Packrafting Isar, from source to Bad Tölz

After our white water course we would like to make a multi-day tour by ourselves. We think we’ve learned a lot and would like to test that in practice. We search through our DKV Kanuführer, the book White Water North Alps and at kajaktour.de and find two rivers to choose from: the Isar and the Salza. We consider all options and stare at the water flows a lot and finally decide to go for the Isar.

We find an example tour on the internet. The part Scharnitz to Wolfsrathausen has been done in packrafts in June 2009 and took them three days. Helmets and wetsuits could be rented at outdoor company Nature Lounge. Unfortunately no water flows are mentioned in the example. We drive to Scharnitz and search for the company Nature Lounge. Without protection against the cold water we’re not going to enter any river in the Alps. Tomorrow it will rain, but a window of four days good weather will arrive after tomorrow. If we can rent the wetsuits tomorrow, we can raft for four days in good weather. Perfect fit.

Nature Lounge does exist, however, only as a lama rental company. This is confirmed by the local tourist information office. The lady at the tourist information tells us that there are no kayak companies in the area. The first shop that sells anything that has something to do with water sports is located in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. A little disappointed we return to the camp-site. We’re reluctant to drive to Garmisch-Partenkirchen to find out we can’t rent wetsuits there. On the internet we look for alternatives: Kayak school Source2Sea near Innsbruck is advertising with wetsuits rental. We don’t find any opening hours, so we pay them a visit at random.

At the door we find a sign with opening hours. Ofcourse we arrived just after morning closure, but fortunately someone is still there. We receive a phone number to call when we want to return the goods. He also tells us that the opening hours at the door are more or less indicative. We’re happy to start floating tomorrow.

Our plan is to raft down the Obere Isar from the camp-site. After a night at the camp-site we take our backpacks and continue for three more days on the Untere Isar. We’re unable to judge how far we can float in three days because there are no water flows mentioned. We know that the water level is just under the minimum and we keep in mind that it can take longer and we might need to have to walk some stretches. At many places along the river it is possible to leave the water and return to the camp-site by public transport.

Obere Isar

Pete Bandtock: “Every time we do this run, we are simply buzzing to repeat it immediately.”

From the village a jeep track ascends to the put-in. It is forbidden to drive for all traffic. One exception: For kayaks one can call a cab that drives you to the put-in. We go by foot in that direction. The water level is low: According to the measurement station it is 112.7 cm where 115 cm is the minimum for boating. If the water level is too low at the put-in we just move a bit more downstream.

From the put-in to the first narrow valley is really low water. We have to slalom the whole time to avoid hitting rocks and fallen trees and we scratch the ground multiple times. We survive the Isar Cataract intact, but not in the most elegant way.

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Obere Isar.

After the Cataract we enter the first narrow valley and finally the water level is high enough. From now on we paddle with big, big smile. It’s hard work, but very much fun. This continues until we enter Scharnitz.

The first valley consists of a continuous descent over small plateaus. There are no eddies to wait for each other or for a small rest. Then the valley opens and the water becomes more tranquil. Here you can enjoy the view at the Karwendel massif.

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Obere Isar.

The second valley is easier, with more rocks and more eddies. Take a good look where the Gleierschbach flows into the Isar: if you look to your left, you’ll see the beautiful and very small Gleierschbachtal. Near Scharnitz you should pay attention for dredging work where they drag a cable through the river. Pay careful attention on working days! A weir with iron rods was described in our guidebook, which we didn’t find, even at these low water levels.

Untere Isar

From Scharnitz we go downstream. At the border we have to get out of the water and carry our packrafts: A weir has been put up there with big boulders and multiple large, rusty iron rods. Probably not a problem with a kayak, but with our inflatable packrafts we tend to avoid sharp objects. At these low water levels the rods are just centimeters above the water level. If the water level is a bit higher, they cannot be seen.

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Near the border in Mittenwald.

In Mittenwald there are two other parts with too many rocks. After passing them we can quietly paddle through the village.

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Mittenwald.

The next obstacle is in Krün. A little reservoir has been made to generate electricity. At the start of the reservoir a sign has been put up that you should take out at the left side because it is forbidden to paddle on the reservoir. You can walk over the bridge and put in after the weir.

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Reservoir near Krün.

kajaktour.de: Man könnte fast meinen, dass man nicht mitten in Europa sondern irgendwo in Kanada ist.

