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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 10

A Field of Foam-- Precipice-- Puzzled-- Philosophy-- Rheinfelden Rapids-- Dazzled-- Jabbering-- Blissful Ignorance-- Astride-- Find a Way-- Very Salt-- Bright Lad-- German Friend-- The Whirlpool-- Cauliflower-- Bride and Baby-- "Squar."

THE canoe was now fixed on a hand-cart and dragged once more through the streets to a point below the falls, and the Rob Roy became very lively on the water after her few hours of rest. All was brilliant around, and deep underneath, and azure above, and happy within, till the dull distant sound of breakers began again and soon got louder, and at last was near, and could not be ignored; we have come to the rapids of Rheinfelden.

The exaggeration with which judicious friends at each place describe the dangers to be encountered is so general in these latitudes that one learns to receive it calmly, but the scene itself when I came to the place was certainly puzzling and grand.

Imagine a thousand acres of water in white crested waves, varied only by black rocks resisting a struggling torrent, and a loud, thundering roar, mingled with a strange hissing, as the spray from ten thousand sharp-pointed billows is tossed into the air.

And then you are alone too, and the banks are high, and you have a precious boat to guard.

While there was time to do it I stood up in my boat to survey, but it was a mere horizon of waves, and nothing could be learned from looking. Then I coasted towards one side where the shrubs and trees hanging in the water brushed the paddle, and seemed to be so safe because they were on shore.

The rapids of Bremgarten could probably be passed most easily by keeping to the edge, though with much delay and numerous "getting outs," but an attempt now to go along the side in this way was soon shown to be useless, for presently I came to a lofty rock jutting out into the stream, and the very loud roar behind it fortunately attracted so much attention that I pulled into the bank, made the boat fast, and mounted through the thicket to the top of the cliff.

I saw at once that to try to pass by this rock in any boat would be madness, for the swiftest part of the current ran right under the projecting crag, and then wheeled round and plunged over a height of some feet into a pool of foam, broken fragments, and powerful waves.

But, stay, would it be just possible to float the boat past the rock while I might hold the painter from above? The rock on careful measurement was found too high for this.

To see well over the cliff I had to lie down on my face, and the pleasant curiosity felt at first, as to how I should have to act, now gradually sickened into the sad conviction, "Impossible!" Then was the time to turn with earnest eyes to the wide expanse of river, and to see if haply, somewhere at least, even in the middle, a channel might be traced. Yes, there certainly was a channel, only one, very far out, and very difficult to hit upon when you sit in a boat quite near the level of the water; but the attempt must now be made, or--might I not get the boat carried round by land? Under the trees far off were men who might be called to help, labourers quietly working, and never minding me. I was tempted, but did not yield.

For a philosophical thought had come upmost, that, after all, the boat had not to meet every wave and rock now visible, and the thousand breakers dashing around, but only a certain few, which would be on each side in my crooked and untried way; in fact that of the rocks in any one line--say fifty of them between me and any point--only two would become a new danger in crossing that line.

Then, again, rapids look worse from the shore than they really are, because you see all their difficulties at once, and you hear the general din. On the other hand, waves look much smaller from the bank (being half hidden by others) than you find them to be when the boat is in the trough between two. Thus, the hidden rocks may make a channel that looks good enough from the land, to be quite impracticable when you attempt it in the water.

Lastly, the current is seen to be swifter from the shore where you can observe its speed from a fixed point, than it seems when you are in the water where you notice only its velocity in relation to the stream on each side, which is itself all the time running at four or five miles an hour. But it is the positive speed of the current that ought really to be considered, for it is by this the boat will be urged against a breaker stationary in the river.

To get to this middle channel at once from the place where I had left my boat was not possible. We must enter it higher up the river, so I had to pull the canoe up stream, over shallows, and along the bristly margin, wading, towing, and struggling, for about half a mile, till at length it seemed we must be high enough up stream to let me paddle out swiftly across, while the current would take the boat sideways to the rough water.

And now in a little quiet bay I rested half an hour to recover strength after this exertion, and to prepare fully for a "spurt," which might indeed be delayed in starting, but which, once begun, must be vigorous and watchful to the end.

Here various thoughts blended and tumbled about in the mind most disorderly. To leave this quiet bank and willingly rush out, in cold blood, into a field of white breakers; to tarnish the fair journey with a foolhardy prank; to risk the Rob Roy where the touch of one rock was utter destruction. Will it be pleasant? Can it be wise? Is it right?

The answer was, to sponge out every drop of water from the boat, to fasten the luggage inside, that it might not fall out in an upset, to brace the waterproof cover all tight round, and to get its edge in my teeth ready to let go in capsizing,--and then to pull one gentle stroke which put the boat's nose out of the quiet water into the fast stream, and hurrah I we are off at a swinging pace.

