Following the winter of 2014/15 with the lowest snowpack in recorded history, California has no water. That’s given us plenty of time to start a business importing Prijon kayaks. With a little groundwork done and a container of kayaks somewhere on the ocean, Rok Sribar and I fly to Germany to meet with Toni Prijon and ‘produce marketing material’. Basically it’s a good excuse to make new friends and go kayaking. It’ll be an incredibly short trip for the distance travelled; five full days in Europe. I wonder how much paddling can we accomplish in such a short amount of time?
Photos and story: Darin McQuoid
We land late at night in Munich and crash at Toni’s house near the Prijon factory in Rosenheim, which is just 45 minutes from the airport. Rising early in the morning we pickup demo kayaks from the factory and calls are made to figure out water levels. It’s rained overnight and rivers are up in Austria, which has a great run just over an hour away. We throw the kayaks on the shop van and hit the road for the Tyrol region. Brandenburger Ache is a well-known run to Europeans but totally off the radar for us ‘Mericans’, I’d never heard of it before. It is a tributary to the Inn River with several sections and we’ll do a few of these sections back to back as water levels are decently high. En route we swing through a small town and pick up local paddler Gerhard Braune who knows Brandburger Ache like the back of his hand and leads us straight to put-in.
On the water we move quickly as Gerhard gives us beta. The run has several fun gorges with quality moves stretched out over a few kilometres. This provides great warm up for us before we get to the crux of the run. With the high water it’s impossible to get out in these first few gorges, which is a shame because they are incredibly photogenic. With lots of nice warm up behind us, we’re scrambling up to a trail to see what I believe is the Tiefenbachklamm Gorge.
In such a developed country, trails along the river make scouting a pleasant experience. This river would actually be a joy to spend a day just hiking and photographing. We scout the blind corner, which at this flow will certainly keep us on our toes as the river goes around a bend with a lot of chaotic water, followed by a five-foot drop through a significant hydraulic. Thankfully the hydraulic is friendlier than it looks and we all get through no problems and big smiles. Gerhard leads us through the rest of the run down to the club house.
A paddling club house is something totally foreign to me. On most rivers in Europe there are paddling clubs. The one here had a lovely little building with a fireplace for cold winter days. What a great idea and they help the sport by teaching beginners as well as having loan kayaks and gear. Truly a great thing and part of why paddle sports are healthier in Europe than the United States where we go at it alone.
Speaking of gear, we loaded ours up to make headway to our next destination; Valsesia in the Piedmont region of Italy. Just a few hours later we cross into Italy and stop for dinner at a restaurant with an incredible setup next to the river. In cool weather, the roof closes and glass doors can seal out the wind – in summer it’s open and pleasant. We enjoy a glorious meal with that famous Italian red wine before driving long into the night to reach Valsesia.
Valsesia – Gronda, Italy
Water droplets patter on our rain fly through the night. We’ve pulled in late and crashed at the Campertogno campground in Val Sesia, Italy. As I’m fully along for the ride on this trip I really have no idea where it is except that it’s in the Piedmont region, and the place for kayakers to stay.
All is quiet when we wake, as rain still falls we quickly pack up not knowing where the day will take us. Gear stuffed in the van we walk over to the camp headquarters. Camping in Europe is a whole different experience because campgrounds are ready to deal with the rain. There is a covered cooking area, bathrooms with hot showers (at no extra charge) and a real restaurant. Compared to the typical campground in the United States it’s a very civilized affair. We head into the restaurant for some coffee. The Austrian’s love to say that the Italians know how to do coffee, according to them it’s the best in the world, and only one euro per cup. To think that I thought Starbucks was overpriced before experiencing this…
Watching the rain outside we’ve stalled as long as possible. Now that we’re fuelled by cafe and panini it’s time for us to go kayaking. The Gronda is a local river that needs rain to have enough water and it’s not too surprising that it has enough water. So we head upriver as rain continues to pour.
