Blog post by Nena, Bridget’s comments in [italics]. This post is too long... you might want to look at the photos and skip to the part about the canal swim incident. Also, Stijn has some additional photos here!
On Friday morning we awoke to the hamster wheel at my aunt and uncle's house in Bierbeek (Beertown), Belgium. The day prior we had gone for a long walk through the fields and orchards with Els, Ona, and Ides. Ides decided to bike, but the past weeks’ rain had saturated the trails. The back wheel whipped up mud on his shirt, and he spent the next hour whining about doing the laundry (quite a responsible whine for an 11 year old). We passed orchard after orchard of pears and apples, eating fruit until we were nearly sick. Delicious! Two weeks ago, Russia stopped buying pears from the Belgians due to the Ukraine conflict, so the trees were still lush with ripe pears. The Belgian government is trying to convince the citizens to eat a pear-a-day to help the farmers. Happy to help out!
After a huge pasta-veggie dinner, Bridget and I sipped wine while we watched my first Design of Coastal Structures lecture online. [Nena’s aunt cut me off after I missed my mouth while trying to drink sparkling water]. Ok, back to Friday.
Els dropped us off at the Leuven train station, with 30 minutes to spare before our train to Ghent. We cleverly decided to catch the earlier train. We soon realized that this was the local train, which takes approximately twice as long, resulting in a 30-minute late arrival in Ghent. We met my Bay Area kayaking friend, Stijn, who was patiently waiting at the station. Stijn and I are both members of the Bay Area Sea Kayakers and met at Berkeley Kayak Polo. He’s from Belgium and still spends a portion of his time working on art installations here. [He gets paid to design tree houses in Italy.]
With Bridget hidden stealthily in the back of the cargo van [stuffing my face with an Italian sandwich I was supposed to save for lunch], Stijn drove us to a launch site south of the city, in Drongen, where the kayak rental company (PONAS) had parked the trailer near the Leie River. Three yellow river-running white water boats (Taifuns) were perched on the top of the otherwise empty trailer. We waterproofed our cell phones (plastic bags with no ziplock), loaded up a plastic drum that served as a dry box, and launched before a massive group of kids on tiny sit-on-tops had a chance to take over the canal. The white-water flair of these kayaks immediately manifested itself as we struggled to maintain a straight course up the channel [major understatement]. While awesomely purple, our paddles weighed at least 100 lbs and the task ahead was daunting.
The next stretch was rural, with pastures, corn, and other crops. Every ten minutes a massive yacht passed by, leaving little room for us to fit our boats. Bridget set the tone for the day by placing herself in the middle of the channel every time a massive tour boat or yacht came around the bend [I swear they were trying to hit me]. After a couple pee breaks (Stijn found a scenic grove of trees and Bridget and I chose a highway underpass), we arrived at a sign pointing to Ghent Centrum. We also asked a canal-side pedestrian for directions, but he pointed repeatedly in both directions, resulting in more confusion than assistance.
First order of business: fries and beers. Stijn directed us to a narrow alleyway where Bridget and I found a little “frietkot” (fry shack) while he stayed to watch the kayaks (you're not really supposed to unload your kayaks in the middle of the city center…). We ordered 3 portions of fries, 3 sauces, and 3 beers, which generated quite the ruckus from the impatient locals behind us. We spent an hour or so snacking on fries, people watching, and napping (on Bridget’s part, of course).
Snapshots from Gent centrum (click to enlarge!):
We continued on a side channel until we arrived at an all-too-common impasse: the lock. The water level on the other side was significantly lower, and signs warned us from getting too close to the overspill. Exhausted, we turned around and paddled towards the agreed-upon take-out, where the kayak dude was supposed to meet us an hour later. Stijn’s friend’s house is on the same channel [and he happened to have the key to it], so Stijn suggested we spend our spare hour having some tea/coffee. Stijn got out of his kayak into the nearest stairwell, and Bridget was up next. She turned to push herself up onto the narrow rock surface when we heard a “PLOP” and “SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT” from Bridget [I’m pretty sure I said F**k]. Her brand new iPhone was sinking to the bottom of the channel. She got that look in her eye, and we knew she was going in. SPLASH – Bridget was in the channel. A long minute later she emerged, dripping cell phone in hand, to a crowd of 25 concerned tourists, who collectively groaned when they saw the wet cell phone. Unsure of whether to laugh at the ridiculous situation or make sympathetic statements, I kept my mouth shut. We dragged the boats up and quickly hid ourselves in Stijn’s friend’s apartment, just across the channel.
Eventually, it was time to bring the boats to the meeting point at the Rabot towers.
Arno and Miyako (who is studying in Ghent) came to meet us, and we went for a drink at a café near the train station. We drank a variety of Dutch drinks, like apple beer, fresh mint tea, coffee, and fruit soda.
Date: Friday, August 29th, 2014
Duration: ~ 5 hrs
Distance: ~ 11 miles (!)