Packrafthiking the Verdon and its gorge

April 20-30 2012

Castellane, a medieval looking village in the south of France. We are not yet in the Provence, but it’s not really the Alps here anymore either. Crystal clear water flows through the river here and the water level is low. It looks at its limits for a fluent packraft ride. The Verdon river emerges from the snow loaded peaks of the Hautes Verdon massif in the southern French Alps, to flow between the foothills towards the limestone plateau of the Provence. On its way south the river squeezes itself in a deep and narrow gorge, one that is probably the most known gorge in Europe, the Verdon gorge.

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Couloir Samson, the entrance of the Verdon gorge from Point Sublime.

Upstream of Castellane the water is held in place in Lac de Castillon by a power dam. Due to the presence of this dam the Verdon river looks very differently during the spring once upstream from the lake. A grey and silty high volume river is leaving the Alps here due to the huge amounts of snow melting high in the watershed. Once downstream of the dam only a bashful amount of the actual discharge is left over and the water is cleared from any sediments.

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Pont du Tusset.

Due to the low water levels I decide to start my trip with hiking from Rougon near the entrance of the Verdon gorge, a day paddling downstream from Castellane. The sky is dark blue, and a cool mistral breeze is blowing over the mountains. When crossing the Verdon over Pont de Tusset I’m regretting my decision to leave the packrafting for the end of the trip. The water levels are soon getting solid further away from Castellane for a nice ride in the raft.

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The view into the canyon from Rochers de Rancoumas.

Fresh baby leaves appear on the branches. Winter did not finish here long ago. I climb steady out of the valley, following the markings of GR49. 400m higher a superb view awaits me into the northern part of the canyon from the Rochers de Rancoumas. In a meadow below the rock ridge I pitch my tarp sheltered from the mistral winds between some bushes and start my search for water. The map shows a water source nearby but I have difficulties to find it bushwhacking through the scrub. Many bushes are armed with thorns. When I finally find the water source, wild boars seem to have rendered the place in a dirt pool of mud. I’m hesitating at first, but then eventually I fill my water bottles with the purest water I can find. Yet I decide to keep it for an emergency. I still have some good water left over and can use it sparingly till I would find a good source tomorrow. I have all the water sources on the map highlighted with a fluorescent marker. Finding water will probably be my biggest challenge during this trip as anything falling out of the sky rapidly disappears in the limestone surface and it is not recommended to drink the water from the Verdon river itself! Wastewater from the upstream villages is discharged into the river untreated.

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The surroundings of my camping spot seen from the canyon rim, Sommet de Breis (1280m) on the left.

Back at the tarp I have another challenge to cope with. Despite I have chosen a good sheltered spot, irregular gusts are rushing over the rock ridge coming from the canyon, still inevitably shaking the tarp once in a while. While preparing dinner one wind gust suddenly hits the tarp and is so severe that it manages to pull all the stakes out in less then a second. I have my pot lifted from the alcohol burner coincidentally and the tarp falls onto the small flame. In panic I rush for the tarp and manage to safe it from hitting fire. Thank God! My first job is now pitching the tarp low to the ground as I should have done straight from the beginning.

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The camping spot under the Rochers de Rancoumas.

During the night the gusts make way for rain and once the sun is rising during the morning the weather is clearing up again. After a few hours hiking with a dry mouth I find a good source of water on my way towards Trigance and exchange the muddy liquid for clear spring water. During the afternoon I arrive at a look out over the Clue de Carajuan with the Verdon river sparkling deep below in the canyon. Vultures are circling above Barre de l’Aigle.

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Hiking through the Jabron valley towards Pont de Carajuan.

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At a viewpoint over Clue de Carajuan and Montagne de Robion (1660m), the Verdon below in a canyon section.

Then I follow a path down to Pont de Carajuan where I meet the river again from close by. Despite the many shallow gravel banks I decide to give it a try and inflate my packraft for a short stretch through the canyon till Couloir Samson, the actual start of the Verdon gorge itself. Numerous small to medium sized rapids are encountered and they even get technical due to all the rocks in the river bed. Though the rapids itself are not yet really that challenging, the wind now does. The mistral has not been tamed yet and I have to paddle upwind all the time. In the narrow passages in the canyon the wind is blowing so powerful, I’m blown back on the quiet parts between the rapids so that I have to bundle all my forces each time the wind is temporary taming to succeed paddling passed the constriction. I can tell you, it is a strange experience when the wind is slowing you down in a rapid and eventually you are getting stuck in the rapid for a while.

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A nice forest floor while descending to Pont de Carajuan.

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A lizard on the banks of the Verdon river near Pont du Carajuan.

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The Verdon with shallow gravel banks near Pont de Carajuan. On the right the Jabron river joins.

