En Route: Deep in the Black Forest

Dispatch No. 2 from Alexander Martin’s bold Trans-Europa Canoe Expedition

You may remember Alexander Martin. Just over a year ago, the 25-year-old NOLS instructor from Connecticut completed the first, modern-day canoe expedition across America—a 4,300-mile solo journey from Portland to Portland, Oregon to Maine, that is. 2011 presents a new year for “Zand” and with it, a new continent to paddle across. Martin explains: “The Trans-Europa Canoe Expedition will follow the waterways of history across Europe; the route will take us west to east from the Atlantic Coast of France at Nantes, up the Loire River, through French canals to the Rhine River, over the mountains of the Black Forest to the source of the Danube River, and down the Danube to the Black Sea. The route, from Nantes to Istanbul, is more than 4,000 kilometers long and will take place between September and December, totally roughly 100 days.”
Making a beeline for Budapest, hoping to make it before the harsh eastern European winter sets in, Martin sent in this correspondence giving us the lowdown through Kilometer 1100, Donau (Danube) River, Tuttlingen, Germany. Stay tuned to Canoekayak.com, where Martin will be recounting the epic journey in a series of exclusive
En Route dispatches. CLICK HERE to see No. 1.

To Carry the Schwarzwald

The rain turns to sleet as we gain elevation; ahead and across the valley, clear accumulation shows the depravity of an early October snowstorm in Germany’s Black Forest. Sweat still rising from furrowed brows, we cross the snow line, coughing into stiff hands and stretching sore muscles. The towering Feldberg pierces the storm clouds above us, looming wintry white on white with a tracery of spruce. We get back into our positions, the canoe between us, and continue our portage.

In describing the Black Forest portage to a friend, the best I could do was to liken it to
walking the route of a marathon with a 40-pound barrel on your back while pulling a canoe on wheels loaded with gear. Add in frequent snow and three significant mountain passes, and it gives a rough picture of what it was like.

In planning our route from France’s Atlantic Coast to Istanbul, the crux portage fell between the Rhine and the Danube—where the wooded mountains of southwestern Germany’s Schwarzwald region divide the drainage of western Europe and push the connecting shipping canal far to the north. To reach the headwaters of the Danube, the only choice was to carry 100 kilometers from the Rhine to Donaueschingen, Germany and the Donauquelle, the spring source that feeds the Danube.

The day we crossed the Rhine, the temperature dropped 30 degrees, finally ending our three-week high-pressure system of near-stifling late summer heat. By nightfall on our first day in Germany, the rain had begun to fall and the wind to blow. The next morning, we began to walk.

We are, no doubt, the first people to have portaged to Schonau. The small, cobble-paved hamlet is in the heart of the Black Forest—the Schwarzwald. My feet are tired. Tape sticks in abandoned white clumps, the skin bordering it is white and puffy, rapidly shrinking into a throb of no weight and effort now at an end. It is warm, inside; the air is still and the colors skewed to the domestic needs of weary travelers—at rest are the deep greens and burning yellow oranges of the day, the mist wafting into union with spruce smoke.

Our expedition is almost a month old—this is the first night John and I have spent indoors. We walk like old men, faces contorting to each jolt of cobbles or stairs. Tomorrow, we ascend the Feldberg, the tallest peak in the Black Forest. This is the cultural home of German identity, the place where the events of the Song of the Nibelungs took place. The secluded alpine valleys dotted with massive Teutonic longhouses trailing woodsmoke and surrounded by dense conifer forest evoke the mythic German past.

The forest is dark, the hills steep and stepping off the road, one is plunged into a realm where the population could run to dwarves, trolls, and a Teuton heroes named Seigfried just as easily as deer and sheep. This is where the Romans, looking north and east, decided the land and people with their wild love of freedom were ungovernable, and the imperial limes were established, there to hold for hundreds of years. We walk beautiful trails and along the margins of quiet mountain roads—all steep, all unforgiving.

The cart, which we affectionately named Hermann, made one-trip portaging possible, but he would not go up any real grade without a fight. For more than a short distance, John and I had to harness ourselves like oxen and lean into the traces to make any real headway.

Each day of the portage saw one significant mountain pass, but our second day, as we approached our halfway point, had us climbing the Feldbergpass. At 1,210 meters (about 4,000 feet), it was our highest elevation of the expedition, and our symbolic height of land—our true height of land lay 30 kilometers farther on, on less dramatic slope.

We paused by the ski lifts on the top of the pass to eat and rest. The snow was 4 inches deep already, and flurries came and went, alternating with teasing splashes of blue. Over the pass, blue came to dominate, and feeling came back into my hands.

One foot in front of the other. We arrived in Donaueschingen and portaged right to the Donauquelle, the mythic spring in the Furstenberg Palace gardens that is supposed to feed the birth of the Danube. While sitting by the street, a man ran out of a shop with his camera, exclaiming at our unusual burdens. After a few questions, he ran back inside and returned with medallions emblazoned on one side with the Spring, and the other, with St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.

In the morning, we paddled out of Donaueschingen, even here there is a stone kilometer marker: It reads 2,776. Some of our hardest kilometers are behind us, but there are still many more to go.

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