Tirol‘s central lifeline begins as a wild mountain stream at the Swiss border and rushes with impressive power through the Imster Schlucht gorge near the town of Landeck. From there it continues its journey a more gentle fashion through the rest of the region. We set out to discover life on the Inn and followed its flow in a canoe all the way to the border in Kufstein.
In some ways, the Inn really is everywhere you look in Tirol. The regional capital, Innsbruck, takes its name from the river. The main motorway, the Inntalautobahn, runs along its banks and is familiar to all Austrians from traffic reports on the radio. The western part of the Inn, near the Swiss border, is a hotspot for wildwater enthusiasts, with the spectacular Imster Schlucht gorge offering top conditions for rafting. Then, as the river heads further east, its importance for both locals and visitors seems to slowly ebb away.
The 140-kilometre stretch of the Inn between the village of Haiming in the west and the point where it crosses the German border near Kufstein is one most people only see out of their car window – a wide body of water rich in sediment. Just a few moments later, many have already forgotten it. In 2018 the regional government of Tirol introduced legislation dictating that the 80 kilometres to the east of the Imster Schlucht gorge must be kept “without interruption to the continued flow of water”, effectively placing this section of the Inn under protection and preventing the construction of any new hydroelectric power plants, building complexes, etc. on its banks. Just a few years ago, when work was underway to straighten the meandering Inn, any such regulation would have been unthinkable. But it begs the question: Is there any nature left in the Inn, this once wild river today tamed to prevent flooding? Can wildlife be found amidst the motorway service stations, towns and flood walls keeping the rushing spring meltwater at bay?
On a boiling hot August weekend with clear blue skies giving way to impressive thunder clouds in the evening, we set out to discover what is left of the Inn’s natural flora and fauna. It is in Haiming, in the west of Tirol, that our journey begins in two inflatable canoes packed with swimming gear and food. Just a few paddle strokes are enough to take us into the middle of the river. As cars rush past on the motorway, we let the river dictate our speed of travel. The mountains of the Mieming Plateau glide by, our perspective changing by the minute. Then, all of a sudden, we see the mighty rockface of the Martinswand streching high into the sky above us. While we ponder which mountain, which town, which tributary just passed by, it dawns on us how the Inn has shaped this landscape for millions of years – and how much we take the river for granted as a constant companion whenever head off into the mountains to go climbing, hiking or biking.
We are the only ones out on the river. Canoeing guidebooks for Tirol tend to focus on the Upper Lech river und the family-friendly Lake Achensee. When it comes to the Inn, all we can find are a few brief notes in a guide published by the German Canoe Association: “From Haiming eastwards to Kufstein the Inn is gentle wildwater. Unfortunately, the river has been very much tamed.“ With so little information available, even the preparation for our mini-adventure was a journey of discovery in its own right.
The equipment we are using has been hired from Faszinatour in Haiming. Marcel Pachler, who is in charge of a team of guides offering daily rafting sessions in the Imster Schlucht gorge, took a quick look at us from head to toe before warning us about a tricky section of swirling water under a bridge and sending us on our way with the words: “From there on it’s more or less straight all the way.” He’s right. The only challenge we face – apart from the bridge he mentioned – is a tricky bit near Brixlegg, around 100 kilometres from where we set off. The river is omnipresent as we drift around bends and past fluvial forests towards the regional capital Innsbruck. We see herons cross from one side of the river to the other with just a few slow-motion flaps of their wings. I spy a beaver swimming against the current, his nose just above the waterline. Horses stand proud on the banks of the river next to a ranch, just like in one of those Western films. Far above are birds of prey using the thermal winds to spiral into the sky.
All of a sudden we are in Innsbruck. We are travelling at such a speed that we only just manage to pull over and stop by the high wall next to the indoor market in the centre of the city. In Innsbruck and Kufstein, the two largest settlements on the Inn, people are slowly beginning to rediscover the river as an enriching part of the urban environment. We pick up a coffee-to-paddle and answer a few questions from curious onlookers (“You’re not seriously going all the way to Kufstein?”), but soon we feel a little out of place in the fast-moving world of downtown Innsbruck.
For a few days, we are river people – and we are almost alone. The only other people we meet on, or to be more precise in, the water is a group of swimmers in wetsuits drifting downstream with a case of beer and broad smiles. On the banks of the Inn, however, we can see what water does to people both here in Tirol and around the world: is gives us life. We see families wading through clear mountain streams that tumble into the Inn over small rock waterfalls. We float past a gravel bank full of naked sunbathers. Reggae music pumps out of speakers mounted on pick-up trucks parked next to the river. Behind a motorway service station somebody has set us a temporary rock ‘n‘ roll stage with a campfire and a stack of speakers fighting to drown out the sound of the cars and lorries rushing by.
Budding river rats who don’t fancy camping but do have a change of dry clothes and decent boat-handling skills can stay the night at the Schlosshotel Mitterhart in Vomp – the perfect place for a good night’s sleep to get you ready for the final 60 kilometres on day two. The second half of the journey – with the exception of that one tricky bridge section near Brixlegg – is significantly more chilled than the first. After their weir in Kirchbichl the water becomes faster before calming on the approach to Kufstein. Tired arms make the final few kilometres hard work as the cars zoom past at what seems like the speed of light. Rather that paddling hard to get to the end as quickly as possible, we decide to take our time – after all, for the past two days it has been the Inn, this wild piece of nature winding its way through civilization, that has dictated the pace of life and given us moments we will never forget.