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A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe
on Rivers and Lakes of Europe

By J. MacGregor (1825-1892), 1866, 1892

Chapter 4

The Danube-- "Guten Tag"-- Canoe Pleasures-- All R-r-r-r-ight-- The Weed-- Shooting a Dam-- Day's Delights-- Toy Barrow-- Tuttlingen-- The Crowds-- The Monastery-- Melanie-- Tracts-- Monks' Cowls-- Distance Travelled-- Reflections--

AT first the river is a few feet broad, but it soon enlarges, and the streams of a great plain quickly bring its volume to that of the Thames at Kingston. The Donau (old Roman Ister) winds about then in serpentine slowness and smoothness for hours in a level mead, with waving sedge on the banks and silken sleepy weeds in the water. Here the long-necked, long-winged, long-legged heron, that seems to have forgotten to get a body, flocks by scores with ducks of the various wild breeds, while pretty painted butterflies and fierce-looking dragon-flies float, as it were, on the summer sunbeams, and simmer in the air. The haymakers are at work; and half their work is hammering the soft edges of their very miserable scythes, which they then dip in the water; now they have a chat; and as I whiz by round a corner, there is a row of open mouths and wondering eyes, but an immediate return to courtesy with a touch of the hat, and "Gut tag" when presence of mind is restored. Then they call to their mates, and laugh with rustic satisfaction--a laugh that is real and true, not cynical, but the recognition of a strange incongruity, that of a reasonable being pent up in a boat and hundreds of miles from home, yet whistling most cheerfully all the time!

Soon the hills on either side have houses and old castles, and then wood, and, lastly, rock; and with these, mingling the bold, the wild, and the sylvan, there begins a grand panorama of river beauties to be unrolled for days and days. No river I have seen equals this Upper Danube, and I have visited many pretty streams. The wood is so thick, the rocks so quaint and high and so much varied, the water is so clear, and the grass so green. Winding here and turning there, and rushing fast down this reach and paddling slow along that, with each minute a fresh view, and of new things, the mind is ever on the qui vive, or the boat will go bump on a bank, crash on a rock, or plunge into a tree full of gnats and spiders. This is veritable travelling, where skill and tact are needed to bear you along, and where each exertion of either is rewarded at once. I think, also, it promotes decision of character, for you must choose, and that promptly, too, between, say, five channels opened suddenly before you. Three are probably safe, but which of these three is the shortest, deepest, and most practicable? In an instant, if you hesitate, the boat is on a bank; and it is remarkable how speedily the exercise of this resolution becomes experienced into habit, but of course only after some severe lessons.

It is exciting to direct a camel over the sandy desert when you have lost your fellow-travellers, and to guide a horse in trackless wilds alone; but the pleasure of paddling a canoe down a rapid, high-banked, and unknown river, is far more than these.

Part of this pleasure flows from the mere sense of rapid motion. In going down a swift reach of the river there is the same sensation about one's diaphragm which is felt when one goes forward smoothly on a lofty rope swing. Now the first few days of the Danube are upon very fast waters. Between its source and Ulm the descent of the river is about 1,500 feet. [footnote 1] This would give 300 feet of fall for each of a five days' journey; and it will be seen from this that the prospect for the day's voyage is most cheering when you launch in the morning and know you will have to descend about the height of St. Paul's Cathedral before halting for the night.

Another part of the pleasure--it is not to be denied--consists in satisfaction at overcoming difficulties. When you have followed a channel chosen from several, and, after half-a-mile of it, you see one and another of the rejected channels emerging from its islands to join that you are in, there is a natural pride in observing that any other streamlet but the one you had chosen would certainly have been a mistake.

These reflections are by the way; and we have been winding the while through a rich grassy plain till a bridge over the river made it seem quite a civilized spot, and, just as I passed under, there drove along one of the green-boughed waggons of jovial singers returning from Donauesehingen. Of course they recognised the canoe, and stopped to give her a hearty cheer, ending with a general chorus made up of the few English words of their vocabulary, "All r-r-r-r-ight, Englishmánn!" "All r-r-r-r-ight, Englishmánn!" [see sketch: Singers' Waggon]

The coincidence of these noisy but good-humoured people having been assembled in the morning, when the canoe had started from the source of the Danube, caused the news of its adventure to be rapidly carried to all the neighbouring towns, so that the Rob Roy was welcomed at once, and the newspapers recorded its proceedings not only in Germany and France, but in England, and even in Sweden and in America.