After Wallgau the river changes character. Until now it was a reasonably fast flowing river filled with rocks and boulders. Now the Isar is splitting multiple times and these creeks flow through gravel banks with fallen trees and driftwood. We follow the biggest creek and have to get out of our boats multiple times because the water level is too low to raft. Later we see the water level at Rißbachdücker is only 16 cm. 23 cm is the minimum for boating and the advice for a nice float is a minimum of 30 cm.

In the Isartal from Krün tot Vorderriß we find a lot of people bivouacing. We meet some people with canoes that pitched their tents near the shore.

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When we wake up the next day the world is covered in a blanket of thick fog. We can hardly see the other side of the Isar. We have our breakfast, pack our bags and leave. Soon we have to get out of our boats near the weir and measurement station in Vorderriß. Meanwhile, the fog has almost disappeared.

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Today we’re not making much progress. We have to get out of our boats a lot because the water level is too low and we have to pass a lot of weirs. The scenery is beautiful, but getting out and putting in takes a lot of time. A little before the Sylvenstein-Stausee gravel is being mined. Big trucks come and go, filled with gravel. They drive full throttle and we have to take shelter behind our packrafts regularly. Immediately after the bridge we put in, to find out we have to get out again two minutes later. There we find the real weir. Unfortunately.

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Sylvenstein Stausee.

We’re happy finally to be paddling on the reservoir. Sadly the wind is blowing from the front with four Beaufort, despite paddling hard it takes us a long time to get to the other side. They are working at the weir, so we have to walk and put in a few hunderd meters after the weir.

Our packrafts seem to attrack children. When we want to put in after the weir a family with four kids is about to leave. One of the children is nearly sitting in Fred’s packraft when he is attaching his backpack. They keep watching us until we disappear at the horizon.

After the put in there are three enjoyful drops. Each drop is higher than the previous one, but easier to raft. At this side of the weir the water level is high enough for fast paddling. We were afraid that the water level would be low on this side as well.

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Drop after the Sylvenstein Stausee.

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Drop after the Sylvenstein Stausee.

At Winkl there is one more weir where we have to get out. The second part of this day we go astonishingly fast. The river picks up speed and we can raft without having to get out. We pass the weir in Lengries and pitch our tarp at a small island in the Isar just outside of Lengries. The island is full of biting, red ants, but we find one spot without ants, just large enough for our tarp and two packrafts.

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Bivouac on an island downstream of Lengries.

Only a small piece of our tour remains until the final take out near Bad Tölz. We play a bit going in and out of eddies but reach Bad Tölz sooner than expected. We have to search for the station which takes longer than expected, but in the afternoon we board the bus to the camp-site. A few hours and two bus changes later we’re back in Scharnitz. Another quick end to a beautiful tour.

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Take out near Bad Tölz.

Click here to see all photographs.

Film

Bibliography

Pete Bandtock – White Water North Alps
Rivers Publishing U.K.ISBN 0-9519413-9-9

DKV-Auslandsführer Band 1 – Österreich/Schweiz
Deutscher-Kanu-Verband-Verlag
ISBN 978-3-937743-19-6

WK322: Wetterstein – Karwendel – Seefeld – Leutasch – Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Wander-, Rad- und Freizeitkarte, Freytag & Berndt
1:50 000

182: Isarwinkel, Bad Tölz, Lenggries
Wandern – Rad – Skitouren, Kompass
1:50 000

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Wild water course

Adam Gray: “You learn the most if you stay inside the boat.”

We’re in the Alps and have our packrafts with us. After our beautiful packrafting adventures in France we would like to use them here as well. Our first river is the Rienza. The river is a lot more impressive than the rivers we ran before. We put in and a few kilometers later we put out again. A week later we try again at the Drau, but don’t even get to the point of inflating our packrafts. These rivers are much more serious than what we’ve done before. Technically speaking they’re not more difficult, but the water is cold and there is a lot more volume than the rivers we’ve done before. Our packrafts can handle it, but our knowledge and skills are lacking. Time to change.

It’s not easy to find a kayaking school that would like to teach two packrafters the principles of wild water boating. We ask three schools and one is willing to teach us. After we’ve mountainbiked till we dropped, our telephone rings in the evening. Motion Outdoor Lofer wants to do a two-day course, starting tomorrow. The next morning we arrive in the pouring rain at the kayak school. Adam Gray is going to teach us the principles of white water rafting for the next two days. We’ll be running a few streches on the river the Saalach. Adam lives in South Africa, where he runs his outdoor company Oribi Outdoors. When the crocodiles have been fed in Africa, he comes to Austria for holidays while working as a kayak and rafting guide for Motion.

