Latvia: Canoeing the Gauja River

(This story first appeared in an online magazine called “Get Lost” that I wrote for.)

Well, I lucked out and found an outfitter in Riga who has a fleet of SwiftWater canoes. Although canoes are plentiful, the usual canoe to be found in Latvia is a fiberglass monster with highly recurved bow and stern, big flat bottom, high molded fiberglass seats, a drop-in wooden floor and wide lip around the “cockpit”, like something found in a city park alongside the paddlewheel Duck Boats. Not really suited for serious tripping. And the curved deck makes it difficult to throw it on a Nissan Pathfinder upside down, so you have to drive around the countryside with a big canoe right-side up on the roof, looking like you are driving the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. But these Swift Water boats are just the ticket: I take back everything I’ve ever said about the Algonquin being a mickeymouse boat; it was a wonderful tripping boat, and served my purposes very well.

Anyway, Friday morning I took a personal day and loaded up my tripping gear, nicely compact in a duffel, a small backpack, a blue “beer keg” type bucket with a locking lid (food, stove), my roll-a-table and camp chair, fishing gear, and a few beers and sodas. Tying the boat onto the truck, I took a few steps back and admired the look. I’m sure others here know exactly what I mean when I mention the elation of seeing a boat secured on the roof, a trunkload of tripping gear, a river map in Ziplock on the passenger seat, and a 3 day window on the calendar wide open…I felt like dancing. Just SO damn happy.

Anyway. My destination was the Brasla, a narrow creek about 75 km NE of Riga that meanders southwards through the woods of the Gauja National Park to its confluence with the much larger Gauja River. It has no real gradient, just the occasional constriction riffle, but it’s navigable for about 30 km only a few weeks of the year between spring floods and summer low water. I was running alone and wanted to scout the river first, so I worked my way in through the woods at various points to look at it, and discovered that it was quite clogged with strainers and blowdowns. Not a fatal problem, as there is little current in these flat rivers, but it meant 2 days of dragging through branches, getting scratched and irritated, and probably a portage or two through the hillocky and muggy shoreline, and losing fishing lures to the branches. So I thought better of it, changed plans and drove a dozen km cross country to the town of Cesis, and rigged my boat there on the shore of the Gauja.

(For those with little voices in their heads when they read, Gauja is pronounced “GOWya”, Cesis is “SAYsis”, Brasla is “BRAZla” and Sigulda is “siGOOLda”).

After rigging the little boat, I drifted it downstream to a dense copse of trees and tied it under some branches hoping it would not be molested during my shuttle. Generally, people are very trustworthy here, but many of the rural folk live on about $1000 US a year, and the sight of a rigged canoe with lots of interesting gadgets and fishing gear could prove to be too much temptation for even a generally honest individual, so it was with some trepidation that I left the boat tied up and drove the 45 minute shuttle to my planned takeout in Sigulda 45 km downstream.

Once I dropped the truck off at a boat dock in Sigulda, and paid the landowner 3 Lats ($5) to park on his property for 3 days, he insisted I get a personal tour of his campground and boat livery. He smilingly showed me around, proudly telling me the age of this tree, that sand bar, this canoe, and some of the more interesting people who had stayed at his campsite. He sincerely wished me a wonderful weekend, shook my hand warmly, and promised my truck would be safe.

I started walking back up to the main road to hitchhike back. As I walked the dirt track, I saw someone ahead tossing a stick up at a tree. When he saw me, he walked away a bit self-consciously, and as I approached, I got a better look at him. Mid 40s, clad in leather (the usual wear around here) dark, scowly complexion, scar on his eyebrow, some fading home-made bluish tattoos on his forearms and the backs of his hands. A grown-up Bad Boy, still stuck in Middle School. I glanced up in the tree, and saw that this overgrown playground bully had been trying to knock a bird’s nest out of the tree just for the sheer ruthlessness of it. There were chicks chirping in it, and the mother hen was screeching at him from a nearby branch. I kicked the stick into the river as I walked by him. He said something in Russian, which I didn’t need a dictionary to translate the gist of, and my neck prickled as I walked away, listening for footsteps behind. Creepy.

