Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Let's talk about the advantages of being a single female backpacker for a change....

Whenever you read about solo female backpackers sooner or later the discussion tends to go towards how dangerous it is out there in the woods for women on their own. The most common question I am asked when being outdoors is „Aren't you afraid out there – as a woman?“ And almost every email I receive from women on my blog includes a question about how safe a trail or a trip is – for a woman. Or to quote one recent email from a girl: „Unfortunately it is so much more dangerous for a female to be outdoors than for a man. [….] I cannot stop thinking that I will be lying in my tent in the dark and a man will come to rape me.“

First all this talk about how dangerous it is for women to be outdoors just irritated me – but the more I hear the more it makes me plain angry. I often think that all these „words of caution“ are just a modern version of locking women in and keeping them from discovering their freedom. And unfortunately this modern brainwashing is very effective: You still see very few women alone hiking, cycling or paddling. Most either don't go at all or only dare to go with a male partner – especially on long-distance trips.

So how much truth is in the common assumption that it is so much more dangerous for a woman than for a man in the outdoors?

I will start with my own personal experience – and in my 7 year long outdoor career I have spent almost 2,000 nights outdoors, mostly being on my own: All this time I have not had a single incident where I have been seriously threatend or even attacked by a male. There have even hardly been any moments when I have felt uneasy meeting men in the outdoors.(And these few incidents usually involved some level of intoxication on the male part....)

You might argue that one person's experience can just be pure luck – but think about it logically. If you were a (sexual) predator: Would you go into a forest and wait in the dark and cold until (probably after days or weeks) a single female happens to pass by who is dirty and smelly? No, you would much more likely seek your victims in a populated urban area. The big advantage of camping is that usually nobody knows where I am – especially when stealth camping. And if someone would stumble across my tent coincidentally he would probably be as scared of me as I would be of him because he doesn't know who is in that tent.

Don't get me wrong: I do not deny that there is a risk for solo female backpackers to be assaulted – but by being outdoors instead of being in an urban area you are reducing that risk instead of increasing it. Plus the risk is minimal. Personally I am much more afraid of a traffic accident when travelling to a trail head than of being raped while camping.

But the point of this post is a different one: The media, friends and family and basically every one you meet on a trail will pester a woman with what disadvantages a solo female faces outdoors – but no one talks about the advantages a single woman has.

Let's start with the most obvious advantage which is actually all this „women are so vulnerable“ talk looked at from a different angle. Women are perceived as weak and non-aggressive which means that they don't pose a threat. And this has the wonderful effect that whenever I need help I almost always will be helped – people don't feel threatened by me. You don't think this is a big advantage? Believe me – it is. Guess who gets picked up quickly when trying to hitch a ride into town to resupply? A single female or a scruffy bearded single male?

I could give an almost endless list of occassions when I had to ask for help and people reacted friendly and helpful: asking for water or directions, needing a ride, having technical bike problems, needing an extra pair of hands for portaging my kayak.......

But it is not only when you need help that being a female is a big advantage: People are generally reacting much friendlier towards a single female than towards a male: Guess who gets invited more often for dinner or given shelter in bad weather? Guess whom people offer an extra chocolate bar or invite to a family picnic? People are also much more lenient towards women than towards men – a huge advantage when you are caught trespassing or stealth camping.

I don't want to say that men are not treated friendly or offered help but your chances are much higher if you are a female.

Your advantages of being female are not restricted to encounters with others. There are several female qualities that will help you on long-distance trips. I was made aware of this on my very first long-distance hike on the PCT. I had arrived in the US with no experience in long-distance hiking and was basically shit scared of what lay ahead of me when a well known trail angel shuttled me and several other hikers to the Southern terminus of the PCT at the Mexican border. I was whining and fretting in the car until the trail angel told me these unforgettable words: „I have been shuttling hikers to the Mexican border now for years. I can assure you that statistically you have the highest chance of making it all the way to the Canadian border because you are a single female. Why? Single females are usually the best prepared and they don't have to prove anything to anyone.“ He turned out to be right – I made it not only to the Canadian border but eventually to the Triple Crown. After meeting hundreds of male and female long-distance hikers I also concur with his assumption. Women are usually more problem-oriented and very well prepared because they perceive themselves as weaker and want to compensate this with better preparation. And they generally lack the competitiveness that drives male hikers (especially the younger ones) to overexert themselves.

This male competitiveness is one of the biggest problems for thruhikers. You have to hike your own pace or you will sooner or later overexert yourself and end up with physical problems like stress fractures, shin splints and the like. But in predominantly male groups the fastest hiker sets the pace – and competitiveness drives the others to follow with the above mentioned consequences. Women don't fall into that trap that easily. Being considered the weaker sex anyways they are not ashamed to ask for a break when they are tired or leave a faster group when they cannot keep up.

It took me much longer to find out another female advantage. On the rare occasions when I have hiked or cycled with men I was always confronted with the bitter truth that I could not physically keep up with men when short term extreme performance was required. Going uphill I was usually watching the cloud of dust my male partner left behind when hiking up a steep mountain whereas I was slowly creeping uphill behind him. The same goes for cycling or paddling. But then came a big surprise: On long, straight and or rather boring stretches my male partners were suddenly lagging behind me whining how boring all this is. I just put in my earphones and an audiobook and hiked on – up to 14 hours per day. I put my feet on autopilot and kept my mind busy with other things. These stretches were much more difficult for men – not for physical, but for mental reasons. They were lacking the multi-tasking abilities.

Bottom line: As a female backpacker you face certain dangers and physical problems a man would not have to deal with. But on the other side these disadvantages are more than compensated by the above mentionend factors. Long distance outdoor activities are not more difficult or dangerous for women than they are for men. Don't let this modern brainwashing keep you from exploring the outdoors. Be careful and use common sense – but don't be intimidated. But most important: Always keep in mind that being a woman in the outdoors also has a lot of advantages!

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Paddling across Southern Sweden: Conclusion, tips and route alternatives

This trip started with a lot of obstacles: The whole plan emerged as an emergency solution when it became clear that I could not undertake my original plan of thrupaddling the Danube due to the Ukraine crisis and time constraints. I had done very little planning for it. And then I even hurt myself badly three days before the trip was supposed to start - and had to postpone the start an entire week. I still started as a half invalid with an injured knee. I was limping most of this trip.

