KAYAKING in France: adventure close everywhere
Author of the French kayak guide, Paul Villecourt, reporter and photographer, tells you all you need to know about kayaking easily in France.
Author of the French kayak guide, Paul Villecourt, reporter and photographer, tells you all you need to know about kayaking easily in France.
As a photo reporter specializing in outdoor sports, Paul Villecourt has been paddling the planet's rivers and seas for over 20 years. Author of the French kayak guide "Guide du Canoë en France", his achievements include crossing the country from Geneva to the Atlantic on a 1500 km canoe trip. In this article, he tells us all we need to know about getting into canoeing and kayaking.
The mini-adventure… This fashionable concept simply highlights the insatiable desire for exploration and life in the great outdoors that we as a species have always had bubbling under the surface. Much like mountain sports, the history of canoeing and kayaking goes back a long way. I'll spare you the history lesson. Or maybe just a quick one… The canoe is a boat once used by the Native American First Nations, and then by prospectors who used it to explore the country and to trade. Sat in a kneeling position, with space for one or two paddlers, canoes are always propelled by a single-blade paddle. As for the kayak, it has Inuit origins and was used for hunting. It is always propelled with a double-bladed paddle, in a seated position. In France, the practice as a leisure activity emerged with the Holidays with Pay Convention (1936). While every paddler often gets the feeling of being a trailblazer when exploring a river, just think that our grandparents explored almost all of the French waterways, from the 1940s to the 1970s, and in heavy wooden boats. What we paddle today in inflatable kayaks weighing 15 kg, they did in skiffs weighing more than 40 kg, and carrying all their camping equipment, which also weighed a ton! Then came the Olympic Games and quite quickly the sport moved towards competition. But try taking the exploration gene from a human being!
There are all kinds of different types of canoes and kayaks available these days. Inflatable or rigid, short or long, fast or easy to handle… It's a bit like when you love cycling, you want to have it all! The good news is that compromises do exist. Before you buy a boat, start by asking yourself what you are looking to do, but also which discipline would be the most natural choice depending on where you live. Next, remember that a long, narrow shape is naturally faster and less stable. On the other hand, a short and wide shape is more stable, easier to handle, but also slower. Primarily calm lakes and rivers: you are looking for a stress-free leisurely cruise in a stable boat. You need enough space to take your family (two adults and a kid for example), plus a picnic, a towel and a fishing rod. There's no point looking for performance and glide. You need stability and comfort. Mostly fairly lively rivers: rivers are graded on a scale of 1 to 6. To put it simply: the Seine in Paris and the Rhône in Lyon are Grade 1. Niagara falls is Grade 6 (impassable). The Ardèche Gorge, the great French classic, is grade 2 / 2+. It is what I would call a lively river that can be paddled independently by following the safety guidelines (see below). Any higher than that and you should join a club or contact a private company. Having said that, there are many small rivers that can give you a taste of the joys of white water. In which case, you will need a fairly big boat for more stability, with a relatively low centre of gravity as well as not being too long for greater manoeuvrability. Note that some models are "self-draining", i.e. they feature small drainage holes to let out water brought on board by the waves. More long-distance paddling: lakes, coastal touring or on the great calm rivers of France, the long-distance paddler likes to see lots of different things and cover great distances with a boat that glides well. Rigid and long shapes will be more suitable in this case. But rigid does not have to mean composite or plastic. The latest generation of “Dropstitch” inflatables have designs that are as tough as anything! The fast shapes are available as canoes or kayaks (solo or tandem). They let you carry all the equipment you need to spend several days or even weeks on the water. Expeditions have even been completed in these shapes, which were initially intended for the general public.
Gliding across the water in a boat, you can picture yourself crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Woah: hang on a sec! First of all, the whole point of sea kayaking is to go along the coast, sticking close to the rocks, exploring coves and caves, accessing small isolated beaches… In short, French legislation refers to the text of Division 240 of the official journal. If your boat is less than 4 m long, you must stay within 300 m of a shelter (any point on the coast where any craft or vessel and its crew can safely anchor or dock and leave again without assistance).