At the village of Geislingen I discovered that the boiler of my engine needed some fuel, or, in plain terms, I must breakfast. The houses of the town were not close to the river, but some workmen were near at hand, and I had to leave the canoe in the centre of the stream moored to a plank, with very strict injunctions (in most distinct English!) to an intelligent boy to take charge of her until my return; and then I walked to the principal street, and to the best-looking house, and knocked, entered, asked for breakfast, and sat down, and was speedily supplied with an excellent meal. One after another the people. came in to look at the queer stranger who was clad so oddly, and had come--aye, how had he come? that was what they argued about in whispers till he paid his bill, and then they followed to see where he would go, and thus was there always a congregation of inquisitive but respectful observers as we started anew.

Off again, though the August sun is hot. Shade will be better enjoyed when resting in the boat under a high rock, or in a cool water cave, or beneath a wooden bridge, or within the longer shadow of a pine-clad cliff.

Often I tried to rest those midday hours (for one cannot always work) on shore, in a house, or on a grassy bank; but it was never so pleasant as at full length in the canoe, under a thick grown oak-tree, with a book to read dreamily, and a mild cigar at six for a penny, grown in the fields I passed, and made up at yesterday's inn. [footnote 2]

Let it be well understood that this picture only describes the resting time, and not the active hours of progress in the cooler part of the day before and after the bright meridian sun. In working hours there was no lazy lolling, the enjoyment was that of delightful exertion, varied at every reach of the river.

You start, indeed, quietly enough, but are sure soon to hear the well-known rushing sound of a milldam, and this five or six times almost every day. On coming to it I usually went straight along the top edge of the weir, looking over for a good place to descend by, and surveying the innumerable little streams below to see my best course afterwards. By this time the miller and his family and his men, and all the neighbours, would run down to see the new sight, but I always lifted out my little black knapsack and put my paddle on shore, and then stepped out and pulled my boat over or round the obstruction, sometimes through a hayfield or two, or by a lane, or along a wall, and then launched her again in deep water. Dams less than four feet high one can "shoot" with a headlong plunge into the little billows at the foot, but this wrenches the boat if it strikes against a stone, and it is better to get out and ease her through, lift her over, or drag her round.

In other places I had to sit astride on the stern of the canoe, with both legs in the water, fending her off from big stones on either side and cautiously steering. [footnote 3]

But with these amusements, and a little wading, you sit quite dry, and, leaning against the backboard, smoothly glide past every danger, lolling at ease where the current is excessive, and where it would not be safe to add impetus, for the shock of a collision there would break the strongest boat.

If incidents like these, and the scenery and the people ashore, were not enough to satisfy the ever greedy mind, some louder plashing, with a deeper roar, would announce the rapids. This sound was sure to waken up any sleepiness, and once in the middle of rough water all had to be energy and life. I never had a positive upset in any voyage, but of course I had to jump out frequently to save the boat, for the first care was the canoe, and the second was my luggage, to keep it all dry, the sketch-book in particular, while the third object was to get on comfortably and fast. After hours of these pleasures of work and rest, and a vast deal seen and heard and felt that would take too long to tell, the waning sun, and the cravings within for dinner, warned me surely that I had come near the stopping-place for the night.

The town of Tuttlingen is built on both sides of the river, and almost every house is a dyer's shop or a tannery, with men beating, scraping, and washing hides in the water. As I allowed the boat to drift among these the boys soon found her out--a new object--and therefore to boys (and may it always be so) well worth a shout and a run; so a whole posse of little Germans scampered along beside me, but I could not see any feasible-looking inn.

It is one of the privileges of this water tour that you can survey calmly all the whereabouts; and being out of reach of the touters and porters who harass the wretched traveller delivered to their grasp from an omnibus or a steamboat, you can philosophize on the whole morale of a town, and if so inclined can pass it, and simply go on. In fact, on several occasions when I did not fancy a town, I went on to another. However, we were fairly nonplussed now. It would not do to go further, for it was not a thickly peopled country; but we went nearly to the end of the place in search of a good landing, till we turned into a millrace and stepped ashore.

