One week of tour rafting in the Alps!

Finally, the last week of June has arrived and I can leave for France once more. After a detour to bike up Mont Ventoux it’s off to Lake Geneva near the Swiss border to start a one week rafting trip through the French Alps.

Alps Guisane

First on our to-do list is Les Dranses. A very nice class 3-4 river typical for the French Alps. Nice waves, small holes and some technical rocky sections in between.  After only half an hour on the water it’s time to get in the water.

At the start of a week like this you want to know if everybody can handle themselves when they go for a swim. So, everybody goes in one at a time and tries to catch an eddy and get themselves to safety. You can never practice these things enough no matter your experience. The water is too cold to hang around for too long, so we’re off again after half an hour. The first few bruises are also a fact as the water is quite shallow in some places.  The second run is even more fun; we start just a little higher up the river and get to do the last few meters of the class 5 section as well.

Alps – Queras Gorge

In the afternoon it’s on to the Giffre. The put-in is just before a narrow gorge with a pretty difficult entry. Unfortunately, it rained quit hard the night before so the water level in the gorge is way too high.  We don’t even think about trying this. We put in just below the gorge and have a really nice run. Nice class 3 with some nasty man-made and natural weir’s in between to keep us alert. The scenery is absolutely beautiful with the evening mist hanging just above the water surface. We don’t get off the river until 7.30 PM. luckily they recently changed French law because up until last year this would have been illegal. You had to be of the river by 6 PM at the latest. We get something to eat on the road, still a few of hours of driving to do before we get to our next camp site.

Tuesday brings us to the beautiful Isère with its world renowned slalom course in Bourg Saint Maurice. Quit a difference from yesterday. Today it’s all big waves and almost no technical parts. We go through rapids with fun names like the the ham slicing machine (in French la machine à couper le jambon) and the sheep’s head or la tête de mouton.  They are all part of ‘Les rapides de Aime’. When we set off we’re quite surprised to see so many racing kayaks and so many different nationalities. Turns out we are right in the middle of the 2012 world champs.  Luckily they’re just training today and the actual race isn’t until tomorrow. We have to watch out for kayaks constantly and we can’t start our afternoon run until 4 PM because they have the river to themselves for a few hours. No dinner before 10 PM either this evening. During our afternoon run we also practice our ‘getting each other back in the boat’ skills. You never know when you go for an accidental or not so accidental flip or swim.

We’re starting off Wednesday with an icy blast. The last few kilometers of the famous Malafosse section on the upper Durance are so powerful (and rocky). If you go for a swim here you’re in for quite a long and painful ride. We’re all very impressed and have a hard time finding a good spot to get started without getting into trouble within 30 seconds. Eric, our local guy, has been here before a number of times and gets us through without even breaking a sweat, or so it seems to us at least.  After a few kilometers we get to breathe again as we enter the small gorge that runs through the historical center of Briançon. Where the Durance meets the Guisane we stop for a quick lunch before setting off again to do the upper and lower Guisane. The top part is good to get started again, nothing too serious and only one or 2 sections that need our attention. We take turns guiding the raft, all great fun.

Triple Chute

The last problem of the top section is the Luc Alphan ski tunnel. The river goes underneath a ski slope and there’s a small drop at the end of the tunnel. You have to stay to the extreme right if you don’t want to tear up your boat on the metal that’s hidden just below the surface river left. The bottom section starts with ‘la glissière’, a coble stone slide of about 4 to 5 meters high. Stay to center or a bit to the right and you should be fine, just make sure you stay in the boat because a swim can hurt big time on this thing.

The next few kilometers are continuous class 4 technical white water. We have to stay focused the whole time and work hard to get the raft though some really narrow spots. We end up back where we finished our morning run and end the day with a well deserved Belgian bear in Briançon.

No way, already Thursday? Time for a French classic, the Guil. We start with the upper part a few kilometers above the beautiful Queras castle. Simple class 2 stuff that’s brings us to a nice very narrow gorge which has just enough water to not get stuck the whole time. After lunch it’s time for some serious stuff, the Chateau Queras gorge. Ones you’re in you really have to go for it. The entire Guil squeezes itself through a narrow gorge and we have only centimeters to spare on both sides of the raft at some points. Once you’re out of the gorge there is still a short technical section to tackle before we get to the take-out point. Because it’s only a short run, some of us get to do it twice. There are 8 of us in total but for safety reasons we can’t take more than 5 in the raft on this part of the river so a game of who has the shortest piece of wood decides who gets to go and who has to stay. The second time around everything goes even smoother, what a team.

Triple Chute

No time to waste, still 2 runs to go. We have to start in the middle of a 3 step drop called le triple chute (or the triple drop), so everybody is focused from the minute we set one foot in the boat. Getting off to a good start is very important as you have almost no time to line up your boat for the second drop. We get through it in a pretty decent way both times. The second time maybe in little less conventional way (backwards) but we made it to the bottom safely. Between the triple drop and the take out, there is a technical section with some big boulders followed by a more mellow part and another technical section to finish with.

Already the last day of the week. We end it in style with the Ubaye. First up is the classic raft section between the bridges of Martinet and Lauzet.  So early in summer the Ubaye still has a good water level, about 30 m³, only half of it will be left in 2 weeks time if it doesn’t start to rain.

Not a lot of time to warm up as the first rapid is just around the corner. La Cuisine or the Kitchen is dominated by a huge boulder in the middle of the river. Sometimes you have to pass it on the left, the next year it’s possible you have to be on the right side of it. Violent thunder storms in spring cause rock and mud slides that change the bedding of this river almost every year. We go for the left side like we did last year but we quickly notice we should have been on the right side, it’s pretty difficult to get through on the left where some new rocks have been dropped in the river. We can catch the eddy behind the big central boulder and ferry to the right side of the river. After this we can relax a bit and enjoy some really nice waves. All the rapids like the Sharks tooth and the Lauzet gorge go super smooth and we even manage to get some surf time in a small hydraulic (or rappel in French). As a reward we start our second run higher up and tackle the last few kilometers of the 4+ race course section of the Ubaye starting just above the horse shoe drop and rapid. What a way to end the day and this week. I can’t wait to do this trip again next year.

Article by Els Meurens