Canoeing River Võhandu

It’s 1:30am and I should be sleeping. Well, unfortunately, I’m not. For some strange reason, I had decided that today had to be the first day this year I made two training sessions. The first one was 8am cycling and the other one 8pm running, both an hour long endeavours with easy pace and low heart rate (<140). I believed my overall physical condition be good enough to recover for tomorrow’s canoeing the Võhandu river, but apparently I was wrong. The devil is often in the details and the detail seems to be the fact that this was the first time of cycling for me this year (on 5th of July!) and I did not have time to stretch after either of the today’s session. And now my thighs are hurting and do not let me sleep.

Well, finally I start dozing off. And then suddenly my 9-month old son wakes and starts to cry. I stand up and go to help. His mother is not at home now, she is out with her girlfriends, for the first time since Johan was born. I do my best to quiet him and just as I seem to finally succeed, Kertu gets home and takes over. I take a look at my phone: it’s 2:20am. I close my eyes and fall asleep pretty soon.

The alarm goes off 3 hours and 10 minutes later. Slightly disoriented from the brevity of the sleep, I stand up, go to the bathroom, brush teeth and take a quick shower. I dress, grab the backpack and muffins Kertu made me the day before and start driving to Peeter’s place.

Map of Võhandu Marathon

Map of Võhandu Marathon

This is how it all started. Peeter bought a canoe. Hearing that I suggested we made a weekend trip on some river in Estonia or Latvia. He agreed immidiately. After some research we decided for Võhandu and due to my hectic work schedule we decided to rather have a one long day trip as opposed to two day trip with overnighting in the camp. Võhandu was chosen for several reasons. First of all, there’s a definite start and finish to the trip – the river goes from Lake Tamula in Võru to Lake Peipus with several places to finish the trip just before reaching Peipus. Also, the river is very popular place to canoe, meaning that it’s interesting enough and we can be fairly sure it’s possible to canoe the length. And, last but not least, there’s a Võhandu river Marathon held each April that follows exactly the same route we were to take; i.e. there’s good river maps available at the website of the Võhandu Marathon.

I reach Pets’ place 8 minutes before 6am. He is already ready, we lift the canoe on the top of his car and start driving towards Räpina, the end point of our trip, to leave my car there. Our plan is to canoe from Võru to Räpina, covering 90km of the 100km route of Võhandu Marathon. We reach Räpina, eat there some muffins and tuna-sandwiches Peeter brought and drink coffee. We leave my car there at the side of a building that looks like a recently deserted post office and start driving with Peeter’s car to Võru. At Võru, we lift the canoe off and take it to the lake Tamula, put our stuff on board and Peeter leaves his car to his office (he works in Võru). We start canoeing 8:09am.

Peeter at the start

Peeter at the start

The weather is really nice. Sun has already risen a couple of hours ago, there are only a few clouds, it’s warm and it looks to be a very nice day to have a canoe trip on a river. As we pull ourselves towards the entrance of the Võhandu river, I hope that my butt is going to be tolerant for the long day of sitting in one place. Peeter has brought the seat pillows and I’m also wearing my padded cycling pants.

We soon make it to the entrance of the Võhandu river and after a short while see a sign “10” on the water. Is this the Võhandu Marathon sign telling us that we have already covered the first 10k of our trip (actually 2-3km less for us, because we didn’t make the full loop on Tamula as they do in the marathon)? Cool, that was quick! Some 5-10 minutes later I take a first peek at the map and have to admit that there’s actually still a while to go until we make it to the 10k point of the trip – Kirumpää. It’s not going to be that easy at all…

Võhandu Marathon is held at the end of April, when there is a lot of water from melted snow in the river. The flow is quicker and there are less stones on the way of the sportsmen. The quickest boats – kayaks – finish in around 7 hours, the quickest canoes more than an hour later. The slowest boats come in around 20 hours after the start. In the beginning of July, the river flow is slower and there are more obstacles in the course, therefore I have reckoned that we should be able to cover the ca 88km track in around 12 hours plus need perhaps an hour alltogether for pauses.

We paddle. Rushes on the left and right we paddle 50 meters to the next corner, turn right, more rushes in our left and right, we paddle another 50 meters then turn left, over and over. At Kirumpää I calculate that our average speed has been around 7km for the first hour, therefore pretty much at the range it should be. The only thing that concerns me, however, is that we will probably get a bit tired and our tempo will probably slow down a bit, thus maybe 13 hours is realistic if everything goes fine.

