Rhine Kanuen - Part II click here to read or make an observation about this  article
By Brian Anderson - Cologne, Germany

Be sure to read Rhine Kanuen Part I

There came a Sunday in August when the wife, a little fed up with me moping around on the edge of madness from keeping track of two little girls every day and trying to put a book together, said OK, it is nice today and so you are going to take your boat and go for a trip on the river. (She’s a good wife).

So I went around and gathered up all the all the bits and pieces of my folding canoe while Valerie fed the girls and gathered all the bits and pieces of the going out equipment pack for the girls, and we both rode herd on the two little tornados as they continued their ceaseless quest to find something that a day before had been out of reach to eat or dismantle or use to hammer their sister or something else fragile.

Despite all their help, we found ourselves a couple of hours later at Bad Honnef, a small resort village about 35 miles upstream on the Rhine River from Cologne, where we live. We found a little park next to a boat ramp and set to putting the folding canoe together.

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Maia (L) and Rachel help their papa lose nuts and bolts in the grass.

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When I was building the canoe, I tried as much as possible to use sliding bolts and other bits of DIY store hardware to make it assemble as quickly as possible, but there were a lot of places where I just had to use bolts. On the bench in the shop, it all went together pretty quickly, but in practice it is a little disappointing -- a little over an hour from pieces to boat.

As I was wrestling with two little octopuses over screwdrivers and whatnot, a guy asked me if those were my paddles floating away on the Rhine. I bought a stainless ferrule from Duckworks to join the double paddles, and found some 30 mm (1-1/4 inch) hardwood dowels to make the shafts, but it turned out that the wood was more like 29 mm and so to tighten things up, I have been putting ferrule ends of the paddle in the water to swell. This was the first try with the new double paddle, and it worked really well. But I learned that even if you put a head-sized rock on the paddle blades when you stick the handles in the water, the wake from a passing container barge will still rip them loose. I was tighening the last bolt in the nose of the boat when a guy stuck his head out of an RV next to us and asked “Are those your paddles floating away on the river?” So there I was, an hour from home, the boat 3/4 built, and literally up a creek. Mercifully, just as I was stripping off my clothes to go for a swim, another big boat came along and the wake pushed the paddle-halves back to shore.

Almost done with the frame -- 1 hour

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Afloat at last, and just as the weather was starting to get nice.

Finally though, we managed to get everything together and I got on the water around noon as the clouds were gathering toward the south for what looked like it could be a real dinger of a thunderstorm. Bad Honnef is a nice little town, and the area around it is about as rich in German history as any place in the country. Just across the river, I could see “Rolland’s Bogen” (Rolland's Arch or Bow) the last remaining bit of Burg Rolland's Eck (Castle Rolland's Corner). The castle was originally built in the 12th century, but the name comes from the hero of “The Song of Rolland” a much older story, traditional to both France and Germany, of the hero Rolland, a sort of Lancelot to Charlemagne’s King Arthur but without the adultery. He was betrayed by a compatriot into a trap during a campaign against the Saracens and died at the battle of Roncevaux Pass on August 15, 778. Interestingly he was not killed by the 100,000 Saracens that surrounded the Frankish rearguard of 20,000 warriors, he won that battle, but by a cerebral haemorrhage brought on by blowing his magical horn, Olifant, too loudly after reinforcements for the Saracens arrived.

What exactly the remains of a 12th century door have to do with a guy who popped a vessel in southern France 300 years earlier is something of a mystery, but anyway it makes for a good story.

Just above and to my right, as I drift down the river and realise after a long and awkward search, that I have forgotten a cork screw, lies another ruined castle, Drachenfels (Dragon’s Cave). It is perched on top of a mountain, and the mountain is covered with grape vines, and I brought a bottle of a nice red German Dornfelder to commune with the landscape and hoped that it would allow me to hear the Rhine Maidens singing. There is always something, isn’t there.

The other legendary hero of Germany is Seigfried, the hero of the Niebelungenlied, a group of legends and stories that date back to the 5th or 6th century. It is all a cracking good yarn of Dark Ages bedhopping, seduction, betrayal, revenge, senseless violence, and copious amounts of banqueting which always included copious amounts of red wine...

In filling in some of the gaps in my memory of the story of Siegfried, I stumbled across this cool engraving by Matthaus Merian in the early 1600s. I took a photo, but this is much nicer.

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In any case, Drachenfels is the place where Seigfried slays the dragon Fafnir in his cave. He then bathes in the dragon’s blood under a linden tree to make himself invulnerable but, as these things always seem to go, a leaf falls from the tree and sticks to his back, and that place remains vulnerable. Richard Wagner in his Ring Cycle of operas, adds a nice bit in that while bathing, Seigfried tastes the blood and suddenly realises he can understand the song of the birds. After his bath, he gathers up Fafnir’s legendary treasure and wanders off to further renown, adventures in an Icelandic Amazon queen’s bedroom with the help of an invisible cloak and quaffing lots of Rhine wine from Arabian unicorn horns, until one day he is betrayed and stabbed in the back -- guess where.

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This very traditional river boat, named Moby Dick, is a disco that cruises up and down the river around Bonn.

