The Hills are alive with the Sound of Paddlers

Posted by Andy Waddington on 2008-07-11

Well, alpine mountains, in fact. In summer 2008, a number of SOC members headed out at the beginning of July for some alpine paddling. It was fortunate that no-one could agree a week in May, as we had originally thought best, as the amount of snow this year meant that levels were epic early in the season and paddling was made illegal in a large part of the French alps. By July, the sun was out, melting the snowpack, but not so fast that the whole place was awash...

Clive had to drop out late in the day, whilst Johnny decided to come anyway, despite having dislocated his shoulder and being unable to paddle. Pete, Richard, Claire, Helen, Stuart and Andy were joined on the water by Mark, who arranged a fitted kitchen in the Canoe Control campsite at Argentière la Bessée (later incorporating Helen's upturned boat as a table when Mark left half a day early to find the Hawaii-sur-Rhône playwave with Stuart). Some got an early ferry, whilst others avoided the péage in favour of scenery and fuel economy (as well as not paying!), so we arrived at intervals during the first Saturday.

Sunday morning was almost disrupted by a large cycle race with closed roads, which threatened to trap us in town where we had been buying breakfast, when we were supposed to be setting off to paddle at 9:30, but fortunately, we were able to explore some narrow, steep and distinctly off-piste backroads to regain our boats and kit. We started off on the St. Clément slalom site on the Durance, where a bit of coaching from Canoe Control got us up to speed with the rather faster-moving water of the alps.

Mark, Richard and Stuart on the St. Clément slalom site
Mark, Richard and Stuart on the St. Clément slalom site

In the afternoon, some of us did the "Sunshine Run" down from here to Embrun, through mostly easy, but quite big volume water, with the Rabioux wave mid-way to wake us up severely. The first group made it through upright, though Andy had to roll twice on the ferry glide back across the river below it. Richard took a swim when in the wrong place at the wrong time playing on the wave as someone paddled down, whilst Stuart demonstrated the futility of repeatedly rolling up when right on the eddyline.

Stuart about to be claimed by the Durance river gods
Stuart about to be claimed by the Durance river gods

Day 2, we headed for the run-out from the bottom of the Durance gorge, but the level was a little lower than Lowri and John (from Canoe Control) had anticipated, so was a rather pleasant run at a grade 4- that could easily have been back at home. Here we were to learn to "flare", which in this interpretation meant to paddle like hell directly across a river to hit a large rock, in the hope that the bow rides up, a well-timed reverse sweep drops the stern into the flow and the boat and paddler drop neatly into the eddy below the boulder. Nice theory. One coach missed the rock, whilst the other missed the eddy. One paddler decided that his boat wasn't built for that sort of thing, and Andy surprised himself (and everyone else) by making almost as convincing an attempt as Lowri, and still surviving the ensuing backwards paddle down the rest of the rapid. As the river eased off, the addition of the Gyronde and a dam-release back into the Durance ensured a big volume of water for the run down to the Argentière slalom site, down which Andy swam whilst trying to sneak round the big waves. Bad plan!

The wet weather at the start of the week (and the sun now melting snow) ensured that the Gyronde, passing a few metres from our camp, was turgid and high in the afternoon, as we put on in two groups. The river was very fast, with lots of sharp, well-concealed rocks, and eddies rather few and small. For SOC paddlers used to fast-moving water being well above the rocks, or rocky water being slow moving (think Charity Paddle), this was all a little unnerving at first, but went surprisingly well with a bit of aggressive (or was it desperate?) paddling. Not everyone chose to run the weir in the little gorge, but those that did managed to avoid both the rocks and the stopper. The gradient eased now, and we soon joined the Durance, for the same run down to Argentière and the slalom course, where my now-honed aggressive paddling techniques were a little more successful (well, I stayed the right way up:).