At the entrance of Couloir Samson I’m putting out. The limestone walls in Couloir Samson are up to 450m high while the gorge is at its narrowest point here, being only a few meter wide in the lower parts at some points. The river is strewn over with boulders in the couloir and dangerous to packraft, so I exchange the river for hiking deeper into the canyon.

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Last rocky rapids from the put out on the gravel bank before Couloir Samson.

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Putting out on the gravel bank, the entrance of Couloir Samson in the background.

To get into the canyon I have to follow the path through a series of dark tunnels, carved into the limestone. I keep hiking deeper into the gorge till the evening in search for a spot to spend the night. The last tunnel in the canyon is carrying the name Tunnel de Guègues and is isolated from the path but still easy to find if you pay attention. I decide to spend the night in the entrance of this tunnel as there is no other place to find here on the bottom of the canyon to lie myself down to sleep unless I would try to sleep on the hiking path itself. The day is ending with heavy rain.

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Through the first tunnel.

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A part of Couloir Samson from the window in the tunnel.

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The end of Couloir Samson.

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A bivouac in the entrance of Tunnel de Guègues.

The next morning the sun is shining again and I start early to continue hiking over the Sentier Martel trail. At Brèche Imbert the route climbs steeply over a series of stairs in a rock gap to be able to pass the sharp limestone ridge. At the other side of the ridge I follow a side trail that comes to a dead end where the Verdon gorge makes a bent of 180° and the Artuby gorge meets the Verdon. The Verdon river is flowing peacefully here in the canyon. I take a lunch in the sunshine and quiescently enjoy being deep in the canyon isolated from the outside world while the birds are singing their spring songs, uplifting tunes that reverberate loudly between the canyon walls.

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The Rochers de l’Escalet lit by the morning sun.

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Side trip to the river from the Sentier Martel.

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At the foot of the stairs through Brèche Imbert.

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Looking back through Brèche Imbert.

Then I prepare my packraft for a sequel in the gorge, a sequel to continuous pristine enjoyment. The river has become slow by now, only now and then disturbed by quiet swifts and only exceptionally by a disturbance in the water level that can be called a rapid. It’s so blissful here that the mistral breeze, still blowing through each constriction, will not hurt me. But all this changes abruptly when the metal arc of the Passerelle de l’Estellier appears above the river. The river rapidly gains speed in a narrowing funnel and there is the first boulder garden. I step out in time and store my packraft again in my backpack. From this point in the canyon, the river is incessantly running into narrow boulder gardens and dangerous rapids. I’m switching to hiking again.

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In the Verdon gorge looking towards the Artuby gorge.

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Easy paddling between the Artuby and Passerelle de l’Estellier.

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The foot bridge Passerelle de l’Estellier where one can find the starting point of the Sentier de l’Imbut trail.

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Technical boulder gardens in the river seen from Passerelle de l’Estellier.

Crossed the bridge I turn to the right to follow the Sentier de l’Imbut towards the wild heart of the Verdon gorge. In a narrow turn in the canyon, large boulders with dimensions exceeding houses are thrown together in a heap on the canyon floor. Here the trail stops at a dead end. Even the Verdon river itself disappears underground into the boulder heap for a while. To reach this wild spot I follow the challenging Sentier de l’Imbut which is often washed away close to the river by the last winter flood.

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Boulder hopping on Sentier de l’Imbut next to the river.

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Caverns galore.

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High vantage points galore.

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Wild parts from Sentier de l’Imbut.

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Looking back through the gorge from the entrance of the Styx.

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The Styx

Near the place called the Stix, where the river runs through a narrow craggy ravine and temporary dives into a cavern, the trail continues over a carved path in the limestone wall. My bivouac spot for the night is found under a cavity in the canyon wall high above the river.

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Wildness abound: the cavern following behind the Styx.

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The secured path carved in the limestone wall above the river.

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Approaching the wild heart of the gorge.

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Standing at the boulder heap in the wild heart of the gorge.

Today I did not found any drinking water and the source shown on the map near Passerelle de l’Estellier was actually dry. I still have some water left from the source near Trigance. This evening I’m eating pemmican for dinner to further limit my water consumption.

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Evening campfire in the gorge.

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Campfire and bivy night.

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Good morning!

It is not possible to continue through the gorge on foot, so the next morning I take the Sentier Vidal, the path that climbs from the Sentier de l’Imbut through the canyon wall to the rim. Passages with cables and stairs ask for attention with my wide Pinnacle on my back, loaded with a paddle and 6 liters of now empty water bottles in the stretch side pockets. Once at the canyon rim it is a bit of a strange sight. The Verdon gorge is not embedded in a plateau like many other canyons do, but instead incised into a V-shaped valley with surrounding mountains in almost every direction.

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The view while climbing on the exposed trail towards the canyon rim.

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At the rim.

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Looking down from the rim.

