It is so calm that my paddle strokes echo across the lake as if amplified by a loudspeaker. The sun tickles me in the nose, a nature documentary unfolds in front of my eyes which would be too kitschy for TV. It feels like a mix of Canada and the Everglades: We just paddled along the stream between reeds several metres high, now we cross the lake with an endless view and flocks of birds on the horizon. No, we are not in Canada or Florida but in Germany. More precisely: on the upper Havel in Müritz National Park.
Most Germans will not be much interested in the Havel but I have a special connection with it. I did my first paddle strokes on the Havel when I was ten years old, but 200 kilometres further down river in my home city of Brandenburg. However – and this is the strange thing – I had never been to the source of the Havel.
Now, 25 years later, it is about time to have a look around here. The source of the Havel is east of the Müritz in the centre of the Müritz National Park. Insiders are still discussing its exact position: springs are usually only swampy spots in an area where groundwater comes to the surface. Trickles of water run together – and somewhere, the Havel crawls out into the light of day. Paddlers, however, are less interested in the source than the possible starting point of a tour. And this one is – everybody is sure about that – at the Käbelicksee near Kratzeburg. That is where we started earlier. My paddle companion Holle was born in Saarland and only knows the Mecklenburg Lakeland from hearsay. So I take the opportunity to show him my east German home and to explore uncharted territory.
Only forest, lake, reeds – and us
On the first 23 kilometres to Useriner Lake, the Havel winds its way through the national park. There is not a motor boat in sight, only forest, lake, reeds – and us. Brilliant!
Ducks, great crested grebes and cormorants observe us suspiciously, seagulls and cranes glide above us – ospreys have also been seen too. The water lilies are blossoming, the blue sky is spiked with white summery clouds. The scenery takes on a kitschy appearance in the late afternoon sun.
At a length of more than 300 kilometres, the Havel is the longest tributary of the Elbe river which runs on the right. It almost forms a U, and, therefore, the beeline between the source and confluence is not even 100 kilometres. The word Havel is etymologically related to Hafen and Haff, and the stem Haf means something like bay or bulge. Hence, the naming of the Havel could be connected with the river’s many bays, and that is how things kick off: The Havel and its source lakes twist and turn as if they had stomach ache.
Some of the connections to the lakes , however, cannot be paddled, they are too narrow and we need to carry the canoes between lakes. The main difference to the Everglades and Canada is that when you transport the boats on land, there is often a big trolley on rails for you to use, often designed to carry a few boats at a time. On one of the first spots at Granziner Mühle, we put our one-man kayaks on the cart and push them for almost 700 metres. It is a nice change to stretch our legs. At the end of the tracks, the next surface of water is sparkling magically against the sun, the broadleaf canopy of the deciduous forest feels like the gateway to the next lake, the Pagelsee. We keep on paddling – floating above the water is much nicer than pushing on land.
5 tours in and around Berlin
No matter whether your are on a micro adventure or multiple-day tours – the waters in and around Berlin have paddle trips for everybody.
1. Sightseeing, Spree – Landwehrkanal
LENGTH: approx. 25 km | START: approx. 10 km from the centre
While crowds of people jostle for a view on land, from your boat on the Spree-Landwehrkanal, you can admire many of the sights in Berlin (i.e. Oberbaumbrücke, Bellevue Castle, Zoological Garden) without a hustle and bustle. If you do want to set off on your own, you can take part in a guided canoe tour.
2. Wannsee tour
LENGTH: approx. 18 km | START: approx. 20 km from the centre
Babelsberg, Glienicke or Pfaueninsel – on this varied one-day trip, you get to know the works of the Prussia King with each paddle stroke. The countless parks and castles by the shore have turned the region into the federal capital's most popular recreational area – and the perfect paddle arena.
LENGTH: approx. 42 km | START: approx. 25 km from the centre
This varied round trip at the gates of Berlin is perfect for an adventurous weekend. It starts at the wild and romantic Löcknitz. Afterwards, you pass the Müggelspress and the Müggelsee – Berlin’s biggest lake – all the way to Köpenick with its picturesque historical town and legendary town hall.
4. Märkische Umfahrt (circuit of Brandenburg)
LENGTH: approx. 200 km | START: approx. 70 km from the centre
The Märkische Umfahrt is a 200 kilometre long and very diverse circular tour along Dahme, Dahme-Seen and Spree through the most beautiful paddle districts around Berlin. The route is great for paddle experts as well as amateur captains. Do it in four days if you are quick, savour the sights more leisurely in eight to ten.
5. Spree Forest
LENGTH: approx. 28 km | START: approx. 75 km from the centre
With its tight network of channels, The Spree Forest and little rivers are a paradise for paddlers. Spontaneous detours make the tour especially exciting. The perfect infrastructure makes boat transport, access and exit easy. And by the way, the lower Spree Forest is a little bit smaller and less developed than the upper Spree Forest – and is therefore a bit quieter during the high season.
All tours above are described in detail in the German travel guide book »Kanu Kompass: Berlin/Brandenburg«. Including sights, hotels, regulations and detailed maps.