But despite all these obstacles this trip turned out to be a great success in many respects. It was a very enjoyable and pleasant trip - basically I just had a very good time. But I also wanted to get more practice and learn how to deal with different situations. My route turned out ideal for that and I learned a lot from sea kayaking and navigation to portaging and wind problems. I can definitely recommend this route or any variation of it to any long-distance paddler. My route had very different stages and therefore I will write something about each stage:

St. Anna archipelago
East coast archipelagos: I has added a great deal of variety to this trip to include some sea kayaking. The Swedish St. Anna archipelago is ideal for a beginner. The archipelago is very wide and if the weather is not perfect you can still paddle in the inner skerries which are relatively sheltered. And then venture into the outer skerries if the weather permits it. Although there are no official campsites like in Dalsland you won't have any problem finding suitable campspots on the islands.I have used the Utekartan maps and found them ideal.
Season: I don't think that the archipelago gets "overrun" anytime so paddling there is enjoyable as long as the weather permits it.
Variations: I started my trip at Valdemarsvik which is easily accessible by bus and has a campground at the water and only around 1 km from the bus stop and town. Equally accesible starting points are Gamleby and Västervik further down South which permits you longer paddling in the archipelago. It would even be feasible to start in Stockholm and paddle down South. The St. Anna and Gryt archipelagos are big and you can easily spend a week exploring them.

Göta canal
Götakanal East and West: Although called a canal the Götakanal is only half canal and half lakes. The lakes rival those in Dalsland - and there are no crowds here. Even the canal bits lead you through idyllic Swedish country side. In fact I really don't understand why this route is not more popular with paddlers. Even the canal bits lead you through idyllic Swedish country side. The only problem are the locks but they are a lot easier to portage around than those in Dalsland. There always is a towpath next to the locks and canal so the portage itself is painless. Getting out and in again can be awkward as hardly anyone paddles the canal and there are no designated take out or put in site but I always managed on my own. I highly recommend bringing a CCF pad which you can put on top of sharp rocks when dragging the boat out or sliding it into the water. You can camp very comfortably (and legally) on the flat lawn next to the locks or at the designated rest areas (which are meant for cyclists). On the Western part of the canal these rest areas even come with a shelter.
Season: The locks are staffed until August 20. After that until September 15 lockage for yachts is still possible but has to be prebooked and is expensive. This means that after August 20 you basically have the canal to yourself. Even in high season you are officially not allowed to go through the locks due to saftey reasons (whereas it is mandatory in Dalsland, so go figure...) but I have seen lock keepers locking paddlers through with yachts. I still would not recommend it because you are usually faster portaging around if it is a set of locks. I have cycled the Götakanal in summer and have seen that there are a lot of yachts then but the canal is wide enough that they don't really bother you. I still recommend paddling here after August 20.

Vättern skerry
Lake Vättern: The only big obstacle on the canal is big Lake Vättern which is roughly in the middle of the Götakanal. The Southern half is pretty dull, so definitely go for the Northern half. Here all depends on the wind and its direction. In calm winds this is a beautiful area with several fantastic archipelagos that even come with designated campsites and rest areas. But if the wind comes sideways you are in trouble as the lake is up to 31 km wide. In summer there is a bicycle ferry across the lake, in off season there is public transport. Just keep in mind that there is no good bus connection from Askersund to Karlsborg. That means that once you leave Motala you are pretty much committed to paddle around the whole Northern half. The map atlas for the Göta canal unfortunately only shows the middle part of Lake Vänern which is the only relevant map for motor boats which can go straight across the lake. As a paddler you want to hug the shore and this means you will need a separate map.

Vänern - more like the sea...
Lake Vänern: At the end of the Götakanal you enter lake Vänern, the only really big obstacle on the whole route. Lake Vänern is 11 times as big as Lake Constance in Germany and the third biggest lake in whole Europe. With a length of 150 km and a width of 81 km you can imagine what kind of waves a strong wind can kick up here. There are several very beautiful (and sheltered) archipelagos but also long stretches that are totally exposed. So be prepared to wait out strong winds and bad weather - or pack up your boat and take public transport around it. There are excellent traffic connections between all towns along the Vänern so you can easily break up your trip in any town along the Vänern like Mariestad, Lidköping or Vänersborg. During my trip the wind got so strong that I decided to pack up and take public transport along two thirds of my planned route along the Vänern. I have not regretted that decision. Although the Vänern archipelagos are really great, other stretches were rather boring. For me personally the Vänern was the most uninteresting part of my route. Again the map atlas for the Göta canal only contains overview  maps that are sufficient for motor boats. The are not adequate for paddlers and you will need extra maps -which are quite expensive.

Variant Trollhätte canal: This is a variant I have not paddled but that is rather obvious. From the Vänern you can take the Trollhätte canal from Vänersborg all the way to Gothenborg and access the sea again. A great route if zou want to paddle coast to coast Sweden. Like the Göta kanal the Trollhätte is only partly canal and mostly river, the Göta älv. The canal is 81 km long and only 11 km are real built canal. I have met Swedes who have travelled the Trollhätte with their yacht and they assured me that it is worth while paddling. There are some industrial areas along the canal but those are not very visible from the water. There is commercial traffic on the canal but not too much to bother you. Trollhätte canal maps are included in the Göta canal map atlas.
Season: As this canal is used by commercial traffic locks are operating year round.

Dalsland: I have already written an extensive conclusion for this area. Basically just keep in mind that the area is huge and offers lots of potential routes - and that the season is very important. In Dalsland you can finish a cross-Sweden paddling trip at the Norwegian border.

Variant Glaskogen: it is possible to portage boat from the Dalsland canoe area into Glaskogen Nationalpark. This can either be done by one 16 km portage or a route including many shorter portages across smaller lakes. I decided not to do this variant because the portages were too long and as Glaskogen  is only relatively small area and pretty similar to Dalsland I thought it is not worth the effort. But you could connect Glaskogen with another variant:

Variant Säffle canal: With three portages of a total length of 10 km you can get from Glaskogen into the Glasfjorden and from there on into the Säffle canal which brings you back into lake Vänern. You could do one big loop Dalsland - Glaskogen - Säffle canal - Lake Vänern - Dalsland. You would only have to paddle 70 km on the rather unpredictable Lake Vänern.

Finally some advice on gear specifically for this route:

Typical take out place Göta canal
CCF pad: A CCF pad has already proven to be very useful on other paddling trips. It was great to protect my NeoAir from damage and it was absolutely essential to keep my legs warm while paddling. But in the two canal system it was invaluable for getting my rather delicate foldable kayak in and out of the water. I put it onto sharp rocks and protected my kayak from getting scratched.

