Last Friday Willem and I headed to the middle reaches of the Amblève river in the Belgian Ardennes for a day packraft trip. We originally wanted to make a multi day trip over the Ourthe river, but the huge amounts of rain caused too high water levels for a legal float on nearly all rivers in the Ardennes including the Ourthe. The Amblève river however remained an exception and was now the only decent choice we had left. No whining at all! This became the fourth run on the river for myself, the best so far with such a pompous flow. The Amblève is a nice class II river in its middle section with lots of scattered boulders in the river bed which create nice playing spots. A beautiful artificial wave surfing spot can be encountered under the bridge at Stavelot, but pay good attention to avoid the thin metal rod in the left section under the bridge. This rod could literally slash your packraft in two like a circular saw! The biggest waterfall of Belgium follows at Coo. One day I’d like to skip this portage and throw myself over this 13m fall! Hmmm, just keep on dreaming… Some impressions in the video.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Recently on a trip on the Ourthe Orientale river, I got a small hole, about 15mm wide, ripped in the floor of my packraft. The damage already occurred about 200m on the river after the put-in. I’m quite sure I didn’t hit a rock but that it was a metal rod or something instead. I had my camera tripod stashed on the floor of my raft between my legs and this sure was the cause for the occurrence of the leak in the collision as the rod bumped against the tripod and pinned the hole in the floor. Besides the leak, there are also long scratches carved in the floor around the leak. If I didn’t kept my tripod on the floor inside the raft, chances were high I only had some scratches and not an additional leak. Again a lesson learned. Upon closer inspection I even noticed I had two leaks, the second one being very small.
I’ve repaired the leaks and the scratches with Aquaseal by the method described by Alpacka Raft. The pinholes got a thicker layer of Aquaseal on top. This movie also shows the rejuvenation method by Alpacka Raft. An almost pinhole on the tube now also received a thin layer of Aquaseal.
A small additional note: Mcnett’s Aquaseal is sold in Europe under the name Aquasure. You can easily find it at scuba diving shops like this one for example or you can try the alternative Stormsure glue from Packrafting store. When the repair is done, store the tube in the freezer or use it further to reinforce the seams on your new trailrunners. ;-)
My Llama is ready again to re-enter the water and that should happen already next week in the Austrian Alps!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.