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, munching on savory cheese Pierogi and 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, were 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 fueled by vodka and sumptuous Polish food 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 from New York to Warsaw on Lot Polish Airlines. The French champagne flowed freely accompanied by our first taste of Polish delights—Pierniki—soft gingerbread cookies filled with marmalade and covered with chocolate.
We were 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 plied with vodka and traditional dishes including Zurek starowiejski (“old village”)—a hearty casserole of kielbasa, egg, potatoes and mushrooms topped with sour cream. In between bites 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 and feasting, 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 (or off the stage). 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.
The banquet also included many savory dishes including Pieczeń cielęca—roast veal, marinated in an aromatic spices and Zrazy zawijane—beef rolls stuffed with bacon, gherkin and onion.
That morning, we organized our gear (and tried to stuff ourselves into our paddle jackets.) 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. Or from spooning up too much Barszcz biały—sour rye and pork broth with cubed boiled pork, kielbasa, ham, hardboiled egg, and pumpernickel croutons that was served for our breakfast. Polish food is not light on calories!
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.
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 and stews. Grochówka—lentil and caramelized onion was rib-sticking good, as was Bigo—a chunky dish of cabbage and meat and Kwaśnica—a sauerkraut soup, eaten in the south of Poland. We washed this down with frothy Żywiec 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. 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. As they turned a leg of lamb on a spit over the fire, 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!
We survived the night’s chill around the campfire drinking “Highlander’s tea”—an herbal concoction dosed with Nalewka—a home-made, vodka-based liqueur which Yurek’s choral buddies insisted we drink copious amounts of referring to it as a “folk remedy”. They also gave us many powerful and celebratory comradic slaps on the back fueled by their tonic. 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.)
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.
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 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.
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 more succulent barbecued lamb and sang songs around a sky-licking bonfire.
By the last day of the rally, we recognized people we had kayaked, feasted, danced, sung and conversed with. That night, the Polish Canoe Federation presented the awards and we stood on the platform and delivered 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 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!”
This time nobody fell off the stage, but we continued to fatten ourselves up on Kopytka—hoof-shaped potato dumplings, Sałatka burakowa—finely chopped warm beetroot salad, and Kurczak pieczony po wiejsku—Polish village-style roasted chicken with onion, garlic and smoked bacon.
The next day, bereft of the prize kayaks, Yurek took us sightseeing by bus and swept us off to the alpine town of Zakopane. 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 Żentyca—a popular drink made of raw sheep’s milk whey—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.
The complete version of this story has been published in Specialty Travel Index, Lot Polish Airlines Travel Magazine, BATW Tastes of Travel, and Exotic Life: Travel Tales of an Adventurous Woman.