Where Wilma gets her wiggle on, a town is saved by bees and chickens wear pants

Wilma takes a bite

Wilma takes a bite

Banging back an Erdinger at my favourite biergarden in Mittlenich

Banging back an Erdinger at my favourite biergarden in Mittlenich

The heroic baker boys. Bread and honey never tasted so sweet.

The heroic baker boys. Bread and honey never tasted so sweet.

Nose and his gang of bread thirsty savages

Nose and his gang of bread thirsty savages

My new curtains. Torn duvet covers and lots and lots of glue

My new curtains. Torn duvet covers and lots and lots of glue

Pants! Pants? These ain’t no stinkin’ pants

Decending under the lava dome in Eiffel. Stephan Dion never looked so good

Descending under the lava dome in Eiffel.
Stephan Dion never looked so good

bringing beer up from the lagering vaults under the volcano c.1880

bringing beer up from the lagering vaults under the volcano c.1880

Server pours a tasty Volcano pils. What comes up must go down (the hatch).

Server pours a tasty Volcano pils. What comes up must go down (the hatch).

Testing out the fine German crueltywear at Burg Thermont. Also sampled a good lashing and flouncing

Testing out the fine German crueltywear at Burg Thermont. Also sampled a good lashing and flouncing

Ho hum scenery on the Mosel. Site near present location

Ho hum scenery on the Mosel. Site near present location

Here in Germany bad often means good. This was certainly the case regarding Bad Honnef, a town in which I stayed for six weeks with engine troubles. I sat at the dock, first with a disconnected drive train that required professional tools to rethread the massive iron flywheel, and then with a troublesome forward and reverse that required the skills of Ralf from KO (Koblenz). Fortunately I had the company of good friends of whom some showed themselves to be poorly mannered, greedy and a little cranky. I’m not speaking about the capricious Sigbert Mayer who is special in his own greedy, cranky way, I speak about Wilma and her consort Swan, two of the white geese that worked the docks at the rowing club. Over the weeks they became more like feathered dogs than birds. I couldn’t call them with human noises, but the sound of a bread bag opening would have Wilma muscling hard with her big black feet pushing her fast through the slough. At boat side she would wait expectedly for bits of old croissant or Landsbrot. The prospect of a bit of bread would get her very excited. She would paddle hard bringing her bulk up much higher in the water and reach into the boat with her long slender neck. She would wiggle all over. After I gave her a bit if bread she would settle down and wag her tail feathers with pleasure. All this action would get Swan over to join her. Swan was bigger and sported reddish brown accents to his well-coiffed head. The bits of colour somehow made me think of him as a small town Southern BBQ cashier. I imagined Swan working by day taking cash for briskets with extra mop sauce and then holding KKK meetings in moonlit fields by night. His head and neck feathers were very slick from searching out bits of river bottom. He would wait at boat side glancing first at me and then at Wilma and then at the bread bag. When I reached in to grab a piece they would both rise up and push against the boat with their chests and reach with their necks while I laughed. If I gave a bit to Wilma, Swan would hiss and I would have to scold him before handing over a morsel. If the bread was too big you could see it travel all the way down his neck. I figured that couldn’t be good, so I started using a knife to cut more custom-sized bites for each of my friends.

When I left Bad Honnef I was sad to say good-bye to Wilma and Swan. However, no sooner had I stopped the engines after a day’s running than a new best friend appeared. As I sat on the beach grounded, I could depend on Beak to come by to cheer me up. I watched him and we shared a few loaves of bread. When I got going I discovered that he was following me. As I took cover in a slough near Leutesdorf there he was and so I had company for the night. Not much of a conversationalist, Beak would entertain with his signature grunts and characteristic feeding practices that would  have him lower his neck into the water and then tilt his entire body to better grasp tasty river bottom weed tops that he would bring to the surface. His face said ‘Ist Geschmack’.

