Chasing the Water, part 1

The Team

You know this royal wedding? Well it means that there are two four-day weekends in a row, which means for the cost of three days annual leave we can have an eleven day holiday. Anyone want to go paddling?

How could we not? So after a little guidebook research I came up with a suggestion: “How about heading to Cevennes?”

In theory the prevailing weather should be damp at this time of year and there should be plenty of grade four rivers to entertain us. Of course none of us had been there before either, so it would be a new experience for us as well.

Fast forward several months and ten of us were set to head off towards southern France. The weather forecast was predicting a week of rain ahead and the ferries were on time, what could go wrong?

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down

A couple of planning blunders contributed to a less than stellar start to our trip:

  • The weather forecast. It looked great in the run up to us leaving Blighty. Unfortunately somehow whilst we were in transit it changed from a week of deluges to a day of drizzle due the day after we arrived.
  • The prevailing conditions. So focused on the forecast for the week we were going to be in Cevennes, we somehow forgot to look at what the weather had been like in the weeks leading up to our arrival. On arriving we noticed the ground appeared dry, arid even, and after a quick chat with the locals we realised it hadn’t rained for several months. A couple of brief reconnaissance trips to local rivers confirmed it: the rivers were dry.

With four cars all leaving home at different times, involving wildly different travel times and routes, a backup plan took a little while to be sorted out. We’d originally said that if the Cevennes was no good we’d head up to Val Sesia in Italy, a known quantity and personal favourite of mine. Unfortunately our spies on the ground there said it was a little dry as well, although rain was scheduled for later in the week.

A quick look at a map had us convinced that the best way to Val Sesia was via Briancon, where we hoped we’d find some of the classic French Alp rivers running.

So on the Saturday morning (36 hours after my car had left Dover) the last vehicle of our group arrived, shattered due to the overnight drive. When we told them we’d scouted all the rivers and they were dry so we’d being heading to Briancon the look on their faces immediately told a million words. Taking the hint we allowed them a couple of hours sleep in our already pitched tents before heading off.

Several hours later and we were in the Durance Valley. The spark of cheerfulness at the sight of some water in the river was being dulled by the realisation that finding an open campsite on Easter weekend in France was slim. Eventually we crashed on a municipal campsite in Enbrun, complete with gravel pitches and no working facilities.

The team was not happy.

Random's in the CQ

Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on

Sunday, three days after we’d left home and no boating had been done. Things were looking grim, and due to the lack of facilities at our camp site so were we.

Still, we were buoyed by the fact that there was river in the Durance and spurred on by this we headed up the Guil valley.

Somewhat depressed by the lack of paddling activity so far, the sight of water in the river, though a little on the low side, instigated a quick decision to run the Chateau Queyras gorge as a warm up. With a little trepidation (last time I ran the CQ I had an out of boat experience) half of our group sailed down without incident. In fact we enjoyed it so much we immediately did it again, this time with the remainder of our team joining us.

Elated after finally getting on the water we immediately decided to bash down the Middle Guil despite the fact it looked a little low from the road. We shouldn’t have worried; once again we’d been fooled by the phenomenon that is shrinkavision. There was plenty of water to float us down: in fact there was enough to upset a couple of members of our team and part them from their kayaks!

We’d solved the problem of not paddling, however we still had to find somewhere habitable to stay that night. Fortunately our contingent of students and semi-retired gentleman came up trumps locating a fantastic mountainside camp site just down the road.

Me on the Guil, photo thanks of Rob P

Down this road that never seems to end

With a day of paddling and a decent night’s sleep under our belts we decided to drive over the mountain pass and investigate the internet rumours that suggested the Ubaye was running at a decent level.

I’ve always driven up the Ubaye Valley and it was a bit of an eye opener driving down it, especially the fact there was a section of river above the race course section that I didn’t know existed.

Martyn had run the section from Fresquiere before and suggested it could be a little ‘sporty’. After a little discussion and reading of the guidebook Doug, Nick, Fred, Martyn and I got on to what was indeed a ‘sporty’ start. So much so in fact that both Fred and Nick decided it was too much for them and walked off.

Martyn, Doug and I carried on cautiously eddy-hopping our way down until we came around a corner to find a large set of rapids complete with a German paddler sitting on a rock in the middle of the river. Beneath him the end of his boat protruded from a siphon that apparently had tried to swallow him as well!

One quick rescue later we’d extracted both boat and paddler (his friends were on the far bank and seemed not to know how best to rescue him) and our new friend was offering us both beer and allegedly his wife! This may have been a mistake in our translation. Either way we were feeling rather good and pleased that we’d attended a White Water Safety & Rescue course just a few weeks earlier.

Finishing off this section quickly we arrived at the top of the Race Course section where we met up with the rest of our group and carried on down. A much more gentle section of river followed, one that was great fun for the entire group.

To be continued…

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