While based in Mulhouse for a month we decided to take Wanderlust out for an overnight stay near the Rhine terminus of the Canal du Rhône au Rhin. This excursion was driven by our curiosity about the remaining as yet unseen portion of the canal. Besides, making it to the end would let us claim victory; we would have traveled the full length of the southern arm of the Rhône-Rhine. A detail like this one matters to us more than it should.
Thus on the morning of the 13th of June we pulled up Wanderlust’s ropes and carefully extracted her from the tight quay-side spot in Mulhouse’s port. Pivoting about we aimed her bow to the northeast. Easing forward on the power we slipped out of the port, into the adjacent tunnel, and off towards the Rhine.
As Wanderlust moved slowly away from the center of Mulhouse we watched as the urbanity slowly dissolved away replaced at first by a mix of industry and single-family homes and then by well kept agricultural lands and forest. Relative to their centers the fringes of French cities are less polished and often far from scenic. They are interesting nonetheless. The outskirts offer glimpses of the practicalities of everyday existence in France, the mostly hidden industrial underpinnings that keep modern life moving. If you buzz by the on the autoroutes at 130 kph you miss this part of French life. Perhaps that is a good thing for some. But on a slow moving barge drifting forward on the water at 6 kph the soft boundaries of the metropolitan areas are impossible to ignore.
A fellow boater we met in Mulhouse’s port had told us that there were a couple of pleasant moorings near the Niffer terminus of the canal. Roughly 10 kilometers as a crow flies from the port we slowed and drifted by the first of the two pontoon moorings noted in our map book. It looked attractive, as did the second mooring. But for now we passed by continuing on to the two locks at the end of the canal.
Despite its name the Canal du Rhône au Rhin does not connect directly to either of its namesake rivers. The canal’s western terminus connects to the River Saône not the Rhône as advertised. The Saône-Rhône river confluence is 100 miles to the south in Lyon, so it’s not exactly close. On its eastern end the canal ends up near the Rhine, but not actually on river. Instead the canal terminates into the Grand Canal d’Alsace, roughly 700 meters from the Rhine and the French-German border.
The Grand Canal d’Alsace, completed in 1959, is a large commercial waterway navigable by big boy barges displacing up to 5000 metric tons. (Five thousand metric tons, roughly 11 million pounds, is the equivalent of 138 fully loaded semi-truck trailers.) This waterway was built over a 22-year period to replace the Canal de Hunnigue, the section of the Canal du Rhône au Rhin that originally bypassed the otherwise unnavigable section of the Rhine nearby. Thus the Rhône-Rhine once did actually connect to the River Rhine, but it does not now, at least not directly.
An entrance for a remaining usable section of the Canal de Hunnigue sits just beside the small lock in Niffer. This segment of the Hunnigue is navigable for two kilometers allowing access to a pleasure boat port in Kembs. We floated at the entrance of the Hunnigue for a couple of minutes considering whether we wanted to take Wanderlust to Kembs and possibly spend a night there. But the entrance to the canal looked narrow, overgrown, and uninviting. If we couldn’t get to the turnaround in Kembs it would be a long and painful process to back out. And even if we did make it to Kembs it was not clear we could moor there. In the absence of better information, and maybe an advance phone call to the port, it seemed most sensible to pass on taking Wanderlust to Kemps this. Maybe it’s something we can do in the future.
After considering our options in front of the small lock we spun about and headed back the direction we came. Back up the canal we picked the Halte de Hombourg, a small pontoon just large enough for Wanderlust, as a place for the night. The mooring would be ours alone, a short-term waterfront property in the middle of the Alsatian countryside. Aside from the low rumble of an occasional large commercial barges passing by it was quiet. Rural moorings like this one feel like camping out, though “glamping” would seem a more appropriate word, as we had all the conveniences of home on board.
The next morning we returned back up the canal to our hired spot in Mulhouse’s port.
It still surprises us that the Europeans let us cruise so widely on their waterways. Often we see so few boats moving. It seems hard for governments to justify keeping these waterways open, but they do. Someday we fear this privileged access may inevitably disappear; the waterway infrastructure is expensive to maintain. But for now we will enjoy our opportunity to experience parts of France that few others get to see.
Out and back this excursion covered 35 kilometers. Wanderlust passed through the same lock in Mulhouse, Écluse 41, twice. Her engine ran for 6.2 hours.
The route from Mulhouse to Niffer: