Kayak Trip Day 3: Immendingen to Mühlheim via the Donauversickerung

Our Events chronicled happened on the 8th and 9th of May 2019. Jonas and I paddled our canoe/kayak over the young Danube from a small town called Immendingen to another small town called Mühlheim over 20.1 kilometers. On the way, we passed the ‘Donauversickerung’ – where the Danube river sinks or goes underground for 155 days a year. The water levels were high enough for us to paddle it. 

If you want to know what this kayak trip is about, I wrote a detailed article about how we came up with this trip ideaYou can also read about Day 1 of our kayak trip from Donaueschingen to Geisingen or Day 2 from Geisingen to Immendingen.

Our Off-Day in Immendingen (8th of May)

On our non-paddle day, Jonas did some work while I tried to write up the events of the previous paddle day. It’s funny to us how we’ve only paddled for two days, but it already feels like we’ve been at this for a month. Since we paddled only 9.7 kilometers the preceding day, we’re not in any pain. Our fingers, wrists, arms, elbows, and shoulders feel just fine.

We’re staying in the Panda guesthouse in Immendingen. Immendingen is only a small town with no supermarket. You’d have to walk one kilometer west (upstream) to the nearest Lidl. It does, however, have a bakery and café and a döner kebab shop. That’s our breakfast and dinner plan.

When we’re headed out for coffee, two cyclists check themselves into the guesthouse. It’s a rainy day and they’ve persisted. It seems in general that all the small villages here have guesthouses mostly for cyclists along the Donauradweg, hikers, and other traveling folks like us. But we have yet to see other paddlers.

At the café, we order sandwiches, cappuccinos, and some sweet stuff. I lose my appetite as a woman starts coughing for our entire stay in the café… the wet and slimy kind of cough. She was inside before us and still there when we left, which makes me think she might be homeless and looking to stay inside during the cold and rainy day. I’ve been there.

We’re taking some extra buns overbaked with cheese for later or next day’s kayak trip. The weather forecast for tomorrow tells us it will rain occasionally, so we’ll be paddling fully knowing that we’re going to get wet. Jonas says that getting wet while in a kayak isn’t as bad as getting wet on a bicycle. We’re ready to test the truth of that statement.

I try to type some more words, but it isn’t working. Before I know it, Jonas suggests to go out again to eat our evening döner. In the rain, we head out to the restaurant. It’s dead inside besides a young woman waiting for their takeaway food. Jonas orders his usual fare while I’m looking to experiment. This area of Baden-Württemberg has a specific food called a Seele (‘soul’). The version I’m taking is a “döner-käse Seele”. Will my curiosity backfire?

My food arrives much later than Jonas’ and we see why; it’s a huge, inflated, kayak-shaped bread thing topped off with shiny melting butter. It’s Majestic. It arrived on a pizza plate that couldn’t fit the whole thing, so I’m struggling to find a place to start cutting. I poke it with my knife and the steam pops out on multiple sides. It’s delicious but lacks some veggies and mushrooms. I can’t finish the whole thing even with Jonas’ help and we get half the thing packed for takeaway. That’ll be good kayak food.

Seele paddling kayak canoe germany baden-württemberg

Our Morning Routine (9th of May)

Jonas woke up at 7:00 without the help of our alarm clocks. I don’t know how he does it. We still have to pack the blue dry bag, but we’d done some essential preparations the night before. We’re taking our time. By 8:30, we’re leaving the guesthouse. I’m carrying the kayak backpack with paddles, so I’m dodging ceilings, lamps, and low doorposts like a champ. Then we walk the 700 meters to our launch spot.

Panda pension gästehaus immendingen baden-württemberg Germany schwarzwald danube donau donauversickerung donauversinkung

Unfortunately, there are tiny pieces of broken glass at the launch spot. We clean it a little so we can inflate the boat. It’s the moment of truth when we inflate the starboard-side air chamber… will it be wonky? Or will it be straight? Semi-wonky it is! We booked some real success here. I strap all our luggage into the boat on the lower steps and put our boat in the water. We get in without getting our feet wet.

Immendingen kayak inflation

Immendingen entry point kayak and work canoe trip paddle germany

By 9:30 we’re paddling towards the first river dam.

