Monday, 29 September 2014

Lake Vänern

Mariestad lighthouse
When I left Mariestad campground in the early morning the weather had calmed down completely. The campground flags that had nearly been torn apart by the wind the night before now hung down limply. Even the sun was shining - but my kayak was covered in ice for the first time on this trip. Never mind - it melted quickly. The huge lake was as smooth as a baby's butt again but according to the forecast this wouldn't last very long. Two days of paddling weather followed by three days of high winds. Two days was enough to get me to Lidköping where I had to make a decision about how to continue around the Vänern.

Lake Vänern
I put in a long day which was no problem after almost two days of rest. I almost overdid it in the evening when I passed good campsites only to end up near a huge noisy plant. My "target camping area" lay 3 km further south but if it turned out to be UN-campable I would be stuck because it was already getting late and dark. But I was very lucky: I encountered a picture perfect sandy beach with plenty of camping underneath pine trees. There were even logs around campfire rings. I quickly set up my tent and cook in the dark. The pine trees weren't as good as I thought. When the wind came up at night pine cones were dropping on my tent scaring me every time. And then it even rained in the morning. The weather forecast hadn't improved either... but at least the rain stopped before noon which gave me enough time to get to Lidköping that day.

Campground beach
It was gray and overcast but at least not windy. Still the trip dragged on forever until I finally spotted the sandy beach of Lidköping campground. This turned out to be one last obstacle: the beach was so shallow that I got stuck and the waves swamped me from behind. But all was well in the end after a hot shower and good meal sitting in the campground kitchen.The Vänern decision was quickly made. If I wanted to continue around the Vänern I would have to wait out at least three days. This would cost me a fortune in Lidköping as the campground was 21 € per night. Or I'd be stuck in the archipelago with no civilisation nearby which meant three days in a tent. Plus the outcome was unpredictable: the forecast might change and the winds continue. I decided to pack up my boat and take a train to Dalsland where the lakes are much smaller and there are wind shelters.

So tomorrow was transit day. Everything went do much better than I had expected. My lucky streak started in the morning when a gentleman walking three dogs asked me about my trip. After chatting a bit he not only offered to take me to the train station by car but he also invited me to stay in his summer house in Dalsland at the end of my trip.

Packing up at Lidköping
Once on the bus a man started talking to me in German. Although he was obviously Swedish he knew more about the German political system than me. It turned out he had a German mother and was a politician of the Swedish Green party. Time flew and I quickly arrived in Mellerud where Mathias, a fellow paddler and internet acquaintance picked me up. First we went shopping and then he drove me to a suitable put in place with a shelter. He surprised me written a great barbecue on a disposable grill: garlic bread, chicken skewers and German sausages - a great end for an interesting day.

Monday, 22 September 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.

Götakanal: Karlsborg to Sjötorp

Karlsborg campground
I really liked my stay in Sjötorp - and I liked the campsite more and more the longer I stayed. The receptionist turned out to be the owner and she gave me lots of invaluable information from Thai AYCE buffet to sources for used books in English. But the very best was the check out time which drawn me to the campsite in the first place: 3 pm! And because it was low season (and the owner liked me) she even allowed me to stay one or two hours longer. Therefore the next day turned into an almost full rest day. My personal campsite highlight was the TV room with its comfy leather couch. It even had electric heating! As everybody else on the campsite was in a campervan with their own TV I had to room all to myself - and fell asleep on the comfy couch at night. The Thai AYCE buffet was my personal Karlsborg highlight as I went there a second time the next day. I would have stayed another night but the weather was too good to be missed. I left at 5 pm in the evening, paddled one hour and then camped in the forest.
Tatorp rest area
The Götakanal is really beautiful on this stretch because you are mostly paddling on lakes. I spent the whole next day paddling Lake Viken where I had the lake almost all to myself. According to the weather forecast these would be the last days with T-shirt weather and I took ample advantage of it (and nearly got another sun burn). Another positive surprise of this Western part of the Götakanal were the rest areas which were total luxury for a weary paddler: Shelter, campfire site and grate and a dry toilet. So when I arrived at Tatorp and the first lock after a long lock-free day on the Viken I immediately decided to stay and sleep in the shelter next to the lock. For dinner I tried Swedish grill sausages. I was a bit skeptical as the package called them "Bratwurst" and they definitely did not have anything to do with German bratwurst. Also any meat product that keeps an entire months (as said the expiration date on the package) can't be too healthy. But after frying them on my stove they tasted not too bad and I went to bed with a full belly.

