last point of doubt. In week zero – before we arrived in Donaueschingen – we dealt with whether we can even pack and carry all our stuff from A to B. On day one, we learned whether this trip is even physically feasible for us. In week one, we asked ourselves whether we can still work effectively to afford this life – and whether this trip sparks joy. And in week two, we wondered if it’s getting easier the more we do it.

All the answers to these questions had been positive, from both of us. But we’d been basically alone on this river the whole time. The last question we knew we had to address was: can we share this river with other people in a mutually respectful manner?

Whether we continue this trip or call it quits hinges on our experiences today.

The Borstenpass Kayak Slide at Bad Abbach

On the Kelheim – Regensburg stretch, there’s one hydroelectric dam in Bad Abbach, and one on the west edge of the city of Regensburg next to the canoe club. Both of them have an infrastructural feature called a “bristle pass” or “brush pass” (Borstenpass). It combines the features of a kayak slide with a fish ladder. The brushes installed vertically stall the water for the fish to swim or jump upstream and allow kayaks and canoes to pass downstream. Here’s the German-language Wikipedia that explains the Fish-Kanu-Pass.

The Bad Abbach hydroelectric dam is next to a river island. The left way around features a giant lock for the big ships like we’d seen before. The right side has the hydroelectric plant and the kayak slide. There’s a sign that Jonas Googles that means “honk” or “make a sound” and I jokingly grab the whistle on my life vest to let our presence be known by ear. There are buoys in the water indicating where to go and not fall off the dam, which is shut anyway right now. It’s been idiot-proofed. Jonas is very excited about the enormous levels of infrastructure and warning, and jokes “If these people who built the infrastructure here knew that upstream there’s just… nothing. No sign. No buoys. You just fall down and die…”

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Sliding It Down

We arrive at the bristle pass at 12:50. There’s a big sign explaining how it works. There’s a spot above our boat where a rope would hang from to pull in more water, but it’s missing. As is good praxis, we first get out of the boat to look at the slide. It’s exactly how it looks online and I’m not intimidated. It’s much wider than the kayak slide in Laiz/Sigmaringen, meaning we can actually use our paddles inside it. The water flows quite quick over those bristles, but that’s necessary to not get stuck. But there’s not a whole lot of water in it. I walk down the concrete next to the slide to see if there’s any other funny business. It all looks good. My main worry is getting stuck in there because of our weight and being inconvenienced by that.

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I tell Jonas we can do one of three things:

  1. Walk our boat like a dog on a leash down the slide.
  2. One of us stays in the boat while the other leads the boat down the slide.
  3. We both sit in the boat and if we get stuck, we use our paddles to get unstuck.

In the meantime, Jonas Googled something about this Borstenpass and how it works. He notices that there’s a hook now hanging from the sign instead of a rope that could trigger the button to get more water into the slide. He leans dangerously close to the edge to pull it and barely manages. Then we get into the boat to do this thing. I stick my camera in my life vest and turn on video. We push ourselves off the pier and here we go.

We have a good start down the edge. The brushes make a whisking sound on the fabric of our boat, like a giant toothbrush. I’m thinking maybe the permanent dirt where the fin is supposed to be in will finally get scrubbed away. We get a little stuck at times, but with a very gentle push of our paddles into the bristles, we free ourselves and maintain direction.

It takes about thirty seconds to get through and was an all-around great experience. It’s 13:00 now. I excitedly grab my camera but see that I’d failed to press the record button successfully. This makes me quite sad.

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Leisure Island

Bad Abbach is a spa town. We’re not making a stop here and only know things relevant to paddling the river that passes by it. After the hydroelectric dam, we’re in the right arm of the Danube around the river island named Freizeitinsel (leisure island). There are swimming pools, tennis courts, and of course football fields. It’s quite a big island, and we have to paddle quite a bit more to get around it. Jonas says that the bridge leading from Bad Abbach onto the peninsula is “too big” for just pedestrians and cyclists reaching some recreational area.

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This is the first time that I notice that the kilometer signs of the river have changed since Kelheim. They’re not green and well-readable anymore, but black and cryptic and overgrown. The one I’m seeing says 2.401, which can only be kilometers. I remembered that today somewhere, we’d cross the 2.400-kilometers-to-go sign, much like we passed the 2.500-kilometer sign between Donauwörth and Neuburg an der Donau. Jonas takes a break and just rudders while I paddle, looking for the round number sign. I can’t find it.

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There’s another small lock on the island for not-so-huge boats to pass through. That’s where there are red and green buoys again telling us where the danger goes. Like clockwork, a tiny motorboat shows up and forces us to be very alert. The waves are tiny and OK. There’s a sign saying that from here downstream, wakeboarding is allowed again.

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We leave leisure island and see the left-arm rejoin at 13:50. It feels like we must be halfway, but Jonas curbs my enthusiasm and tells me that’s not the case. The strong wind picks up again as we pass by the buoy that means “split” because it has both red and green on it. See, this isn’t so hard. We each eat one of our sandwiches we prepared this morning.

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Ferries and Bridges

The next few hours we make very slow progress toward Regensburg. It’s sunny once again and we need to touch-up on our sunscreen. We pass by one little ferry in Matting. It’s another one that’s on a cable between two large poles above the water. I kind of start to understand how this ferry works as the ferryman sculls the boat away from the shore. This ferry is again only for cyclists and pedestrians, and there are people eager to take it on both sides directly after the ferry departs. I’m impressed with its efficiency.

