From Basel in the south to Kiel in the north
Words: Michael Walther Photos: Tom Körber
The flashing blue light of the water police emerges from the drizzle. At a good 15 knots, they approach my heavily loaded SUP. Two uniformed officers stand on deck and instruct me, in a friendly but determined manner to leave the channel. I don’t understand the world. How could it come to this?
My journey across Germany begins in Basel. I set my 13’6 foot Fanatic Ray Air Explorer on the Rhine at 09.00 on August 2nd. At the Wettsteinbrücke, Basel’s second-oldest bridge, the longest in the city, I set off with 1300km to Kiel lying ahead of me, my board and my 45kg of luggage. I limited myself to the bare essentials, but with my small boat trolley, stove, food, six litres of water and technical equipment, a few kilos have soon accumulated!
The start goes according to plan. It seems completely unreal that I will find myself for the next three weeks only with this board, paddle stroke after paddle stroke direction north. If I had known here about the challenges that will await me, I would probably have got back on the train home. Unsuspecting, however, I set off for the first few metres.
Frequently I was asked before my tour when I would like to be and whether I have already selected sleeping places. I do not know the individual weirs and their transfer possibilities, so I could not estimate the amount of time each of these 35 obstacles would take on my journey. Accordingly, nothing is planned, and I decide spontaneously. On the first weir the exit is easy, but the re-entry, into an old arm of the Rhine, is not. It goes down a 4m high stone bank with all my equipment before a one-metre high step to the water. I have no other choice than to throw my equipment into the river and then jump in with my board. Paddling, I collect my seven things then again, before it floats away. I have a bad feeling when I think this is only the first transfer point of my journey.
But the next kilometres are fun. This oxbow is the only one with current, and some passages even have level I white water. The board is well loaded in the water with 45kg of luggage and my 90 kilos and works its way safely and stably through the rapids. Thanks to my good map, I can roughly estimate which areas are passable and which I have to portage around despite the stable board. Other than the first weir, most of the following portages are well signposted and passable except for slippery algae. Cheerfully and with a good average speed, I quickly complete the first 70 kilometres to the north.
However, I quickly realise that the first kilometres were an exception. The Rhine and its oxbow lakes have an appreciable current. That clouds my mood a little, as there is already a noticeable 1-2 km/h current. So I have to bite the bullet and fight the first three days, metre by metre.
By the middle of the third day, I reach Iffezheim in Baden-Württemberg. From here, the river flows unrestricted to Duisburg and further, with an actual current that gives me plenty of pleasure at the beginning. The whirlpools and groynes at the fairway buoys are impressive and demand my full attention. The barge traffic is substantial, and in combination with jet skiers, water skiers, and sport boats, it is a mixture that demands my attention. Nevertheless, I manage 100 kilometres in each of the following two days, despite temperatures beyond 35C.
Next is Rüdesheim, a wine making town in the Rhine Gorge, is also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in this area. From here the game changes again. The Rhine bends to the north and accelerates again through the narrow valley. Rapids, barges, ferries, everything comes together and yet I have a big grin on my face. The stronger the current, the faster the journey. It is incredibly exhausting, but how much so I only realise in the following days.
On the sixth day of my trip, I sleep until 08.00. More physically recovered but already at 28C, I put in about 10.00 and paddle slowly past Koblenz towards Bonn. The sun rises higher, the temperatures rise, and the sweat runs off me in streams as a northern German boy! Every hour I take a five-minute break. Applying new sunscreen, whereby now a thick white layer covers me, drink, consume an energy bar, and on it goes.
Slowly I realise that all protein, energy, power or other bars must be from the same ingredients. Everything tastes the same. Figs, dates, grains, everything is sweet, sticky with no surprise to the taste buds. So I force another bar in me one after the other and stoically dip the paddle in the front and pull through. The kilometres pass by, the continuity takes me onwards, at a 5 km/h paddling speed; I can do 60 km a day with the current.
Unfortunately, the heat before Bonn tires me so much that I give up at 16:30 and look for a night camp. In order not to repeat the same mistake, I start the following day at 05.30. With a lamp and in the dawn, I creep onto the Rhine and paddle closely along the bank.
Dusseldorf is a highlight for me. I’m thrilled when I catch sight of the TV tower and a team from the world’s largest water sports exhibition, ‘boot Düsseldorf’, are waiting for me. After a short coffee break, I continue on my way; finally, the Rhine behind me.
Around noon, I reach the Rhine Orange in Duisburg. Here the Ruhr branches off, which after a few kilometres leads into the Rhine-Herne Canal. I leave the Rhine slightly wistfully. Now I have almost half of my kilometres behind me, but I already suspect that the Rhine was relatively easy to paddle thanks to the current. What lies ahead of me now are the canals to Minden, over which I would like to reach the Weser. As is the nature of canals, these offer no current, leading almost endlessly straight ahead, and I suspect now the most challenging part of my journey is ahead.
Day 10 starts at 18:00. I start my 250 km long journey to Minden. There onto the Weser, which promises finally again a slight current. I have planned 4-5 days for this section, but this day starts with a headwind and many locks – every metre is hard-fought. Shortly before Datteln, the biggest canal junction in the world, a thunderstorm is coming up behind me. Before it reaches, the east wind breaks down, and a strong southwest wind pushes me past the new coal-fired power plant.
