Paddling can be about adrenaline or relaxation. It can be about solitude or teamwork, about exploration or transportation. But no matter what paddling means to an individual, putting a paddle blade (or two) in the water is special because it engages all the senses. Rivers are alive and they make us feel alive.
“When I’m on my home rivers, I hear the roaring of glacial water and the rumble of rocks tumbling along the riverbed,” says Anne Stevens about the fast and powerful rivers of Tyrol, Austria. “On hot summer days when the levels are juicy, I taste sediment in between my teeth and I feel the icy water that is so cold it cools the air around the river. I see a seclusion that contrasts the populated and developed surroundings. And…I feel pretty damn grateful to live here!”
Anne has always lived near water, as she grew up on the coast of the Northern Sea in Emden, a small town full of channels and waterways. “Today, I would call all the rivers around Innsbruck my home waters” she says. “I love the Brandenberger Ache the most, I work on the Ruetz in Stubai and I probably paddle the most on the Ötztaler Ache.” She has been living in Innsbruck for almost 10 years and was first introduced to whitewater through her local kayaking club on a trip to the Inn River, another one of her local favorites. “That’s my first memory of the area,” she says. “I would come back often to kayak, and years later I started working as a raft guide here. Then I went to university in Innsbruck and… just never left.”
Innsbruck is the fifth-largest city in Austria and the capital of the southwestern state of Tyrol. Mountains, peppered with ski resorts and crisscrossed with rivers, surround the city. The Inn runs through the city giving it its name, which means “bridge over the Inn.” Located less than 200 kilometers south of Munich, Innsbruck is less than an hour’s drive from both the German border to the north, and the Italian border to the south, and is known for its skiing, whitewater rafting, historical attractions, and an all-around hotspot for mountain sports.
The ease and accessibility of kayaking is part of why Anne choose Innsbruck as home. “The amount and variety of river sections to paddle in Tyrol, the ridiculously easy logistics, the possibility to paddle all-year round, combined with the number of people to paddle with and the amount of stoke within the community is pretty special.”
It’s a place where locals kayak so often they leave boats on roof racks and are seldom more than a 20-minute drive away from an awesome lap. In Innsbruck, kayaking isn’t a weekend hobby. It’s a before-work, after-work, or skip-work kind of lifestyle. “That what makes this place so special,” says Anne. “Having these amazing gorges that are hardly accessible any other way than in a kayak just a few kilometers outside the city–and we run them after work like other people go to the gym.”
Anne’s life revolves around the rivers of her backyard, and she is out there for fun, as well as for work. She has been managing and guiding Source to Sea Rafting in Stubai on the Ruetz River since it opened in 2014. The rafting company was founded as a river conservation tool, hoping to use tourism to stop the construction of hydro dams in the Stubai Valley and show locals and politicians that there is more value in rafting tourism on a healthy and free-flowing Ruetz River, than damming it.
However, in this situation politicians’ signatures have proved to be more powerful than paddle strokes. “Sadly, many locals here are pretty indifferent towards their rivers,” says Anne. “People are so used to rivers running in concrete channels that they don’t know how a natural river looks anymore. I think there is a huge difference between non-paddling community members and the kayaking community in terms of respect and stewardship for the rivers.”
Anne’s conservation work doesn’t end when she leaves her day job. She volunteers her time helping the local river conservation NGO WET (Wildwasser erhalten Tirol), who are working toward protecting the rivers of Tyrol from the destruction by ongoing hydropower development. And, together with Marieke Vogt, Anne co-manages Free Rivers Fund, an organization that collects donations from adventure and outdoor sports companies and distributes the funds to river conservation activists.
Anne’s connection with the rivers of Tyrol fuel her desire to share them with others and help protect them. “What would I wish for if a whitewater genie showed up at the take-out one day? I would wish for the Tyrolean hydro-power company TIWAG to vanish from the face of the earth! For all the dams the already build to be gone and all the projects that are looming in the future to not be realized. For the local politicians to finally open their minds and to stop seeing the local rivers solely as energy and money sources.”
Editor’s Note: Read more from the Home Waters series.