Yes, this is also river

Yes, this is also river

Suddenly, the river seems to end. All we can see is algae. It has been coming down the river and apparently this is a place where all of it has come to. There’s only a field of algae, already dried at the top to be seen, we can only guess that there’s actually water beneath it. How can we cross THAT?! We cannot go to the shore and pull the canoe, there is no shore, there’s only a swamp full of reed. We get to the algae and start pressing over it. We literally push our oars against the algae (it won’t break through to the water) and if we push simoultaneously, the boat slides a bit forward on the top of the algae. We do that. it is pretty good effort we put in, but we make progress. Nothing near the 7kph we were experiencing previously, of course, but at least I can already see the water somewhere in the distance. That’s what they mean by telling that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel I think and keep pushing. Finally we make it to the other end of the algae-field and can continue with normal paddling again. I’m pretty sure that this experience is not in the menu in Võhandu Marathon.

We paddle for less than ten minutes and we are at another algae-field. Now, this is worrisome. Sure, this field looks to be a bit shorter than the previous one, but does this mean that that’s how the trip is going to look like? This would mean we’d be lucky to make 40-50km overall, nothing near the 88 we were aiming for. Once again we push through the field and then it appears that there are no fields to cross any more. Sure, there’s still a lot of algae in the river, slowing us down every once in a while, but nothing near the experience we just had.

As we approach Paidra, 29km from the start, I notice that our tempo has declined considerably. Now we average only a bit more than 6k per hour. Making it to Räpina would be quite difficult with that pace. In Paidra we have our lunch break. Boiled buckwheat mixed with smoked sausage tastes delicious. So do the tuna-muffins Peeter has. There are 4 other canoes with people in Paidra. They tell me that they are waiting for someone and then they’ll start their trip. Where? We will see how far we get, they tell us. Ok.

paidra-reo-page-001We start going. It’s 1pm now and the sun is shining at it’s brightest. Soon we reach Leevi where we know is the first mill dyke of the course, meaning that we have to pull the canoe out of the water and drag it to the other side of the dyke. Reaching Leevi we see a lady sitting at the dyke. She must be waiting for those canoes, I tell Peeter. As we reach her, she asks if we’ve seen any blue canoes on the river. Yes we did, they were waiting in Paidra. The lady seems to be a talkative one. We quickly learn about the following 6 mill dykes between Leevi and Reo and that it is actually possible to paddle through all of them (except for the current one). We also learn that she has been organising canoe trips for more than 10 years, she prefers river Ahja to river Võhandu and that she always wanted to participate in Võhandu Marathon, but her husband does not allow her to. We would probably learn a lot more, but it is really time for us to go since we need to get as close to Räpina as possible. Before Leevi we already made a plan B that we paddle to Leevaku (15km from Räpina), then I will jump off and run 7-8km to the car and drive back to get Peeter and canoe.

From Leevi, the flow of the river fastens and there are a lot of stones in the river. As we switch places and I’m now at the back, Peeter would constantly warn me about one or the other stone on our left or right or just in front of us. This reminds me the last time I canoed Võhandu – it was the night stage of the adventure competition X-Dream and me with my team (Matti and Cardo) managed to hit one stone so badly that the canoe went over and there we were in the middle of the Võhandu river with all of our things, everything, including us, in the water and canoe sinked at the bottom of the river. At 1 am in the morning. We collected the stuff then, and had to drag the canoe to the shore to empty it from water and continue the race. We were shivering in our wet clothes, but happy to continue the race and have an awesome memory from it. We would later learn that alltogether 4 canoes ended up staying at the bottom of the river that night.

Although it is daytime now and much warmer, I very much do not want to repeat that experience so I give my best to steer away from the stones. Soon we get to the first mill dyke, Ojasuu, and get through it without much of a problem. In a little while, there’s the next one and it goes pretty simple, too. Then it takes us quite some time to reach the third mill dyke and there, as we get to go through the rapid, our canoe gets stuck between the stones. Pretty badly. After trying this and the other we realise there’s nothing else to do, but I step out of the canoe on the stones and through my pulling and Peeter pushing from inside we finally manage to get the canoe through. That’s actually great fun to go through the rapids and the final two ones go pass nicely, too. Paddling is a lot of fun! Except for the hurting ass from sitting in one position for so many hours already, that is.

During this stretch we pass three other canoes. They are apparently taking the thing much more relaxed way. We say hello. They reply. When they ask where are we heading and we say Räpina, then one of the guys thinks we are joking. I wish we were!

Dinner

Dinner

As we got to Reo, we decided to have dinner. Some more buckwheat and nut- and raisin mix I had been eating for the whole trip. The last stretch from the final mill dyke, Syvahavva, to Reo was 6km and took us only 45 minutes. We felt elighted; although it was already approaching 6pm, with the same tempo of 8kph we had a chance to actually make it to Leevaku early enough to make it back home before midnight.

After having a relatively long break, some 15-20 minutes we started paddling, swapping places again – Pets goes to the back and I go to the front. There’s 9 km to the next landmark on the Võhandu Marathon, Pindi. With current tempo, it would only be a bit more than an hour.