Unfortunately, next day meant a lot more locks and an unpleasant surprise: At Toreboda I had to go under a railway bridge and the bridge was so low that even I in a kayak did not fit underneath it. Plus it didn't help that a local was watching my manouvres from a little boat landing. I was awfully afraid of getting stuck underneath that bridge with a freight train thundering over me on the bridge. I had to take the boat out and portage around it. At least this was not a catastrophe as Norsholm: there was a pedestrian underpass nearby. But the canal bank was so steep here that I had to ask for help to get the kayak out. A man walking his beautifully coiffured dog gave me a hand and soon I was on the other side of the bridge. But before putting in again I still had to do a bit of shopping. The many locks and this unexpected portage (plus my late start....) made me running late now. I paddled almost until dusk before I arrived at another set of locks and another luxury rest area - even with a tacky "water" sculpture right in front of it!

Sculpture at rest area
This time there even was some fire wood in the shelter and I decided to have real barbecue. I lit a campfire and had chorizo grill sausage this time - equally disgustingly good as the Bratwurst last night. I went to bed as a happy paddler again and woke up to thick fog - a good excuse to sleep in. But the next day I wanted to venture into the infamous Lake Vänern and so I finally kicked myself out of bed. It wasn't really encouraging that the first local I met told me that October is already winter here in Sweden... The last stretch on the Götakanal was more Walking than paddling. The locks were so close together that it did not make sense to put the kayak in again. I portaged the boat 2,7 km until I arrived at the last lock in Sjötorp and the end of the Götakanal.

Lake Vänern
When I put in into the Vänern the weather even cleared and I paddled on water as smooth as glass in wonderful sunshine. Alas, this was not going to last according to the weather forecast. And the Vänern is to be taken seriously. It is Europe's third biggest lake and 11 times bigger than German Lake Constance. When planning this trip this lake was one of my biggest fear factors. Luckily there are many places were I can take out and just take public transport around the lake if necessary. The forecast predicted strong winds and lots of rain for Sunday and Monday which luckily coinceded with me being in Mariestad where there is a campsite open year round. (Campsite are easiest for me because I somehow have to take care of myself and my boat.) I camped in a nature reserve Close to Mariestad and paddled to last km into town the next morning.

Vänern clouding over
When I beached at Ekkuden camping the weather was overcast but still calm. Knowing what was to come I did not even set up my tent. First I got into an argument with the young receptionist. Most Scandinavian campgrounds require a "camping card" which of course costs extra money. So far this requirement had always been waived because of low season but here the guy insisted on one. It seemed a bit out of balance to pay 17 EUR just for camping and then an extra of 15 EUR just for a useless camping card but luckily I could convince the guy to call his supervisor who gave the ok to check me in without the card. When I asked for the location of the supermarkets I was pleasantly surprised to hear that there is a Lidl in town. I guess you know now where my first steps were taken to.....

Mariestad cathedral
Returning from Lidl with a backpack full of German chocolate the weather was still calm but half an hour the storm started. I just had time enough to get all my gear from my boat into the TV room and then it started bucketing down. The very worst was the wind - so strong that tree limbs came down. No way I was going to camp in that - I set up my tent on the covered veranda of one of the camping huts. Still, I had an almost sleepless night. The storm raged on and on and when the wind changed direction slightly my tent was nearly blown away on the veranda. I gave up and went back into the TV room. It was cold, windy and wet - maybe paddling Sweden in fall isn't such a great idea....

But the weather forecast was right again. Around noon the sky cleared and the sun came out although it remained windy. I went for lunch in another Thai AYCE restaurant (they seem to be really popular here in Sweden), found a second hand store where I bought 5 English paperbacks (I will have to wait out a lot of bad weather soon) and saved a lot of money by copying sea maps in the public library instead of buying them in a book store for 70 EUR.

