The joy of paddling your own canoe

By the fearsome rapids of the river Ardeche, lifeguards stand on duty. It's a beautiful spot for capsizing.

I knew we wouldn't make it the moment the current caught the bow of the canoe and swung it inexorably towards a smooth rock beneath the water's surface. Our paddles bit deeply into the water and with only three feet to go the canoe began to swing away. It wasn't soon enough. The bow rose into the air and twisted to one side, tipping my teenage daughter into the water. The lightened front end rose up, corkscrewed still further and emptied me and everything we had not secured into the Ardeche.

I knew we wouldn't make it the moment the current caught the bow of the canoe and swung it inexorably towards a smooth rock beneath the water's surface. Our paddles bit deeply into the water and with only three feet to go the canoe began to swing away. It wasn't soon enough. The bow rose into the air and twisted to one side, tipping my teenage daughter into the water. The lightened front end rose up, corkscrewed still further and emptied me and everything we had not secured into the Ardeche.

Capsizing was not part of the script. As the water closed in over my head the safety talk we had been given when hiring the canoes flashed through my mind: "If you fall out, float on your back with your feet downstream. Your legs will absorb any shock of colliding with rocks and it is better to have a broken leg than a split skull." Reality was far less frightening. Before I could put the instructions into practice, I found myself sitting in water that barely reached my midriff, with a paddle. No whacks to the head or jarred legs, just a little dented pride.

Four years previously I had taken my two children canoeing along the Ardeche and we wanted to return to canoe the more demanding descent. Now, downstream, my daughter had managed to grab the canoe and was standing holding it with a grin on her face. "That's the last time I trust your steering, Dad." A dunking was all part of the fun.

The Ardeche river runs through a series of deep gorges in southern France. This spectacular area is given little thought by those heading swiftly further south on the autoroute, but it offers a huge variety of activities, the most popular of which is canoeing. In the winter and spring, when snow and rain swell the river, it is the preserve of the expert, but by June it has become less violent and, despite terrifying names like Dente Noir (Black Teeth), the rapids are easily negotiated. None of them are graded above class III and at the two most difficult there are lifeguards on duty. If you are nervous, you can usually just carry the canoe around the rapids.

The launch sites upstream from the gorges provide mini-descents that are great for a practice session before the long haul through the gorges proper. Chames, on a delightful stretch of the river above the gorge, is the last place you can land your canoe and be picked up before entering the gorge. After that it is 24km to the next pick-up point.

We chose our operator in Vallon Pont d'Arc, a small market town where many of the Ardeche's 50 canoe operators are based. Having strapped the watertight barrels, loaded with a picnic, change of clothes and other paraphernalia, into the moulded racks, we listened carefully to the safety talk. I wish I'd listened a little more carefully to the part where they explained how the pattern of the water can indicate a submerged rock.

Charlemagne is the first of the Class III rapids and generally considered the gateway to the gorges. The rapids here are exciting but not too difficult to negotiate, although the popular riverside beach here means you have an audience should you capsize. Fortunately we didn't oblige.

Between Charlemagne and the next Class III rapid are several lesser obstacles. Les Trois Eaux (The Three Waters), immediately after Chames, is the first rapid of the grande descent. Les Trois Eaux suddenly drops away through a narrow gap in a maelstrom of white foaming water. From there, the impressive walls of the Ardeche Gorge close in and rise up and, between the rapids, we just drifted along, awed by the height of the walls.

La Toupine de Gournier rapids were the most demanding. Here the river narrows and the current rushes through a gap between huge rocks before bouncing off a wall of limestone a few metres downstream. To avoid being pinned against the wall - or crashing into it - you have to make a sharp right immediately after hurtling through the gap. Easier said than done. For the second time that afternoon my daughter ended up in the river.

Seven and half-hours after first launching our canoes, we came to the last stretch of the river. The picturesque village of Aigueze, perched at the top of the cliffs, marks the end of the gorges, and the long haul down the last two kilometres. Aching shoulders and arms weren't helped by the fact that there are no rapids to break the monotony.

Finally, we hauled the canoes up the bank and helped load them onto a trailer. The children found there was still more fun to be had. Beside a caravan was a picture board covered with photographs. At Les Trois Eaux there had been a photographer and for about £8 you could purchase a shot of yourself shooting the rapids. It didn't take too long for the children to spot Mum and Dad and have a laugh at their expense.

The ride back to Vallon Pont d'Arc took us through delightful honey-coloured Ardechois villages, past fields of lavender and along the lip of the gorges through which we had just canoed. We have toured the French countryside on foot, by bike and in a car, but canoeing beats them all. With canoeing you never become lost, you just go with the flow.

 

Gordon Lethbridge travelled with Eurocamp (01606 787878; www.eurocamp.co.uk), which has luxury tents and mobile homes at several sites in the Ardeche area, many close to the river. A fortnight currently starts at £455 including ferry crossings for up to six people. A one-day descent of the gorges costs around £20 for a single canoe, or £30 for a double, including paddles, life jackets, watertight containers and a lift back to Vallon Pont d'Arc. Alpha Bateaux (00 33 4 75 88 08 29) gives helpful advice in English. For more information contact the French Government Tourist Office, 0906 8244123 (premium rate)

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