Unfortunately, one of the facts of life around here is the memory of the Russian occupation of the last 50 years. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, many of the more “restless” element of Soviet society has moved to (or remained in) Latvia, and always provide a stark contrast to the general kindness and congeniality of the natives. Although this is not a generalization that applies to everyone, there definitely are major culture barriers and a real difference in values between the Latvians and the Russians.

I thankfully got a quick ride (as my Russian friend glared at me from the woods). The passenger seat was occupied by a 20 year old holding a freshly opened beer, so I hopped in the back seat. The driver immediately struck me as yet another cross-cultural type: the Dukes of Hazzard! He was mid to late 40s, denim jacket (collar turned up), hair slicked back, Levis, a dirty white t-shirt, and his local version of the General Lee was an old Lada, fully equipped with custom racing steering wheel, gauges and buttons everywhere, and spare wires hanging out from behind the dashboard. My first thought was “Oh Jeez, what have I gotten into?” but he turned with a big smile, shook my hand, asked something in Latvian (which I could not understand, speaking barely any), and when I said “I’m sorry, I only speak English. Are you going to Cesis?” he laughed a big full laugh, and handed me the beer, and said “OK. Cesis!”

He proceeded to drive me all the way back to my boat, with us trying to communicate with sign language and our very restricted shared vocabulary. Our conversation was limited but meaningful:

Him: “Cesis… uhh, house?”

Me: “Nee. Canoe…river. Uhh..Gauja”

Him: “Ah, Gauja! Sigulda, Gauja!?”

Me: “Nee, nee, Cesis Gauja!. Tres diens Gauja..(hold up three fingers)”

Him: “Ahh! Gauja! (nod) Uh… .(boat rowing motion)?”

Me: “Yah! Yah! Canoe! (canoe paddling motion)!”

Him (nodding feverently): “Uh…hotel? Uh…”

Me: “Nee, nee hotel! Tentis!”

Him: Yah! Yah, tentis tres diens, Gauja (boat rowing motion)! OK!! (thumbs-up sign)”

We both laugh and take another hit of beer, riding in silence and smiles.

He dropped me off at the bridge, and I made my way down to the canoe, still safely tied up in the trees. As I emerged at the river bank, I heard the General Lee beep from high on the bridge and my Latvian friend waved to me as he drove off. Everything was there, so I untied, pushed off and drifted off around the corner, spirits soaring.

The river was flowing fast, still dropping from the last few weeks (we had had a 3 foot snowfall just 4 weeks before) and the current carried me along swiftly. The shores were lined with fishermen until I reached the edge of town, where I had the river to myself. The fish were rising everywhere, but apparently didn’t like the looks of my lures despite my best efforts, so I just drifted and grew immune to their teasing. The days here last forever (sunset occurs at around 10 PM, and full-on dark doesn’t happen until 11 PM) so I decided to make camp just downstream from the public campground. The National Park folks maintain a string of river-access-only campsites along the length of the Gauja so the hordes of summer floaters can get together each night and party. Camping is possible anywhere, but people prefer to share the outdoors with each other and big celebrations are known to go on all night. I wanted to practice my minimal-impact camping and relish the solitude, so I found an island a kilometer downstream from the public campsite and set up there. After dinner (spaghetti) and a few glasses of Jacobs Creek Shiraz, ’99 (hey, I never said I was roughing it) I just felt the relaxation and elation sinking in. The birds were having a regular concert, and wood ducks, mergansers, loons, Canada Geese, robins, jays, storks, herons, egrets and a host of little brown birds were all over the freaking place. I wanted to just explode with contentment.

The next day, I packed up (35 minutes from the fartsack into the canoe…it’s nice not having clients!) and floated some more. There are no rocks, per se, in Latvia; in fact, whenever someone does find a rock, they name it. There are several named cliffs along the river, exclusively sandstone, all with little caves carved into them from the current. Generations of rivergoers have carved their names into the cliffs, the oldest graffiti I saw was dated 1958, but I know there were many older ones that I missed. I tied off to explore one shallow cave, then hiked to the top of a bluff and smiled at my canoe sitting in the eddy below; there’s something special about seeing a loaded boat below, all alone on a river that makes one feel solid and in touch with the world. I feel the same way no matter if I am looking down on my loaded raft in the Canyon, my loaded canoe on a river somewhere, or just at my campsite in the woods on a hiking trip; it leaves me with a great sense of doing what I was born to do, what we all were born to do, but only some of us manage to get out and do it.

