Great White River

“Help!” It’s not something I’ve ever felt the urge to shout while on a river, but sitting half submerged under a siphoning rock, clinging on to the top of the rock as best I could with my gloved hands, it took a lot of self restraint not to yell for help. It’s not really the best way to start a trip down a brand new, undocumented river.

We had found the river the previous day while driving through a small hamlet nestling in the heart of the French Alps. As kayakers tend to do, we stopped as we drove across a small bridge to look at what was below. Not being aware of any guidebook sections in the area, we expected to see a rock strewn ditch with little paddling interest. However after lazily stepping out of the cars and looking over the dilapidated stone walls of the bridge, what we saw was far more exciting; clear blue water rushing over granite boulders forming a enticing grade 3/4 boulder garden winding off up a steep wooded valley.

It was five in the afternoon and we had finished our paddling for the day, but were immediately intrigued by this river which didn’t even get a mention in the “other rivers” section of our new guidebook. A quick consultation with TomTom showed that there was a heavily switch backed road which eventually rejoined the river valley a couple of km upstream. Having finished boating for the day, we decided to spin the car around and have an explore up the valley.

After a km or so we started losing hope of anything run able lying up the valley; we had been driving up impossible switchbacks which required 3-point turns simply to get around and gained a worrying amount of altitude. However eventually the road flattened out a bit and we hung out of the windows (literally!), craning our necks to try and spot the river far below in the deep, wooded valley. Apart from being nice and cooling in the 30degC heat, hanging out the windows eventually paid off when rounding a corner we caught a glimpse of the azure water of the river below.Far from the terrifying boulder choked rapids that we were expecting, what we actually saw was flowing rock gardens and slides which (albeit from 150ft up) looked as if they went at about grade 4. Excitement building again, we continued up the road, but the thick forest swallowed the river again.

Finally, about another 2km up the road we caught sight of what looked like a horizontal jet of water through the trees.

‘Uh-oh, that doesn’t look good’. We couldn’t really see much , but horizontal water normally means one thing; hydro-electric schemes. ‘It figures, this river has quite some gradient on it’ I thought. Seeing as we were up for a bit of an explore, we abandoned the car and bush whacked through the forest in the rough direction of the water we had seen. After rather a lot of sliding,ducking and swearing we eventually got down to the river. ‘Wow.’

The river fell away downstream in the most amazing looking G4/5 rapids I had seen since being in Val Sesia a couple of years ago.

Looking upstream, we could see what had caught our eyes; a funny house like structure over the river with thick jet of water erupting from close to the left bank. ‘Micro hydro.’This river looked too good to miss, so after even more swearing, we re-assembled back at the road to discuss our options. “Its been 2km since we last saw the river; there could be tonnes of those hydro systems down there.” Nick, unusually being the voice of reason had a pretty good point; hydros strike fear into any river boater and even gungho Mike agreed it would be unwise to get on the river being so far away from the road.

We slowly drove back down the valley and about 750m downstream saw a meadow which looked like it went quite close to the river, so we pulled over into a small lay by and set off on foot again. Once again, arriving at the river, we were greeted with sinuous looking G4 rapids winding down the mountain and then flowing abruptly around a corner into a gorge. ‘Why isn’t this river described; it’s amazing!’

“We can do this; everything we have seen looks brilliant” Mike said in his typically enthusiastic way. I had to agree, the river looked just too good to miss. The concern was the fact that over the space of 4/5km, we had seen the river 3 times; not exactly the best bit of scouting ever!

We slowly made our way back down the insane switchbacks, to the campsite eagerly talking about what may or may not be on the river and how we could run it safely. The ultimate decision was that we needed more information. Happily in the world of WiFi networks, our little, out the way campsite had high speed Internet! After grabbing some grub, we sat down on the campsite lounger chairs with some beers (or lemonade for me 🙂 ) and set about finding out what we could.Google, UK Rivers Guidebook and the German equivalent failed us however; there was absolutely no information on this river. Luckily, Titi, the owner of the local rafting company happened to live in a caravan on the site, so we decided to have a chat with him.

