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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 9

Hunger-- Music at the Mill-- Damsels-- Sentiment and Chops-- Buying Clothes-- The Snags-- Shooting a Fall-- Fixed-- An ex-Courier-- Log Bearings-- The Drowned Lord-- "Wasserfall"-- Cow and Canoe-- "Valtare Scote"-- "Man Preserver."

THE wetting and excitement of yesterday made me rather stiff in beginning again; and whenever a rushing sound was heard in front I was aware of a new anxiety as to whether this might not mean the same sort of rough work as yesterday's over again, whereas hitherto this sound of breakers to come had always promised nothing but pleasure. But things very soon came back to their old way, a continuous enjoyment from morning to night.

The river was rapid again, but with no really difficult places. I saw one raft in course of preparation, though there were not many boats, for as the men there said, "How could we get boats up that stream?" The villages near the river were often so high up on lofty cliffs, or otherwise unsuitable, that I went on for some miles trying in vain to find a stopping place. Each bend of the winding water held out hopes that down there at last, or round that bluff cape at farthest, there must be a proper place to breakfast. But when it was now long past the usual hour, and the shores were less inhabited and hunger was more imperative, we determined to land at a mill which overhung the stream in a picturesque spot.

I landed unobserved. This was a blunder in diplomacy, for the canoe is always good as credentials; but I climbed up the bank and through the garden, and found the hall door open; so I walked timidly into a large, comfortable house, leaving my paddle outside lest it might be regarded as a bludgeon. I had come as a beggar, not a burglar.

The chords of a piano, well struck and by firm fingers, led me towards the drawing-room; for to hear music is almost to make sure of welcome in a house, and it was so now. My bows and reverences scarcely softened the exceedingly strange appearance I must have made as an intruder, clothed in universal flannel, and offering ten thousand apologies in French, German, and English for thus dropping down from the clouds, that is to say, climbing up from the water.

The young miller rose from the piano, and bowed. His fair sister stopped her sweet song, and blushed. For my part, being only a sort of "casual," I modestly asked for bread and wine, and got hopelessly involved in an effort to explain how I had come by the river unperceived. The excessive courtesy of my new friends was embarrassing, and was further complicated by the arrival of another young lady, even more surprised and hospitable.

Quickly the refreshments were set on the table, and the miller sealed the intimacy by lighting his ample pipe. Our conversation was of the most lively and unintelligible character, and soon lapsed into music, when Beethoven and Goss told all we had to say in chants and symphonies. The inevitable sketch-book whiled away a good hour, till the ladies were joined by a third damsel, and the adventures of Ulysses had to be told to three Penelopes at once. The miller's party became humorous to a degree, and they resisted all my efforts to get away, even when the family dinner was set on the board, and the domestic servants and farm-labourers came in to seat themselves at a lower table. This was a picture of rural life not soon to be forgotten.

The stately grandmamma of the mansion now advanced, prim and stiff, and with dignity and matronly grace entreated the stranger to join their company. The old oak furniture was lightened by a hundred little trifles worked by the women, or collected by the tasteful diligence of their brother; and the sun shone, and the mill went round, and the river rolled by, and all was kindness, "because you are an Englishman."

The power of the Civis Romanus is far better shown when it draws forth kindness, than when it compels fear. But as respects the formal invitation given above it would not do to stop and eat, and it would not do to stop and not eat, or to make the potatoes get cold, or the granddames' dinner too late; so I must go, even though the girls had playfully hidden my luggage to keep the guest among them.

The whole party, therefore, adjourned to the little nook where my boat had been left concealed; and when they caught sight of its tiny form, and its little fluttering flag, the young ladies screamed with delight and surprise, clapping their hands and waving adieux as we paddled away.

I left this happy pleasant scene with mingled feelings, and tried to think out what was the daily life in this sequestered mill; and if my paddling did for a time become a little sentimental, it may be pardoned by travellers who have come among kind friends where they expected perhaps a cold rebuff.

The romantic effect of all this was to make me desperately hungry, for be it known that bread and wine and Beethoven will not do to dine upon if you are rowing forty miles in the sun. So it must be confessed that when, an hour afterwards, I saw an auberge by the water's edge, it became necessary to stifle my feelings by ordering an omelette and two chops. The table was soon spread under a shady pear-tree just by the water, and the Rob Roy rested gently on the ripples at my feet. The pleasures of this sunny hour of well-earned repose, freshened by a bunch of grapes and a pear plucked from above my head, were just a little troubled by a slight apprehension that some day the miller's sister might come by and hear the truth as to how I had sought comfort for my lacerated heart.

