Europe by Canoe

    Written in 2011

    When I was 23 years old, I borrowed an old canoe and spent ten days paddling down the Mississippi river with a couple friends. Not the storied American river, mind you, but a diminutive sidekick that shares its name and runs through eastern Ontario. I was at last free from successive iterations of schooling, and eager to soak up the real world. We lacked technique, but charged through the river’s minor rapids on the crest of young male bravado. As the days passed, a feeling of total freedom worked its way into our hearts and sprung us from those voluntarily prisons we construct around ourselves and others. As the forested headwaters of the river gave way to farmland and small towns, we realized that paddling this river was not just an end in itself, but that it actually took us places.

    At first it just took us to Mr. Norm’s fast food, where we hungrily renewed our bodies’ caches of trans-fats. But then it led us through the centres of little towns like Carleton Place, Almonte, and Pakenham, and finally, after the Mississippi trickled into the much greater Ottawa River, it carried us to the nation’s capital, our final destination. But by the time we were approaching that city, we thought, why stop there?  We could paddle on to the St. Lawrence, skirt between the freighters in the seaway, and be carried to the Atlantic. From there the world would lie at our feet! I imagined awakening each morning in a new place – a road trip without the ugliness of modern roads, down the Earth’s ancient highways. Most of the world’s population lives by a body of water, and the versatile canoe – equally at home in a mile or an inch of water and easily carried around obstacles insurmountable to larger boats – could visit them all. The humble canoe was our vehicle to utter freedom.

    Although prudence prevailed and we did stop in Ottawa, that was the vision planted inside me during ten days in my 24th year. And for some reason it refused to die. So one autumn ten years later, in the empty aftermath of an intense romance, surveying my unchallenging, too comfortable life, I searched my soul for something new and liberating to do and lit on that old flame: the epic canoe trip.

    I had long thought that Europe would be the best place to do it. My mini-Mississippi trip had taught me that a canoe trip doesn’t have to cut through wilderness to be worthwhile – town-hopping holds its own magic. And where are there more towns per square mile than Europe? I enjoyed the cognitive dissonance of this notion: bringing the quintessentially Canadian wilderness vehicle to one of the least wild places on the planet. And yet Europe had rivers – why not canoe them? After days of staring at maps until the blue threads of the rivers blurred, trying to discern a navigable route through the Continent, I had what seemed a workable plan, involving a minimum of upriver paddling and portaging. Come spring, I would quit my job and canoe from Prague to Amsterdam.

    My route actually began just east of Prague, on the Sasava River. From there, the plan was to paddle downriver to the Vlatava, which would take me through Prague. I’d then follow the Vlatava north as it flowed into the Labe. From there, the reasonable thing would have been to go with the flow of the Labe north into Germany, where its name changes to the Elbe, then trace its course northwest across the North German Plain to Hamburg and the North Sea. But that sounded too boring. Instead, I decided to hang a left on the narrow Ohře and head upriver, through the western Czech Republic and into the hills of northern Bavaria. It was a course change that worried me, especially since the Ohře was known for its rapids, but it seemed to me to be the only way to make the trip interesting enough to be worth doing. After climbing this 316km upriver mountain by canoe, I’d face some portages and more ups and downs through hilly Bavaria before reaching flatter terrain and a series of downriver runs all the way to Amsterdam.

    One of the great things about canoeing in the Czech Republic is the ubiquity of riverside bars. Every summer hordes of Czechs flock to their waterways, grab beer, dogs, babies, guitars, and funny Mexican sombreros, hop in beat-up, heavy plastic kánoes (which look more like kayaks, but with more open tops), and leisurely paddle downriver in laughing, drinking, singing flotillas. Whereas for Canadians canoeing is identity-defining, Czechs take it about as seriously as mini-golf. Its main purpose is as a vehicle to the next waterside watering hole, where they can imbibe from their identity-defining substance: beer. In this sense Canada and the Czech Republic complement each other nicely – Canadians like beer a lot but aren’t great at making the stuff, but are world-class canoe manufactures; Czechs like canoes a lot but are bad at making them, but make the best lager in the world. At about a dollar a pint, the calculation of value for money is enough to make most North American beer lovers’ heads explode. For another pittance, I could chase my beer with a klobasa sausage, accompanied with a little mustard, sauerkraut, and rye bread; thus was my sustenance taken care of.

