Have you ever enjoyed a river cruise? Or any kind of boating trip on a river? On a riverboat? Tell me I’m wrong, but here in Western Washington the only navigable river as in riverboats and freight ships is the Columbia river. The rest of them are barely useable for even small watercraft. It was a difference that only slowly dawned on me. I come from a country with quite a few navigable rivers.
My hometown, Stuttgart, has a sizeable freight harbor and quite a few passenger ships that travel up and down the river Neckar. The river is approximately 225 miles long, of which 126 miles are navigable. There is only a short navigable stretch of it upstream. But between Stuttgart and Mannheim the river rolls on and on past vineyards, small-towns, castles, and low mountain ranges until it reaches the river Rhine. A total of 27 locks help ships over the long descent of the river Neckar. There are power plants all along the river, too. The downside of creating such a navigable and economically useful river is that over the centuries it has lost all of its natural cause inside the navigable stretch.
There are the river Elbe, the Danube, the Oder, Moselle, and the river Main – just to name the most popular and well-known ones; all of them are navigable. And then, of course, there is the river Rhine. It springs in the Swiss Alps, reaches and travels through Lake Constance, creates its mighty falls between Switzerland and Germany at the small-town of Schaffhausen, and becomes all majestic and navigable from Basel to its North Sea reach in the Netherlands. There are freight barges traveling between Basel and Rotterdam, but also ever so many cruise ships transporting tourists from all over the world. Downstream the trip goes past the Black Forest and the vineyards of France’s Alsace, through those of the Palatinate, into the legendary Rhine gorge with its castles and fortress ruins, the Lorelei rock and turreted islands, past the mighty cathedral of Cologne and Europe’s largest inner harbor, Duisburg, growing wider and wider until it crosses the Dutch border.
This year, Germany has experienced an extreme drought. Only a couple of weeks ago I read about an island that has suddenly popped up in Lake Constance. As the water level was sinking, sediments at the river Rhine mouth simply accumulated instead of being washed away. Further down the river, near Mainz, car ferries were hardly able to navigate with barely a few inches under their bottom. Cruise ships had to stay anchored, and buses transferred the tourists to the sights they’d otherwise have seen from aboard a riverboat. Sandbanks have emerged where usually ships pass over. Beaches have turned even wider and created quite a Mediterranean ambience to bathing vacationers all summer long until late in September. Yes, there are swimming areas all along the river Rhine, too.
What strikes me as most different between American rivers and their German counterparts? German rivers are used touristy more often and more diversely so. That includes boardwalks along the riversides with restaurant terraces on the water and plazas with benches for flaneurs. There are river walks and local boat lenders galore. There are firework events on the rivers and boating parades. There are historical boat competitions and historical boat tours. Some of the boat services can even be used like a cab – those on the river Neckar bring you from town to town.
Here in Western Washington, rivers still enjoy their natural beauty in most places. It keeps them unrulier for sure, but it also keeps Nature around intact. Except for the Ballard locks and those in the Columbia river, I wouldn’t know of further such installations. None that would have the purpose to make a waterway navigable, that is. Not that it makes me homesick. But every once in a while, a little river restaurant terrace … ah, I leave it to your imagination.