After more than four months on the water, the Canoeing The Continent expedition is nearing the end of its journey, as the two paddlers draw nearer to Istanbul. The pair has embarked on an ambitious challenge: to canoe across the whole of Europe, connecting waterways without portaging.
“On our entire crossing of Europe, our longest portage between waterways was 25 meters, from one side of a campsite to the other!” says James Warner Smith.
Currently, Warner Smith and Nathan Wilkins are more than 130 days into their trip, heading east, and dealing with all the challenges that the Black Sea can throw at them, including terrible weather, huge waves and rocky headlands.
The expedition began on the Atlantic coast of France, in the city of Nantes. They’ve since paddled through a variety of landscapes, including untouched rivers, historic canals, busy shipping rivers and the Black Sea. The two spent more than 2,000 kilometers on the Danube River alone, following its course through Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.
“Each section of the route presented new challenges, as well as numerous language barriers since we both speak decent French but nothing of the other nine countries,” says Warner Smith.
Undoubtedly, upstream paddling has been the most difficult for the pair, especially along the Loire River, since it was combined with the intense heat of southern France in July.
The wide lakes on the Danube, the result of Serbian hydroelectric dams, also caused problems. “Here the waves caught us off-guard and out of our depth and it was probably the closest we’ve come to really getting hurt. After a very close scare, we spent some very nervous days paddling around rocky headlands,” says Warner Smith.
The two students, who met through running, were awarded a grant for the trip through the University of Warwick. Both agree that their athletic backgrounds have allowed them to weather the physical demands of the trip relatively unscathed.
“I originally got the idea for the trip after I canoed the Yukon River in 2010. I spent two weeks there in the wilderness and had the most fantastic canoeing experience. After that I was keen to do another big canoe trip but wanted something large scale and original,” says Warner Smith. He hatched the plan and Wilkins, who’d never actually canoed before, was game.
While they are struggling to cope with the winter waves on the Black Sea, they had mentally prepared themselves that this last part of the journey would be heavily reliant on good weather. If canoeing over the Turkish border becomes impossible, the two may opt to hike through the Bulgarian mountains. They’re gutted at the thought of changing their route, but trying to remain optimistic.
“But to be honest, when we look back at the challenges we’ve overcome and the distance we’ve made since day one, it gives us a pretty good feeling,” says Warner Smith.
Follow their expedition at Canoeing The Continent.