Again "to boat," and down by the shady trees, under the towering rocks, over the nimble rapids, and winding among orchards, vineyards, and wholesome scented hay, the same old story of constant varied pleasure. The hills were in front now, and their contour showed that some rivers were to join company with the Reuss, which here rolled on a fine broad stream, like the Thames at Putney. Presently the Limmat flowed in at one side, and at the other the river Aar, which last then gives the name to all the three, though it did not appear to be the largest.

This is not the only Aar among the rivers, but it is the "old original Aar," which Swiss travellers regard as an acquaintance after they have seen it dash headlong over the rocks at Handek. It takes its rise from two glaciers, one of them the Finster Aar glacier, not far from Grimsel; and to me this gave it a special interest, for I had been hard pushed once in the wilds near that homely hospice.

It was on an afternoon some years ago, when I came from the Furca, by the Rhone glacier to the foot of the valley, walking with two Germans; and as they were rather muffs, and meant to stop there, I thoughtlessly set off alone to climb the rocks and to get to the Grimsel by myself. This is easy enough in daylight, but it was nearly six o'clock when I started, and in October; so after a short half-hour of mounting, the snow began to fall, and the darkness was not made less by the white flakes drifting across it. By some happy conjuncture I managed to scale the pathless mountain, and struck on a little stream which had often to be forded in the dark, but was always leading to the desired valley. At length the light of the Hospice shone welcome as a haven to steer for, and I soon joined the pleasant English guests inside, and bought a pair of trousers from the waiter at 3s. 6d. for a change in the wet.

But paddling on the Aar had no great danger where we met it now, for the noisy, brawling torrent was sobered by age, and after much knocking about in the world it had settled into a steady and respectable river. A few of my friends, the snags, were, however, lodged in the water hereabouts, and as they bobbed their heads in uneasy beds, and the river was much discoloured, it became quite worth while to keep a sharp lookout for these dangerous companions.

The "river tongue," explained already as consisting of sign language with a parallel comment in loud English, was put to a severe test on a wide stream like this. Consider, for example, how you could best ask the following question (speaking by signs and English only) from a man who is on the bank over there a hundred yards away.

"Is it better for me to go over to those rocks, and keep on the left of that island, or to pull my boat out at these stumps, and drag her on land into this channel?"

One comfort is the man made out my meaning, for did he not answer, "Ja wohl?" He would not have done more had we both learned the same language, even if he had heard what I said.

Mills occurred here and there. Some of these had the waterwheel simply built on the river; others had it so arranged as to allow the shaft to be raised or lowered to suit the varying height of water in floods and droughts. Others had it floating on barges. Others, again, had a half weir built diagonally across part of the river; and it was important to look carefully at this wall so as to see on which side it ought to be kept in selecting the best course. In a few cases there was another construction; two half weirs, converged gradually towards the middle of the river, forming a letter V, with its sharp end turned up the stream, and leaving a narrow opening there, through which a torrent flowed, with rough waves dancing merrily in the pool below. I had to "shoot" several of these, and at other times to get out and lower the boat down them, in the manner explained before.

On one occasion I was in an unaccountably careless fit, and instead of first examining the depth of the water on the edge of the little fall, I resolved to go straight at it and take my chance.

It must be stated that while a depth of three inches is enough for the canoe to float in when all its length is in the water, the same depth will by no means suffice at the upper edge of a fall. For when the boat arrives there the fore part, say six or seven feet of it, projects for a time over the fall and out of the water, and is merely in the air, without support, so that the centre of the keel will sink at least six or seven inches; and if there be not more water than this the keel catches the crest of the weir, and the boat will then stop, and perhaps swing round, after which it must fall over sideways, unless considerable dexterity is used in the management.

Fixed on the Fall

Although a case of this sort had occurred to me before, I got again into the same predicament, which was made far more puzzling as the fore end of the boat went under a rock at the bottom of the fall, and thus the canoe hung upon the edge, and would go neither one way nor another. [footnote 1] It would also have been very difficult to get out of the boat in this position; for to jump feet foremost would have broken the boat--to plunge in head first on the rocks below would have broken my head.

The canoe was much wrenched in my struggles, which ended, however, by man and boat tumbling down sideways, and, marvellous to say, quite safely to the lower level. This performance was not one to be proud of. Surely it was like ingratitude to treat the Rob Roy thus, exposing it to needless risk when it had carried me so far and so well.

