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!
End of August and I receive a last minute invitation from Waluyo to join him on a yet to define packrafting trip in Switzerland. By chance I can take a few days off. Same so for Eraz. The three of us are heading to the Swiss Alps September 1th and decide to take the alpine headwaters of the Rhine river as our target. The Hinterrhein and Vorderrhein rivers join near the village of Bonaduz to form the upper Rhine upstream of Lake Constance. The lower part of the Hinterrhein looks like a nice warming up for the somewhat more challenging whitewater of the Vorderrhein, the latter wriggling itself through a 20km long canyon before meeting the Hinterrhein. The canyon bears the local name Ruinaulta and is also known as the Swiss Grand Canyon because of its size (of course by far not to be compared with Arizona standards).
On late Sunday we meet each other in Bonaduz. Our trip starts at the confluence of the two rivers. We hike upstream along the Hinterrhein at dusk and soon it is too dark to keep our head lamps in our packs. Waluyo has found a perfect camping spot on a small strip of meadow surrounded by woods and at the edge of the abysm to the river. We put our tarps and inspect each others lightweight gear, but it is Eraz his super light MYOG that receives most attention. We talk till almost midnight and finally creep under our down bags while some light rain is tapping on our tarps.
The morning is dry again. We warm up after breakfast with an hour playing frisbee, something we will repeat for the next mornings… and not only during the mornings. We continue our hike upstream and soon we encounter the rocky rapid in the Hinterrhein near Rothenbrunnen. We decide to inflate our packrafts on a small gravel bar in the river bed just below the rapid. The lower Hinterrhein reveals itself as a rather fast flowing river with some rather modest wave trains and a few easy swift currents. The water level in the river is lower then average and so it becomes a relaxed ride on the river. After about one and a half hour we reach the confluence with the Vorderrhein, put out and let dry our gear on the river bank with the noon lunch.
For the remainder of the day we hike to the west, climbing to the forested south rim of the Vorderrhein canyon with from time to time some budding views down to the river. Eraz suddenly stumbles upon an edible mushroom and is already dreaming about its delicious dessert for this evening. We eventually descend into the canyon to reach the narrow side canyon of the Rabiusa creek. Here we make our camp on the gravel bottom of the canyon and lit a camp fire. Soon the sky is dark with countless stars flickering above the chasm. A curious fox pays us a visit in the dark.
The sun rays take a long time to reach our cold camping spot at the bottom of the canyon during the morning. In order not to get cold, this means frisbee morning!
The day becomes warm as we continue our trip hiking to the west. After some views over the canyon, we mostly continue inside the canyon near the river during the afternoon, scouting some of the rapids. At Schwarze Loch, the most impressive rapid in the canyon, we keep a long break and discuss the ideal line to be followed through the whitewater. Afterwards we hike all the way to Ilanz and finally put in on the Glenner before its confluence with the Vorderrhein.
The water level we encounter on the Vorderrhein has become very low however. Unfortunately that’s what you can get with regulated flow by hydropower dams upstream. However, the river gains some discharge again as we float downstream and the rapids we encounter offer already quite some fun. When we finally reach Schwarze Loch, the river its water level suddenly rises with about half a meter. We decide to take our packs from our packrafts and try to run this longer white water section. None of us has issues with taming the waves.
We camp at a barbecue area next to the river near the entrance of Schwarze Loch and continue on the river the day after. The rapids that follow after Schwarze Loch also make the cruiser decked packrafts of Waluyo and Eraz swallow a few buckets of water repeatedly. We regularly stop to empty the rafts, except for me. The white water spray deck on my packraft proves its functionality once again. We reach Reichenau at the confluence with the Hinterrhein before noon and decide to leave our backpacks with camping gear behind at the confluence to head to the nearby train station with only our packrafting gear for another run on the Vorderrhein, but now obviously without excess gear stowed on the bows of our rafts.
Once again in Ilanz, the water level now shows a decent level. The second run becomes pure joy. We play, try some harder lines and linger for a moment on a nice wave surfing spot. After only a few hours we reach the confluence again and leave the river, this time permanently.
After a camp in a small meadow in the forest above Bonaduz, we hike back to our starting point the next morning and say goodbye. This has been such a great adventure that we definitely should make a similar trip again in the future. Who wants to join next time?
