Papa writes, “The Ems is a fascinating little river from a landscape point of view but not like one would envision from reading the river and camping guide. Our trip resembled a rather strenuous exploratory expedition through sparsely populated jungle territories. Numerous weirs – some were not even mentioned in the tour guide – forced us to portage our heavy gear for a 700-metre distance and longer. We were the only long-distance paddlers on the river. That was partly due to the bad weather. At least, we had picked the most tolerable three weeks of this rained-out summer.
We launched our canoe in Warendorf east of Münster, and broke off the journey at Meppen near the Dutch border. I wanted to move on, but I allowed myself to be guided by the basic principle: Ce que la femme veut, Dieu veut aussi. (What the wife wants, God wants also.) And it was the right decision. The weather, by now, had deteriorated such that stubbornly going on would have ended in disaster.
For Biene, not yet sixteen years old, holding a different notion of a romantic vacation, the River Ems had been a highway of tears. On top of spending a lot of time in the rain, she suffered through unpleasant experiences that her parents strangely found delightful and very nutritious. She painfully recalls one incident when her mother returned from a nearby farm with a pail of milk so recently milked that it was still steaming. For Mama and Papa, it was the ultimate earthly pleasure and a gift from hell for the children.
Ten years passed before the Panknin family could dream about camping and canoeing again. After securing financial security, they started with short local trips to the nearby Baldeney Lake at the Essen-Werden Campground. When they fled Soviet-controlled East Germany in 1954, they had to leave their belongings behind, including their camping gear and folding boats. So they bought, bit by bit, tents, air mattresses, cooking utensils and, of course, last but not least, folding kayaks. It was at the Werden Campground where I met, under the most mysterious circumstances, my future wife Gertrud Panknin (Biene) on the long Pentecost weekend in May 1962.
At this time, Papa had already given up his dream of going on extensive boating excursions with his family due to the children’s reluctance to accept their father’s river paddling fantasies. Also, Mama’s health was rapidly declining, and she was no longer willing to participate in strenuous travel adventures.
In 1960, Papa, prompted by sweet nostalgic memories of his journey on the Danube in 1939, decided on a similar expedition on the idyllic little River Weser that flows northwestern into the North Sea. No matter how carefully he had planned the river adventure down to the last detail, he could not order suitable weather for their journey. Always good with words, especially when presented in writing, he describes with a bitter touch of regret the misery his rebellious family was no longer willing to endure.
Papa Panknin and his wife, Elisabeth (1900 -1974), have been outdoor enthusiasts for as long as I can trace back their vacation activities. Bodies of water, be it the Baltic Sea, lakes, or the mighty rivers of Germany, had always exerted a magical attraction. So it is unsurprising to learn that their love of the great outdoors led them to camping trips, which often included boating adventures in their folding kayaks. Three events, spread over three decades, stand out as highlights for the Panknin family.
Established in 1907, the German boat manufacturing company Klepper is still building folding kayaks. Papa owned one of these floating marvels and took his wife and stepdaughter Elsbeth on an adventurous journey on the Danube from Passau to Vienna in 1939. Then the horrible World War II broke out and ended their idyllic lifestyle.
When content with the most primitive and essential camping gear, you can still enjoy nature at a very low cost. While living in the former German Democratic Republic under the control of the Soviet Union, my father-in-law and his family pulled a tent, camping utensils, and folding boat out of storage. They set up camp at the lovely meadows at the Saaldorf campground in Thuringia, near Gotha, Biene’s birthplace.
Retired Major Panknin enjoyed being out in nature and helping revitalize old trails that had fallen by neglect into disrepair and marking them by following strict environmental guidelines. While reading over the pamphlet on how to prepare a route for the enjoyment of the hiking community, I was impressed by how carefully the details were described, such as the kind of paint to use, where to place the sign, which trees to use and which trees to avoid. I liked the rule: Better to have no sign at all than a sign confusing by its inaccuracy. His daughter Biene often accompanied him in the rewarding outdoor activity.
What Papa Panknin enjoyed the most was serving as a hiking guide for the frequent excursions through the forested hill country of the Velbert territory. Biene tells me that the participants were primarily women. That may have also been part of the reason why he enjoyed becoming a trailblazer for his club.
During his involvement in the SGV Velbert, he received plenty of praise and recognition for his invaluable contribution from participating hikers, the press and the local club president. In a newspaper clipping, I read how much his work was appreciated. “So we see Walter Panknin walking through the woods with a can of paint and a brush as an apostle of a great idea, of the concept of hiking in the automobile age, leading us back to Mother Nature, to the source of healing power. Walter Panknin selflessly serves this idea for others from person to person.”
In 1962, my father-in-law joined the Sauerland Hiking Club and remained active until 1967. Living in Velbert, he became a member of the local subdivision founded in 1912. His new hometown is a green oasis surrounded by the big cities Essen, Düsseldorf, and Wuppertal. It is located at the northern border of the mountainous region of Sauerland. The entire organization SVG, of which the Velbert Club is a part, manages a hiking trail network of over 43,000 km. Hundreds of volunteers mark trails, create new ones, digitize maps for the modern hiker, and do the necessary paperwork to run this vast organization.
During his five-year involvement, Papa Panknin took on many tasks. Having had lots of practice with letter writing during his legal battle for justice years before, he did most of the organization’s correspondence, made sure that materials for the hiking trails were purchased and paid for, and even fought a few legal battles on behalf of the club. Like I experienced here in Canada, many landowners believed they owned all the roads, woods, and lakeshores surrounding their property.
The gist of one of the letters he wrote to a government agent, a copy of which is shown below, is the following. “Due to the lack of police officers and other persons in authority, farmers and property owners, to an intolerable extent, started to block the roads and trails leading through their property in various ways. These obstructions often occur without the knowledge of the local authorities ….”
During his time as a POW in 1945, Papa attended many scholarly lectures that some learned fellow prisoners gave in open-air forums on various topics. As writing was strictly forbidden, he secretly wrote down on the tiny sheets of cigarette paper the authors of books recommended by the lecturers. He was especially interested in history books, which he intended to read later. Fifteen years have passed. Now the time has come to fulfil one of the dreams he had for his retirement. Among the history authors, he admired the famous 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke the most. He especially liked the quote that underlines the importance of objectively presenting historical events: “Let the author be quiet, but let the events and documents tell the story.” Proudly Papa wrote in a letter to his friend Herr Kampmann that he had already devoured eight of Ranke’s twenty-five volumes.
The correspondence with his pen pal mainly dealt with political issues of the German postwar era. He drew the most relevant information and its polemic spirit from the German news magazine “Der Spiegel.” Its claim to fame was the publisher’s uncanny ability to uncover and publish government secrets, cases of corruption and scandals. Major Panknin, in retirement, wrote his multi-paged letters on his old typewriter, using carbon paper to have copies for his record. They fill binders carefully ordered by year, month and day. The letters reveal his critical view of the West German political landscape. They describe his disgust over how deep his beloved Germany has sunk into the quagmire of dishonesty and scandalous behaviour. His diatribes take on a familiar ring when we fast forward into the 21st century.
Did I digress from telling the Walter Panknin family story? Having Ranke’s quote in mind, I declare, “Let Papa’s immense correspondence and insatiable appetite for reading history books and historical novels tell the story.”