Recently, every time I hear the word "Europe", it seems to be surrounded by talks of Brexit, In vs Out and dividing opinion. Sometimes it seems, amongst all the politics, TV pundits forget just how beautiful a continent we all share. Well, this year I was lucky enough to spend 6 weeks travelling around it with one of my best friends Tony exploring some of the amazing destinations our continent boasts (followed by another 2 weeks in Norway!).
A have since had lots of people asking me all about the locations, the photos and the stories behind them. So the following is a (hopefully) brief summary of the best summer of my life...
We started in the not-so-exotic Watford! Picking up Tony, packing the van and arguing endlessly over what did and didn't need taking. I should add at this point that Tony had only ever been camping once and hated it, and he had just signed up for 8 weeks!
That was us packed and off to the classic European destination of the Sesia Valley, Italy! The Sesia Valley has become an incredibly popular destination for UK boaters for a number of reasons. The central hub of Campertogno boasts a whole host of Grade 4 rivers right on it's doorstep, with none of the classics more than an hour away. Full days of sunshine, great ice cream and cheap wine sweeten the deal, and the people you meet make the trip.
Whilst driving, our aim was to make it to Campertogno in time for the BoaterX race. Luckily I put a message out and a friend (Gareth Farrow) pre-registered me for the race, and I arrived just in time. Jumping on the water about an hour after arriving, needless to say it wasn't my fastest race performance! It wasn't important - we had arrived and I was on the water!
We spent almost 2 weeks in Val Sesia altogether. We simply had no reason to leave, with rivers like the Sesia, Sorba, Egua, Mastallone, Sermenza, Sermenzena and Gronda still providing, we had no reason to. More importantly, we had dozens of reasons to stay - all of our friends! We had so many amazing people to have a great time both on and off the river with, it made it hard for us to drag ourselves away!
If you love paddling Grade 4, sunshine and beautiful destinations then the Sesia valley is an absolute must this year. And if you want someone else to take care of all the logistics, accommodation and food, then we're even running a couple of trips there next year!
It was also in Italy that I fell a bit too in love with hand paddles - thanks to Chris Brain for lending me his! I had so much fun running rivers without paddles!
Massive thanks to Stu Marshall, Chris Brain, Scotty Sims, Paula Vaulkmer, Mini Sims, Rob Stalker, Rich Stalker, Joe Stalker, Colin Brenton, Andy Holt, Stu Parnell, Rich Green, Beth James, Ant Sterling, Wayne Astley, Dave Woolsey, Callum Swift, Alex Neal, Morsey, Eddy Mead, Tom Rainey, Sal Montgomery, Matt Blackwell, Tom Wah, Ben Campbell, Sebastian Demange and Natty Cordon for providing good times on and/or off the river!
Eventually water ran out and rain threatened, so time came to pack up and move on. Tony and I had extended discussions over where to go next (mostly based around sun and water levels). We couldn't agree on a final plan, we knew Aosta and Austria would be too high, but couldn't decide quite where to go just yet. We decided to sleep on it.
The next morning, neither of us quite sure how or why, we found ourselves driving over to Aosta. It was only about half way there that we realised we'd agreed that was exactly what we weren't going to do because everything would be too high, never mind!
We arrived in Aosta and amazingly - everything was high! Everything that is except "Inferno Canyon" the classic high-volume raft run. A cracking little run, we ran it again the following day.
At this point the trip became a bit more of a laid back holiday than an all-out boating trip. It was nice, we would do our short Inferno Canyon trip and then go off to explore local towns and villages. Callum, Dave and Wayne even decided to walk 200m up a river we found just to run the section we'd walked up! No images from these rivers I'm afraid - so here's a picture of Nat and I having managed to walk all the way up to the viewing platform over the Aosta valley (no mean feat for Nat on crutches!).
Unfortunately, all too soon it was time for our friends to leave us. This started off a fresh round of the game we liked to call "Where next?". Surprisingly quickly, a decision was made. We were going to head off to the French Alps for some high water fun!
We met up with our friends Aaron Kendall, Alex Parsons, Matt Carey, Lyndon Williams and Becki Waters and took on some super-fun high water runs. Highlights have to be a high Guil day including the Middle Guil and Chateua Querays both higher than I've ever paddled them!
Just like Val Sesia, this region has the advantage that you can always find people to paddle with. Camping Les Ecrins in L'Argentiere-la-Bessee is a great base if you're into your camping (much more pleasant in warm weather!). The town of Argentierre or the slightly larger town of Briancon just up the road also have plenty of accommodation options if you prefer a roof over your head. Time for 30 degree heat and boating!
It's not hard to see why the Briancon area is so popular with boaters and has been for a long time. A huge variety of rivers, in both difficulty and style, all within an hour and a half of the centre of Argentierre. There's something for everyone. Lots of places to go and things to do if you choose to take a day off the water as well.
If you've paddled in this area, you don't need me to tell you any more. If you haven't words cannot describe quite how amazing this place is for the UK boater on holiday! It's definitely worth a trip!
The French Alps is another one of those places we keep going back to again and again. This year we're even running trips there. Book before it's too late, one trip is already full!
That's it for this instalment - in the next instalment we visit Slovenia and Switzerland, and even spend a day in Venice!
Oli Kershaw - Owner and Head Coach at Next Level
As somebody who is lucky enough to spend most days on the water and try lots of different pieces of kit, I find myself being asked my opinion on one piece of kit or another most days. Recently I was asked by a paddler on one of our courses why I didn't write down what I had learnt about various pieces of kit so that it was accessible to more people. This is where the idea of a Next Level blog came from. Whenever I can find time, I will be writing about all things paddling! Please feel free to share posts and comment on them, and if there are any topics you would like me to write about, please just ask!