After some sea packrafting in Norway and France years ago, a friend and I met at the Belgian coast yesterday for some sea packrafting on the North Sea. It was the first time ever that I took my packraft to the Belgian coast. The weather forecast predicted a weak wind (3 Beaufort is definitely weak on the sea) slowly veering from west to north and only 30cm high waves, ideal circumstances to prevent any danger to be blown away from the shore or to be swallowed by giant waves. We started east of the port channel of the port of Ostend, crossed the port channel just before a ship entered and had to fight the tidal current which was strengthened by the restriction of the port channel. Then we watched the city from the sea and after a while turned our packrafts 180°.
After we crossed the port channel again, we paddled further away from the shore to take a look at the Flansea wave pioneer about 1100m from the shore. The tidal current (about 5km/h yesterday) made us almost miss the large drifting obstacle. We played a bit in its wake and both tried to circumnavigate it, which was not without danger with the strong current. Then we let us drift eastward in the current and wind, passed small fisher boats. Slowly we came closer to the shore, the rescue teams on their red lifeboats each after one visiting us to check us out and to ask what kind of strange boat we were using. As long as we did not interfere with the bathers we were fine to do what we wanted.
After a rest stop on the beach, we tried to paddle back towards Ostend against the current and the wind. We succeeded but became nevertheless so tired that we decided to stop and play a bit in the breakers. After a few pints of beer at the beach house we walked the last two kilometers back to Ostend. Next time trying to paddle the whole 67km of the Belgian coast from De Panne to Knokke with a moderate and stable WSW wind? That would be a real challenge!
What the Brooks Range in Alaska means for packrafters in America, does Sarek National Park in Swedish Lapland for packrafters in Europe. Although I immediately have to put this statement into perspective. First of all, Sarek is a very small mountain area only compared to the Brooks Range, so the possibilities are not infinite here to what it may seem in Alaska. The area is not big enough to contain a river that can be paddled for many days in a row. And secondly, Sarek national park has regulations for visitors that will become more strict in the near future and will affect packrafting in the park drastically.
A few months ago someone pointed me to these new regulations that will be imposed by the park staff starting on January 1st 2015. These new regulations prohibit to bring any type of watercraft into the park (see paragraph 4§ point 8.) which in other words means that packrafting will be totally illegal in Sarek over two years. This year and next year packrafting is still allowed, except on the Rahpaädno river downstream of the confluence with the Sarvesjåhkå river as can be derived from the current regulations.
Over the last year I’ve quite often received questions about the packraft possibilities in the park. It seems there will be a lot of packrafters over there this summer and undoubtedly also the summer after. You still have two chances to inflate your packraft in Sarek and paddle on its rivers legally, so I would say take your chance before it is too late!
The best time for packrafting in Sarek is definitely the first half of the summer (end of June and July) when water levels are usually high from the snow melt, resulting in extensive packraft possibilities. As the summer progresses into August, most of the snow in the mountains disappears and water levels gradually drop significantly to lower levels, apart from a few short episodes after abundant rainfall which always remain possible. During the month of September the average river discharge then keeps decreasing.
In the above graph you can see daily mean, maximum and minimum discharges of the Rahpaädno river in Sarek national park at the Litnok cabin (that is just upstream of the mountain Námmasj) measured during the period 1916-1945. During the last century Swedish explorer Axel Hamberg mapped the region for the Swedish government and installed a device overthere in the river to daily measure the water level. This graph is a result of his spadework.
I’ve only visited the park with my packraft during late August and September and have always met low water levels except from one short episode of high water after two days of heavy rain. From my experience I can say that only the Ráhpajåhkå / Rahpaädno river remains enjoyable during lower water. I’ve also paddled other rivers but these were not as enjoyable due to many portages that were needed at these limited flows. Yet as I keep being asked about the rivers, I will give a description of the rivers in the two biggest watersheds in Sarek as I have experienced them in my packraft and will give an estimate of the whitewater rating at average water levels (let’s say for what is average in July).
Please don’t interpret this post as an encouragement to continue with packrafting illegally in Sarek after 2014. That is not my intention here! Furthermore, please keep in mind that the character of all rivers can vary greatly depending on the flow rate. So keep the whitewater ratings here only as a guideline to begin with. Hence my description may differ greatly from what you can experience at a different river discharge. Therefore I am obviously not responsible for any errors nor any negative consequences that may result from paddling any river based on my descriptions.