In France, there is legislation in place that grants public rights of navigation on almost all rivers. Our easy access to waterways is the envy of many countries and that helps explain the influx of European paddlers as soon the weather warms up. The latest mini-adventure trend certainly has many virtues, but it sometimes pushes people to embark on routes reserved for more experienced paddlers. So, before setting off on a river: do your research! There are loads of different guides out there (books and online). If you do not understand them, then you are biting off more than you can chew. If you are a beginner, only the rivers where hire is available will be suitable for you, even if you have your own equipment. If your little local river is calling your name: do your homework carefully. Just because a river is calm doesn't mean there aren't any weirs. Even small ones can be very dangerous. Always wear a buoyancy aid and a helmet, even if it's an easy route and even if tourists aren't wearing one. Never attach yourself to your boat. Wear closed-toe shoes and take some warm clothing in a dry bag. Only paddlers with a bit of experience should consider taking young kids on board. On the big tourist rivers, 8 years old is what I would say is the appropriate minimum age for taking a little one out with you safely. Please note: a trip can feel very long to a kid who is not paddling. Adapt your route accordingly (short trip, frequent stops). If you have your own equipment, contact local hire companies to see if they offer a shuttle service. Finally, if you have been bitten by the bug or if you are planning an adventure, join a club or contact a specialist company to make sure you know all the basics:
Know how to swim in the river:~
When kayaking or canoeing on a river, you will sometimes fall in! This is called a "capsize". It's part of the sport and no big deal (it's just cold... most of the time). You have to get into the right habits. First, never try to stand up in the river, especially if the current is pushing hard. You should instead lie on your back straight away, with your feet out in front and use your arms in a kind of butterfly / backstroke motion to get yourself back to the bank. If you try to stand up, you will increase the chances of your feet getting caught between two rocks on the riverbed. So don't try to walk until you get close to the bank and just float on your back with your legs stretched out in front.
In North America, the canoe is sometimes called the "divorce boat". For first-timers, especially if they are unguided, the experience can turn into the world zig-zag championships, and that might make you laugh for five minutes, but it wears thin pretty quickly. Person A, often sat at the back and self-proclaimed expert, begins to dish out instructions like a clueless dictator, person B loses it and the trip turns into an eight-hour nightmare. First piece of advice for beginners: do not paddle as a couple. A crew that are less familiar with one another should be able to focus on the solutions rather than the problem. Second piece of advice, or rather an observation: if the boat is all over the place, neither of the two paddlers bears more responsibility for it than the other. Recognising that from the start will set a good foundation. Finally, don't force it! It's a sure-fire way to use up all of your energy. Getting the stroke and timing right is a fine art. Failing instruction from a coach, who will be able to solve the problem in 10 minutes, you will need to learn patience and care.
Rivers and beaches are places of freedom. Sometimes too much so! With the boom boom of sound systems, bags of rubbish left behind, sunscreen oil slicks on the water… It has to stop. Let's not forget that we are part of the living world and that we share nature with other species. The philosophy of "leave no trace" goes beyond good intentions. I encourage you to not only bring back all of your own rubbish, but also to bring back that of others who don't. And with a smile to keep things civil! We also must learn to answer the call of nature in the most appropriate way (not leaving toilet paper behind, moving far enough away so as not to contaminate the water (river) or the coast / beach (at sea, kayak guides advise urinating in the water)). All of this might sound funny, but it is essential to get into these habits.
Canoe / kayak equipment:
Canoe or kayak
Paddles: one per person + one spare in each boat
Buoyancy aid with a whistle
Tow rope and 15-meters throw line (one per boat)
Waterproof phone pouch
Personal camping equipment:
Dry bag or barrel
Two changes of clothes
Dry shoes for at camp, stored in a plastic bag to keep the dry bag clean
Beanie for the evenings
Hat or cap
Warm jacket (for the coldest part of the season)
Waterproof trousers and jacket
Tarp stored in a bag
First aid kit in a dry bag
Swiss Army knife or multi-purpose tool
cord and rope
Dry bag or barrel for food and cooking utensils
Saucepan and frying pan
Cutlery, plates, and bowls
Lighter and matches
Container to store filtered water.
