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Kayaking Estonia’s Mother River on an Inflatable Boat

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Mother River Main 3_DCE

It’s raining pretty hard now and the kayak is filling with water and my improvised bilge pump – a plastic bag – has a hole in it. I’m very slowly sinking, and for the past three hours the only solid land I’ve seen is the 4 foot vertical wall of peat along the river which occasionally takes the place of the wall of reeds.

I’m sitting in a bright green inflatable kayak somewhere along the Emajõgi in Estonia. Emajõgi literally translates as “Mother River”, and the great Mother meanders slowly eastwards through the southern half of the country. Flowing from Lake Võrtsjärv to Lake Peipus, the Emajõgi passes through Tartu, the 1600 year-old cultural and intellectual capital of Estonia.

I’m here as part of an experiment. A year ago, Wade Shepard, editor of Vagabond Journey, mentioned that the combination of an inflatable kayak and a folding bicycle may be the ultimate vagabond setup. I have decided to see what an inflatable was capable of by paddling the 62 mile (100km) length of the Emajõgi. Plenty of people have made long journeys with folding bicycles, but inflatable kayaks are still primarily used for short afternoon pleasure paddles rather than for multi-day expeditions.

The Emajõgi is a slow, flat river – perfect for testing out a method of water transit that is only a few steps above a pool toy. The area is absolutely stunning if you enjoy broad, flat swaths of land, and if you’re not viewing it from the eye-level of a bedside table. I’ve been staring at reeds and peat for hours, with little else coming into view, and the low seating of a kayak means that little else can come into view. At the moment, with my pelvis completely submerged in cold water and no clue how far I’ve traveled or when I’ll find a dry spot to get out, it’s not exactly picturesque. I guess that’s what I get for ignoring local advice: “You’re going to kayak the length of the Emajõgi? That’s stupid. You’ll be staring at walls of dirt or walls of reeds the entire time. Also, it’s extremely slow. It’s monotonous.”

Thinking myself at least semi-knowledgeable about other people’s worldviews, I see the discouraging remarks as reflections of the moderate pessimism that can be found in many cultures too far from the equator. Try to maintain a happy-bubbly outlook on life after living in a place famous for long, dark winters. Some individuals will keep the pep in their step, surely. But as a culture? Good luck. There’s a reason that the best vodka and the highest suicide rates are found in the coldest countries — Estonia, unsurprisingly, has very good vodka. Being from America, though, the land of peach trees and backyard grill parties, I’m an optimist. I expect to see much more than peat and reeds. In spite of local advice, I’m making this journey.

Hours of staring at this.

Still, if the rain doesn’t slow down and I don’t find a nice piece of solid land soon, I’m going to be paddling the rest of the day in an inflatable kayak that’s cruising just beneath the waterline. Attempts at bailing have been ineffective as the plastic bag’s hole is expanding with every use. [Travel Tip #5738: Always carry a plastic bag. Preferably without holes.]

The reeds along the river would be fine for a temporary landing, had they formed some sort of above-water root system. To the extent that I can see between the reeds, they seem to plunge at least thigh-length into the bog. That’s of no use to me; nowhere to stand. There is no low riverbank in sight. The peat walls are no good either. Inflatable kayaks are a bit soft and squishy, and I can’t reach the top of the wall from a sitting position. Kneeling or standing causes the kayak to trampoline downwards in accordance with Newton’s third law. Therefore, raising myself for a go at the top of the wall will result in my head suddenly returning to its prior altitude, while my torso and now bent-double kayak will be mysteriously submerged. Furthermore, in accordance with Newton’s fourth law, if two objects traveling at the same speed fall in same river simultaneously, the object that is being pursued will accelerate more quickly than the object which is giving pursuit. Hence, my backpack, food and camping gear will float away more rapidly than I can swim, returning them to their rightful place in the cosmos. By my estimate this will be someplace within our solar system – most likely at the bottom of Lake Peipus along the Russian border.

