Published on April 5th, 2013 | by Paddleworld
Every summer thousands of paddlers flock to the friendly waters of the vltava river in the czech republic. Scores of riverside restaurants, floating bars, and lively campgrounds sit among medieval castles, thick forests and friendly waters, creating a multi-day river experience unlike any other.
The Vltava springs out of several little sources in the Šumava Mountains on the Czech-Austrian border and gradually gains flow and might as it makes its way downstream. In its time as a free-flowing river, the Vltava was used by raftsmen to transport trunks and wood from deep in the Šumava forests to Prague and sometimes even further to the Labe River and Hamburg in Germany. A few remaining sluice gates in the weirs near the old mills, iron mooring rings set in stone along the river, and a few wooden bridges still mark this historically important use of the river. Nowadays two dams and the 30-km Lipno Lake interrupt the Vltava’s flow, dividing it into several distinct sections.
Above Lipno Lake, a beautiful part of the river curls lazily through the meanders of the Dead Flood Plain. This part of the river is under close supervision of the National Park system, which means navigation is allowed only during a particular season and at certain water levels, and is strictly controlled through paid registration and permitting. Downstream of the Lipno Lake, what used to be the wildest part of the Vltava, Čertovy Proudy, or Devil´s Currents, is nowadays tamed by the concrete trammels of the Lipno I Dam. They are allowed to be wild again only a couple of times a year during annual whitewater competitions, but they make one of the toughest slalom courses in the world. The Lipno II Dam keeps the Lower Vltava navigable all year round. The Lower Vltava’s consistent flow, along with its unique history and surroundings, make it highly popular among national and international paddlers alike.
The truly classic Lower Vltava begins at the village of Vyšší Brod and continues downstream for 70 km of fast moving class I. Taking anywhere from three to seven days, the run is suited for everyone from families in canoes to groups of partiers in raft flotillas to avid flat water paddling enthusiasts. Paddlers are drawn to the beauty of the river and the landscape, the ease of camping and eating along the way, and the camaraderie of summer days on the water. So many river enthusiasts are attracted to the Lower Vltava that during the high season in early July as many as 2,500 paddlers can be counted in a single day on the river. It sounds like a traffic jam—and it is—but these kinds of numbers happen only during a couple peak weeks during the summer. Those paddlers not afraid of the big crowd experience will enjoy the jovial atmosphere on the river and in campsites at night. Those looking for a slightly more personal experience can simply choose to go earlier or later in the season when the crowds ease considerably.
Much of the draw of the Vltava is the history and natural beauty found along its banks. The most important river of South and Central Bohemia, the Vltava derives its name from the ancient Germanic “Wilth – ahwa” or the Celtic “Wulthava”, both of which mean something close to “Wild River.” Both origins indicate that the river and surrounding area have been inhabited since prehistoric ages and, along its 400-kilometer length, river travellers can see Celtic oppidums, medieval monasteries, and Gothic and Renaissance castles.
The put-in town of Vyšší Brod is the site of a 12th century Cistercian monastery, while farther downstream the Gothic castle of Rožmberk sits high above the river dominating the landscape. The castle used to be the manor house of the most powerful Czech aristocratic family in the Late Middle Ages. Further on, the Vltava flows straight through the center of the historical and picturesque town of Český Krumlov, whose renaissance facades put it on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. The river then hurries toward the architecturally unique monastery of Zlatá Koruna, and not long afterward flows around the ruins of the Gothic royal castle Dívčí Kámen and a much older Celtic settlement nearby.
In between the impressive remains of the Vltava’s dignified past, the river alternately flows through deep wooded forests and open valleys, turning quiet corners and passing rocky headlands. Paddlers will be entertained by many small rapids and vigilance is required to guard against rocks hidden in shallow shoals. Scattered between many the little rapids are eleven weirs, most of which are navigable for paddlers with basic canoeing experience. For those who don’t want to test their skills, all of the weirs are easy to walk around and boats can be passed through the sluices by rope. With quiet crooks and romantic nooks, the Vltava still allows plenty of time to float and relax…and to drink and be merry.