Boat cart: Make sure you have a very good boat cart for this trip. Portages are long and in Dalsland often very steep or otherwise complicated.

Water supply: Other than on the sea kayaking part you will not have to carry a lot of water supply. You can drink the water straight out of the Vättern, Vänern and most areas in Dalsland - even without purifying it. In the canal areas itself the water quality is not that great but you can resupply water at all guest harbours and many locks. There usually is an accessible water tap. 

Cell phone: Paddling in off season means that campgrounds and hostels are either already closed or have very limited reception hours. Check-in is then usually done over the phone. So bring a cell phone and a SIM card that allows you to make calls inside Sweden.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Dalsland: Conclusion and tips

Dalsland gets a weird conclusion from me: I highly recommend and advise against it at the same time. Why is that? Well, Dalsland is the perfect paddling area - but unfortunately half of Europe and almost all Germany knows about this. As a result Dalsland get swamped with hordes of paddlers in summer. And this type of paddlers is not exactly my cup of tea. As a ranger has put it: you'll find a lot of boot camp mentality. Or as I would put it: a lot of wanna-be outdoorsmen trying "born to be wild". Each to their own - let them have fun in summer but I would not recommend going there then.

Now this has been enough of negative comments about Dalsland: Beside the summer tourist rush Dalsland is indeed the perfect paddling destination. So go there in spring or even better in fall and enjoy. The main tour operator stops running tours to Dalsland in mid-September. After that you'll be almost alone - and you can paddle far into October there. I finished my trip on October 19th. Water temperature was still a balmy 10 degrees Celsius and nights were still above freezing. But you should bring a bit of determination and a lot of cold weather gear as day time temperatures ranged from a very nice 15 degrees Celsius to a not so nice 4 degrees. Spring has the disadvantage of much colder water temperatures but longer day light hours. In mid-October I still had more than 10 hours of daylight and I did not find the lack of daylight restrictive.

But what makes Dalsland such a perfect destination: For me personally the most attractive factor was the extensive shelter network. There are over 100 designated campsites in the Dalsland canoe area. They all come with a dry toilet, fire wood and campfire rings. Most of them also come with a shelter that is big enough for 4 to 6 people. The only drawback is that none of the official maps tells you which campsite has a shelter and which doesn't. But as the ranger told me that they are working on that. But as there are so many campsites you can just paddle on to the next if one site has no shelter or should be occupied. Despite the masses of summer tourists the campsites were in really good condition when I visited. There was not much trash left. These campsites cost 60 SEK per person per night (about 6 EUR) and 40 SEK if you rent a canoe from a local business. This money is used to maintain the sites and the ranger system. But in October it was basically impossible to pay this fee because there was no one around whom to pay - at least if you don't rent a boat.

Other logistical aspects are good as well: It is easy to get to and away from Dalsland. The main transportation hub is Gothenburg from where you can get to many places in Dalsland by train and/or bus. You can easily plan your trip here. You will also come through several towns and villages and most have a little supermarket, so resupply is easy.

Electrical outlets at a lock
The only logistical challenger are the locks. In summer the locks are all staffed and as a paddler you are even obligated to go through these locks for a fee of 30 SEK per lock chamber. But the locking season finishes end of August and then you are on your own. There are no official portage trails around the locks. Often the locks have been blasted into rock and are therefore very narrow with no space to portage. There are no decent take out or put in places and  often you will have to carry your boat over steep embankments. Still - I did every single of the Dalsland locks on my own. For that you need a good boat cart - and plenty of time to scout out the best portage route. Often it is impossible to get in and out around the locks. Lock at your map for other possibilities in the vicinity like swimming beaches or guest harbours. But there is one good thing about the locks: there is usually a freely accessible electrical outlet - ideal for recharging batteries while doing the portage.

Dalsland lock
There are also portages other than around locks in order to get from one lake into another. These official portage trails are marked on the ground - but not on the maps. It is usually easy to take out and put in there, but some portages are long - the longest being 3,4 km. You can even get from the Dalsland canoe area into Glaskogen canoe area but then the portages are even longer. I personally found the portages with no locks much easier and even faster than the shorter lock portages. Therefore if you only want to spend a short time in Dalsland I would chose a route with few locks because they are very time-consuming and frustrating.

Dalsland is a relatively easy paddling terrain. Most lakes are sort of longish in a North-South direction and only 1- 4 km wide. The wind can still kick up waves there but this is nothing compared to the Vänern and Vättern. I had very few days when the wind confined me to a (half) rest day. If a really strong wind comes up you will usually learn this a couple of days before from the weather forecast and can then plan accordingly. There are numerous small and narrow side arms and fjords in the Dalsland canal system where you can still paddle when it gets too iffy on the bigger lakes.

There are no other "obstacles" like rapids or water falls in Dalsland. There is no commercial boat traffic either, only recreational boats. In summer there are plenty of yachts, but this dies down with the end of the locking season. After that there are only the locals left: In October this meant only and occasional fishing boat and some sailing boats on the bigger lakes.

I have used the Tyvek maps from Utekartan.se and found them to be great for such an extended trip like mine. Unfortunately, this map does not show the official campsites. They are only marked on the official Dalsland paddling atlas which I found less than ideal. It is printed on normal paper and has an inconvenient sheet line system.

Ending the trip in style

A veritable palace
You might wonder now where I fnished. Good question - the finishing was one of the best parts of this trip. The idea of the whole trip was to paddle across Southern Sweden from one side of the country to the other. Having started on the Eastern coast in Valdemarsvik my projected terminus was on the Swedish-Norwegian border. I had reached that point 2 days before actually finishing on the Swedish-Norwegian island of Trollön. But this was definitely not a good end point because first of all it is an island and secondly it is in the middle of nowhere. I had to go somewhere with public transport. The logical end point would have been Ed which is at the end of the Dalsland canal system. But unfortunately now in October all affordable accommodation in Ed was closed and the idea of dissassembling my boat in the rain and then stealth camp somewhere was not very appealing.

Luckily the solution to all these problems had already been provided three weeks ago in Lidköping. Back then I had made the acquaintance of Nicke, a very friendly Swedish gentleman, who had driven me and all my gear to the train station and had offered me to stay in his summer cottage in Dalsland. And this summer cottage was only 10 km from Ed. There were even several daily bus connections. I had called Nicke from Töcksfors and arranged my stay with him. Provided with instructions on how to find the house and the key I was now only worried if I could find everything. But things worked out great!