Although the forecast looks good for tomorrow I am doubtful if I'll be able to paddle around the whole lake. Temperatures are rising again but wind seems to be a big problem. Three days of wind with 9 m/s are predicted and I definitely can't paddle in this. I'll either have to wait it out or pack the boat up and take the train around the lake. But hopefully the forecast c
hanges - so keep your fingers crossed for me.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Practicing self rescue on the river Elbe

Still enthusiastic about paddling I had published my paddling trip report about Sweden on a German outdoor forum - and had received a very interesting answer. Wilbert, a German paddler I had not known before, was so touched by my whining about potatoe sack kayak entry methods that he offered to give me some paddling lessons. I am always eager to improve my paddling technique but this was November in Germany! And as I am planning to leave Germany in March again paddling lessons did not seem such a good idea. But Wilbert was not to be deterred. He argued that you have to practice in serious conditions or elsewise you will not be prepared for a real case of emergency. He also offered his dry suit. I did not have any more excuses now and set out to visit Wilbert on the river Elbe - in November.

The whole expedition started already with an adventure: Wilbert came to pick me (and my 40 kg of boat and equipment) up on two bikes and a bike trailer. Although being as tall as Wilbert I seem to have much shorter legs meaning that I could hardly mount the bike - and of course Wilbert had not brought a key to lower the saddle. I ended up sitting on a far too high bike like a little monkey and towing an ultra-heavy trailer. But to my great surprise we made it the boathouse without me falling off. The rest of the day was spent assembling my boat.

Next morning we got down to business and I learnt that winter paddling is even more complicated than summer paddling: I had to squeeze myself into Wilbert's dry suit first. Getting through the suit's latex cuffs reminded my awfully of a forceps delivery. But my woes were not over yet: I still had to put on a neoprene cap that made me look a stuffed sausage. Now add neoprene shoes, a spray skirt and a life jacket and you will understand that I felt (and looked) like the famous Michelin Man. But finally at 11 am we made it onto the water. Wilbert discovered that his water proof setup was leaking and soon refrained from entering the water. (My dry suit was leaking, too but I did not have that comfortable choice....). Soon I was splashing through 10 degree Celsius cold water with an balmy 7 degree Celsius air temperature. 

I quickly realised that this was hard work. Despite wearing warm thermal underwear and an (almost) waterproof drysuit I felt soon cold - the cold water was draining my energy. But I had to work hard trying to get back into my flooded boat via a paddle float. Still, after 2 hours of practicing I had to throw in the towel and headed back for lunch. In the afternoon I had my personal highlight when Wilbert taught me how to climb up a ladder on a steel piling - very important for me as a canal addict. This newly acquired technique will help me to go through locks easier on future trips. Although I first thought it impossible to stand up completely in my flexible foldable kayak I managed to do it almost gracefully after some practice and soon I was climbing up and down the ladder like a little monkey... eehhhmmmm more like and oversized Michelin Man....

I have to admit that I was very exhausted that first evening but still spent an interesting evening chatting with Wilbert in the cozy (and well heated) boat house. It was hard to get up next morning with sore muscles but you don't learn self rescue by sitting in a boat house....So soon we were on the water again with Wilbert deciding that he did not intend to get wet today. Being a professional photographer he volunteered to take some pictures of my acrobatic efforts instead. (This explains the high quality pictures in this posts instead of my usual smartphone shots.) This day I practiced a full blown self rescue from the very beginning to the very end which means I had to do a wet exit and submerge myself completely underwater - quite a disturbing experience in these temperatures even with a dry suit. We were practicing in the Elbe with a falling tide, so when I finally emerged I just saw my boat floating away. In sheer panic I yelled at Wilbert to grab my boat whereas he just answered smiling (and not moving one milimeter): "No, you just have to swim faster......" Have you ever tried to swim with a dry suit on? The buoyancy makes normal swimming almost impossible and I was wildly splashing around until backstroking finally did the trick and got hold of my kayak again. I took revenge on Wilbert by trying to splash him when bilge pumping.

Another surprising lesson learned was that my boat cart was no big obstacle while self rescuing. First of all it floats should it coincidentally fall off. And secondly I could still turn the capsized boat around with it strapped on and it wasn't really in the way when climbing back into the boat.  But I still have a lot to learn: At the end of the lesson Wilbert decided to get wet anyways and showed me a Greenland roll which is so much more elegant than the paddle float entry we had been practicing. But alas with my Feathercraft K1 this roll is not possible - my kayak is too high to lie flat on the afterdeck for the Greenland roll. I will have to learn the traditional Eskimo roll sooner or later.