Forty years ago, the classic of the Czech paddling literature wrote “a ride in a canoe is the easiest way to get from one pub to another” and that is certainly true on the Vltava. Along many sections of the river, restaurants, pubs and snack bars line the banks, offering food and beverage to suit any appetite. Some of the places respect the paddling spirit of the river and have unique ambience marked by wit and charm. Others, unfortunately, have only one purpose—to earn as much money as they can. Occupying even in the most impossible places, in recent years so many pubs are crammed along the banks that no space remains for new ones. Not to be deterred, some intrepid entrepreneur came up with the idea of a floating bar. Now thirsty paddlers stop for drinks without even getting out of their boats. In stark contrast to the Vltava’s elegant historical remains, uncontrolled vessels with rowdy crews stumble down the river from pub to restaurant to floating bar.
Among this boisterous lot, boats of sporty paddlers and families with children weave their way; yet surprisingly these groups seldom come into conflict. The families set off earlier and do not stop at every pub, so they usually are quite ahead of the others. The more serious paddlers, on the other hand, set off later to get enough space in the sluices for their sports performances. One can easily tell the different types of paddlers apart according to their vessels: The experienced paddlers use laminate or plastic open canoes with performance designs. Sporty groups most often paddle kayaks or covered double canoes. Families with kids prefer the heavy and clumsy but stable plastic canoes, and people who paddle down the river with the goal of getting drunk instead of performing any sport-related activity usually pick inflatable rafts.
The time of year often dictates what groups one might run into on the Vltava. In May and June during the weekdays, school athletic courses often paddle the river, while on weekends work groups take advantage of the opportunity to gather and relax outside the office. In July, the weather is hot and paddling the Vltava is the hip thing to do, so gangs of teenagers and romantic couples intermingle with families with small children. In August, when the weather gets cooler, the river is dominated primarily by sports camps for children and youth. So many people make trips down the Vltava that instead of the old proverb “Every Czech is a musician,” it could be more aptly said that “Every Czech is a paddler.” Nevertheless at night on the river you can still find people sitting in a pub or by the fire at a campsite playing the guitar.
While recreational paddling has become extremely popular in the Czech Republic, especially with the advent of plastic and inflatable boats, for the vast majority of the boating population “the water” (as we say in Czech when going down the river) is limited to a few days per year on the Lower Vltava. Although the top paddling athletes of the Czech Republic, who have achieved a lot of success in international competitions, usually began their careers as common paddlers on the Vltava, paddling as a sport is not particularly encouraged by the government. On the contrary, the Vltava flows through several national parks and protected areas, and conservationists and park officials are continually trying to force paddlers off the river, or at least significantly limit them. There are more and more signs such as: “It is not allowed to…”, “It is prohibited…” or “It shall be punished…”
For example, free camping outside the official camps on the Vltava is strictly prohibited. Due to serious crowding and the noisy atmosphere in the offical camps, many paddlers continue to use their favorite spots where they used to camp long before the creation of national parks and protected areas. Unfortunately, from time to time careless people stay at these places and leave behind a lot of garbage and cause damage to the environment. This encourages park officials to impose fines and it further inflames the debate over setting limitations on paddling and camping along the river. The result is an on-going battle between paddlers, businessmen and municipalities on one side and the nature conservation bodies on the other.
For now however, every spring the Vltava in Vyšší Brod starts shining with the colours of canoes and the river resounds till autumn with paddlers´ greetings shared between ambitious sportsmen, boy and girls scouts, families, romantic couples, school groups, and boisterous drunkards. In quiet corners of the river, a muskrat slips quietly into the water as it did hundreds of years ago, when a Celts Třísov used to fish in the river, Peter Vok from Rožmberk was drowning in Vyšší Brod, King Wenceslas IV was imprisoned in the castle of Dívčí Kámen, and the wooden rafts made from the trunks of Šumava forests were floating endlessly down the river. Despite the restrictions of the conservationists it is possible to find peaceful and safe camps in the wild, where roes and deer come to drink in the evenings.
For the more social experience, there are places to eat well and enjoy the evenings with fellow river travellers. With the dam controlling the flow of the Wild River, you will have enough adventure in the rapids and adrenalin while going down the sluice gates in the weirs. Most of the watermen who have long paddled on the Vltava like to come back over the years and they will be paddling down the familiar rapids despite the hordes of people as long as it is legislatively possible. Just have a bit of tolerance, respect, affection and good will. It is the VLTAVA!
Word & Photos Raph Thiebaut (published in Paddle World Mag 2011)