Slow Train

Our senior editor packs a season's worth of Alpine whitewater into one frenzied week.

This story was originally featured in the June 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

Slow Train

Our senior editor packs a season’s worth of Alpine whitewater into one frenzied week, and learns that paddling Switzerland via rail and bus isn’t about time.

Words by Joe Carberry
Photographs by Jens Klatt

The conductor gives me five minutes.

I run into the station cafe and order two coffees, while Jens guards our kayaking gear on the train.

My hand taps against the table impatiently as the barista hand-brews the joe. This is Switzerland after all, where quality is everything. Glancing nervously at the clock, I grab the cups, slide a handful of francs across the counter and bolt. Three minutes 30, tops.

Obviously not by the conductor’s watch. The train is already moving, gathering speed as Jens waves frantically from inside the closed door. I grasp both coffees in one hand and step onto the moving stairs. Hot liquid drenches my shirt and burns my chest. Shit!

The train picks up serious speed. I slam on the sidewall, yelling at the conductor, who I can see in a mirror jutting out from his car. Here comes the tunnel. Dear God, stop the friggin’ train. This dumb, entitled American is pounding for his life. If you’re trying to scare me, you’ve done it.

One second, two seconds

Okay, STOP this stupid thing so I don’t have to jump for it … or worse.

Suddenly lights flash and I can see the conductor glaring at me in the mirror, his face pinched in anger. The train slows to a halt 50 yards from the tunnel.

The door opens. “Jesus,” says Jens as he pulls me inside.

This was pretty much how Jens Klatt and I met. I’d contacted the German whitewater photographer five months prior, when the Alps were still locked in ice. The friendly 28-year-old agreed to rendezvous with me for a whirlwind Swiss tour in which we would use nothing but the country’s extensive transportation system to charge as much steep whitewater as possible. Why? Switzerland offers an alternative to the typical American boating experience, which always seems to involve more driving than paddling. Instead of horrible truck stop food and multiple vehicle shuttles, Jens and I would use trains and buses to access some of the world’s best whitewater.

And I was restless. My second son had been born the previous November, and I guess I’d begun to feel like a trained monkey: work, change diapers, eat, sleep, work. And at 32, I can hear my athletic clock ticking a little faster. Cramming 10 rivers into six days seemed like a great way to ease that caged sensation, and recapture a taste of the frenetic, river-fueled wandering of my youth. Jens gave me his list of whitewater classics spread across this country the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, and I made a plan to boat them all. From the old Swiss region of the Vorder Rhine to Italian-speaking Ticino in the south, to the steep, mountainous reaches of Interlaken, we planned to travel 600 miles via public transport, and cheat (use a car)

The northern Alps are one of Earth’s most majestic mountain ranges. And while the culture here is old, the geology is anything but. Massive glaciers like the Morteratsch are still whittling steep granite into perfectly formed river canyons. Jens, a star of the Sickline whitewater video series and the author of a beautiful guidebook to Norway, didn’t have the same hankering to huck that I did. Maybe charging Norway for years had stuffed his rat. Maybe his ego wasn’t as big as mine. But this talented lensman is one connected dude. His Rolodex full of world-class paddlers would serve us well throughout the trip.

Our first stop is Interlaken, Switzerland’s adventure sports Mecca, where we meet Swiss kayaker Simon Hirter. He has our first mission lined up: Catch a train up the canyon to the Weisse Lutschine, a manky, scree-filled river that careens down a steep granite valley. Cliff walls tower thousands of feet on either side, a paradise for BASE jumpers.

“I’ve got an alternate put-in,” says Simon, his wiry 6’7″ frame splayed across two of the Swiss National Railway’s comfortable seats. Our boats are following in the mail car, the last car on most trains and, as we find, the perfect place to store our bulky paddling gear. The train hisses to a stop and we shoulder our kayaks for a quick hike, hustling to keep pace with Simon’s big stride. We follow cobblestone streets out of the tiny village of Lauterbrunnen, while the Eiger’s fearsome profile looms in the distance. Tourists crowding café patios look up from their Wurzelbrot and coffee to stare. The buildings are centuries old, their traditional steep roofs designed to shed winter snows.

We set our boats down on an old brick-lined ditch with an inch of water trickling down it and thick, green brush growing over. Many lifetimes ago, a farmer hand-placed each stone. Now it’s a high-speed kayak track leading 300 feet down the mountainside to the river, which is bank full after last night’s rain and a snowpack bulked up from a good winter.

“There’s a sharp turn and then there’s a three-foot drop,” Simon instructs. “Just don’t go too big over the drop or it will smash your back.”

Jens and I look at each other then peer down as far as possible, wondering if we should scout. But I’ve been waiting too long for this first taste of Swiss whitewater. “Let’s give ‘er,” I say, snapping the sprayskirt over my cockpit rim and shoving off. An inch of water is enough to grease the slide. The kayak careens around the corner, picking up speed, my paddle scraping loudly against the stonework as I brace. One corner, here comes the drop, too much speed—Uuuffh!

The hit takes my breath away, but I haven’t lost any speed and continue hurtling toward the river. I do a big slalom turn when the culvert flings me into the stream, thankfully in a calm spot. Jens splashes in behind me.

