Last Update: 16/7/99
© Chris Walters 1999.
We woke up relatively late, and had to hurry to do some shopping before we could drive to Argentieres to meet our British paddling companions. I had to turn some baquettes (long French bread) into something edible, but because I didn't want to turn Steven's car into a breadcrum-container I cut the bread outside the car. That almost left our breakfast flying in the gully alongside the road (we were doing about 70 KM/h (40 mph)). We arrived at the Argentieres Slalom-course-campsite about a quarter of an hour too late, but our British friends didn't mind. At about half past ten we drove to Briancon, had a look at the lower Guisane and drove to Le Casset, upstream from Briancon.
The Guisane is quite a steep river (28m/Km , 150 fpm), but the first part is a class II/III, with the hardest part being the "boat-crasher" (or "S-Bends" as Peter Knowles seems to call it), a class III+ rapid. The Guisane is glacier-fed, so a hot day, and paddling in the afternoon means a lot more water. Chris had told us beforehand that he wouldn't paddle the lower part with us, so (because of the relatively low amount of eddies) we paddled in two groups. Adrian, Chris, Jez and Sue were the first group while Darren, Steven and I made up the second group. Jez wasn't sure about the lower Guisane, so we would let him decide about it before the difficult stretch. I went over the signals and procedures in case of a swim, and emphasized the necessity to cath the eddies you aimed for, especially on the lower part. A large group of paddlers paddled past us at the put-in, most of them British. I had sat in the water to cool down, and by the time the shuttle-drivers returned (twenty minutes) my wetsuit was almost dry again. Still, this was no river to paddle with less than a wetsuit.
We took off, tried some eddies, got back together for some comments of mine and slowly got back further downstream. I was impressed by the skills of Darren (he only started paddling about two years ago), and it also showed how much Steven had learned in the last year, since he first did some Alpine rivers. Gradually they got better at catching eddies and evading rocks and we arrived at the "boat-breaker". Chris told us that he would setup safety for us, and asked if we could do the same for them. We got down okay, save for Darren's inability to catch an eddy before he was aklmost two-hundred metres (think yards) downstream from me. That worried me, knowing what lay ahead... Steven did okay, and I asked him to set safety fifty metres downstream of me. Chris's group did okay as well, although Adrian seemed intent on letting his boat decide on the line to be taken. After a fairly uneventful trip (and a couple of questioning looks from Steven and Darren when we passed a couple of bridges (after the take- out bridge the difficult stretch starts)) we arrived at the take-out. Jez had hurt his shoulder, and decided to call it a day, so it would be Darren, Steven and me going into the forest-canyon.
We had to stop fairly quickly to scout the broken down-weir under the bridge. I asked Steven and Darren what line to take, and told them the advantages of the different options (one risks you getting under a sluice-gate which diverts some water through a concrete channel...). I went down first, submerged completely at the first drop and came up upside-dowm, I had to roll... this was one nasty cold experience, with the glacier melt river being about twenty-five degrees (C) colder than the air. Steven and Darren had a much better line. Still, the trip was still very well doable at these levels (last month we had about 60cm's (two foot) more water), class II and III. When we arrived at the first split into different channels I didn't recognise it at first. I knew we had to keep left at the different split-ups, but I wasn't sure, so I had the others wait while I went down. It was way too easy, untill I looked up from the bottom and recognised the vertical weir on the right channel... oops, good thing I remembered to take the left channel!
Steven and darren came down okay, and asked me if this was the start of the Forest Gorge. I didn't think so, but I wasn't entirely sure, there was so much less water now. We arrived at the high weir that has warning-signs upstream from it, and portaged. There was still so much water coming down that I couldn't see the iron bars at the bottom, so I decided to do it on another time. Someone had left a throwbag at the bottom of the weir (If you still miss it, we left it there). We got in via a Himalaya-start, and paddled further downstream. The next stretch was hauntingly familiar, and I warned Steven and Darren to watch for the first steep stretch. This time we had arrived at the Forest Gorge all right. We could see foam being jettisoned into the air between some boulders, with a lot more surprises being hidden by them (these boulders were completely submerged last month). We decided to meet at the bottom in an eddy. I went down okay, had a smooth line and landed in one of the first eddies. I quickly set up safety, this being Steven's first ever solid class IV and Darren's first trip on the Lower Guisane and all.
Steven came down, bounced around against some rocks and made a nice unintentional spin at the bottom drop (a hole). He got into an eddy all right. To my surprise I saw Darren pick the same line, do a nice spin at the exact same spot and land into an eddy as well. I asked them if they were all right, and their smiles told me enough! >From then on we had to pick as many eddies as we could, because it was getting a bit harder to see what was around the bend. I missed one rock only to get pinned sideways with the cockpit upstream between two rocks. It was good to see that Darren was out of his boat with a throwbag before I got to look where they both were. I managed to put my paddle upstream from me and finally push myself up enough to be edging up on the rioght side. As I had only 10 cm's of bow sticking on one rock, I wobbled untill it came loose. That was one stupid pin... wouldn't be my last one this week :-).
We came to the next difficult stretch, and I motioned for them to come to my eddy for a short description of the line to follow. Steven slid in the eddy behind me, so I was suddenly pushed to the center of the eddy with nowhere to hold. Darren made one of his flying eddy-landings and the next moment I was squashed between them and I found myself floating downstream, backwards... arrrrgh! As I got into the next eddy, I let them know what I thought of that move. A while later, as Darren and Steven weren't keeping their distance, Darren bumped into Steven, who promptly pinned and motioned "stop"! The bump had made his belt-pack (with his brand new camera) come loose. He took some time in an eddy to stuff it under his PFD, when I asked him to take a picture. It didn't work, as the bag had vacuumed so tightly around the camera that when he pushed the zoom-button, it stayed in the zoom-mode... Then Steven almost flushed out of the eddy without his spraydeck on and with out a paddle. Darren helped him, and we could continue.
The last stretch was less eventfull, with all of us taking eddies as if we never had done anything else. I could see Chris and Adrian standing on the bridge at the take-out, so we pulled in the last eddies and got out. The exiting and boat-carrying service was excellent, thanks to our exiting and boat-carrying crew (thanks again guys!). We had some great-after paddling talk, and after a suggestion from someone Darren wrote "Advertise here" on the bottom of his boat (did I already mention the "unleaded" written near his drain-plug?). It was a great day on the water! Steven mentioned that this was close to his skill-limit, but I thought both he and darren had done great! We decided that we would paddle two stretches of the Ubaye tomorrow. We would meet at the super-market in Guillestre. I could hardly wait!
Continued in the next part...