The First Dam of the Day

We notice it’s really silly we didn’t walk the extra 600 or so meters to go around the dam and set up shop after it; we need to land the boat safely on the right side of the river, detach some of the luggage, walk around the dam with all our stuff, and then find a good spot to put it in again. Our feet have to get wet and try to dodge the nettles that are eagerly hugging our ankles. But we manage to do it in quite a fast time.

Wehr river dam immendingen pegel monitoring station water levels flood donauversickerung germany

The boat is much better balanced than on Day 2 of the kayak trip. We’re enjoying the first stretches of the Donauversickerung. The water levels seem quite high this day. A light rain starts, but we’re already wearing our ponchos.

The Donauversickerung/Donauversinkung

On the Donauversickerung, part of the Danube river sinks underground through cracks and caves. Via an underground river, it travels to the Aachtopf and then enters the Bodensee on the border with Switzerland. The water from the Bodensee drains into the Rhine river, so the statement I made in the first article that all the water that ends up in the Danube ends up in the Black Sea is actually not completely true! Earth science is amazing!

Here on the Donauversickerung, there’s no risk of getting sucked underground in our floaty vessel. Only very little water goes all the way to the Bodensee. The more imminent situation is that the water sometimes flows upstream, meaning the paddling gets a lot tougher. We get into one such area where the water flows backward, but then move into the area of the water where it still streams forward to bypass that.

We know there are stepping stones in the river somewhere after the bridge near Nina’s Ess-Art restaurant. We’ve walked over the stepping stones ourselves two days earlier when the water levels were lower. I spot some rapids up ahead and warn Jonas of them. Then I check my phone, read the landscape, and realize it’s the stepping stones we’ve walked over before. They’re inundated now.

Jonas and I start backpaddling to slow down, but the current gets very strong and we made our decision too late. Jonas says “let’s go over it” and we turn the boat back straight and aim between two rocks and brace for scraping. But the water levels are high enough to only touch the rocks lightly. We compliment each other for quick decision making and staying calm. It turns out two days of rainfall really do make a change in the water levels. It’s 10 ‘o clock, the time when we started paddling on Day 2.

We continue paddling the Donauversickerung until the next Wehr. We munch a cheese bun for breakfast while flowing at a nice 7 kilometers per hour. There’s one Wehr right before the spring where the Danube would squirt up again. This one has no sign to indicate that there is a Wehr and where to get out. Since it’s only 150 meters before our new launch spot, I walk there to check it out. I just see fast flowing water. At least that’s how I imagine it to work. We portage on the left side in a short time. It’s raining with different intensities, then the sun comes out for a teasingly short time.

Second wehr, can't remember

The spring of the Donauversickerung gave us a speed boost. That was the only threat of low water levels. Now we’re entering the municipality of Möhringen.

Möhringen to Tuttlingen – Too Many Damn Dams!

Our ‘Meine Pegel’ app mentioned the existence of the next water level monitoring station (Pegel). But it doesn’t exist on OSMand+ and not on Google Maps. We did spot it on Google Earth though, so we weren’t entirely surprised by its existence. Welp, I guess we’re getting out again, this time on the right side of the river. So far, the rule has been “If the monitoring station house is on one side, you have to get out on the other side”, so we apply this rule whenever there’s no sign.

Portage Immendingen to Mühlheim somewhere

It goes quite quickly again, and our new launching spot is quite near. But I almost break my ankles walking on the big gapped stones. This is the last dam in Möhringen. The next one is in the ‘Big City’ Tuttlingen.

On Google Earth, we’d spotted some kind of path right after the train tracks in Möhringen. Our best guess was that they’re another set of stepping stones. There’s a sign (!) indicating the stepping stones, but all we see are some more rapids. We don’t scrape them at all.

After Möhringen, a stretch of a more densely grown Danube appears, and we have to decide to go around a river island on the left or right. We pick left because the right side has something sketchy occupying it, but I think we were supposed to pick the right side. We run aground in some tight bend, but get out soon enough. Then the river gets a bit more canalized until the two train bridges at the edge of Tuttlingen. A squirrel travels in the same direction for a few hundred meters on the left shore.