The friendly neighbour
I found the buoys and the beach - and after a short walk the summer cottage which turned out to be more like a luxury hotel for me. Nicke had even arranged for a neighbor to turn on the central heating and so the first thing I did after portaging my kayak up for the last time was taking a long hot shower in an heated bathroom. I had a real kitchen to prepare dinner and a real bed to sleep in at night. But the very best of all was that this was the perfect place to dissasemble my boat and get everything packed into two neat backpacks again. Dissassembling the Feathercraft is a real pain to start with and even more so when you dissassemble it at the end of a trip because then everything has to be dry. But Nicke's place even had a huge barn where I could work out of the rain and dry everything. It still took me the most part of the next day before everything was done and dusted.

Nicke had even been so kind as to ask his neighbor to take me and all my gear to Ed's bus station the next day. This short car ride unexpectedly turned into a little adventure. The neighbor showed up with German punctuality and soon we had loaded everything into his car and locked the cottage. But 5 minutes into the ride we heard some strange noises that would not go away. He pulled over and then we saw the damage: a flat tire. But this guy was a true professional: Although he told me that this was the first flat tire in his entire 50-year long driving career he had changed the tire within 10 minutes! We still arrived at Ed bus station with half an hour to spare.

Maritime museum
From Ed I took the bus and train to Gothenburg where I spent to nights before returning to Germany. Strangely enough I had not received any answers to my couchsurfing requests and had therefore booked myself into the youth hostel. A wise decision as it turned out. The hostel was just great and right around the corner from a Lidl. They even let me print out my train ticket to Germany. Next event that made me very happy was when I found an all day vegetarian AYCE buffet for 79 SEK. But the nicest surprise were the Gothenburg museums. For 40 SEK (around 4 EUR) you get an annual ticket for 5 of the big Gothenburg museums. This is definitely the best museum deal in whole Scandinavia and I managed to see 4 museums in one day......

Now I am back in Germany. The outdoor season is over for this year and I am now entering another planning phase. I will spend the winter in Germany mostly sitting in front of  my computer planning new trips for 2015. I will keep you posted!

Monday, 20 October 2014

Dalsland: Final days

Campsite on Lake Foxen
I was now on lake Foxen again and because I had paddled along the eastern shore before I now wanted to see the western one on my way back. Bad decision: the wind was only 4 m/s, but it came directly sideways and on a wide lake like the Foxen it kicked up quite uncomfortable waves. Should I capsize hypothermia would be a serious issue in these cold temperatures. I had a very cold and uncomfortable lunch break in a shelter along the way. But I had to push on. The forecast for the next day was disastrous and I needed a very good shelter that night.The water became calmer soon as I passed into the narrower Stora Le and I reached the first possible campsite in the early afternoon. I had reached the Swedish-Norwegian border.

Norway
When approaching the campsite I saw a dog nearby - quite a surprise as the whole area was otherwise deserted. It was so late in the season that no one was staying in the summer houses any more. And although I wanted to paddle a bit further I decided to get out and check out the location. A hundred metres away from the shelter I spotted some neon orange, the same colour my own cap has. Getting closer I realised it was a hunter who was completely taken by surprise by my unexpected appearance. He also turned out to be one of the very few Swedes who don't speak English. He tried to explain (or at least this is what I understood) that there was a big elk hunt for at least another hour - and that it was best for me to disappear that long if I didn't want to get shot.

I jumped into my boat and ventured into Norway for the fun of it - and it didn't look different than Sweden. My map showed a campsite in the Norwegian side but it did not have a shelter - only garbage cans which was also nice. I ended up on Trollön, an island that is half Swedish and half Norwegian. It even has  two shelters: one in each country. I chose the Norwegian side. But with a little patience and walking around I could still get Swedish cell phone reception.What I saw on the weather forecast next morning was even worse than expected: rain the entire day and a day time max temperature of 3 degrees Celsius. Not to mention a wind of 6 m/s. I decided to stay put the entire day. Luckily I still had enough reading material!

Paddling in full battle dress
But this unexpected rest day wasn't very pleasant: it was just too cold to do anything. Because of the rain and wind I didn't want to walk around much. But it was so cold that even reading led inevitably to frozen fingers after half an hour. I even set up my tent inside the shelter to be a bit warmer.At least I had friendly company: no mice, but several very curious little birds who came inside the shelter to feast on my breakfast leftovers. They weren't shy at all and came incredibly close to me - or maybe they just didn't see me inside my tent. Another visitor was an adventurous squirrel but I was afraid it might steal more food than the little birds. Time passed very slowly and even I can't sleep more than 10 hours per night....

Stora Le
Therefore I was up very early next morning and after running around for 10 minutes to find cell phone reception the weather forecast promised a slightly better day. 6 degrees Celsius day time max! Hurray! A veritable heat wave.... Plus less wind and not much rain. I wanted to paddle 30 km to get to a decent shelter and left with first daylight in full paddling battle dress: rain jacket and hat plus neoprene socks and gloves. Still my hands and feet were ice cold after half an hour. Again I had a very uncomfortable and short lunch break especially because it rained (despite the weather forecast claiming otherwise). But the forecast was right in some other respect: it sort of cleared up in the afternoon and even patches of blue sky were to be soon. And as soon as the thermometer rose above 5 degrees paddling became very comfortable again.

I finished 30 km and reached my designated campsite at 5 pm - quite a success in this weather. This was to be my last campsite and it was a great one. A huge shelter with plenty of space to put up my tent inside - usually the shelters are so low that my tent hardly fits. There was even grass on the roof. Unfortunately, the shelter also had a resident mouse which kept me awake for several hours until it realised that no food was to be found.

Last shelter
Next morning I only had about 10 km to my finish point and the forecast did not sound too bad. Unfortunately the weather does not believe in forecasts and it rained. This would not have been too bad, but the wind was stronger than expected and I had to cross the Stora Le. The lake was only about 1 km wide and I had an almost direct head wind - but I was still scared. And relieved when I finally reached the other side although the water remained very choppy. I counted down the last kms, then hundreds of metres until I finally saw some red bouy marking my final destination. I took out my boat for the last time on this trip and did my last portage. It had been a great trip - but it was time to stop paddling now.

Lennartsfors and Töcksfors

Lennartsfors lock
The weather forecast was spot on. After a last heavy downpour at 11 am the rain stopped at noon and I was more than eager to go after being stuck here for 24 hours. My goal was to get to and through Lennartsfors to the first campsite after the lock - but between me and that goal stood aforementioned lock. And portages around locks have turned out to be unpredictable here in Dalsland...

