For several years now, I have enjoyed summer paddling trips to the French Alps. Trips have been with this club or through our friendly professional coach, Andy Holt. 2022 was no exception, and while several club members initially planned on joining me, in the end an unlikely pair of Zak and myself set off with Simon from Stourport to drive through France to Monetier Les Bains near Briancon in the heart of the Sierre Chevalier ski region.
Our intrepid journey south began at 3.45am when Simon appeared in my front doorway and we loaded my boat and kit into his van heading for the 09.15 ferry from Dover to Calais. After picking up Zak en route we were in plenty of time for the ferry, and enjoyed an entertaining and relaxed 7 hour drive to Langres where we stopped the night in the superb Camping du Lac de la Liez, with swimming pool, bar and a fine view of the Lake.
We took a leisurely breakfast on the terrace of our camping lodge before returning to the road before the full heat of the day, and made it to our chalet in Monetier Les Bains by 7pm. Here, we were joined by the three other members of the team: Tony, Max and Chris, and, of course Andy. They had taken the tough decision to do the journey in one go, with one driver. I think it is fair to say they will not make that mistake again!
For our Day 1 warm up paddle we took a chilled trip down the beautiful Durance river from Eygliers to the St Clement Slalom site. At this point I should mention that, following the lowest snow levels this winter, the river levels were at record lows for the time of year. Andy commented that they looked more like mid August than early July. Nevertheless, the slalom site provided some good opportunities to practise some eddy skills in the bigger water of the French river, while the temperatures were in the mid 30s so a moment or two of inversion (intentional or otherwise) offered blessed relief.
We were joined on the water by Rob Benton of Ecrins Collective, who although a Brit, lives and works in France. Many thanks to Rob for support and guidance during the trip.
Monday took a small step upwards in the level of challenge; once again on the Durance which was almost the only river to suit our group which still had a decent level of water in it. Argentierre to Roche De Rame, once again a grade 2 section, but we found some eddy hopping exercises which certainly sorted out the sheep from the goats, and the Lyns from the Zaks in the group. This was followed up by the fearsome Argentierre slalom site in the pm, which is a superb place to test your skills, and saw my first wet hair moment of the week. Unfortunately, at this spot, Chris also suffered a momentary inversion resulting in a brief but uncomfortable shoulder popping experience (repetition of an injury initially sustained a couple of years ago). Chris and I both decided to leave this particular section to the bigger boys!
Tuesday was time for a different river or two, so in the morning we drove up the Col de Lauteret which marks the boundary of the valleys of the Romanche and Guisane rivers. All along the road, motorhomes and campers were assembling to watch the Tour De France due to come through Wednesday and Thursday, but we passed them and into the valley of the Veneon river. Starting
with a grade 3 feature first off, the rest of the river to a barrage was a faster, colder river than we had yet met, with stunning scenery and an amazing waterfall! Someone even went for a dip!
After the long drive back to Monetier, we had lunch in our accommodation waiting for the glorious sunshine to do it’s work and raise the level of the Guisane to reasonable paddling level. So around 3pm we drove to the top of the village to put on this totally different, and charming run which takes us through the village and literally under the balconies of riverside homes. This is a particular favourite run of mine in spite of taking a swim at the top!
The highlight of many a trip to the Alps has to be the aptly named ‘Sunshine Run’ on the mighty Durance, from the slalom site at St Clement down to the town of Embrun where a play wave marks the emergence of the river into the eastern end of one of the largest
artificial lakes in Western Europe: the Lac de Serre-Ponçon. The first section of the run is a leisurely bimble at the levels we had, but ends abruptly at the ‘Rab Wave’ (Rabioux rapid, near Chateauroux). This feature required a proper scout and some planning before 5 of us ran it with varying degrees of wetness but no swims. Poor Chris again pulled his shoulder and was in enough pain to keep him out of his boat for the rest of the trip :-(.
After a well deserved lunch at Rabioux, we were joined by Flat Eric who had his first taste of White Water boating. I think it scared him a tad!
After Rab, the river gets bigger and bouncier and much fun was had all the way down to Embrun, where we explored the town, and ate pizza to round off a great day.
It was always going to be difficult to find new sections of river to paddle with our group and the low river levels we had, so Thursday and Friday involved some repetition, but we did add a short section of the Durance from Briancon to Prelles to our repertoire, finishing up at a power barrage.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and we repeated our long trek across France in reverse with a thoroughly good exploration of the fortress of Langres on Saturday evening before returning to even hotter weather in the UK!