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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 8

Lake of Lucerne-- Seeburg Hotel-- Bonâ-fide Bite-- The Rapid Reuss-- Fair Friends-- Is it right?-- Caught by a Rope-- Barriers-- The Hard P1ace-- Din-- Headlong-- The Struggle-- Bremgarten.

WHEN the steamer at Imyn had embarked the three sportsmen, and the little pier was quiet, we got a cart out for the Rob Roy, and bargained to have it rumbled over the hill to the Lake of Lucerne for the sum of five francs--it is only half an hour's walk. The landlord himself came as driver, for he was fully interested about the canoe, and he did not omit to let people know his sentiments on the subject all along the way, but called out even to the men plucking fruit in the apple-trees, who had perhaps failed to notice the wonderful phenomenon which was passing on the road beneath. There was a permanent joke on such occasions, and, oddly enough, it was used by the drivers in Germany as well as in Switzerland, and was of course original and spontaneous with each of them as they called out, "Going to America!" and then they chuckled at the brilliant remark.

The village we came to on Lucerne was the well-known Kussnacht, that is, one of the well-known Kussnachts, for there are plenty of these honeymoon towns in Central Europe. In the midst of the customary assembly of quidnuncs, eloquently addressed this time by the landlord-driver, the canoe was launched on another lake, perhaps the prettiest lake in the world.

Like other people, and at other times, I had traversed this beautiful water of the Four Cantons, but those only who have seen it well by steamer and by walking, so as to know how it juts in and winds round in intricate geography, can imagine how much better you may follow and grasp its beauties by searching them out with a canoe.

For thus I could penetrate all the wooded nooks, and dwell on each view-point, and visit the rocky islets, and wait long, longer--as long as I pleased before some lofty berg, while the ground-swell gently undulated, and the passing cloud shaded the hill with grey, and the red flag of a steamer fluttered in a distant sunbeam, and the plash of a barge's oar broke on the boatman's song; everything around changing just a little, and the stream of inward thought and admiration changing too as it flowed, but all the time, whenever the eye came hack to it again, there was always the grand mountain still the same,

"Like Teneriffe or Atlas unremoved."

How cool the snow looked up there aloft even in the heat of the summer! and,--to come again to one's level on the water,--how lively the steamer was with the music of its band and the quick beat of its wheels curling up white foam. Let us speed to meet it and to get a tossing in the swell, while Jones and Smith, under the awning, cry out, "Why, to be sure, that's the Rob Roy canoe," and Mrs. Jones and the three Miss Smiths all lift tip their heads from their "Murrays," where they have been diligently reading the history of Switzerland from A. D. 1682, and then the description in words of all the scenery around, although they have suffered its speaking realities in mountain, wood, and lake to pass before their very eyes unnoticed.

As I was quite fresh in good "training" now, so as to get on very comfortably with ten or twelve hours' rowing in a day, I spent it all in seeing this inexhaustible Lake of Lucerne, and yet felt that at least a dozen new pictures had been left unseen in this rich and lavish volume of the book of nature. But as that book had no page in it about quarters for the night, it was time at last to consider these homely affairs, and to look out for an hotel; not one of the big barracks for Englishmen spoken of before, but some quiet place where one could stop for Sunday. Coming suddenly then round a shady point, behold the very place! But can it be an hotel? Yes, there is the name, "Seeburg." Is it quiet? Observe the shady walks. Bathing? Why, there is a bath in the lake at the end of the garden. Fishing? At least four rods are stretched over the reeds by hopeful hands, and with earnest looks behind, watching breathless for the faintest nibble.

Let us run boldly in. Ten minutes, and the boat is safely in a shed, and its captain well housed in an excellent room; and, having ordered dinner, it was delicious to jump into the lake for a swim, all hot with the hot day's work, and to stretch away out to the deep, and circle round and round in these limpid waters, with a nice little bath-room to come back to, and fresh dry clothes to put on In the evening we had very pretty English music, a family party improvised in an hour, and broken up for a moonlight walk, while, all this time (one fancied), in the big hotel of the town the guests were in stiff coteries, or each set had retired to its sitting-room, and lamented how unsociable everybody had become.

