To the Other Side: A Bike2Boat Adventure Through the Alps


On a tour of this kind, it helps to assess your current situation in an overly optimistic fashion: 1) The mosquitoes are gone. 2) The heat has cooled to a pleasurable temperature. 3) There will be additional water for the waterfalls tomorrow, despite the midsummer low. I try to suppress the reality: It’s shortly after midnight. I lie huddled in my sleeping bag, and water runs down my face as if I am paddling whitewater. The thunderstorm makes its third pass, like a drunkard it staggers from valley to valley and vomits its effusions over us. Hours ago, we were happy to have found a roof. Now we dream of walls because the rain is lashing horizontally, soaking us as we all pretend to sleep.

Defereggenbach, Osttirol, Austria.

By bike, we’ve been pulling our kayaks on trailers for more than a week now. From the south of Germany, we pedaled to our home run in Lofer, Austria, enjoyed the famous Devil’s Canyon, and biked farther past the Kaiser Mountains and up 2,504 meters on the Großglockner. From there we continued to Lienz in East Tyrol, Italy, paddled several stretches of the Isel River and the Defereggenbach. Then we biked over the Staller Sattel pass to Merano in Southern Tyrol.

Including our bike, trailer, kayak, stove, and clothes, each of us maneuvers around twice his body weight. Admittedly, it’s arduous to travel this way. Logistically and physically speaking, this is the complete opposite of a week at an “all-inclusive” hotel. But for us, we’re simply combining two of the greatest modes of transport that mankind has invented: kayaking and cycling. And now, we sit in Southern Tyrol under a canopy bearing our wet fate with the stoic calm and humor that can only be found in moments like these. Besides, it was quite humid anyway.

The team consists of two generations of kayaking: Olaf Obsommer and I first tested our physical fitness on the Alpine rivers in the nineties, a time when Adrian Mattern and Bren Orton were just learning to walk. Olaf and I came up with the idea of a sustainable journey with bikes and boats back in 2011 and have since made two such trips through Norway (2012) and the Alps (2013). In contrast to our first trips, this time we kicked off the trip in front of our own houses.

What could be a better destination than the alpine classics in Tyrol, where almost all of us learned to paddle whitewater and have a long-time history in the German and Austrian whitewater scene. Bren and Adrian are newbies to the idea of Bike2Boat, but as open-minded adventurers, they loved it from day one. “I’m not sure if this is incredibly stupid, or incredibly fun, but I guess I will find out soon,” joked Adrian when we first set off. In all honesty, it’s probably a little bit of both.

Defereggenbach, Osttirol, Austria.

The morning after the rain, the Reinbach waterfalls in Tauferer Ahrntal are on the agenda. Our sleeping bags dry in the sunshine, our cycling shoes air out, and the boys fully immerse into their element, doing laps off the waterfall while I take photos. Thanks to the rain, the water level is perfect. Due to a longer baby break, I haven’t been in a kayak a lot in the last few years and haven’t thought about freefalling at all. But kayaking the past few days felt good.

Bren and Adrian’s enthusiasm takes hold of me, and after scouting the combo for almost an hour, I decide to give it a try while Bren waits in the pool for safety. A few strokes over the table of the entrance drop with a bit of a tricky boof, then a few strokes through the little pool to the curler of the big one, and fire—I make my final move and pull the blade. I land flat on the boil below and celebrate my line. Kayaking is like biking: If you learn the basics as a kid, your body remembers what to do. I’m stoked!

Tourist trails along the river make it easy for us; from the pool below, we can carry our kayaks up again as often as we want and repeatedly drop Reinbach Falls. We don’t even have to move the bikes! On a normal river stop, we hide our bikes and luggage at the put-in and have to go back after paddling: running, jogging, hitchhiking, bus, train, the tradition encourages all modes of shuttle transportation. Then we cycle back to the take-out and pick up the boats—so we have to complete the paddled route twice before going to the next river.

