Old Paddlers Never Die
They just become Old Farts
By: Jerry Murland
First published in 'Canoeist' magazine.
With an average age of 46, the Old Farts Canoe and Kayak Club is host to a collection of knackered old paddlers who have found little or no reason to stop paddling, in fact quite to the contrary, have found themselves paddling harder and more often than before. The oldest members are approaching 55, and one or two are considering retirement from work in order to paddle more often. Retirement is infinitely preferable to taking mid week sickies in order to paddle those elusive rivers that only come up during the working week, and far healthier than working. Jim Ditchfield has already taken this step but has temporarily been sidetracked with the purchase of a helicopter. Rumour has it that eddy hopping in this machine is a real buzz, but mastery of landing on his tennis court still requires practice.
Membership of the OFCKC is strictly by invitation and the full privileges of membership (what these are god only knows!) are only bestowed on those members who are over 40. Some aspiring female members are still below this milestone but are offered honary membership in return for occasional shuttle bunny duties. There is no annual subscription, no secret handshake and no affiliation to any national or regional organisation. Sponsorship includes Delia Ellard of Canyon Gear who knocks a quid off gear now and again and Saga Holidays who it is rumoured are considering the Old Fart's Alpine Tour as part of their 2001 itinery. An application to the committee of the United Usk Fishermen for funding has yet to be acknowledged.
Within these loose boundaries and under the umbrella of the club motto, 'dishonour before death', members can, and do, behave as disgracefully as they wish. This is particularly encouraged when dealing with belligerent Italian policemen lying in wait for Brit paddlers in the Aosta valley and when responding to the BCU Access Committee's reports on progress. In fact if ever CRACK were to be resurrected, the Old Farts would be first to lend their support.
With the bulk of British paddlers heading for alpine water in early summer, the OFCKC paddlers have discovered the delights of late summer alpine paddling. A little careful planning, unplanned summer rainfall and some local knowledge has produced two tours of excellent quality with the added bonus of uncrowded campsites and empty eddies. Agreed, the water may not be as big and bouncy as in June or July but is it still possible to find good quality class 3 and 4 water in abundance.
Last year we planned a tour beginning with the Dranse de Savoie at Thonon-les-Bains and concluding with two days on the Isere. The trip took us round Switzerland to the rivers of the Upper Rhine Valley, over the high passes to the galloping waters in the Aosta Valley and finally home via Bourg St Maurice. There was possibly more excitement to be had on the road during this trip as we lurched around Europe, falling asleep on hairpin bends and avoiding the motorway tax in Switzerland. We had originally planned a European whitewater classic tour but the prospect of travelling over 3000 miles in 11 days to paddle 8 rivers put most of the contenders off the prospect. However the plan still exists and with a bit of tweaking could be on the cards again!
The 2000 tour was the best yet. Seven paddlers left the UK in late August and headed for Briancon. A half empty campsite greeted our arrival at 3am as we crashed out under the stars in exhausted heaps. That afternoon, after a quick snooze in the morning, we ran the Durance from St. Clement down to Embrum. This run hardly changes over the whole summer and is a great warm-up river for all abilities. The Rabioux was the usual carnival as the customary collection of rafts, inflatables and hydro speeders were gobbled up by the wave and spat out in a confusion of bedraggled bodies further downstream.
Next day the group headed up the Ubaye valley to Le Martinet to run the Race Course and the Gorge. Being Old Farts, there was a compulsory lunch stop at Le Lauzet to enable the team to get their teeth into some local produce. It was fortunate for one Old Fart that the lunch break was before the Gorge; his line on the drop below the Lion's Den was responsible for bits of his front teeth being removed without anaesthetic.
Saturday was spent moving to Italy and by late afternoon we were camped in a wonderfully secluded orchard above the Canyon de l'inferno on the Dora Baltea. There was a short interlude before we arrived with an Italian police car while we were scouting the get in for the top section upstream of La Salle. Neither of them spoke English and the conversation became increasingly heated as they searched through the car's documents, I was trying to explain my license had been lost somewhere in France as they produced yards of paperwork and confiscated my passport. This encounter concluded with me having to part with a huge pile of monopoly money and threatened with arrest if I didn't fax them my licence number within 30 days. So far I'm still a free man. Kerry Hill's suggestion of 'lets grab their guns, shoot them and throw them in the Dora Baltea', was tempting but we left them lurking in their lay-by to snare passing German paddlers.