The standard run of the Gronda is only about 500 metres long and flows through an ancient town that has several bridges over the river. It is truly incredible and unlike anything we have in all the Americas. As we pull into town the rain turns into hail. We talked to a few paddlers who say it’s too high, but we think it looks pretty good.
So we gear up in the hail, which becomes large enough to be downright painful. The shuttle for this one will be easy enough, we just walk up the road to the standard put-in above town. I take an umbrella to facilitate keeping my camera alive, a handy trick for inclement weather.
We put in as hail continues to fall. As a small group of experienced paddlers we make quick progress, even if we are shooting photographs too. As we approach a set of slides above town we experience something else more typical of European kayaking; a traffic jam on the river. There are a couple of groups out here at the same time, and we appear to be moving the fastest but don’t know the run well enough to ‘play it through,’ which makes the pacing a little awkward.
Sacrificing gratuitous photography opportunities, we bomb through a few slides to get ahead and into the town section. Paddling slides and waterfalls in the middle of an Italian village is something that can’t be experienced anywhere else, this is what the Piedmont region is about. We love it so much that we hike back to run the town section several times before taking out and finishing our day at a lovely restaurant just up the street from take-out. A perfect end to a memorable day that is a perfect example of why we travel to kayak; it’s about more than just thrills.
Valsesia Egua, Italy
Rising at the Campertogno campground we’re greeted by nice sunny weather which calls for a nice al fresco breakfast. With a nice meal behind us, those in the know, debate what to do for the day, looking for what will have the best water levels and photographic opportunities. Jobst Hahn from the Prijon team will be able to join us today and he has the most experience in this area. As the day warms we head up to the Egua River, one of the best known rivers in Peidmont.
The Egua is very typical for Piedmont kayaking, steep and low volume. We have what’s supposed to be a high flow, but for us used to higher volume rivers, it feels a bit low; there is still a lot of rock bouncing. There are so many rocks in the shallow water it’s more aerated than we’re used to, giving it a different feel from something of similar gradient and volume in the states. A mix of slides and boulder gardens the river is a ton of fun, steep challenging but not too scary.
And that’s it. The Egua is an amazing mile of whitewater that drops over 400 feet. Quite incredible that it has no portages considering the nature of it. At the higher flows it’s also not afraid to dish some pain, on our run we saw no less than six swims between our group and one other team!
We wrap up our time in Italy with a meal at the bottom of the Egua River and now it’s time for another push, about four hours of driving to get to the top of the Valle Verzasca in the Ticino region of Switzerland. There is traffic going around the Lago Maggiore, which makes us arrive late and there are not a lot of camping options. In a way it’s a good thing we arrive late in Sonogno though, as the most popular place to camp is a trailhead where it seems to be ok to camp in a van or a trailer, but not in a tent. It’s kind of a grey area and depends on your luck. Arriving late and rising early we have no problems.
Perhaps we’ve gotten up too early, we walk around town for 30 minutes, waiting for a restaurant to open. Once we’re fuelled with cafe and croissants we drive downstream to the Middle Verzasca, world famous for incredible water colour.
The middle section starts under a bridge with an incredible cataract upstream. A few of our group take the time to walk up and run the bottom of the cascade. The upper part of it doesn’t look runnable, but how many times has that been said in our sport? Who knows it may happen someday.
Miles of boulder gardens and exquisite sapphire clear water have us laughing and smiling. Between the rapids I can’t help but think that there is something odd in our world of kayaking. We’re not paddling the harder lower section of the Verzasca. I can’t help but make excuses in my head. Why is it that we must always be paddling the hardest run we can? What’s wrong with just enjoying a fun day with low stress and minimal danger?
Part of it is our ego, but part of it is the culture of our sport. So much of the community and media say we must always be pushing further, harder, faster, steeper, higher, and bigger. Why is this? I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m happy we’re all able to ignore that and just have fun kayaking in one of the most beautiful settings in the world on the Middle Verzasca.