And that is why you go to the French Alps, no not for the portage on the Durance Gorge, but for the days of near wall to wall blue bird sky. The sun shines and its pleasant, the paddling can be good if you like alpine run away rock gardens, the fine food is very different from Italy just minutes away and the days are relaxed, no real missions, mini adventures though, and did I not mention it; accessible, fast and excellent mountain bike trails, in fact I would go so far as to say the biking is better than the paddling in the Haute Alpes.
It was a pleasant month in France, that’s that word again pleasant, office jock in the morning, paddling on the high water in the afternoon, and an evening uplift to some side valley for a full speed descent on the bike. This pattern was pretty much the norm for the stay in France. I did have a few days work, these too were relaxing, on the Upper Guil, with its wide open valley with gently inclined mountain slopes, gave this part of the alps, an almost Canadian Rockies feel, like a lot more sky or something, as the grand peaks are set back a bit away from the valley floor. The Ubaye also reminds myself of this wider and grander valley feel, certainly very different from the granite mountains with their more enclosed tighter valleys for Piemonte and Slovenia.
With the Durance being so close to Torino and Milano, the weekend crowd is often full of italian’s, and in mid June, Team Casino came for some Durance Gorge action, here we are at good flows, having fun on slot and drop, a small feature and sparks the interest in this classic mainly read and run section.
As ever in June, the Durance was invaded by numerous British paddlers, several of whom are the Uni crowd, most of who are looking for fun in the sun, and a few gripping moments on the river. The now almost annual Uk Student BoaterX, brings in the old boys and girls too. Its another successful meeting point event, that paddlers always gravitate towards. Well in the crowd were Dave Fairweather and Nick Horwood, both of whom join myself on a great day out on the Middle Guil. Its often the case you do not see paddlers on this section in high water, so we had the river to ourselves. At high water its read and run all the way, the few paces where you think it may be a bit tight, is often washed out, and at normally minor spots its a little ugly. The staircase is a great example, straight forward and clean at high water, but the drop just after on the left hand bend, right ugly, the same can be said of the Letterbox and the following Tunnel rapid. Its the little uglies that keep you on your toes….
On one particular day, we had just about got to the end of the run, when I looked up and saw two kayaks sans paddler coming down the run, with quick instructions I relayed the line on the final horizon line, and we got ahead for the gear collecting just short of the lake. 2 boats and a paddle gathered, and the swimmer’s support team on site. We find out that the two paddlers are on river left, and are looking to get back on road to be reunited with their group. Dave, Nick and I headed up to help out, and we brought both paddlers across. The river has high and their gear, shortie and shorts on this alpine runaway was far from ideal, best one guy had clearly not swam in this environment much nor knew much about river rescue, as in his attempts to stay on the back of my boat, he tried repeatedly and as a result was also trying to pull me in too. Well I got him to let go and simply indicated the direction he needed to swim, again the lack of experience meant the defensive swimming position was held, and clear comprehension that his flipper impression would not get him to shore promptly. Its a little shocking that some paddlers are happy to enter into this environment and sadly are without the core skills needed to survive. Be sure to have some gumption about yourselves and learn, plus practise your rescue skills, yet above all you best be onto the safety, like what judgement decision led to them getting on a run in high water without the technique and tactics to paddle and rescue ability to sort out an individual, in stead as in this case, both members of the group were left boatless.
For myself being in France was a little holiday where I got to do more biking than paddling, a welcome change after a near 100 days on the river for this paddling season. In and round the Durance are numerous trails for biking, plus several uplift venues, ie, skiing hill lifts to take the pain out of that climbing on the downhill bike. A few trails I can recommend as the Col de Granon, its a 3 hour tree line traverse to Briançon, the Mélévin trail with its continuous berms descent, is a quick 1 hour hit, plus the descent from Puy-Saint-Vincent down into the Onde, is great single track biking, plus from the top meadow in the Fournel valley to L’Argentiére is a great descent and well recommended. Lastly we hit the bike park at Montgenévre, with its managed trails and ladders, great fun especially if you are looking for some morning or evening action.
In fact the afternoon at Montgenévre was my last day in France, it was time, that time again when the Northern Summer calls, and paddlers head north to Norway, let the kayaking begin………..