If you were to ask me what I did on the Danube River during my 21-day solo paddle from Ingolstadt, Germany to Belgrade, Serbia, my answer is simple. I fought crime, outran bad guys in speedboats with machine guns, almost died a few times from river monsters and 20-foot waves … oh yeah, it was just like the movies, I tell ya. But when all the crazy action subsides, it’s actually simple times on the river. You eat, you sleep, you take epic poos and you paddle.
When I first began the Danube I had that excited nervous energy. Everything is so fascinating and new that you’re constantly taking pictures and video. Oh look, water, lets film it. You are too excited, too clean and the gear too new, a little river poser you are. I remember it feeling very slow at the beginning. Like wow, this is damn slow, this is going to take a while. Through all kinds of weather, I moved slowly. Rain, hot sun, cloudy days, headwind, tailwind: I could feel my emotions changing with each turn of the weather. I really enjoyed the rainy and cloudy days; the cool air gave me energy. Though after too many cloudy days in a row, I could feel myself missing the happiness of the sun and its ability to uplift my mood.
I had my doubts on day five. The question, “Why am I doing this?” crept in. This is a normal phase of distance traveling, the doubt phase. Soon I became dirtier, worn in and tired, submerging myself in the trip. Every day I figured out how to organize my gear more efficiently, how to best attach it to the board, how to improve my paddling technique, what items to bring in my tent and how to construct the activities of each day. Eventually, everything became easier and time just naturally floated by. I was not an overexcited traveler anymore, I was a dirty river rat—everyday getting more stoked on my progress, every day getting better at what I was doing.
You notice things on the river because you move so darn slow, sometimes so slow it can drive you insane. At times I was right next to a bike path and as I compared my speed to the land dwellers, it became a bit demoralizing to get edged out by a hobbling old man. Headwinds, what can I say, they always happen. You just have to sing a song, put your head down and get through them.
It was fun to pay attention to all the changes in the wildlife, trees and currents as you wandered into different countries. There was no cheesy welcome slogan to Austria, you just moseyed on in. The birds especially will tell you when you’re in a new country. It’s like on cue they switch it up and sing a new song. Every country had its own unique bird calls and whistles that I enjoyed. I was never in danger from man-eating snakes or fish. I did get scared a couple times by beavers. They swim through the Danube like Italian gangsters, kerplunking into the water when you get too near. Beavers look intimidating; I wouldn’t want to mess with one.
I had two nights where I woke up a bit afraid from wildlife. One night, listening blindly behind my rain tarp, I heard moaning and sticks crashing and started to think something was going to collapse my tent. My tent can hold up a falling tree, right? I’m pretty sure it was beavers gnawing on wood or some crazy clown tripping on foliage with his big shoes trying to locate me. Another night I woke up to the heavy breathing and snorting of a wild pig. I’ll call him a wild boar. He might have had razor-sharp tusks. All I know is when I looked out of my tent, my nylon fortress, this pig creature was bigger than I liked and closer than I wanted and I had me a cooler full of food. I envisioned the wild boar charging at my tent full speed, ramming me in order to get to my food. I got out of my tent and grabbed my paddle, just in case he got close. Good thing I have some experience with action role play. I was ready. I was on high alert that night but nothing happened.
Yeah, sleeping on these trips. Whether it’s distance skating or SUPing down a river, I always end up getting such crappy sleep. All night the wind will blow or mosquitos will buzz in your ears. Yet I’ll wake up the next day to do some of the most physically taxing exercise of my life and still make it happen. I guess that just goes to show how remarkable the body is and how it rises to the occasion if you push it.
I’m so glad I did this trip and saw it through. It’s always satisfying when you have an idea and make it a reality. I was genuinely bummed when I had to finish. If I just had 16 more days (give or take), I could have made it to the end of the river. It’s funny how, by the end of the trip, envisioning 16 more days on the river felt easy, felt fun, like it was no biggie. I really enjoy this transformational process, from being bummed after a few days to loving and living it. Maybe next year I’ll go back to the Danube, paddle through Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and make it to the Black Sea.