Mother River 2_DCE

Eventually the rain lets up, and a few small sand beaches start to appear along the slow turns of the river. I take the opportunity at one of the landings to get out of the kayak and dump excess water, as well as to eat a quick sausage and cheese sandwich. The surface flow of the river is slow, truly slow – approximately a half a mile per hour (1 km/hr). With next to no current and 180 degree switchbacks that make wind interference negligible, I should be able to gauge an accurate measure of the kayak’s true speed. It’s also a drawback, as the Emajõgi is so slow that I am unsure how far I’ve gone, which is somewhat disconcerting.

As far as food and water are concerned, I have enough for four days, more than enough considering that Tartu should appear about halfway through the journey. Still, I am simultaneously over and under-packed to a nearly comic extent. I have a too-small tent that is questionably waterproof, a sleeping bag for a much shorter person and an ancient sleeping mat that rolls up no smaller than the width of my torso. Yet, I have no map and no compass. Failing to bring the latter two objects was a bonehead move, but this trip purposefully has room for bonehead moves. A planned experiment like this is essential considering my lack of kayaking experience and unsure opinion about the seaworthiness of my vessel. Having lived in Tartu before, in the event of any major issues I can abandon my gear and walk/swim/crawl towards a road, make a phone call and have a friend come to my aid within an hour or two.

After seven or eight hours on the water, paddling at a sustainable lazy yet moderate pace, I call it a day. One of the sandy beaches leads to a small clearing, where previous campers have followed the wonderful Northern European habit of leaving behind extra firewood. I throw together the tent in a hurry, and make a small fire, conserving half of the wood for future visitors. When I got in my sleeping bag, I realize I have set up the tent directly over a beehive. This leads me to some very careful sleeping positions to ensure that no parts of my body touch the floor directly. I am finally thankful to have such a big sleeping mat. [Travel Tip #4209: Always inspect the ground before setting up your tent.]

Mother River Main 2_DCE

In the morning, I pack up – removing the tent in one quick motion, fully prepared to dive into the chilly river if the bees attack. They ignore me. After about six hours on the river, I finally meet a boatman who knows the distance from Tartu. Conversing in Modern Standard European (in this case, a mix of Estonian, German and English), he tells me that Tartu is only 7 kilometers – less than an hour and a half of relaxed paddling. It’s quite a relief to me, with no way of knowing my location, I had expected the very real possibility of paddling well through the night.

The inflatable kayak experiment is a success so far, even though I have not yet reached the end of the river. Inflatables have shown to be a useful, albeit slow form of transportation that are a good tool in the vagabonding arsenal. Although its moderate cruising speed is only about 3 miles an hour (5 kph), having an inflatable enables you access to places from an atypical angle that most travelers will never see. The fact that you can deflate the kayak and take it on buses, trains or on the back of a bicycle means that you can easily combine it with other forms of transport. They are very good for seeing rural areas and for traveling very slowly and cheaply – as long as you travel one long, continuous route. If you ever have to do a significant amount of walking and don’t have some sort of cart to help you pull it, you will quickly become frustrated at the weight – these things certainly do not fit in a backpack. Inflatable kayaks have their limits, but for a certain kind of traveler they can be amazing.

Inflatable kayak in bag next to my 45L backpack

Inflatable kayak in bag next to my 45L backpack

I finally arrive in Tartu in the evening. Having covered about 40 miles (60 km) of the river so far, I decide to cancel the rest of the Emajõgi journey. I have close friends in Tartu, and I’m not sure when I’ll be in Estonia again: I want to see them while I can. The experiment has already gone on long enough to prove its viability – inflatable kayaks are legitimately useful. There is no need to kayak the rest of the river to prove a point. Most importantly to my decision-making process, when I tell a friend about finishing the trip, I am told, “You’re going to kayak the rest of the Emajõgi? That’s stupid. You’ll be staring at walls of dirt or walls of reeds the entire time.”

This time, I listen.

Filed under: Boat Travel, Estonia

About the Author:

Tristan Hicks is a compulsive traveler who believes that travel and “real life” can be one and the same. He has combined working and studying with his long-term travels, living in the US, Turkey, Hong Kong, South Africa, South Korea, Estonia and Poland. Tristan recently finished a season teaching at-risk youth in his native Appalachian mountains. He is currently on the road. has written 15 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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