Analog Adventure in a Digital World
I have not seen any signs of boating life in six days. When the fog lifts, around 11am each morning, I carry my Feathercraft kayak to the dock and paddle out of the bay. This section of the lake is full of options, and I point into another of the countless bays to explore.
Flooded valleys lie beneath, masking generations of history. Hilltops breach the surface in unexpected places creating islands. When I float above the river’s original course, the depths can reach 100 meters.
On the seventh day out, I spot a fishing boat. I recognize it from my last time here. It is from Alqueva village, near the dam.
The lake is not on any radar for several reasons. It didn’t exist until 2002 and only first reached the full level in 2010. Few local farmers are interested in it other than as an irrigation source. Lower Alentejo has a deep-seated farming tradition. Cows, sheep, olives, and cork oak are more important than boats. Below the dam, big agriculture is taking advantage of the newfound water supply.
On the lake itself, the lack of infrastructure supporting the recreational side of the lake is evidence nobody has recognized its potential.
Lake Alqueva is about 90km long, sizeable by European standards. The flooded valleys create over 1100 km of shoreline, yielding an endless array of arms to discover. Although artificial, it is the largest lake in western Europe.
I paddled the south end near the dam in November 2019, the northern section from Mourao in January 2020. In a word: wow! At the time, a map scan revealed the best opportunities were accessed from Estrela. I planned to base myself there next time. There was a Covid pause.
I returned to the shores of Lake Alqueva in November 2021, parking next to the dock in Estrela. The village is mostly empty. Fewer than half the 40-odd homes are currently occupied. Sabores da Estrela restaurant is closed for the season. The only spot open, Associacao de Moradores de Aldea da Estrela, offers a limited selection of wine, liquor, and a small menu. And Sagres beer.
David is one of the few young people around. He left Lisbon to live in nearby Moura and help his mother run the place. He is friendly and welcoming. Over the next four weeks, with David as interlocutor, the old men sipping wine learn where I am from and what I am doing.
I paddle daily unless Mother Nature decides otherwise. A few days of rain kept me ashore. And when high winds rolled through for a couple more days, a book seemed a better companion than a paddle.
Each day around sunset, I walk up the street for a beer. After a few days, I am sure everyone has talked about the Canadian kayaker. The old women, dressed in obligatory black, smile at my ‘boa tarde’ and respond in kind. The old man who spends sunny days sitting in front of the church tracks my trips to collect water. His perfunctory greetings of early days lead to questions. How much water do my dromedaries hold (4 litres each), how many litres for a shower (8), and was it cold in the van (no).
Antonio is one of the few younger people, a youthful beef cattle farmer of 55. If you don’t count the grandkids who show up for visits every Sunday, there are only two other people younger.
Rui Pedro is a geography teacher at Moura secondary school. His education pedigree is impressive, including studying at St. Andrews University, Scotland. What interested me was his Ph.D. in Geography focused on the dam’s construction and its impacts. He is a fountain of knowledge.
“You know, it is a myth that Luz was the only town displaced. Hundreds of farms were impacted, with most abandoned and lying in ruin, as you can see,” he says.
It’s true. No matter where I paddle, there are crumbling buildings. The young people have all left the region, making a beeline for Lisbon and further. Farms have fallen into disrepair, resembling ruins more than ancient glory days. I cannot decide if I am watching the cows or vice versa.
In time, I discover the local connection with Switzerland … good pay. Jose speaks French from his time there, and Domingos speaks Swiss-German perfected over decades as the butler to a wealthy family. I buy them a “mini” – small Sagres beer – and they ask questions.
David translates to English or Jose to French. I often reply in Spanish so Antonio can get in on the chit-chat. He loves to complain about speaking English when David, Rui Pedro, and I talk.
The lake is a paddler’s paradise. Round a point or island and discover another arm that extends for miles. I choose not to look at digital maps and discover analog-style, allowing the lake to reveal itself. This is more satisfying than plotting a course, and fate is my guide.
The distance from one side to the other, widest in this section, rarely exceeds 6km. And that’s if you choose the most wide-open shot. Perspective from water level can be misleading. What appears to be a point is, in fact, an island concealing another bay to explore. Near the end of my four weeks, I set out thinking I must have seen it all, only to discover another labyrinth of inlets to check out.
With water came waterfowl, and hundreds of bird species have shifted flight paths for lake life. Several species I recognize, including the particularly massive blue herons that stand chest high, occasionally more. Ducks, ducks and more ducks. I round a point and enter a bay where hundreds take offence at my presence and take flight with angered quacks at the intruder.
I find the storks especially interesting. They talk with their mate on the ground and in the air. One morning, I sipped coffee and eavesdropped on a pair chatting back and forth over the three hundred meters of water separating them. I imagined the conversation playing out in low singing sounds.
“Are you there?”
“Is everything okay?”
"Did you find any interesting snacks?”
“No, just the usual. How about you?
"Follow me. We'll look over there."
As the song says, “the secret to a long life’s knowing when it’s time to go.”
An Atlantic storm was set to hit the coast and bring foul weather. I disassembled my kayak and stored it in the van. In the bar, for a final beer, Antonio told me I would be missed. David gave me a hug and told me I was always welcome. We wished each other Merry Christmas, and the following day I was off.
Words and Images by Tim Morch