“Parlez-vous Anglais?”
“Oui, a little.”
“Have you paddled the river up the valley by your raft centre?”
“… Pardon?”. Oh, this could be interesting!
“Have… you… paddled… the… river… [with various gesticulations!]”
“Ah, non, very risky water. You need to get out.”. Ok, so it has some difficult rapids which need scouting on foot.”Is it ever paddled?”
” Ummm… maybe every few years, yes.”

Excellent; so its hard, but does go. However, still puzzled as to why we couldn’t find anything and wanting more info, we resorted to height maps and satellite imagery. Here was our first clue as to why we couldn’t find any information; on the satellite photos, the river looked completely dry. Crucially, we could see that the contours were moderately constant and there wasn’t any other hydro buildings. ‘Maybe this river needs really high levels [which we had at the time] to run. We could have lucked out here and be able to paddle something that is rarely possible here!’

In our excitement we latched onto this as a plausible explanation, not considering (or maybe ignoring) another far more sinister possibility.

In the rather faffy fashion which was typical of our trip at this point, we didn’t manage to pack up camp until about 10:30 the next morning,but we had all cemented our determination todo this river overnight, so organised a shuttle with other Chris (who didn’t want to paddle it being a big water boater as opposed to a creek boater) and set off back to the meadow that we had found the previous evening. It didn’t take us long to kit up, do the obligatory bit of videoing and photography and hike down to the river.

“Lets make absolutely sure that we have an escape route on this; no paddling round blind bends or into gorges too high for us to climb out of.” Both Nick and I had been thinking exactly the same thing, but it was nice to know thatMike was on the same page.

“Who’s going to godown to the eddy at the gorge entrance then?”
“Rock, paper scissors?!” Nick suggested (last time he made that suggestion, he lost and broke his back a few minutes and one 40 ft waterfall later!)
“Maybe not! You guys know how to rig climbing ropes, I’ll go down” Mike suggested.

We both watched him style the line round as naking grade 4 rapid and boof ledge, landing cleanly in the eddy. A quick glance round the corner and he smiled and waved us down. ‘Yes! We are doing this!’

By time we made the eddy, Mike was on the bank downstream, scouting the next drop. This looked like a “sporting” grade 4 rocky slide into a big pool with a tricky dog-leg move at the top. Nick said that he wasn’t really feeling the line and was going to walk. Fair enough; start of a river, rocky line.However Mike and I thought it went, soMike hopped back in his boat and bombed down the rapid perfectly. I gave my throw line to Nick and jumped back into my boat.

Its funny, when you are psyching yourself up for a rapid, all your brain is focusing on the line you need, what strokes you want and how fun it will be.I didn’t really give much thought to the fact that I was in a new boat which didn’t have the line holding performance of my beloved Piranha Burn. Nor did I notice the tell-tale tiny cushion wave sitting on a deep flow of water hitting the rock right next to where I was about to launch. NormallyI would have instantly seen the siphon and given it a wide berth, but this timeI didn’t. Instead I pulled my deck on,hit the record button on my helmet cam cam and gave the thumbs up toNick standing below. I slid into the flow, heading for the eddy the other side of the river that would put me in a good position for the rapid. Except I didn’t head for the eddy; my boat’s displacement hull’ed nose didn’t grab the water as the Burn would and instead immediately spun downstream.

The word ‘Dammit’ was just starting to move through my brain when suddenly the nose of my boat hit and then immediately sank down and under the siphoning rock a split second before my body hit the rock and my paddles were ripped out of my hand. Exactly what I thought at this point probably isn’t publishable, but suffice to say I immediately realised the severity of the situation.

So why didn’t I shout “Help!” ? A really stupid reason really, but part of my brain was too proud to admit that I might need rescuing and it was my own stupid fault. Instead, I started making split second decisions.

‘Am I stable? No, I’m sinking. Can I get a better grip? Probably not. What about pushing off hard?Yeah, that might work. Will I capsize? Maybe, I can hand roll though. Do it. DO IT!

‘I pushed the rock as hard as I could trying to make the back of the boat catch the flow and pull the front out from under the rock. ‘Yes! I’m out!’ Unfortunately the force of the push off balanced me and I did a rather comical,slow, capsize, unable to support myself with just my hands. ‘Not good, I’m going over the lip of the rapid… curl up.’ A few bangs and bashes later I felt the boat shoot into calmer water and instantly hand rolled back up, luckily in such a way that I was able to power into a big eddy and grab my paddles from Mike.