Sunday afternoon I was so exhausted that I dreaded going back into the cold water especially since it was raining heavily by now but of course I did not want to admit that. Luckily Wilbert was fed up as well and now I had a good excuse to stay in the warm boat house. But we did not spend the afternoon idly. I learned how to improve my deck setup to accommodate paddle float, spare paddle and bilge pump and everything else I need at hand without stuff being in the way in an emergency. Being an eager student I spent the evening studying a seakayak instruction manual which led me to the conclusion that seakayaking will probably never be my favourite occupation. Too much hassle and too many risks involved for a soloist like me. Maybe in a couple of years I have become such an efficient paddler that I might change my mind on that topic but for now I will not plan any extended seakayaking trips.

Monday morning I looked like a victim of domestic violence with bruises all over my legs from scrambling in and out of my boat. It didn't help that I could hardly turn my head any more. Still, I managed to pack up my boat without having a nervous break down and had a last meal with Wilbert. I could hardly believe how fast time had passed. To get back to the station I had to mount that dreaded bike again but by now Wilbert had found the key to lower the saddle and now I could pedal almost gracefully  to the train station. Dragging my boat in and out of trains, subway station and elevators has almost become a hobby of mine by now.....

Bottom line: Everyone had told me that rescue practices in November are a bit of a crazy idea but the whole weekend has turned out to be great fun and taught me some valuable lessons. A big thank you to Wilbert for being such a patient teacher and documentating my cold water acrobatics. And another big thank you to Hansa Kanu in Stöckte whose club boat house we could use that weekend - they even postponed to turn off the water in the house for the winter just for us. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Lake Vättern

Motala lighthouse
I woke up to a grey and windy day - which only added to my nervousness about Lake Vättern. I portaged the kayak up a stair of six steep locks and put in again and I am proud to say that I have become quite efficient (but not graceful) with it. I was even less graceful when I fell flat on my already injured knee trying to tie my boat at a landing in order to go shopping....

My mood then dropped to a definite low point when I arrived at the last lock before Lake Vättern and it was almost impossible to put out - and no decent put in at all in sight. I left all my gear at the lock and ventured into the tourist information with tons of questions about the Vättern. The girl working there was eager to help me but basically had no clue - and what was worse also no decent map of the Vättern. She sent me to the local bookstore where the sales guy turned out to be a boater himself. I left with a decent map and lots of information. But I was still undecided about the most important question: should a paddle around the whole lake or take a short cut via a big military island in the middle of the lake which involved a 5 km traverse. I had to play it by ear.

Paddling under Motala highway bridge
But first I had to get my kayak into the water again. The best of all bad alternatives was to use the boat landings for yachts in the harbour. They were still very high but at least much lower than the whole quay. But I wouldn't be able to get my kayak onto the boat landing alone. There was a huge gap over which I couldn't get with my boat cart. I had to ask for help. Luckily there were plenty of people around. There was an old timer moped meeting taking place and the engine noises were driving me crazy. I asked a man for help and of course he volunteered. He not only helped me carry my kayak onto the landing but also lowered it into the water. Swedish people are great... Soon I was ready to go and paddled nervously into the Vättern, Sweden's third biggest lake.

Luckily the wind was blowing off shore so I didn't have to fight high waves. I was just surprised to paddle into a group of 20 surfers, apparently a surf class. I gave them I wide berth and was delighted when the sun came out eventually. The next positive surprise was the beaches: lots of bays had fantastic sandy beaches, ideal for my delicate folding kayak. I camped at such a lovely spot: a long sandy beach all to myself with pine forest for soft camping and a great view onto the lake. Life was good again and I decided not to take the short cut. This was too beautiful and I wanted to paddle around the whole northern part of the lake.

Dinner view
Next morning I awoke to another beautiful late summer day. I cannot believe my luck with the weather on this trip. I paddled along the Northeastern shore of the Vättern and had several happiness flashes. This was just so beautiful! And although it was Sunday there were hardly any motor boaters. I made a very good distance and beached at another beautiful sandy beach for camping. But I wasn't the only one admiring this beautiful sight - two people were picknicking at the tip of a spit of land. I decided to go over and talk to them: I wanted to check out who they were and give them a chance to see who I was. They turned out to be a middle aged couple just out for the evening. We chatted a bit and I could ask them about shops along my route because I was a bit short on food. There were no shops but the two immediately took pity on me and gave me the remnants of their picknick which provided me with a nice dessert for dinner. They left soon (not without coming back to me and giving me two bottles of mineral water on top of their cookies) and I had dinner at a a fabulous spot overlooking the lake. There even was a bench and a table for cooking. I liked Lake Vättern more and more.