Once at the rim the path keeps climbing less steep through a beech forest, home to the fluorescent green lizards, until I reach a gravel road. 250m from the junction a water source is marked on the map next to the road bearing the name Fontaine de Périer. I’m counting my footsteps towards the source while I’m simultaneously starting a prayer in my mind. Let’s hope this source is flowing, otherwise I would have a long strenuous day and a shriveled tongue till the next source of water. At reaching 200 while counting I can see the water flowing over the gravel road a bit further. Yes, finally tasteful fresh water! The water is captured in a gutter leading to a basin. I take the opportunity to wash myself and drink as much water as I can, to leave at the end with another 6 kilograms in my bottles.

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I’m invisible in the shadow.

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Finally fresh water!

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Fontaine de Périer.

Then I return over the gravel road till I reach the hiking path leading to Col d’Illoir. A pamphlet is met next to the trail head stating that the trail is now forbidden, signed by the mayor. Someone has written the words “50 years that I’m doing it and never had problems!” on it. I take the announcement with a pinch of salt and just carry on.

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The announcement of the mayor.

The trail wriggles itself through the bushes on the mountain slope high above the canyon rim. Unfortunately I never get a look into the canyon itself. The pamphlet seems to have its effect. At some places the path gets difficult to recognize and is often overgrown with shrubs. Clearly, not many people walk this trail section anymore.

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The lower part of the canyon from Cirque de Vaumale.

After more than an hour the trail turns left into the Cirque de Vaumale and the broader end of the canyon towards Lac de Sainte Croix is now becoming visible. Scrambling passages follow and scree slopes are traversed in the Ravin de Vaumale until I finally arrive sweaty on Col d’Illoire. It is still a long descent till the shore of the dammed lake of Sainte Croix from the other side of the col. The weather is slowly changing while I’m steadily going down. Incoming high clouds are betraying the arrival of a rain zone.

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Gradually descending towards Lac de Sainte Croix.

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Ready to re-enter the gorge over Lac de Sainte Croix.

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Deeper and deeper in the gorge.

At the shore of Lac de Sainte Croix I inflate my packraft again and start paddling towards the mouth of the Verdon river into the lake. Due to the increased water level by the construction of the dam, the last 2 kilometers of the Verdon gorge are actually standing under water. It starts to rain when I’m entering the canyon again on the water like many tourists actually do during the summer with a hired pedal boat. Today I have the water all for myself. There is hardly any flow on the river and the wind is now blowing in my back so I have an easy paddle upstream into the canyon. Once at the mouth of the Verdon river into the elevated flat water, I move further along the hiking path next to the river which soon climbs away from the Verdon to get over a rocky ridge in the canyon. It is late in the evening when I reach the dead end of this trail. I’m not far away from the other side of the boulder heap from yesterday in the canyon. I’m spending almost an hour searching for a spot to pitch the tarp. There are no two flat square meters to be found and I eventually end with digging my own flat spot in the humus soil between the trees, pulling out each annoying stone in the ground. The night even brings more rain.

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A lone piece of 2 square meters flat ground…

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…and the tarp pitched over it.

Snow has been falling on the mountains during the night. As soon as the clouds are lifting during the morning and the higher parts of the canyon rim appear, I notice a thin layer of snow on the highest parts of the canyon walls. I’m lucky to start the day dry once again. Today I will leave the canyon again by hiking all the way to the rim towards Col de Plein Voir. On my way higher I can collect fresh water at the vaucluse sources in a circ. The water simply flows out of the canyon wall on many places in the circ, merging on a wide ledge and eventually falling down deeper into the canyon from the ledge in a series of waterfalls.

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Cold windy day in the gorge after overnight snow in the mountains.

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A resident of the canyon.

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Vaucluse sources on a wide ledge.

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Fresh drinking water.

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A vibrant oasis high in the canyon.

On arrival at the canyon rim I immediately get a strong northwesterly wind in my face. It has become a lot colder again compared to the previous days. The mountains in the surroundings are now draped in snow starting from 1300m and in the north the mountain chain of Mourre de Chanier is hidden in de clouds. I can see the snow and hail falling down the clouds in showers over there.

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Hiking through the forest below the back edge of the canyon.

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The end of the canyon and Lac de Sainte Croix seen from the rim.

I move on over the ridge, keeping distance from the rim to avoid the furious winds rising out of the canyon, temporary walking through the lower lying and old looking pine forest. The day is ending on a nameless flat topped mountain south of the Plaine de Barbin and still close to the canyon rim. I’m unwillingly startling a chamois family while searching for a sheltered bivouac spot from the wind between the small scattered pines. A snow shower is passing by while I prepare dinner. The snow is melting away quickly when the sun finally appears through the clouds afterwards. The night is freezing cold and sky clear.

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Last melting snow flakes on the tarp.

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The bivouac spot between the pines.

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The snow covered mountain chain of Mourre de Chanier at sunset.

