Just Around the River Bled

sabaism n. The worship of stars.

Have you ever noticed how, when you temporarily aren’t allowed to do something, the opportunity and thus temptation to do that thing seems to become more present than usual?  That was swimming for me.  After getting a tattoo, they tell you to wait at least two weeks before going swimming or submerging it in water for too long.  Naturally, I was staying somewhere where beautiful lakes were everywhere.  I had already resisted diving in the tempting teal waters of Vintgar Gorge but when I saw that I could go canyoning and rafting in Bled, fora combined price of 75€, which is pretty cheap for those activities, I couldn’t resist.  My tattoo was just over a week old at this point so I figured it would probably be okay.  I live my life under this “probably mentality” and I’m sure that one of these days, it will get me in trouble, but until then…

So the following morning, I showed up at the adventure outfitters prepped and ready to go.  Rafting was first, and after being shuttled out to the river in a minivan, given a lifevest and a helmet, and being divided into four different rafts.  We pushed out onto the river.  As a solo traveler, I sometimes experience something I have started referring to as “odd man out syndrome”.  This was one of those cases.  Nearly everyone on the trip was there with family and then there was me.  Not entirely sure what to do with me, they threw me into a boat with a small family from Israel.  While at first I felt like a completely awkward outside, both the family and our guide, an ex-Olympic skier named Urban, were quick to make me feel included and welcome.    The family consisted of a mother, father, and their two daughters, one of them a tan skinned, lanky teen with soft eyes and the other a chubby little nine year old with carrot orange hair and a gap between her teeth.  Other than the shyness shared between the two, you would hardly know they were sisters.  The little one, especially was shy, and for the most part she sat in the bow of the boat, with her face nestled in her life vest.  Toward the end, Urban managed to get her a bit more excited when he let her sit in the back of the boat and act as the “guide”.

The reason this was okay to do was because the river was extremely mild.  I would be lying to say I wasn’t disappointed a bit in the wildness of the river, but coming from a place where I’ve rafted over class IV rapids, classes I-II, like those on this river, just didn’t really cut it.  But for all it lack in adrenaline, the river made up for in beauty.  The waters of the river were a bright turquoise that appeared even greener when reflecting the lush, dense foliage around its banks.  It was tranquil and captivating, even if it was a bit different form what I expected and I made up for any lulls in my interest by humming a certain appropriate Disney song to myself: “What I like most about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice; the water’s always changing, always flowing.  But people I guess can’t live like that we all must pay a price.  To be safe we lose our chance of ever knowing what’s around the river bend.”  It also allowed the rafting guides to let us do some fun activities intermittently throughout the trip, like swimming, balancing and walking around the edges of the raft, getting in splash fights with other rafts, rowing the boat into little spinning eddies, and more.  At one point, we all pulled the rafts up on a little island in the middle of the river and spent a small bit of time jumping off a high rock and body surfing down the rapids.

In the gaps between, it left a lot of time for talking.  As per usual, the subject of my travels and my experienced arose.  You would think I would get tired of talking about them but I never seem to.  “You’re brave,” the mother said to me in response to me telling her I had been traveling alone.  That’s something I get quite frequently, as if people are surprised that a young girl is capable of backpacking alone.  Which is funny, because I don’t feel brave.  As I’m standing in the middle of a sidewalk staving off a panic attack because I can’t find my hostel, I feel anything but brave.  Often times, I feel like a child just stumbling through.  But while I don’t feel brave, I don’t really feel afraid either.  I get frustrated, angry, sad, but rarely ever afraid, which is another question I get a lot.  In general I have very few material fears; I’m not afraid of snakes, or heights, or spiders (though it wasn’t always that way).  I’m more afraid of abstract concepts: failure, living an unspectacular life, not being happy.  To me, solo travel isn’t something to be afraid of and I think people would surprised at safe it actually feels.  The media is filled with things that feed our fears and make us believe that the world is a dark and dangerous place.  While it can be, and it is important to recognize the grains of truth behind those myths, it is not so terrible as most would like to believe and the fastest way to get over those fears of the world is to throw yourself into it and see the truth.

When the rafting adventure was over, I was driven back to the base office to wait to be picked up for the canyoning part of my day.  I was really looking forward to canyoning.  I had never done anything like it before and I didn’t really know what to expect, which was good because it meant my expectation couldn’t really be wrong like they had been earlier.  I was picked up in a van filled with German kids from a youth group in Munich and their supervisor, a girl named Janna who was not too much older than me from what I could tell.  We hit off right away and talked all the way to the canyoning drop point, where were given piles of gear and instructed to put it on.  First came the wet suit, a thick neoprene padding that made me starting sweating instantly, and to make it worse, we then had to put on a wet suit jacket over the wet suit we were already wearing.  Once we were all dressed, we had to hike up a hill to the top of the canyon run we would henceforth we descending down.  Easier said than done with all the gear we were wearing.  Walking around bow-legged in my moon boots, climbing harness, and white helmet, I found myself feeling a bit like a space man.

