Monday, September 22, 2014

Paddling the Götakanal: Conclusion and tips

Along the Canal
I enjoyed paddling the Götakanal tremendously and cannot really understand why it is not more popular with paddlers. Especially in September - when the water is still warm but the yachts are gone - this is a great paddling destination even for beginners. Let's start with what I liked about it: Although it is called Götakanal, about half of it is actually lakes including the huge Lake Vättern. Therefore you are closer to nature than you might think. But even the real canal stretches where beautiful and usually set in peaceful and nice countryside. You are hardly ever near ugly industrial sights or busy highways.

The locks - although a nuissance to portage around - are quite scenic in themselves. Luckily they usually come in groups. So if you have to take out your boat you can usually portage it around several locks and then continue on a longer stretch of canal. But also the canal towns were little gems and I often felt like in an Astrid Lindgren book.

Lockkkeeper's hut
The infrastructure was created for yachters and cyclists but is still very useful for paddlers as well. You'll find plenty of supermarkets for resupply, water in all the boat guest harbours and fantastic rest areas made for cyclists. Around each lock there is usually a very nice flat grassy area ideal for camping - and this is legal! Next to each lock is the lock keeper's hut which provides rain shelter if necessary. So free camping is not a problem at all on the Götakanal. When going shopping or overnighting I had to leave my boat unattended. Other than in the US this is not a problem in Sweden. Nothing got stolen or destroyed and I did not have a bad gut feeling when leaving the boat alone.

Last lock in Sjötorp
Because the lakes are relatively small (and the canal narrow) wind and generally bad weather is not such a big problem on the Götakanal. Only the Lake Vättern poses a bit of a problem for paddlers. It is too big to go directly across and going around its Northern shore is beautiful, but can be difficult in high winds.

But not all is perfect: As I have said earlier the canal is maintained mostly for boaters. They have to pay a rather high fee to use the Canal which is used to maintain the locks and infrastructure. Cycle tourism is also encouraged with rest areas and bike maps. In summer there are even bike ferries. But paddling tourism is NOT a priority at all for the Götakanal company. That means that special paddlers' needs are not catered for at all. As the yacht and cycling infrastructure is really good and can be used by paddlers well this creates only two problems for paddlers.

Typical canal bank
The first and foremost one is the lack of decent take out and put in places. Sometimes there is a boat ramp nearby that you can use but this is very rare. Most of the time former paddlers have already created some sort of a half way decent take out place - usually recognisable by trampled grass. But sometimes you are facing the almost impossible, especially when travelling in a rather delicate folding kayak. The canal banks are made out of rather sharp rocks which can easily damage a folding kayak. Sometimes they are not only rocky but also steep. And when bad comes to worst there is a quay that is too high above the water sothat you can't get your boat in or out.

But keep in mind: I was paddling on my own in a folding kayak and had only a boat cart. I am also not the most agile or acrobatic person and I still managed all portages on my own. There were only three times were I had to ask other people for help because I could not handle the kayak alone:

Norsholm (impossible to do alone if you cannot lift and carry your boat over your head because of the railway crossing), Motala (no decent put in place into the lake except the boat landing, but if you tried really hard you could do it yourself) and Toreboda (taking out the boat before the railway bridge is difficult because of steep bank). Luckily Swedish people are very helpful and there are usually people around you can ask for help).

The other minor problem are the bridges. The only bridge that I could not paddle underneath was Toreboda railway bridge. I fit under all other bridges although sometimes it was close. Most of the bridges are roll bridges which means there is a huge chain hanging underneath the bridge. Try to avoid touching that chain: it is really greasy and you won't get the oil off your hands. The same goes for the whole bridge structure: there is always some grease somewhere but sometimes you cannot avoid touching the metal in order to push yourself through.

I have used the NV map atlas for the Götakanal. This is the cheapest option on the market. Swedish boat maps are a lot more expensive. The NV atlas is not bad but does not meet all paddlers' needs. It does not have contour lines which would be handy for choosing a campsite at lakes. It does not show the cyclist rest areas, only harbour facilities. And it does not cover the whole Vättern (which you will need as a paddler but not a boater). The Vänern is only covered in rudimentary maps. 
Motala lock stair

The Götakanal locks are staffed until August 20. After that locking is still possible until end of September but you have to pay for that. That basically means that you will have the canal all to yourself after August 20. I did not see a single other paddler and only very few boats. The Götakanal is therefore best to paddle from end of August to end of September when the water is still warm and the weather still relatively good.

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