Tuttlingen train bridges germany paddle kayak

We pass under several bridges in Tuttlingen, where there are many people out and about. One bridge contains a group of teenagers, and I try to pick up the speed so they might miss us if they throw something or spit on us but all that happens is one boy shouting “Kanufahrer!” (kayakers) as we sort of nod in agreement. Yes, we are Kanufahrer. Ich bin eine Kanufahrerin

Immendingen to Mühlheim bridge in Tuttlingen

We’re fully aware that we need to get out soon. The signs warning us for the danger of life at the dam already appear. A lady with a dog shouts from the right side of the shore that we have to get out of the kayak to avoid dropping off the Wehr. Very sweet of her. Jonas asks her where is the best spot to get out and she says something about a big tree on the left side of the river. We see a big willow tree after the next bridge and dodge its flaccid branches as we land on a very pleasant spot. It was like a scene from Pocahontas, but with more plastic and flotation devices involved.

Tuttlingen last bridge before the dam

Portaging the Big Dam in Tuttlingen

We had two destinations today: either we get out in Tuttlingen after 11.1 kilometers or paddle on another 9 kilometers to Mühlheim. Even though it had rained quite a bit, I wanted to paddle on to Mühlheim and so did Jonas. It was only 13:00 and the effort of packing all our stuff and checking into a hotel/camping for only one night wasn’t really worth it. So we carry the boat through the city and around the dam.

Portage Tuttlingen city center kayak canoe

While we’re packing our stuff to carry, a man approaches us and has a chat. He asks us whether we’re paddling upstream or downstream. I don’t know those people that like to torture themselves so much to paddle upstream. With stretches that go as fast as 12 kilometers per hour, I’m not even sure if it’s possible to paddle that up. Anyway, Jonas answers downstream. The man warns us of another dam that’s – presumably by land? – one kilometer from here. We say we know there’s one more coming before Mühlheim. The man says some more things in what’s both a heavy accent for me as well as for Jonas and (presumably) wishes us good luck on our trip.

I carry the dry bags, Jonas carries the black backpack. We both lift the boat. Jonas at the front, me at the back. The portage is only 250 meters, but we have to make several stops for me to be able to carry the boat at the back. I’m thinking of getting a small kayak trolley for these events. We thought we needed to cross a busy street with cars to get past the river dam, but there’s a bicycle tunnel that runs underneath. We take that one and hope no cyclists are coming from the back. After that is directly a set of stairs to put the boat down and back at river level.

Tuttlingen bicycle tunnel Tuttlingen dangerous wehr

Tuttlingen wehr water drop dam Portage dam in Tuttlingen reentering the water canoe kayak paddle Donau Danube

At 13:15, we’re paddling again. We spot a beaver in the river elegantly swimming upstream with its floppy tail. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beaver going for a swim before.

An Accidental Baptism

We never know whether there will be a sign informing us on time how far away the dam is and on which side we’re supposed to get out. My phone says it’s another 600 meters when a sign appears on the left shore saying the dam is only 300 meters away. It doesn’t tell us where to get out. The building of the Wehr is on the right shore, so we presume we have to get out on the left side. That’s how it’s always been. Induction at its finest.

The sound of splashing water gets louder and we decide to quickly make it to the left shore. There are no good and flat landing places, so we try to get out at a non-optimal place. It’s always been my job to be the first to get out and hold the boat. This is no different.

I hold the boat leash and get up inside the boat while holding the grassy shore. Jonas keeps the boat balanced and sticks his paddle in the embankment. I know it’s going to be a tough one, so I leave my paddle in the boat. Leaning on the shore, I stick one foot in the grass above the water line. I test my grip and commit to it… And then slip!

My left leg crotch-deep into the muddy water, I immediately try to reestablish my momentum with my right leg. Though I’m flexible enough to put it high on the shore, the other one also only catches onto the slippery mud. I slide in on my belly. I’m making several pointless crawling motions to get out, but it’s all in vain. The embankment goes very deep very quickly, and I’m stuck between the boat and the shore.

Shit.