The crowd pressed so closely that I had to fix on a boy who had a toy barrow with four little wheels, and amid much laughter I persuaded the boy to lend it (of course as a great honour to him), and so we pulled the boat on this to the hotel. The boy's sixpence of reward was a fact that brought all the juvenile population together, and though we hoisted the canoe into a hayloft and gave very positive injunction to the ostler to keep her safe, there was soon a string of older sightseers admitted one by one; and even at night they were mounting the ladder with lanterns, women as well as men, to examine the "schiff."

A total change of garments usually enabled me to stroll through the villages in the evening without being recognised, but here I was instantly known as I emerged for a walk, and it was evident that an unusual attendance must be expected in the morning.

Tuttlingen is a very curious old town, with a good inn and bad pavement, tall houses, all leaning here and there, and big, clumsy, honest-looking men lounging after their work, and wonderfully satisfied to chat in groups amid the signal darkness of unlighted streets; very fat horses, and pleasant-looking women, a bridge, and numerous schoolboys; these are my impressions of Tuttlingen.

Morning visitors

Even at six o'clock next morning these boys had been to assemble for the sight they expected, and those of them who had satchels on their backs seemed grievously disappointed to find the start would not come off before their hour for early school.

However, the grown-up people came instead, and flocked to the bridge and its approaches: While I was endeavouring to answer all the usual questions as to the boat, a man respectfully asked me to delay the start five minutes, as his aged father, who was bedridden, wished exceedingly just to see the canoe. In all such cases it is a pleasure to give pleasure, and to sympathize with the boundless delight of the boys, remembering how as a boy a boat delighted me; and then, again, these worthy, mother-like, wholesome-faced dames, how could one object to their prying gaze, mingled as it was with friendly smile and genuine interest?

The stream on which we started here was not the main channel of the Danube, but a narrow arm of the river conducted through the town, while the other part fell over the mill-weir. The woodcut shows the scene at starting, and there were crowds as large as this at other towns; but a picture never can repeat the shouts and bustle, or the sound of guns firing and bells ringing, which on more than one occasion celebrated the Rob Roy's morning paddle.

The lovely scenery of this day's voyage often reminded me of that upon the Wye, [footnote 4] in its best parts between Ross and Chepstow. There were the white rocks and dark trees, and caverns, crags, and jutting peaks you meet near Tintern; but then the Wye has no islands, and its muddy water at full tide has a worse substitute in muddier banks when the sea has ebbed.

The islands on beauteous Donau were of all sizes and shapes. Some low and flat, and thickly covered with shrubs; others of stalwart rock, stretching up at a sharp angle, under which the glassy water bubbled all fresh and clear.

Almost each minute there was a new scene, and often I backed against the current to hold my post in the best view of some grand picture. Magnificent crags reached high up on both sides, and impenetrable forests rung with echoes from the canoeist's shout in the glee of freedom and hardy exercise.

But scenes and sentiments will not feed the hungry paddler, so we decided to stop at Friedingen, a village on the bank. There was a difficulty now as to where the canoe could be left, for no inn seemed near enough to let me guard her while I breakfasted. At length a mason helped me to carry the Rob Roy into a donkey's stable, and a boy volunteered to guide the stranger to the best inn. The first, and the second, and the third he led me to were all beerhouses, where only drink could be had; and as the crowd augmented at every stage, I dismissed the ragged cicerone, and trusted myself instead to the sure leading of that unnamed instinct which guides a hungry man to food. Even the place found at last was soon filled with wondering spectators. A piece of a German and English dictionary from my baggage excited universal attention, and was several times carried outside to those who had not secured reserved seats within.

The magnificent scenery culminated at Beuron, where a great convent on a rich mound of grass is nearly surrounded by the Danube, amid a spacious amphitheatre of magnificent white cliffs perfectly upright, and clad with the heaviest wood.

The place looks so lonely, though fair, that you could scarcely believe that you might stop there for the night, and so I had nearly swept by it again into perfect solitude, but at last pulled up under a tree, and walked through well-ploughed fields to the little hamlet in this sequestered spot.

