About one hour into the kayak rally I noticed a distinct cultural and apparel difference between the Poles and the Americans. When it began to rain heavily, we gringos wrestled into waterproof neon Gortex as a bathtub raft filled with Poles wearing only faded swim trunks paddled past us. They waved merrily, throwing back vodka shots as golf ball-size raindrops pinged off the water. Around our necks hung expensive sunglasses dangling from Croakies; around theirs, they had shot glasses tied with string.
Four other journalists and I, all of us well-known in the American river rafting community, had been invited to Poland to attend the 54th Annual International Kayak Rally on the Dunajec River that borders Slovakia. This tradition is a friendly competition among canoers and kayakers from all over Eastern Europe. About seven hundred professionals and tourists of all ages and abilities descend the river in a frenzy of activity, to the delight of residents and visitors. It is basically a three-day party over fifty-seven miles of river. Our host and guide for this fete was Yurek Majcherczyk, a world-famous expedition kayak leader. I had read in Outside Magazine about his daring-do first descent down the Colca River Canyon in Peru. At 14,339 feet deep, this gorge has been recognized as the deepest canyon on earth by both the Guinness Book of World Records and National Geographic. Who could say no to traveling with him? My nickname for Yurek became, Never-A-Dull-Moment-Man.
Our group had flown in from New York to Warsaw on Lot Polish Airlines. The French champagne flowed freely in first class. In true California style, I suggested we trade neck massages. Pretty soon, we were all getting neck rubs, including the pilot, who left the cockpit to see what the heck was going on in the cabin. We had him laid out on the carpet and all of us gave him a back massage. The trip was certainly starting off on the right foot.
We were then whisked by train to Krakow in southern Poland, then by bus to the town where the race would start the next morning. At the opening ceremonies and banquet that evening, we were regaled with speeches and toasts.
We toasted each other’s countries, the rally, the mayor, the color of the drapes (Communist bordello red velvet), and on and on it went. At one point in the toasting, one of the American journalists fell backwards in his chair off the dais. As he rose, unscathed, to give yet another toast about rivers, brotherhood and sisterhood, little of which was coherent, the Poles grinned good-naturedly at the tipsy Amerikanis, and raised their glasses yet again.
Jib Ellison, fellow journalist and founder of Project Raft, whispered to us that we needed to nominate a designated drinker—not the guy who had fallen off the stage already! Jib had spent two years in Russia and said it was the only way we would survive because the Eastern Blocers could drink us under the table. He volunteered for the position and also showed us a neat trick⎯surreptitiously filling the shot glass with water when no one was looking. We drank a lot of water further into the night unbeknownst to the Poles, who thought we were matching them shot for shot. Jib had a major hangover the next day.
That morning, we organized our gear. Yurek provided us with kayaks, paddles and lifejackets. I had never been in a hard-shell kayak before and felt some trepidation. The river turned out to be a very easy Class II with few rapids. As Robert, one of my paddling compatriots, pointed out, “The only reason you’d capsize would be from gawking too much at the Dracula-like landscape,” which included looming shadowy castles and Carpathian mountain gorges. However, it was instantly evident that the point of the race was to have fun. Participants were launching in wooden canoes, racing kayaks, and even kiddie rubber rafts. Once we put our competitive egos (after all, it had been promoted as an international race) aside, we had a blast.
The river carried us gently along. Occasionally, we had to pay attention to a minor rapid or portage our kayaks around low-head dams (usually one-two feet high). We passed farms and towns with quaint hand-hewn stone buildings where many roofs were capped with a tire-size stork’s nest.
Toward the end of the first day, the terrain of pastoral fields dotted with haystacks changed and craggy mountains reached up from the riverbank to rocky heights. We pulled out between two castles on granite outcrops.
A traveling soup kitchen had been set up for the boaters on the shore. This delightful contraption had four containers filled with various steaming savory soups—the lentil and caramelized onion was rib-sticking good, as was bigo, a chunky dish of cabbage and meat. We washed this down with frothy beer and took in the surreal vista of the castles looming above the dark opal-hued waters of the Dunajec.
Satiated and lazy, we were ready to peel off our sticky Gortex layers and wash away the river silt. After taking a bone-warming sauna at the local inn, we re-joined our fellow paddlers at the kayak rally’s huge campsite, and Yurek searched out a group of old college chums he hadn’t seen for twenty years. Yurek and his friends had conquered rivers all over Eastern Europe in their university days. They reminisced about cutting classes to drive to Yugoslavia in a rattletrap VW bug and run rivers no one had descended before.
We sat around the campfire for hours, telling stories and singing as a drizzly, damp fog enveloped us. Yurek’s friends insisted we sing a song for them in English. Our team of five Americans, not one with a lyric in us, dug about for a tune to sing together to the persistent Poles, who had already regaled us with half a dozen musical tidbits. They not only sang but also accompanied each song with the guitar. Oh, a sad day for us red-white-and-blue, out-of-key gringos!
