SOC paddlers have been to the French alps near Argentière La Bessée (south of Europe's highest market town, Briançon) several times, most recently in 2008 (for hard paddling) and 2009 (for easy family paddling), and will be returning in 2010 mostly intending to paddle at the lower end of the range (again, with kids). Obviously, we paddle new things each time, but there are some rivers which are reliable and well-known so we are likely to paddle them (possibly repeatedly) on every holiday.
Argentière to St. Crépin
For the afternoon when the Durance comes up, this is a very relaxing run, with one stretch of faster rapids at la Roche-de-Rame (which can be used as a take-out for a shorter trip, but also offers park-and-play potential). Start from the campsite (or run down the slalom course) and continue downstream. Watch out for the occasional tree, but generally visibility is good and there are nothing more than wave trains and the occasional sweeping bend. There is a road bridge and a diagonal railway bridge soon after the start, then the next bridge marks the start of Roche-de-Rame. Straight down the middle is a safe option, but for those who want, there are a lot of break-outs, waves and ferry-glides to play on, with one big pourover rock at the end that is a playspot until the water gets high, then it can form a nasty hole. After this it gets easy again all the way to the next bridge at St. Crépin. This GPS track on Google Maps shows the shorter run down to Roche de Rame, with the shuttle route we used by bike or hitch-hiking. That works by car, too, but it might be quicker to cross over and use the main road.
The scenic Lower Guil - the waterfall needs recent rain
A very pleasant and easy run, dropping into a flattish section of the Durance that ends at the St. Clément slalom site. There used to be some intricate navigation to reach the put-in, which was epic with a trailer, but in 2010 there is a new dirt-track road which makes even a cycle shuttle fairly benign.
The Durance from St. Clément down to Embrun is a fine introduction to bigger water (especially in the afternoon). You can get off above the Rabioux wave, which is the only serious drop, and either portage it, or finish. Or inspect (or not) and take your chances - but be warned, there are always a lot of spectators to cheer your run, whether it ends in success or a swim !
Richard high on the Upper Guisane
Upstream from Briançon among the ski resorts is a long run on generally easy water which may be too low early in the day. There is one long rapid which is harder (possible portage on the left) and has few break-outs, but is essentially a big bouncy boulder garden when the water is at a reasonable level. This video clip shows a substantial part of it - the rapid ends just out of sight downstream, and the section upstream was definitely no harder at this level. However, in 2010 the level was lower and we definitely underestimated this rapid - there are several hard moves round boulders at the entry to the rapid which caused three out of eight paddlers to come to grief (and a guy in another group dislocated his shoulder on it just before we arrived), so do get out and inspect first ! With lower levels again in 2011, and taking it a bit more seriously, we picked out the right line (further right on entry) and had no mishaps until a careless boat tripped its owner up near the end of the rapid.
If you use this as a warm-up for the much harder Lower Guisane, you may find you have a very long day. It's probably better to put on lower than we did (not far above the S-bends), earlier in the day.
Fast moving but easy water on the Upper Ubaye
A bit of a long drive over the Col de Vars if you are in a clapped out Canoe Control minibus that overheats, but quite a nice trip (you could do it twice, move on to something harder downstream or return to the Lower Guil on the way home). Late in the season the put-in is at a bridge below the Ubayette confluence, and runs 8km down to Jaussiers. The gradient is not that steep, and if you only want to take one car, the shuttle by bike doesn't take that long. In higher water, you can put on 5km further up at La Lauzière, and in higher water again, the 7km below Jaussiers is supposed to be good, though it holds less interest at lower levels.
This might be a bit low by July/August, but we found just about enough for two trips in 2010, putting on from a gravel parking area by the ski lift at Aiguilles. The initial section was a bit of a bump, but it runs into a nice gorge where the water is more confined. In 2011, with lower levels, we put on just above the old bridge at the start of this gorge. There are a few nice rapids and one drop-off which are worth a quick inspect if you are new to the river - the photo shows it in 2010 and it looked quite a bit different in 2011 as alpine rivers do change quite quickly.
Doug running a drop-off on the Upper Guil
A big concrete wall river right marks a lead-in to two small weirs. Their drop isn't much, but there are some bits of metal hardware to avoid - worth inspecting and picking a line river right on the first (often covered in higher water - not noticed in 2010) and left on the second. More easy shingle rapids lead for a long way until Chateau Queyras looms ahead. There's one last bouldery weir which is probably worth portaging river left if its low, before a compulsory get-out river right to parking. If you go under the bridge, you are no longer on easy river - this is the Chateau Queyras gorge which is definitely hard, though perhaps easier than it looks at low levels (those who ran it in 2011 seemed to find it fairly benign, even in playboats, but that's kids for you:)
The hardest rapid on the (Upper) Middle Guil
Quite a hard river overall, but there is a nice section in the upper half starting at Montbardon bridge that is no more than grade 3, if a bit short. Fairly easy to combine with the Upper Guil, or even the Lower Guil (although it's a few miles interesting driving between the sections).
More to find
.. and more photos and video clips to add, plus some resources for actually finding the access points. There's a 2 km stretch of grade 3 through the Briançon gorge on the Upper Durance that usually still has water in July (steep and technical for the grade, but forgiving). In 2011 we found the put-in dramatically changed so that the glissiere landed on rocks. As the level was too low, we didn't explore further. Downstream the section of the Durance from Briançon to the barrage at Prelles is 7km of easy water which is supposed to have enough water until August (though water quality may be a little poor near Briançon late season).The Lower Clarée would be good (a walk alongside in 2011 showed it to be in a delightful valley), but is usually too low by July.
Maps and guides
Many people get away with a guidebook and a road map, but bigger scale maps help, especially if you are looking for good ways to cycle shuttle. If you are ancient and have old maps left about from alpine trips, the "Carte Touristique" (Serie Violet) sheets 244 and 245 cover everything described here except the upper Ubaye, but there are some changes to the roads (and footpaths, as we found...). The modern 1:25000 (blue) maps are good: 3536OT "Briançon" and 3537ET cover most, but the sunshine run cuts across the corners of 3437ET and 3438ET too. The latter is needed for parts of the Ubaye, though 3538ET is the main map for the Upper Ubaye. 3436ET "Meije, Pelvoux" is upstream of the easier rivers, but shows the best walking area for a holiday in this area.
For British paddlers, the obvious guidebook choice is "White Water South Alps" by Peter Knowles (Rivers Publishing). There's a French guidebook available locally, but it doesn't have much truck with anything below grade 4, so is useful mainly for the harder runs, but each description has a suggestion for rivers you could do with your family (of less hardcore paddlers) nearby.