Travis and I love any kind of kayaking – flat water, white water, sea, ocean, lake, or river. Doesn’t matter. If it ripples, we’ll paddle it. Sadly for us, we have the least amount of experience with river kayaking because it’s typically the most difficult logistically. The biggest challenge is usually how to get back upriver. If you’ve ever paddled in the Pacific Northwest, you know that the rivers are often too wild for a trip to be anything but one-way. And the best white water is typically in the wilderness, which means minimal road access. Public transportation? Forget about it! So for us to be living in Germany – known for its convenient train system and wide, peaceful rivers – it’s an awesome opportunity to do more river kayaking, even if it isn’t rib-shattering white water.
We concocted a fun, three-part plan for a weekend on the Elbe:
- Explore Königstein Fortress by day and stay for an evening concert
- Enjoy a superb night of hostel camping at Ferdinand’s Homestay
- And kayak an 18-kilometer stretch of the Elbe River.
With Oru kayaks, it’s a simple thing to hop a train, ride it upriver, and kayak back down to your starting point. So that’s what we did.
Armed with tips from Silvio, one of the hostel owners, we drove to the nearby town of Pirna and parked our car in a free lot near the train station. Since our Orus are light enough for each of us to carry our own, we popped them in their backpacks and lumbered to the train station. For a few bucks each, we bought train tickets to the town of Königstein where we’d scouted out a tentative launching place on our map. Just as Silvio had said, the river is just a stone’s throw from the train station. We were stoked to be kayaking for the first time on the Elbe – the first time kayaking any big river in Europe!
Silvio had also recommended we steer clear of the huge red and green buoys moored at regular intervals. Though the river appears to be quite peaceful, the Elbe actually has a fairly strong current. It’s so deep that it’s a bit deceptive. We realized when we neared the first buoy just how much so when we saw the current tilting the monstrous creaking metal beast at a sharp angle downstream. Mounds of branches and sodden grass were wrapped around its base. We definitely steered clear.
The little spa town of Rathen eventually slipped into view. Grassy embankments along the river beckoned, so we pulled up for a rest. While I napped in the soft grass, Travis scouted out the nearby shops, returning a few minutes later with absolutely delicious Eiskaffee – balls of rich vanilla ice cream floating in espresso.
Of all the tips Silvio gave us, definitely the most valuable was a warning about the ferry in Rathen. Though I’d read a blurb about it somewhere online weeks before, the article casually mentioned staying on the left of the river through Rathen. It didn’t really explain why.
Caution! Paddle on the left through Rathen!
Silvio explained that the small passenger ferry is actually tethered to the shore on the right bank, so it swings back and forth across the river like a pendulum to transport foot traffic back and forth. That means if you cross to the right of the ferry, you’ll actually cross its cable, which is incredibly dangerous.
A week before our visit, a young guy on a SUP paddled over the cable and was pulled under. Tragically, he drowned. If you paddle this route, look for the yellow buoys that mark the tether where it extends far upriver. Stay near the left bank, wait until the ferry is docked on the right, and then pass safely on the left. It makes so much more sense when you actually see it, but it’s really completely safe as long as you do what?
Paddle on the left!
Just downriver from Rathen, we crossed under one of Germany’s most famous landmarks – Bastei Bridge. Last spring, we visited Bastei Bridge while hiking in Saxon Switzerland National Park. This time, we marveled at the blackened sandstone cliffs surrounding the Bastei from our unique vantage on the Elbe River. As hikers sweated their way along the path above, I smugly dipped my toes in the cool river. I love hiking, but kayaking definitely has its advantages.
As the kilometers slipped past and the sun slid behind hazy clouds, my stomach growled. I was ready to trade in my paddle for dinner and a mug of coffee. Pulling over just a few kilometers upstream from our take-out at Pirna, we were a bit startled to see another kayaker not far behind us. When he neared, he threw us a friendly greeting, so we chatted for a bit. After asking where we’d been staying, he told us he lived in a big yellow house right on the river in Pirna and that we should stop by on our way past. I somehow understood that to mean that he operates a guest house and that we were welcome to check it out in case we wanted to come back to stay sometime. Thinking it a nice offer, we eventually waved goodbye and hit the river again shortly after he paddled off.
We didn’t think about it again until we noticed our kayak friend standing on a hill on the opposite bank of the river, madly waving his arms at us. Tired, with a long drive ahead of us, we exchanged looks over the water. Not wanting to be rude, we both started paddling across the river to him. Greeting us at the water’s edge, he warmly invited us up for coffee. It was as if the clouds parted and angels sang!Never help a stranger look for their lost puppy. Never get in a white van with a stranger. Never accept candy from strangers. Accepting coffee from a stranger is perfectly fine.Click To Tweet
I’m not sure how long we stood in their yard and chatted. We were certainly there long enough to savor a generous bowl of ice cream and dark, creamy espresso. We found out our mystery kayaker also works in a scientific field, so he and Travis talked shop for a bit. They noted that our Orus lack names and informed us that authorities in this particular region of Germany require all boats to have identifying names prominently displayed in large letters on the hull. This explains why a police boat had cruised slowly past us earlier, intently surveilling us across the river with binoculars. (It’s a wide river.) Now if this isn’t proof that accepting coffee from a stranger is fine, I don’t know what is!
To our Elbe River Angels: If you happen to read this, thank you for your warm and completely unexpected hospitality!
- For safety, paddle with the red buoys to your right and the green ones to your left on the way downriver. While I imagine this rule applies more to the large vessels, it is recommended that small craft follow it as well.
- Caution! This route has a dangerous obstacle. A passenger ferry goes back and forth across the river every 15 minutes or so at Rathen, several kilometers downstream from Ferdinand’s Homestay (see map below). It’s attached to the right bank of the river with a long tether marked with yellow floating buoys. Don’t cross the line. Wait until the ferry is on the right bank of the river and pass downriver on the left.
- Free parking is available near the train station in Pirna. It’s about a 2 minute walk to the station from the lot. Paid parking is available at the train station also, but be prepared for it to be full during business hours and weekends.
- A single adult train ticket from Pirna to Königstein costs €4 and takes around 10 minutes.
- Our take-out in Pirna is near the train station, so it only takes a few minutes to walk to the lot to get your car and drive to the river to pick up your kayaks and gear. If you’re taking the train from Pirna, it’s even easier to just walk straight from the river to the train station. See map below.