The sun, now shining exactly up stream, was an exceedingly uncomfortable addition to the difficulties; for its glancing beams confounded all the horizon in one general band of light, so that rocks, waves, solid water, and the most flimsy foam were all the same at a little distance. This, the sole disadvantage of a cloudless sky, was so much felt in my homeward route that I sometimes prolonged the morning's work by three or four hours (with sun behind or on one side), so as to shorten the evening's quota where it was dead in the eye of the sun. On the present occasion, when it was of great moment to hit the channel exactly, I could not see it at all, even with my blue spectacles on. They seemed to be utterly powerless against such a fiery blaze; and, what was almost worse, my eyes were thereby so dazzled that on looking to nearer objects I could scarcely see them either.

This unexpected difficulty was so serious that I thought for a moment of keeping on in my present course (directed straight across the river), so as to attain the opposite side, and there to wait for the sun to go down. But it was already too late to adopt this plan, for the current had been swiftly bearing me down stream, and an instant decision must be made. "Now," thought I, "judging by the number of paddle-strokes, we must surely be opposite the channel in the middle, and now I must turn to it."

By a happy hit, the speed and the direction of the canoe were both well fitted, so that when the current had borne us to the breakers the boat's bow was just turned exactly down stream, and I entered the channel whistling, for very loneliness, like a boy in the dark.

But it was soon seen to be "all right, Englishmen;" so in ten minutes more the canoe had passed the rapids, and we floated along pleasantly on that confused bobbery of little billows always found below broken water,--a very mob of waves, which for a time seem to be elbowing and jostling in all directions to find their proper places.

I saw here two fishermen by one of the salmon traps described above, and at once pulled over to them, to land on a little white bank of sand, that I might rest, and bale out, and hear the news. The men asked if I had come down the rapids in that boat. "Yes." "By the middle channel?" "Yes." They smiled to each other, and then both at once commenced a most voluble and loudspoken address in the vilest of patois. Their eagerness and energy rose to such a pitch that I began to suppose they were angry; but the upshot of all this eloquence (always louder when you are seen not to understand one word of it) was this, "There are other rapids to come. You will get there in half an hour. They are far worse than what you have passed. Your boat must be carried round them on land."

To see if this was said to induce me to employ them as porters, I asked the men to come along in their boat, so as to be ready to help me; but they consulted together, and did not by any means agree in admiring this proposal. Then I asked them to explain the best route through the next rapids, when they drew such confused diagrams on the sand, and gave such complicated directions, that it was impossible to make head or tail of their atrocious jargon; so I quietly bowed, wiped out the sand pictures with my foot, and started again happy and free; for it is really the case that in these things "ignorance is bliss." The excitement of findlng your way, and the satisfaction when you have found it yourself, is well worth all the trouble. Just so in mountain travel. If you go merely to work the muscles, and to see the view, it will do to be tied by a rope to three guides, and to follow behind them; but then theirs is all the mental exertion, and tact, and judgment, while yours is only the merit of keeping up with the leaders, treading in their steps. And therefore I have observed that there is less of this particular pleasure of the discoverer when one is ascending Mont Blanc, where by traditional rule you must be tied to the guides, than in making out a path over a mountain pass undirected and alone, though the heights thus climbed up are not so great.

Second Rapids

When the boat got near the lower rapids, I went ashore and walked for half a mile down the bank, and so was able to examine the bearings well. It appeared practicable to get along by the shallower parts of one side, so this was resolved upon as my course. It is surely quite fair to go by the easiest way, provided there is no carrying overland adopted, or other plan for shirking the water. The method accordingly used in this case was rather a novel mode of locomotion, and it was quite successful, as well as highly amusing.

In the wide plain of breakers here, the central district seemed radically bad, so we cautiously kept out of the main current, and went where the stream ran fast enough nevertheless. I sat stride-legs on the deck of the boat near its stern, and was thus floated down until the bow, projecting out of the water, went above a ridge of rocks, and the boat grounded. Thus the shock was received against my legs hanging in the water, so that the violence of its blow was eased from the boat. Standing, then, with both feet on the rock, while the canoe went free from between my knees she could be lowered down or pushed forward until the water got deeper, and when it got too deep to wade after her the Rob Roy was pulled back between my knees, and I sat down again on the deck as before.

The chief difficulty in this proceeding was to be equally attentive at once to keep hold of the boat, to guide it between rocks, to keep hold of the paddle, and to manage not to tumble on loose stones, or to get into the water above the waist.