The field-labourers were of course surprised at the apparition of a man in flannel, who must have come out of the river; but the people at the Kloster had already heard of the "schiff" and the Rob Roy was soon mounted on two men's shoulders, and borne in triumph to the excellent hotel. The Prince who founded the monastery is, I believe, himself a monk.

Now tolls the bell for "even song," while my dinner is spread in an arbour looking out on this grand scene, made grander still by dark clouds gathering on the mountains, and a loud and long thunder-peal, with torrents of rain.

This deluge of wet came opportunely when I had such good shelter, as it cooled the air; and it would strengthen the stream of the river; so I admired the venerable monks with complacent satisfaction, a feeling never so complete as when you are inside, and you look at people who are out in the rain.

A young girl on a visit to her friends here could talk bad French rapidly, so she was sent to gossip with me as I dined; and then the whole family inspected my sketch-book, a proceeding which happened at least twice every day for many weeks of the voyage. This emboldened me to ask for some music, and we adjourned to a great hall, where a concert was soon in progress with a guitar, a piano, and a violin, all well played; and the Germans are never at a loss for a song.

My young visitor, Melanie, then became the interpreter in a curious conversation with the others, who could speak only German; and our thoughts were turned on some of the nobler things which ought not ever to be long absent from the mind--I mean, what is loved, and feared, enjoyed, and derided, as "religion."

In my very limited baggage I had brought some selected pieces and Scripture anecdotes and other papers in French and German, and these were used on appropriate occasions, and were always well received, often with exceedingly great interest and sincere gratitude.

Some people are shy about giving tracts, or are even afraid of them. But then some people are shy of speaking at all, or even dislike to ride, or skate, or row. One need not laugh at another for this.

The practice of carrying a few printed pages to convey in clear language what one cannot accurately speak in a foreign tongue is surely allowable, to say the least. But I invariably find it to be very useful and interesting to myself and to others; and, as it hurts nobody, and has nothing in it of which to be proud or ashamed, I am not to be laughed out of it now.

The Kloster at Beuron is a favourite place for excursionists from the towns in the neighbourhood, and no doubt some day soon it will be a regular "place to see" for English travellers paddling down the Danube; for it is thus, and only thus, you can approach it with full effect. The moon had come forth as I leaned out of my bedroom window, and it whitened the ample circus of beetling crags, and darkened the trees, while a fainter and redder light glimmered from the monks' chapel as now and then the low tones of midnight chanting reached the ear. Perhaps it is better to wear a monk's cowl than to wear consistently a layman's common coat in the work-day throng of life; and it may be better to fast and chant and kneel at shrines than to be temperate and thankful and prayerful in the busy world. But I doubt.

After leaving Beuron, with the firing of guns and the usual pleasant good wishes from the shore, the Danube carried us between two lofty rocks, and down calm reaches for hours. The water was unspeakably clear; you could see right into deep caverns far below. I used to gaze downwards for so long a time at the fish moving about, and to stnke at them with my long paddle (never once hitting any), that I forgot the boat was swinging along all the time, till bump she went on a bank, or crash against a rocky isle, or rumbling into some thick trees, when a shower of leaves, spiders, and rubbish wakened up my reverie. Then, warned by the shock, I return to the plain duty of looking ahead, until, perhaps, after an hour's active rushing through narrow "guts," and over little falls, and getting out and hauling the boat down larger ones, my eyes are wandering again, gazing at the peaks overhead, and at the eagles soaring above them, and at the clear blue sky above all; till once more the Rob Roy heels over on a sunken stone, and I have to jump out nimbly to save her from utter destruction. For days together I had my feet bare, and my trousers tucked up, ready to wade at any moment, and perfectly comfortable all the time, for a fiery sun dried everything in a minute.

The physical enjoyment of such a life to one in good health and good spirits, with a good boat and good scenery, is only to be appreciated after experience; for these little reminders that one must not actually sleep on a rushing river never resulted in any disaster, and I came safely home from seven such lonely cruises without a cold or a scratch, or a hole in the boat, or one single day regretted. May this be so for many a John Bull let loose to "paddle his own canoe."

