Berlin by boat, or how I learned to stop renting and love the inflatable kayak

The oldest of the three Santa-suit-clad stand up paddlers squints his eyes against the falling snow and eyes my inflatable kayak, bobbing at the foot of Molecule Man, with friendly worry. “Aber alleine?” he asks. The three festive friends are out on the frigid river for laughs, but he’s skeptical of my solo stylings. I shrug.

What’s the worst that could happen, I reply. Fiasco scenario: I might end up in the water and have to swim to one of the many ladders adorning the side of the river. Sure, it’s cold, but back in Seattle we make an event out of running a post-New Year’s 5K and then jumping into Lake Washington. Falling into the wintry Spree wouldn’t stop your heart or anything, though I wouldn’t advise swallowing the water.

And anyway, this is part of my personal liberation plan. It took me a while after settling longterm in Berlin to realize that I could and should kayak here, as I would in the watery Pacific Northwest of my birth, but after this epiphany, there was no going back. Still, for years it remained a seasonal and rental-only hobby, until the Bootsverleih meines Vertrauens gave me a spidery reason to invest in an inflatable craft of my very own.


Now I am the proud captain of a glorified rubber raft with which to explore Berlin’s many waterways. And there’s so much to explore: 240 kilometers of canals and rivers, and that’s not even counting the lakes. Berlin, as many a tour guide will tell you, boasts more bridges than Venice, and how better to see them than by toodling along in a sleek little boat that packs up into an IKEA shopping bag? To that end, I hopped in the Landwehrkanal for the first time recently – most of my kayak adventures to date had been confined to the Spree in the southeast of the city. Beforehand, I broadcast a plea for a GoPro loan via Twitter, and a kind soul came to my aid with some gear.

When trying out a new route in my trusty water steed, the most pressing challenge is generally locating suitable launch and takeout points. Without dedicated docks, this can be a low concrete bank, a ladder, a random bit of scaffolding, a stone staircase or a fallen tree. I did some Google Maps research on the bank of the Landwehrkanal near the Tiergarten S-Bahn station and spotted a likely-looking stretch. And sure enough – when I arrived with my gear in tow, a lovely spot presented itself to inflate the boat, drop it into the water and lower myself into my tippy craft without any mishaps.

At least, until the swan showed up. Focused on meddling with the borrowed GoPro, I first became aware of his presence when he was about a meter from my boat, gargling a throaty hiss of displeasure at my incursion into his terrain. I froze, dropped the camera into my lap and held my paddle cautiously. Racing through my head: Should I be intimidating or submissive? Loud or utterly silent? You hear tips on dealing with bears and cougars, but never had anybody advised me on how to extract oneself from a confrontation with an aggressive swan, equipped with a strong beak and potentially lethal wings. I knew I didn’t want to hurt the magnificent, alarming bird – I was in his territory, after all. I murmured soothing sounds at him, lowered my paddle cautiously to the water and painstakingly crept out of reach, then paddled furiously off to a better place to rig the camera.

The GoPro result was a learning experience – I didn’t even film the entire trip, but an hour of footage sped up for modern attention spans still creates a video that is crazily shaky, at least until I get my act together on the stabilization front. Still, one forms an idea of the tranquil Landwehrkanal and its many bridges:


Happily, I also found a decent place to clamber out of the canal, disassemble the boat and go warm up with a scrumptious flat white.

Swan vulnerability notwithstanding, would I recommend investing in an inflatable kayak? Under my circumstances, absolutely. If you’re living in a city with a decent amount of waterways but no means to store or transport a hard-shelled kayak, grabbing a cheap inflatable can open up so many opportunities to get out there, albeit with less streamlined speed than you’ll have in the real thing. If I were stateside, I’d probably have a car and a bit more living space, and would definitely spring for a legit kayak, but this is a nice compromise for now. And in case you haven’t discovered the joy of kayaking itself yet, let me proselytize: These wonderful, responsive boats will have you feeling strong, serene, connected with the water and in blissful control, paddling wherever your whimsy takes you.

Looking forward to many more outings in all sorts of weather, discovering the watery corners of this beautiful city.

Here’s a mix of photos from various outings over the years in rental kayaks and in my blue-green inflatable, which I have started to think of as The Mallard. Some with DSLR, some with janky phone cam:

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