Thus by successive riding and ferrying over the deep pools, and walking and wading in the shallows, by pushing the boat here, and by being carried upon it there, the lower rapids of Rheinfelden were most successfully passed without any damage.

It will be seen from the description already given of the rapids at Bremgarten, and now of these two rapids on the Rhine, that the main difficulties are only for him who goes there uninformed, and that these can be avoided by examining them on the spot at the cost of a walk and a short delay. But the pleasure is so much enhanced by the whole thing being novel, that, except for a man who wishes simply to get past, it is better to seek a channel for yourself, even if a much easier one has been found out by other people. [footnote 1]

The town of Rheinfelden was now in view, and we began to wonder how the English four-oar boat we had traced as far as Lauffenburg could have managed to descend the rapids just now passed. But we learned afterwards that the four-oar had come there in a time of flood, when rocks would be covered, and probably with only such eddies as we had already noticed higher up the river where it was deep. So they pulled on bravely to Bale, where the hotel folks mentioned that when the five moist Britons arrived their clothes and baggage were all drenched, and the waiter said, with a malicious grin, that thereby his friend the washerwoman had earned twenty-seven francs in one night. I steered to a large building with a smooth gravel shore in front--the salt-water baths of Rheinfelden--a favourite resort for crippled invalids. The salt rock in the earth beneath impregnates the springs with such an intensity of brine that eighty per cent. of fresh water has to be added before the saline mixture can be medicinally employed as a bath. If you take a glass of the water as it comes from the spring, and put a little salt in it, the salt will not dissolve, for the water is already saturated, and a drop of it put on your coat speedily dries up and leaves a white stain of minute crystals. In fact, this water seemed to me to be far more saline than even the water of the Dead Sea, which is in all conscience salt enough, as every one knows who has rubbed it on his face in that reeking hot death-stricken valley of Jericho.

Though the shore was pleasant here and the water was calm, there was no one to welcome me now, and yet this was the only time I had reason to expect somebody to greet the arrival of the canoe. For in the morning a worthy German had told me he was going by train to Rheinfelden, and he would keep a look out for the canoe, and would surely meet me there if we "ever got through the rapids." But he said afterwards that he had come there, and with his friends, too, and they had waited and waited till at last they gave up the Rob Roy as a "missing ship." Excellent man, he must have had some novel excuses to comfort his friends with as they retired, disappointed, after waiting in vain!

There was, however, not far off; a poor woman washing clothes by the river, and thumping and bullying them with a wooden bludgeon as if her sole object was to smash up the bachelor's shirt-buttons. A fine boy of eight years old was with her, a most intelligent little fellow, whose quick eye at once caught sight of the Rob Roy as it dashed round the point and landed me there a tired, tanned traveller, wet and warm.

This juvenile helped me more than any man ever did, and with such alacrity, too, and intelligence, and good humour, that I felt grateful to the boy. We spread out the sails to dry, and my socks and shoes in the sun, and sponged out the boat, and then dragged her up the high bank. Here, by good luck, we found two wheels on an axle left alone, for what purpose I cannot imagine; but we got a stick and fastened it to them as a pole, and put the boat on this extemporized vehicle--the boy having duly got permission from his mamma--and then we pulled the canoe to the gates of the old town, rattling through the streets, even to the door of the hotel. A bright franc in the lad's hand made him start with amaze, but he instantly rose to the dignity of the occasion, and some dozens of other urchins formed an attentive audience as he narrated over and over the events of the last half-hour, and ended always by showing the treasure in his hand, "and the Herr gave me this!"

The Krone hotel here is very prettily situated. It is a large house, with balconies overlooking the water, and a babbling jet d'eau in its garden, which is close by the river. The stream flows fast in front, and attains evidence of having passed through troublous times higher up; therefore it makes no small noise as it rushes under the arches of the covered wooden bridge, but though there are rocks and a few eddies the passage is easy enough if you look at it for five minutes to form a mental chart of your course. My German friend having found out that the canoe had arrived after all, his excitement and pleasure abounded. Now he was proved right. Now his promises, broken as it seemed all day, were all fulfilled.

He was a very short, very fat, and very hilarious personage, with a minute smattering of English, which he had to speak loudly, so as to magnify its value among his Allemand friends, envious of his accomplishment. His explanations of the contents of my sketch-book were truly ludicrous as he dilated on it page by page, but he well deserved all gratitude for ordering my hotel bed-room and its comforts, which were never more acceptable than now after a hard day's work. Music finished the evening, and then the hum of the distant rapids sung me a lullaby breathing soft slumber.