The best we could do, and thank god the Poles were toasted and roasted on vodka, was “Joy to the World,” sung by Three Dog Night in the mid-1970s. Probably the worst song ever to hit the airwaves, but for some reason, we at least had some cohesive ability to sing it. Must have been strong vodka.
Did the Poles love it? Yep!
We did harmonies, rounds; we taught them the (wrong) lyrics. We survived the night around the campfire with celebratory comradic slaps on the back. One of them even did the Zbojnicki dance—the Cossack-style dance in which they bounce up and down like kangaroos, kicking their legs out from a squatting position with their arms crossed over their chest (knee surgeons love this dance!)—while, accompanied by an accordion, we sang:
Jeremiah was a bullfrog; he was good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said but I helped him drink his wine
What a weird song!
The next day, before the kayak rally commenced, we toured the ominously somber granite castle of Nidzica. Our guide, over eighty years old and hefting a huge clanking key ring, delivered the castle’s history in a chanting oratory. The torture chamber with its hooks and racks got our attention, as did the haunted room. Our guide had been working there for sixty years and, yes, he had seen the ghost. He said he almost broke his leg scampering out of the castle when a vision of an armor-clad knight reaching for him with grasping shadowy hands appeared before him on the stone stairwell.
We then reunited with our rally mates at the riverbank to continue the race. We were heading for the dramatic Dunajec Gorge—five miles of winding emerald river between jutting cliffs more than ninety feet high.
Just before entering the gorge, a brief but torrential thunderstorm chased us to shore where a farmer had set up a kielbasa (Polish sausage) stand in his cow pasture. We crowded together under the tent canopy, helped the ruddy-cheeked proprietor turn the sizzling sausages on the grill and washed them down with beer. Singing all the while, of course.
We then kayaked through the gorge that acts as a natural boundary between Poland and Slovakia. The lush, tree-lined banks were alive with symphonic songbirds. Occasionally, we would see a border patrol guard with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Yurek warned us not to get out to take photographs or go pee on the Slovakian side because they might arrest us for illegal entry or worse, shoot us when our pants were around our ankles.
That night at the campground, Highlanders (men from the Tatra Mountains) performed the Zbojnicki dance again. One of the dancers was a veritable pogo stick. When the taped disco music came blasting from their boom box, he pulled me to my feet, as he hopped up and down; it was very hard to keep up with him! Especially during the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive.” He even looked a little bit like John Travolta in lederhosen. The dance troupe also did an impressive ax swinging, thigh slapping, pushups dance called Thojnkki, punctuated with loud yells and frenzied violin music. Afterwards, we ate succulent barbecued lamb and sang songs (we got a lot of mileage out of the bullfrog song on this trip) around a sky-licking bonfire.
By the last day of the rally, we recognized people we had kayaked, danced, sung and conversed with. We literally bumped into one charming Polish family on the river; our kayaks gently colliding when we hit a small rapid. We linked up, holding onto the edges of each other’s boats, speaking a mélange of languages from French to German.
That night, the Polish Canoe Federation presented the awards and we stood on the platform and gave thanks and speeches with an American flag waving behind us on the stage. This is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like an astronaut after a successful journey into outer space, or an Olympic gold medal winner. We were the first Americans ever to participate in the 54th Annual International Kayak Rally and they treated us like royalty, even letting us use the prize kayaks during the rally until they were given to the winners. We found this a tad embarrassing as we didn’t know we had been crashing about in the trophy kayaks for the last three days until we saw them lined up on stage and Jib pointed and exclaimed in surprise, “That’s my purple kayak!”
One guy with a Rumpelstiltskin beard who had participated a total of thirty-four times, said he remembered when the crystal vase trophy used to be filled with champagne and everyone passed it around the room and drank from it. It is a heavy goblet that holds eight bottles of champagne. Many folks kept leaning over to tell me it was “worth $8,000!” The first place winner gets to keep it on his or her mantle at home until the next year’s rally. Oddly enough, the Poles never announced what place we Americans took. I think they wanted to keep the goblet in their home territory.
The next day, bereft of the prize kayaks, Yurek took us sightseeing by bus and swept us off to the alpine town of Zakopanne. The landscape was reminiscent of a pastoral oil painting of broad ultra-green valleys hemmed in by snow-capped peaks. The winding country roads were car-less but around many curves we encountered horse-drawn carts driven by costumed peasants. Poland’s Old World culture is still intact.
I spied a shepherd’s hut in a meadow and we stopped to pay a visit. The shepherd sat on his porch in the sun, drinking raw sheep’s milk from a stiff leather cup. He invited us to join him on the rough-hewn bench. Immense Tatra Mountain sheep dogs sat at his feet as he described how they chase off the mountain wolves. Then, he lifted the rustic cup high and offered us a wordy toast in Polish that, translated by Yurek, included, “… my honored first foreign visitors. Crazy Americans who fly far to drink with me.” After splashing the pungent, sour warm milk to our lips and passing around the cup, we all agreed that vodka wasn’t so bad after all.