Poland's Greatest Poet Canoes down the Rhine

Winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, Czeslaw Milosz has been among my favorite poets for some time. In this excerpt from his memoir “Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition” (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968) he recounts a canoe journey he took with two friends, Robespierre and Elephant, and while they paddle through populated regions of central Europe (not quite as isolated as Labrador) Milosz captures the wonder, and the transformative magic of canoe travel.

Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz

During June 1931, after our spring exams in law, we were setting off for regions beyond our own and we had to take advantage of an equally dishonest means of locomotion: the train. Our plan was to take the train from Wilno to Prague, buy a used Canadian canoe there (because sporting goods were half as expensive in Czechoslovakia as in Poland), transport the canoe to Lindau in Bavaria on Lake Constance, and from there paddle down the Rhine and its tributaries as near as we could get to Paris. Our love for maps was responsible for this plan. Though surely Vasco da Gama, starting out on his journey to India, knew more about the seas through which he was to sail than we did about our route.

At the station we picked up our Canadian canoe, carried it to the lake, and here were seized by alarm, but we put on a good face in front of each other. A group of people on the pier were staring at the madmen; no doubt they were making bets: will they get off or not? Wind, rain, waves battering against the cement. We paddled desperately for a quarter of an hour, rising and falling like a cork, almost in the same spot. Finally the port began to grow distant. Elephant, who was sitting in the middle, was chattering from the cold and from the torrents of rain pouring down his collar. Such was our start. Not too charming. But we were not interested in passive pleasures. On the map we had divided our route into segments, and each segment had a date. By evening of that day we were supposed to be in Constance, on the other side of the lake.

For me the narrow streets of the little shoreline towns, the asphalt, the quiet, the cleanliness, the waiter’s green apron in the tavern, the children in raincoats, the checkered shopping bag of a Frau passing by were all enveloped in a dream majesty. I actually believed that those who participated in this order and wealth should be spiritually superior to the rest of mankind, which was slightly soiled, impulsive, and easier to understand; they should know a higher kind of love and carry on conversations of a loftier nature. A pile of horse manure in the street provoked the mental exclamation: so even here! It was not easy to bring myself to accept the fact that here, at the foot of the Alps (how romantic!),a wave obeyed the same laws as waves everywhere, and that the oarsman’s effort to steer the prow of his boat into it brought the same results.

The Swiss Rhine

The Swiss Rhine

The ensuing days of our trip took us from ecstasy to ecstasy. The lake as it narrowed changed in to a taut sheet, almost bulging from the pressure of a current that was already the Rhine. With every thrust of the paddle our canoe fairly leaped into the air. And our physical joy was undiminished by the almost constant downpour. Further on, the Rhine carried us so fast that all we had to do was steer. Warnings of rocks or tree stumps passed incessantly from prow to stern. Yet our joy was not only physical. Every bend in the river concealed a secret which, when disclosed, took away our breath. If anywhere, it was here we could have said that we had penetrated into an enchanted land. From the steep slopes branches hung out over the green water, making grottoes which were surely apartments for nymphs. In those branches Delaware warriors from the novels of Fenimore Cooper could have been crouching. Higher up the slopes vineyards rolled by, and castles. Our glances were all the more avid because we glimpsed all that luxuriance only from the corner of our eyes, as we wiped the sweat from our faces. Sometimes, when the river’s treacherousness demanded less of our attention, we rested the paddles on our knees, knowing that what was passing before our eyes would not be given us again –ever.

We flew on under wooden covered bridges that seemed like tunnels on posts. A world like the old-fashioned engravings I had loved to look at as a child. Our passion for discovery drove us onward, and we would put off choosing a town to spend the night in if the current favored us. Once it favored us to such an extent that we found ourselves plunging ahead with the speed of an express train. Some vague misgiving whispered in us that we had better start thinking about what this meant. The waterfall at Schaffenhausen had for a long time been considered a wonder of nature. Our reflex came just in time, for we stopped within six hundred feet of the abyss that sucked down a white column of foaming water. In Schaffenhausen there was no cheap hostel, so we spent the night beneath the patchwork quilts of the local Salvation Army. The next morning we transported our canoe around the European Niagara in a rented auto.

The Waterfall at Schaffenhausen

The Waterfall at Schaffenhausen

Disaster struck further on. Near the Swiss town of Koblenz the Rhine has a few miles of rapids, and one needs to be familiar with the current. But even that helps very little, and accidents are frequent. A special police patrol on the German side of the river had the job of fishing out hose who capsized. But all that we found out too late. Robespierre was in charge of the map and he guided us along the Rhine, but since he treated obstacles lightly, he looked into it rarely. We had not even tied down our knapsacks. In this seething and frothing water it did not do much good to strain our attention, because our paddle strokes remained behind the river’s rush. We struck, without knowing it, an underwater rack which tore open a hole the size of a fist on the bottom of our canoe. It may also have been that a patch had simply come loose in our used boat. In any case, I did not understand why the prow of the canoe had lifted so high, was getting higher and higher, and finally, why something cast me out like a frog, head first. Everything changed then. I was spitting water, and movement organized itself into two systems of relationship: the heads of my companions moved further and further apart from each other and the canoe’s green bottom from them, which the riverbanks flashed backward. That moment of emergence into a cosmos other than the one we were in a second before, endowed sensual objects with great clarity. I was a poor swimmer then, and a long with a religious effort of will I felt an astonishment that this self here, in the middle of the Rhine, was identical with that self of time past.

This excerpt was taken from the selection that appeared under the title “Journey to the West” on pages 58-64 of "To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays" (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).  Minor adustments, such as only canoeist would care about, have been made (i.e.: the misbegotten terms “row” and “oar” have been appropriately changed to “paddle”).