On day six I walk a long distance away from the Verdon gorge into the mountain chain of Mourre de Chanier, passing through long sections of forest and by the left overs of the medieval pastoral village of Châteauneuf-les-Moustiers. The village is abandoned and inhabited. Only ruins are all that is left today.

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The ruins of Châteauneuf-les-Moustiers.

By the evening I arrive at a wide alpine meadow at the foot of Mourre de Chanier (1930m). The last remnants of the snowfall from yesterday are lingering around, the mountain itself still well covered in snow on its northern flank. I meet a shepherds cabin on the meadow with a nice source of water near the cabin. The cabin is unlocked. The shepherd has not yet arrived in the mountains, neither have his sheep and his dog. Mice shit is scattered all over the floor and the shepherd has hung the mattress of the bed elevated from the floor before leaving the cabin during last fall to prevent the mice from ruining it. Despite I seem to be the unwelcome guest here, I decide to try sleeping in the cabin. It is still near freezing outside and a strong gusty wind keeps blowing through the mountains. I place the mattress on the bed and put all my stuff in my backpack which I hang from the floor to be sure the small rodents won’t put their teeth in my backpack and would steal any of my calorie rich belongings. The night belongs to the rampageous mice and I’m not able to catch sleep for long. Never before I have met such noisy mice in a cabin.

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The interior of the cabane under Mourre de Chanier.

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View to the north from the summit of Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

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The snow covered Alps seen from the summit of Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

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The Verdon mountains from Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

Day seven is ridge walking all day long! I climb to the summit of Mourre de Chanier before noon and get a wide panorama over the snow covered Alps, Mont-Ventoux in the west, also snow covered and well known from the Tour de France. The Verdon gorge in the south and the Mediterranean Sea hidden in a haze in the southeast behind the hills. The weather is clearing up and the ridge walking easy. The first flock of sheep I get to see is grazing close to the ridge. Later during the day the ridge walking becomes much more difficult. Impassable shrubs grow on the south facing slope and I’m forced to search for a passage on the tip of the ridge with an airy abyss just at the left under my feet.

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Looking back at Mourre de Chanier (1930m).

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Ridge walking with the Alps at the horizon. Sommet de Berbené (1771m) and Sommet de Pioulet (1744m) from Crête des Traversière.

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The first sheep in the mountains, the Verdon river visible deep below.

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The ridge walking is becoming more difficult.

From the saddle of Colle Basse (1446m) I’m climbing to Sommet de Pré Chauvin (1741m) and try to continue ridge walking to the east towards the Cadières de Brandis. The ridge walking doesn’t start easy over here either. I can only walk on the north facing slope and the slope is covered with beech and later on thick pine and scrub forest. I try to follow vague trails of chamois and boars. Later on I suddenly notice a cairn and find a well marked trail that isn’t drawn on the map. Swiftly I reach the rock towers and pillars of Cadières de Brandis and Tête de la Barre de Sapée (1622m).

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Griffon vultures circle around above the ridges every day.

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Clue de Chasteuil in the Verdon valley seen from Sommet de Pré Chauvin (1741m).

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The ridge walk from Sommet de Pré Chauvin (1741m) to Cadières de Brandis.

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The rock pillars of Cadières the Brandis.

I finally pitch the tarp in the forest on the north slope of the mountain in vicinity of La Bonne Font, a named water source on the map. The air has become noticeably warmer today and for the first day of the trip the mistral is absent. Though I’m confronted with a problem. All the matches have gotten wet and I’m missing a hot evening meal. I always store my matches in a small plastic pot but it seems as of today it isn’t entirely waterproof. I’ve no idea how they could have become so wet. I don’t succeed lighting any of them despite I have so to say waterproof matches. I didn’t took a back up with me to lighten a fire. Instead of a warm meal I’m eating tour bread for dinner and decide to make a detour tomorrow searching for a lighter in Castellane.

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View onto the Alps from the path near Cadières de Brandis.

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The Verdon valley in the depths from the path near Cadières de Brandis.

I go to bed with sunset but it takes awhile before I can really catch a deep sleep. But then suddenly something stops me back from my sleep. I hear two wolves howling from a distance that doesn’t even seem to be so far away. I’ve never heard a wolf howling before and at first I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Wolves are found sparsely over almost the entire French Alps and its foothills. Only in the southern parts of the Alps and in the foothills north of the Provence the wolf densities are high enough to often notice their presence. I get out of my sleeping bag to enjoy this wonderful moment as intensely as possible. The night is illuminated by a pale moon, shining through the branches and throwing dark shadows around me. The wolves stop their howling. The night is even better in the forest.

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Collecting water from the source La Bonne Fonte.

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Bivouac in the forest near the Source La Bonne Fonte.