But this time I finally managed to do the right thing. Before I had usually paddled straight to the lock and looked for a good spot to get out and a tow path for portage. This approach usually doesn't work. Portages are forbidden in summer time and therefore there are no take out or put in places near the locks. The locks are also very narrow and have often been blasted into rock so that there is no decent tow path. So the best way to get around a lock is to look at the map for possible take out and put in places in the vicinity.In Lennartsfors I headed to a spot where the road was close to the lake shore and for sure there was a little beach for taking out. It would have been perfect if it hadn't started to rain in exactly that minute. I still had to drag up my boat a steep road embankment but to my own surprise my boat cart managed fairly well. So far, so good.

Rainbow near Lennartsfors
Now act no 2: put in again. I portaged on a normal road and headed to a beach where my map promised a swimming place. There wasn't only a swimming place next to it was even a picture perfect boat slip. As soon as I had put in again I was rained on again - but shortly afterwards rewarded with a fantastic rain bow.I had to choose my next campsite strategically well as the weather forecast predicted strong winds for the next day. I therefore wanted to be on the right side of the huge lake and in a bay. The island of Getön promised four campsites on the map - but which ones had a shelter? Of course I paddled around the island in the wrong direction and encountered only campsites first before arriving at the third location with a shelter. I smelled a campfire in the distance and even saw a person far away - I guess there must have been people at the fourth campsite on the island. I was to tired to explore and when I passed the site next morning no one was to be seen.

Beaching on Getön

It was going to be a very windy day and therefore the plan was to explore a long and narrow side arm of the lake Foxen. On my way in I checked out all the campsites on the way - all had shelters. But when it was lunchtime and it appropriately had started to rain the last campsite turned out  to be abandoned. No shelter - not even a toilet! Shivering and miserable I spent a very short lunch time under a pine tree. I was now paddling back to where I had started and the last 8 km were exhausting. I was now directly paddling into a strong head wind and made very slow progress. Plus I had to make a lot of detours to avoid long open water crossings. I had expected to be back Getön at 4 pm but just made it at 6 pm with very sore arms. Still, I liked Dalsland for these side arms and fjords. It would have been too dangerous for me to paddle on the big lakes, but here it was so narrow that the wind could not kick up high waves.

The weather remained a mixed bag and therefore I decided to finally have a rest day in civilisation. Töcksfors was a good - and the only choice. By now campgrounds and most youth hostels were closed - only the hostel in Töcksfors remained open year round. I had booked myself a single room. Töcksfors was busy year round due to its location close to the Norwegian border. Norwegians come over in masses to go shopping in cheaper Sweden and the whole place resembles a big shopping mall. According to my seven year old guidebook the youth hostel was close to the guest harbour on the Southern side of town. Therefore I was delighted to see a nice spot to hide my kayak close by. Although I don't think that kayak theft is a big problem in Sweden in October I was glad that I could hide the boat fairly well and didn't have to leave it in plain sight. I would do the portage around the two Töcksfors locks when I was leaving town. Heavily loaded with all my gear I set off to find the hostel.

Boat landing at the hostel
Only then did I realize in a town map that the hostel was at the  totally other side of town - almost two kilometres from my boat hiding place. The walk dragged on forever and I arrived at the hostel sweaty and exhausted. My heart sank even more when I saw that the reception was locked - you had to call a phone number to check in. This posed a big problem. First of all my Swedish cell  phone plan allowed no calls, only data. I had to change to my German SIM card. But more importantly, my batteries were almost gone. Would I have enough power to make the call? Luckily everything worked out and I soon retrieved my room keys with a code given to me in the phone.

From then on things improved rapidly. The hostel was immaculately clean with a great kitchen. My room was fantastic and absolutely quiet despite the fact that the hostel was next to the busy highway to Norway. Here soundproofing works. So when the weather forecast predicted rain for the next day it was a no brainer just to stay another night - especially since I had a lot of work to do.

First of all I could not ignore that the season was finally coming to an end. It was getting colder every day and combine this with rain it is a recipe for disaster if you paddle without a dry suit like me. It was time to think about returning home. I calculated that I would paddle another week and booked everything accordingly. I almost spent an entire day researching cheap return tickets and places to stay in Gothenburg but eventually I mastered all logistical challenges.

Next decision was if to paddle up to Östervallskog or not. This route was a dead end and I would have to come back the same way - and do a two km portage in Töcksfors twice. But the route sounded nice in my guidebook and I decided to give it a try. So next morning I dry off to get my kayak and drag it 2 km through Töcksfors. Luckily the boat was still were I had left it and not many people saw me portaging - there was incredibly thick fog. Not a big problem in Dalsland now - there are hardly any more boats out that can run you over. Plus I had a GPS to help me navigate. It still felt very eerie to paddle into a wall of fog. The fog only lifted in late afternoon. No problem - this way the return route would be kind of a surprise despite having paddled it already.

On the way to Östervallskog
I kind of overdid it that day - and made one big mistake. Portages are usually a sweaty affair and therefore I had not put on a lot of layers when I launched. But it was colder than the days before and soon I was cold - but still reluctant to beach and drag out my dry bags to put on more clothes. On top of all that I had had a very late start but still wanted to make it all the way North to Östervallskog and the last campsite. When I finally arrived there I was shivering and exhausted but there was no shelter, just a plain campsite. With rain every day I decided to head back 3 km to the next shelter where I arrived just before sunset and sightly hypothermic. This was the first night when I put on all my clothes to sleep and still it took forever until my feet were warm again.

But I learnt from that mistake and put on more layers next day on my way back to Töcksfors where I now knew my way around. It would be a long but easy portage back into the Foxen. But first I headed to the Coop supermarket to buy supplies for the rest of this trip and recharge my batteries for the last time. Even the sun came out for a couple of hours - again for the last time on this trip. When I camped that night I wasn't cold.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Västra Silen

Gustavsfors
The lock at Gustavsfors offered the usual portage disaster. First I was delighted to see a boat slip as a very nice take out place. But where to put in again? Two options: Either carry the kayak over a narrow lock bridge with several awkward steps and a "no portage" sign. Or carry it over private property of a canoe rental company, duck under a fence and go around several parking barricades to put in at a very low boat landing, the same type that had made me capsize several days ago. I opted for option two, especially when I had discovered that I could put in at the "dangerous" boat landing but climb in myself at a different and easier spot. Still the whole procedure took two hours and it was late when I arrived at my designated campsite on the Västra Silen.