There are various reasons why we choose to make our life so difficult and not just drive around in a car. When we first came up with the idea, we asked ourselves if it would be possible to travel with our kayaks more sustainably, without leaving such a huge ecological footprint. Then we wondered if it was even feasible. Would our legs carry us from river to river? Would we have the patience to travel using only pedal power? We wanted to find out. We wanted to know how it felt to earn the rivers we’d paddled. Pretty good, as it turned out, and this trip was no different.

As we re-discover some of the long-known classics of the Alps by bike, every time on the water feels like a first descent. The physical effort required to get there makes the entire experience somehow more intense. We are certainly aware of the fact that our human-powered adventure won’t stop climate change, and that we will inspire few to repeat our feat. But we are deeply satisfied with every calorie we burn. And there are quite a few.

After the Reinbach waterfalls, our appetite is demanding. We go shopping for the evening and pack a few small delicacies in the basket to satisfy our caloric cravings: six ice creams, two apple pastries, four cans of fish, half-a-kilo of mango yogurt, two big sausages, two beers, and two liters of apple juice, which we immediately inhale before our actual dinner: 1 kilo of rice with some veggies.

The next morning, our bodies feel like a loaf of bread that has been lying in the corner for weeks–every muscle, every tendon is stiff and crusty. So far, we’ve only allowed ourselves one day of rest in East Tyrol. When it is the freedom of a road trip that drives you, standing still becomes difficult. Despite the physical toll it takes, we can’t seem to stop smiling, that certain relaxed expression that one has from being on the road for too long.

Later in the day, under the Italian afternoon sun, our smiles fade; we feel like wrapped ham on wheels. It’s one of the hottest days of the summer. Sweat splatters sunscreen onto the asphalt. We pedal faster, forcing a breeze where there isn’t one. Even the occasional water break offers no respite from the heat. Unfortunately, the Rienz River doesn’t have enough water, so we keep following the Pustertal cycle path along the Rienz, and later the Eisack cycle path to Bozen. Since the bike paths are partly downhill, we make good progress; even with the weight of our cumbersome luggage, we cover a good 80 kilometers.

Overnighter close to Bozen, Südtirol, Italy.

“80,000 euros!” The guy, obviously a tourist from Germany, yells in my face and points to his polished Mercedes. Okay, I got close, but I didn’t even touch it? Welcome to the center of Merano. Tourists flee in panic around us as an afternoon thunderstorm rumbles on the horizon. I had tried to get a dry place under a canopy, towing my trailer precariously close to the luxury car. Normally, I would yell back, but at the moment I don’t feel any need for negative vibrations and apologize twice in a row, whereupon he continues to tiptoe around his car and scold the air.

Something has happened to us in the last 10 days: the rivers we paddled, the satisfaction of traveling through the Alps by our own muscle power, we feel complete. This is the essence of Bike2Boat, and what brings us back time and time again to this sufferfest. It’s not about the highest waterfall or steepest creek, it’s about earning the whitewater descent and enjoying the journey. It’s about traveling light with a minimal eco-footprint.

Biking from Bruneck to Bozen, Südtirol, Italy.

Pressing on the pedals is meditation in motion. Biking and paddling serves us a yummy adrenalin-dopamine-serotonin cocktail and increases our sense of satisfaction in all realms of life. Luxury cars lose their shine, and apart from Mercedes man, Merano enchants us with its urban southern flair, mountains and palm trees, its flowing water and vivid whitewater scene.

We stop to visit local Matthi Deutsch, wash our shabby clothes and shower off the latent sweaty stink. After paddling the Etsch and the Gilf Gorge of the Passer in the middle of the city, we munch the finest pizza, garnish it with too many scoops of ice cream from the best gelateria around, and guzzle beer until our stomachs hurt. Before reaching the final phase of enlightenment, to cancel all worldly pleasures, we have to bike a little more.

