“You are going rafting tomorrow,” Julia casually mentioned as we were driving between two of the great line-up of visits that she had put together for me. Hmmm … I hadn’t quite anticipated that one. “Tell me more …,” said I. “There won’t be any rubber boats on this trip … do you mind getting wet?” was the reply. “Will you be coming with me?,” I ask. “No … I’ll pick you up at the end of the ride.” Uhhh-Huhhhh.
It turns out that rafting goes way back in this area as a historic means for moving trees and other goods down river to markets as far away as Holland. Trees were cut down and given a rough trim before being lashed together into rafts. In the old days, they just dumped the logs into the river we would be rafting on and let them float to a place where the river became broader and built the rafts there. Now-days, rafting is a special cultural occasion that celebrates and passes along knowledge and skills that are no longer needed in the times of trucks, trains, and river barges.
Flößergemeinschaft Wallenfels e.V. is a club of sorts centered in the village of Wallenfels. It’s fifty or so members range in age from 11 to 90 (I’m guessing — suffice it to say that once a member I think you generally become a member for life) and it is common that they descend from the men who rafted these rivers for generations.
Young guys begin apprenticing as early as ten or eleven years of age and can achieve journeyman status beginning at age fifteen. Becoming acknowledged as a master can take decades more. You have to learn not only how to pilot and control the raft, but also the craft of building them starting with selecting and cutting the trees they are made from. The raft I was assigned to was piloted by a really young looking boy who was being coached and supervised by an experienced rafter. Not wanting to distract the boy, I asked the mentor how old the young guy was and he replied, “Zehn (10) jahren.” He was quickly corrected by the boy … “Elf! (11!)”
The raft itself is pretty impressive. It consists of eight fir trees, maybe 60 to 70 feet in length, nailed together with cross members. A long rail is attached running up the center to provide riders with something to sit on and hang onto. The raft navigates a swift, narrow stream (the Wilden Rodach) that has many locks and bridges. Locks are opened to release whole ponds into the flow of the stream and the speed and flow of the water increases. The rafts are loaded at the furthest pond upstream with maybe 20 people per. There looked to be about 20 rafts getting ready to make the trip. A small section of the wooden dam that creates the pond is removed and the rafts begin proceeding through a slot that is barely wide enough to let them through. The drop at each lock is far enough that the raft (and people — up to chest level) becomes submerged in the icy river before floating back above. The screams and squeals of the riders are loud. The pilot/driver and his mentor stay on their feet throughout and guide the progress with a long, stout pole with a nasty looking hook on one end. Our young pilot reads the flow and positions the raft for each turn in the stream and upcoming bridges and locks. Everyone has to duck at some of this bridges to avoid losing their head. I got wet as Julia promised.
The ride ended about 45 minutes later at a spot where the river widens. There is a changing house above a beautiful old gastehof that starts filling up with people having lunch or a snack. The pilots/drivers retire to a small shack on the front of a cave that is nearby. Julia has arranged that we go with the drivers into their lair where beer and brotzeit is being freely dealt out (free beer was a part of the compensation in the old days as it still is today). There is a crackling fire in the shack and the brotzeit is arrayed on a long table in the cave. This communal activity is an important part of the tradition.
We are hosted by the rafting master, Andreas Buckreus, a friendly and engaging man who is generous with the beer, food, and talk about rafting. He showed us a picture from the days that rafting supported commerce and pointed out his grandfather. In the old days, once the logs reached the larger Main River, huge rafts were assembled … sometimes several football fields wide and long. Shacks were built on the raft for sleeping and living shelters. Among other things, the rafts carried the daily allotment of five liters of beer that were provided to each pilot.
Andreas has a gold earring in his left ear as do most of the other Flößergemeinschaft crew — he said that is traditional from the old days when they wanted to project a tough image down river and give strangers a way to identify them as people not to be messed with. He talked about how it is getting tougher to get the permits needed to keep up the tradition — the flow of the river is of concern to other people with fishing rights, and the group is currently limited to about fifteen trips per year. People are coming and going to pay their respects throughout the conversation and Andreas occasionally steps away to perform one duty or another. A part of the crew is still hard at work removing rafts from the river to be transported back upstream.
Julia and I need to leave, but the free beer and good cheer are still flowing alongside the river as we depart.
Many thanks to Julia Rubsch and Frankenwald Tourismus Service Center for hosting me on a great visit to their beautiful area.
Huge rafts once plied the rivers