Next morning, as there was but a short row to Bale, I took a good long rest in bed, and then carried the canoe half way across the bridge where a picturesque island is formed into a terraced garden, and here we launched the boat on the water. Although the knocks and strains of the last few days were very numerous, and many of them of portentous force, judging by the sounds they made, the Rob Roy was still hale and hearty, and the carpenter's mate had no damages to report to the captain. It was not until harder times came, in the remainder of the voyage, that her timber suffered and her planks were tortured by rough usage.

A number of ladies patronized the start on this occasion, and as they waved their parasols and the men shouted Hoch! and Bravo! we glided down stream, the yellow paddle being waved round my head in an original mode of "salute," which was invented specially for returning friendly gratulations.

Speaking about Rheinfelden, Baedeker says, "Below the town another rapid of the Rhine forms a sort of whirlpool called the Hollenhaken," a formidable announcement, and a terrible name; but what is called here a "whirlpool" is not worth notice.

The sound of a railway train beside the river reminds you that this is not quite a strange, wild, unseen country. Reminds you, I say, because really when you are in the river bed you easily forget all that is beyond it on each side. Let a landscape be ever so well known from the road, it becomes new again when you view it from the level of the water. For any scene, looked at from the land, is bounded by a semicircle with the diameter on the horizon, and the arch of sky for its circumference. But when you are seated in the canoe, the picture changes to the form of a great sector, with its point on the clear water, and each radius inclining aloft through rocks, trees, and mossy banks, on this side and on that. And this holds good even on a well-worn river like the Thames. The land-scenes between Oxford and London get pretty well known and admired by travellers, but the views of the same places will seem both fresh and fair if you row down the river through them. There are few streams which have such lovely scenery as the Thames can show in its windings.

But our canoe is now getting back to civilization, and away from that pleasant simplicity where everything done in the streets or the hotel is strange to a stranger. Here as a contrast we have composite candles, and therefore no snuffers; here the waiter insists on speaking English, and so, sitting down by me, and clutching my arm, he confidentially announces that there are no "bean green" (translating "haricots verts"), but that perhaps I might like a "flower caul," so we assent to a cauliflower.

It is amusing again when the woman waiter of some inland German village shouts louder German to you, because the words she rattles out at first have not been understood. She gazes with a new sensation at a guest who actually cannot comprehend her voluble clatter, and then both guest and waiter have a chorus of laughter.

But now also I saw a boat towed along the Rhine--a painful evidence of being near commerce, even though it was in a primitive style; not that there was any towing-path, for the men walked among the bushes, pulling the boat with a rope, and often wading to do so. This sight of another boat, however, told me at once that I had left the fine free forests where you might land anywhere, and it was sure to be lonely and charming.

After a few bends westward we come in sight of the two towers of Bale, but the setting sun makes it almost impossible to see anything in its brightness, so we must only paddle on. The bridge at Bale was speedily covered by the idle and the curious as the canoe pulled up at an hotel by the water on Sept. 14. It was here that the four-oared boat had arrived some weeks before with its moist crew. The proprietor of the house was therefore much pleased to see another English boat come in, so little and so lonely, so comfortable and so dry. I walked about the town and entered a church (Protestant here of course), where a number of people had assembled at a baptism. The baby was fixed on a sort of frame, so as to be easily handed about from mother to father, and from clerk to minister; I hereby protest against this mechanical arrangement as a flagrant indignity to the little darling, having myself a great respect for babies, sometimes, a certain awe.

The instant the christening was done, a happy couple came forward to be married, an exceedingy clumsy dolt of a bridegroom and a fair bride, not very young, that is to say, about fifty-five years old. There were no bridesmaids or other perplexing appurtenances, and after the simple ceremony the couple just walked away, amid the titters of a crowd of women. The bridegroom did not seem to know exactly what to do next. He walked before his wife, then behind her, and then on one side, but it did not somehow feel quite comfortable, so he assumed a sort of diagonal position; and kept nudging her on till they disappeared in some house. Altogether, I never saw a more unromantic commencement of married life, yet there was this redeeming point, that they were not bored by that dread infliction--a marriage breakfast--the first meeting of two jealous sets of new relations, who are all expected to be made friends at once by eating when they are not hungry, and listening when there is nothing to say. But it is not proper for me to criticise these mysteries, so let us go back to the inn. In the coffee-room we find a Frenchman, who has been in London, and is now instructing two Mexicans, who are going there, as to hotels. 'Tis droll to hear his description of the London "Caffy Hous," and the hotels in "Lycester squar." He said "It is pronounced squar in England."


[footnote 1]: Several canoeists have since passed the Rheinfelden rapids, but an upset has been the rule. A Rob Roy canoe has successfully passed the Lachine rapids in Canada, and two others have gone down a swift river lately in Japan. Among all the 600 members of the Royal Canoe Club only one, so far as is known, has been drowned in a canoe voyage.

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