The forecast for next day was rather windy. That didn't really bother me in the beginning as I was exploring the archipelago in the Northern tip of the lake which also is a nature reserve. Very nice indeed with even plenty of campsites and toilets provided. But as I progressed further down the Northwestern shore of the Vättern the wind coming from the East became more and more of a problem. First I could dodge behind islands but out in the open it became problematic. Even a subtle wind can create big waves over the wide lake surface and when I came out of another small archipelago I was nearly swept away. The lake had become incredibly choppy and to make things worse the waves came sideways which means that they could swamp my boat. I paddled several hundred metres and it felt like I was fighting to survive. There were hardly any more islands to hide behind and I got so scared that I turned back into the archipelago. It was only 4 pm but I decided to camp and try again next morning. At least the forecast was a bit better for the next day.

As the archipelago was another nature reserve I stumbled across a picture perfect camp site with wind shelter, campfire site and toilet. Still I was so worried about the wind that I could hardly enjoy all this. I was very low on food and could not really sit out this wind for a very long time. I could definitely have survived on eating the many mushrooms on this island - if I had know which ones are edible..... Basically I had to get to Karlsborg the next day. I studied the map back and forth and luckily there was a major road nearby. If bad came to worst I would have to pack up my boat and take a bus or hitch to Karlsborg - an option on which I was not too keen, but at least the situation was not desperate. The forecast predicted lower winds in the morning and I wanted to start paddling at sunrise.

The wind situation was so worrying me that I hardly slept that night. At 4 am I stopped tossing and turning and switched on my cell phone to check the weather forecast again: it had worsened. Wind from the East the whole day. I was so nervous I nearly puked over breakfast but I still wanted to give it a try. Sunrise was at 6.30 am and I was ready to paddle at 6 am. I waterproofed everything, put the sea sock into my kayak and even inflated it a bit more. Then I ventured out - into the fog.

I soon started to worry whether I was doing the right thing. The lake was not as choppy as yesterday but visibility was less than 200 metres. There were lots of shallows and I worried about running ashore or getting overrun by a motor boat. In this fog even my neon orange hi-vi cap wouldn't be much help. Slowly I progressed with the help of my GPS and after 2 hours I reached another sheltered archipelago which had been  my goal for yesterday. I could take out here and portage the boat 10+ km - or try to paddle on. I paddled on. The lake became choppier and choppier but I got more and more used to it. Unfortunately right before Karlsborg there was a huge military area. If I ventured past its beginning I had to go all the way. You were not allowed to go ashore here - if it had been possible because the shoreline as so rocky that my kayak would get smashed in the waves.

I fought on and on and became very determined to reach Karlsborg that day. The last stretch was the worst. A 1,5 km long spit of land, totally exposed to the waves. Normally I would have just beached  and portaged the kayak 100 m to the other side where the water was totally calm. But this was a military installation as hundreds of signs warned me. After what seemed forever I came to the end of the spit of land and could hide behind it. According to my map that was illegal, too because even the waters here were a military restricted zone but I hadn't seen anyone for hours - and honestly, I was so exhausted I just needed a break. I had just begun to start paddling again as a motor boat approached me. Oh dear, this must be the military.... They stopped alongside but were very friendly. They told me that I was in a restricted area (which I knew but didn't admit) and when I apologized and promised to leave they just left without causing any problems. Even Swedish military is friendly....