Around sunset I’m awakened by an approaching grunting sound. A lonely wild boar is passing by the tarp. The day begins as nice as yesterday’s end. I immediately jump out of my sleeping bag and take the shortest route to Castellane. Down the village I find a mini bic in a small grocery store and take the opportunity to buy some fresh fruit. At noon I’m back at the bivouac spot where I’ve hidden my filled water bottles so I didn’t had to lug around with the weight to Castellane. The detour has asked me half a day. I make up for yesterday by preparing a hot noon meal. That will be two hot meals this day.

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A hot lunch for once.

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Fossils in the limestone along the path.

The sun burns and the day becomes hot. On my way north through the mountains I don’t meet a single lonely soul. Later in the afternoon I stumble upon footprints in the dried mud on the trail. They seem like dog tracks but by closer inspection I can only conclude to have discovered the footprints of a small pack of wolves. I can recognize the footprints of several individual animals by their different sizes and because I cannot find any human footprints in the neighborhood, this could be very unlikely a group of dogs wandering around alone in the mountains. By carefully inspecting the size of all the footprints I believe to recognize the footprints of four individual wolves. Moreover, the neighboring mountain ridge in the northeast by coincidence bears the name Crête du Loup on the map. Yet another sign I wasn’t dreaming last night.

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Wolf prints in the mud.

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Collecting water in the Ravin du Teil.

My water bottles are almost empty again but I can refill them instantly in Ravin du Teil. By the evening I pitch the tarp in a small meadow on a mountain ridge northwest of the ruins of the abandoned shepherds village of Courchons. The wild upper part of the Verdon valley is visible in the north and the snow covered peaks of the Alps are now very close behind. The night is again clear but warm.

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Bivouac in a small meadow on a ridge near the ruins of Courchons.

The next morning I descend into the Verdon valley and visit the village of Saint-André-les-Alpes. When I finally reach in front of the river I’m looking a bit desperate at the high volume flow. The Verdon river is a completely other river over here. Grey silty melt water is rushing at speed in numerous braids through the river channel. Frequent wave trains up to one meter high, the fast speed of around 15km/h and the impossibility to get out of the river easily at some points make this section of the river not immediately a favorite choice for a not so expert packrafter, even though I’m really excited to try it. Actually I have not planned to run the river so far north but as I have been progressing faster then I had thought beforehand, I feel difficult to resist the temptation to try the Verdon river also over here in its upper part. However I realize I can better try to scout the river as much as possible to study any dangerous spots since I haven’t searched any information at home about this section of the river before leaving. So that’s what I’m doing by following upstream, though it becomes impossible to throw an eye on every part of the river. From what I get to see on my way north, there don’t seem to be any insurmountable dangerous obstacles in the river bed and by staying attentive on the water I should be able to ferry along the higher wave trains. I decide to go for it.

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A view over the upper Verdon valley.

Six kilometers upstream from Saint-André-les-Alpes I prepare to put in near Pont du Brec. Precisely at the moment I’m ready to put in, three whitewater kayakers are passing by. They stop to make a chat. It is David with his client and a friend. He has a whitewater kayaking school based in Rougon where I started my trip. He immediately points me on my poor safety precautions and I tell him I definitely agree with him. Going as light as possible on a trip split between hiking and packrafting is incompatible with running such whitewater. He is a nice guy and I see he understands why I’m here with such light gear. Then he asks me if I know the river where upon I answer I wasn’t able to scout every part of it. Just downstream of Saint-André-les-Alpes seems to be a life threatening back current under a bridge at a place I haven’t been scouting. He assures me I should portage here in time or otherwise I will be dead. I feel as if I just met my guardian angel. He proposes to run the river together and to drive me to the dangerous back current with his car so I can put in again safely behind it. That sounds like a very good idea to me.

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The wide braided valley of the upper Verdon.

We leave the four of us. Even though the river is very fast, the higher wave trains appear to be perfectly avoidable and I’m thinking is this it? Kilometers pass in only a few minutes and we put out before I realize it. At the cars of David and his friend I wait till everyone has changed clothes and the kayaks are mounted on the roof of the cars. In a moment we arrive at the bridge with the back current. David throws a stick in the water and we see it going under and rolling back in the back current over and over again. David tells a dozen of people have died here in the back current over the past ten years or so, unknown of the danger that was coming on their way. I realize I’ve made a serious mistake today. I’ll never run a river again without properly retrieving information from the internet or whitewater guides beforehand. Before we say goodbye to one another David gives me some more tips and his phone number so I can call him anytime to ask for information if I would plan to packraft another river in the French Alps in the future.

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Bivouac at Lac de Castillon.

