Last autumn, I had a chance to join a two-day Packrafting gathering in the Belgian Ardennes to packraft the Ourthe. I heard about it when I contacted Joery and asked him if he was planning anything interesting. He said ‘yes’ and sent me the link to the description of this event on their blog. Briefly what it said was that a lot of packrafters were located in the Low Lands, which was why it would be nice to meet up and paddle together on the last weekend of November. I thought it was a great idea and I said I was in.
About two weeks later, Joery sent an email with a proposed plan of action. Three plans to be exact. One was to paddle the Ourthe river for two days, with the start point in La Roche-en-Ardennes in Belgium. In case there was not enough water in the river, another option was to have a two-day paddling trip in Biesbosch National Park near Rotterdam, NL. And finally, if that was not possible due to high winds, it was suggested to have a day trip on the Dommel river. The exact destination for the trip became known to us only one day before I had to leave Leeuwarden.
After a lot of uncertainty, the final decision came on Thursday night. And it was the Ourthe. This meant that we would need to meet at the train station of Melreux-Hotton (coincidentally the place where I had been with my students a number of times) on Saturday morning, and then take a bus to La Roche-en-Ardennes, the starting point of our paddling trip. And this is exactly what we did.
Originally 17 packrafters were planning to join the microadventure, but over time one by one people started to cancel and on Saturday morning there were only 8, who made it to the rendezvous point at the train station – four from Belgium and four from The Netherlands.
One of the reasons why some people might had cancelled was the weather – prior to the trip it had been rather cold and it had also rained for several days. But on the day itself we were there for a treat: though starting cloudy, it cleared up really soon and the sun was shining on our backs from the blue skies for most of the time. In addition, there was hardly any wind, or at least not strong enough to make us work too hard. It was just perfect… And as we were passing by the places I had visited with my students in the past, it made me feel as if it were Spring already.
A few hours into the trip, we stopped at Rendeux or a short break "to empty what was full and to fill what was empty". I have passed this place a number of times in the past but it was my first time actually to be there. And it was just on time as well – even though I had a good breakfast I had started to feel a bit peckish by then.
What I had for lunch was a drinkable supermeal shake by Getambronite. We got an opportunity to field test it and I thought that doing it during that trip would be a good idea. What I liked about it was the ease of use. All I needed to do was to mix the powder with 550 ml of cold water, shake it and start drinking. If green shaker bottle is used, the required amount of water would be approximately up to the ‘t’ in the word Ambronite, written on it. (I am not sure why they didn’t make a separate mark, but filling it up to the ‘t’ also works.) As the shake contains a lot of grains and nuts, the taste is somewhat ‘nutty’. I wouldn’t say it is something to die for, nor is it unpleasant. I expect that the more you drink it the more it grows on you. Another interesting thing is that from one serving you can get 500 calories. Which is rather a lot. But I still feel that just drinking the shake will not be enough. At least for me, it wasn’t. I had it the evening before for dinner and that afternoon and, though it gave me energy, I still missed something ‘more solid’. But it might be just me of course, as I am not so used to shakes. So, so far my impression is that it is a good alternative for on the go and I would definitely take it with me on my adventures. And, though I will not solely rely on it, especially on multi-day trips, it can help to get enough vitamins and minerals and avoid any cholesterol (which is very important for me right now). Oh, yeah, did I mention that it is vegan?
Most of the participants (6 out of 8) had green packrafts. Why? Because they want to be as invisible as possible, which in some cases is not only an advantage, but also a necessity. If you have a brightly colored packraft like I do, you definitely stand out a lot more and you can almost forget about guerilla paddling and wild camping. On the other hand, in remote areas, where you actually want to be found, it is better to have a visible packraft. In addition, a yellow or a red packraft is also more photogenic. And of course how can anyone be stealthy, if they are wearing bright clothes and PFDs and their paddles are screaming yellow? What is your colour of choice for a packraft?
Having replenished our energy, we got back to the water and continued down the river towards #Hotton, the place where we met in the morning. On the way, we passed some small rapids and had to negotiate a couple of weirs. The only one that we had to portage was next to the town itself. Being rather big one was not a problem. What stopped us from paddling it was the debris: branches and even whole trunks of trees, stones and an assortment of human rubbish. But stepping out of the boat was a welcomed change, which gave me an opportunity to get a better look at the cliffs on the other side of the river. I had been on top of those cliffs a number of times in the past, looking down onto the river and wondering if I could dare to paddle that weir. Well, it turns out I couldn’t :).
That night we camped in a small forest at the confluence of two rivers. Hardly had we set up our camp and lit the fire, when it started to rain. And with some dry spells, it rained throughout the whole night and well into the next day.
It took us some time to stand up. At least most of the others had a good reason for that – they enjoyed themselves next to the fire until the small hours of the morning. I, on the other hand, didn’t have that excuse as I went to bed rather early. So, why did I wake up late? Lazy, I guess.
When I started to pack, I decided not to use the cargofly and keep all my gear in the pack on the boat. In my experience, if you expect to paddle short distances or if you have to portage a lot, it’s better to keep the weight of the boat to the minimum and avoid the hustle of packing and unpacking. And this day I expected to paddle for two three hours tops.
Having broken down the camp, we slowly moved our gear and our packrafts back to the water. The ground was very wet and muddy, and we had to be careful not to slide. Not all of us succeeded though 🙂
For filming during the trip, I used my DIY GoPro mount, which original design idea came from thedeliveranceteam. Based on their idea and just with a few adjustments and modifications, this mount has served me well on a number of occasions. When using it, one thing that I have to make sure though is that I do not get caught in the overhanging branches or other low hanging objects above the water. That is why it is more suitable for lakes or larger slow moving rivers, where you have more space to manoeuvre. However, if careful, you can use it on smaller rivers as well.
While some of us were still packing, Ruben, Fred and Charissa practiced some technics on the smaller stream. (Fred still had the ball that the ‘Dutch team’ won the day before.)
Once all of us got onto the water, we made a customary circle, or at least attempted to make it. It seems that a packraft circle is significantly easier to form if you have more than 8 people. We didn’t even try to form a star, even though that idea came up as well.
Once we started to paddle, it started to rain too and even though it was just a few hours to Barvaux, the place where we wanted to take the train from to go back to Hotton, it still felt as if it was hours. The last part of the river was not that exciting either. The only truly interesting thing was paddling through Durbuy, the smallest town in Belgium, but even then it was raining hard and we didn’t feel like stopping and enjoying the place. So, when we finally got to Barvaux, we (or at least I) felt somewhat relived and definitely hungry. The train was still in more than an hour (we had just missed the previous one), so we went to a pub to ‘lift our spirits’, which, in a way, is a tradition on its own. And of course I had Belgian fries 🙂