It still took me another hour to finally pull into Karlsborg. Once I had paddled underneath the bridge into the sund I was in another world. No more waves and everything was peaceful and quiet. I had overstrained myself and could hardly hold my paddle any more. I had paddled more than 20 km in choppy weather in less than 5 hours - and I felt it. Luckily the campground was just around the corner. I beached and nearly fell out of my boat because I was so stiff. The campground wasn't the nicest one (too close to a busy road) but I could not be bothered. At least the receptionist was very friendly and lifted my spirits immediately by mentioning a cheap Thai AYCE buffet. I quickly set up my tent and went for lunch. Only when sitting at the table and devouring great food the stress slowly started to subside. But hey - I had made it around Lake Vättern. And this is supposed to be a learning trip

Friday, 12 September 2014

Götakanal: Mem to Motala

I was very nervous in the morning. This was my first day on the canal  and I had no clue how to get out and back into the kayak at the locks. Also I had no experience with the boat cart which is essential for portaging the boat around the locks. Keep in mind that I am not the most athletic or agile person either. To say that I am clumsy is still somewhat of an euphemism....or as my former hiking partners used to say: Grace and Elegance are not my middle names... To make things worse my first portage would be in Söderköping where I would have plenty of audience for my acrobatics.

I finally embarked onto the little river that parallels the canal and it was a real pleasure. But the river banks were steep... if it stayed that way I had no chance of getting myself and my kayak out of the water. But when I entered Söderköping I immediately saw my fall back plan: a real boat slip at a wharf which had the only drawback that it was 1,5 km away from where I wanted to get out. I paddled on and saw to my great relief that the river banks were grassy and much less steep. In a rather ungraceful acrobatic act I  threw myself on the grass (picture yourself a sack of potatoes rolling around) and pulled my boat ashore. Once I managed to shove it onto the boat cart which is much more complicated than it sounds for one person) the actual portage was easy. Now I still had to do some shopping before I could start paddling again.

Rabbits next to my kayak
I was very nervous to leave the kayak and all my gear unattended but being alone I had no choice. One homeless person looked rather suspicious and I hurried to the supermarket and back - only to find my boat just as I had left it and the presumed homeless person sitting in a café drinking coffee that I could not have afforded....I put my kayak into the Götakanal at a funny statue of rabbits. I remembered that I had taken a picture of the exact same rabbits over a year ago when I had been cycling along the Götakanal on my first Skandinavian bike tour - and where the idea to paddle it had developped.

Lots of camping space at locks
It was just a short paddle to the next locks - an entire flight of six. As soon as I had gracefully gotten out to my big surprise a ship appeared - and minutes later a Götakanal staff member in a car. The locks are only permanently staffed until end of August. After that you have to prebook lockage which is costly. I am proud to say that I beat the ship in the six locks despite the fact that I had to wait out a rain shower. I still waited for the ship to pass me at the uppermost lock because I didn't want any audience for my acrobatics....

In order to minimize getting in and out of the water I decided to camp directly at a lock which is also totally legal according to the Götakanal staff. But when I arrived at the lock I saw an inhabited house right next to it - and as the family was working in the garden I politely asked for permission to camp. Good choice! Not only was I allowed to camp but they also opened the lock keeper's toilet for me. The little lock keeper houses also have a little veranda which came in handy as a rain shelter for cooking. A nice ending for a successful first day in the canal.

Railway crossing
Day two was a lesson in Swedish helpfulness. I arrived at the lock in Norsholm and didn't think much about how to portage around it. Alas, it wasn't business as usual. The lock was closed despite the fact that the water level was equal on both sides. Directly after the lock was a railway bridge. And there the problem started. I couldn't get the kayak in after the lock because the water level was too low - a drop of over one meter. But I couldn't portage across the railway line either: the pedestrian crossing was so fenced of that a person could zigzag through - but not with a 5 metre long kayak in tow. And once across the railway line things didn't look bright either: there still was a one metre drop between the quai wall and the water. An electrical board announced a bridge opening in over an hour - but was this a current display?

Sunset at Roxen
I walked back and forth and couldn't find a good  solution. In desperation I asked the lady in the little
supermarket if there really was going to be a bridge opening. The very pragmatic lady immediately recruited one of her customers to help me. The guy who at once told me about his military training in the Swedish army wanted to help me lift my kayak over the railway fence. But how would I get the boat into the water? No problem! Just go to my friend Ake's house, say greetings from me and he'll let you use the boat ramp on his property. We lifted the boat over the fence and I was now looking for Ake's house. I asked a lady walking her dog if she knew where Ake lived. No, she didn't, but pointed out another nice put-in place - on private property. When she saw my doubts about trespassing she immediately volunteered to inform the neighbour - and when no one answered her call she gave me her name and told me to just refer anyone to her... When my kayak was finally in the water I was so exhausted that I didn't paddle much further on Lake Roxen after seeing a beautiful deserted beach. I even took a swim before going to bed!

