A Canoe Club in Germany

by Kathleen Peters

Sycamore Islander, October 2000

The Canu Club paddling in the Alps.
We recently left Germany after 4 years of living a 10-minute walk away from the Rhine river in Bonn. There are numerous canoe clubs in the area -- some have clubhouses, while others are just loose associations of canoeists who meet up to paddle together. Despite its awesome beauty, the Rhine itself is not particularly popular among canoeists. My German friend says that this is because canoeing the Rhine -- the most traveled waterway in Europe -- is something like driving the autobahn. Thus canoeists tend to prefer the many quieter tributaries that feed into the Rhine or other waters in the region.

The club in Mehlem, my former village, is considered fairly small, with a membership of about 100. It was founded in 1928 and has a clubhouse directly on the Rhine abutting a nature preserve. Originally the club had only a garage to shelter its boats, but seven years ago the members got together and built a clubhouse by themselves. It consists of a large room for the boats, a clubroom, and two changing rooms with toilets. Each member has a key. A work schedule -- to clean the inside of the clubhouse and maintain the garden -- is posted inside.

In this club (Kanuclub Mehlem) members have individual logbooks in which they keep track of the number of kilometers paddled. A separate book is maintained by the club; kilometers logged by members must be recorded in this book as well (for insurance purposes). The book stays in the clubhouse.

All members have maps called "flussfuhrer" (water guides) of the local region. These guides mark out the kilometers and rate the relative difficulty/danger of the routes they depict. Similar guides may be purchased in the form of books for the whole of Europe.

On a quiet trip near Berlin.
I found it astonishing how far members are willing to travel to canoe. Many have paddled all over Europe. In winter, club members might go to Austria and Slovenia; in summer, to Italy or Corsica. Small groups of diehards (4-6 paddlers) have journeyed as far as Alaska and South America to canoe. Over the course of the past twenty years, one husband-and-wife team has actually managed to paddle over 40,000 kilometers -- enough to circle the entire globe.

Not all members are this active, of course. Also, as with Sycamore Island, some members use the club facilities much more than others. For some, the clubhouse is a kind of home away from home. They might spend 2-3 nights a week in the clubhouse. Every Friday the club has a "stammtisch," meaning whoever wants to show up for drinks or a card game from a certain time on does. In winter, members might meet to ice skate or bowl.

The club publishes its own newsletter that tells members about upcoming trips and club matters. The relative difficulty of each trip is assessed in the newsletter (rated from 0-5). When the club travels to foreign countries or far away in Germany, the more rustic members tend to camp out, while the less hardy rent hotel rooms.

Once a year the club offers a range of one week "how-to" courses, including lessons for absolute beginners. Special courses and activities are available for younger children, while other courses, activities, and trips are scheduled for teenagers-only. Although the trips for teenagers are supervised by adults, the teenagers themselves are required to plan all aspects of it, including what food is needed, who does what work, what equipment is required, etc.

I found Germans open to giving lots of independence to teenagers. For example, the 16-year old daughter of my friends would be allowed to host an unsupervised party in the clubhouse. Because the club officers know her and think she is responsible, it would be approved as a matter of trust (not all teens could do this). If it didn't turn out well, she would simply not be given permission to host a party again.

As with Sycamore, problems that come up are hashed out by the club, or, more frequently, by its officers. One problem was what to do about the cartons of bottled drinks that were left in the clubhouse for members to take and pay for on an honors system, a few too many of which ended up unaccounted for. The end result was that the honors system and club till remained intact, but now just enough stock is left out as needed. Another issue is that some members (contrary to national stereotype) are less-than-diligent about cleaning the clubhouse (a duty rotated among members). For this reason, the members are toying with the idea of chipping in to hire a maid. The concerns about potential liability, etc., that are so worrisome to Sycamore Island do not seem to be much of a concern here.

Dues run approximately $150 per year per family. My friend was astonished to hear about the long waiting list to enter the Sycamore Island Club. The Kanuclub Mehlem has no such list and and gladly welcomes new members.

Kathleen Peters was very active in Sycamore Island affairs, last serving as Membership Chair. She and her husand, Johann Aeschlimann, and two sons, are now living in Brussels. We look forward to seeing them active again at the club one day.