I try with all my might to walk it up, but I just sink in deeper until my life vest keeps my upper torso afloat. A shock of cold goes through my body, then vanishes. Then surrender; I stop trying to walk up the shore with the same technique as before, expecting different results. I’m not afraid of drowning. I’m just worried I won’t get back up the shore. And I’m embarrassed. But most of all: I’m really fucking pissed off with my piss-poor execution of mooring the boat. I had one job.

Fuck.

Jonas stays calm as I start panicking as I can feel the current at my feet. I hold onto the boat instead of the muddy and slippery shore without any handholds and lock eyes with Jonas. I’m not sure if he’s just maintaining his calm to deescalate the situation, doesn’t understand how incredibly difficult it is for me to get up, or is also panicking because the current is still pulling the boat. All he has to hold onto the shore is his paddle.

I let out a powerful scream of frustration and then refocus. My whole body lies flat against the muddy diagonal. I grab the longest grass I can find on the shore. It breaks off inside my hands as soon as I put weight on it and I slide back in. So I grab more of it, hoping to catch more roots. This time it holds. I slide my body up and try to put my knees into the muddy edge under water, which does absolutely nothing for grip. Above me are some mean-spirited plants, but I’m not dodging them anymore. I grab anything that helps me get up the one-meter embankment until my feet are out of the water and I can tiger onto the flat top.

I’m still holding the boat leash in my hand.

Wet Clothes and Cold Food

But we still have to finish the portage. As I get up and let the water of my first swim in the Danube (on this trip) fall off me, I ask Jonas to throw the paddles onto the shore. After that, I turn the boat and get it parallel to the shore so Jonas can have a try at getting out at this shitty spot. Not making the mistakes I made, he gets out just fine without even getting his feet wet. And now we have to lift the whole boat with all the heavy luggage out of the water… a questionable practice.

We put the boat with the front forward and Jonas pulls on the leash. It’s tough, but we get our vessel out of the fast-flowing waters at the front. The whole thing is on land with some more tugging efforts and then we can unpack the boat. Jonas asks if I’m OK, but it’s windy up here and I’m getting cold quickly in my wet clothes. I just want to get this over with and sit in a place out of the wind. I grab the two dry bags and the paddles and walk past the dam.

Wehr dam Danube Donau river after Tuttlingen before Mühlheim

There is a sign. But the sign is very close to the point of no return. It says to exit the water on the right. Not the left. There’s even a semi-nice place to land your boat. We placed the wrong bets. I walk on to find a launching spot and find something at the water very soon. Jonas uses the break to call some hotels in Mühlheim so we’ll have a place to stay.

I’m very wet.

And muddy.

And generally miserable, but this will pass once I’m out of the wind. I assess the damage.

Immendingen to Mühlheim Germany kayak trip canoe mud wet accidental swim Danube Donau

From bottom to top, it’s my water shoes (duh), my two layers of leggings completely, and more or less half of my inner top, quick-dry shirt, dress, sweater, down winter jacket, poncho, fingerless gloves, and part of my life jacket. Several items in my pockets got wet, including my action camera and my smartphone, both of which were in their respective waterproof boxes. Everything survived, but what a mess. I take off my outer layer of leggings that prevents the inner one from drying. While Jonas is securing us a room for the night.

I help Jonas get the boat down from the upper embankment and we sit down to discuss the accommodation for the night and what just happened over last night’s Döner-Käse Seele. It’s still delicious, even when it’s cold. I put on dry gloves, put the wet leggings and gloves away and suggest we’d just continue paddling to get warm. It’s two o’ clock and there are only 7 kilometers left to Mühlheim from here. Jonas has to navigate with his smartphone as my battery is empty.

Testing the Kayak Sail

Inside the kayak, my lower body is quite well-protected from the wind. It’s not that cold anymore. I feel a strong breeze coming from the back and we float forward as our wide ponchos catch the wind. I ask Jonas if it’s OK to put out the kayak sail, to have a first attempt at this and as a blanket for me to protect my lower body.

Excitedly, I unleash the sail. It flops into shape quickly and catches the wind. We speed up fast! Jonas has to steer while I operate the sail. I can turn the sail slightly to change the angle, but I’m not sure whether that works as rough steering. We’re sailing our kayak, how cool is that?