I never was more comfortable than here, with a few English families "en pension," luxuriating for the sum of six francs per day, and an old Russian General, most warlike and courteous, who would chat with you by the hour on the seat under the shady chestnut, and smiled at the four persevering fishermen whose bag consisted, I believe, of three nibbles, one of them allowed on all hands to have been bonâ fide.

Then on Sunday we went to Lucerne, to church, where a large congregation listened to a very good sermon from the well-known Secretary of the Society for Colonial and Continental Churches. At least every traveller, if not every home-stayed Englishman, ought to support this Association, because it many times supplies just that food and rest which the soul needs so much on a Sunday abroad, when the pleasures of foreign travel are apt to make us think and act as if only the mind and body constitute the man.

I determined to paddle from Lucerne by the river Reuss, which flows out of the lake and through the town. The river is one of four--the Rhine, Rhone, Reuss, and Ticino, which all rise near together in the neighbourhood of the St. Gothard; and yet, while one flows into the German ocean, another falls into the Mediterranean, both having first made between them nearly the compass of Switzerland. The walking tourist comes often upon the rapid Reuss as it staggers and tumbles among the Swiss mountains. To me it had a special interest, for I once ascended the Galenhorn over the glaciers it starts from, and with only a useless guide, who lost his head and then lost his way, and then lost his temper and began to cry. We groped about in a fog until snow began to fall, and the snowstorm lasted for six hours--a weary time spent by us hapless ones wandering in the dark and without food. At length we were discovered by some people sent out with lights to search for the benighted pleasure-seeker.

The Reuss has many cascades and torrent gorges as it runs among the shattered crags, and it falls nearly 6000 feet before it reaches the Lake of Lucerne, this lake itself being still 1400 feet above the sea.

A gradual current towards the end of the lake entices you under the bridge where the river starts again on its course, at first gently enough, and as if it never could get fierce and hoarse-voiced when it has taken you miles away into the woods and can deal with you all alone. The map showed the Reuss flowing into the Aar, but I could learn nothing more about either of these rivers, except that an intelligent man said, "The Reuss is a mere torrent," while another recounted how a man some years ago went on the Aar in a boat, and was taken up by the police and punished for thus perilling his life. Deducting from these statements the usual 50 per cent. for exaggeration, everything appeared satisfactory, so I yielded my boat to the current, and, at parting, waved my yellow paddle to certain fair English friends who had honoured me with their smiles, and who were now assembled on the bridge. After this a few judicious strokes took the Rob Roy through the town and past the pleasant environs, and we were now again in happy sport on running water.

The current, after a quiet beginning, soon put on a sort of "business air," as if it did not mean to dally, and rapidly got into quick time, threading a devious course among the woods, hayfields, and vineyards, and it seemed not to murmur as streams generally do, but to sing with buoyant exhilaration in the fresh brightness of the morn. It certainly was a change, from the sluggish feeling of dead water in the lakes to the lively tremulous thrilling of a rapid river like the Reuss, which, in many places, is as wide as the Rhine at Schaffhausen. It is a wild stream, too fast for navigation, and therefore the villages are not built on the banks, and there are no boats, and the lonely, pathless, forest-covered banks are sometimes bleak enough when seen from the water.

For some miles it was easy travelling, the water being seldom less than two feet deep, and with rocks really visible by the eddy bubbling about them, because they were sharp and jagged. It is the long smooth and round-topped rock which is most treacherous in a fast river, for the spray which the current throws round such a rock is often not different from an ordinary wave. Now and then the stream was so swift that I was afraid of losing my straw hat, simply from the breeze created by great speed--for it was a day without wind.

It cannot be concealed that continuous physical enjoyment such as this tour presented is a dangerous luxury if it be not properly used. In hours of charming brightness my mind sometimes turned back to work-day life and daily duty. When I thought of the hospitals of London, of the herds of squalid poor in foetid alleys, of the pale-faced ragged boys, and the vice, sadness, pain; and poverty we are sent to do battle with if we be Christian soldiers, I could not help asking, "Am I right in thus enjoying such comfort, such scenery, such health?" Certainly not right, unless to get vigour of thought and hand, and freshened energy of mind, and larger thankfulness and wider love, and so, with all the powers recruited, to enter the field again more eager and able to be useful. [footnote 1]

In the more lonely parts of the Reuss the trees were in dense thickets to the water's edge, and the wild ducks fluttered out from them with a splash, and some larger birds like bustards hovered about the canoe. I think among the flying companions there was also the bunting, or "ammer" (from which German word comes our English "yellow hammer") wood-pigeon, and very beautiful hawks. The herons and kingfishers were here as well, but not so many of them as on the Danube.

