Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of heading out to France, as part of a small group of people taking part in the first ever Kayantics Whitewater Improver Course. As with all my plans, it was something I had been thinking of doing for quite some time, I had just somehow got the illusion that it was too good to be true (/I knew I’d probably be super busy and – as usual – working off a budget that just doesn’t quite stretch to the odd week of whitewater paddling in France). As luck would have it though, a few days of extra work fell into my lap a couple of weeks before the trip – and hey presto, it moved from being an idea to a real possibility. So late was this opportunity that I ran it past my boss on the Monday before, confirmed my attendance on the Tuesday, all before setting off for France the following Sunday.
That, my friends, is the optimal way of booking a trip.
3am on Sunday morning saw us making a prompt departure and we were Dover bound with a fully laden van, topped with four boats, before you could say let’s go to France for some kayaking. A planner, or a remotely organised person, would have probably marvelled at the efficiency of our get off – everything we would need for the week was packed neatly in the van, the boats were on, the paddles were in, the bucket of Bruce Springsteen CDs was fully loaded and a small feast of sandwiches were packed up for lunch. Not being much of a planner myself, I simply took a second to be baffled at the fact we were leaving on time with everything on board, before chucking my bag on top of the pile, climbing into my seat and promptly falling asleep.
Our destination was a small village in Burgundy, named Chalvron. The original plan for the trip was to set up a base camp in the woods close to the river where most of the kayaking took place. As much as this sounded completely ideal to me, the small group size – and the fact that this was the first ever trip our trusted guide, Will, had run – meant it was more logistically feasible to set up base camp on a family owned site, in this beautiful, unspoilt pocket of rural French goodness. The positioning turned out to make the camp all the more culturally enriching – as we got to meet some of the locals and practice our parlez-ing with real-life French people. For me – it really did add something special to the trip – and the strong relationships which Will has been able to build up in the area (extending to the local guides on the river) will really be something which will augment courses held here in the future.
The evening we arrived, we were treated to a BBQ and a sampling of the local beverages (okay sampling may not quite cover the extent to which we were introduced to the region), before heading off to bed feeling just a little bit merry.
The next few days – for me – were torture. As the others packed up and headed down to a slightly less intimidating river to practice some skills, I gathered up my laptop and notebook to head off for a day of work. For three days of work in fact. I’m not complaining here – I was very lucky to be able to go and work out there – but watching the others go off paddling whilst I sat inside and typed away was tough. One upside was that I got to go and see two other houses in the village – both of which were absolutely full of character (I was surprised that in one a sheep poked his head through the kitchen door). I also got to meet one or two more of the locals – who despite the fact they had never met me, were more than willing to let me sit in their house all day, drinking coffee and using the internet. Again here, I must thank the Kayantics team for arranging this for me – not all providers would go out of their way to make this happen.
From Monday to Wednesday I had to settle for the stories of happenings each day as we came together for an evening meal. Needless to say, the tales made me desperate to head out to the river, even though each one contained at least a little bit of carn-arge. I did manage to go out and sneak an early morning run of Le Chalaux – and was treated to some spectacular views of the river in the process – but this merely served to whet my appetite, meaning that by the time Thursday came around I was really keen to get back out in a boat.
Surprisingly, when we returned to the river, I found myself feeling particularly nervous. Missing out on the work the other two had been doing all week, plus my usual habitual way of approaching everything with a brute force attitude, meant that as I was running the river I very rarely felt in control of my boat. A memory of swimming one of the rapids in the bottom section of the river on my early morning run also seemed to be tormenting me – making me feel like a repeat performance was inevitable. Suddenly, within the three seconds it took me (with help from another) to put my spray deck on, I realised that my fearless childhood nature has begun to be left behind, and that adult notion of risk perception was creeping in. I was, for the first time ever, really quite scared at the thought of paddling. Keen to not be a wet lettuce and to give it my best shot (and to leave all aspects of adulthood out of my personality) I decided that I would just see it through, and found myself sliding into the eddy to join the others without making a fuss.
Over the next couple of days, and without really noticing it happening (until the final run), I found my attitude completely changing. We were taught how to perfect a ferry glide, how to stern squeeze, how to nail entering an eddy going downstream (and to find one in the least likely of places), and all of a sudden, I found myself getting more comfortable on the river. Frowns changed to smiles as the group grew in comfort – the occasional swim would still happen, but the rescues would be met with cheers, the swimmer would look only slightly petrified at having gone in and the swims were happening far less frequently with every descent.
On the Friday, following a night camping on an island in the middle of the Lake which feeds Le Chalaux, we were able to spend some time working on our rolls. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could still roll – and found that in just a couple of hours my confidence had grown an incredible amount.
The final day of paddling really saw it all come together. Instead of being terrifying, the experience of running the Chalaux had become exciting, still challenging, but bloomin’ good fun. The difference I felt between that first day and the last, was staggering. On my first decent, Will had told me that all rivers had a rhythm and that it can take a while to tap into it. Needless to say, I thought this was nonsense. However, by Saturday I could really see what he meant. You start to move in time with the river, to use the flows to guide you down and you learn not to fear, but respect its power. The confidence I gained saw me running a rapid which at the start of the week I vowed not to attempt. Unfortunately, I swam down it, taking a couple of knocks to the head and the back in the process. But when I popped up a little downstream – I was smiling. And if you asked me to run that rapid right now – I’d be confident to give it a go.
I guess what I am trying to share is that last week – as much as I’ve been banging on about it being an incredibly fun experience – really pushed my boundaries and forced me out of my comfort zone. And yet, in that time I spent out of it, I learnt more than I have done in ages, I laughed more than I have done in ages, and I felt more pride than I have done in ages.
It is easy to forget that the easiest way to feel good about ourselves is to push ourselves to do something we didn’t know that we could do.
A huge thanks to Kayantics for organising such a great trip – I think I will be the first to sign up for next year’s and I will be recommending it to anyone I know. If you are interested in finding out more – do check out the website or drop me a message in the comments.
If you fancy watching a video of the trip – check it out here.