Following Rivers

Jens Steingässer has journeyed by kayak in Greenland, Albania, and South Africa, yet he experienced his greatest water adventure in Germany. He took his ultralight packraft and folding bike for a four-week trip along the waterways from his home in Odenwald all the way to the Baltic Sea. He traversed more than 1000 kilometers through a network of rivers, including the Elbe, the Saale, and the Havel, crossing from one river to the next towards the sea. Depending on the waters’ direction of flow and navigability, he would alternate between boat and bike. The river became his constant companion, and the outdoors became his home. Jens Steingässer has shown that the greatest adventures await us right outside our front door.

“Can your bike even ride with so much stuff on it?” asked my daughter Frieda, astonished at the load my folding bike would have to carry over the coming four weeks: four panniers and 75 kilograms of baggage, including the packraft with a paddle, camping equipment, and only the most essential clothing. My plan is simple – take a time-out from my everyday routine and instead spend a month following the call of German rivers, from my front door in Odenwald, crisscrossing the waterways over the former border between East and West Germany, until I reach the Baltic Sea. I start to tingle when envisaging the courage I’ll have to summon up while making the journey. At the same time, I have serious respect for all that I might encounter along the way. Experiencing Germany so up close also means no longer avoiding things. I will simply let myself drift along, find my way through trial and error.

I now realize that I will be transporting almost double my body weight to the Baltic. I will be alternating between bike and boat, depending on the rivers’ location and the need to make portages. I decided to forego navigation aids, GPS, and pre-planned routes. The rivers themselves will be the guides, and I plan on following them using all my senses. I’ll start at the closest river source and begin paddling when the rivulet turns into a river. Until then, I’ll have to press ahead on the folding bike loaded with my boat and baggage.

Start on the Modau

It’s like a melted ice cube! I like the taste of the Modau. Up here at the source, fertilizer has yet to enter the water. In my search for its origin, I cross my first small watershed. While the Modau flows into the Rhine, the course of the Gersprenz first leads east, and then only later turns westward into the Main. It is fascinating that every drop of rain that falls from the heavens seeks the most direct way to the sea – they always move down-gradient. In topographical terms, a watershed is an elevated terrain that separates neighboring drainage basins. Water flows from the higher ground to rivers that eventually reach larger bodies like lakes or the sea. Two drops of rain that fall from the sky only a centimeter apart landing in large European watersheds could even end up in different oceans. What exactly determines the paths of the raindrops and their subsequent fate is a matter likely forever to be beyond the scope of human understanding. One drop may land on the deck of a North Sea cutter hauling in its nets. The other, while on its thousands of kilometers long path towards the Black Sea, could be picked up in a bucket by a farmer, who pours it on her field to water her peppers and watermelons.

Following Rivers with a small orange boat on a sunny day

Hitchhiking on the Main

Ahead is the Main River, one of the most essential transportation arteries in Europe, and it poses a real challenge. I will have to follow the Main upriver for some 350 kilometers. The Main at this altitude is not exactly the river I am most attracted to on my way to the Baltic Sea. The current is simply too strong for me to paddle my packraft upriver.

Luckily, the freighter Emanuel IV is anchored before the locks heading upriver in Würzburg. Jozef, its skipper, and his partner Harald welcome me as if we were old friends. Upon boarding the ship, I enter another universe. The railing is illuminated in blue in a chain of lights made up of thousands of LEDs. It is the gateway to a mobile home that could easily compare in exoticism to an Uzbek living room. The cabin is a unified work of art: artificial flowers, glass owls, pasted butterflies, and collages of popstars meld with flea market treasures to create a world in itself. Parakeets eye us from their vast aviary as I enter Jozef’s and Harald’s living room. Neither of them has met me before. I could just as easily be a bank robber on the run from the police, seeking to extinguish the traces of my existence along the waterway. For Jozef and Harald, I am simply a guest.