Our guide’s name was Luca and after going over a few basic rules, instructions, and safety guidelines with us, we plunged into the canyon, literally.  The first stunt was a jump into a narrow pool of unknown depth, nestled in a little rock bowl.  When my turn came in line, I took a breath and leapt.  Seconds later, I was plunging into the 5° water of the canyon, only feeling the cold nip at my hands and head.  When my head surfaced in the poor, Luca, who was straddling the otter slide we were next meant to slide down on our stomachs, said, “You know how to swim?”  What?  Of course I know how to swim.  “The swim normally next time,” he told me.  I thought I was doing that.  I wasn’t sure what all the gear had made me do but apparently it had distorted my swimming to something unrecognizable and likely embarrassing.  I became acutely self-conscious of this for the rest of the trip but not another word was said so I assume I corrected whatever it was.

As I stood up on land after the otter slide, I felt the rush of warmth spread down my body as I lifted out of the water and for a second, it almost felt like peeing, which was concerning considering we were told the one rule was not to pee in the wet suits (or die but that was more implied than anything).  I rarely ever use wet suits at home so the feeling was new to me and each time I emerged from the icy water I had to remind myself that I wasn’t actually peeing. 

For the next two hours, we worked our way down the cold canyon, past a myriad of obstacles like muddy slopes, zip lines, steep drops we had to rappel off of, jumps, slides, and bits of technical climbing.   It was amazing, like nothing I have ever experienced before.  Geologically, the canyon was fascinating, the way the water had carved out the basins so smoothly.  Physically, it was fairly demanding and always a bit of a challenge.  Two of the other girls in our group proved that, as they were about incapable of understanding how to maneuver any of the obstacles and one finally ended up hurting her ankle.  At points, I’ll admit is was a bit scary.  Some of the jump pools were narrow and fairly shallow and you always had to guard your legs when plunging into them.  A lot of the slides zipped around narrow corners and you had to push yourself down them without any idea what you were plunging into.  I was constantly knocking my shins, knees, and elbows on rocks. But despite that, it was such an amazing experience and the only good thing that came from the end of it was getting to peel off the wet suit.

That done, I inspected my tattoo.  All seemed to be okay so no harm done.  The rafting earlier had given me pictures of the day for free, but the canyoning was not about to do that and instead wanted to charge 20€ for a flash drive of the photos.  While I really wanted to photos of this experience, I was not about to drop that much money on them.  However, one of the other guys in our group did buy them and a few of us asked if we might be able to give him some money for him to send them to us.  “I’m really happy to send them without you paying,” he said, but we insisted.  We each handed over 5€ on the trust that this guy would follow through with his promise.  I know he was still traveling for a bit and probably wouldn’t get around to sending them right away.  As of now, I still have not received the pictures so we’ll see if my travel inspired trust will come back to bite me in this instance or not.

That night, what was meant to be my last night in Bled, I talked to Tom regarding the possibility of me staying an extra night.  There was still some areas I wanted to check out and I felt as though I could definitely shave a day off Salzburg in favor of staying there.  I wasn’t very optimistic on the chances of a bed being available, but I at least had my tent and since the hostel was private property, I thought maybe he’d let me stay there.

“I’m technically not allowed to dot hatMy neighbors call and I get in trouble so you just say you came in the night and no one was there.  That way, nothing bad happens to either of us.”  I liked Tom more and more by the minute.  So I was officially staying in Bled for another full day.  On my last night in my room, I packed up my stuff in preparation of moving outside the following day.  My new roomies were a pair of American guys, named Caleb and Shane, who were only staying in bled for a very short stint and would be headed out early the next morning.  Once they left, I would once again be the lone American in a sea of Brits staying the hostel.

Before going to bed that night, I decided to hand wash a few of my clothes in the sink, especially my sweaty hiking ones.  I was trying to get away with not having to do laundry again until I got to Sinah’s in another ten days and I was going to fall just short.  Washing only the most necessary things, I hung them out on the clothes line on the upstairs balcony only to be awoken by screaming wind and a seizing panic in the middle of the night.  My clothes!  I bolted out of bed and ran to check on my laundry.  It was whipping wildly around as lightning flash through the sky but it at least seemed to be all there. I quickly began collecting it from the line and was soon joined by the one of the Americans who also had his laundry out there.  Considering it was the middle of the night, I couldn’t be bothered to find an alternative drying spot so instead I just threw it in a pile on the floor and went back to bed.