Mark dropping in to the stopper on the weir on the Gyronde on our first run
Mark dropping in to the stopper on the weir on the Gyronde on our first run

We were back under our own leadership on the third day, so for those who had not done the previous day's trips, we decided to repeat day 2 so we could all paddle the same things and be confident of our conduct on harder rivers later. The levels were down a little on the Durance, and quite a bit lower on the Gyronde, with a much lower dam-release into the slalom course. The weir on the Gyronde looked a lot easier, but flattered to deceive, as Stuart got himself interestingly stuck on the rocks at the bottom, then Richard managed to whack them quite hard without getting stuck. With the benefit of these expendable probes, Andy chose to ferry glide right across above the fall, and took a much nicer line into a plunge pool where yesterday's fierce stopper had now become merely a cushioned foam pile. The slalom course again claimed a victim, as Claire swam on video. Mark and Andy gave chase to her boat and almost had it ashore when Andy managed to capsize under Mark's boat and again surprised everyone by rolling straight up at the other side.

Claire and Richard on the Durance below the hard gorge section
Claire and Richard on the Durance below the hard gorge section

The two-rivers-a-day paddling was starting to tell by the fourth day, and some opted for a via ferrata high above the Durance gorge. Stuart, Mark and Andy took advice from Canoe Control, but what Stuart Woodward called the "Lower Guil" was a section higher up than what the guide book called by the same name, so we ended up paddling a rather easier bit of river than we'd intended, back down to the St. Clément slalom site. Back at the campsite, Stuart had made a five pm. appointment for a bit of freestyle coaching with Lowri, so we wanted to get to the Onde straight after lunch. The via ferrata, however, was taking longer than planned. Eventually, the three with Richard set off, leaving a note to the others to follow, and we'd shuttle them at the end. At the put-in, we avoided a steep section where one digger was working, and set off down the steepest river so far (at 27m per km). It became clear while retrieving Stuart and boat from a minor upset, that another digger was working right in the channel downstream, but the driver had called us on with his digger on the bank, so on we went. By the time we got there he was back in the middle, making for an interesting obstacle, with a choice of left or right, whilst he sat on his caterpillar track watching us pass.

Richard and Mark passing the digger river right
Richard and Mark passing the digger river right

Below this we had to portage a river-wide fallen branch, but then the trip went without incident, though very fast indeed. Just before the end, Pete and Claire caught us up, having set off a bit later, but put on below the second digger (who was now further upstream and in clear view from the road). The take-out river right came all too soon, and we debated whether we should just go back and do it again, but everyone was tired enough to decide not.

Day 5 was to be a testing day, on the Guisane, two long sections getting harder further downstream. Having got there early, we fannied around for a while, letting the sun do its work in bringing more water, then put on somewhere very shallow indeed. This starts off quite easy, in the valley below the Serre Chevalier ski area, but is as fast as anything we might do at home. Then came the S bends, which is a section of grade four in a garden of big boulders. A pause for inspection and setting up of video led to a bit of a lack of communication, so that everyone ran the rapid, but not everyone was expecting (and watching) everyone else. The trip continued pleasantly for a long way, right down into the resort behind restaurants and under ski lifts.

Lunch was to be followed by the harder (continuous grade 4) Lower Guisane, with only five of us now paddling. A short way downstream saw a get-out and portage a long dark bridge, under which lurks "Shelob's weir" to consume the unwary. The put-back on below this was straight into fast, steep rocky water with branches to add to the difficulties. With almost no eddies, we were running this as cautiously as possible, which proved not to be cautiously enough, as Mark got knocked over by a rock, and smashed his knuckles between paddle and rock before coming up. Luckily there were enough eddies to get off the river and Mark went off to join the shuttle bunnies. Down to four, we continued fast and furious, until a party ahead getting off the river marked the portage for a huge weir. We watched one of their number run this this whilst everyone else walked, as did Richard and Andy. Pete decided to give it a go, and looked impressive as he piled down the cobbled face of the weir concealed by a sheet of white foam. At the bottom, he fended off an aggressive rock sticking out of the right bank and broke out looking pleased.

Pete just fending off the protruding rock on the fast runout from the big weir on the Lower Guisane
Pete just fending off the protruding rock on the fast runout from the big weir on the Lower Guisane

Now Stuart came, looking equally impressive down the weir, but failed to fend off said rock, ending up stuck under it, unable to use his paddle and being pushed into the bank by the powerful current. There was nothing for the spectators to do here except give advice (not necessarily useful) and continue to run the video camera.... Eventually Stuart managed to lever himself off the wall and get a paddle into the water before heading to the eddy just downstream.

