Warwickshire Avon / Irish Sea / French Haute Alps and not forgetting the mighty Nene…

Looking back at the canoeing adventures of the spring of 2007, the underlying theme was rain and plenty of it. The Doggy paddle held in May was in aid of Guide Dogs for the Blind. The course was 19 miles first on the River Leam and then on to the Avon down to Stratford. We made our fashionably late arrival and checked in at Leamington. By the time we had driven down to the finish, left one car and got back to the start everyone had gone! Sarah and Mike were paddling their tourers whilst Mike Fitz and I were in the wild water racing boats. There were fewer entries than last year, however I met some work colleagues who took 5 hours to finish the course. We were aiming to get down in less than 3 hours.

The day started off with drizzle, which was pleasant down to Barford. Here we split into two groups. After the drought of April, the flow was building and we sped through the twisty section after Barford, gradually hauling in the slower boats as we fell in to a rhythm. By Hampton Lucy the rain was getting noticeably heavier. A pause at Charlcote as we literally jumped the boats over the links holding the buoys that formed a river barrier upstream and then downstream, to keep the deer herd in the park.

A determined paddler kept with us on the approach to Stratford which was full of activities. A calypso band were giving it plenty under the bandstand, triathletes doing their final run and dragon boats racing opposite the Theatre. There were no event officials to see us finish but a spectator reckoned we were in the top ten. So after two hours and fifty minutes of downstream paddling we wearily turned to go back up to the Fishermans car park and our dry kit or so we thought?. One drenched runner pounding through the puddles on the river bank saw us and commented that she “didn’t like water sports!” Unfortunately we didn’t have the keys to Mike Sharman’s car so we took limited shelter under the tree until Mike and Sarah appeared half an hour later out of what was by now a deluge. We made the mistake of getting changed but by the time all the gear was loaded we were as wet as when we had been on the water!

Many of you will have heard of the adventures Coventry school kids have at Dol-y-moch in North Wales. Now it was our turn. John, Sarah, Mike, Nigel and myself jumped on a coach and headed off to North Wales with a bunch of teachers and partners. The Manor Park crew had the bottles open before we were on the A45. Mike even had to come to the rescue when they struggled with a cork screw. What a great way to travel, no worries about Friday evening traffic.

On arrival we found our bunkbeds and kitted out ourselves with P&H plastic sea kayaks and gear. A massive breakfast was on offer and then Phil took us through a briefing. Very strong winds with clearing skies meant the first session was to be on tidal estuary, getting used to the equipment. This included a demonstration of Phil’s deep water rescue technique. In a nutshell, turn the capsized boat back up, help the swimmer in to the boat, in 15 seconds or less and then pump like mad with his water pump. It worked well, getting the swimmer out of the water rapidly avoiding any dangers and the risk of hypothermia whilst doing the usual x-rescue.

In the afternoon we went to Black Rock Sands, trying the long boats out in the surf. The hard part was turning before the next set came in and trashed you, sending you back sideways to the soup. The sky was blue, the wind still strong and the surf pounding in. Good fun, with lashings of hot chocolate to boot! We loaded up and went straight back to the centre in our wet kit to wash off the salt and dunk Mike in the outdoor bath.

Sunday was calm and we loaded up the trailer for the one hour drive to Abersoch at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula. As we paddled out in to the bay the mountains stood clear on our left. No more than 100m ahead, two dolphins surfaced and swam for a few minutes, an adult and young. Gauging our speed by reference to a marker buoy and a mountain top, we headed out round the Tudwell Islands. The first of which was owned by Carla Lane. On the more exposed side the sea was lumpy . Sea birds were nesting and seals popped up to monitor our progress. A large ferry glide took us between the islands and across the tidal flow eventually to the mainland. Here we had a go at paddling backwards into sea caves and round rocks, timing our movements to the swell. Stacey got it wrong and briefly ended stuck on a rock. To finish, we found a small sandy beach for lunch and hot chocolate, had a go at rolling and rescues and then headed home. A cracking weekend.

Whitsun bank holiday and it was off to France. Sunshine, wine, smelly cheese (if you like that sort of thing), big water, sounds good! Mike and myself left Coventry in the afternoon stopping en route to leave my daughter at Grandparents. We arrived at Dover with time to spare and took a walk along the promenade, Waterloo Crescent and the small boat harbour, including a Severn Series RNLI lifeboat, the biggest they have. This is the bit you don’t see when you head straight for the docks. Bob, Ryan and Kyle drove past as walked back to the car.

The ferry swallowed coach after coach of school kids and despite being near the end to load, we found ourselves at the front of the starting grid for the other side. Ryan and Kyle loaded up with Beer, freeflow and bottled. We left the ferry at 12.10 a.m. and 630 miles later including many litres of diesel, tolls, cups of tea, lots of CD’s, a few roadworks, an amazing laser display in the middle of nowhere, 20 centigrade at one point in the night and Ryan driving one leg, we crawled in to St Jean Les Pins campsite in Guillestre, at mid day. Tired, we pitched tents, shopped, cooked and slept soundly.