Nothing particular occurred, although it was a pleasant morning's work, until we got through the bridge at Imyl, where an inn was high up on the bank. The ostler helped me to carry the boat into the stable, and the landlady, knowing that her customer would never come again, audaciously charged me 4s. 6d. for my first dinner, for mine was a greedy crew and always had two dinners on full working days.

The navigation after this began to be more interesting, with gravel banks and big stones to avoid, and the channel to be chosen from among several, and the wire ropes of the ferries stretched tightly across the river requiring to be noticed with proper respect. You may have observed how difficult it is sometimes to see a rope when it is stretched tight and horizontal, or at any rate how hard it is to judge correctly of its distance from your eye. This can be well noticed in walking by the sea-shore among fishing-boats moored on the beach, when you will sometimes even knock your nose against a taut hawser before you are aware that it is so close.

This is caused by the fact that the mind estimates the distance of an object partly by comparing the two views of its surface obtained by the two eyes respectively, and which views are not quite the same, but differ, just as the two pictures prepared for the stereoscope. Each eye sees a little round one side of the object, and the solid look of the object and its distance are thus before the mind. Now when the rope is horizontal the eyes do not see round the two sides in this manner, though if the head is leant sideways it will be found that the illusion referred to no longer operates.

Nor is it out of place to inquire thus at length into this matter, for one or two blunt slaps on the head from these ropes across a river make it at least interesting if not pleasant to examine "the reason why." And now we have got the philosophy of the thing, we may let go the ropes.

The actual number of miles in a day's work for the canoeist is much influenced by the number of waterfalls or artificial barriers which are too dry or too high to allow the canoe to float over them.

Shirking a Fall

In all such cases, I had to get out and to drag the boat round by the fields, or to lower her carefully among the rocks, as is shown in the sketch on page 125 [above], which represents the usual appearance of that operation. Although this sort of work was a change of posture, and brought into play new muscular action, yet the strain sometimes put on the limbs by the weight of the boat, and the great caution required where there was only slippery footing, made these barriers to be regarded on the whole as bores. Full soon however we were to forget such trifling troubles, for more serious work impended.

The river banks suddenly assumed a new character. They were steep and high, and their height increased as we advanced between the two upright walls of stratified gravel and boulders.

A full body of water ran here, the current being of only ordinary force at its edges, where it was interrupted by rocks, stones, and shingle, and was thus twisted into eddies innumerable. To avoid these entanglements at the sides, it seemed best, on the whole, to keep the boat in mid-channel, though the breakers were far more dangerous there, in the full force of the stream. I began to think that this must be the "hard place" coming, which a wise man farther up the river had warned me was quite too much for so small a boat, unless in flood times, when fewer rocks would be in the way. My reply to this was that when we got near such a place I would pull out my boat and drag it along the bank. "Ah! but the banks are a hundred feet high," he said. So I had mentally resolved (but entirely forgot) to stop in good time and to clamber up the banks and investigate matters ahead before going into an unknown run of broken water.

Such plans are very well in theory, but somehow the approach to these rapids was so gradual, and the mind was so much occupied in overcoming the particular difficulty of each moment that no opportunity occurred for rest or reflection. The dull heavy roar round the corner got louder as the Rob Roy neared the great bend. For here the river makes a turn round the whole of a letter S, in fact very nearly in a complete figure of 8, and in wheeling thus it glides over a sloping ledge of flat rocks, spread obliquely athwart the stream for a hundred feet on either hand, and just a few inches below the surface.

The canoe was swept over this singular place by the current, its keel and sides grinding and bumping on the stones, and sliding on the soft moss, which here made the rock so slippery and black. The progress was aided by sundry pushes and jerks of mine at proper times, but we advanced altogether in a clumsy, helpless style, until at length there came in sight the great white ridge of tossing foam where the din was great, and a sense of excitement and confusion filled the mind.