Tiring now, we continued apace, but with the odd swim, a few more pauses for inspection and the occasional portage round trees brought down by the wet spring. Pete managed to take a channel far river right and dropped into an interesting pin between a branch and the bank. Andy got back to him remarkably quickly with a throwline, but Pete managed to wiggle through the constriction unaided, whilst Andy managed to leave the throwline behind (the first of three we lost). Things were starting to go a little pear shaped as Richard led a rapid and disappeared from view. Andy, out of his boat, could see Richard out on the left bank, and shouted this information to Stuart, distracting him as he debated whether this meant he should go or not. Rocks then intervened, one inverting the boat, and one making an impressive dent in Stuart's helmet. Somewhere below, paddler and boat went separate ways, leaving the boat pinned. Pete also lost touch with his boat, which ended up pinned further downstream, whilst his paddles were off to the Med. Unable to see what was happening, Andy decided that perhaps he should pull his boat up the bank and walk down to investigate.

Stuart trying valiantly but just failing to get a line clipped to his pinned boat on the Lower Guisane
Stuart - livebait boat rescue

Live-bait boat retrieval proved interesting, especially as once Stuart had reached his, he couldn't clip the line to it and off it went again. He got back to the bank one whole lot quicker than he had got to the boat and set off in hot pursuit, managing to reach it before it went too far. Andy, meanwhile, had found Pete's paddle stuck on a rock mid-river a long way downstream, but couldn't reach it without backup. By the time we had done another live-bait rescue of Pete's boat (which now had an impressive dent in the bottom from its rocking back and forth in the pin) the paddle had once more made a bid for the coast, but Johnny saved the day by finding it even further downstream, by bike ! At this point it had passed six pm. and we had to admit defeat, as we were somewhat knackered, depleted in gear, and were supposed to leave the river for the fishermen at six. Johnny had been cycling alongside and phoned for the shuttle cars.

For the final day, we opted to do something a little easier, the Ubaye Racecourse. Only Pete, Richard, Claire, Stuart and Andy wanted to paddle. We stopped in at St. Clément for some retail therapy at which point Mark phoned us up to ask if someone perhaps wanted the large bag of paddling kit he had found at the camp. This ensured a leisurely start, as it somewhat extended an already long drive. We were not, perhaps, on peak form after the previous day (and ensuing evening), and Andy capsized early, but rolled up, only to fail to paddle the next bit of rapid backwards and fail to roll the second time. A bad choice of line led to an interesting drop off the cushion wave by a large rock and another swim.

Claire in one of the continuous boulder garden stretches of the Ubaye Racecourse
Claire in one of the continuous boulder garden stretches of the Ubaye Racecourse

Lots of good paddling in between led to the final stretch under the modern road bridge and the ancient one that features in all the photos. Here we broke out right and arranged a bit of protection for the first section of rapid, which everyone paddled without incident. With barely one more wave to go before the take-out above the grade 5 section which we didn't want anything to do with, Andy managed to capsize and find himself unable to roll up owing to the current driving him into the right wall of the gorge. Swim three and a certain degree of panic as we weren't really sure how far to the hard bit. An eddy and little beach on the right were conveniently placed and the river was very easy for the final quarter mile to Johnny and Helen on the left bank indicating the take-out. A slightly longer walk than anticipated bagged the clichéd roman bridge photos and then it was all over bar the drive home.

Paddling the Ubaye under the ancient packhorse bridge

Thanks to all involved for a week of quite intensive paddling and where are we going next year ? (Postscript - some of us are going back to Canoe Control, with the kids, in 2009, for perhaps a less serious trip).

Andy

Article and photographs copyright © Andy Waddington 2008 except where credited: first two photographs copyright © Johnny Proud 2008


See also: in our "Favourite Rivers" pages, Argentière - easy river trips, Argentière - harder rivers and Argentière - playspots

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