The 2,509-meter high Passo Rombo, the Timmelsjoch, lies between us and our next paddle destination: the Ötztal Valley. We crossed to the south side of the Alps early in the trip, now we plan our way back to the Northern Alps. A look at the map clearly illustrates what we’re getting into. Although mountains surround Merano, it’s only 300 meters above sea level. This means a difference in altitude of about 2200 meters, not including the rolling asphalt we must follow up and down and back up.

We want to do the route in two days. On the first day, we follow a busy gravel path along the Passer River. The gentle climbs, apple trees along the way, and tourists waving as they pass on their E-bikes create a holiday mood in the valley.

On the second day, we leave the mountain village of Moos early in the morning. Here the famous King of the Alps Race takes place every spring, with hundreds of kayakers battling for the crown. Our battle lies ahead of us. According to the map, the day’s workload is still 1800 meters up to the Timmelsjoch. In the first kilometer, the gradient rises to 14 percent and challenges our suffer-buckets before breakfast has even hit our stomachs.

Biking over Timmelsjoch from Moos in Passeier, Südtirol, Italy.

We push ourselves with full force on the pedals, but the trailers try to pull our bikes back downhill. If we stop pedaling, our fingers cramp from the pressure we have to apply on the brake levers so we don’t roll back toward the valley. It’s a tough mental battle: pedal and sweat, breathe and drink, always in the back of your mind are the never-ending meters still to climb.

Around noon, we are roughly halfway up the ascent. We snack on salami sticks with bread and enjoy a fresh cafe from the Moka machine we carry with us. Then it’s time to fight again. In the midst of the rugged mountains of the Ötztal Alps, the final ascent takes countless serpentines uphill. The green becomes scarcer, the vegetation soon disappears entirely, and glaciers reflect the afternoon sun in the distance—at least the sweat dries faster the higher we get.

“Chapeau, chapeau!” The road biker overtaking us nods appreciatively, sometimes cell phones stick out of the car windows to photograph our fleet. Unfortunately, my ability and willingness to communicate has now fallen by the wayside. “Allez! Allez!” a woman shouts out of the car window, waving excitedly, and giving me a thumbs up. I just keep staring at my pedals. L-e-f-t, R-i-g-h-t. Excuse me, lady, I’m busy fighting gravity.

The wind is buzzing around my ears, the sun stands low, the last motorcycles have passed; finally, it’s calm up here. I put on my windbreaker. Our bikes lean against the Passo Rombo sign, 2509 meters. My head is empty, my brain too exhausted to formulate what I feel into words. It’s not a great joy that overcomes me; maybe it’s a little pride that we made it, tinged with the emptiness and sadness of the trip’s end approaching.

“Excuse me, what do you do with the kayaks up here on the mountain?” I turn to find an elderly gentleman, clearly confused about what we are doing up here. I point down toward Sölden in the Ötztal Valley, responding, “Well, we’re on to the other side.” His gaze tells me that he cannot interpret my answer. Then he smiles politely. I smile back. He leaves.

“Well then.” Adrian puts his helmet on and points downhill. “Now we crack the 80 kilometers-an-hour mark and then we enjoy another week of great paddling in Ötztal.” I had told him about the steep straight with the long run-out down the valley, but actually meant that the brakes won’t run as hot on a straight downhill as they do on the curvy bits. Olaf intervenes, “Tomorrow we could walk up to the Hintereisferner glacier and paddle the Rofener Ache down from its source. It’s only 600 meters in altitude from Zwieselstein!” He looks at me with a grin. “Or do you need a day off?“

Gurgler Ache in Zwieselstein, Ötztal/Oetz valley, Austria.

Editor’s Note: Guest Contributor and German photographer Jens Klatt (40) feels alive when he can move objects over the water by muscle power—be it a canoe, a SUP or whitewater kayak. He also likes cameras and bikes, but hates swimming. Fun fact: the idea of Bike2Boat was born in a plane when he and Olaf Obsommer felt guilty for polluting the planet when traveling to the rivers.