Packrafting the Ourthe – gentle whitewater in the Belgian Ardennes

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?”

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The first camping spot on the river bank near Lavacherie.

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.

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First flowers after winter on the banks of Ourthe Occidentale.

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.

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Rest stop on the banks of Ourthe Occidentale.

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.

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Mouth of Ourthe Occidentale in the reservoir of Nisramont.

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.

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Second bivouac, in the upper reaches of the Ourthe river.

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.

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In the evening at the third bivouac under the trailstar by the river near Deulin.

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Ready for a last long day to the confluence with the Amblève river.

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?