Rest area along Götakanal
Day three was very long but had few locks - and every muscle in my arms and shoulders were hurting. I should really take some paddling lessons to improve my forward stroke. I camped at an official rest area which meant that there was a toilet, benches and a swimming area in the nearby lake. Heavenly - and I had the whole place to myself. I did not know what to do with the kayak overnight. Leave it in the water? (Not place to tie it to and it could get stolen) Take it out? (lots of work) I took it out and but I probably should not have worried. No one passed the rest area at night and there are no boaters because the locks are closed. I woke up to thick fog - a good excuse to turn around and continue sleeping, especially since my arms were still hurting. But eventually the sun came through and again I was paddling in a T, shirt only.

At Borensberg the canal screwed me again: no decent put-in place after the lock. I ended up putting in in a reed wilderness, supported by some German campers for whom my kayak acrobatics probably provided a good substitute for the lack of German TV.

Despite my aching arms and shoulders I made it across Lake Boren to the lock stairs at Motala where I am camped right now. To my great delight there are open public toilets nearby which provided almost hotel luxury for me: electrical outlet to recharge my phone, warm water and a hand dryer to wash my hair and soap for a general clean up.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

St Anna archipelago

I finally started paddling on a Saturday in wonderful summer weather. I had been very nervous about the wind but there wasn't any. I had even gotten up at 6 am and was paddling before eight. The packing process can definitely be optimised but this was the start of a trip so no rush. The first 13 km I was paddling out of the fjord from Valdemarsvik. Even I couldn't get lost here. Then I started navigating across the various islands of the archipelago. I must say that my brandnew boat compass helped tremendously - a good investment. Not a single time did I have to check my GPS for my position.

Another relief was my injured knee. Although it was a bit complicated to get in and out of the cockpit with it it didn't cause any problems once I was in the boat. But quickly it became apparent that my arms and shoulders were not used to paddling - they hurt. On an outdoor forum I had received waypoints for possible campsites in the archipelago and I checked one out now. Immediately I encountered a foreseeable problem: I had to beach on rocks! The rocks were very smooth so no problem for my foldable kayak.  But the submerged part was so slippery from algae that I had great problems getting out of the boat. But the campsite was great: flat spots under pine trees on soft duff with views over the sea in all directions. I also found an easier beaching spot. But it was only 4 pm with almost four hours of daylight left....

Still I decided to take it easy. I didn't need another injury in top of my knee... So I re-parked my kayak and set up camp. And because I had some time to kill I even mended my pants that were very torn from hiking. I don't think they will survive this trip. Over dinner life was good. The only annoying thing were the many noisy motor boats shooting around. I could not wait till it got dark and they would have to stop. Luckily it gets dark now - these motor boats must be a real nuisance around midsummer when the sun doesn't set. Next morning I realised that motor boaters aren't early risers either - at 8 am I was all alone on the water.

Unfortunately this changed around noon when one boat passed me so close that I had to fight against
the waves it created. Very few boaters had the courtesy to slow down for a  humble kayaker like me. But other than that it was another beautiful day. As I consider this a learning expedition I ventured out a bit further today where I had to do traverses of more than 1 km between islands with no mainland in sight. Still no problem because there was only a light breeze and the archipelago is relatively sheltered.

In the evening motor boats became really unnerving as I was paddling in a main shipping canal. Again I was tired and exhausted way before sunset and tried my camping luck on a small island. Again I discovered an established campsite with fire rings and even a clothes line. I had to paddle around the whole island to find a suitable beaching area for because I wanted to avoid the slippery rocks. I was rewarded with a wonderful sunset and an almost full moon.

Next day I would already leave the archipelago but as rain and stronger wind was forecasted this seemed like a good idea. I got up early again and made good progress until I reached the fjord that would lead to the beginning of the Götakanal. The rain started when I got to the ferry crossing at Stegeborg. As the ferry was in the move I took my time to put in my rain gear. I had bought a Southwester hat for this trip and it immediately turned out to be a great investment. It was absolutely peaceful and quiet paddling up the fjord. This was a Monday and it rained so hardly anyone was out. I only saw one fishing boat.

