Travis and I spent the entire winter looking forward to our first kayaking trip in Germany. Every weekend in April brought rainy weather that cancelled our plans before the sun finally appeared in full force in May. Dusting off our paddling gear and hefting our Orus out of their storage boxes, we loaded up the VW for a weekend of adventures in the Spreewald Biosphere Reserve, a nature reserve located about 100 km east of Berlin. Formed during the last Ice Age, the region now harbors over 1500 kilometers of canals and streams that wind through thickly wooded lush forests. The biosphere reserve is protected as a UNESCO site and is home to thousands of species of plants and animals, some only found in this forest. For two nature lovers, it sounded like the perfect place for us to experience kayaking in Germany for the first time.
Since we’re completely new to paddling in Germany, I contacted the official Spreewald Tourism Office before our trip for information about paddling routes and options for camping. They kindly responded immediately, forwarding a map with camping sites marked, and assured me our dog was welcome in the reserve. With food for the weekend, printed paper map in hand, and a rough 2-day paddling route pinned on Maps.Me (our offline phone map app), our 3.5-hour drive from Göttingen flew by.
The already warm summer day grew even warmer as we neared our destination, the town of Lübbenau – official gateway of the Spreewald. We could immediately see how it had earned its designation as “the city of punts and pickles.” With the small town built around Spreewald’s canals, locals navigate the waterways in punts, traditional flat-bottomed boats maneuvered by a long pole. The “pickles” though, we never did see.
Since we were planning to camp overnight somewhere in the reserve, we parked our car at Spreewald-Natur-Camping, a thriving city campground packed with RVs and absolutely hopping with kids. Still inexperienced at putting our Orus together, we were also completely unprepared for the attention they drew. Within minutes of unfolding them next to the water, we had a constant and steady stream of kids and adults gathered around, asking questions and watching us fumble with buckles and straps. The last time we put them together, our third time, we clocked it at 15 minutes. Our goal is to be able to do it in five. With our audience, it took nearly two hours before we shoved off from shore, folks watching in curiosity to see if we sunk like the Titanic.
Within minutes, I was officially in heaven! Though we passed quite a few paddlers in the canal near the campground, the woods and waterways were ours after paddling for just a few minutes.
Still paddling in the little hamlet of Lübbenau, we passed the most picturesque old houses. Set back from the canal, some were surrounded by immaculate lawns, manicured shrubs, and expansive gardens. Most melded into the forest landscape, peering through the trees with their beards of creeping vines. Having earned a rest, retired punts rested on the banks of the shore.
The canals are littered with small dams, but when we reached the first of many, we were impressed with their neat little system. We were easily able to bypass the dam by pulling our kayaks up and over a wooden ramp with rows of metal rollers. Simply brilliant!
Long before the sun set, we were on the lookout for a place to pitch our tent for the night. The website for the biosphere reserve states it offers “15 legal rest areas (bivouac sites) for paddlers,” and the gal from Spreewald’s tourism office said we should look for a Wasserwanderrastplätze, which literally translates to “water-hiking rest area.” Unfortunately, I misunderstood her email to mean that at least some of these camping sites, or bivouacs, were located inside the reserve. The map only showed a few of the 15 camping sites, all of which were pins generally dropped on the map with no specific info provided. As we now know, all of these are designated campgrounds in inhabited areas; camping in the reserve is strictly prohibited.
By the time we started to realize perhaps we’d made a grave error in planning, it was too late to turn back. We were several hours of paddling from the campground where we’d left our car, and further still from any of the others on the map. Hemmed in by dense underbrush on both sides of the canals, we were left with few options. Finally rounding a bend along the outer perimeter of the Spreewald, we found a place under a bridge to pull our boats out of the water.
Scouting out the surroundings with his headlamp, Travis called for me to follow him. Lugging our boats and gear, we trudged through the dark away from the canals to a small patch of woods next to a farmer’s field. Carefully stepping through nettles in sandals in the dying light of my headlamp, we managed to break down our boats and set up the tent without landing in a patch of fiery missiles. Though the evening hardly turned out as we’d imagined, we happily fell asleep to towering trees overhead and the lively sounds of the night forest.
Up with the sunrise the next morning, we hiked back to Spreewald and were paddling again by 7 am.
A consummate night owl, I loathe getting up early, but it’s worth it to be on the water when the light bathes everything in gold.
Following the well marked “road” signs in the canals, we rounded a corner and entered the watery parking lot for Wotschofska, one of several restaurants tucked away in the reserve. We were hoping to relax for a bit over a cup of coffee, but the restaurant was closed. I gotta say, a morning without coffee is rough indeed.
