[Links to photo albums at the bottom of this article.]

A large group of Bristol Canoe Club members (21 people) headed out to the Briançon area of France again, in June 2024. We have been to the same area very many times in the past, and we go there because of the variety of white-water rivers to paddle, and to enjoy the sunshine and the French vibe.

Most of the rivers are fed by snow-melt, so we normally go in mid/late June, towards the end of the normal snow-melt period, giving the rivers a nice fun level, and normally with plenty of sun.

In 2024 we again went in mid June, but the conditions were different. There had been a heavy late snow-fall in the southern Alps in April, and then a not-very-hot May, followed by a warm early June. This meant that the water levels were very high as we were heading out. Additionally, the weather forecast for the week we would be there looked pretty unsettled. This resulted in some people dropping out, and some others booking an extra gite to stay in. We ended up with 15 people camping in St Crépin, plus 6 people in two separate gites, each a mile or so away, but in opposite directions.

Those paddling were: Conor O’Neill, Lisa Gunton, Nick Wainwright, Rich Puttock, Mike Millington, Mike Hinson, Jeremy Sykes, James Hammonds, Bill Pickles, Simon Rayner, Genny Sargent, Steven Pike, Francis Greensides, Harvey Lyons, Robin Wilson, Ben Whittle, Brigitte Sacker, Tom Brockett, Mark Gillett, Oli Huggett, Dave Hill. Genny estimated that our average age is around 48½!

The initial plan was to try to paddle the Souloise on the first day, as a warm-up river. This is a rarely-run river on the west side of the Ecrin national park, mostly fed by springs rather than snow. However it doesn’t have any electronic gauge, so it is hard to predict its level. On the Friday evening, the first team to get there had a look at it, and noted the gauge (125cm), and the awkward mandatory portage instructions, but we weren’t sure whether it would be a suitable warm-up choice.

A very wet overnight drive down through France, for most people, resulted in a large group of us meeting early on Saturday morning at Corps, a small village near the Souloise, in the pouring rain. The group collectively determined that the Souloise would not be a good warm-up, especially if the rain was bringing it up fast. So we headed to the nearby Drac instead, supposedly running at a medium level grade 3.

While some of us shuttled the cars, Robin Wilson decided to get a head-start onto the water, and paddled the canoe-shoot/fish-shoot at the weir at the get-on. This wasn’t very successful, with Robin ending up swimming, and his boat pinned in an inaccessible place at the bottom of the weir, but in full view of the rest of us, and in view of a large bunch of Bath University students who were also paddling there that day. Much humm-ing and ha-ing took place to consider how to retrieve the boat, with suggestions of live-bait, extended throw lines, and much more. Eventually the boat decided that it would prefer to be elsewhere, and unpinned itself. It was then retrieved a few hundred meters downstream. No major damage to either Robin or the boat, but he certainly deserves a nomination for our annual fish-of-the-year trophy.

The Drac itself was bigger and faster than expected for a warm-up, but we all got down until unfortunately we had another swimmer exactly at the get-out. More faffing to retrieve the boat. Eventually the various car-loads were reunited and we headed the remaining 90 minutes drive to our usual campsite in St Crépin.

We had the pleasure of putting our tents up in the rain, which then mostly fizzled out. Each of the gites made their own food arrangements, but the main camping team bought pizzas at a restaurant by a nearby campsite & lake.

On Sunday the weather was looking better (ie, sun was visible), but of course yesterday’s rain meant that the rivers were all high again. A keen group headed off to scout the Clarée, and ended up paddling the lower section, which had many trees to portage. They then scouted the Briançon Gorge, but decided against paddling it. Finally a sub group paddled the Durance downstream of Briançon to Prelles.

A slightly less keen group had initially intended to paddle from Briançon down to Prelles, but after seeing the speed of the water, we decided not a good warm-up; the speed would have made any rescues difficult, so we declined. Instead we inspected the Briançon Gorge by walking up from the get-out, through a nice park with lots of high-ropes adventure options, to view some of the narrow rapids in the gorge. Eventually, after a nice lunch in the park, and a look at the Guisane, this group paddled the main Durance from Argentière down to St Crépin.

Early on Sunday evening, Genny and Conor drove up the Biaisse valley to check out a rumoured grade 2 section. It didn’t actually look worthwhile to paddle, but we did get to see a very pretty valley, and found a very large rock blocking the road!

On Monday the weather was again looking good, and indeed set to stay good for a couple of days. We headed up the Guil valley. We had been advised that the authorities would be opening the Maison du Roi dam, to scour the accumulated silt. Indeed, the dam was open, making the lower Guil high and grey. We drove well up the valley all the way to the Upper Upper Guil above Abriès. This was a fast grade 3, at medium/high(?) water, so in fact we decided to head to a rarely-possible higher get-on at L’Echalp. We split into groups of 4 and had a fast narrow and technical grade 3 blast down to the get-out.

There is a tributary of the Guil called the Torrent du Bouchet which joins in this section. Some were keen to paddle ‘Rich’s ditch’, to tick off another river. From the bridge it looked (to me) too low to paddle, but apparently was a fast grade 4. I think that some boat and paddle damage was incurred, so the usual faffy boat-welding was necessary. The consensus seems to be that you shouldn’t let Jezza get involved with welding plastic!

Tuesday dawned sunny again. Some of us were keen to make the best of the weather by heading off for a walk in the mountains (on the grounds that paddling in the rain tomorrow is better than walking in the rain). A ‘mild’ group headed to walk up by the waterfalls at Dormillouse (at the top end of the Biaisse valley), to a refuge for a snack. We got sidetracked into an extension after seeing a sign for a lake, 1 hour away. We ended up walking for 5.5 hours total (elapsed time), gaining 726m of ascent. We had stupendous views along the valleys, and up on high mountain meadows. The lake was mostly drained, but Jezza proved his worth by crossing the thigh-deep stream anyway.