Västra Silen
Anxiously I awaited the next morning and the weather forecast update. A rather long spell of high winds and rain was predicted for the next several days - but I had to go to Arjäng to buy resupplies. Ideally I would go from my campsite to Arjäng and back in one day because there weren't any other free campsites on the Northern half of the Västra Silen. (Of course I could have wild camped, but who wants to sit in a tent in the rain when there are shelters?) Total distance was almost 30 km in high winds - and I needed time to do the shopping.Therefore I set off very early in the morning and was very relieved to see that I was on the right side of the huge lake. The westerly winds didn't bother me too much along the western shore. I made 16 km in 4 hours - not too bad considering I have a lousy paddling technique. But now I had to do the town stop in record time and of course town centre was 1,5 km from the guest harbour. I wanted to get back to a lovely shelter so desperately that I didn't eat at the local Thai AYCE buffet, didn't visit the library for internet and just had a quick supermarket stop. The latter was difficult because I had to buy supplies for five days.


Västra Silen
Paddling back was more demanding because I was exhausted but I made it to a shelter campsite with half an hour to spare before sunset. I was exhausted but proud of myself. Next day even higher winds and heavy rain was predicted for the afternoon. I just paddled 5 km further to the next campsite and set out to explore the Bufjorden there. I had thought that the strong wind wouldn't bother me much in the relatively small Fjord but as soon as I turned directly into the wind making progress became very hard work. I still explored a portage route (that I wasn't going to take) into the Östra Silen before I reached the shelter just in time before the big downpour. Thank God for shelters!

Again I got up very early the next morning to beat the wind. I had to cross the Västra Silen. The direct route across was only 1 km but I would have the wind sideways - and after capsizing my confidence into my own paddling skills had considerably shrunk. The passage was iffy but not too scary and still I was relieved to be back in the narrow canal Gustafsfors. The lock portage was easy now because I knew exactly where to trespass..... Still it was an unpleasant surprise to find out that the electrical outlets at the locks weren't working because my batteries were running low.


Once outside the canal channel on the Lelang all hell broke loose. The strong winds kicked up a very choppy lake and pushed me sideways. When I beached to relax for a minute I soon realized that this had been a mistake. I now had to get back into my kayak in a big surf and launch into the wind. But the next campsite was only 1 km away - which cost me almost an hour and scared me like hell. I just hoped that there would be a shelter - and there was. I managed to beach without smashing my boat and spent the entire afternoon and next morning watching the rain and the wind. Thank God for shelters!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Dalsland: Köpmannebro to Gustavsfors

Repaired roof
After having already skipped part of the Vänern I at least wanted to paddle the whole Dalsland canal. Therefore I paddled all the way to Köpmannebro, the first lock in the Dalsland canal system. The loop I had done before (Svärdlangen, Västra Silen, Edslan, Annimen) is part of the DANO paddling area but is only accessible by paddlers, not by motor boats due to the portages. As usual everything took longer than expected and I realized I would not make it through the next lock that evening. As rain was predicted I wanted to stay in a shelter - but this was more difficult than expected. I had used various sources to find out the shelter locations but as I started to learn now only one source was reliable. An old German guidebook published in 2007 was totally misleading. Almost half of the campsites mentioned there did not exist any more - mostly closed for renaturation.

Dalsland lock
While checking out these former sites it got later and later. With rain threatening (and having become a wuss who avoids sleeping in a tent....) I finally backtracked to a shelter I had seen earlier this day. But when I arrived I had to discover that the shelter roof was in horrible shape!  Apparently the roof had been leaking and therefore been "repaired" with a tarp. The wooden planks underneath were already rotting. To make things worse the shelter was so low that I could not set up my tent inside.  I just hoped that the "repair" had been sufficient - and it turned out over night that it had been indeed. It didn't rain much but not a single leak occurred.

I still headed off into a drizzle next morning to tackle my first lock. What I saw there was going to repeat itself at almost every lock: no portage route was provided - on the contrary: the only sensible route was marked with "No portage" signs and even blocked by a hedge. Although I can understand these measures in the busy summer time they infuriated me now in off season. Paddlers in the Dalsland canal are required to go through the locks like motor boats - and pay for it: about 3 € per lock chamber. Blocking the possible portages forced paddlers to obey this rule - but what about now when the locks did not work?

Haverud
The next lock, Haverud was one of the worst. It is a major tourist attraction: the canal is in an aqueduct topped by a railway and a road bridge. But how could I get around the several locks? I spent almost an hour to scoop out the options until a local confirmed what I had dreaded: first I had to beach illegally at a fenced off private hotel property, drag my boat across their lawn and cross the water on the high road bridge before descending steeply on a hiking trail and putting in again at a picnic area. Length of portage: around 2 km. At least the next lock, Buterud could by bypassed by paddlers.

Rock carvings
Still, the day ended nicely at Högsbyn nature reserve where you can admire stone age rock carvings and visit burial mounds. I liked the little place so much that it even reconciled me with the fact that the nearby campsite was really camping only - no shelter. This is another Dalsland problem: every map just shows a shelter sign - no matter if it is only a campsite or really a shelter. It didn't matter this evening though - the weather was really nice.

After all this lock disaster I wanted to be really clever the next day. The locks in Mustadfors and Dals Langed are only 1 km apart and I decided to portage around both on a forest road. Little did I know that the forest road was in bad shape and first incredibly steep uphill - and then impossibly steep downhill. When I finally arrived back at the canal sweating and swearing I stood on private property - and the house owners were just having coffee on the terrace. Luckily Swedish people are very friendly and when I asked politely for permission I was allowed to put in at their boat landing. I must have looked really exhausted because they explicitly told me that I could have a little rest there as well....

Portaging on a bike path
Unfortunately it was only two hours to the next set of locks in Billingsfors and again I wanted to do two sets with one portage. This time I was much luckier. Take out was the usual nightmare and u ended up portaging through a cemetery after dragging my kayak up several steep steps. But then things improved. The portage was then next to an abandoned railway line: dead flat and even on a bike path. It ended in a nature reserve next to an the locks that are here bypassing some impressive rapids. All my hopes came true here. Not only did I find a good hiding spot for my kayak but there was also a shelter overlooking the rapids and electrical outlets at the lock switchboard. This was my chance to recharge my cell phone batteries completely without staying in an expensive campground or hostel. I felt like in a Hilton here!

