Canoe &Kayak, May 1995

Exploring Berlin

Three routes in one of Europe's most dynamic cities

By James E. Held

"The Spree still flows through Berlin," went the cabaret song during those heady days between Kaiser and Hitler. Through Nazi brown shirts, its destruction and division, the river flowed sluggishly along. Reunited again, Europe's most dynamic city has more canals than Amsterdam and is enclosed by lakes on the East and West. Three day-long boat trips let you both escape and experience this city, racing to make up for lost time.

Route #1 includes a tour of Wannsee and Havelsee Parks, an oasis of nature within the Wall. Both areas still suffer from overuse, so a week-day trip is best. Havelsee has many sand beaches for launching. The park's low embankment by Grosser Wannsee, close to the S-Bahn station and the city's most exclusive addresses, offers you a suitable put-in choice.

The algae bloom reveals something amiss, but the water is still healthy enough to entice swimmers and yield fish running a gauntlet of traps marked by poles. Bulkheads of woven branches protect the marshy shoreline from the wakes of motorboats and barges. Yachts unfurl their sails while rowers and kayakers train earnestly. A narrow channel secludes the mock ruins of Peacock Island. The italianate, Heiland Church, is free of its barbed-wire isolation while the chimes of the Russian-style, St. Nicholas, echo across the water.

Explorer and biologist, Alexander von Humboldt, claimed the world's best view was from the Glienicker Bridge. In the past this was the scene of Cold-War spy exchanges; today it poses only the threat of fishing line entanglement. But with the great views from the bridge of Babelsberg and Glienicke palaces, Alexander could be right.

Left, past the old Turkish water-works is Griebnitz-See waterway. The Wall still stands before the villas of Babelsberg whose studios and film-stars made it Europe's Hollywood. Less glamorous now, the channel curves by the chimneys belching brown-coal smoke. Another left past the Teltow Canal and we enter the quiet but obvious affluence of Stoelpchensee, Pohlsee and Kleiner Wannsee to end this 12 mile paddling loop.

Route #2 Another paddling option is a trip through the "Wild East." This loop will remind you of how prevalent green and blue, woods and water are in Berlin. South, down Bahnhof Street from Koepenick's S-Bahn station is the 23rd of April Park launching. Although the South Bank of Laenger-See has its share of decrepit GDR architecture and motor boats, lovely old villas surround Seddinsee. Thick stands of pine and birch line the banks of the Gosener Canals where only a passing plane disturbs the silence. Quaint cottages stand above the Mueggel-Spree Channel which give a beautiful approach to Berlin's largest lake. Its sandy beaches and the S-bahn line make for good put-in and take-out sites. Buoys lead to the far shore where the channel narrows before the Berlin brewery. War canoes and kayakers enjoy a paddle in front of the palace and bridges of Koepenick harbor for a full day of 15 miles.

Route #3 My favorite route is along the Spree River urban paddling at its best. Beyond Koepenick, the Spree becomes a mighty river in stature if not size. Tugs roar by. Polish barges past huge, silent GDR factories frozen in ice-age obsolescence. The Wall is gone, replaced with a gravel strip and a few gypsy-wagon squatters filling the void. At the red-brick, Oberbaum bridge, a tree blocked access to the medieval city--the TV tower at Alexander Platz, restored Nikolai Viertel and the dome of the Oranienburger Synagogue are blocked to paddlers.

Upriver and right, a lock marks the Landwehr Canal entrance. Built in 1850 to by-pass the congested river, it gives welcome greenery to crowded Kreuzberg. Punks and dropouts mix with the neighborhood Turkish immigrants like oil on canal water, but the squatters and anarchists have since moved East. Mothers and lovers stroll along the banks under lovely art-nouveau facades. Picnickers enjoy the sunshine. Only the political graffiti under the bridges keeps rebellious Kreuzberg from becoming too beautifully bourgeois. The low bank by the Am Urban Hospital, not far from the Prinzen U-Bahn stations, is another launch site.

Beyond the Mehringdamm bridge, the green borders narrow to scraggly trees. The pace quickens, traffic roars by, and the yellow U-Bahn train streams overhead like a Fritz Lang movie. At the colorful Liechtenstein bridge, the quiet returns, and the lovely Tiergarten begins. Starving residents grew vegetables in flower beds and cut every tree for fuel after the war. Lush again, the park lies blocks away from the "Ku'damm," Berlin's 5th Avenue, and the seedy Zoo station in this city of contradictions. Its S- and U-Bahn stations make the bridge above the lower lock an option for the beginning or end of this ten mile trip.

Copyright 1995, Canoe America Associates