Ravioli out of the can without an opener
On some lakes, wooden boathouses of old fishing businesses hide in the belt of reeds. We do not see any other people. The sparsely populated area on the Müritz was used for military training, hunting and carp breeding.
25 years after the fall of the wall, previously intense areas of big pine and birch forests are now being pushed back by primal nature. The national park is becoming wild again, they say even wolves have been sighted.
It is nice to see that such places still – or should we say again – exist in Germany, places where nature is king.
When we reach the weir in Babke, it is already late afternoon. There are only a few pitches for tents, we are even on our own today. It's only when we start cooking in the evening that isolation does not come in so handy: logistics were not at the heart of our men's outing, in a hurry to get into the kayaks, we only packed a camping stove and ravioli out of the can. So we forgot about the can opener – and now there is nobody nearby to help us out.
Holle also forgot his sleeping mat and creates a bed-like surface out of lifejackets and a spray skirt. But nothing can spoil my day today, and I fall into a deep coma-like sleep underneath a starry sky.
On the next day, I get up early, the morning chorus lures me outside the tent. A wonderful morning, the cold of the night still hovers above the grass, only the birds are already wide awake. However, despite being half asleep, Holle notices that the only sleeping mat available just became free and rolls over to carry on dozing. I decide for a solo morning tour and paddle in the direction where we had come from the day before. The trees along the banks form a forest canopy which remind me of my earlier tours in the Spree Forest. As a teenager, I was constantly out and about in my kayak, and I imagined Germany only existing of rivers and lakes. I have been living in Bavaria for a few years – and only when I moved away did I realise how lucky the northeast of Germany really is.
For breakfast we have a freshly caught fish in a sandwich from the nearby fishery, and coffee from the camping stove. Sure, an unusual combination but at that moment, undoubtedly simply the best.
Another cart on rails is waiting for us when we have to transport the boats again at the next weir. We continue yesterday's game of paddling a lake, then a stream, a lake, a stream. After the Jäthensee, the Havel narrows down again and in Blankenförde we find the first signs of civilisation: holiday homes with terraces by the water. You can almost be envious. After a few more lakes we reach Userinersee, the last and biggest lake in the national park. As if some higher power wants to keep us in the park, we have to fight against a strong headwind for the next four kilometres.
Back in 12 minutes
From the distance we can see the Useriner mill with its red tiled roof, and according to my water hiking atlas, we need to keep right at the end to find the outlet of the Havel. But the small entrance to the connecting channel to the high-rise lock of Zwenzow is surrounded by broadleaf trees and hardly visible. At the lock, we find ourselves really back in civilisation. If you happen to be at the lock at the right time, you can easily kayak to the next water level via the lock. When it's closed, you need to carry around. Anyway, we have reached the end of the national park and at the Großen Labussee we come accross motor boats for the first time – what a noise after such silence.
Our journey along the Havel comes to an end at Woblitzsee. The river continues to flow through Potsdam and Brandenburg towards the Elbe, but we take the exit northwards through the Kammerkanal to Neustrelitz. From there I want to take the train to Kratzeburg to get my car from the starting point.
At the harbour in Neustrelitz we end up in a harbour pub and treat ourselves to another fish sandwich, fresh of course. Holle gets comfortable on the boats in the sun; I walk to the train station only a kilometre away. After twelve minutes train ride costing 3.60 euros a ticket, I arrive in Kratzeburg. Not that expensive for a two-day tour. And even if I had had to travel 120 minutes and pay 36 euros, it would still have been a good deal. Thanks, Havel!
Havel – from Kratzeburg to Neustrelitz
A little adventure at the gates of Berlin: Two days paddling along the upper Havel with camping at water's edge. If you don’t have a canoe, you can rent one nearby.
Experienced paddlers easily cover the 35 km from Kratzeburg to Neustrelitz within two days. The biggest part of the tour leads through the Müritz National Park, please be aware of restrictions (see right). Take the train back to the starting point. The tour can be done in several different ways, also as guided tours and shuttle services with local canoe agents (www.auf-nach-mv.de).
A19 Rostock – Berlin over Waren (in the north) or Vipperow (in the south) to Kratzeburg. Alternatively, take the B96 from Berlin via Fürstenberg to Neustrelitz. The tour along the upper Havel is also possible without a car (with a folding boat or rental boat), you can get to Kratzeburg by train.
Parts of the tour take you out of the national park where there are campgrounds at the water (for example in Blankenföde, www.hexenwaeldchen.de; also a good base for day-tours and canoe rental).
Watch out in the national park!
Green barrels mark the waterway, the yellow ones mean it is closed off in some areas. Do not paddle too close to the belt of reeds and avoid shallow waters as such biotopes are home to rare plants and sensitive animal species. Give bird flocks a wide berth. Do not go on land outside the signposted rest areas. No camping in the park.
It is easy paddling, but there might be waves on the lake. Wear a life jacket!
Info and direction for paddlers
Jübermann touring atlas TA6 »Deutschland Nordost«, (€ 23.00) and DKV Gewässerführer Ostdeutschland, (€ 19.95), order on www.kanu-verlag.de.
15. März 2017, Text: Jens Klatt