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!
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.
The bus is overloaded with school children. I have to stand upright in the bus. After a long ride through the Belgian Ardennes I ask the bus driver to put me off at the closest bus stop to the West Fork of the Ourthe river. Everyone is watching me with disbelief when I step out of the bus in empty fields in the middle of nowhere in the valley and I see them thinking “What are these paddles doing on his strange backpack?”
I walk on foot towards the river. The Ourthe Occidentale, as the river is named here in French, looks a perfect challenge to packraft, the water flow seems fast though. I follow the river upstream for the rest of the day until I reach a perfect bivouac spot a few hours later at dusk next to the river with signs of beaver presence all around. It is dark outside when I go to sleep under the trailstar. Just before I fall asleep I hear a beaver splashing in the creek a few meters from the tarp.
It is overcast and misty during the morning with light drizzle falling down from time to time. I break up camp and decide to follow the river back downstream on foot. The rocky river bed seems too shallow here in the gentle rapids for a smooth passage. Frequent remnants of snow patches on the river banks recall of the winter weather from last month.
A few hours later I’m inflating my Denali Llama and start to paddle. The river is still rather small, the flow rather fast but the rapids are easy and never ask for a challenge. Rapidly I pass the latest hamlet of Wyompont and from now on the valley changes dramatically as I’m leaving the edge of the plateau of Saint-Hubert. The river wines itself in a deep V-shaped forested valley. Except from two roads crossing the river and a dam, there will be only wilderness for the upcoming 35km. For a densely populated country like Belgium that’s rather unique. The paddling is a delight.
In the later afternoon I reach the reservoir of Nisramont where the west and east fork of the Ourthe river join. After the short portage along the dam I put in again on the Ourthe river which has now doubled in size. It’s getting dark and I paddle in a fast pace to reach an interesting bivouac spot at the rock ridge of Le Hérou. Too late, it’s dark before I reach the place.
At five o’clock in the night I’m awakened by a man in an excavator. I have pitched the trailstar next to the river at the edge of a place with felled trees for forestry. I try to fall asleep again but don’t succeed. The excavator is taking three to five trees each time with its gripper and dragging them away out of the valley. After about twenty minutes he returns each time. At dawn I take my stuff and jump back into my packraft.
A bit farther downstream I arrive at the rock ridge of Le Hérou and moor my packraft to a tree. I climb to the ridge over the cable route in a ledge of the rockface. From a certain spot on top of the ridge you can see the river deep below five times in different incised meander bends. Today the clouds are scouring the hills and a fog layer is swarming below over the river, so I only get to see three of them.
Back on the water the most pleasant section of the river begins. Numerous small rapids follow with a lot of boulders just under the water line in the river bed asking for attention. At noon I reach the hamlet of Maboge. Passed this small village the valley becomes wider and the wilderness feeling disappears gradually. The river gradually changes its character too and becomes deeper, the water flow slower on the flat water sections and the rapids are now more of the wave train type. I jump three weirs, pass more villages and put out at the village of Melreux to search for supply in a grocery store.
In the evening I put the trailstar in a wide field a bit further downstream close by the village of Deulin. From here the river leaves the Ardennes and flows through the Famenne and Condroz regions. The last day I continue to the confluence with the Amblève river. Last December I already ran this section of the river together with Willem. We had high water levels that time so many rapids were leveled out. I’m surprised how different the river is now at moderate water levels. There are more rapids now and from time to time islands now appear in the river bed which were flooded last time. The wave trains are getting bigger the further downstream. At the confluence with the Amblève river the Ourthe doubles again in size and it starts to feel the river has become a dimension too big for my tiny raft. Just passed the confluence I put out of the river. Further downstream towards the city of Liège, the valley gets too civilized and dangerous by multiple dams which are difficult to portage. I walk to the railway station nearby to return back home. The Ourthe river is one of the finest rivers in Belgium for packrafting and it is a journey on its own to see the changing landscape and water with the flow of the river. Now, what will be next?