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Start of the wild water courses with Adam Gray.

We borrow wetsuits and helmets and take our packrafts. Luckily Adam is open minded about our packrafts. He’s read about them in a kayak magazine before and is curious about how they perform. We are happy to do the course in our own boats. We learn about safety, ferrying, eddy currents. Some things we’ve already read about in the Packrafting! book from Roman Dial and practiced on our own, but with the detailed explanation from Adam it really starts to make sense. When surfing a large wave, Fred learns an important lesson: “You learn the most if you stay inside the boat.”

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Fred takes a dive when trying to surf on a wave.

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A swim.

We practice in searching and playing in the eddies, which we’ll do again the second day. Then we watch and analyse a more difficult and technical part of the river and try that part three times to practice well and try several lines.

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Practicing a more technical part of the Saalach.

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Practicing a more technical part of the Saalach.

Next we pay attention to safety: We’ve been swimming through white water and thrown our throwbags to help each other land after swimming.

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Practicing going in and out of eddies.

We really liked the course. We’ve learned a lot in a good atmosphere. The flows at Lofer were: 13-aug 12 m3/s and 14-aug 10 m3/s.

Click here to see all photographs.

Film

Karnischer Höhenweg

“We’re not going to climb 1500 meters on the first day again, are we?” Each time we start a hike, we want to leave from the valley and climb immediately to the high mountains. Each time we drag a heavy backpack with all our food many meters up the mountain and each time we say to each other that we should use the first day to get going calmly. “Yeah, yeah, we’ll see.”

We’ll see, that will become the theme of this tour. We take food with us for seven days, start from the campsite in Sillian/Tassenberg and will hike the Karnischer Höhenweg. At departure we walk and climb easily over route 32 through the forest to Hollbruck. We drink some coffee there and eat an apfelstrudel for the necessary energy. We continue climbing over route 15 to the Höhenweg.

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Hollbruck.

Last year a lot of snow has fallen, even late in the year. This year we’ve walked over more snow that last years. Good for building experience, but we keep questioning how thick a snowbridge should be for a safe crossing with heavy backpacks. While climbing we find a snowbridge of 10 cm thickness, about 30 cm above the ground. We’ve been testing it and this particular snowbridge can hold Fred + backpack without any problem. After around eight jumps the bridge collapse. Leaving a hole of two shoes wide.

At the end of the afternoon we pitch our tarp under the Hochgräntenjoch. We’ve climbed another 1500 meters today. The footpath was steep but very easy going, we climbed with ease.

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At the joch we find a soldiers cemetery from the First World War. This tour we’ll be seeing a lot of remains from this world war because a lot of fighting took place at the border between Italy and Austria. What a difference with the here and now: the beautiful surroundings and quietness (except near the mountain huts).

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Soldiers cemetery near the Hochgräntenjoch.

Our last tour in Italy we were very hot during the night at the same height and the same temperatures. This time we take our summer sleeping bags. Sadly, the first night the temperature drops to 3C. We put on extra clothes, but don’t sleep too well. Later this week the wind drops and the night temperature rises again. During the day it is sunny. Though we already have a good tan, we get sunburnt! At this altitude there’s apparently more UV than we think.

In the morning on our way to the Neue Porzehütte we’re startled by the loud whisle of a marmot. He’s only four meters away from us and remains there. We see a lot of marmots in the Alps and most of them are less shy than we’re used to.

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This is one of the few times that we meet some hikers with tent. They tell us where they spent the night and indeed we find trampled grass there. In all areas that have mountain huts we notice how few people hike with a tent. Almost everyone sleeps in the huts.

There are not only a lot of marmots in this part of the Alps, but a lot of sheep as well. They are not used to the heat as well: we find a small herd, who are close together with heads in the scarse piece of shadow that can be found here.

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Pushing and squeezing for shadow.

Today we meet another marmot. This one has found such a tasty patch of grass that we could come as close as two and a half metres without him whistling or running. Maybe he’s short sighted?

When photographing at night we accidentely wake a fox. He makes himself heard, but doesn’t show himself. When he makes some noise for the second time that night, Fred just keeps on sleeping.