Not so. The river flow has eased once again and at times it feels that there’s no flow at all. We work hard, but an hours passes and then some more and Pindi bridge does not appear. Only after more than 1,5 hours have passed do we finally get there. Damn, this Reo must have been placed wrong on the map; how is it possible we made it there so quickly and now to the next checkpoint so slowly?! It is almost 8 o’clock and even to Leevaku there’s still 12 km, this means at least 2 more hours to go. And then it would take me perhaps an hour to run to the car and drive back to get Pets and stuff. This would mean getting back home pretty late. Here I look at the map and get an idea: what if I step off the canoe in the next checkpoint, Võiküla, and run from there to Räpina, whereas Peeter keeps on paddling towards Leevaku. That would add to my run some 4-5km and we’d get to the Leevaku at approximately the same time, in effect saving us an hour I’d be otherwise running from Leevaku to Räpina and driving back.

I present the idea to Pets and he agrees immidiately. So off we go. The paddling is once again very boring, the river has gotten wide and once again, all you can see in either shore, is bulrushes. We paddle and according to the map, there’s a place called Ruusa to our left.

Now, when setting up the trip and choosing the start and finish point, I felt that this trip would be of a lot of sentimental value to me. The finishing point, Räpina, is the town where I lived between ages of 1 to 6 and the first pictures in my memory I have are from that place. The start point, Võru, on the other hand is where my mother’s family is from and where I spent each year a couple of weeks with my grandparents. In fact, mother’s brother and sister still live there. Now, the place we were just about to pass, Ruusa, on the other hand is the place I lived in when I was born, before moving to Räpina. Or so they claim, because I would not remember any of it. And the only pictures from that part of my life are only mainly embarrassing close-ups of naked or half-naked me without any noticeable background.

T1: transition from Canoe to Run

T1: transition from Canoe to Run

Soon after that sentimental moment we get to Võuküla. I step out of the canoe, my butt says thanks. I remember to take my car keys and start running towards Räpina, my childhood home. Peeter also takes off, on river. I run, it is past 9 pm, the sun is slowly starting to set. I run along the gravel road, with field on my one side and the river Pets is still paddling on, on the other. It’s really nice to run, my legs feel fresh, perhaps there is a little bit of overall tiredness, but nothing to make the running less joyful. I pass a pea-field where two girls are eating the peas. I love peas,too, but continue to run nevertheless. As I approach an intersection I see a sign that says “Räpina 18 ->”. What the heck? I’ve run several kilometers already and I still have 18 to go?! Running a half-marathon was clearly not in my mind. As I get closer to the sign I see that it actually says that Räpina is still only 10km away. Good!

I get to Leevaku, cross the bridge,then turn to Tartu-Räpina road and continue running. I keep the pace pretty low, a bit lower than I usually run at training. I’m not wearing a belt thus I do not know my heartrate, but today I’d like to err on the side of too low as opposed to too high. Running does get harder though. Finally, as I see the Räpina sign, I feel relief. I run through the town, looking around, not recognizing the places from my childhood. I get an idea. I call Peeter, where are you? He replies that he is not in Leevaku yet, but will be there in 15 minutes. Fair enough. I get to the car, get a large sip of water, eat two muffins, then take out my iPhone and track the address “Sireli 12, Räpina” on Google Maps. It’s 4 minutes of drive to the opposite direction of Leevaku, but it’s okay.

Home. A while ago.

Home. A while ago.

Back then, the street was called “Mitsurini”. I remember that we lived in a 3-storey building, 12 Mitsurini street and I also know that after Estonia regained the independance, the street was renamed to Sireli. I get there and recognize the house immidiately. I step out of the car, take a picture and go behind the building. I recognize the whole area, even though the last time I saw them was 27 years ago. It still looks the same. Amazing. As I get back to the car and start driving, it is Pets who’s calling me to let me know he reached Leevaku.

As I get there Pets has already put all the stuff together, we lift the canoe on the top of my car and spend most of the drive back to Tartu discussing the day. I paddled (with breaks) for 12,5 hours 67 km’s (Personal Best), followed by a 12km run. Peeter paddled 74 km, also a PB. We both agree that the day was fun, but we won’t repeat this kind of trip this year. Võhandu is really best paddled in two days, taking it a bit easier. We both agree that the best part of the river was between Leevi and Reo with all the rapids. And we discuss what river should we do next. Next year, that is.

We get to Peeter’s home, lift off the canoe and his things and I drive back home. The first thing I do is take a shower, then eat some more muffins, brushing teeth and reading quickly through me e-mail. I’m not responding any e-mails though, i’m too tired for that. As I hit the bed and turn off the phone I notice it is 00:13pm. This time I fall asleep quickly.

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