That all being said, I hope this post may still be helpful for anyone who plans to take its packraft to Sarek during the next two summers. And it would off course be appreciated if you could give your feedback after paddling a river. Best is to have Google Earth on your computer screen zoomed in to the specific river and the BD10 hiking map in front of you when following my descriptions. Most rapids can be recognized in Google Earth.
1) Ráhpaädno watershed
- Smájllájåhkå (13km): class II becoming class III ending in a canyon that needs a portage.
The Smájllájåhkå river is the queen of all braided rivers in Sarek. It drains the meltwater of the Ruohtesjiegna glaciers and then mainly runs southeast through the Ruohtesvagge valley to change its name into Ráhpajåhkå at the confluence with the Guohperjåhkå river in the head of the Rapadalen valley. Its water is very opaque which makes it impossible to spot the river bottom, even in shallow water.
Under the face of the mountain Gavelberget, about 3 to 4km downstream from the glacial tongue of Oarjep Ruohtesjiegna, is usually a good spot to put in. You could probably start further upstream at high water levels, but the speed of the water flow in the braided channels is usually very high here. For the following 10km the river has a strong braided silt river bed with a relatively slow current and only contains a few easy class II rapids. Best time is to packraft at higher water levels since in case of low water you will get stuck on silt banks too often.
After about 10km, under the face of the mountain Jållok, the river suddenly becomes a fast and almost continuous class II-III single channel with moderate gradient and rock gardens. At the Mikkastugan cabin the river throws itself over several waterfalls into a dangerous canyon. Be aware to put out in time before the entrance of the canyon if you choose to run the whitewater till Mikkastugan. The canyon can be portaged along both sides. A permanent footbridge is constructed over the canyon at the Mikkastugan. From the end of the canyon the river slows down and starts to braid again (class I). A put in is possible just at the end of the canyon. Not much further the Guohperjåhkå river joins from the west and the name of the stream changes into Ráhpajåhkå.
- Guohperjåhkå (2km): class I
This tributary joins the Smájllájåhkå to form the Ráhpajåhkå south of Mikkastugan. The river shows a very varied character over its course, from waterfalls over swift braided parts and a narrow canyon to a slightly meandering section between swamps in the head of the Rapadalen valley. Only the last 2km of the river in Rapadalen is packraftable and worth a put in when coming from the west on foot. Afterwards you can continue over Ráhpajåhkå.
The Guohperjåhkå river meanders between pools at the valley bottom of Rapadalen to join the braided Smájllájåhkå and give birth to the Ráhpajåhkå river. Mountain Bierikbakte (1789m) in the background.
- Ráhpajåhkå (8.5km): Class I
Wide braided river bed with slow to swift current and few shallow channels. A few class II rapids may appear at higher water levels, otherwise there are no rapids worth mentioning. This part is in my opinion the most scenic packraft section in the entire park! This section ends under Spökstenen (indicated on the BD10 hiking map) where the braided channels suddenly join into a single channel and the river its name changes from Ráhpajåhkå to Ráhpaädno.
- Upper Ráhpaädno (6km): Class II with a short Class III rapid
The upper Ráhpaädno starts under Spökstenen where all channels join into a single channel and ends at the confluence with the Sarvesjåhkå river. The current suddenly increases at the start of the single channel. Rocks appear in the river bed resulting in frequent class II whitewater.
A class III rapid is encountered after about 2km under a couloir in the face of the mountain Låddebákte, where several boulders have slid into the river bed. This rapid can be easily located from the river if you keep an eye on the couloir in the face of Låddebákte. Finding a place to put out before the rapid might be somewhat difficult at strong water flow, but you should manage to find a place to put out at either side otherwise. Make a short portage around the rapid and search for a place to put in behind it (you can try to run the rapid after scouting if you feel really confident).
Then a wide rock garden follows about 300m behind the rapid near the mouth of Jågåsjgaskajågåsj creek (now try to pronounce that correctly) which can be too shallow at lower water levels to pass through fluently. Afterwards the river splits up again in a few braids, the current gradually slows down and the difficulty level decreases gradually to class I near the confluence with the Sarvesjåhkå river.
- Rapaselet and lower Ráhpaädno: Class I becoming Class III
The entire river is forbidden to float downstream from the confluence with the Sarvesjåhkå regarding the actual park regulations. Hence I will not make any further detailed description here (I have only ferried the river here a few times and ran a short section), but if you still choose to float here be especially aware of the Class III canyon that follows after Rapaselet where a portage is necessary. Afterwards the river contains some more albeit short class III rapids.