Toilet paper/toilet kit
There's no need to get on a plane to go searching elsewhere for what we have on our doorstep. Because France is in fact home to some of the most beautiful rivers in the world! This non-exhaustive list presents not only the most beautiful, but also the most accessible to a wide audience. We are talking about Grade 1-2 routes here. If you are eyeing up a Grade 3 route, tackle it with a club or company, because you are pushing the limits of touring canoeing/kayaking.
The Allier: France's wildest river.~
Like its sister, the Loire, of which it is the main tributary, the Allier is considered to be one of the last great “wild” rivers in Europe. The description is valid for almost the entire 425 km of navigable waterway. In its upper third (Allier Supérieur and Haut Allier), "wild" refers to the liveliness of the rapids as well as the feeling of isolation you get inside the gorges. After Brioude, the river becomes free to meander and spread out. Then in its last third, an abundance of flora and fauna adds to the remoteness of the surroundings. Want to paddle away from civilization? See you on the Allier.
Paddling paradise may not be where you think! The Alsatian "Grand Ried" harbours a multitude of hidden little rivers that have freedom written all over them. Recommended routes: Ill (Colmar / Sélestat et Sélestat / Huttenheim), Brunnwasser, Rhin Tortu, Strasbourg loop.
The Ardèche: canoeing mecca.~
With its 200,000 paddlers every year, the Ardèche is undoubtedly the temple of canoeing. The beauty of its gorges attracts tourists from all over Europe, even going so far as causing traffic jams on the river on certain spring weekends! But the most famous French river is not all about its classic 35-km route. Upstream of the gorges, 25 km of lesser-known trails go through some of the most beautiful villages in France.
The Dordogne: the ultimate canoe-camping destination.~
If the Ardèche is the temple of canoeing in France, the Dordogne is undoubtedly that of canoe camping. From the Massif Central to the ocean, it meanders through some of the most beautiful scenery in France. For a few hours or a few weeks, countless routes allow you to dive into an impressively rich and diverse natural and cultural heritage: hilltop castles, prehistoric caves, impressive belvederes and a long list of villages ranked among the most beautiful in the country. A combination of everything that gives French tourism its international reputation.
The Loire: the royal river.~
The Loire is the river of all superlatives. The longest, most illustrious and wildest of all of France's rivers. This river, famous throughout the world for its castles, has somehow slipped under the canoe-camping radar and sees few paddlers. However, few routes in France offer such a range of characters and scenery, such a blend of wilderness and human heritage. Almost all of its 1013 km length is navigable.
The Loue: the jewel of Franche-Comté.~
The Loue is one of the most beautiful canoe and fishing destinations in eastern France. Spectacular from its source, it offers paddlers a beautiful, varied and fun trip. It winds its way through wilderness and stunning villages, with lots of little weirs thrown in to keep things interesting. Navigable for 120 km to its confluence with the Doubs, its upper section between Mouthier Haute-Pierre and Quingey (50 km) is the most interesting part.
The Tarn: stuff of legends.~
The Gorges du Tarn need to be on your list of must-paddle routes. Few rivers offer such an easy route in a breathtaking setting. For 53 km, the emerald-coloured waters meander through limestone cliffs towering up to 500 m high. Each village you go through is a reminder of the many legends linked to the valley: nymphs, miraculous healing, enchantments... A spellbinding journey in simply spectacular natural surroundings.
The Ain: a little bit of Canada just outside Lyon.~
Between its Jurassic limestone source and the Rhône, the Ain is canoeable for 200 km—almost its entire length. From its wild upper section where it flows through the Jura, it is tamed over nearly 80 km by a succession of weirs that have reshaped the landscape. It regains its freedom from Pont-d'Ain, with a 35-kilometre route popular with paddlers from neighbouring Lyon.
The Chassezac: the pearl of the Ardèche.~
Waves, breathtaking gorges, a magical forest... The Chassezac is a little gem that has nothing to envy its big sister, the Ardèche. It's all there, just smaller! In summer, the prettiest swimming spots can be reached by canoe. When the dam releases, you get all the thrills in an enchanting setting.
