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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 1

[Frontispiece, Rob Roy in Reuss Rapids, 44KB GIF]

[Map of canoe route, 137KB JPEG]

The Canoeist -- Other Modes -- The Rob Roy -- Handbook -- Hints -- The Dress -- The Role

A SMASH in a railway carriage one day hurled me under the seat, entangled in broken telegraph wires. No worse came of it than a shake of those nerves which one needs for rifle shooting; but as the bull's-eyes at a thousand yards were thereby made too few on the target, I turned in one night back again to my life on the water in boyish glee, and dreamed a new cruise, and planned a new craft, on my pillow.

It was clear that no rowboat would serve on a land-water voyage of this sort, for in the wildest parts of the best rivers the channel is too narrow for oars, or, if wide enough, it is often too shallow; and the tortuous passages, the rocks and banks, the weeds and snags, the milldams, barriers, fallen trees, rapids, whirlpools, and waterfalls that constantly occur on a river winding among hills, make those very parts where the scenery is wildest and best to be quite unapproachable in such a boat, for it would be swamped by the sharp waves, or upset over the sunken rocks, which cannot be seen by a steersman.

Now these very things which bother the "pair oar," become cheery excitements to the voyager in a canoe. For now, as he sits in his little bark, he looks forward, and not backward. He sees all his course, and the scenery besides. With one sweep of his paddle he can turn aside when only a foot from destruction. He can steer within an inch in a narrow place, and can easily pass through reeds and weeds, or branches and grass; can work his sail without changing his seat; can shove with his paddle when aground, and can jump out in good time to prevent a bad smash. He can wade and haul his craft over shallows, or drag it on dry ground, through fields and hedges, over dykes, barriers, and walls; can carry it by hand up ladders and stairs, and can transport his canoe over high mountains and broad plains in a cart drawn by a man, a horse, or a cow.

Besides all this, the covered canoe is far stronger than an open boat, and may be fearlessly dropped into a deep pool, a lock, or a millrace, and when the breakers are high in the open sea or in river rapids, they can only wash over the deck of a canoe, while it is always dry within.

The canoe is also safer than a rowing-boat, because you sit so low in it, and never require to shift your place or lose hold of the paddle; while for comfort during long hours, for days and weeks of hard work, the canoe is evidently the best, because you lean all the time against a swinging backboard, and when the paddle rests on your lap you are at ease as in an arm-chair; so that, while drifting along with the current or the wind, you can gaze around, and eat or read, or sketch, or chat with the starers on the bank, and yet, in a moment of sudden alarm, the hands are at once on the faithful paddle ready for action.

Finally, you can lie at full length in the canoe, with a sail as an awning for the sun, or a shelter for rain, and you can sleep at night under its cover, or inside it when made for that purpose, with at least as much room for turning in your bed as sufficed for the great Duke of Wellington; or, if you are tired of the water for a time, you can leave your boat at an inn--where it will not he "eating its head off," like a horse; or you can send it home, or sell it, and take to the road yourself, or sink back again into the lazy cushions of a first-class carriage, and dream you are seeing the world.

But it may well be asked from one who thus praises the paddle, "Has he travelled in other ways, so as to know their several pleasures? Has he climbed glaciers and volcanoes, dived into caves and catacombs, trotted in the Norway carriole, ambled on an Arab, and galloped on the Russian steppes? Does he know the charms of a Nile boat, or a Trinity Eight, or a Yankee steamer, or a sail in the Ægean, or a mule in Spain? Has he swung upon a camel, or glided in a sleigh, or sailed a yacht, or trundled in a Bantoone?"

Yes, he has thoroughly enjoyed these and other modes of locomotion, fast and slow. And now having used the canoe in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, he finds the pleasure of the paddle is the best of them all.

With such advantages, then, and with good weather and good health, the canoe voyage about to be described was truly delightful.

This was the first such cruise, but many others followed. You may see a list of them in the "Canoist," published by the Royal Canoe Club, of which the Prince of Wales is Commodore, with six hundred members, in all parts of the world.

The Rob Roy Canoe was built of oak, with a deck of cedar. She was made just short enough to go into the German railway waggons; that is to say, fifteen feet in length, twenty-eight inches broad, nine inches wide, and weighed eighty pounds. My baggage for three months was in a black bag one foot square and six inches deep. A paddle seven feet long, with a blade at each end, and a lug sail and jib, were the means of propulsion; and a pretty blue silk Union Jack was the only ornament. [footnote 1]

But, having got this little boat, the difficulty was to find where she could go to, or what rivers were at once feasible to paddle on and pretty to see.