Eventually we separate and I go back to the river. From here it is not far anymore to the mouth into Lac de Castillon. The river has immediately grown bigger by the confluence with the Issole river just upstream of the bridge. The current remains as fast and now the fast high volume river starts to feel a bit out of proportion compared to my tiny raft. Some channel braids are blocked with strainers while some wave trains depass a meter in the main channel. Soon I flow into the lake and now I can feel what paddling really is. Flat water and a strong wind in my face don’t make it easy to cover a respectable distance quickly on the lake. I seem to get the wind in my face each time I start to paddle on this trip. It takes me four hours to only cover as many kilometers. The lake is nine kilometers in length and I will have to paddle all of it as there is no trail on the shore. Steep mountain slopes fall into the lake. Between the bays I need all my forces to keep from blowing back with the wind. I stop to stow my backpack in the raft instead of on the bow to try to catch less wind. It helps a bit, though a few moments later it doesn’t withhold me from trying to walk on the short gravel beach that has formed on the steep slope along the lake formed at times when the water level of the lake was bank full. Halfway I stumble upon a small flat spot in a bay where I can pitch the tarp between the trees. I don’t hesitate a single moment. The tarp gets pitched low to the ground. The wind gusts don’t cease in the evening and the weather evolution in the clouds is forecasting rain for the night. During the night the rain soon becomes a downpour which doesn’t seem to end.

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The intermittent creeks are now filled with brown water on my way to Castellane.

During the morning I’m waiting for the rain to stop, though it seems to take a while. A few hours after sunrise the rain then stops abruptly and in a moment the sun appears behind the clouds. When I’m ready to go on the water again a fair weather day seems to break through, the smell of summer rain still in the air. Fortunately the wind has calmed down too. At the shore I notice the water level of the lake has risen around 10cm. I paddle the last kilometers to the south end of the lake not far from the dam. From there I follow a local trail till Castellane and notice brown water flowing out of the mountains in every intermittent creek bed I encounter. Arrived in Castellane, tourists are now all over the marketplace and the main street. I spend the time walking around in the village and to visit the Notre Dame du Roc. By the end of the afternoon I prepare my packraft again to leave the village over the water searching for the next camping spot. The river has changed however compared to a week before. The water level is still almost as low as before. What has changed is the color of the water. No tidy crystal clear water anymore. All the intermittent creeks are now feeding the river with brown muddy water. The Verdon now doesn’t look so nice anymore here.

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The Verdon valley and the village of Castellane from Notre Dame du Roc.

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The medieval village of Castellane.

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Local childen playing in the alleys of Castellane.

The packrafting is immediately a lot of fun. The water level is at its ideal level for packrafting. Numerous easy rapids follow and at the end I keep going further than necessary. Five kilometers downstream from Castellane I put out, pitch the tarp next to the river and try to make a fire to dry my socks. All the wood I can find is still moist from the rain, but with some more effort I manage to get the fire going and have a nice joyful last evening on the trip. The night becomes a repeat of previous night.

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The now silty Verdon at Castellane with view onto Norte Dame du Roc.

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The last bivouac.

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A last campfire.

Heavy rain is falling from midnight and it doesn’t stop till noon at the last day. Packrafting in heavy rain is not that fun so I decide to wait and start to count the hours I still need to reach Rougon in time today. A little after noon it becomes dry and I throw myself in my packraft back on the river. The water levels have risen around 10cm again over the night even though the currents don’t seem to have changed since yesterday. Today there are a few dangerous rapids on the river that I should scout before eventually running them or portaging. The first one is the Barre de Saint-Jean rapid. It is raining again when I leave the river to scout the rapid from the nearby road. Two challenging rapids follow each other. The first one is a very fast and narrow PR4 where taking the good line through the wave train will be crucial for not hitting the rocks and possibly capsizing. The second one is the actual Barre de Saint-Jean rapid. The river here makes a one meter drop in a boulder garden. By studying the rapids I am confident that I can handle both of them and so I return to the place where I put out a moment ago to start paddling again on the river. Both rapids don’t give me major problems although my yak swallows quite some water in the last one.

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The fast and narrow PR4 wave train ahead of the Barre de St-Jean.

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The PR4 boulder garden of Barre de St-Jean.

Just downstream of the Clue de Chasteuil, a place where the river breaks through a band of limestone and is pushed into a short canyon, another boulder garden is encountered. I scout again from shore and successfully take a good line through the rapid.

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Mouth of Jabron river in the Verdon. The discharge of the Jabron was now even higher than the Verdon itself due to the heavy rains, more then doubling the discharge of the Verdon.

