Last packraft overnighters of this winter

Biesbosch 201203

Biesbosch 201203

Biesbosch 201203

20°c and nothing like burning sunshine from dawn till dusk. The first light green leaves are already appearing on the branches. Water levels are dropping to unusually low values for the time of the year. Winter is long forgotten.

Biesbosch 201203

How fast can nature show its other face? During the last two weeks I’ve made two packraft overnighters when the weather was yet cold and dull, one solo in Biesbosch NP and a 44km run on the Warsche and Amblève river in the Ardennes with Willem last weekend. Water levels were just high enough for relaxed paddling. Today we would get stuck.

Biesbosch 201203

The Biesbosch looked dead and quiet on a grey winter day, but after paddling for some time it just seemed the wildlife is just most abundant this time of the year. Among them I saw a lot of buzzards, a deer trapped on a reed island and a few beavers. I made camp with the trailstar on the tip of a narrow peninsula. Reading a book till deep in the night next to the campfire was very enjoyable with curious rats visiting the bivouac spot and beavers regularly splashing loud in the nearby water. It was difficult to catch a sleep when you have a beaver family as your neighbor. But that made this short overnighter just so much more special.

Biesbosch 201203

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?”

Ourthe 201202
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.

Ourthe 201202
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.

Ourthe 201202
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?

Pitching options for the Trailstar

During the last weeks Ivo Vanmontfort has made me a Trailstar. The shelter is an exact copy of the trailstar of Mountain Laurel Designs. When Ivo proposed me to make me a shelter, my choice was rapidly limited to two types of shelters: a pyramid or a trailstar. For those who don’t know the trailstar, this is a shelter made out of five identical triangular panels stitched together, as opposed to 4 panels in a pyramid. That way with a trailstar you get a thing that can be pitched as a tarp (not completely disconnected from the outside world) and sometimes a shelter (completely cut off from the outside world). Difficult to imagine what I’m speeking of now? It will be obvious in a moment.

After some test nights under a tyvek trailstar and a pyramid made of plastics, I knew it’s the trailstar I wanted. At first I was more leaning to the simplicity of the pyramid and its strong storm resistance, but after much contemplation the trailstar proved to yield greater benefits for myself. The pyramid is more sensitive for condensation, needs rather flat ground and rainfall falls into the shelter when the door is opened, while all this is less a problem with the trailstar and this shelter is also very stormproof when pitched low. Moreover, the trailstar has so many pitching options that you can pitch it anyway you like. You can even put the trailstar in the shape of a pyramid. These multiple configurations are what I want you to show here.

So yesterday I went to the Brechtse Heide, a heathy piece of land close to home. I pitched the trailstar in multiple pitches on the banks of one of the many pools. Here are 8 possible configurations, 6 tarp pitches and 2 shelter pitches. There are of course even more pitching options than these:

Standard pitch

When you put up a corner with a stick and keep the other four corners near the ground you get the standard pitch. This is perhaps the form in which the trailstar is pitched the most. If you put the stick at the corner very high, you’ll get a nice and quite spacious exterior view, or you can keep the pole lower in case of much wind.

Trailstar

Double standard pitch

If you can find a third pole or stick the possibilities will be greatly expanded. When you put two adjacent corners high each with a stick, you get a very big tarp feeling. This pitch is what I call the double standard pitch. The pole in the centre of the shelter should be put high for this pitch to keep tension on the panels.

Trailstar

Lean-to pitch

Two adjacent corners put high gives you the lean-to pitch. Again, you get a big tarp feeling with this pitch as the view from under the trailstar to the outside is spread over an angle of 180°.

Trailstar

Storm pitch

Instead of a corner, you can can put the center of the base of a panel up with a stick while you keep the five corners at or close to the ground. Although I’ve not been able to experience it myself yet, many users find this a very windproof pitch. Therefore I call this pitch the storm pitch. The view to the outside world is rather limited with this pitch and you need to get close to the ground to crawl under the shelter, perhaps less pleasant in wet weather.

Trailstar

Double storm pitch

Of course you can also put up two centers of two not adjacent panels so you have created two low entrances.

Trailstar

Pentagon pitch

The trailstar put to the ground with the base of all the panels is what I call the pentagon pitch. Of course you have no entrance with this pitch so you have to slide your body under the base of a panel to get into the shelter, or just easier is to temporarily loosen one corner. This pitch is probably the most stormproof, but is prone to condensation on the other hand.

Trailstar

Tilted pentagon pitch

When you keep the trailstar in the pentagon pitch but when tilting trailstar while keeping one base to the ground then you get the tilted pentagon pitch. This arrangement can actually be seen as a special case of the standard pitch. The difference with the standard pitch is that you just ensure that the base of the panels remain in the form of a flat pentagon. The corners adjacent to the corner perpendicular to the panel with its base near the ground, are now hovering well above the ground while they stay closer to the ground in the standard pitch. The tilted pentagon pitch gives you again a large tarp feeling.

Trailstar

Pyramid shelter pitch

Strange but true, you can pitch the trailstar as a pyramid. Make sure you have four corners put in a square. You double fold the free panel along an adjacent panel and keep the corner tightly against the panel with a peg.

Trailstar

With this pitch, there is no direct entrance to the shelter. To get in the shelter, you loosen the peg of the free panel, pull the panel over your head and step into the narrow opening that’s created between the two adjacent panels when you pull the free panel over your body (see video). To get a tight pyramid you have to put the centre pole rather high. The Pyramid shelter pitch is a lot steeper and higher and less stormproof than the more ideal form that I made with the plastic version and for example as the MLD speedmid. Furthermore, I expect much condensation with this pitch. Finally you need to sleep under the shelter diagonally while placing the pole inclined of the centre on the floor. In practice, I expect that this pitch will be rarely used.

I haven’t found the time yet to take the trailstar on a trip. Practical experience with the trailstar will definitely follow in the future.