“That drop might have been bigger than three feet,” I say breathlessly to Simon, who just smiles. Following the big fella, we zip in and out of eddies cranking through some fun glaciated mank until we reach the lip of a stout 25-footer. It’s usually a pretty easy drop, but at this water level it’s thumping. The horizon line is perfectly uniform, made so by cement that constricts the river in old-European flood control, the stones again carefully placed symmetrically with a retaining wall against the road to keep water from running through the village streets.

Jens and I decide to pass, but Simon sticks the big one and then punches the meaty hole below where we set safety. A couple more rapids and we’re at the train station takeout, where Simon’s van was waiting. We knew from the start that we’d have to cheat a few times by using a vehicle (the alternative was fewer river days, and I wasn’t ready to make that compromise). So Simon drops us at a hotel in downtown Interlaken, where a roundtable has formed next to a pool out back. A poolside shack serves cold Heineken to raft guides from Costa Rica, New Zealand, the U.S., and throughout Europe. An old wooden ramp rots on the lawn, used by kayakers, skiers, snowboarders or anyone willing to be a sideshow and huck themselves into the pool.

Several beers later, I’m feeling a bit antsy. Jens and I have a big trip in the morning. Personally, I’d rather be on a night train so we’d be set up early in the morning to boat all day. I just don’t have access to this many runs at home and I’m getting twinges. I imagine this is how a junkie feels when his dealer is late. I wipe my mouth to make sure I’m not frothing. Jack, a 45-year-old guide from Jackson Hole, talks me down. “Chill brother,” he says. “You’re running rivers in Switzerland. You have all the time in the world.”

I know he’s right. I open another bottle and lean back in my chair. I haven’t stopped moving in 48 hours.

The alarm screams in my ear at seven the next morning. I’m sprawled on a couch in Simon’s living room. My head is pounding. We chilled, all right. Two beers turned into eight, and now we’re sprinting to shove down breakfast and gather wet paddling gear to get to the train station by 7:45. We’re meeting a group for our next mission in Disentis at 11. Jens shoves his cameras and lenses into Pelican cases and trundles everything into Simon’s van. We’re at the station by 7:40, shuffling our gear into the mail car just in time for last call.

The train system in Switzerland goes almost everywhere. In the three-hour trip northeast from Interlaken to Disentis at the head of the Rhine Valley, we pass lush river canyons, and farmland green from the wet winter. Water is spilling from every crack in the rugged terrain, and each river we pass is bloated. It’s June, and the northern Alps are still loaded with snow. As we travel over 9,000-foot Oberal Pass, we spy a group of snowboarders who have built a kicker and are throwing all kinds of crisp, off-axis tricks.

The train pulls into the station and we lug our gear off to meet Swiss native Alex Keller, who’s waiting with Nico Langner and Susanne Spoelmink, current and former members of the German freestyle kayak team, respectively. They are on my kind of schedule. Nico has the weekend to get as much boating in as possible. Alex and Susanne are just naturally game.

Cheating again, we load up their van for a twofer in the famous Rhine drainage: First the Medelser Rhine, one of the most classic runs of the trip with granite boulder gardens throughout and a beautiful 15-foot sliding waterfall into a narrow gorge. We’ll then hike a mile along an old logging road in the shadow of a glacier to reach the Somvixer Rhine, a rollicking, scree-filled river that will dump us out of the mountains.

Jens opts to skip the Somvixer to take photos, and when we finish in the fading Alpine light, he’s waiting with ice-cold Ackermanns—a beer brewed on a nearby organic farm. Later we gather at Alex and Susanne’s home in a small village high above the Rhine Valley. The well-tended houses were mostly built in the early 1900s. They’re set close together on narrow, cobbled streets. Alex and Susanne’s place has white stucco on the outside and wood framing throughout. Inside, it’s tight. Every space is used efficiently. It feels as if the shower was made for a Swiss gnome as I clean up before dinner. The place looks like it belongs on the set of Heidi, except that the wood-paneled walls are covered with pictures of kayakers stomping waterfalls and skiers shredding powder.

After chicken, bratwurst and stuffed mushrooms cooked over an open fire in their backyard overlooking the valley, we hit the hay early in anticipation of a big mission the next morning. Before I go to bed I stare into the fire for a few minutes. Whenever I’m on an intense boating trip, away from my family, I feel an intoxicating mix of guilt and elation: Guilt because I’m being a dirtbag dad, leaving my wife to care for our children and putting myself at risk stuffing as many rivers into as little time as possible; elation from running steep whitewater with a team, in some of the world’s deepest canyons, and living in the moment. Maybe someday the boys will join me on these adventures. They’ll certainly grow tired of hearing my stories about them, I think as I head off to my sleeping bag.

The next morning I’m hyped to get going. We catch the bus to Disentis a few steps outside Alex’s front door. Thankfully it’s nearly empty, as we cram our boats inside amongst the neatly dressed passengers. In town we flag another bus that carries us into the mountains to the headwaters of the Valser Rhine, a steep creek with 100-foot canyon walls and two separate sections that are only occasionally run. The Valser dumps into the Glenner, a Class III-IV river which empties into the Vorder Rhine Gorge, a favorite rafting run branded as “Switzerland’s Grand Canyon.” For once we won’t be the only boaters on the train back to town; the local rafting companies use it to run all their shuttles. In all, the day’s plan includes nearly 40 miles of whitewater.