But the fun ends quickly as the wind dies down and the rain starts again. After a river bend, the advantage fully stops. Now I put the sail over my legs to protect them from the wind and rain. The unfolded sail catches quite a bit of rainwater. Paddling with this plastic sheet over me is also quite difficult. Sometimes the sun comes back out, but it never really stops raining again. I drain the kayak sail/spray sheet quite regularly as we move towards Mühlheim quite quickly.

Arrival in Mühlheim

Jonas isn’t very confident yet with the navigation, but he can unlock his phone from inside the waterproof phone case, which is a big advantage.

We see our landing spot from around the last corner we pass. The good news is that it exists, the bad news is that there are some rapids right after. Mühlheim is where the Danube becomes completely forbidden to paddle for quite a stretch, all the way to a village called Hausen im Tal.

We land our boat at some rocks and I’m getting out first again. I struggle to get past the kayak sail, which I stubbornly didn’t fold back up before this unexpectedly crucial landing. The rocks are slippery and it’s not easy to get the boat parallel to the shore so Jonas can also get out. We high-five for accomplishing our first 20-kilometer day trip. It’s 15:30, a decent time to check into a warm hotel and take a hot shower. We take out the heavy luggage and then lift the boat onto land. A man on a walk in the rain and sunshine comes down the stairs. We greet one another and then the rain starts again.

Immendingen to Mühlheim rapids

Once everything is on land, we dry our feet with Jonas’ sarong and put on our dry socks and shoes. My 27-month-old Merrell hiking boots aren’t exactly waterproof anymore; the rubber sole of the right heel is falling off at an alarming rate. In wet grass – like at our landing spot in Mühlheim – I absorb the wetness through the shoe and into my socks. Yikes.

Jonas calls some more with the hotel we’re going to stay at, and the owner offers to pick us up from our location. I’m packing all our stuff including the tricky kayak sail while Jonas tries to describe where we are and puts a stranger on the phone to tell her. By the time he’s done, we only need to flip the kayak to let the water out, deflate it, and pack it. My guess is that it’s a 30-minute job. Jonas thinks we can get it done in 20. That’s when we’ll be picked up.

Immendingen to Mühlheim

Together we fold the kayak into its original shitty duffle bag instead of the fancy CabinMAX. Too much effort when we know we’ll have to unpack it to dry the boat upon arrival anyway. A black car pulls up when we’re done and waiting by a picnic table. A friendly lady steps out and immediately opens the trunk while chatting with Jonas. She seems excited for us to have arrived by kayak so early in the season.

Mühlheim an der Donau

We drive up the hill in the car. I’m in the backseat and I got my poncho stuck in the door. The drive is only 600 meters but also climbs very steeply. It would have not been fun to walk that, and we’re super grateful for the ride.

In the car, the hotel owner asks Jonas till where we’re paddling. “Bis zum Schwarzen Meer” (until the Black Sea) he says, and I’m so happy. She responds jokingly “That’s what it looks like, with all your luggage.”

We arrive at Hotel Hirsch and enter via the back. First, she introduces us to the boiler room. A giant CV tank to heat up all the water for the hotel’s hot showers stands in a little room. It’s dry and warm inside. She says we can hang our kayak onto the beams and dry everything that’s wet. We take the offer, but first, check ourselves into our room. I can’t wait to get out of these wet clothes and wash it all. I check the time… it’s now 16:30. That was a 9 and a half hour trip from waking up till arriving here, and our first day where we covered more than 20 kilometers. We’re both quite proud of our achievement today, despite my fiasco.

Together we hang the kayak, the life vests, the kayak seats, and the wet duffle bag in the boiler room. I take a shower and wash some of the muddy leggings. Jonas showers next and then we’re ready to check out the oberstadt (uptown) of Mühlheim an der Donau and get something to eat. Most businesses in this town are (somehow) completely reserved for hiking groups, so we go from restaurant to restaurant until we get to Zur Linde. There we get one table to eat a meal and drink a large Hirsch weizen. We worked for this.

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immendingen to muhlheim germany kayak canoe

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