Leutesdorf is a town with an interesting history. As is often the case among the communities along the Rhine,Leutesdorf found itself at odds with its wealthier and more gentile neighbour. In this case the neighbour is Andernach, a lovely walled community  just across the river and over a bit. The Leutesdorfers could not restrain their envy and hatred of the opulent Burghers and their well dressed Dammen in Andernach and so it was decided that the men would don their armour, climb into boats and raid the town in the early morning hours. It was a moonless night and no alarm was raised as the Leutesdorf landing parties made their way across the Rhine to pillage Andernach. However, the early morning is also a time for bakers and so it was that two young apprentice bakers were out delivering their loaves before sunrise. From across the river the two could hear the splashing of oars and the occasional cough. They looked over the wall and to their horror they saw the boats filled with envious Leutesdorfers. It was too late to sound the alarm and even though the apprentices were only boys against the force of armed men, they saw that quick action was necessary to save their town. They devised a plan and waited. As the armed group got to the wall the bakers upturned the town’s bee hives onto the luckless Leutesdorfers. The bees swarmed under the men’s armour and the group ran back to their boats swatting and shouting as the bees stung them miserably. The town was saved and the boys ( and the bees) became heros. The scheming Leutesdorfers went back to invent calamine lotion and dream of revenge.

The fact that Andernach had bee hives in town underscores a continuing fact of life in Germany – small plot mixed agriculture. Yes, the country also has large operations that are needed to supply their incredible wheat and celery root needs, but it is a common sight to see a three hectare farm where there is a fowl house, half acre of wheat, sunflowers and vegetable plot as well as orchard. In Mittlenich where the boat sat for a bit, the yacht club had once been part of a larger farm that had succumbed to urban needs for homes and business. Still, the farmer was managing to keep it real with a very tidy operation. Every day, I would walk past the wide variety of chickens, ducks and geese in a large yard that displayed the intricacies of bird society. The black ducks would play with the small apples that would fall from the tree. One would guard an apple and then push it with his beak as another duck approached. Like a match between the Bruins and Jets, ducks would run as best they could to try and touch the apple. None would ever eat it. It was just a game.

All the birds interacted, albeit in flocks, amid a kind of community where birds of a feather stayed together (much akin to the tribalism that is inherent in German society). Overseeing the action were the roosters. The biggest and most aggressive of the birds, they stood their ground and watched the games of apple hockey with limited approval. The largest of the roosters had a wonderful appearance that made them look as though they were wearing pants and strutting about with hands behind backs (I know chickens don’t have hands). Occasionally, they would dart out at a duck that pushed the apple too close to a hen. I could not help but think how similar these birds were to my friends Swan, Wilma and Beak (you too Nose). Certainly, more aggressive, these chickens with pants were not the hand feeding sort. But, like the swans that glide the river edges and jetties, these birds were part of a community where each had their place in a balance that denied the need for brutality. Could it be that the humans in places like Leutesdorf could learn from the easy social workings of the small scale farm where birds of a feather may flock together but get along in a mutual respect?

100 Days and Nights to Know a River

I had a dream. Early one morning I awoke after hearing a fish speak out in my sleep. I don’t speak trout or halibut, but I knew as sure as it had gills and lips it spoke to me. I had been reading Günther Grass’ Der Butt (The Flounder) and somehow things had crept into my subconscious and woken me with a fog horn like cadence.

Months later and a world away as Djes lay tied to a freezing rain-soaked platform in the midst of a winter dreary Holland, I too lay in my berth and thoughts of flounders and fish talk came rushing back. I knew then and there in the dark of the chilly cabin that the fish spoke to me of the Rhine as only a German writer’s creation would do. At that point I was making my merry way off the powerful Dutch tributaries and onto the Rhine proper. What was the message?

Really more of a greeting than a message, the fish had offered a confirmation of coming events. It’s dreamy sonic blast foretold flood waters and beached boats, freezing lashes of stinging ice pellets and sun so hot the welds broke on Djes’ steel hatch. The fish was a harbinger.