Inquiries in London as to this had no result. Even the Paris Boat Club knew nothing of French rivers. The Rhine they knew but only as a wished-for boundary, and it was soon pretty plain that, after quitting the Rhine, my cruise must be a voyage of discovery. Let us hope, then, that this narrative will lessen the trouble, while it stimulates the desire, of the numerous travellers who spend their vacation aboard a canoe. [footnote 2]

Not that I shall attempt to make a handbook to any of the streams. The man who has a spark of enterprise would turn from a river of which every reach was mapped and its channels duly lettered. Fancy the free traveller, equipped for a delicious summer of savage life, quietly submitting to be cramped and tutored by a "Chart of the Upper Mosel "in the style of the following extract, which is copied literally from a Guide book:--

(1) "Turn to the r. (right), cross the brook, and ascend by a broad and steep forest track (in 40 min.) to the hamlet of Albersbach, situate in the midst of verdant meadows. In five min. more a cross is reached, where the path to the l. must be taken; in 10 min. to the r., in the hollow, to the saw mill; in 10 min. more through the gate to the r.; in 3 min. the least trodden path to the l. leading to the Gaschpels Hof; after 1/4 hr. the stony track into the wood must be ascended," &c, &c--From B-----'s Rhine, p. 94.

Yet this sort of guide-book is not to be ridiculed. It is useful for some travellers as a ruled copy-book is of use to some writers. For first tours it may be needful and pleasant to have all made smooth and easy, to be carried in steamers or railways like a parcel, to stop at hotels full of English guests, and to ride, walk, or drive among people who know quite well already just what you will want to eat, and see, and do.

Year after year it is enough of excitement to some tourists to be shifted in squads from town to town, according to the routine of an excursion ticket. Those who are a little more advanced will venture to devise a tour from the many pages of Bradshaw, and with portmanteau and bag, and hat-box and sticks, they find more than enough of judgment and tact is needed when they arrive in a night-train abroad, and must fix on an omnibus in a strange town. Safe at last in the bedroom of the hotel, they exclaim with a sigh, "Well, here we are all right at last!"

But after mountains and caves, churches and galleries, rains and battle-fields, have been pretty well seen, and after tact and fortitude have been educated by experience, the tourist is ready for new lines of travel which might have given him at first more worry than pleasure, and these he will find in deeper searches among the natural scenery and national character of the very countries he has only skimmed before.

The rivers and streams on the Continent are scarcely known to the English tourist, and all the beauty and life upon them no one has well seen.

In his Guide-book route, indeed, from town to town, the tourist has crossed this and that stream--has admired a few yards of the water, and has then left it for ever. He is carried again on a noble river by night in a steamboat, or is whisked along its banks in a railway, and between two tunnels he gets a moment's glimpse at the lovely water, and lo it is gone.

But a mine of rich beauty remains there to be explored, and fresh gems of life and character are waiting there to be gathered. These are not mapped and labelled and ticketed in any handbook yet; and far better so, for the enjoyment of such treasures is enhanced to the best traveller by the energy and pluck required to get at them.

On this new world of waters, then, we are to launch the boat, the man, and his baggage, for we must describe all three,

"Arma virumque canoe."

So what sort of dress did he wear?

My clothes for this tour consisted of a complete suit of grey flannel for use in the boat, and another suit of light but ordinary dress for shore work and Sundays.

The "Norfolk jacket" is a loose frock-coat, like a blouse, with shoulder-straps, and belted at the waist, and garnished by six pockets. [footnote 3] With this excellent new-fashioned coat, a something in each of its pockets, and a Cambridge straw hat, canvas wading shoes, blue spectacles, a waterproof overcoat, and my spare jib for a sun shawl, there was sure to be a full day's enjoyment defiance of rain or sun, deeps or shallows, hunger or ennnui.

Four hours' work to begin, and after them three of rest or floating, reading or sailing, and again a three hours' heavy pull, and then with a swim in the river or a bath at the inn, a change of garments, and a pleasant walk, all was made quite fresh again for a lively evening, a hearty dinner, pleasant talk, books, pictures, letters, and bed.

All being ready, and the weather very hot, at the end of July, when the country had caught the election fever, and M. P.'s went to scramble for seats, and the lawyers to thicken the bustle, and the last bullet at Wimbledon came "thud" on the target, it was time for the Rob Roy to start.


[footnote 1:] After the cruise the author had a better canoe constructed, shorter, and narrower (but with the same name), and in her he voyaged through Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Holstein, and some German waters.

The account of this voyage is given in "The Rob Roy on the Baltic," 5th Edition (Low and Marston). The recent improvements of the canoe are described in that book, with woodcuts. The full description of a third canoe for sleeping in during a six months' voyage is given in "The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Nile, Rod Sea, and Gennesareth, a canoe cruise in Palestine and Egypt and the waters of Damascus," 6th Edition, with eighty illustrations and maps (Murray). A fourth canoe was used in the Zuyder Zee and among the isles of Holland and the Friesland coast ; and the latest Rob Roy (Number 7) ran through the Shetland Isles and the Orkneys, and Scotch lakes. (Special hints from all these voyages will be found in our Appendix.)

[footnote 2:] The best German and Austrian maps were found to be frequently wrong. They showed villages on the banks which I found were a mile away in a wood, and so they were useless to one who had made up his mind (a good resolve) never to leave his boat.

[footnote 3:] The same suit went also through the second, third, and fourth voyages without a button damaged.

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