Catching the first peak flow of the season in the Ardennes

Lesse 201311

Lesse 201311

The end of October and the first weeks of November have been very wet in Belgium and beyond. River levels steadily rose to the usual winter flow. The packraft season started. During the night from November 7 to 8, a waving cold front brought an inch of rain during the night. The day before I headed to the Ardennes and hiked upstream in the drizzle along the High Lesse, scouting the few short class III rapids that can be found in the upper reaches of the river.

Lesse 201311

Lesse 201311

Clattering rain fell down the entire night. My earplugs were grateful tools to catch some sleep under my MYOG flat tarp. Next day the rain stopped during the morning and when I came back to the river I encountered a brown coloured swollen Lesse, the flow rate had more than doubled during the night. I continued scouting further upstream where too many strainers made me decide to better hike back to near the colfluence with the Our river. After scouting the few class III rapids further downstream from the confluence to be sure, I finally put in.

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Virée Jaiffe rapid where the river loses 1,5m over 3 drops.

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Another nice short drop upstream of Virée Jaiffe.

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Too many strainers in the river upstream of the village of Lesse.

What looked a bit intimidating and difficult to catch the best line through the two biggest rapids while scouting from the river side, seemed to be child’s play once in my packraft, although the swift current between the rapids asked for attention almost any time.

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Lesse 201311

Lesse 201311
A submerged strainer created a nice little waterfall.

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I had to portage one strainer, all other ones could be passed along or jumped. Further downstream the river was flooding at several places and I was lucky to notice a wire stretched low across the river just in time. Another time I had to fight with overhanging branches that caught my head and almost pulled me out of my raft. Packrafting at peak flows teaches you to stay focused on the river at all times. It took me almost 2 hours to float down almost 20km. At such speed fun insured!

24 Grevelingen

Lake Grevelingen is the biggest non-tidal saltwater lake in Western Europe. Located in the southwest of the Netherlands, it was formed after the damming of a sea strait in the river delta of the Meuse and Rhine rivers during the Delta Works in the ’60s and ’70s. Winds were not too strong by the end of August and so I decided to make a packrafting overnighter on the lake.

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The mainland from Hompelvoet Island.

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Arrived on Hompelvoet.

I visited several of the many small and uninhabited islands in the lake. On the second day the wind picked suddenly up to a steady 4 Beaufort and waves appeared while I was about in the middle on the lake with the nearest shore of the mainland several kilometers away. No time to waist!

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Exploring the islands on foot.

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Icelandic horses maintain wild trails through the shrubs on the islands.

Back on shore I hiked towards the North Sea and played a bit on the sea. Waves were too low for surfing however and so I amused myself by paddling deep into the sea for several times, then capsize my boat and swim back to the shore with my packraft kept on the leash. It was a good workout.

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Reaching the other side of the island after partly bushwhacking through the wild inner.

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The sea, the beach and dunes.

The Magic Packraft Circle

Last weekend 19 outdoor enthusiasts gathered along the Semois river in the south of Belgium to take part in the first packrafting weekend organized by Hiking Advisor, a Flemish online social hiking medium. Willem and I were the guides on the water while Debbie was involved in all the camping related affairs. A few of us had our own packraft, while the rest of us had never touched a packraft before and now borrowed one from the European packrafting store or from Off-Trail.

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The Semois river near Lacuisine, our put in.

We had a lot of fun and the group learned what packrafting is like. For many it became clear that blowing up the raft for the first time is not so easy if you don’t know the proper technique, that putting in on a steep bank or with a fast current can use some help from another person, that it is possible to accidentally have your paddle blades reversed and that the river always asks for attention or the sooner or later you will hit a rock. The swans were also present and were not always happy with our presence now the breeding season had started. Kevin almost got a kamikaze attack on him.

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Paddling break at noon.

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Lunch.

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The Semois river from the vantage point near Roche Brulée.

At noon we put out in the forest to take a lunch break in the sun. Afterwards we hiked onto the ridge and visited a vantage point overlooking a meander of the river. Then we put in again and paddled passed the picturesque village of Chassepierre to Camping de la Semois, our stay for the night. After dinner we parroted with some strong Belgian beers at the local pub and when the pub closed its doors some of us could not get enough from the Jägermeister after party in the tipi tent.

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Let’s stick close together.

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In the pub.

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Debbie has some work to do tomorrow.

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Belgian beers for you to cheer.

Not surprisingly a few of us awoke with a heavy head the next morning, though that changed rapidly when we started paddling again in the fresh air. We amused ourselves with sticking close together and creating a long multi packraft raft. Then the idea arose to form a circle on the river with our packrafts. This didn’t look so easy to accomplish at first until Debbie found the key. Keep the butt of your neighbor further away from you! And so suddenly the magic packraft circle appeared!

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Putting in again after portage of the weir of Bois de Ste-Cécile.

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Again lunch break.

In the last kilometers on the river we had a small accident as someone accidentally ripped a long tear in the tail of its raft when hitting something sharp while coming down a weir. Everybody got worried when we saw the person fighting against getting trapped in the raft as it lost all its air. Fortunately everything went off well and the group learned to better never trust all human made obstacles in the river when packrafting.

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The magic packraft circle!

We put out eventually, folded and packed our rafts and then hiked out towards the nearest train station. The end of an enjoyable and successful packrafting weekend!