They say you need a 100 days and 100 nights to know a person’s heart. I say you need 100 days and 100 nights to know the push and pull of a river and how it twists the history of a country mired in its currents. Over the course of months I fought the Rhine with my old boat and it opened up and taught me much. Only recently was I able to finally come off the insane currents and dodge into the Mosel as a sneaky back door route to the Danube that will have me meet up with the Rhine at Strasbourg and take her back down to Frankfurt on my terms. The challenge now as I sit near Gülls is a broken canal lock in France.

The past weeks have been difficult. I had issues in Bad Honnef with repair and was only able to leave the dock after bringing in a boat scientist from Koblenz ( after my friend Buch introduced me to guy who knew a guy ) who did the best he could do without his shop and crane. After a couple of hours of packing grease into shaft cavities and tinkering with flanges and a stuck transmission he pronounced Djes ready as she would ever be. I left the next morning with friends Tom and Christian helping out on the dock. I soon discovered that the power of the river, while well below the rate I had experienced in May, was still a monster that defied taming.

My plan was to take the port side of the river where I could see the curves would allow the easiest run. Not so easy as it turned out. The closer I moved to Koblenz which is 50 K from Bad Honnef the faster the current runs. I could tell it was going to be a challenge when Tom pulled up alongside Djes on his paddle-board and then easily headed into the stream while my ancient Volvo engine screamed Swedish death threats. He shook his head and waved goodbye. Now I was left to carry on with my strategy of holding to port as best I could or ferrying back and forth looking for small breaks in the current.

The first day out from Bad Honnef I pushed her hard for 11 hours in stinking heat that had the cabin thermometer almost hit 50 ºc. Sweat stung my eyes and the wheel was so slick I had to wear gloves. I am not ashamed to say I took all my clothes off and drove the boat naked except for my Mountain Equipment boat runners and elk-hide gloves. All was well till the engine finally uttered one last curse and power fell. I had no choice but to throttle down in the current and look for somewhere to get her off the river and found it. All along the port side the shore was a mix of rocks and sandy shore with a forested dyke 20 meters back. After a brief rest, I revved the engine and crabbed toward the beach finding a nice bit of sandy bottom to give Djes a break. I quickly jumped off and tied her up to a tree and dropped anchor. Trouble was a barge had been making a fast approach close on my stern. As I stood on the beach putting on my pants, the wake from the passing boat lifted Djes high and dropped her well up on the sand. I was marooned with no way to pull 8000 pounds of steel boat back into the deeper water.

As I have said the river has taught me much. I decided all I could do was wait to see what would happen. I unloaded a chair, four beer, a fishing rod and a small table. I made camp where I could watch the coming and going of the various barges and cruise ships and waited. I waited for five days before a Viking Cruise Ships long liner came in close to the bank with massive wake. As I listened I could hear the roar of water and I jumped to action just as the waves smashed into Djes side and pushed her into deeper water. I threw everything on board in a hurry, fired up the MD11 and high tailed it for new water.

Ralf Lachnit, boat scientist, master mechanic and good guy

Ralf Lachnit, boat scientist, master mechanic and good guy

Buch the fixer whose introductions got me to Ralf

Buch the fixer whose introductions got me to Ralf

Tom and Christian help ready Djes.

Tom and Christian help ready Djes.

Drachenfels can kiss my naked backside. My escape from Bad Honnef

Drachenfels can kiss my naked backside. My escape from Bad Honnef

Tom paddles over to see what all the swearing is about

Tom paddles over to see what all the swearing is about

Beached, baby, beached. 4 ton of bottomed out boaten

Beached, baby, beached. 4 ton of bottomed out boaten

My secret tree hideout. Unlimited supply of cherries, beer and patience. What ho, Will Scarlet!

My secret tree hideout. Unlimited supply of cherries, beer and patience. What ho, Will Scarlet!

Another day and another peddle through vineyards looking for a winch. Most thought I was asking for a wench. Can she pull a boat?

Another day and another peddle through vineyards looking for a winch. Most thought I was asking for a wench. Can she pull a boat?