I was quite conscious that the sight before me was made to look worse because of the noise around, and by the feeling of the loneliness and powerlessness of a puny man struggling in a waste of breakers, where to strike on a single one was sure to upset the boat. Here, too, it would evidently be difficult to save the canoe by swimming alongside if she capsized or foundered, and yet it was utterly impossible now to stop.

Right in front, and in the middle, I saw the well-known wave which is always raised when a main stream converges, as it rushes down a narrow neck. The depression or trough of this was about four feet below, and the crest two feet above the level, so the height of the wave was about six feet. Though tall it was thin and sharp-featured, and always stationary in position, while the water composing it was going at a tremendous pace After this wave there was another smaller one, as frequently happens.

It was not the height of the wave that gave any concern; had it been at sea the boat would rise over any lofty billow, but here the wave stood still, and the canoe was to be impelled against it with all the force of a mighty stream, and so it must go through the body of water, for it could not have time to rise. And then the question remained, "What is behind that wave?" for if a rock is there then this is the last hour of the Rob Roy. [footnote 2]

The boat plunged headlong into the shining mound of water as I clenched my teeth and clutched my paddle. We saw her sharp prow deeply buried, and then my eyes were shut in voluntarily, and before she could rise the mass of solid water struck me with a heavy blow full in the breast, closing round my neck as if cold hands gripped me, and quite taking away my breath.

Vivid thoughts coursed through the brain in this exciting moment, but another slap from the lesser wave, and a whirling round in the eddy below, soon told that the battle was over, and the little Rob Roy slowly rose from under a load of water, which still covered my wrists, and then, trembling, as if stunned by the heavy shock, she staggered to the shore. The river too had done its worst, and it seemed now to draw off from hindering us, and so I clung to a rock to rest for some minutes, panting with a tired thrilling of nervousness and gladness strangely mingled.

Although the weight of the water had been so heavy on my body and legs, very little of it had got inside under the waterproof covering, for the whole affair was done in a few seconds, and though everything in front was completely drenched up to my necktie, the back of my coat was scarcely wet. Most fortunately I had removed the flag from its usual place about an hour before, and thus it was preserved from being swept away.

Well, now it is over, and we are rested, and can begin again with a fresh start; for there is still some work to do in threading among the breakers. The main point, however, has been passed, and the difficulties after it look small, though at other times perhaps they might receive attention. Here is our resting-place, the old Roman town of Bremgarten, which is built in a hollow of this very remarkable serpent bend of the rapid Reuss. The houses are stuck on the rocks, and abut on the river itself, and as the stream bore me past these I clung to the doorstep of a washerwoman's house, and pulled my boat out of the water into her very kitchen, to the great amusement and surprise of the worthy lady, who wondered still more when I hauled the canoe again through the other side of her room until it fairly came out to the street behind!

It must have astonished the people to see a canoe thus suddenly appearing on their quiet pavement. They soon crowded round and bore her to the hotel, which was a moderately bad one. Next morning the bill was twelve francs, nearly double its proper amount; and thus we encountered in one day the only two extortionate innkeepers met with at all, and even at this second one I made the landlord take eight francs as a compromise.

This quaint old Bremgarten, with high walls and a foss, and antiquities, was well worth the inspection of my early morning walk next day, and then the Rob Roy was ordered to the door.


[footnote 1]: The crew of the canoe gave eighty-five lectures upon the "Rob Roy on the Jordan," and forty-three lectures on "Underground Adventures," &c--the whole profits of which, amounting to L10,200 (in January, 1879), were paid to schools, hospitals, churches, asylums, and other institutions in England.

[footnote 2]: I had not then acquired the knowledge of a valuable fact, that a sharp wave of this kind never has a rock behind it. A sharp wave requires free water at its rear, and it is therefore in the safest part of the river so far as concealed dangers are concerned. This at least was the conclusion come to after frequent observations afterwards of many such places.

A faithful representation of the incident on the Reuss, so far as concerns the water, is given in the Frontispiece. In higher flood the river would be faster but smoother, in lower times it would be slower and broken into pools.

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