The events of this story happened on Monday the 27th of May 2019. We paddled our inflatable canoe from Neu-Ulm just across the border in Bavaria to Günzburg. This was a trip of 23.9 kilometers, I think. If you’re lost as to what these blog posts are about and why they’re not about hitchhiking, I suggest starting at Day Zero in Donaueschingen.
Our stay at the Brickstone hostel in Neu-Ulm had been very pleasant. They had a funny map of the entire Danube River, which also happened to be incredibly biased towards the upper two countries: Germany and Austria. The hostel mostly attracts long-distance cyclists. We’d met one Quebecois woman named Isabelle who was pedaling from Lyon in France to Sofia in Bulgaria. She said she needed to average 73 kilometers per day to make it on time without using trains or other forms of public transit.
Perhaps it’s just my lack of imagination, but I’d rather die than be on a bike in the mountains or hills. I’ve only had ill-fitting and under-performing bicycles since my high school bike got stolen in Maastricht back in 2010. I even stole a neglected bike myself as a form of recycling. The last year in Maastricht, I was sure I’d die on my latest bike. That bike was a menace. Even though I asked a bike repair person for advice on how to fix it, they told me there was no cure. Jonas sold that fucker for me anyway. Poor exchange student. I’m so sorry.
During our wine-fueled evening conversations, I noticed that people don’t really know what is a reasonable distance to cover by canoe. I sort of know what 73 kilometers by bike (on a flat area) means, but non-paddlers have no idea whether we can do 10 kilometers or 100 kilometers. To be fair, we didn’t know what was reasonable either at the start of this trip. Once on the lake of Guatapé in Colombia, I measured that we paddled about 15 kilometers between the various islands in one short day. But that’s a lake, not a river.
We spent the evening before departure packing up our stuff. I left behind the old hiking boots I’d bought in Chile back in 2017 since I’d just bought new ones. I contemplated the issue of not really being able to communicate clearly what is a good distance in an (inflatable) canoe. Tomorrow we’d once again increase our limits and test our abilities as we’d pass our first proper locks – as opposed to weirs – in this reimagined river. At least we’d both have neoprene (wetsuit) socks to keep our feet warm and our ankles protected from any stinging nettles. I’m still promising to one day make a nice soup out of these healthy but bastardly plants.
Preparing to Leave Neu-Ulm for Günzburg (27th of May)
It doesn’t really matter at what time we wake up or whether we eat breakfast beforehand; we always start paddling at 9:45-ish. This morning, we’d simply gulped down our half a liter cup of Skyr with a cup of coffee on the side and still only managed to leave the hostel at 8:45. We attracted some last-minute conversation with some other cyclists staying at the hostel before hiking down the 700 meters to the embankment.
At our familiar spot, we pumped up the canoe and did our usual spiel. I wishfully attached the kayak sail, since the forecast informed us the wind would come from the west. But this time, a blister that I didn’t even know was there burst. My poor right-hand pinky finger now had an awfully red hole in it. I was in pain. To be fair, we both had been collecting these weird little injuries since the start of this trip. A bruise here, a scratch there, it was all part of learning something new. I think this blister emerged from repeated rope pulling on that spot – perhaps from the shoelaces at Decathlon. It hurt so much. So today I’d have to use my full-fingered winter gloves instead of the fingerless ones.
It was sunny as predicted. The water levels and flow were a lot lower than when we’d arrived. The sheltered little spot didn’t pose a particular problem when entering the river. This meant all was good in the land of paddle preparations. We even had fresh neoprene socks to help our feet stay warm and our ankles protected from both stinging nettles and sunburn. Today had me stoked.
Our First Lock (Wasserkraftwerk Böfinger Halde)
We paddled from our launching spot past the Ulmer Münster and on the left side of the river island. Two days earlier, we’d spotted a paddler in a sort of racing or even hydro foiling kayak going down this same stretch. Of course, he was a lot faster than us. He also wobbled more compared to our tried and tested big rig. On the outskirts of Ulm, we paddled past a circus. The water became a lot calmer really quickly.
We arrived at our very first lock at 10:30. The sluice or lock part didn’t operate at this time of the year, so we had to portage around it on the right-hand side. This kind of infrastructure was also new to us. There were so many signs around warning us ahead of time to pass this power plant named Wasserkraftwerk Böffinger Halde. We were still right in the middle of the city according to the astonishing amount of casual joggers around.
The landing spot next to the locks were two sets of stairs with a lifting place. There were many little tour boats moored on the opposite side. Our newly discovered technique from Day 7 portaging helped us streamline the process of parallel lifting the boat out of the water. We collaborated just fine.