This new coal-fired power plant looks quite impressive. Packaged in a shimmering blue robe, it looks modern and is probably meant to suggest cleanliness. In my opinion the fact that this power plant further will accelerate climate change and that it was pointless to plan it in the first place, let alone build it or put it into operation, is another matter. I wonder again how the operators, the energy company managers, the politicians and lobbyists who advocate such things can live with it. Because actually, the calculation is quite simple. If we continue to use fossil fuels, we will make this planet uninhabitable within a few decades.
Forecasts have been undercut recently, so I know my seven-year-old niece and my four-year-old nephew will already have to struggle massively with the problems of climate change. Perhaps it will also already affect me. We are free to decide. If we continue as before, that will soon be it with our planet in its present, exquisite form. We will have to take drastic measures if we start now, but we still have a little leeway. So if we plan, approve, operate and keep in operation fossil fuelled power plants, it’s also a direct sign that we don’t care about the future of our planet and our children.
It’s that simple, and it has to be said that simply. For me, any power plant is merely an example. The same applies to other coal-fired power plants, factory farming in its present form, air travel at the price of a movie ticket, and the heating up of consumer hype.
Pushed by the thunderstorm wind, I escape the rain and the storm and rest that night north of Lüdinghausen. My goal was to get Münster within striking distance, I succeeded.
Respect and cheering
The following day the Dortmund-Ems Canal offers no surprises worth mentioning and relatively little shipping traffic. Slowly I approach the student city. At the canal bank in Münster, I swim and enjoy the nice weather. Here and there, I meet stand-up paddlers. When they ask me where I’m coming from and where I’m going, I answer truthfully with, “Basel to Kiel.” With it, I earn respect and cheering but also head shaking, which I can understand. This canal drags, and I still have more than 150km to
Minden before me
About 21.00, I look randomly for a place to spend the night on the shore when I pass three young people listening to ‘Santiano’ while enjoying their shisha. I stop and get into conversation with the guys. Although I don’t smoke, I quickly find myself in good company and decide to set up my night camp here. I turn my board over and put my sleeping bag on the back. Although the board is rigid, after 14 hours of standing, it is easy for me to fall asleep in the evening.
The further kilometres to Minden are tough. My wrists start to hurt, my shoulder is overloaded, and instead of completing the remaining 100 canal kilometres within two days, I lose a day and don’t reach Minden until Saturday, my 14th paddling day.
Towards the North Sea
The Weser awaits me on the 15th day with light fog and a slight current. With a maximum of 1 km/h, the water flows towards the North Sea, but this is already very helpful for my motivation. Instead of 5 km/h, I can now assume 6 km/h, which in reality allows daily stages of 60-70km instead of 50km on the canals. Nienburg is my first goal of the day, and I think about whether I might even get a little further. Every day, I have set myself a minimum goal, which I hope to surpass if all goes well.
The next day, the stage to Bremen is like a roller coaster of emotions. Tailwind or calm alternate with headwind and rain due to moving thunderstorms. From evening it becomes more constant; it rains intensely for four hours. On the last metres to Bremen, I ask myself how if I should set up my tent halfway dry. Shortly before 21:00, a 15-minute rain gap appears, and this I used to establish my night camp at the Marina Wieltsee.
Quickly, therefore, I paddle the following day the remaining 30 km on the Weser-Elbe path and transfer my board and luggage to the mouth of the Oste. At 14:00, I start what is the most critical part of my tour – 8 km across the Elbe, which is still very wide at this point. I let pass a suction dredger and a container ship before I paddle on full power. The current moves me powerfully to the east, but my calculation works out. With my last strength, I enthusiastically reached the dyke of Brunsbüttel and was greeted by the first Schleswig-Holstein creature with a friendly “maaah”. I guess the sheep rarely see stand-up paddlers, and so I run into the Brunsbüttel Marina, cheered on by my friends.
Kiel Canal (NOK)
It is 19:00 on August 21st; I set off on the last leg of my tour. Ninety-seven kilometres of the Kiel Canal (NOK) lie ahead of me and separate me from my home in Kiel, with 1200km behind me, and after the challenging crossing of the Elbe, I am looking forward to two quiet final days. But I haven’t factored in our border guards. I’m just 7km down the channel when I notice the police boat approaching from behind. I have my Secumar Free 100 life jacket on, my board leash on my leg, my position light shining bright and clear, and my live tracker with an emergency button in front of me. So I don’t expect any major trouble.
The team of the water police confirms to me that paddling on the channel is not forbidden in principle; nevertheless, they direct me to the shore. I have to leave the water and crawl up the rock bank. I am annoyed, disappointed and confused at the same time. On August 11th, the Water and Shipping Authority had confirmed that I was allowed to paddle on the canal. But now I’m standing on the shore and don’t know what to do. After a while, I get another confirmation by phone that there is no basis to expel me from the canal. It becomes clear there is little enthusiasm on the official side that I paddle on the channel, but I may continue. So I reach Rendsburg shortly before sunset and thus the last stopover of my tour.
The discussions the day before took away six hours of paddling time, so I start the final day before sunrise. The last day is quite exhausting, but at 14:30, I reach the Holtenau Lock, the last obstacle on my way. After more than 35 locks, weirs and other obstacles, I am very practiced and so I quickly pack my board and equipment on the boat trolley. At 15:00, I reach the Baltic Sea and accompanied by friends and acquaintances on land and SUPs, I paddle the last 5km of my journey to the Friedrichsort Lighthouse. Here begins the open Baltic Sea, and here ends my journey across Germany.