View over the rapids
Next day, next set of locks and shopping day in Bengtsfors. Shitty take out place again and the only feasible put in place was a low boat landing which was so low steep down that I had to ask for help carrying my boat down to it. Then I went shopping. It was a Saturday and when I came back a local race event took place. I waited till nobody looked at me before I tried to climb into my boat. And then disaster struck: I capsized! It was so bad that even the boat went upside down and got full of water. How could this have happened? I had climbed into my boat hundreds of times from boat landings with no problem whatsoever. But when I assessed the problem I noticed the decisive difference. Normally the boat landing is higher than my boat.  Basically I then just have to lower my butt from the landing into my kayak.  Here the landing was lower than my boat and I had not managed to lift my butt up and over the cockpit edge. Instead I had gotten stuck on the cockpit edge - and capsized.

The accident spot
In hindsight it could have been much worse. This is a learning trip and this has been an important lesson. Plus the circumstances were good. It was still fairly warm and I was not freezing.  I had capsized near the landing and could quickly get out without immersing myself completely. I could use the landing to turn the boat around and spread out all my stuff for drying. Unfortunately my dry bags had been to full to close completely and a bit if water had gotten in. And I now knew why I carry a pump! Still it took me over two hours before I could leave - and this time I climbed in in a better and higher spot.... After two hours of paddling I landed at a beautiful campsite with shelter and spent the rest of the evening drying the rest of my stuff.

Next morning I had a rare encounter - I met other paddlers. I guess they were the typical Dalsland paddlers and the reason why I advise everyone not to come here in summer...  They were a group of eight coming out of a campsite just minutes before me. Of course they did not wait to chat. Instead they were going ever which way on the choppy lake. To my great surprise they stopped after only 30 minutes on a set of little islands where half of them whipped out their dicks right in front of me to pee (I guess they hadn't expected me to paddle by so close) and they other half whipping out their cameras to take silly pictures of each other - most of these including beer cans and singing loudly in German. I pretended to be Swedish and paddled on - turning off the main canal again at Gustavsfors.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Dalsland I

Assembling my kayak again
Mathias' offer to pick me up gave me a lot of new options and I decided to start sort of in the middle of Dalsland st Skapafors to do a loop first before paddling the Dalsland canal itself. We first headed to Ösan campsite but when we walked back to the car after checking it out a couple on a motorbike passed us and immediately occupied the site - what a bummer and incredible bad luck. After that I have not seen another occupied campsite...

We ended up at a campsite nearby which was unfortunately close to a relatively busy highway. I still felt like in a luxury hotel, especially in the morning when I awoke to high winds and a drizzle. I decided to take it easy and just stayed in the comfy shelter. Around noon a group of rangers showed up doing a shelter inventory. One of them was German or as he put it: "When the Americans conquered the Wild West they always had an Indian interpreter in their expeditions - here they have a German." I guess that proves pretty much which is the biggest tourist group in Dalsland....

Launching into Svärdlangen
It was incredibly interesting to get some first hand information from him as Dalsland has the reputation of being overrun in summer. The ranger confirmed this although community authorities  are now working in a scheme to regulate the tourist masses, especially since the main "culprit" is a German travel company called Scandtreck. Each summer weekend they shuttle up busloads of Germans from various German cities - including their food. And as Scandtreck as a German company pays taxes in Germany their tourism doesn't leave much in Sweden - except trash.... The ranger was especially condemning the "boot camp" mentality of these tourists - of which I could see a good example when he was gone. A group of four Brits landed - all of them outfitted with Bowie knives on their belts. Of course the first thing they did was chop wood and light a huge fire.... Luckily by then I had assembled my kayak and left them to their bonfire. I just paddled to the next campsite were I had peace and quiet and enjoyed another shelter.

Access to a portage
 I immediately loved Dalsland and realised that it had been the right decision to skip parts of Vänern and come here. The lakes are much smaller and the wind much less of a problem. And I love the shelters...
Still I was struggling a bit next evening when I was on the wrong side of the Västra Silen - the water was very choppy due to high winds. So once I had managed to beach at a campsite I didn't want to leave again and master the waves. The result was a long portage next morning into the Östra Silen where I could mostly stick to the "right" side and paddle out of the wind.

Portage sign
I now had to do several longer portages from one lake into another and they all turned out to be problematic. First of all they are not marked in any map and they were not described in my guidebook either. That meant I had to spend a lot of time scouting out the location. Luckily the portage route was marked on the ground but still I first had to find the put out place - which in the first case was hidden in plenty of reeds. It was therefore already very late when I arrived at the next luxury shelter where I was awoken by a logging truck st 5 am! (Sunrise is at 7 am now....). After doing a 2 km portage I was so sweaty I had to take a quick chilly bath. (Water temperature is around 12 Celsius now). I was dinking around too much and with bathing and washing clothes I arrived too late at the next portage place to complete the 3,4 km portage and paddle to the next campsite. I scooped out the portage and decided to camp at a site nearby. Good choice as it would soon turn out.

3,4 km portage
Because I had plenty of time now I decided to have a campfire although that meant I would have to saw firewood. Knowing my two left hands (and not having safety shoes to protect my toes) I soon concluded that I would have a rather small campfire with the wood left from former campers. I had just coaxed.a fire into life and put grill sausages on the grid when a couple appeared from the nearby summer houses. It soon turned out they were Swiss and we could chat in German. They owned a summer house nearby and soon we were immersed in interesting philosophical talks. They refused my grill sausage but invited me to breakfast next morning - am exciting prospect. I put on my nicest clothes (though I don't have much choice in that compartment) and spent a lovely morning with the Swiss. Shower (with hot water in a heated bathroom), huge breakfast with authentic Bircher Müsli and lots of more interesting talk. I left with my own (and my cell phone batteries) recharged. The 3,4 km portage wasn't so bad after a huge breakfast either.

The next portage into the Animmen unfortunately turned out to be a nightmare. Although around a lock there was no decent put out place and I was afraid of breaking my kayak when lifting it onto the steep quai. Then an impossibly steep portage up and then down again. At least the put in place was a nice sandy beach - and the official campsite on the Animmen a real gem.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Lake Vänern

Mariestad lighthouse
When I left Mariestad campground in the early morning the weather had calmed down completely. The campground flags that had nearly been torn apart by the wind the night before now hung down limply. Even the sun was shining - but my kayak was covered in ice for the first time on this trip. Never mind - it melted quickly. The huge lake was as smooth as a baby's butt again but according to the forecast this wouldn't last very long. Two days of paddling weather followed by three days of high winds. Two days was enough to get me to Lidköping where I had to make a decision about how to continue around the Vänern.