The Drôme: stunning colours.~
Tucked away between Vercors and Provence, the Drôme is one of the few French rivers that can be paddled all year round. From Die to the Rhône, 54 km of easy trails weave their way through vineyards and mountains. Its emerald colour is almost unique in France. You will fall in love! Note that the Drôme hosts the Open Canoe Festival each year, the largest European gathering dedicated to canoe touring.
The rise and fall of the Gardon.~
Spectacular. Wild. Formidable. The Gardon is one of those forgotten rivers living in the shadow of the Ardèche. Famous for its beautiful Roman bridge, it is now also infamous for its devastating mood swings, which now haunt the memory of the local population. Its canoe trail is a must for lovers of wilderness.
The Hérault: Garrigue gold.~
Between Ganges and Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, the Hérault has several sections for canoe touring, each with varying or even totally different characters. Once out of the upper section shared with bathers, the section downstream of the Moulin de Bertrand dam feels remote and exotic. All the way along the route, the river reveals a whole host of surprises and wonders.
The lovely Leyre~
If I was to say "Landes": what probably comes to mind are lines and lines of planted pines. The Leyre will change your mind. Connecting the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park to Arcachon Bay, it snakes through more than 90 km under a canopy of greenery, a privilege reserved for canoeists visiting what is one of the richest natural heritage sites in the south-west of France.
Marais Poitevin: "Green Venice".~
The second largest wetland in France after the Camargue, Marais Poitevin has 4000 km of canals spread across three departments. The “Green Venice” area has to be its most amazing part. Everything is so harmonious that it is hard to believe that this place is a purely human creation. A journey through an aquatic labyrinth where nature unfurls its green carpet.
The Orb rush.~
Wild and unspoiled nature, beaches you will never want to leave, first-class rapids: the Orb is a "must" for canoe touring. It is also the perfect location for clubs looking for an introduction to white water. Before and after summer, this river takes on an unexpected atmosphere!
The Sorgue: the rapids of Provence.~
Have you ever dreamed of paddling on a giant spring where the water is so clear that you feel like you are floating on thin air? This dream is reality and it has a name: the Sorgue. A haven of cool at the heart of sweltering Provence, a mysterious cornucopia of exuberant colours, a natural beauty offering a captivating and inspiring canoeing experience.
Lake Annecy: the Alpine lagoon.~
Blue water underneath and mountains all around: it sometimes feels like you're at sea! Canoeing on Lake Annecy offers a multitude of very different atmospheres. Whether you are more of a city kid or the outdoorsy type, you will fall in love with the colour of the water, which is worth the trip in and of itself.
Lake Bourget: nature and poetry.~
Hidden between the Alps and the Jura, Lake Bourget still has some wild spots that are perfect for discovering by canoe or sea kayak.
Lake Salagou: water on Mars!~
An impressive collaborative effort between man and nature, Lake Salagou has some unusual landscapes to offer. An opportunity for a contemplative paddle on an artificial lake that looks like it has been there since time began.
Verdon lakes: for your eyes only.~
Less well known than the magnificent Verdon Gorge, which is only suitable for hikers and expert kayakers, the Verdon lakes still have a few interesting trails that have not been flooded by the dams. Sometimes impressive, often short, they captivate paddlers for one reason that is enough to justify the journey: the colour of the water.
- Le Guide du Canoë en France, by Paul Villecourt, published by Canoë Kayak Magazine & Le Canotier.
- Rivières nature en kayak gonflable, by Laurent Nicolet, published by Le Canotier.
Event: The Open Canoe FestivalOrganised every year in the Drôme, around Easter, it is the largest European gathering dedicated to canoeing touring. 600 participants from 13 countries, more than 90 workshops over three days and in three languages, around 20 exhibitors, a concert, several local meals, a 28 km trail down the captivating waters of the Drôme. Quite simply unique!www.opencanoefestival.com
Resources: French Canoe Kayak Federation