I stopped for lunch on a secluded sand beach, set up my Crazy Creek chair (grinning at their great logo: “Don’t do something; just sit there!” and made a tuna sandwich. Seconds later, two Latvians emerged from the woods and stood there agape. A father and his son had hiked 4 km through the dense woods to get to this, their own special fishing spot, only to find a scruffy river dude sitting there peacefully eating a tuna sandwich. I made peace by giving the dad my freshly opened beer, and just as the son was introducing himself and his non-English-speaking dad, the Grandfather (75 years and counting) emerged and exclaimed something in Latvian. I asked the son what he said as the dad laughed, and the son said it roughly translated to “What is HE doing here??” just less politely. I made peace with the granddad by letting him sit in my Crazy Creek chair (he had never seen such a thing!) and proceeded to watch them rig up their fishing gear. The dad inspected my tackle, and told me my lures would be fine in August, but for now the fish are feeding on grubs tied off to sinkers on the bottom. He then proceeded to catch a 6-inch trout to show me what he meant. Impressive.

Bidding them farewell, and almost forcefully having to evict grandpa from my chair, I floated on down with the sounds of the son saying in Latvian something like “Hey dad! I got one!” and continued on my blissful way. My campsite the second night was probably the most beautiful spot I had ever seen, with the river making a huge left hand bend and a serene campsite on the outside of the corner with a perfect view of both upstream and down from a peaceful perch on the shore. A well-used fire pit under a giant oak tree (the Latvians also name noteworthy trees) marked the spot, and big ol’ fish were rising everywhere, reminding me that I had no grubs with which to entice them. I made another lovely dinner, finished the rest of my wine, had a banana for dessert, and watched the lowering clouds as the day faded. It was not hard to read the clouds over the past few days: a warm front was definitely incoming with the high cirrus clouds Wednesday being displaced by mackerel skies Thursday. Lower stratocumulus and stratus on Friday, and over the day Saturday, the winds started backing around the compass and the patchy stratus clouds were closing in the gaps. I figured there was only about half a day on Sunday before the rains started to fall, so I’d better get an early start to takeout, and so I hit the sack by 10 with the sound of a beaver slapping the water just outside my tent to lull me off to sleep.

After freezing my buns off, (the incoming warm front had not arrived yet, and the last of the cold air mass was digging in its heels) I awoke to the sight of beautiful “sea smoke” rising off the river. The fish were silent, so after a quick breakfast I pushed off into the mist, hot cup of coffee in hand, and drifted downstream. The mists rose, the birds took their cue and started singing in earnest, and a few ducks led the way down into Sigulda. My first sight of town was the huge Castle perched on the hillside, commanding a view of the river in case I turned out to be a fleet of 12th century Danes attacking from the blind side. Seeing that I was not a threat, the castle decided to sit there as picturesque as it could possibly be, and the river carried me safely around the corner to where the highway bridge crossed over just upstream from where I had my car parked. As I approached the bridge abutments, three loud voices called to me in Russian from the shore, and a trio of drunk revelers (it was 10 am…) waved a bottle of Vodka at me and signaled for me to come over and have a drink. I smiled and said “Nee, paldies” (“No, thank you,” in Latvian) and heard one of them growl something about Latvians, sounding derogatory. Another said something about “pistoles” and made a bang-bang sound. They laughed rather evilly, and I was glad to be carried under the bridge and away from them. Once I rounded the corner, I saw the boat dock, and pulled in, hauled my canoe on shore, and started derigging. The friendly landowner came over, shook my hand with a big grin, and helped me carry my gear and boat over to the truck. I gave him the last can of beer, thanked him for guarding my truck, and headed back towards Riga. The rain started falling just as I reached the edge of town.



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