Down The Dunajec:
The Oldest Kayak Rally In Europe

Text and photographs by Robert Huszar

I half expected to hear a calliope as we walked down the midway. There were tents to the horizon, filling the local churchyard and spilling over into neighboring fields. The earth was fragrant with honeysuckle, alfalfa and fresh river mud; the air was rich with the scent of grilling meats. Barkers hawked T-shirts and pennants and toys for the kids. Vendors sold everything from food to hair-care products. Kayaks and canoes were scattered everywhere.

Lisa and Denise were hungry and we stopped for a kielbasa. They cost 2 zloty apiece, about 86 cents American, and were served on a paper plate with a slab of rye bread on the side. We munched as we walked. It was hard to believe that a kayaking event could generate such festive enthusiasm. Back in the States, kayaking is still relatively low key -- really only gaining mass appeal in the last ten years -- whereas in Europe it's been popular for almost a century. Today's event, Poland's 54th Annual International Rally on the Dunajec River, is actually 75 years old, but was interrupted multiple times by two world wars and countless years of foreign occupation.

The rally -- basically a 3-day party over 57 miles of river -- is organized in three tiers: with competitors, paddlers, and tourists coming from all over Europe.

In the competitions, rivals match speed and slalom runs and are categorized by age (above and below 35), by sex, boat type (single kayak, double kayak and canoe), and "mixed," meaning any combination of anything. The byword for this competition is "very friendly," and mixing allows grandparents to paddle with grandchildren, or their Olympic-trained son-in-laws, in big heavy canoes or light and agile river boats.

In the paddler class, there are no categories. The river's described as Class 2-3, but if anything it's more a good-time float trip, with its one danger being capsized while gawking at the Dracula-like landscape of craggy castles and Carpathian Mountain gorges. The drops are all non-technical, with the few obstacles (such as a low-head dam) being either runnable or easily portaged. Most people were paddling old, multiply-patched fiberglass boats that looked as old as the river itself; many of the paddlers were not even using whitewater boats, but 40- to 50-year-old canvas and rubber folding sea kayaks. What a treat that was for me! My first boat was a Rugged Klepper Folding Kayak -- and here I was, seeing great-grandfathers’ Kleppers, along with boats by Pouch, Granta, Neptune and Jantar.

In the tourist class, you ride on large wooden rafts through the Dunajec Gorge, sitting on wide church-like benches, piloted by two ethnically garbed oarsmen.

(Paddlers begin to cue up for the start
of the rally in the village of Nowry Targ.)

We five Americans were not competing, but paddling as representatives of the U.S. boating community and as journalists. Jib Ellison is the head of Project Raft, which had organized many multi-national, cooperative paddling ventures in Russia, Costa Rica and Chile. Eugene Buchanan is the editor-in-chief and head writer for Paddler magazine; his wife Denise is a photographer for the same publication. Lisa Alpine is a nationally known travel writer, a creative director for Specialty Traveler Index and a whitewater guide in northern California. And I was there as a journalist and as the founder of the Hudson River Waterway Association, a group building a 150-mile-long paddling trail in New York State.

Yurek Majcherczyk, a kayaker who was internationally known for many first descents in South America, had organized the trip because he wanted the boating community in the U.S. to know what a wealth his native Poland offered in paddling opportunities. "There are 9,000 lakes and over 1,000 rivers in this country. Poland has more lakes then any country in Europe, except Finland," Yurek pointed out, "and many are interconnected and just perfect for week-long sea kayak/canoe tours, or Class 2 to 5 whitewater adventures. But, thanks to years of Communist occupation, no one thinks of Poland as a vacation spot, even though we have some of the most spectacular waterways in the world and some of the cheapest prices in all of Europe."

(Eugene Buchanan and wife Denise with
the Three Crowns of the Dunajec Gorge
in the background.)

As we were about to launch, Yurik explained the daily log-in procedure, which consisted of paddling past the judge and yelling piec . . . osiem . . . dwa, which in my case meant paddler "582." I picked up my faded white fiberglass kayak, tossed it on my shoulder, hauled it up and over the small bank and proudly paddled across to the eddy on the other side.

Halfway across I realized my phrase had escaped me. I tried to reconstruct it with the primer Yurek gave us on the plane ride over, but the extra "Zs" and "Ws" of the Polish tongue were spinning frantically in my head. My God, I thought, my first occasion as a diplomat and I've already forgotten my lines. I mouthed some incomprehensible syllables and broke out laughing, the judge looking equally befuddled. I flashed the biggest rogue grin I could muster and hand-signaled the individual numbers. The judge smiled and nodded, looking relieved, and waved me on.

What we didn't know at the time was that 950 people had reserved for the rally (the rally topped out at 2400 in 1984), but because of a forecast of unstable weather patterns only 700 actually participated. What was also unknown to us was that in the mountains of Southern Poland, unstable meant daily thunder showers, torrential but lasting only 10 to 30 minutes.

So, not knowing the pattern, when that first storm hit we quickly found a place to pull over. As we were donning our rain gear, a group of flimsy, bathtub-like rafts filled with drunken men wearing only swim trunks, waving vodka bottles and singing Polish drinking songs, floated by in the deluge. At first I though we looked silly in our multi-colored nylon outfits and our sunglasses dangling by chords from our necks, till I noticed that these men also had their safety cords dangling from their neck -- except that their safety cords each held a shot glass, for vodka toasting. "Nastrovia," one of the men laughed, toasting as they passed. And the joke was on us, for not more then ten minutes later the sun was so bright that we were sweltering and had to pull over again to remove our extra layers.

By the end of the day, as so often happens with groups, we all began paddling at our own individual speeds, and consequently separated. Lisa and I were paddling together -- leisurely riding the swift current through a short section of marshy wetlands -- when we rounded a bend in the river and everything changed. The rolling, grassy hills that had been our companions most of the day had suddenly grown bigger, with great seams of granite outcropping pushing their gray faces through the green facades. We had entered the foothills of the Pipeny Mountains, part of the huge Carpathian range.

(Castle Czorstyn was built in the 1400s
as a border outpost and was
the take-out spot for Day 1.)

Poland's dramatic southern area is delineated by two major ranges: the Sudeten and the Carpathian Mountains. The Sudeten mountains form part of the border with the Czech Republic, while the Carpathians actually cut right through south-central Europe in a 900-square-mile crescent shape that encompasses areas such as the Transylvanian Alps; the Iron Gate (which is the gorge cut by the Danube River on its way to the Black Sea); the Pass of the Tartars in the western Ukraine; and the Hungarian lowlands. The Carpathian elevation averages between 3,000 and 5,000 feet, with a few peaks topping out at 8,000. But by far its most unusual features are the small salt lakes that adorn some summits and are locally referred to as "Eyes of the Sea."

"Be on the lookout for the Castle of Nidzica," Yurek had told us. "That's our take-out. But be careful -- there are two castles. Don't go to the wrong one."

Don't go to the wrong castle? I laughed to myself. That's never been a problem in Pennsylvania.

At the take-out, we noted another difference in Polish kayaking: a traveling kitchen was ladling out huge portions of soups, stews, and cabbage dishes to hungry paddlers. Sure beat my usual afternoon PowerBar, I thought as I wolfed down a plate of bigos, a popular dish of cabbage and meat, while staring at the castle looming surrealistically on the horizon.

(Click Here for Part 2)