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Down the River - a guide to local water sports

Down the River - a guide to local water sports

Feeling the need for some peace and tranquillity? With a canoe, kayak or paddle-board you can get right back to nature, at your own pace...

 

Canoe-kayak-franceWhen you look at the map you might think that so much open countryside must surely offer limitless possibilities to get out there and commune with Mère Nature. In reality, however, a significant proportion of our fertile land is actually under quite intensive cultivation, so for much of the year you’ll have no guarantee that all that tempting countryside around you will be either tranquil or freely accessible to do as you please. Fortunately, you don’t need to join the holiday traffic on the open road; there’s another option which you might never have considered until now. I’m talking about the joys of messing about on the river.

France has around 25,000km of navigable water courses, so you won’t be too far from a river (or lake) suitable for some kind of water-borne leisure activity – everything from solitary freshwater fishing to family river cruising, in fact. Somewhere between the two lie the simple, go-as-you-please pleasures of canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding, each of which has the potential to take you to places you’d never ordinarily see, and offers the kind of liberating peace and quiet which will change forever your perception of the countryside around you.

Look for a suitable river to explore and you’ll find that in addition to headliners like the Loire, Vienne, Charente and Dordogne there’s also an impressive cast of supporting acts including the Clain, the Dronne, the Ile, the Boutonne, the Tardoire, not one but two Sèvres (Niortaise and Nantaise) and many more. Running a quick web search using the name of a promising-looking river plus “canoeing” should return useful information about popular ‘base nautique’ access points, hire services and clubs. You can also download a directory of useful contacts from the Comité Régional Poitou-Charentes de Canoë-Kayak website: www.crpcck.fr. Both clubs and hire operators will be happy to introduce you to traditional canoes and kayaks, along with more recently-introduced paddle boards. Each has its own loyal devotees, so what might be right for you? Canoe fans will tell you that they’re relaxing, stable and can be packed with all kinds of things – a particularly endearing quality should you be planning to stop along the way for a picnic. Kayak aficionados, on the other hand, tend to be happy to trade stowage capacity and inherent stability for livelier handling, not least since a two-bladed paddle offers instant course correction. This makes the kayak particularly suited to more sporting activities. As for paddle boards, their ‘simplicity itself’ appeal, plus a youthful, closet-surfer image means they’re gaining popularity fast.

 

Regardless of whichever variant you feel drawn to, if you go along to a hire point (or better still, join a club) you’ll be supplied with a life-jacket (gilet de sauvetage) and waterproof container (bidon étanche) for your goodies, and shown how to handle your chosen craft safely and confidently in the kind of water conditions you’re likely to encounter.

River Charente

If you live nearby then the River Charente could be a good starting point. Philippe Largeau of Feel Nature offers a range of nature-themed outdoor activities including canoe, kayak and paddle board randonnées, and is passionate about his local river. “I worked as an instructor in the Ardèche, where there were sometimes thousands of boats on the river, but the Charente is much calmer. It’s navigable almost throughout its entire course, so in theory you could travel from the Lacs de Haute Charente all the way to the Atlantic coast. The only time you need leave the water is to skirt an abandoned water mill, although improvements are gradually helping the environmental balance and allowing carp, trout, pike, roach and perch, plus migrating species like eel and shad to return higher upstream to spawn. There are natural wetland areas too, and wildlife isn’t disturbed by the passage of canoes or kayaks. People love that – particularly the British, who return regularly and know how to have a good time, whatever the weather. They leave from Charroux, Civray, Taizé-Aizie or Verteuil with their mobile phone, a navigation map and all the information they need to enjoy their adventure at their own pace. Signage provided by Conseil Générals de la Charente and la Vienne means that people know exactly where they are.”

canoe-saint-savinien-france

 

Helena Riffaud and her husband Réné (President of the Club Canoë-Kayak de Mansle further downstream) are equally enthusiastic: “There’s something for everyone, particularly in summer. Eté Actif en Charente allows 6–16 year-olds to enjoy canoeing and kayaking sessions from Mansle, Jarnac and Cognac. A two-hour session led by a qualified instructor costs just 4 euros. There’s also the weekly Apéro Canobus – up to 12 people paddle a big canoe from Mansle for a relaxed, friendly drinks break beside the river at Saint-Groux, then paddle back again. The whole family can enjoy it together.”

François I regarded the Charente as the most beautiful river in all his kingdom, but for leisure activities it has some strong competition. If you live further south then you’ll know that the Dronne, plus the Dordogne and its tributaries are delightful – but they’re arguably even more so when seen from the water. Even familiar areas like Domme, Le Bugue, Brantôme and Les Eyzies all look very different from how other visitors are used to seeing them, and there are hire services at these and other beauty spots on all the main rivers. It’s precisely this kind of flexibility which inspires enthusiastic converts to plan their holidays around water-borne activities and explore fresh territories elsewhere in France.

In fact, there’s a whole new world out there just waiting to be discovered, and as we’ve seen, doing so can be a lot simpler than you might have imagined. Better still, you won’t have to go far to find perfect peace on the water.

FACTFILE: Canoe, Kayak or Paddle Board?

canoe-ardeche-franceStrictly speaking, a canoe (‘canoë’) is a lightweight double-ended, usually open-topped boat, a descendant of primitive dugout vessels used by indigenous people throughout the world since at least 8000BC. The name probably derives from Caribbean ‘kenu’ and Spanish ‘canoa’ vessels. Construction materials include timber, aluminium, glass fibre or – strictly for traditionalists – birch bark or canvas covering a timber framework. There are both solo and tandem versions, propelled by means of a single-bladed paddle (although you’ll occasionally see a hybrid approach employing a kayak-style two-bladed paddle, or ‘pagaie’). You’ll usually be sitting rather than kneeling, perhaps while pondering the epic canoe journeys made by trappers in the wilds of Canada and northern United States.

Kayaks are more slender than canoes, and closed (or decked) rather than open. They’re also direct descendants of the ‘qajaq’ and ‘qayaq’ craft made by Inuit and other hunters in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, originally using seal and other animal skins over a whalebone (or wood, where available) skeleton framework. Modern kayaks use various materials including glass fibre, polyethylene, polyester carbon fibre, marine plywood or even inflatable fabrics, and some are designed so you sit on, rather than in them.

Which brings us to the paddle board, a relatively recent arrival on the scene, it’s more accurately referred to as ‘stand-up paddle boarding’ or SUP (to avoid confusion with ‘paddleboarding’, which involves kneeling on a California-style surfboard while using the arms for swim-style propulsion). Like long-board surfing, the paddle board originated in Hawaii, as a means of going much further (and with less effort) than by hand-paddling. Instead you simply stand upright and propel your ‘board across the surface of the water with a single-bladed paddle – like a canoe paddle, only longer.

 

WORDS: ROGER MOSS

 

© Living Magazine

Originally published in June 2015

 

Canoe, kayak or paddle board?