The disadvantage of a dam so public is that neither of us could go pee in peace. It’s time to lift the veil on this issue; the Danube has been a very public river all this time. We have physical needs. And we don’t leave trash behind. This dam, in particular, seemed to be a wild one on the edge of the civilization around greater Ulm.
Relaunching Our Boat and Paddling On to Dam Two (Oberelchingen)
We put our boat back in the water at this very wild place. Jonas had read up plenty about back currents and other dangers on the river. This re-launching place was an excellent example of Not Exactly Safe. With the falling water all around us, we had to make sure to paddle away from that drama immediately after re-embarking.
After strapping in our luggage, I asked Jonas to get in first. He got settled while I tried to hold the boat from the shore, but the boat slowly moved away without me. I stepped into the boat when I knew I probably couldn’t control the boat any longer without Jonas’ help. I hopped in and we turned around as the current urged us to do while paddling on both sides to create momentum. We got momentum, and after about 300 exhausting strokes we were back into the downstream current. It’s 10:45.
The embankment changed from a jogger’s heaven to more wilderness. We still saw several people out and about here on foot, but less and less so. The long-distance cyclists returned as the river bent more in direction east. A train line ran parallel for quite a while on the left shore until it bent away from us. The water slowed down some three kilometers before the next hydroelectric power plant. We arrived there at 12:00 and passed it in 20 minutes of heavy lifting on the left-hand shore. Also on this one, the locks were closed; we had no option but to portage.
Hydroelectric Dam Number Three (Leipheim)
The water sped up again for a little while. These hydroelectric dams have a very different vibe compared to the weirs we’d come to know on the stretches before Ulm/Neu-Ulm. We arrived at the third dam at 13:30 and portaged around it on the right-hand side in 15 minutes. This last lift I really felt as the day progressed. We had one more dam left.
Back in the boat, we discussed whether it made sense to put our boat back in the water again at Günzburg. The last hydroelectric dam (Wasserkraftwerk Günzburg) we’d have to get out on the right-hand side. Some 600 meters on the other side of the dam, the official exit spot at the VFL Günzburg Kanuabteilung (the local canoe club). That’s a very short distance to paddle, barely worth the hassle.
Jonas measured how far we’d have to walk from the hydroelectric dam to our hotel in Günzburg center: 1.4 kilometers. Quite a hike. But from the Günzburg canoe club, it would be 1.2 kilometers, so it’s not really something worth optimizing. We decided to save us the pain from another portage and pack it all up at the next dam. We arrived at that dam at 15:00 – our usual arrival time.
Arrival in Günzburg, Packing Up and Hiking to Town
We still walked to the other side of the dam in Günzburg to pack our stuff up. There was a pleasant shadow over there for us to relax in. We flipped the boat to let the water out, dried it upside down, and packed it all up next to the dam. It felt good to paddle all this, and our distance covered was pretty neat. In about an hour, we were ready to leave.
It was a pretty brutal hike to Günzburg center; not only was the path to get there a bit messed up because it was via an asphalted road in a tight turn without a sidewalk, but also because we had to cross the river Günz and walk quite a bit uphill. An ascent of 23 meters isn’t such a big deal, but it’s quite heavy when you’re doing it with stiff, brand new hiking boots and heavy luggage that pushes your physical limits.
We arrived at our hotel Goldene Traube (golden grapes), which has a self-check-in machine. Jonas put in his booking number, then voilà, two key cards to our room popped out. We had a really good desk in the room and decent WiFi. We’d initially booked this place for two nights but already wanted to extend for three to skip some bad weather. After unpacking, showering, and getting changed, we went to a local Vietnamese restaurant for some incredible meal.
Günzburg is famous for hosting the German version of Legoland. Our hotel was full of flyers for it. Jonas has never been. I’ve visited the Danish version back in my exchange student days. I didn’t know if Jonas had any nostalgic feelings to the toys or not, so I asked him if he wanted to visit it. He said he’d rather keep the money than spend it on an overpriced ticket to hear the joyful sounds of hyperactive children. I’m very happy we’re on the same wavelength on this.
In the days we had in Günzburg, we were very productive and did a lot of research about the next stretch from Günzburg to Dillingen an der Donau. That’s where we’d go camping for the first time. We needed to make the conditions – such as the weather – as pleasant as possible so that we’d give a new experience like that a fair chance.
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Photos of the Course of the Danube Map in the Hostel
Read them from left to right, not top down!