    While there was an overabundance of beer on my trip, one thing was in short supply: company. I had naively hoped that the uniqueness of my trip would naturally attract people and make it easy to meet them along the way. What I had overlooked, however, was how difficult it would be to storm the ramparts of the language barrier. I spoke about six words of Czech (beer being the first, of course, followed by water, toilet, sausage, camping and thank you – a telling list of my existential priorities) and virtually no one in the countryside spoke a stitch of English. I’ve never been good at charades, and neither were most of the people I met, so most interactions died stillborn. I discovered that all this freedom I was experiencing was often quite a lonely business.

    So despite the singular pleasure of paddling a canoe, often intoxicated, through some of the prettiest medieval towns and rolling farmland this side of the Urals, I found the thrill of the open river to be dimming significantly by the time, after 11 days and 260km, I reached the mouth of the Ohře. And then, as I started to fight my way, salmon-like, upriver, the real trouble began.

    My progress slowed to a crawl and my arms to aching mush. I’d paddle along the edge where the current was slacker, and if that was too much and the river shallow, I’d get out and, wading, pull my canoe forward. If I was lucky I’d find a little path or road along the river’s edge and, loading my canoe laden with gear onto a canoe dolly, simply wheel the whole outfit overland. But sometimes the river was too deep for wading and no convenient road offered an escape, and the only option was to paddle like crazy, inching forward. Even harder than maintaining my physical stamina was maintaining my mental stamina – the will to carry on. It rained; I got the flu; I was desperately lonely; my days were unending struggle and my nights spent trying to find comfort in a tent. Why was I doing this, again?

    After 18 days of slogging, I’d made it 240km up the Ohře, nearly to the German border. I paused to take stock and consider: at this rate it would take me two more months to reach Amsterdam – a month longer than I’d planned. And my upriver travails were far from over – added all together, I still had the equivalent of another Ohře to climb. The thought was crushing. I had been clear with myself from the start that the purpose of this trip was to have fun, not prove that I could make it from point A to point B. I’d come 500km in almost a month, so felt I’d given it enough of a chance to become fun – and it wasn’t. So I called it quits.

    When I first got home, I had to wonder if the trip had been worth all the time, energy, and money I’d sunk into it. Some time had to pass before I came to realize that it did mark a profound turning point in my life. After the trip, I got my first “real” job, got married, made plans to buy property, and will soon be a father. In other words, I grew up.

    The idea of this trip had been a relic of my youth, from a time when the taste of freedom overwhelms the palate. But I’d found that the freedom I’d experienced on the rivers of Bohemia – solitary, purposeless – no longer appealed to me. Instead, I’d longed for the warmth of a partner, friends, and family, and the sense that all my efforts were building something worthwhile. Yet I’d had to undertake this trip to show myself once and for all that the life of my younger self belonged in my past. It successfully exorcised a youthful yearning for freedom that had been holding me back. Only then could I move on with conviction into full adulthood.

    The life that that conviction has allowed me to embrace is a much fuller, happier one than the young and free one I left behind. Ironically, the strangeness of this trip led me to welcome the more everyday pleasures of life. In that sense, the journey was well worth it.

    You can read my full trip blog here:

    1 thought on “Europe by Canoe”

    1. This is so interesting and your conclusion that all that hard struggle of travel led you to realize what you really wanted in life, at least for the next stage, really resonated so much with me. When I look back at my travel journals I see that most of the time I wasn’t having any fun whatsoever. It was really hard, lonely, and I seemed to be forever escaping near catastrophes. I like how you conclude that only when we look back long after we get home do we really see what the trip was about. And by the way, I also ended up reading your entire europebycanoe blog! Fascinating! (I will pick your brain about climbing that mountain in Slovenia because I want to do that!)

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