Alexander Martin, 25, completed the first modern-day canoe expedition across America last year — a 4,300-mile solo journey from Portland to Portland (Oregon to Maine). This fall, Martin has been reporting from the field on his latest continent crossing—a two-man, 4,000-km journey across Europe with expedition partner John van der Stricht, “following the waterways of history … 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.”
Martin reports here from Kilometer 3,300. Stay tuned to Canoekayak.com as Martin looks to finish his epic journey out to the Black Sea, captured in a series of exclusive En Route dispatches. CLICK HERE to see No. 1, HERE for No. 2, and HERE for his last dispatch from Belgrade, Serbia.
A tabby cat pounces down from the dumpster, the spotted creature starting at the ruction of two pie-bald ponies clattering by, hooves scritching over Byzantine cobbles. Two young men with mustaches and stout wool fezzes drive the wagon they pull; their load of hay rocked on tortured and rusty leaf springs. The wagon speeds by crumbling Communist edifices of concrete that run chock-a-block with wooden family compounds stapled in fired brick and impromptu carpentry to gray-brown hillsides, all in a jumble fading upwards into dense fog. The smell of burning wood mixes with trash, also burning; the flames, in yards and in the street, are supernaturally bright. I am in Bulgaria, and I have not seen the sun in eight days.
Leaving Belgrade, we charged downstream on the Danube as the Serbian national police had given us seven days to leave the country or face imprisonment. We had made it past the gate, literally: As we crossed into Romania, we were emerging from the Iron Gates, the Portile de Fier, a gorge that stops and starts for over 100 kilometers, and in places shows 3,000-foot granite faces soaring from the water’s edge. It was there that the Carpathian Mountains ended their swept and pressed the river south into the northwest terminus of the Balkan Range. Between, the river once ran wild with rapids, whirlpools and tremendous current—a current of Mississippi-portions rushing through the bones of the earth. Two dams now tame the flood and drown the ancient course.
Once out of the former Yugoslavia, the mountains and canyon walls gave way to a pattern of dry plains, low limestone hills, and sparse settlement. This particular town run took on an added importance; if we could not find food here we would go without for a few days, and with daily highs below freezing, more than minor discomforts would overcome us.
With a dash of needed color, the cats reform into heat-conserving puddles of fur under the dumpster; I am stopped by the ruins of an Orthodox chapel, itself ancient and crumbling beside generations of sloughed off rubble. The provisioning foray into the village is a run-around, as usual, but not unpleasantly so. As I turn the first corner, two dozen old men smoke outside a corner store, laughing and tracking the slow progress of stubbled masons in coveralls, tapping bricks into a new path in the shabby park. They direct me up the valley, laughing at my bright outfit. My clothes are long faded from years of sun-bleaching, and patches catch the eye that looks. All around me, the men wear brown and black wool overcoats, wool trousers and fur hats. My PFD is new, and alien. The fishermen don’t wear them.
Eastern Europe is the sound of barking dogs.
It is much else besides, but in our cold, misty riverine tunnel, when we are robbed of our sight, it is what we hear. We hear them in the forest at night, and in town during these provisioning forays. On deserted islands they howl and full moons tell their splayed prints on white sand shores crinkled with frost. We take sticks to bed, and sleep full-clothed against the damp cold, having played our game of backgammon for the day and shoveled in the requisite calories to stay asleep the whole night through.
Byzantine emperors won victories here. Romans marched to war, Greeks traded. Bulgars, Avars, Huns, Mongols, Magyars, Cumans, Pechenegs, and others swept through to build kingdoms and be in turn swept away; Ottoman armies turned back Crusaders and Soviets crossed here in great armored maneuver. It is a grim and enchanting scene. Traveling back roads, isolated villages, and the riverine habitats of Gypsies and peasant fisher folk, I see now that the fiction of Europe is a deep and ancient thing. The Romans called those beyond their borders Barbarians. The monarchs of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment condemned those under Ottoman domination and vassalage to a proto-Orientialism that persists today and no doubt colors my observations.
The Soviet Union fostered a socialist empire—sometimes dangerously nationalist—that hung, as Churchill said, behind an ‘Iron Curtain’, lost to the West just as it had been lost to the Byzantines and Turks for 15 centuries before.
Whatever orbit it traces, this collection of states and peoples that we safely call ‘Eastern Europe’ or the ‘Balkans’, seeks at each turn to slough off appellations as mock simplifications. In America, just as in western Europe, they are ‘other’. and we are safe in defining them. It is an empire of the mind: Prague is west of Vienna, Constantinople the capital of the civilized world for a thousand years. Travel seems to blur lines that at home seem so clear. I ask myself a common traveler’s question: If these people that I meet almost every day happened upon my home, traveling through, would they be met with as much kindness?
Four days and 300 kilometers later, the quest for stove fuel leads me into Tutrakan, to a deserted and windswept town that was once the queen of the Danube fishing industry. A century ago, 5,000 men worked the river in over a thousand small boats—wooden and deep-hulled with ribs and planks not unlike our trusty Esquif Prospecteur’s North American predecessors. Each person I see ceases whatever is their task or direction to walk with me, point me, encourage my quest—the dog-walker, the crippled fisherman, the nightclub owner, the young mother, and the grizzled city father with flowing mustaches. Little babushkas with battle-axes split kindling at frenetic paces. One woman, nearly blind and hunched over, struggles out from the 3-foot pile of split wood that she has encased herself in, in order to point me on, smiling with an axe in hand whose head is larger than her and whose shaft reaches her chin.
We plod on, as the river spreads out in soft gunmetal blue bends eastward. The Danube, here kilometers wide, melts into the distant, freezing mist. It is winter, there’s now no doubt. Our hope now rests in reaching the ocean before the snow flies.