I spied a small port tucked in behind a peninsula and decided to have a look and munch a few bratwursts for lunch. I also hoped to spot some picnickers who might have a corkscrew, but no luck there, there were just a couple of refugees from a Motley Crue concert fishing for carp.

After the bratwursts, I decided to open the bottle of wine using a tried and true college method of dealing with the problem. One gets a screwdriver and drives the cork down into the bottle. One cannot then put the cork back into the neck, but I have had worse problems, I figured. So I tried it, but the cork was apparently a long one, and the bottle was unusually full, so the cork went in as far as the top of the wine and stopped. I asked myself what Seigfried would do, and gave the screwdriver another good whack. The results were startling, if not in retrospect unexpected: FWISH, the compressed air in the bottle drove a cone-shaped fountain of atomized wine out of the bottle, covering me and everything in the boat.

While I was working on it, I had drifted over near a bank where the Motley Crue was fishing. They apparently had been watching with interest and sympathy because they hailed me as I was mopping the wine off my face and glasses. When my vision cleared I saw that they were laughing and holding up a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. They helpfully suggested that if there was no more wine in my bottle, I could drink with them. I have done a lot of carp fishing in my day, and met a lot of carp fishermen, and in my experience, when fishing for carp, one drinks beer, but then I am from Ohio. One might think this doubly true of German carp fishermen, but apparently not in the Rhineland wine areas.

A traditional Rhine fishing boat

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I’ve seen this beautiful old yacht a number of times on the river, It turns out she was built in 1925 in Cologne.

 
A traditional river barge, converted to a yacht.

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It turned out that despite the soaking I got, there was a good bit of wine left in my bottle so I asked about their luck (none) gave them a good “Proust” and headed out of the harbor, as I still had something over 30 miles to go before dark.

On an ordinary river, I would never have tried 35 miles in a half day, but the Rhine moves right along, going a couple of miles an hour even out of the main current which can hit something like 4 knots in places. So even with a late start, I figured that I could do it if I worked a bit. After leaving the harbor, the surrounding hills rapidly flattened out, and the river trip sort of flattened out too. There weren’t any more ruined castles, no more nice little towns, just the canalized Rhine with very little in the way of backwaters or tributaries to explore. No animals, no birds, except crows, seagulls and the very occasional cormorant. Any day on any river is a treat, but I think that next time I will head higher up the river and spend a day or three in the wine country with Siegfried and Roland and that crew.

A couple of hours into the trip, a humdinger of a thunderstorm passed overhead. I don’t think I caught the worst of it, but it blew pretty hard and there were some real pyrotechnics. I pulled over into a little cove. In the end it passed over pretty quickly and there was no lightning close by so I just sat it out and let the rain wash the wine off of me.

The day was not overly hot, but I had been sipping on the water bottles and sipping on the wine over the last four or five hours of paddling, and both were gone. I only had another five miles or so to go, and I figured it wasn’t worth pulling over and hunting up an open kiosk in one of the small towns here and there along the river, and I was pressed for time. But by the time I got to the outskirts of Colonge, my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth, and I was getting pretty hungry.

Just then I heard the unmistakable sounds of Schlager music -- the sort of German folk/popular music of the last generation. Imagine songs of buxom but perfidious blonds sung to the tune of a football team’s fight song played on guitar, bass and drums and you are in the neighborhood. My younger German friends are pretty scathing about it, but to me Schlager means one thing -- a street festival where they sell glasses of cool local beer and bratwursts slathered in mustard. At that moment, no siren’s song could have had a stronger pull on me. I rounded a bend, and wonder of wonders, there was a festival right on the river.

I pulled out of the current, headed for a small pebbly beach and staggered up the stone embankment and there it all was -- band, beer wagon and grill. I must have been in worse shape than I thought, because when I got to the wagon, the woman asked me what I wanted and, tongue cemented to roof of mouth, and panting I said something like adfahonvoarhv. Luckily for me, the guy working the wagon had apparently noticed the way my wake left a container barge pitching wildly out in the channel, the acrobatic leap from the canoe as it landed, the way I cleared the levee in a single bound, and the beeline I made toward the beer sign, and handed me a beer.

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The folding canoe

Then it was off to the bratwurst tent, and then back to the beer tent. Then back to the bratwurst tent and one more stop at the beer tent. The Koelsh beer is a really delightful light lager, but out of some perverse old tradition it is traditionally served in glasses that hold about 4 oz. So to have what the rest of the world considers “a beer” one has to order three of them. But after the third bratwurst and third beer, I finally felt more-or-less rehydrated and fed, and hopped back in the canoe for the last pull through the city.

Getting close to sunset as I hit the outskirts of Cologne

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Severins Bridge and the Cathedral

 
The Hohenzollern Bridge and the Cathedral

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Just in time really. The sun was going down. Because it was Sunday evening, there was no traffic on the river, and it was easy to stick to the shallows near the bank more or less the whole way, but just on general principals it is a dodgy business to be canoeing in the dark. The trip through the city was incandescent though. A spectacular sunset, the beauty of the city itself in the dusk, and the novel feeling of being alone on the great river combined to make it something worth remembering.

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