Once my laundry was rehung the next morning, I set out fairly early to take a bus to the nearby town of Bohinja, situated on a lake slightly larger than Bled.  But my desination was Bohinja itself, but rather a large waterfall called Savica Slap just west of the lake.  The bus dropped me off on the far western shores and I walked about 3km toward the falls only to find I had to actually pay to go see them.  Between the fee and the massive crowds of people flooding up the paved trail, I opted for the road less traveled, taking a path that went to some unknown location straight up the mountain.  According to the trial signs, it would lead me to some mountain hut in about three hours.  From there, I could loop around to another tiny mountain lake far above Bohinja before finally descending back down to my starting point.  It was an ambitious hike for not really having a terribly great amount of time, but I was going to give it a go and just push it hard. 

That’s exactly what I did.  Rather than follow the path over the steep switchbacks of the slope, I cut right up the steeper middle, taking long powerful strides to increase speed.  My legs were dead from the past few days of hiking.  Every muscle was sore and shaky and I struggled for a bit, stumbling over various rocks and roots, one time absolutely nailing my shin in the very spot I had hit it several times in the past weeks.  In a flurry of curse words, I pushed on, now acutely aware of the throbbing in my shin with each step until I finally settled into a determined rhythm where all physical limitations and ailments just fell away.  I passed group after group, stopped only briefly to talk to one Dutch couple who commented on my hiking speed.  An hour and a half later, the Dom na Komni hut and old Feldspital, or field hospital, came into view, meaning I had remarkably shaved the time in half.

The trail I had walked was used as an important supply trail for the 50th infantry division in Krn mountain during WWI over which soldiers with Bosnian mountain ponies to carry cargo to the supply site.  Pretty soon, however, horses became too inefficient to bring up the massive amounts of supplies through snow and instead, a supply cableway was installed in 1915 which carried 40-50 tons of material every day.  The cableway was station was located about 15 minutes away at Koča pod Bogatinom, where I took a brief detour to see next. 

Feeling proud of the time I was making but still needing to push it, I didn’t dawdle at either of these places and instead set off down the trial toward Črno Jezero.  Pretty soon, I was all but running down the trail.  What began as a light downhill jog to take pressure off my joints on the grade turned into an odd burst of motivation that had me trail running for the next couple kilometers through the dense, prehistoric feeling forest, passing groups of people every so often.  Everyone always seems surprised that I hike alone, but to me it never feels like a big deal provided you have some sense of self and situation awareness.  Only once on this hike did I feel uneasy and that was when I ran across a pair of guys going the opposite direction who stopped to talk to me for a few moments.  I couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the way one of them was looking at me.  “Are you out here alone?” he asked.  No sooner did the word, “Yes,” stupidly escape my lips that I mentally kicked myself for saying that.  I mean, no, my giant 6’6” boyfriend is coming up just behind me.  It was too late for that though so I said goodbye and made sure to put some distance between myself and them just in case.

I reached the lake about an hour later.  While the lake was a pretty deep blue teeming with schools of minnows, the overall scape of the area was a bit unimpressive.  To one side of the lake was a large rock wall separating the lake from the lush forest and to the other was a field of white limestone boulders that eventually disappeared into the mountainside looming high above.  There in the hot afternoon sun, I began to notice the tolls of thirst.  I hadn’t taken a large water bottle with me, figuring I would probably be able to fill it at various points in mountain streams along the way.  I did not account for the possibility of not finding a single stream.  I had been skimping on water for the past couple hours, only taking small sips barely enough to wet my cracking lips.  By now, the tips of my fingers and my nose were starting to tingle, a sure sign of dehydration for me.  I was doing jsu fine on time so the descent down the mountain would no longer be a race to catch the bus, but to get t water.

I left the lake and began the downward climb, all the while quietly singing an old Marty Robbins cowboy tune to myself, “All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water… Cooooool water.”  From the time I was small, I loved that song and my grandpa always delighted in telling me the story of the time when I was around three years old and we were four-wheeling back to camp in a rainstorm with me sitting in front of him singing that song and bobbing my helmeted head clunkily to the beat.  “Keep a movin’ Dan, don’t ya listen to him Dan, he’s a devil not a man, and he spread the burning sand with water…. Coooool water.”  Some things never change, I guess.

The way down was slow going, alternating from tedious scree slides to steep via ferrata trails where I was literally walking on steps of iron rebar drilled into the mountain, but at the same time I love things like that so it was exciting enough to distract me from my thirst.  As I neared the base, the trail split off, one side going toward the waterfall that I had refused to pay to see earlier.  Thinking this was a nice chance for me to catch a glimpse of it, I took the path and ended up not below the falls but on top of them, standing right at the source of water pouring form a dark cavern in the side of the mountain.  Just over the edge, I could see the viewing platform on the opposite side far below crowded with people.  After refilling my water bottle with the icy waters of a mountain spring trickling down the rock wall, chugging it all, and repeating the process several more times, I climbed down to the source of the falls, rock climbing down a short little wall until I stood right at the mouth of the cave.  For a split second, I honestly contemplated taking a quick dip in the pool.  The dark turquoise called to me but though it calm and serene, I could tell by the high volume of water pouring in and out of the deep cauldron that undercurrents were strong and would quickly pull me form the pool to the next and the next, smashing me off the rocks like a game of pinball, and over the falls I’d go.  I could see the headline: American killed falling off Savica Slap: country stereotype reinforced.