Near Wotschofska, I spotted a bright orange and yellow fungus on a decaying tree stump. Not knowing what it was at the time, I now believe it might be Laetiporus sulphureus, a type of edible fungus that’s also called “Chicken of the Woods” because some folks think it tastes like chicken. Has anyone seen this before? Or better yet, have you tried it?! We would never harvest anything from a protected area, but it’d be fun to hunt for this in Germany where it’s allowed and give it a taste. Travis doesn’t like mushrooms, but even he might like these if they really taste like chicken!
Leaving Wotschofska without coffee or chicken-flavored mushrooms, we entered the Hochwald, or “High Forest” in the Spreewald. The most isolated and natural section of the reserve, we paddled for hours without seeing another soul.
Arriving at another dam, we pulled our boats out to have breakfast and let Touille run around in the grass. While we were relaxing in the sun, an older gentleman arrived by bicycle, presumably from a house nearby, and kicked back on the dam with a newspaper. He had arrived for his shift, manning the locks to allow boaters through. I don’t know if he’s paid or volunteers, but it’s definitely an unusual job position.
With some of her energy worked off, Touille settled back to watch the sights roll past. Unafraid of the water, she still much prefers to run on shore – typical of a terrier, she’d rather be sniffing every inch of land than cooped up in our boats.
Cruising along a particularly quiet and peaceful stretch of water, the wind started to kick up as we turned south. When an occasional bloop sounded near our boats, I thought squirrels or birds were dropping nuts or twigs on us. A small branch hit my boat, and I realized the wind was dislodging them from the trees.
As the wind continued to knock the swaying trees together high above, we heard a louder creaking somewhere overhead. Though it’s a common sound in the woods, Travis still started to paddle faster, angling to the opposite bank of the river. Following him absentmindedly, we were both just a short distance downriver when a thunderous crack sounded behind us. I actually jumped in my boat!
We whipped around just in time to see a massive widow maker nearly the length of the river come crashing down from the treetops, shattering as it hit the water.
It. Was. Spectacular!
Had it hit one of us, it would’ve been a really crappy way to go, but it was definitely an awesome sight to see.
Stopping again at another dam, we munched on lunch and threw the ball for Touille in a small grassy field. Touille immediately had a small audience of kids, several of whom eagerly chatted with us in English while their parents watched from a distance. After showing them Touille’s tricks and a few basic commands, we happily passed off the task of throwing the ball for her to them. Bless their little hearts, the angels entertained her, and us, for well over an hour before their family finally packed up their picnic spot and paddled off down the canal.
Nearing the little canal town of Lehde, we paddled through a thick scrum of pollen on the surface of the water. Despite my miserable allergies, I couldn’t help but admire the fertility of the forest. The surface of the water glistened pink in some sections, white in others.
Signs of human life again began to mark the landscape as we paddled into the tiny, incredibly adorable village of Lehde.
Navigating through increasingly narrow channels with room for only two lanes of traffic, we passed a steady stream of kayakers and large punts filled with beaming tourists. We crossed under a steady stream of wooden walkways built over the canals to connect the hamlet’s private homes, restaurants, and guesthouses.
Truly a nature-lover’s paradise, the beauty and charm of the town seeped in as a quieter, more charming version of Venice’s polluted and artificial waterways.
I kept wondering if the folks who live in Lehde, Leipe, and Lübbenau realize how truly unique their lifestyle is.
Paddling back to our car in Lübbenau, I was reluctant to leave the reserve despite being hot, dirty, and tired. Germany is full of peaceful, beautiful places, but I didn’t want our first paddling trip to end. We’ve kayaked in all kinds of waterways from desert landscapes to the tropics, but this experience was entirely unique for us. When our drive home stretched into a 5-hour nightmare with bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic, I could still hear the birds chirping and the gentle rush of water. Only 100 kilometers from the grit and bustle of Berlin, life in the Spreewald Biosphere Reserve drifts by at the pace of an Ice Age canal.
- Camping is prohibited in the Spreewald Biosphere Reserve except in developed campgrounds.
- The waterways are incredibly well marked with signs for paddlers at every main intersection pointing to different towns, restaurants, and points-of-interest.
- Two-person boats can be rented from Spreewald-Natur-Camping for €16 per day. You can park your car there (without camping) for €5 per day.
- Official site for Spreewald-Natur-Camping
- Official site for Spreewald Tourism
- Official site for Spreewald Biosphere Reserve
- A map of our paddling route is below (click on the upper right box to view it full screen in Google Maps), though you can easily create your own route once you’re there.