On some occasions, doubtless, you may have to wish for the end of the day's work, when arms are weary, and the sun is low, and yearnings of the inner man grumbling for dinner, especially when no one can tell how far it is to any house, or whether you can stop there all night if you reach it. [footnote 5]

On the rivers where there is no navigation and no towing-paths it was impossible to estimate the distances traversed each day, except by the number of hours I was at work, the average speed, the strength of the wind and current, and the number of stoppages for food or rest, or mill-weirs, waterfalls, or barriers. Thirty miles were reckoned to be a good day's work, and I have sometimes gone forty miles in a day even in rough Swedish lakes; but twenty-five miles were quite enough when the scenery and incidents on the way filled up every moment of time with varied sensations of pleasure.

It will generally be found, we think, that for walking in a pleasant country twenty miles a day are enough for mind and body to be active and observant all the time. But the events that occur in river work are far more frequent and interesting than those on the road, for you have all the circumstances of your boat in addition to what fills the pedestrian's journal, and after a little time your canoe becomes so much a companion (friend, shall I say?) that every turn it takes and every knock and grate on its side is felt as if it were your own. The boat gets to be individualized, and so does the river, till at last there is a pleasant rivalry set up, for it is "man and boat" versus the river and all it can place in your way.

After a few tours on the Continent your first hour in a railway or diligence may be new and enjoyable, but you soon begin to wish for the end of the road, and then after a short stay in the town at the end you begin to talk (or think) of when you are to leave. Now a feature of the canoe tour is that quiet progress can be enjoyed all the time, because you have personal exertion or engagement for every moment, and your observation of the scenery around is now most minute and interesting, because every bend and slope of it tells at once upon what you have to do. Certainly the pleasure of a day is not to be measured by the number of miles you have gone over. The voyage yesterday, for instance, was one of the very best for enjoyment of scenery, incident, and exercise, yet it was the shortest day we had. The guide-book says, "Tuttlingen is twelve miles"--by river, say eighteen--" from Kloster Beuron, where the fine scenery begins. This part of the Danube is not navigable."


[Footnote 1:] The best geographical books give different estimates of this, some above and others below the amount here stated.

[Footnote 2:] Two stimulants well known in England are much used in Germany,--tea and tobacco.

(1) The tobacco plant (sometimes styled a weed, because it also grows wild) produces leaves, which are dried and rolled, and then treated with fire, using an appropriate instrument, by which the fumes are inhaled. The effect upon many persons is to soothe; but it impairs the appetite of others. The use is carried to excess in Turkey. The leaves contain a deadly poison.

(2) The tea weed (sometimes styled a plant, because it also grows under cultivation) produces leaves, which are dried and rolled, and then treated with fire, using an appropriate instrument, by which the infusion is imbibed. The effect upon many persons is to cheer; but it impairs the sleep of others. The use is carried to excess in Russia. The leaves contain a deadly poison.

Both these luxuries are cheap and portable, especially tobacco, and are daily enjoyed by millions of persons in all climates. Both also require care and moderation in their use. Both have advocates and enemies; and it cannot be settled by argument whether the plant or the weed is the more useful or hurtful to mankind.

[footnote 3]: The invention of this method was made here, but its great advantages were more apparent in passing the great rapid of Rheinfelden, as we shall describe further on, with a sketch, and it was afterwards used on the Jordan.

[footnote 4]: Murray says "The Meuse has been compared to the Wye; but is even more romantic than the English river." I would rank the Wye as much above the Meuse as below the Danube for romance in scenery.

[footnote 5]: Famine was never felt in the Baltic voyage. Provisions and a cooking apparatus had been added to the stores. One of the four prizes in the first Canoe Club regatta at Thames Ditton, on April 27, 1867, contended for by five canoes in "a chase over land and water," was a beautiful little kitchen, which cooks for two men and weighs 2 lb. It now bears the following inscription "Designed by the Captain, presented by the Cook, won by the Purser."--In the cruises on the Jordan and the Nile, and the Zuyder Zee, I could sleep in my canoe, and carried provisions for four days, but then there were no weirs to haul over, and often no villages to stop at, and always an imperative necessity to be prepared with food and lodging from one's own resources entirely. Moreover, the safest bivouacs in the East were always in the loneliest haunts.

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