Rapaselet is what now remains from an ancient glacial lake in the Rapadalen valley. The river has filled the lake with sediments and now turquoise channels swing between shallow silt banks that come above water at low water levels.
- Laitaure delta (7.6km): flat water
Below the isolated mountain Nammásj, the Ráhpaädno exits the park borders and is allowed to float again through its delta at the mouth into lake Laitaure. The river splits up into three main channels and several more smaller channels through the delta. Choose the middle channel when water levels are low as the right and left channel become too shallow. When there is a sufficient water flow through the delta, choose the right main channel if you want to join the Kungsleden trail to the south from the southern shore of Laitaure. Choose the left one if you aim for Aktse and the Kungsleden to the north. The left channel splits up into several smaller channels towards the end and so might make orientation difficult. Pay attention to the wind if you would take the middle channel as sudden strong winds can bring you into troubles more easily on the lake since you will have to paddle a longer distance to reach the shore of the lake from the mouth of the channel.
2) Sijdoädno watershed
- Guhkesvákkjåhkå (15km): class II with short class III rapid at the footbridge
The river becomes packraftable south of the Gássaláhko plateau where Várdasjåhkå river joins from the west. For the first 3.5km the river contains frequent dense rock gardens. At lower flows most of these rock gardens have to be portaged as there is no passage through them (they might be passable over the water at high water but I have no confirmation yet). If you prefer a fast progression through the valley you can better skip these rock gardens and put in behind the latest rock garden just upstream from the isolated hill Sarekvarasj.
After the latest rock garden near Sarekvarasj the river remains flat with a slow current and absence of obstacles for about 5km until the next rock garden (at the mouth of the creek Lulep Sarekjågåsj). After this class II rock garden a flat braided section follows. Almost 2km further downstream, rock gardens are interspersed with short sections of flat water. I was able to find a passage through all the rock gardens till the footbridge at low water levels, except from one where a portage was necessary. At the footbridge the river shows a short rocky class III rapid and splits up in several smaller rocky channels afterwards which only seem possible to run at higher water. I think it is a good decision to start a portage to lake Liehtjitjávrre from just before the bridge if you would like to continue on the Sijddoädno river.
- Sijddoädno (17km): class III with a class IV canyon
The outflow of lake Liehtjitjávrre at its northeast side forms the Sijddoädno river. This river is the second largest in Sarek after Ráhpaädno and is a mixed mess. It contains many rock gardens and best packraft possibilities are hence at high water levels. You should avoid the river in case of low water, even though I have paddled a large part of it at low water, I can not say it was quite enjoyable. Over the first 3km the river actually consists of a wide rocky channel connecting small lakes with each other. Three dense rock gardens are encountered which all need a portage at low water. The first rock garden after one kilometer has a height drop of several meters with whitewater pressed through sieves and pillows in a narrow channel between the rocks. This rock garden is best portaged along the left side. I think the other two rock gardens should not pose a major thread at higher water.
900m behind the third rock garden (and after almost 3km from the lake), the river increases speed, rapids appear and a bit further the river then throws itself into a shallow canyon with a class IV rapid to flow into the lake Guordesluoppal afterwards. A long portage is necessary here to the lake to avoid the canyon.
From the outflow of this lake the river bed remains very rocky with several class II-III rapids of which the latest ones (you can easily recognize them in GE) towards lake Sitojaure should be portaged or at least scouted from the shore. The river finally flows into the lake Sitojaure through a small delta. The continuation of the river after Sitojaure lies outside the park.
3) Other watersheds
All other rivers I’ve already tried in Sarek did not have enough water flow to continue over a long section. Still I think the following rivers might provide opportunities when water levels are higher:
Suottasjjåhkå, Sjnjuvtjudisjåhkå, Sierggajåhkå , Sjpietjavjåhkå, Guohperjåhkå, Låvdakjåhkå, Låddejåhkå, Alggajåhkå, Alep Sarvesjåhkå, Miellädno, Njoatsosjåhkå, Sarvesjåhkå and Bierikjåhkå. So that is still a lot! If you ran any of these rivers, I would love to hear your experiences.
And now not all at once to Sarek! :-)