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One particular speedboat with a gazillion kids in bright orange life vests makes a bunch of tight turns for entertainment and seems to almost lose control. We’re not immediately worried about the waves it causes, but the sheer recklessness of this captain using such a powerful machine for such a useless pursuit of entertaining children. Pathetic.

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A small roofed motorized boat with two bright orange dots is about to overtake us. We swing to the right shore to be out of the way, but the boat kind of follows. There are two green buoys up ahead before a turn. The two orange dots turn out to be kids in life vests and there are two adults on board. The kids wave at us and I just look at the adults as they swerve around the green buoy on the right side, just like us. The captain seems to have noticed the mistake and tosses the wheel in the other direction. He passes the next green buoy on the left side and off they go while we deal with the waves they made. It’s merely day one with real traffic and we’re already dealing with incompetent folks.

The shore is sometimes a pebbly or stony beach. It’s very pretty and makes me feel like a pirate when we make another stop on land to claim it as our own. Until we hear the carefree chit-chat of cyclists right behind us on the top of the embankment. Loads of city people from Regensburg appear to have a day off to enjoy in the sunshine.

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We continue paddling and spot the really large highway bridge over the river. It’s really tall and features a constant trickle of cars and trucks from both directions. It spans the whole valley. I might have traveled over that bridge once on my hitchhiking trips southeastward. At the speed hitchhiking goes, it’s impossible to really pay attention to such details as which river a bridge crosses. Besides, I might have been asleep in a car or truck on this very stretch. Or maybe I haven’t hitchhiked this bridge after all.

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We pass under that large bridge and see a fast boat coming up from ahead. The people aboard drop a bright orange rope and a kid wearing a helmet and carrying a wakeboard. At the next train bridge, we pass a sign that says the wakeboarding zone has ended. We’re happy we don’t actually have to pass any wakeboarders today. The next ferry is one hundred meters after that train bridge, but there’s no boat. Only confused-looking people on both shores. A sign indicated that this ferry should be one of the ‘free moving’ types that’s not on a rope.

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The Whistle

We’re about to enter the confluence of the Naab with the Danube. One more funny-looking train bridge. We don’t know what to expect after the turn, so I’m arguing to already cross over to the left shore before the confluence. Jonas argues for staying put on the right side. The confluence turns out to be no biggie because the hydroelectric dam of Regensburg is not so far away anymore. The water is pretty much stagnant on both rivers. There are some speed boats anchored in the middle of the path to the Naab. The Naab has signs that say motorboats aren’t allowed in there. People are tanning on deck.

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We agree to cross over to the left shore after the yellow boathouse moored next to the Mariaort island. It takes us about 1.5 minutes to fully cross the wide river. Of course, we checked before crossing whether there would be a fast motorboat, but the coast was clear. By the time we’re across, we do see a tiny speedboat coming to our direction. It passes us quite quickly but isn’t a problem.

It’s calm for a few minutes when suddenly a familiar-looking speedboat pulls up from the front. We’re barely past the Mariaort island when this boat is headed directly our way. There are some orange dots on the boat, probably children. The boat doesn’t slow down and we’re not confident that the captain has seen us. He makes a few sharp turns to entertain the kids, then continues in our direction, collision course.

I quickly consult Jonas whether I should use the whistle on my life vest to alert the driver to back off. He says he’s also uncomfortable and tells me to do it. I grab my whistle and blow it hard. The boat responds within a few seconds and promptly turns around. Crisis averted. We’re almost at the shore again after the island, a relatively safe space. My left ear is ringing from proximity to the high pitch.

Arrival in Regensburg

We paddle on and realize we still have to cover about 1.5 kilometers to our exit in Regensburg instead of a few hundred meters as we’d expected. I’m through. My arms are through. I’m really done for the day. In a final burst of energy, we paddle that last stretch with some unexpected power while keeping a close eye on our GPS. There’s no current here, so we’re not worried at all of not being able to stop at our planned exit.

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Out from behind the bushes, a sign saying 2383 pops out. It’s right in front of the T-crossing of the bike path that marks the shortest distance we’d have to walk to our Airbnb. Jonas spotted a better exit point some 10 meters after the ‘ideal’ spot. It has less prickly nettles to hinder our exit. We take that one. It’s 16:35, which is probably the latest we’ve ever arrived somewhere.

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While drying off our feet on the nearby bench, Jonas remarks that it’s doable with the traffic. Yes, there was some gross incompetence we’ve witnessed on our first day and we need to be constantly alert, but we seem to have the skills and the tools to handle these situations. Jonas adds that the biggest source of danger today has been people who want to impress their kids with fun yet irresponsible behavior. Very perceptive.

We walk the 600 meters to our room in a house Airbnb uphill between fields of lettuce. We’re technically not yet even in Regensburg. We’ve not even passed the “northernmost point” of the Danube, which is only 300 meters east of our exit spot. Our Airbnb is very beautifully situated in the green district of Niederwinzer outside of Regensburg proper. We can do a self-check-in and meet our housemate and the owner in the later hours. We chose this apartment because it has one very special feature, one we haven’t seen since Sigmaringen…

A washing machine!

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