I left the falls, slightly disappointed that I had still not actually gotten to see the waterfall itself, but I at least knew where the falls were so perhaps the chance to get a glimpse of it would present itself later down the trail. It didn’t.  All I ran into was a thick wall of willows separating me from the tantalizingly close roar of the water on the other side.  Letting my stubbornness take over, I came up with sorts of ideas to see it; climbing down the mountainside until the willows broke, inching out on a fallen log hanging over the gorge anchored to the mountainside by only rotting roots, hanging onto willows and repelling down, each one more stupid and unsuccessful than the last.  Pretty soon, however, I came upon another fork in the trail with one branch leading directly in the direction of the falls.  Was it really so easy?  Nope.  It ended up being a water plant and not far along the trail I was confronted with a no entrance sign.  Normally a sign is not enough to stop me but the mysterious flash of red I was greeted with as soon as I stepped past it indicated this place wasn’t guarded by your typical lack of security.  There was something else in play here and I didn’t want to risk it.

I finally made it back to the base of the falls, still without seeing the falls themselves, where I disappointedly turned around and walked back into the town to the bus stop.  By now, I could feel the toll the speed of the day in combination with the strain of my previous few days on my muscles and I wanted nothing more than to collapse in bed, maybe not move until I had to leave the next afternoon.  Arriving back at my hostel, I noticed what a supremely lovely evening it was: pleasantly warm, not a cloud in the sky.  Why sleep in a tent when I could sleep in the hammock under the stars.  I cleared it with Tom then rolled out my sleeping back on the hammock and, with a small amount of difficulty, climbed in.  At first, I regretted my decision, realizing how difficult it is to roll over in a hammock.  I’m a pretty active sleeper and as I wriggled helplessly in the lime green tube from one side to the other, I could just envision myself being awoken by the hard ground at some point in the night.  For a while, I lay still on my back, partially because I was too afraid to try rolling over again and partially because the stars scattering the black sky were enchanting.  I have always loved stars but, growing up in Montana where there is no shortage on stars, I took them for granted.  It wasn’t until I left to Philadelphia and all manner of stars were lost to the light pollution that I realized how much I missed them.  Now, I make a point to appreciate every star in the sky whenever I have the chance to gaze upon them.  As my eyelids grew heavy though, I realized I would have to go to sleep at some point, and I attempted rolling onto one side again.  For a little while, every rolling over was a small victory, but after a bit I got used to the motion, the technique of it, and I fell into a sound sleep.

… At least until a group of drunk British girls stumbled back from a pub crawl at 4am and decided the nearby picnic table was the perfect place for a drunk snack and a conversation about “all they guys they could have gone home with” that night. Ugg… Congratu-fuckin-lations, I’m so proud, now can I go to sleep?  What was worse is that they saw me sleeping there so it wasn’t a matter of them just not knowing they were being disturbing but actively and rudely choosing to be.  Somehow, I fell back asleep through their chatter and made sure to talk just a little bit too loudly to them the next day when they woke up looking a bit hungover.

A large part of me wanted to just have a lie in and not leave the hostel that morning until I needed to catch the bus for the train station.  Unfortunately, there was still one quintessential Bled activity I had yet to accomplish and had I left not doing it, I’m sure I would have regretted it.  With tired legs, I trudged into town, walked all the way around to the opposite of the lake, and started a steep climb up to the Mala Osojnica view point, which took me 685m above the town to a lovely view of Lake Bled, the tiny church on its center island, the town on the far shore, the Gorenjska plain to the east, the northern Karavanke mountain range, and the Kamnik Alps.  All of it combined together in one stunning panorama and suddenly, leaving the hostel seemed like a great idea.

I went back to hostel to pick up my stuff and thank Tom for everything he had done for me before once again moving on.  I first needed to take a bus from Bled to the LEsce train station, from which I would take a train to Villach and change to my final train to Salzburg.  It was a tedious and complicated itinerary that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to and the fact that I was leaving I place I had grown so fond of made it even more daunting.  I had really grown to like Bled in my time there. It was so much like home that I couldn’t help but feel that nostalgic tug on my heart telling me to stay.  But, like Lisa St. Aubin de Teran said, “Traveling is like flirting with life. It's like saying, I would stay and love you but I have to go. This is my station!”