Though the river hasn’t really pose me a big challenge yet today, the rain doesn’t stop and keeps intensifying. The river slowly continues swelling and at the Pont de Carajuan where the Jabron river joins, a sudden surprise is awaiting me. On the second day of the trip I started to packraft here over the first section of the river till the entrance of the Verdon gorge. The Jabron river didn’t have a significant flow at that time. Now with all the heavy rain, dark brown water of an immensely swollen Jabron is joining the grey waters of the Verdon, its discharge even bigger than the Verdon itself. Once passed the confluence the Verdon more than doubles in size. It surprises me and I’m starting to hesitate what to do. While I’m thinking the possibilities I continue to drift away into the next canyon section. Before I come to the conclusion I should stop immediately, it is too late to put out. From last time I know there is a serious fall immediately following in the river and now with this high volume flow I don’t know what to expect. I’m approaching the rapid with increasing speed, fall down and almost tilt backward in the back current which washes over me as a wave. I forget to lean forward sufficiently and instinctively release my paddle with one hand to try to keep my balance. Fortunately I come out unscathed without swimming and leave the river at the first opportunity I get not many further downstream. I’m amazed my Yak hasn’t swallowed a lot of water despite the wave coming in. While I’m stowing everything in my backpack, I’m thinking why I was hesitating at the confluence with the Jabron river. Is it my sense of adventure that kept me on the river? Or was it the pressure to reach Rougon in time today? It probably was a combination of both.

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The PR4 fall at higher volume flow following after Pont de Carajuan.

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Looking back while hiking over the mountains to Rougon in the downpour, Verdon river below.

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The entrance of the Verdon gorge in the rains and Rougon on the right.

I climb to the road and walk back to nearby Pont de Carajuan. There I have to switch to plan B. From Pont de Carajuan a hiking trail is starting at short range, running over the mountains above the canyon towards Rougon. It will take me longer than over the river, however that should not make me worry by now. It is the only safe option I have left. The rain is now changing into a downpour. I start to climb at a fast pace while my legs are getting soaking wet. I’m no longer wearing my rain pants. I threw them off with purpose. No matter what, I’m going to end this trip completely wet and I feel I even enjoy it too. A few hours later I arrive in the small village while the rain keeps pouring from the sky.

I’m happy. This trip was a resurrection for me because of all the knee problems of last year which have prevented me making a serious hiking trip since last summer. Furthermore I’ve learned something during the packraft sections, mistakes I may make no more.

 

A brief packraft guide to the Verdon river

The passages mentioned in the description with a [ ] can be found at that point in the video.

The Upper Verdon contains the river upstream of Lac de Castillon. It has potential for experienced whitewater packrafters during the spring flood (April till June). During the summer months the water levels are usually too shallow. The Upper Verdon upstream of Colmars is a fast rocky single channel rated up to class IV for kayaks, alternates between smaller braids and a single channel between Colmars and Pont du Brec while then rated up to class III and suddenly changes to a wide braided channel from Pont du Brec (class III) where I encountered fast PR2-3 braids with up to PR4 wave trains [02:32-03:11]. Increasing risk of strainers towards Lac de Castillon. One life threatening back current is located at UTM 300555E, 4870606N which should always be portaged.

The middle part of the Verdon starts from Castellane and stops at Lac de Sainte Croix. Do not attempt the river between the dam of Lac de Castillon and Castellane. The river is possible downstream of Castellane for packrafts during spring and autumn in case there is no water released or not too much water released from the reservoir behind the dam of Lac de Castillon. During the summer the situation reverses as water levels are usually too shallow at days without water release and so you’ll need a bit of additional discharge from the reservoir but not too much. Water is released from the reservoir at irregular times, usually only at one or two days a week, sometimes even less frequent. Local kayak outfitters receive the schedules with water releases. Contact one of them for specific information. Once a reasonable amount of water flow is released from the reservoir the river becomes a higher volume flow and the bigger rapids change a lot in difficulty level, becoming less easily controllable in a packraft, only recommended for the very experienced whitewater packrafter. The same can be the case when heavy rains contribute a lot of discharge to the river through its tributaries further downstream. The following ratings are for the average water levels during spring when there is no water released from the reservoir:

  • Between Castellane and Pont de Carajuan: regular PR2-3 rapids, a PR4 boulder garden (Barre de St-Jean) at UTM 294634E, 4856325N [03:56-04:01], preceded by a fast PR4 wave train in a narrow channel at UTM 294711E, 4856345N [03:48-03:55], both can be scouted from the road by putting out at Pont de Taloire. Eddy with danger to get sucked under in a cavity at UTM 293998E, 4854592N [04:30-04:44], keep right as much as possible. PR4 boulder garden at UTM 293905E, 4854255N [04:46-04:57], possible to scout from the gravel bank on the right side.
  • Between Pont de Carajuan and Couloir Samson: regular rocky PR2-3 rapids, PR4 fall at UTM 293157E, 4851930N [00:13 & 05:14-05:32], a series of longer rocky PR3 rapids upstream of Pont du Tusset [00:30-00:45], another PR4 fall at UTM 290812E, 4851838N [00:58] and a PR4 rock garden ending in a tight corner at UTM 290647E, 4851828N. The river is flowing through a canyon already on this section so on most places it is impossible to leave the river.
  • Couloir Samson is at least up to PR4. You will know it when this is something for you.
  • End of Couloir Samson to Artuby: I did not run this section. By scouting from the hiking path I would say frequent PR3 boulder gardens at the beginning, gradually becoming gentler with regular PR2-3 rapids and a few last boulder gardens.
  • Artuby to Passerelle de l’Estellier only contains some easy swifts and a few PR2 rapids, you should put out on the gravel bar at UTM 286151E, 4846689N before Passerelle de l’Estellier.
  • Passerelle de l’Estellier to Maireste: up to PR5 boulder gardens with several portages, serious scouting necessary beforehand. You will know it when this section is something for you.
  • Maireste to Lac de Sainte Croix: regular PR2-3 rapids and boulder gardens changing to easy swifts and finally flat water.

