PHOTOS BY REGINA NICOLARDI
From Sea to Summit
"Here there is much boat traffic, but you are fast, so it should not be a problem to get out of the way." Pointing to one of the canals on the map, Diego refers to our best return route, we look across the bay, searching the city horizon for landmarks. He provides us further instruction and etiquette on traveling Venice by boat, as it was intended to be, and then we push off into the Venetian Lagoon, heading toward the island manufactured through man’s engineering.
Constant boat activity guards the island perimeter. At an opportune opening we sprint across the briny highway, making a direct line for a quiet entry into the weathered plaster walls of the city on stilts.
All roads lead to the Grand Canal. Water Taxis, buses, small motorboats, and gondolas move up and down the main street of Venice in a rhythm which to an outsider appears to be chaos. We head back into the side streets, exploring dead-end canals, conversing with gondoliers, and mooring our boats to pilings to admire the view from stone bridges. Pulling our boats up the marble steps onto a walkway near a small cafe, a waiter observes us with some curiosity. I strip my lifejacket and skirt in an attempt to resemble the standard sightseer, and stroll over, unsure of how welcoming he will be. Within a moment of inspecting the menu, he approaches me. "Table for two?"
We rejoin the Grand Canal to embrace the chaos. Waves roll under us with every passing vessel, before crashing against magnificent structures worn by time and sea. Water taxis and gondoliers verbalize with one another and ourselves as they emerge from blind alleys. Tourists passing by on water-bus turn their cameras away from beautiful domes, and gondoliers’ remarkable J-strokes, wanting instead to capture our kayaks, which have now become one of the main attractions. With the evening approaching, we work toward our intended exit on the northwest end of the city.
After returning the boats the next day, we head for the mountains of South Tirol, in hopes of catching a portion of the King of the Alps extreme race on the Passer River. South Tirol is an extraordinary region. While on the physical map we are still very much in Italy, the architecture and culture is historically Austrian. Signs and conversations take place in both Italiano and Deutsch, a good way to keep us on our toes.
The King of the Alps final takes place on "The Intimidator" rapid. Living up to its name, the course is a continuous 300 meters with a grand finale slide hurling racers into a whiteout, as the veil of a cascade, not lacking in volume, plummets with exploding force into the Passer.
"It’s just balls out for the last section," seasoned extreme racer Sam Sutton tells us. "You just hold on, and see what happens."
Racers emerge from the whiteout in diverse fashions, some more fortunate than others. Winners are crowned nearby at the Moos sports complex, and festivities commence. Its great to travel across the globe, and find that kayak festivals are universal. Plenty of beer, late-night shenanigans, and dance music — though their taste lacks the bluegrass that usually accompanies a stateside rendezvous.
The following morning we find ourselves in a dense, rainy fog, driving switchbacks toward Brenner Pass, and the Austrian border, to explore the mountains surrounding the Inn River Valley. We pitch camp in the village of Stams, 40 kilometers from the regional hub of Innsbruck, with a view of the local monastery, backdropped by the Mieming Range on the horizon. The tranquilizing sound of bells clinking from roaming cows in the pastures below, soothes us to sleep each night.
We explore the Ötztal Valley. Home to the Ötztaler Ache, a powerful river carving through the Alps. Hiking near the village of Oetz, we seek the Wellerbrücke Rapids – the site of the annual Adidas Sickline. The race is held in October, with the Ötztaler at a manageable level. Approaching the rapid we hear a thunderous roar. Walking out on the foot bridge, which is the rapid’s namesake, we witness a heinous maelstrom of whitewater flowing below us – swollen with the melting snows of surrounding glaciers, such as the Rettenbach, skied nearly year round.
After five days exploring the Austrian Alps, awestricken by the amazing landscape and culture that embraces it, the time has come to ship off for Vienna and get to the business of preparing for worlds.
— Read Part One in Potoczack’s quest to compete at the Wildwater World Championships: ‘Vienna Bound,’ as well as Part Three: ‘Smooth is Fast’, Part Four: ‘Cause for Celebration’, and Part Five: The Road Continues’.
— Watch the video of 90 European kayakers duking it out at the King of the Alps event.
— Read more about standup paddling through the canals of Venice.