Someone added the following to the sign to the Hochweißsteinhaus: “gefährliches Schneefeld”. We’ve asked upfront at the information office if there is still a lot of snow on this route and they ensured us that there was no snow. We thought that there might be some small patches of snow left, but a big snowfield we didn’t expected. A detour has been set around it, but in hindsight we found the detour more dangerous than crossing the snowfield. From the other side of the path a few signs has been set up with the text: “Weg gesperrt.”

The rest of the route after the Hochweißsteinhaus alternates between jeep tracks and footpaths through the forest. Only few views at the high mountains unfortunately.

The Wolayer See-Hütte is the most crowded of the whole route. From three sides one can climb from the valley to this mountain hut and it is the weekend now. Both factors add up to the crowd. We arrive around noon and treat ourselves to a hot meal to complement our calory intake.

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Wolayer See-Hütte.

We’re thunderstruck when we meet someone with a grass trimmer on one of the footpaths. What is he doing in the mountains? We thought the cows are here to mow the grass. It takes us till nightfall to find out why he’s here: Parts of the path that are not walked much are overgrown easily. This guy mows the grass and weeds so we people can find the correct path. Never seen before!

At the Plöckenhaus we hear a helicopter circling. A rescue is going on, they collect four climbers from the Frischenkofel mountain wall.

At the map a busstop is plotted at the Plöckenhaus to take hikers from there to the valley. (This bus does not drive during the weekend) We continue walking, but are not going to walk the full Karnischer Höhenweg. The part after the Plöckenpass is more walking through forests than walking in the high mountains. We decide to walk for “a while” and then climb the Polinik. From there we can descend back to the valley.

We walk along the Grünsee which appears to be private property. A few creeks flow here, but we would like to camp a bit higher. Why not take the water there? A bad decision looking back. The higher creeks are all empty. We have to keep climbing until the Obere Spielbodenalm before we find a working water source. At the alm a farmer is enjoying the last rays of the sun. We ask if we might use his source and he nods that it’s ok. We fill our water bag and bottle and leave for the Polinik. He continues to observe us till we’re over the horizon. He doesn’t understand what he just saw, that late at the day two people climbing with almost ten litres of water.

We eat at the plateau. There are a lot of cows in this valley so we walk some time after dinner before pitching our tarp. It wouldn’t be the first time that we’re awaked by our friendly, grazing and melk-producing friends. When we arrive at the col (Spielbodentörl) we accidentely startle some mountain goats. They hadn’t expected people here that late. They puff loudly to warn each other and then hurry down. While descending they kick a lot of loose stones down. They come back later that evening, but don’t make any noises anymore.

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Summit Polinik.

At ten o’clock the next morning we arrive at the summit of the Polinik. The view is astonishing and we notice that it’s more foggy than at the start of the week. Just before we start our descend, another hiker arrives. Judging by the look in his eyes he didn’t expect anyone up here that early. We descend to the col and then to Mauthen and Kötschach via path 430.

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Polinik seen from Kötschach.

Unfortunately no busses or trains ride on Sunday. We meet a German family that also hiked in this area and want to go back to the campsite in the same direction. We decide to share a cab. We have to wait for two hours before the taxi arrives and then it is another hour driving back through the vally back to our campsite. The whole week we had beautiful weather, sunny, clear nights and sometimes thunderstorms in the distance. As soon as we arrive at the campsite, it is raining cats and dogs. What a timing.

All articles we’ve read about this route it’s described that it’s well-known and crowded. We had expected crowds like the Icelandic Laugavegur, where in the summer you will see people along the whole route. Here all people tend to be near the mountain huts. Nearly each hut can be reached by a day hike from the valley and a lot of day trippers do this. At the mountain path itself we meet a few people, but certainly not the crowds that we had feared.
The timing that is shown in the guidebook we used are not always correct. The times written on the Austrian signs match the times we actually travelled a lot better.

Click here to see all photographs.

Film

Bibliography

Bergverlag Rother GmbH, München
Hüttentrekking Band 1, 32 Mehrtagestouren von Hütte zu Hütte
Ralf Gantzhorn & Andreas Seeger
ISBN 978-3-7633-3007-2

Kompass Wandern – Rad – Skitouren
1:50 000
47 Lienzer Dolomiten / Lesachtal
Karnischer Höhenweg