Packrafting the Ourthe – a 30 hours hike and paddle in the Ardennes


A few days of rain filled the buckets again and so I went to the Ardennes. The Ourthe river had already been a playground for me a few times. Last year I paddled the river till the confluence with the Amblève river starting from its west fork. The east fork, Ourthe Orientale, was yet unexplored terrain for my packraft.

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The Ourthe valley from Rocher de Hérou.

Friday I started at the Rochers de Hérou and hiked upstream for a day, passing the Nisramont reservoir and made a nice stroll along the Ruisseau de Martin Moulin to bivouac in the forest on the plateau. Rain and hail showers were alternated by sunny spells. The showers continued throughout the night while passing deer kept me out of my sleep several times.

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View over the Nisramont reservoir from the hiking trail.

Next day was dry and sunny and I descended down the valley again to meet the Ourthe Orientale in the village of Houffalize where I put in. Already during the first minutes I suddenly banged onto something below the waterline. It sounded more like a metal rod than a rock. Only half an hour later I realized there must have been beaten a hole in the bottom of my raft since I suddenly felt sitting with my butt in a pool of cold water.

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Crossing the Belle Meuse creek before it joins the Martin Moulin.

At leaving Houffalize I suddenly scared a beaver sitting very close at the waterline below a bluff. I didn’t notice him until he made its move towards me. The animal jumped against my raft, then dived underwater and kept sticking stiffened onto the bottom of the river as I watched him behind my back. He scared me too to say the least.

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At the banks of Ourthe Orientale.

Many kilometers downstream a tree strainer forced me to make a short portage. While pulling my packraft out of the river I noticed the hole in the bottom. It was only so small that it took an hour or so to fill the raft with water. Moreover I wore my drysuit so I didn’t really bother about it.

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The Ourthe river under Rocher de Hérou.

Passed the reservoir of Nisramont I quickly arrived at the rock cliffs of Hérou were a famous boulder garden is encountered. Yet I succeeded again to be so inattentive that I suddenly parked my raft atop of a boulder, just like the last time on the river. A little further I could enjoy playing in a surf wave before I put out. Then I climbed the rocky ridge of Hérou and completed this attractive 30 hours loop.

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Somebody has polished its teeth.

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The surf waves under Rocher de Hérou.

24 Western Scheldt: Tidal water rafting between metal marine giants

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Summer sunrise over the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe.

A few days ago Yves and me went to the Western Scheldt estuary to make an interesting packraft day trip. The Western Scheldt is the funnel shaped mouth of the Scheldt river where the sea tides of the Northsea reverse the water flow in the river twice a day, making the water levels rise and drop every time by 6 meters. Many sandbars emerge above the water line in the estuary at each low tide and mudflats and salt marshes surround the estuary on many places with the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe being the biggest brackish marsh in Western Europe. What is more unique is the marine traffic that is continuously taking place through the estuary between the Northsea and the seaport of Antwerp, which is lying 70km inland from the sea as the crow flies. The Western Scheldt is a very interesting packrafting destination but at the same time the most dangerous place to do some flat water packrafting seen the strong tidal currents, all the ships passing by and the winds that can easily blow you away from the shore into the sea lane where the marine ships are passing through and guess what, no they don’t give way for a mortal packrafting soul! The weather forecast promised us weak winds staying ashore and sunny weather with temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius. Now, don’t stay dally with such circumstances!

Wednesday evening we headed to the small town of Paal along the southern shore of the estuary and searched a place to spend the night in our bivy bags. That we found on a dyke between the fields. At five o’clock in the morning, the sun even didn’t show up yet at the horizon, we took our stuff and headed for the brackish water. We had to start so early to profit from the current going inland before high tide was reached, otherwise we couldn’t make it to the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe as the currents in the estuary are stronger then the speed one can paddle upstream with a packraft. And so we made a nice day trip on the Western Scheldt and through the many creeks of Saeftinghe. The pictures tell the story.

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Continuing towards Antwerp along the shore with the rising tide after crossing the Speelmansgat creek.

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Giant marine ships pass through the sea lane.

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A seal in the distance. Unfortunately I didn’t succeed taking a closer picture even though they came a lot closer than this. We saw about 5 individual seals.

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Rest stop at high tide after crossing the Ijskeldergat creek.

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Yet another container ship heading for the seaport of Antwerp.

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Rest stop at the mouth of the Hondegat creek with the seaport of Antwerp at the horizon.

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View over the mouth of the Hondegat creek and the bend in the Scheldt bearing the name Nauw van Bath.

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Sea mollusks living in brakkish Saeftinghe.

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The water levels are dropping quickly and we get stuck in the Van Zandegeul creek.

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The drowned land is surfacing again.

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Dragging our packrafts in search for navigable water.

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The pulling hike takes us to the next shallow creek.

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A stranded boat on a sandbar.

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Going ashore on the sandbar.

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What is he doing here?

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Two people in a stranded boat half a day waiting for next high tide. They even didn’t show up out of their boat.

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Never ending marine traffic.

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Giant buoys mark the sea lane for the marine ships and lie tilted in the flow between the tides.

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Briefly playing in the wake of the buoy. The current is so fast we just drifted away from the buoy no matter how hard we paddled.

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This giant took us by surprise as about one minute after I took this picture it pulled all the water out of the shallow Speelmansgat creek where we just had arrived and all of a sudden we just were stranded at the bottom of the creek until a wave train with up to 1,5m high waves quickly invaded into the creek again. Luckily we did not capsize but we sure were impressed. After that we stayed playing in the waves with every other ship passing by.

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At the end of our trip in the shallow Speelmansgat creek.