On the Schwarza

I am stuck. The marshy terrain just won’t let me loose. It is no wonder considering all the weight. The watershed is within my reach, and this will also mark a turning point on my voyage, as it will be the final great ascent of the whole tour. It takes a lot of effort to push myself, the bike, boat, and baggage along the stream in the direction of the source of the Steinach. I already know that I won’t even really see the source. A raft pond was built on the spot, and today it is a swimming hole for nudists, and they are not even alarmed by my camera. If only I could stretch out on the field and relax, but the bog would probably suck me in by the skin and hair. Finally, I arrive at the ascent. I quietly rejoice. The last significant elevation of the trip is now behind me!

From now on, the way will be downhill. And not only while this was my last ascent, but also because I have just reached the most prominent watershed of my tour, I can soon hope to pull out the boat from its demeaning existence in one of the pack bags. Nonetheless, I will still face a challenge with the Rennsteig, a long-distance trail in the Thuringian Forest, until I reach the Schwarza. The descents through the quiet woods are incredibly steep. My panniers often get caught on the trees, and I have to pick up my baggage. While riding at full tilt, I hit a knot of tree roots, and my bike almost turns over because I can no longer control it along the steep and narrow path. The Thuringian Forest has a reputation for being particularly dark.

bird view of an orange boat following rivers in Germany

I experience the forest flooded with light so that I can only surmise as to its darker side. The spring sun is unusually powerful this year, and the plants around me are secreting essential oils. I feel more than motivated and am almost euphoric. There are still close to three weeks of freedom ahead of me, and I am getting more and more used to my life as a vagabond and my amphibian-like mobility.

Drifting along the Saale

It is an entirely new feeling to be carried along by a large river like the Saale. As I move past the forested banks, I feel it flows much slower than the Schwarza. On the horizon appear villages. Another indication that I will now be journeying through a considerably more populated area than over the past few days.

I finally get to relax my legs and let my upper body take over the work, and it is quite a relief after all the days of cycling with my heavy gear. My boat glides almost silently along, and sometimes a water bird is startled when I get too near. Storks make their rounds above or wade alongside the banks.

Flying emeralds suddenly shoot by me like arrows. Kingfishers! They are too shy and too fast for me to inspect more closely. While making steep curves, I frequently encounter sandstone cliffs, where I can make out their nesting holes. I see a roebuck grazing very close to the river in the shade of a group of young beech trees. For days now, the heat has been rising steadily. Therefore, it is no surprise that more people and animals are drawn to the water than usual. The languid current of the Saale makes it an ideal paddling river.

On the Elbe

The Middle Elbe section of the river flows through a primeval meltwater valley. It is so vast, opaque, and powerful that it instills me a great deal of respect. All the more so, since the bottom of my packraft clearly shows material wear. If the boat springs a leak, how long would it take me with the present speed of the current to make it ashore?

What would I attempt to do to reach land? This is the first time since the start of my journey that such thoughts run through my head. I know the feeling only too well from other paddle trips. Kayaking between icebergs in Greenland was one of the most profound experiences of my life. To know that a whale could surface from under me, an iceberg could flip over, or a calving glacier could trigger a massive water movement. It was both terribly disturbing and appealing at the same time. Perhaps it is the unfathomability of deep waters that accounts for this fascination. It is a mysterious world where I, as a paddler, feel tiny, humbled, and simultaneously intoxicated. And this is in a world where “undiscovered” wilderness is practically non-existent.

night camoing in a Jack Wolfskin tent

High Life on the Havel

In Plaue, I buy myself breakfast with coffee. After fighting through a forest of nettles to get to Plauen Lake, I am promptly rewarded with a fantastic sandy beach all to myself. Buzzing with excitement, I don’t know what I should do first – go for a swim, eat breakfast, and then wash myself and my clothes, or the other way around? I run into the lake with a wild cry and thrash about like a small child in the water. Afterward, I eat breakfast while enjoying the view of passing houseboats, and not a crumb remains. I lay out my t-shirt and pants to dry on the slightly warmed sand. Then I allow myself the indescribable luxury of lying down on the shore and taking a nap. My children must be in school by now, my wife sitting at the computer. For a brief moment, I experience a glimmer of a guilty conscience, but it is simply sucked up by Plauen Lake, slowly sinking to the bottom like a heavy stone. I observe some pairs of dragonflies dancing in sync over the slightly opened water lily flowers as if they were following some intricately worked out choreography. I am not the only one here in a holiday mood. Everywhere, I can see people sitting on the decks of their fancy yachts and eccentric houseboats, sipping coffee in the sun.