We get off the bus and right away, the plodding begins on the river as we scout nearly every drop, portaging several times while putting together two sections of fantastic creeking over smooth bedrock. At the end of the top section, we portage a nasty 40-foot waterfall that the well-known American paddler Pat Keller had miffed badly two years earlier, spooking most of the locals out of running it again. We put back in below with a 10-foot seal launch that slides into a beautiful 15-footer. We all nail it.

“Nice one boys,” I yell as we gather at the bottom.

Twenty minutes into the next section of the Valser Rhine, our progress stops. The canyon has literally caved in to the river from its 14,000-foot peaks, blocking the small creek with dirt, rock, trees and anything else in the avalanche path. We set to work portaging the mess, painfully passing our boats between each other and over the mank pile blocking the river. At one point, Nico drops Jens’ creekboat, camera gear tucked inside. It floats toward the next rapid. Alex runs through the shallow creek bed in chase, saving thousands of dollars worth of gear. An hour later we’re through, sweating and dehydrated.

I’m freezing and dead tired a couple of hours later, as we swing into an eddy under one of the bridges spanning the Glenner and walk down a stone-lined street to a Turkish kebab shop. The avenue is a canyon of two-story, chalet-style buildings. I let my gear dry in the sun on a white fence across the street from the shop as we sip beers and scarf fresh gyros stuffed with lettuce, lamb and tzatziki sauce. Warm and full, we float the Vorder Rhine gorge down to the headquarters of a raft company where Alex and Susanne work. More beers and food are waiting. We’ve run so many rapids I’ve lost count. Boating in Europe rules.

That night, Jens and I stay with German paddler Lilli Winter and English expat canoeist James Weir in their cozy cottage. Lilli, a German freestyle team paddler who guides and teaches kayaking on the Vorder Rhine, serves us late-night snacks of sliced meat, Emmentaler cheese and fresh Zopf (bread). In the morning, we catch a bus to Jens’ van that is stashed nearby, where we’ll cheat for the third and final time of the trip. I want to see the southeastern part of the country, Ticino, and run the famed Verzasca. The train service in that part of the country is spotty.

Ticino doesn’t feel much like the rest of Switzerland. The climate is drier, the hills are covered in cypress and Italian is the local language. Switzerland has four official languages-Swiss German, French, Romansch (a rarely spoken tongue rooted in the Roman occupation) and Italian. The kayaking is classic, like an Italian cappuccino—smooth and buzz-worthy, featuring more bedrock runs like the Moesa and the Ribo. Unfortunately, Jens and I arrive when the season is winding down. Flows on the Verzasca are minimal but the water is a beautiful, crystal-blue color. “Kind of sievey,” I mumble to Jens as we scout the night we arrive.

The next morning I can tell I’m annoying the hell out of Jens. I’m pushing to get on the river, despite the fact that we haven’t seen any other boaters and the water level is minimal. Jens wakes slowly and talks at length about everything: work, food, soccer, everything but boating. He’s clearly enjoying the sunshine and isn’t in any kind of rush. I keep bugging him about how long it will take to scout. I tell him we can get breakfast later, and we don’t need a shuttle. We can run back or hitch a ride, I say. His brow furls a bit and he looks at me patiently. “All right, let’s drive to the put-in,” he says.

The Verzasca tumbles out of the Alps and the meat of the run flows right through the village of Lavertezzo. Jens is sore—he’s been nursing bad shoulders for a year—and he’s run the Verzasca before at better flows. So he doesn’t boat. I kayak alone for the first time on the trip, Jens dragging his kayak and setting safety where he can while I defiantly push through the mank. Everything is going well until I come off a 10-foot slide and slam hard, sideways against a gnarly boulder. I’m pinned with nowhere to go, and no one to save me. It takes 30 seconds and a lot of uncomfortable groping and grunting to extract myself from the pin. The position could have turned deadly in an instant, and I know it.

I get out of my boat, and throw my paddle down hard on the rock, disgusted. “What the f*** are you doing?” I yell to myself, trying to catch my breath and make sense of what I’d just done. Jens doesn’t hear; he’s still on the canyon rim. I’m paddling alone because, well, other than being really stubborn, I don’t have a good reason. It’s an epiphany for me as a father and paddler: Recognizing that while I have the skills to run difficult drops, I sometimes lack the humility to shoulder my kayak. I don’t want my kids to be fatherless because I thought that stomping a big rapid was more important than they are. I find the first track out and start walking, joining Jens on the canyon rim.

That night, we camp gypsy-style in an outlawed campsite tucked beneath the road on the banks of the Verzasca. We join a couple at their fire that burns hot in the cool, early summer evening. I’m feeling pretty tired, and humbled. Jens and I talk about each other’s families. How much we love them. How much we love rivers. How we balance both. And for that brief moment, staring into the fire again, time moves slowly.

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