The Aosta valley is still a paddler's valley despite the Italian attempts to ruin it. The head of the valley is dominated by the huge bulk of Mont Blanc and the imposing frontier ridge giving an impressive backdrop to any paddling. With the Mont Blanc tunnel in its second year of closure, the valley has begun to slip back into the stillness of the bygone age that was only experienced before the autostrada was built. Now the tunnels and viaducts of the carriageways lead nowhere, and the heavy traffic that clogged up the valley with diesel fumes is no longer contributing to the slow death of the alpine environment. Long may it last.
The Italian warm-up was the 'Racetrack' section down to La Salle. Last year I was unfortunate enough to have a religious experience on this section, the river gods punishing me for careless paddling.. The river here is very fast, continuous, shallow and unforgiving, any swim is likely to be very painful and body bashing. Despite being well versed in the dodgy bits I had another experience that left me bleeding and battered after an episode with a pour over that felt huge and probably wasn't. Swept downstream at a rate of knots the swimmer is subjected to a relentless hammering. At the point when the battering was dulling the senses and the cold was encouraging the brain to give up, the front of John Jones's RPM appeared, I grabbed the bow gratefully and was unceremoniously shoved into an eddy. I wasn't alone, further downstream towards the barrage Helen Marsden had a brief encounter with the weir and made a 'technical step out.' However all was not lost, my wounds and pride were administered to by an Italian raft guide called Marcia who produced bags of ice and ointment and almost made the swim worthwhile.
Being a Sunday the locals were out in force and we found ourselves drawn to the local ice cream parlour at La Salle. Soon huge ice creams in glass dishes were plonked before us and we engaged in an unadulterated orgy of gelatinous delight! Lost in this assault on my taste buds, the pains of the morning's swim were soothed away by six different flavours with a generous topping of cream. Italian paddling does have those extra perks.
That afternoon the group paddled the Dora Baltea Gorge. Hugely impressive and finishing with the suitably named rapid 'Shredded Knickers' in Villeneuve. The next day Tom Waterer led the group through this rapid in fine style after a repeat descent of the Gorge. Tom's other claim to fame was his ability to put up a tent in the slowest possible time allowed and still only score 2 points for artistic style and delivery.
Giving Tom an hour or two to pack up his tent, we left for the Isere that evening to arrive in Centron in time for supper. The previous year the campsite manager, a wildly eccentric German psychotherapist called Hans, had threatened to cut off my balls for speeding on the campsite. He remembered us as soon as we arrived! 'You lot here again, no speeding on my site.' He shot off to his cabin, probably to sharpen his knife, while we joined the other five campers on the site for the next two nights and enjoyed the late season seclusion of a practically deserted site. Hans was apparently no longer offering therapy in Germany and spent most of the year with his wife managing the site offering therapy to happy campers.
The Isere was running on 25 cumecs, a slight difference to the previous year when we experienced 44 cumecs in the morning and a further 10 added in the afternoon. This put the paddling at sustained Class 4 and added serious spice to the Aime Rapid, giving Tim Spencer the dubious pleasure of running Aime Rapid ahead of his boat and paddle. Draped round a rock in ignominious fashion, he was refused passage by a passing raft until the bank support pleaded on his behalf, and yes, we do have photographic evidence!
However, 25 cumecs makes for very pleasant paddling and over the next two days, members of the group ran the whole river, including the Centron Gorge twice. The advantage of using the campsite at Centron being you can take out next to your tent. A worthy consideration for Old Farts who find getting out of the boat a struggle after several hours being jammed in! Evening activity focussed on the campsite bar with Hans allowing booze to be run up on tick and Tim 'The Wok' Spencer producing huge quantities of food in a rapidly rusting Wok that we kept trying to unsuccessfully lose during each move. (We very nearly managed it after leaving Thonon, but he came running after us waving it at us as we drove out of the campsite). It was at Centron that Helen was driven to dance on the tabletops after consuming several bottles of wine. Even Hans couldn't remember how many she had put away! However he did offer her psychotherapy for this drink problem.
Wednesday evening saw us en-route for Thonon les Bains and the Dranse de Savoie. Arriving in the rain we camped close to the lake and abandoned a dripping campsite for a restaurant in Thonon. It was till raining the next morning as we drove up the mist shrouded valley to find the river running on a 15 cumec release and looking as though it had been plucked from the Welsh countryside. The Dranse lived up to expectation for everyone and while only Caroline Gerritson and John Jones ran the upper section, it was a fine finale to the 2000 Old Fart's Tour.
Next year there is talk of an East European tour, personally I don't care where we go as long as there is water, wine and good company. Eat your heart out Saga Holidays!