Sunday, and we woke to find rain clearing away! A local paddle was in order, so we found the boulangerie and then a small track out the back of the village, which descended precipitously to the Lower Guil near Mont Dauphin. A straight forward paddle out onto the larger Durance and finish. The helpful German at the kayak shop got his table out for us to use, which he claimed was from the beer festivals! Sausage with hazelnuts got a mixed reception but the sun was out so we headed off down the lower Durance to Embrun and the Rabioux wave. Ryan and Kyle paddled well in the hole until Kyle got grabbed and it wouldn’t let him go. It was’t a wave! With the headwind and rain coming on it turned cold and we were glad for our fleeces when we got off to settle in for a wet evening. Fortunately the campsite building had a clothes hanger next to the boiler room. This was to be our saviour over the next few days, as the rain clung to the mountains.

Monday and we woke with surprise to see a fresh layer of snow, dusting the trees and mountains around the valley. We headed high up the Guil valley to Aiguile, where the winter ski lifts start. We passed cars with several inches of snow on their roof! The worrying thing was the temperature outside the car. Just 4.5 centigrade and snow in the wind blowing up the valley. This was like the Dart in January, not the southern French Alps in early summer. It was too much for Kyle, being below his limit of 7 centigrade and he opted to sleep in the car, whilst we wrapped in as many layers as we had. Dipping our hands in the icy water as we set off was quite a shock. The little gorge was entertaining and tight in places. Mike managed two ends over one drop! As we approached Chateau Queyras and the fortress, with Guardian Angel cliff in the background, Kyle had woken up in time to see us off the water. We then went down the valley for a cool river bank lunch. The next section, known as the Middle Guil was more powerful. The water was at 83cm on the gauge, a good level with plenty to keep you alert. Bob boofed to safety, over the rock next to Perry’s hole, the scene of much drama two years before. The river was continuous and Mike carefully negotiated a route through the hazards. We got out and portaged the Staircase, a steep section with few clear lines, which was a grade harder again. We got in round the corner, as we set up for the run into Le Tunnel. Anticipation of the get out, before the next nasty drop, was too strong and when combined with a lack of clear landmarks from the river, meant we got out far too early. In the process Ryan managed to drop his paddle in the river which Bob saw and Kyle fished out in time. A close shave, if we didn’t have a spare set of splits. We saw a German kayaker on the bank, who said they had lost a boat at the end of the section. A sharp cut left was necessary to avoid a sticky hole. Easy when you knew about it! After inspection, we opted to portage the last hole before the river piles into the dam controlled lake. As we got changed, happy after an excellent paddle, knackered after 2.5 hours intense paddling, with the temperature rising, we watched another group sail through the same hole. Easy when you know about it!

That night, after another exploration of Mike’s culinary skills, Bob tried raw garlic, much to our amusement because he reckoned he couldn’t taste the cloves in the meals. The starry sky meant it was really a cold night. Those Asda sleeping bags weren’t quite up to the weather and altitude.

Tuesday we headed back towards Briancon but despite the warmer weather there was very little water in the Onde and Gyronde. We had a picnic at the pretty spot at the get out of the Onde and watched the Germans bounce down the rocks. Having never paddled the Gyr we walked up the river bank. Apart from two sections, it looked fast and tight. The two sections were on more unstable river bed and probably changed regularly with the meltwater and storm run off. As an alternative we went to the slalom course so the boys could show their stuff with less rocks around. A French safety course was being run at the same time.

The evening tea included various beans, corgette and asparagus. The boys had never eaten so much veg. But we still hadn’t had a croissant!

Wednesday we headed south to the Ubaye, one hour to the south past the dammed Lake Serre Ponchon. From Le Lauzet to Le Martinet, another classic paddle with good water levels. Unfortunately Kyle managed to find one those rocks early on and there was plenty of blood, made to look worse by the water. He carried on despite allegedly losing his good looks and a thumping headache. An ice cream was the reward at the lake.

Thursday and there was no water on the Guisane above Briancon, so we walked through the old town and across to the bridge, high above the gorge. With the cloud and showers there was no water here either and the barrage was letting little water through. We headed back to the Lower Durance, thankful we had chosen by chance and because our usual campsite had not opened for the season, to base ourselves in this area. Again it was a cold wind that greeted us. The Durance was lower and the Rabioux more of a hole. No one played today. We passed the “Danger falling rocks” sign (unusual on a river) and Bob now led the way back! Another very wet evening and the boys planned to place the table football under the awning until they realized there wouldn’t be any tea!

The last days paddling and we went back to the lower Guil. There was a bit of a scare when big cat footprints were found on the riverbank but I thought the boys showed through. We loaded Bob’s boat up with all the safety gear we could find, when he wasn’t looking. A change from leaving the kit in the car! The river had dropped to 68 on the gauge. Climbers hung on to the rocks through Mont Dauphin. The sun even allowed us to finally dry out our kit before we loaded up with wine, chocolate and cheese from the supermarket. A final game of table football before an early start for home the next morning.

The Lauteret pass, the next day, gave us a final reminder of winter, with snow blowing at the top, before a steady drive home to a warmer dry climate! Or so we thought!