The relaxed mood is infectious. I take my time and unpack my boat, stow away and tie up my gear, and set off down the Havel River, which runs through Plauen Lake. I pass by fishing poles set up by Havel fishermen, jutting upright out of the water. There are the houseboat settlements on the banks that remind me of Sweden. I see a family disembarking from their houseboat in an inflatable dinghy, while on the next boat, fishing poles are attached to the deck. On yet another boat, I observe a group of young people toasting with their first cocktail of the day. I really get the feeling here that one could have a good time!

On the Müritz

The Mecklenburg Lake Plateau is one of my tour highlights, and I have been looking forward to it for days. It features 1117 lakes connected to each other by canals. At its heart lie Lake Müritz and the Müritz National Park with vast forests and marshlands, which grow according to the rules and rhythms of nature.

following rivers with a sail boat drifting by

The tree branches have so thoroughly merged together to form a living roof over my head, only allowing isolated bundles of light to reach the water. The green firmament is reflected upon the water surface, creating an optical illusion. If I were to drink a beer on my empty stomach, I would not be sure if heaven and earth had exchanged places. A family of swans accompanies me on Granziner Lake until I reach the next canal, which seems narrower and more magical than the previous one. Moss covered deadwood protrudes far into the middle of the canal. Upturned trees and pale branches span the waterway to its opposite side and paint a bizarre graphic pattern on the water surface. The air is permeated by the smell of earth and dampness, the natural process of decay, living water, and a hint of fish, potently foretelling my destination – the sea! What I am experiencing here in the Müritz National Park is no less spectacular than what I have seen on my paddle tours in South Africa, Australia, or Greenland – only different.

Finale on the Peene

Dead trees rise from moorland meadows up towards the sky. A deafening symphony of birdcalls resonates from the rushes. Ancient tree roots washed down by the waters, form a mesh around the shore that follows its own set of rules. The water finds its way through the fields, the woods, and the reeds, gnaws at the banks, and conquers divergent paths, which over time, become the river’s tributaries. The river looks like a golden band just before the setting sun robs its brilliance, with the dazzling bond only to be restored the next morning. Thousands of birds emerge from their hiding places in the evening hours to forage for food. It is no wonder that the Peene is also known as “Germany’s Amazon.” To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if a crocodile suddenly came swimming towards me from the rushes.

White-tailed eagles circle above. With the queens of the heavens flying over me, I feel tiny in my small raft, gliding down the river like a silent nutshell. Humility sets in. Contradictory emotions that have been swelling up inside of me finally come to the fore. I am inconceivably happy at this moment. The golden river full of life is beside me, and the sea lays before me. But I am also sad that my river adventure has reached its end. Humility is accompanied by melancholy. But if there is one thing I have learned from my cross-country, cross-river journey, it is to live in the moment. I will not let drops of bitterness from this farewell spoil my mood.

Ocean pier with traveler and his bikeplus Jack Wolfskin equipment

The rivers traveled over the past few weeks have, little by little, engendered a metamorphosis. Now, at this very moment, the relationship between land and water has suddenly been transposed. There it is – the thin line on the horizon. I already know it, but I stick my finger in the water just to make sure. I have arrived at the place where all the water drained off from the land converges into a boundless expanse. And I feel as if I am part of this cycle, a part of the whole. After all, my life also has a clear set, inescapable destination that ultimately vanishes on the horizon.

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