River reflections on a changing landscape

John Harlin about to relaunch his kayak at Kaiserstühl on the Rhine River

It really feels like I've seen the two extremes of Switzerland now. Last June was high, wild, glaciated and dangerous - now it’s low, tamed and well travelled.

This content was published on October 18, 2010 - 10:07
John Harlin III in Basel,

The pack went on my back in my old home town of Leysin and, figuratively at least, didn't come off until the rescuers removed it at what is surely one of the least travelled places in all of Switzerland.

One of the rescuers, a guide, even guessed it must be me - the "American adventurer" he called me, because he said no one else would be on that frontier ridge. If the rock had not pulled off, we'd have reached the summit of Mont Dolent, where the borders of France, Italy, and Switzerland join together.

Now it's mid October and again I'm at a place where three countries meet. This time it's France, Germany, and Switzerland, and I'm in Basel, Switzerland's lowest point north of the Alps and perhaps its most tamed, civilized, and well-travelled environment.

Together with kayak partners, Konrad Kirch - an old family friend, Jean-Pierre Jochaud, and Paul von Krause, I came down the Rhine - Switzerland's biggest river. During the last few kilometres we dodged ships carrying loads to and from the North Sea.

It's the contrasts that have made the strongest impressions on me. The contrast with the alpine Switzerland I'm used to. The contrast between languages and cultures, modern and old, picturesque and industrial, wild and tame. I happen to love contrasts, and I revel in such differences.

Because this autumn's journey has been mostly on the water, it is inevitably the water that has left the strongest imprint. I remember the feeling I had in camp the first night, when standing on shore my body still felt like it was floating, swaying gently to water rhythms it wasn't used to. Soon these would become my new normal.

River rage

Never have I so fully felt man's control of nature as I have on the Rhine. We launched on the Alpenrhein, meaning the Alps Rhine - the final stage of the headwaters where the river plunges from its mountain origins into the lowlands of the Swiss Plateau. The river must have raged across the valley in former times, sowing havoc among farms and towns. No longer.

Starting in 1900, the river was steadily diked from Lake Constance upstream. Every kilometre we paddled was set deep between two man-made walls - tilted to a gentle controlling V shape.

When we scrambled out of the levees at times - to camp or to hike a vestigial piece of the "Old Rhine"- there would be a second set of dikes paralleling the river just in case the first was not enough.

Commando camping

Our initial campsite had the wildest feeling - we were "commando camping" on the Austrian side - but when we took a walk we saw signs explaining how the mouth of the tributary river (the Ill) had been completely repositioned so it would merge more harmoniously with the Rhine.

Paul von Krause, a Frenchman of German parents whose business was installing and managing ski areas in Switzerland, said that no place in Europe has not been changed by man.

As we paddled the south shore of Lake Constance for nearly two days I noted perhaps two or three 100-metre stretches without houses. Not until the river emerged from the lakes did it start to feel slightly wilder, with many stretches of forest between villages. But by then the Rhine had turned into a staircase, with the surface level of one dam's reservoir nearly touching the base of the next dam upstream.

One thousand years ago Basel built the only bridge across the Rhine between Lake Constance and the North Sea. What a different world.

Old and new worlds

And that's my other great impression: the worlds of old and new, and how they nest within each other. Never mind the truly ancient, like the Romans, Celts, and Germanic tribes I can't see except perhaps in the physiognomy of modern faces (if I knew what to look for).

What I can see is the buildings, towns, and bridges that span the centuries, particularly since the Middle Ages when structures were built that are still in use today - and when territories were traded, conquered and allied to eventually yield those we know as modern Europe.

As I biked around Schaffhausen I noticed that most of the stone boundary markers used "GB" on one side and "S" on the other. The "S" I could figure out, but "GB"? Konrad explained it as the Grand Duchy of Baden, which was its own country until it merged with others to form the German Empire in 1871. Germany has changed its shape several times since then, right up to the reunification of east and west in 1990.

With certain industrialised exceptions, it's been a fantastically beautiful landscape (despite being gentle), with plenty of postcard-pretty sights to warm the soul. But it's a dynamic world not suited to quick encapsulation. While centuries-old buildings and bridges seem to imply stability, it's only an illusion. All is changed and forever changing.

The Adventure

American climber and writer John Harlin resumed his Border Stories adventure on October 4 after a mountaineering accident in July left him with two broken feet. is following the new chapters of Harlin’s adventure in two installments.

First, in Rivers and Ridges, Harlin paddled the Rhine, cycled around Schaffhausen, and is biking the crest of the Jura. He will return to the Alps in 2011.

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