The Aar soon flows into the Rhine, and here is our canoe on old Rhenus once more, with the town of Waldshut ("end of the forest") leaning over the high bank to welcome us near. There is a lower path and a row of little houses at the bottom of the cliff, past which the Rhine courses with rapid eddies deep and strong. Here an old fisherman soon espied me, and roared out his biography at the top of his voice; how he had been a courier in Lord Somebody's family; how he had journeyed seven years in Italy, and could fish with artificial flies, and was seventy years old, with various other reasons why I should put my boat into his house.

He was just the man for the moment; but first those two uniformed douaniers must be dealt with, and I had to satisfy their dignity by paddling up the strong current to their lair; for the fly had touched the spider's web and the spiders were too grand to come out and seize it. Good humour, and smiles, and a little judicious irony as to the absurd notion of overhauling a canoe which could be carried on your back, soon made them release me, if only to uphold their own dignity, and I left the boat in the best drawing-room of the ex-courier, and ascended the hill to the hotel aloft. But the man came too, and he had found time to prepare an amended report of the boat's journey for the worthy landlord, so, as usual, there was soon everything ready for comfort and good cheer.

Waldshut is made up of one wide street almost closed at the end, and with pretty gardens about it, and a fine prospect from its high position; but an hour's walk appeared to exhaust all the town could show, though the scenery round such a place is not to be done with in this brief manner.

The visitors soon came to hear and see more nearly what the newspapers had told them of the canoe. One gentleman, indeed, seemed to expect me to unfold the boat from my pocket, for a French paper had spoken about a man going over the country "with a canoe under his arm." The evening was enlivened by some signals, which burned at my bedroom-window to lighten up the street, which little entertainment was evidently quite new to the Waldshutians.

Before we start homewards on the Rhine with our faces due West, it may be well very briefly to give the log bearings and direction of the canoe's voyage up to this point.

First, by the Thames, July 29, E. (East), to Shoeburyness, thence to Sheerness, S. From thence by rail to Dover, and by steamer to Ostend, and rail again, Aug. 7, to the Meuse, along which the course was nearly E., until its turn into Holland, N.E. Then, Aug. 11, to the Rhine, S.E., and ascending it nearly S., until at Frankfort, Aug. 17, we go N.E. by rail to Asschaffenburg, and by the river wind back again to Frankfort in wide curves. Farther up the Rhine, Aug. 24, our course is due S., till from Freyburg the boat is carted E. to the Titisee, and to Donaneschingen, and Aug. 28, descends the Danube, which there flows nearly E., but with great bends to N. and S., until, Sept. 2, we are at Ulm. The rail next carries us S. to the Lake of Constance, which is sailed along in a course S. W., and through the Zeller See to Schaffhausen, Sept. 7, it was about W. Thence turning S. to Zurich, and over the lake and the neck of land, and veering to the W. by Zug, we arrive on Lucerne, Sept. 10, where the southernmost point of the voyage is reached, and then our prow points to N., till, on Sept. 12, we land at Waldshut.

This devious course had taken the boat to several different kingdoms and states--Holland, Belgium, France, Wurtemburg, Bavaria, and the Grand Duchy of Baden, Rhenish Prussia, the Palatinate, Switzerland, and the pretty Hohenzollern Sigmaringen. Now we had come back again to the very Grand Duchy again, a land wherein all travellers must mind their p's and q's.

The ex-courier took the canoe from his wife's washing-tubs and put her on the Rhine, and then he spirited my start by recounting the lively things we must expect soon afterwards to meet. I must take care to "keep to the right," near the falls of Lauffenburg, for an English lord had been carried over them and drowned; [footnote 2] and I must beware of Rheinfelden rapids, because an Englishman had tried to descend them in a boat with a fisherman, and their craft was capsized and the fisherman was drowned; and I must do this here, and that there, and so many other things everywhere else, that all the directions were jumbled up together. But it seemed to relieve the man to tell his tale, and doubtless he sat down to his breakfast comfortable in mind and body, and cut his meat into little bits, and then changed the fork to the right hand to eat them every one, as they all do hereabouts, with every appearance of content.

Up with the sails! for the East wind freshens, and the fair wide river hurries us along. This was a splendid scene to sail in, with lofty banks of rock, and rich meads, or terraces laden with grapes. After a good morning's pleasure here the wind suddenly rose to a gale, and I took in my jib just in time, for a sort of minor hurricane came on, raising tall columns of dust on the road alongside, blowing off men's hats, and whisking up the hay and leaves and branches high into the air.