Lock at Mem
I made such good progress that I reached the lock at Mem already at three pm. And now everything seemed to go wrong. First I paddled into a little stream instead of the canal wondering where the first lock was. I should have had my canal maps out but of course I didn't. I have to say to my defence that this route was marked with red and green bouys so it wasn't completely idiotic to turn the wrong way. When I finally reached the lock I couldn't find any place where to get out. If all locks were like this I was screwed. But after paddling around the whole area I found a better place - and later even a picture perfect boat slip!

 only accessible with service card
I had been here last year on my bike trip and remembered taking a shower here at the guest harbour's facilities. Now the whole place was deserted and everything locked. Not quite everything though: One smart person had put a plastic knife into the lock of one key operated toilet and that gave me a warm and dry shelter during the heavy afternoon rain. I even found one electric outlet to recharge my phone - at the pump out station for boat toilets!

Eventually the sun came out again and I asked a responsible looking person if I could camp here at the lock. Yes, I could. Then I made an even better discovery. The little stream I had coincidentally paddled into led all the way to Söderköping saving me three portages around locks. These were bright prospects for tomorrow.

Bottom line: My short visit to St Anna archipelago was a great success and I highly recommend this area. I myself will definitely come back one day and discover the Eastern Swedish archipelagos in much more detail. Logistically I had found a perfect solution: I had started in Valdemarsvik which can be reached with hourly buses from Norrköping which in turn is on the main train line between Malmö and Stockholm. The best thing about Valdemarsvik though was the conveniently located Grännäs campground which is less than one km from the bus station along a nice bike path. Even at night with all my luggage getting there hadn't been a problem. There is a decent size ICA supermarket in town which can be reached easily in less than 15 minutes on foot via the same bike path. The tent camping area at the campground is right next to the dog beach where you can assemble and launch your boat. The campground is relatively small and quiet for Swedish standards but of course there are all facilities. In off season I was only charged 150 SEK which is cheap for Sweden. I am sure there are other good ways to access St Anna but this way has worked out great for me.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Paddling Sweden: Getting started

My paddling gear
As usual I was very nervous before this trip - and there were hundreds of things I would preferred to going on a paddling trip.... One of the big disadvantages of paddling is that you have to shlep around tons of gear which is especially awkward if your knee is not 100%. But I had already postponed my departure twice in order for me knee to get better until I realised that my knee was actually feeling better when I was moving instead of sitting or lying down all the time.

I was taking the train up to Sweden but I was a bit afraid of the two train changes. I had never travelled by train with all my gear and my boat cart - and a bad knee. Luckily my friend Leon volunteered to take me to the train station despite the fact that this meant getting up at 5.30 am. We arrived with plenty of time to spare and after saying goodbye to Leon I anxiously awaited the train. Almost everyone else was business people. I had the right strategy from the start: I got into the car with the handicapped seat where I could easily stow my boat   cart. Friendly passengers helped me get my luggage in and out of the train - every single time!

I had 30 minutes for the first train change and 15 for the second. Neither was a big problem as everyone was very helpful and all trains on time. Still I was very relieved when I finally arrived in Norrköping in Sweden. Here I had one hour to change from train to bus. Enough time to get money from the ATM and buy a Swedish SIM card. When I arrived at my final destination Valdemarsvik it was already pitch dark. But I had called the campground there the day before and knew what to do. It was just a one km easy walk  and I had found my home for the night.

I knew next day would be busy but I still hoped to leave the same day. First I had to buy supplies for four days. Then came the most dreaded task: assembling my boat. As much as I like my Feathercraft K1 - it is a real pain in the butt to assemble. This time was no difference. It took me three hours, several nervous breakdowns and a lot of swear words. Even blood was spilled! And when the boat was finally assembled I was too exhausted to look forward to paddling.

And my chores weren't even finished yet although it was already past three o'clock. Now all my gear had to be stowed into dry bags and stuffed into the kayak - another backbreaking job. I still knew my Mississippi set up but this was new: I had to stow away a boat cart on top of all my usual gear. After a lot of trial and error I finally found a system but still had to assemble my paddles which of course wasn't without problems either. When everything was ready at 6 pm I could hardly stand upright any more from bending down all the time - and my whole body hurt. No way I was going to paddle that day. I decided to stay another night at the campground and buy some nice dinner.

So finally tomorrow I will start paddling - that is if my sore muscles allow me to get up and into  my boatin the morning. At least the weather forecast is good!