Field Notes: Paddling the Mighty Danube River
“Oh god. Not again,” I weakly gasp as I stagger from my ten-dollar-a-night bed towards the bathroom.
One step inside the blue tile shower/toilet combo and I projectile vomit everywhere. I drop to my knees before the porcelain throne as painful convulsions leave me gasping for air. After a half-minute of hope-you’re-not-eating-lunch-while-reading-this, I crumple into the fetal position. There’s nothing left.
My formerly swollen, I’m-gonna-stuff-my-face-because-it’s-impossible-to-get-fat-on-this-SUP-trip torso feels like an empty tube of toothpaste. I haven’t managed to keep any food or water down for the last 36 hours.
I’d grin at the naïveté of my original expectations of this expedition versus the pitiful reality I find myself in, but any part of me capable of producing anything remotely akin to a smile is splattered on the floor around me.
“Living the dream,” I mutter.
After two weeks of logistical planning and zero physical preparation, I launched my green 404 Monster into the murky brown waters of the Danube River in Ingolstadt, Germany. I’d spent plenty of time paddling the temperamental Atlantic on Boston’s north shore and SUP surfing world class breaks all around New Zealand, but for some reason, the idea of a current made me nervous.
Within minutes of standup paddling on the swift river, my concern abated.
Sure, trying to dodge barely submerged rocks at the last second with 60 pounds strapped to your board isn’t the simplest task, but nothing compared to the nightmarish vortex I’d imagined. The tension and stress of planning a multi-week expedition evaporated into incessant grinning and semi-maniacal laughter in the glorious July sun. Progress was swift…for the first ten miles.
The once 50-yard-wide river quadrupled in width and slowed to a painful crawl. I’d hit the first of the Danube’s 62 dams.
At the portage point, a middle-aged bearded guy with a kayak—loaded with what must have been 250 pounds of superfluous gear—greeted me. “It eez a guhd day! I vas jahst pray-yeeng to Gahd vor help! Und now yuh iz come!”
Flo, a Romanian martial arts expert, beamed with excitement as we Hoorah’d his gear a half-mile to the other side of the dam. I hardly got in two words as he educated me on meditation poses that guarantee immortality, global conspiracies, and the importance of drinking your own bodily fluids. As we paddled passed Deggendorf and Regensburg over the next couple of days it became clear that my 12’6 race SUP was an incompatible travel companion to his bow-heavy sit-on-top kayak. Seeing as we’d been doing just over 25 miles per day, well shy of the 45-mile daily average I had planned, we parted ways.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I shifted my paddling into high gear. I blasted 90’s rock and the occasional Katy Perry song as I glided past pea stone beaches and the ancient Bavarian forests that hugged the winding shoreline. Having company is good, but screaming along to “Wide Awake” without the judgment of others is so much sweeter.
You’d think paddling alone 8 hours a day would quickly lose its thrill, but the meditative qualities of repetitious motion with bright sunlight glistening off the sluggishly churning water put me in a trance that had time flying by. The pattern of paddle, stop for coffee, find someone to put sunscreen on my back, paddle, stop for more coffee, explain that it’s not a kayak and no I shouldn’t be sitting, set up camp, sleep, wake up and paddle more, provided variation and filled my daily schedule to the brim.
I’d lay in my jungle hammock at the end of the day, write in my journal and wake up to the agro beeping of my alarm with a pen jabbing my side and a half written entry. But, before I knew it, my planned journey came to an end.
Being the first person to SUP the entire Danube River was a sweet bucket list item, but before hopping into the water, it was an ambition I didn’t give much credence to. In actuality, I only planned to paddle 300 miles from Ingolstadt, Germany to my old stomping grounds of Vienna, Austria, where I grew up. As far as anyone else knew, Vienna was the end of my trip.
As I greeted my friends at our designated pickup spot, my face betrayed my resolve. I was gonna keep paddling.
Few people were privy to my ambition of completing Europe’s most famous and second longest river, so when I announced my plans on the Facebook site, I got more likes and messages than a kitten saving an orphaned mouse.
With the enthusiastic outpouring of support, a few friends and I whipped together a website, updated my gear, and poured over maps and travel guides.
Despite best efforts to get back on the river before the summer weather sputtered, it took more than four weeks to resume my expedition. The cloudless July skies I had grown accustomed to morphed into a monotonous gray September haze as I set off from Dürnstein, Austria for the remaining 1,265 miles to the Black Sea.
Despite incessant rain, vicious mosquitos and run-ins with the occasional belligerently drunk fisherman, I was having a blast. Within five days I passed through the ship traffic and gothic architecture of Budapest, as crowds of people stopped and waved at what must have looked like a crazy American.
I soaked up the attention, but soon enough, the Hungarian water police slapped me with fines for “not having correct maritime lighting systems,” and “traveling outside of the designated ship channel,” in addition to various other infractions pertaining to ships and, apparently, SUPs.
Two hours later, I was back on the water, paddling enthusiastically towards the Serbian border. A few days later, the rain stopped, the skies cleared and I managed to break 100 kilometers in a single day. Having battled through rain and wind into the summery embrace of the mountainous Serbian/Romanian landscape, my morale soared.
“This is a breeze!” I thought, as I defiantly gulped water straight from a rusty tap at a shoddy café, ignoring warnings I had received about consuming unfiltered water in Eastern Europe.
If these people can drink the water, so can I.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Paddling the Danube River, coming soon.