The lower Verdon downstream of Lac de Sainte Croix is not very interesting due to frequent dams on the river.

Useful maps:

  • IGN 3541OT and 3540OT for the Upper Verdon
  • IGN 3442OT and 3542OT for middle part of Verdon

 

23 thoughts on “Packrafthiking the Verdon and its gorge

  1. Great trip and write up Joery. I don’t know which the more attractive parts were – the hiking or the boating. It sounds like you were lucky to meet the angel guy… it makes you think! It is good of you to provide the detailed info. Some sections of the water you were paddling look super sweet!

    What is your next plan??

    I just bought this book, have already read it cover to cover. You should check it out: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Alaska-River-Guide-Canoeing/dp/0897329570/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339019744&sr=8-1

  2. Glad you all like it. It was quite some work to write it.

    @ David: Actually I found the hiking and packrafting parts equally attractive on this trip. Do you have plans for Alaska perhaps? That would be great! I must confess, that book you’re referring to is already lying on my shelves for two years now. Still no Alaska for me this year. My next plan is a bike and canoe trip this weekend. :-)

    • If / when I can get the money I’m there! But the charter flights make it very pricey altogether. I’m particularly interested in Gates of the Arctic and some of the calmer rivers up there like Alatna & N. Fork Koyukuk.

  3. Halfway reading through this I just had to grab my packraft gear and go out for a few hours — then I read ther rest :-) Sounds like some tough goings, but what a payoff! Super lizards, neat fossils (hm… which?), wonderful everything. Good that the knee played nice, too.

    • Hey Kosmaton, nice to hear from you. The fossils belong to sea cows, 40 million years old. The site is protected (the fossils are covered by glass) and the location is clearly indicated on the hiking maps so easy to find.

  4. Hi Dzjow,
    Do you get bothered by ticks a lot during your journeys? And if so, how do you prevent or deal with them? I’ve had a couple of them, and they are actually the only living creatures I’m fearful of with the diseases and all.
    Thanks!

    • Hi Miro, I have found ticks on my skin many times, especially on hikes here in Belgium or the Eifel when I wear short pants. I once got an infection from a bite last year and even got the classical red circle around the bite even though I’ve never seen the tick itself. Never got Lime disease luckily. I always take a tick remover whenever I suspect to encounter ticks and try to inspect my body every time after a passage through undergrowth and in the evening. They are something to be reckoned with but I think you shouldn’t have fear of them. If you always pay attention and instantaneously remove them properly, I believe the risk of an infection remains very small.

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  7. How are you liking the Ridgerest pad?

    I recently tried it and coming from a TaR Prolite it was a bit of an uncomfortable night. Then again, I can’t remember sleeping that much better on the Prolite. And in terms of weight, cost & sturdiness it’s hard to beat..;

    • Hi Bruno,
      I’m used to sleeping on a harder surface from time to time so the ridgerest is comfortable enough for me. A little bit of training does wonders and no worry for a leak on a longer remote trip. ;-)

  8. Hi Joery,

    First, great blog you’ve got running. I just started packrafting a bit and i was wondering if you self tought yourself to PR or do you have a kayaking background or something ? Just did the packraftcourse from packrafting.de in Leipzig ( which is great BTW) but i sure would not feel comfortable yet to solo raft the verdon trip you posted here.

    grts, Johan

    • Hi Johan,
      I sure wouldn’t have done the Verdon in my first year packrafting. I read books and watched youtube packrafting movies and then learned everything on my own. Practising is the word and slowly trying wilder rivers. You’ll see you will learn rather fast. Good luck and have fun with your packraft!

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  10. Hi Joery- Amazing adventure and beautifully recorded. Is it OK to have a camp fire in the area? We are going hiking and camping through next month. Cheers
    Sardar

    • Hi Sardar,
      Thanks for the reaction. I don’t remember the exact rule about campfires in the region. Everyway you can find multiple campfire rings down the canyon from people who had a campfire before. I wouldn’t make a new campfire but use an old one like I did and keep it safe and responsible.
      Have fun on your trip!

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