A ‘keen’ group of walkers (can you see the pattern yet) headed up the Gyr valley to walk to Glacier Blanc. There was much snow on the footpaths, and an absence of crampons or similar, so I understand that a couple of people stayed at the lower refuge while three hardy souls headed right up the valley. In the end, their walk was around 750m of ascent.

Of course, there are a hardy few who are convinced that a holiday in France is intended for canoeing. So they headed to the Gyronde. Much gnashing of teeth (and boats) ensued? Some out-of-boat experiences. All were eventually reunited, and some played on the (huge water) slalom site at Argentière to finish off the day.

The forecast for Wednesday was to be a sunny morning/afternoon, then rain setting in for the rest of the week. We decided to head back west to the Severaisse, and to try the Souloise again. A long drive over. Again, a keen group headed to do the grade 4 section of the Severaisse, others used a lower get-in to stick with grade 3. Fast grade 3, very nice, hardly any eddies. The grade 4 group took a while inspecting, but did paddle it all. However, the lunch food was in their car at the get-on, so the rest had to wait well over an hour before we could get the food.

After lunch, some headed over to the Souloise, and paddled that, at 130cm on the gauge. Apparently a nice grade 3+, but not a nice portage! Dave gets a bonus mention for dropping his boat into the water after the portage.

The remaining paddlers repeated the run on the Severaisse. This river is notorious for rising fast in the afternoon (due to snow melt). Despite the level only rising by 10cm, the river was much faster and greyer, but all enjoyed the second run.

Most of the group enjoyed a nice meal in a restaurant in central Embrun on the way home; the first cars had a ‘posh’ meal of trout elsewhere.

Thursday morning arrived wet, very wet. All the local rivers had risen significantly. It was easy to see that none of the local rivers would be paddleable today, and perhaps not for the next couple of days. There was discussion of options, and some suggestion of heading for a long drive west over to the Massif Central to paddle a couple of other rivers there on Friday (which were low water). We decided to leave our campsite and head north, up to near Annecy. We planned to paddle a new river (for most of us) on Friday, the Fier, which Brigitte had paddled before. Dave managed to find a ski resort complex not too far away which had four apartments we could rent, so we all headed over there. 4 hours (ish) drive over the Col du Galibier (famous for cyclists), which was snowy and foggy at the top, and then a long way down, some motorway, and then up over another smaller col to La Clusaz and our apartments. And a swim in the heated outdoor pool.

Dinner in the apartment complex’s slightly-posh restaurant; Dave was chatted up by the waiter (Fabien?), which meant that one table got excellent service, but the other table was almost totally ignored…

Friday, dry and mostly sunny! We drove over to the Fier. This is basically a grade 2, but with a short grade 3+ technical section near the start. It was actually a very nice trip. Unfortunately it started raining again at the end, so we ended up getting changed in the rain. Some headed into Annecy as tourists; some headed to a cafe for lunch; the main bulk headed for a picnic lunch back at the apartments. A wander around La Clusaz to try to choose a restaurant for the evening; this only really succeeded in identifying a pub for a pre-meal beer!

Dinner was in a basic ski restaurant, with much tartiflette involved, plus some fondue. Rubbish veggie options unfortunately (they cancelled the only veggie option on the menu); apologies to the veggies. Beers at another pub afterwards, and then there was some late-night group whisky drinking in one of the apartments; luckily for my head I wasn’t involved.

Saturday; dry to start. We headed for a 90-minute drive to the Dranse, not far from Geneva. A lovely scenic and pretty river to finish the trip, but the weather had other ideas. Rain, and grey water. But it was a fast-ish grade 3+ to be enjoyed; some people paddled the grade 4 at the start too.

Very heavy rain as we were changing at the end; we all said our goodbyes, and each car load headed off in their various directions. Three cars (I think) managed to link up for food in Reims before hitting a middle-of-the-night channel shuttle, to get back home in the early hours of Sunday. Others took a more leisurely drive home. (Ask Nick about the grumpy waiter in Evian).

So, we successfully paddled another summer trip in France. There are loads of classic runs which we didn’t run this year; the Guisane, the Onde, the Briançon Gorge, the Upper Guil Gorge; the Middle Guil (even perhaps Chateau Q), nor the Ubaye Racecourse, and not even the Durance Sunshine Run. Nobody fancied doing the Sunshine Run at 450cms, when ‘medium’ water would be 50cms!

The weather was extreme this year. The waters started high, then rose higher. The campsite at Argentière slalom course (not the campsite that we ourselves were using), was evacuated in the middle of Thursday night because of the rising waters. Some of the roads up to Col du Lautaret, and Col du Galibier, were washed away by rain, or blocked by landslips, on the same night; we had driven over them just the day before.

There have been multiple serious incidents on the rivers in the region this year; we needed to ensure that all paddlers stay safe. We think that we as a group made the right choices to stick to ‘easy’ rivers and not to push ourselves this year. There will be other times to try those again.

Additionally, some club members had previously been paddling on a club trip with Brigitte in Switzerland the previous week; I will have to let them do their own write-up. Other club members had the week before that been paddling in Val Sesia in Italy too; again, they can offer their own write-up if they wish.

Very many thanks to everyone who came; we had a great time, and we will do it all again in another year.

I have put all my photos into an album here (160-ish photos & videos, many with captions): https://photos.app.goo.gl/KYkhUov7yUEg9nvx7

And there’s a group album here too (hundreds and hundreds of photos & videos): https://photos.app.goo.gl/56HcEhsRrp6D29HT8