After rolling up, I was strangely unconcerned about what had just happened, just a bit out of breath and glad for the full face helmet I was wearing and the leash that I had on my camera(as it had been knocked off the helmet while upside down).

“You ok?” Mike and Nick asked.
“Yeah, yeah, its fine; glad I can hand roll!” I said, slightly embarrassed and trying to shrug it off. “Just thought that your upright line looked a bit boring really Mike!”

We set off again into an exceptionally scenic micro gorge with high scree banks and bright green trees overhanging above our heads.It really was perfect boating; clearwater, boulder gardens with inventive lines and the odd bedrock slide thrown in for good measure, the difficulty never really exceeding G4.

The majority of the paddling was sinuous read and run boating;leapfrog leadership at its finest. The few times that we did have to get out to scout, it just gave us an opportunity to soak up the surroundings and take some photos.

‘This is amazing, why does no one else paddle this?!’ I thought, sitting happily in an eddy, waiting for Mike and Nick to scout the next bit. Then it struck me; we were on a narrow river, in a heavily tree lined gorge. More than that, a gorge with trees precariously hanging over the river, yet what,in over a km of paddling had we not seen a single one of? Trees in the river. I started thinking through all of the information we had learned about the river with a more objective point of view. Deep gorge. Very nice rapids, yet rarely paddled. Micro-hydro upstream. Jet of water on river left bank. “Risky water, you have to get out” according to Titi. It suddenly hit me that almost certainly the real reason the river wasn’t paddled very often and didn’t appear in a guidebook was very different to what we had thought last night. I scanned the walls of the gorge above me for confirmation. Yes, there it was. 7 or 8 ft above me was a faint but obvious water line with water scoring on the rocks below.

“Risky water.” Titi didn’t mean the rapids were difficult, he meant that literally the water was risky; in all likelihood the hydro outlet we had seen on the far left bank a couple of km upstream was probably only one of many outlet pipes across the whole river and judging by the water scoring and complete lack of trees, the hydro probably flushed the river quite regularly.

“Guys, we need to speed this up a bit!” I decided not to say why, we needed to speed up, but Mike and Nick didn’t argue, jumped back into their boats and gave me a series of signals telling me how to run the next section and where the next eddy was.

Once I broke out into the flowing rapids, my concerns melted slightly. ‘This river is too nice. It can’t be that dangerous, right?’ A few corners later, we saw, high above us the road bridge from which we had been craning our necks to see the river the previous evening. Its funny how seeing this suddenly made me feel better; it was familiar, friendly and it felt like we were no longer paddling in the unknown.

One more corner and suddenly the gorge walls fell away, revealing a pretty stunning vista of the clear blue, tree lined river leading our eyes to the high, rocky mountains of the main river valley ahead. Suddenly the hydro seemed far less dark and threatening; even if it did suddenly release,we could easily jump onto the banks here.

Despite opening out, the rapids steepened slightly and with a renewed sense of freedom, I slid my way down through the boulder garden, savouring the moment. Exploring new, unknown rivers where few people go and finding lovely, flowing rapids in stunning scenery; this is what whitewater kayaking is all about!

It wasn’t long before we shot round a corner and saw the bridge where it had all started the previous day. Talking excitedly and telling stories of our own little incidents or lines on the river we hauled out boats up the bank and up to the car where Chris was waiting with lunch. It really had been an amazing river; it really isn’t often that you get to paddle a completely new river,especially in the crowded, heavily paddled French Alps.

However, as we were de-kitting, we saw two EDF Energy and one Violia Water van heading up the road which ultimately led to the hydro plant, adding weight to my suspicions. Would I have got on the river had I realised about the hydro beforehand? Probably not. For that reason, I am very glad that we hadn’t realised this the night before as even after another week and a half of paddling,this river remained the highlight of our trip. Ignorance really is bliss!If there is one thing that this river has made me realise its that exploration and adventure is the thing that makes white water paddling so great. Exploring in my kayak is something that I want to do more of, now more than ever (just maybe with proper research next time!).Marlow tend to run trips out to the Alps every year and  although its unlikely that you will do rivers quite like this, it is a great place to paddle; warm sun, tough rivers and good food. It makes all the practice on freezing cold UK rivers over the winter season worth while!

Chris Porteous

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