Boating in Val Sesia

by Polly Miller

A trip to Italy to go boating in early Spring seemed the perfect way to end the London winter. A flick through the guidebook, and chatting to other boaters promised steep creeks, sunshine, cheap wine and great food. Normally I compare most kayaking locations to New Zealand, and I found that home could not hold a candle to the Val Sesia valley for a week of boating.

Two groups were going out to Val Sesia in the same week, and much to my surprise I turned down the small group of experienced paddlers from the Lakes who were flying over, and elected to travel with the Bristol Canoe Club, a group of eleven kayakers, two of whom offered to pick me up on route to the ferry. A 13 hour drive in a small vehicle is an acid test for new friends, and Nick, Matt and I emerged chirpy and keen to get on the river together.

My first impression of Val Sesia was that it was somewhere in Ecuador. The humidity and amazing green of the steep valley made me feel we had somehow driven to the tropics. Details proved that we were really in an off-season ski valley, with small perfect villages, complete with slate roofs and tiny steep streets. At the campsite at Campertogno we were welcomed by broad smiles and a free cappuccino my first decent coffee in far too long. Pitching our tents under trees next to a sparkling river was an amazing contrast to waking up in my dark London basement flat.

The Bristol team had a mix of abilities, and our first river section might have been made for us to jump on to. The lower Sesia is a busy class 2 and 3 stretch of beautiful blue-green water, with the road much of the time hidden by trees. The river was low, and we came back to the campsite hoping for either super hot sun to melt what snow was left, or a day or two of rain.

We got the rain we needed, and while we had one cold evening, it meant we were free to eat wonderful pizzas from the campsite pizzeria, sample carafes of ridiculously cheap wine, and drink beer in the bar afterwards. The rain also brought up the river, and the team had a big day on the upper and middle Sesia sections, where rapids which had been an easy bimble the previous day, turned into stomping fun class four.

We sought advice from other boaters, and when the sun came out we paddled some of the tributaries, the Gyronde and the Sorba, which were our first taste of steep slides. Drops that looked big and intimidating were actually very straightforward, and luckily boofs were not essential, as like others from the team, I was still bonding with a new creek boat.

Three of us continued down the Sorba river when the others got out, scouting drops with huge boulders and sharp corners. At one point, following Nicks directions, I found myself in a river wide closed hole with lots of recirculation. A small swim into an eddy led to a discussion about holes and scouting all part of the fun. The river dropped into a small gorge, and as Ernst disappeared upside down around a corner I checked my watch. It was 7pm and there was no way we were going to make the takeout. Some things are just like home.

The next day was the best of Italian boating on the Mastallone River. The whole team paddled the top section, and half the team continued on to the gorge. We portaged the entrance rapid and put on to a huge boily eddy. The river channeled into a narrow gap, and paddling down I thought of the advice wed been given there is a rapid in the gorge you cant scout or portage, and you must run it on the right. I paddled the first small drop on the right and looked at the next one. Robin agreed to go first after he paddled off I thought I was mad not to have done so myself. It is always much worse watching someone take a beating from upstream when you know its your turn next. Happily, it all went well and the whole team made the right hand line. Gleams of sunshine shone though forest above, the water flattened out and the gorge walls opened to a series of friendly bouldery rapids. I pulled into an eddy with bright yellow pansies on the riverbank, and felt blessed that I can still get my fix of adrenaline from running easy class four.

Mastallone River

The next day it was back to the steep stuff again, this time on the Egua river. High above the Sesia valley, the Egua has an alpine feel, with more spectacular granite slides and green water. The first rapid bounces down a series of holes to four metre ramp a blast. The team scouted and watched each other run different lines in the sun, and it was one of those rare days where you get out of your boat to warm up. I prompted most of the team to portage a rapid by bouncing down a small tricky drop upside down, but it was Ernst who took the major beating of the day. He dislocated his shoulder by bracing onto a rock above a 3m waterfall, managed to run the drop upright, and made an eddy holding onto his shoulder.

Egua River

Luckily for Ernst, an EMT who has had considerable practice with shoulders was just down the road, and he was able to put the shoulder back in before it seized up completely. The rest of the team were very sobered about what wed seen, and there was much discussion of low braces and forward body position around the cooker that night.

On our final full day boating we went to check out the Sermenza a run that gets a high rating in the guidebook, but which we were pleasantly surprised by the low stress character and easy drops. Feeling a little shy of closed holes, I did portage one, but the rest of the run was fun and incredibly pretty, with a steep sided gorge and clear water. John had a wee epic on the entrance rapid, of which I was blissfully unaware, being in my boat at the bottom of the rapid.

The last night of any trip is always a bit raucous, and Im afraid that with the arrival of many famous kayakers at the campsite, many carafes of good wine, and an awesome bonfire, I definitely made the most of it. I woke in the morning of our last paddle with a sincere wish that I had drunk less, however, this was not enough to prevent me from jumping on the middle Sesia for one last run. Dehydrated, tired, and very cheerful, we piled into the cars for the drive across Europe, and home.

See also BCC's report.