Still we kept our lug-sail set; and with wind and current in the same direction I scudded faster than I ever sailed before in my life. Great exertion was required to manage a light skiff safely with such a whirlwind above and a whirlwater below; one's nerves were kept in extreme tension, and it was a hurried half-hour of pleasant excitement.

For this reason it was that I did not for some time notice a youth who had been running after the boat, yelling and shrieking, and waving his coat in the air. We drew nearer to him, and then luffed up, hailing him with, "What's the matter?" and he could only pant out, "Wasserfall, Wasserfall, fünf minuteen!"--the breeze had brought me within a hundred yards of the falls of Lauffenburg,--the whistle of the wind had drowned the roar of the water.

I crossed to the right bank (as the ex-courier had directed), but the youth's loud cries to come to the "links," or left side, at last prevailed, and he was right in this. The sail was soon lowered, and the boat was hauled on a raft, and then this fine young fellow explained that two minutes more would have turned the corner and drawn me into the horrid current sweeping over the falls.

While he set off in search of a cart to convey the boat, I had time to pull her up the high bank and make all snug for a drive, and soon he returned with a very grotesque carter and a most crazy vehicle, actually drawn by a milch cow! All three of us laughed as we hoisted the Rob Roy on this cart, and the cow kicked vehemently, either at the cart, or the boat, or the laughing.

Our procession soon entered the little town, but it was difficult to be dignified. As the cart with a screeching wheel rattled slowly over the big round stones of the street, vacant at mid-day, the windows were soon full of heads, and after one peep at us, down they rushed to see the fun. [footnote 3] A cow drawing a boat to the door of a great hotel is certainly a quaint proceeding; although in justice to the worthy quadruped I should mention that she now behaved in a proper and lady-like manner.

Here the public hit upon every possible way but the right one to pronounce the boat's name, which was painted in blue letters on her bow. Some people read it "Roab Ro," and others "Rubree," but at length a man in spectacles called out, "Ah! ah! Valtarescote." The mild Sir Walter's novels had not been written in vain.

The falls of Lauffenburg [footnote 4] can be seen well from the bridge which spans the river, much narrowed at this spot. A raft is coming down as we look at the thundering foam--of course without the men upon it; see the great solid frame that seems to resent the quickening of its quiet pace, and to hold back with a presentiment of evil as every moment draws it nearer to the plunge.

Crash go all the bindings, and the huge, sturdy logs are hurled topsy-turvy into the gorge bounding about like chips of firewood, and rattling among the foam. Nor was it easy to look calmly on this without thinking how the frail canoe would have fared in such a cauldron of cold water boiling. The salmon drawn into this place get terribly puzzled by it, and so they are caught by hundreds in great iron cages lowered from the rocks for this purpose. Fishing stations of the same kind are found at several points on the river, where a stage is built on piles, and a beam supports a strong net below. In a little house, like a sentry-box, you notice a man seated, silent and lonely, while he holds tenderly in his hand a dozen strings, which are fastened to the edges of the net. When a fish is beguiled into the snare, or is borne in by the swift current bewildering, the slightest vibrations of the net are thrilled along the cords to the watcher's hand, and then he raises the great beam and secures the prize.

My young friend, who had kindly warned me, and hired the cow, and shown the salmon, I now invited to breakfast, and he became the hero of the hour, being repeatedly addressed by the other inquirers in an unpronounceable German title which signifies, in short, "Man preserver."

Here we heard again of a certain four-oared boat with five Englishmen in it, which had been sent out from London overland to Schaffhausen, and then rowing swiftly down the Rhine, had come to Lauffenburg about six weeks before, and I fully sympathized with the crew in their charming pull, especially if the weather was such as we had enjoyed; that is to say, not one shower in the boat from the source of the Danube to the Palace of Westminster.


[footnote 1]: This adventure was the result of temporary carelessness, while that at the rapids was the result of impatience, for the passage of these latter could probably have been effected without encountering the central wave had proper time been spent in examining the place. Let not any tourist then be deterred from a paddle on the Reuss, which is a perfectly suitable river, with no unavoidable dangers.

[footnote 2]: This was Lord Montague, the last of his line, and on the same day his family mansion of Cowdray, in Sussex, was burned to the ground.

[footnote 3]: A sketch of this cow-art will be found at page 177.

[footnote 4]: "Lauffenburg" means the "town of the falls," from "laufen," to turn; and the Yankee term "loafer" may come from this, "herum laufer," one running about.

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