Lake Vänern
I put in a long day which was no problem after almost two days of rest. I almost overdid it in the evening when I passed good campsites only to end up near a huge noisy plant. My "target camping area" lay 3 km further south but if it turned out to be UN-campable I would be stuck because it was already getting late and dark. But I was very lucky: I encountered a picture perfect sandy beach with plenty of camping underneath pine trees. There were even logs around campfire rings. I quickly set up my tent and cook in the dark. The pine trees weren't as good as I thought. When the wind came up at night pine cones were dropping on my tent scaring me every time. And then it even rained in the morning. The weather forecast hadn't improved either... but at least the rain stopped before noon which gave me enough time to get to Lidköping that day.

Campground beach
It was gray and overcast but at least not windy. Still the trip dragged on forever until I finally spotted the sandy beach of Lidköping campground. This turned out to be one last obstacle: the beach was so shallow that I got stuck and the waves swamped me from behind. But all was well in the end after a hot shower and good meal sitting in the campground kitchen.The Vänern decision was quickly made. If I wanted to continue around the Vänern I would have to wait out at least three days. This would cost me a fortune in Lidköping as the campground was 21 € per night. Or I'd be stuck in the archipelago with no civilisation nearby which meant three days in a tent. Plus the outcome was unpredictable: the forecast might change and the winds continue. I decided to pack up my boat and take a train to Dalsland where the lakes are much smaller and there are wind shelters.

So tomorrow was transit day. Everything went do much better than I had expected. My lucky streak started in the morning when a gentleman walking three dogs asked me about my trip. After chatting a bit he not only offered to take me to the train station by car but he also invited me to stay in his summer house in Dalsland at the end of my trip.

Packing up at Lidköping
Once on the bus a man started talking to me in German. Although he was obviously Swedish he knew more about the German political system than me. It turned out he had a German mother and was a politician of the Swedish Green party. Time flew and I quickly arrived in Mellerud where Mathias, a fellow paddler and internet acquaintance picked me up. First we went shopping and then he drove me to a suitable put in place with a shelter. He surprised me written a great barbecue on a disposable grill: garlic bread, chicken skewers and German sausages - a great end for an interesting day.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Paddling the Götakanal: Conclusion and tips

Along the Canal
I enjoyed paddling the Götakanal tremendously and cannot really understand why it is not more popular with paddlers. Especially in September - when the water is still warm but the yachts are gone - this is a great paddling destination even for beginners. Let's start with what I liked about it: Although it is called Götakanal, about half of it is actually lakes including the huge Lake Vättern. Therefore you are closer to nature than you might think. But even the real canal stretches where beautiful and usually set in peaceful and nice countryside. You are hardly ever near ugly industrial sights or busy highways.

The locks - although a nuissance to portage around - are quite scenic in themselves. Luckily they usually come in groups. So if you have to take out your boat you can usually portage it around several locks and then continue on a longer stretch of canal. But also the canal towns were little gems and I often felt like in an Astrid Lindgren book.

Lockkkeeper's hut
The infrastructure was created for yachters and cyclists but is still very useful for paddlers as well. You'll find plenty of supermarkets for resupply, water in all the boat guest harbours and fantastic rest areas made for cyclists. Around each lock there is usually a very nice flat grassy area ideal for camping - and this is legal! Next to each lock is the lock keeper's hut which provides rain shelter if necessary. So free camping is not a problem at all on the Götakanal. When going shopping or overnighting I had to leave my boat unattended. Other than in the US this is not a problem in Sweden. Nothing got stolen or destroyed and I did not have a bad gut feeling when leaving the boat alone.

Last lock in Sjötorp
Because the lakes are relatively small (and the canal narrow) wind and generally bad weather is not such a big problem on the Götakanal. Only the Lake Vättern poses a bit of a problem for paddlers. It is too big to go directly across and going around its Northern shore is beautiful, but can be difficult in high winds.

But not all is perfect: As I have said earlier the canal is maintained mostly for boaters. They have to pay a rather high fee to use the Canal which is used to maintain the locks and infrastructure. Cycle tourism is also encouraged with rest areas and bike maps. In summer there are even bike ferries. But paddling tourism is NOT a priority at all for the Götakanal company. That means that special paddlers' needs are not catered for at all. As the yacht and cycling infrastructure is really good and can be used by paddlers well this creates only two problems for paddlers.


Typical canal bank
The first and foremost one is the lack of decent take out and put in places. Sometimes there is a boat ramp nearby that you can use but this is very rare. Most of the time former paddlers have already created some sort of a half way decent take out place - usually recognisable by trampled grass. But sometimes you are facing the almost impossible, especially when travelling in a rather delicate folding kayak. The canal banks are made out of rather sharp rocks which can easily damage a folding kayak. Sometimes they are not only rocky but also steep. And when bad comes to worst there is a quay that is too high above the water sothat you can't get your boat in or out.

But keep in mind: I was paddling on my own in a folding kayak and had only a boat cart. I am also not the most agile or acrobatic person and I still managed all portages on my own. There were only three times were I had to ask other people for help because I could not handle the kayak alone:

Norsholm (impossible to do alone if you cannot lift and carry your boat over your head because of the railway crossing), Motala (no decent put in place into the lake except the boat landing, but if you tried really hard you could do it yourself) and Toreboda (taking out the boat before the railway bridge is difficult because of steep bank). Luckily Swedish people are very helpful and there are usually people around you can ask for help).

The other minor problem are the bridges. The only bridge that I could not paddle underneath was Toreboda railway bridge. I fit under all other bridges although sometimes it was close. Most of the bridges are roll bridges which means there is a huge chain hanging underneath the bridge. Try to avoid touching that chain: it is really greasy and you won't get the oil off your hands. The same goes for the whole bridge structure: there is always some grease somewhere but sometimes you cannot avoid touching the metal in order to push yourself through.

I have used the NV map atlas for the Götakanal. This is the cheapest option on the market. Swedish boat maps are a lot more expensive. The NV atlas is not bad but does not meet all paddlers' needs. It does not have contour lines which would be handy for choosing a campsite at lakes. It does not show the cyclist rest areas, only harbour facilities. And it does not cover the whole Vättern (which you will need as a paddler but not a boater). The Vänern is only covered in rudimentary maps. 
Motala lock stair

The Götakanal locks are staffed until August 20. After that locking is still possible until end of September but you have to pay for that. That basically means that you will have the canal all to yourself after August 20. I did not see a single other paddler and only very few boats. The Götakanal is therefore best to paddle from end of August to end of September when the water is still warm and the weather still relatively good.