Book review: Rivières Nature en France by Laurent Nicolet

See also: Packboating in Southern France

For reasons of topography and size, France, particularly the south and west, has some great multi-day paddling rivers. Mountainous areas not immediately adjacent to the sea produce long rivers along which you can choose the gradient and the level of difficulty that suits your ability. And you can do so for days at a time. You can also add unfettered rights of way on the water, though that’s an unfortunate anomaly unique to England and Wales.

What they Say [translated]
RIVIERES NATURE EN FRANCE answers all these questions.
For each course, you will find:
• the level of difficulty (easy to intermediate), the length, the duration
• specific regulations for the course
• the minimum, maximum and ideal water levels, and how to know them
• access to water with their gps coordinates
• QR codes to map sites (access) and water level stations.
• the description of the navigation (km by km, focus on difficulties)
• short hikes to do from the river (canyons, caves, viewpoints, etc.)
• specific security advice
• useful addresses (campsites, visits, service providers)
• a detailed map with an IGN topographic background

In the introduction, practical advice will allow you to organize your descents… without traces. An index of routes by level of difficulty will make your choice easier. …with descriptions in German.

Rivières Nature en France is a similar if far more comprehensive title to the dozen Best Canoe Trips in the South of France (right) which I’ve used myself. This 416-page book compiled by Laurent Nicolet (distributer of Gumotex IKs and Nortik packrafts in France) lists no less than 100 routes over 63 rivers mostly in the south and west. It also includes parallel short summaries in German, is sold on amazon UK for under £25 and was delivered in a couple of days.
For years Nicolet has produced videos validating the utility of KGs – ‘kayak gonfables’ or IKs in French. The book has more images of IKs than have probably ever been printed in the UK – well, until my book came out ;-)

Listed by difficulty

All the great rivers of the south are here: Tarn, Ardeche, Dordogne (ideal for beginners), Verdon and the sportier Allier, as well as a whole lot you’ve never heard of. Up front you get a location map (above), after which each river is listed alphabetically and described over a few pages. The book ends with each route of the 100 routes listed by difficulty (left); 50 routes (1700km) are up to Class 2 and another 23 (423km) are Class 2-3. In other words, there are loads and loads of easy rivers to enjoy in a packboat without having to strap on a crash helmet.

Up front you get the usual advice on what gear to take and safety tips like never tying yourself to the boat or shooting weirs without checking first. That’s unless there is a portage-dodging canoe chute (left) – a common feature on French rivers which add greatly to the fun. There’s also an interesting rant against official censures against solo paddling “Imagine such restrictions on walking and skiing!’ Quite right, mon ami.
And this being France or anywhere bar the UK, the author covers the full range of kayaks and canoes, hardshell or inflatable and even packrafts – he’s proficient at paddling all of them. There follows the usual advice on ‘leave no trace’ including using Le Poop Tube when en sauvage, an explanation of Class 1-6, the vigicrues website for reading live river levels and which I discovered last time, and advice on organising shuttles – all much eased if not eliminated outright by using portable packboats.

I won’t pretend to have read this book cover to cover, were that even possible – I speak French a lot less badly than I read it. But as an example, I can concentrate on a river like the Tarn which I’ve done a couple of times both in a packraft and with IKs.

Tarn map. Fairly intuitive icons but no explanatory key and no campsites labelled.
Le Sabiliere – as hard as it gets on the Tarn

The Tarn description focuses on the most popular 57km section from Montbrun to Le Rozier. I have to say I made that 47km measured off Google Maps on my big Tarn map (which covers the full 84km run from Florac, 18km upstream from Montbrun, to the city of Millau, 19km after Le Rozier), Using public transport, I found both Florac and Millau better choices to start and end a Tarn paddle. Anyway…

Tarn summary

The first thing they advise is avoid the peak holiday period when the Tarn can become a logjam of hardshell rentals and yelping kids (left; actually the Ardeche below a busy campsite). While I’d certainly avoid the Tarn (and indeed France) in August, as a foreigner I found the occasional hullabaloo in July all part of the fun if you just paddle through it. Packed-out campsites along the stage described will be as bad as it gets. And they are packed out.

Tarn – Les Detroits

You then get a river summary: best time of year; regulations (if any); water levels with min, max and ideal levels, plus a QR code going direct to vigicrues – a good use of this idea; the best type of boat (Iks can get hung up in shallows); environmental protection (if any); wilderness and tranquility; off-river pedestrian excursions, and where to sleep but with only a selection of campsites including websites and a phone number. These could have been much more usefully added to the route’s map.
Selected put-ins/take outs have more QRs linked to waypoints which are also printed in old-style DMS (44° 56′ 15.5″ N…), followed by the much less error-prone decimal-degrees (DD: 44.9376297, 2.321622…) format. Google still uses both but the sooner we all get used to simpler DD the better.

Kayaker caught putting-in below the Soucy rock-jumble by the Google drone
St Chely

Next, the main route description KM0, KM22.7 and so on. ‘En aval‘ was a new expression on me: ‘downstream’. If you French is a bit ropey – or cordée – it would be worth translating page images in the planning stage so you don’t find yourself in l’eau chaud. Doing so you’ll learn handy expressions like en aval.

Tarn Route description
Allier below Monistrol: the boat is full of water…

The book goes on like this, river after river, with enough photos to help you identify what looks appealing. It celebrates a newly opened passage of the Allier from Naussac all the way to Brioude (114km), though you may want to miss the initial 22km of “no less than 55 distinct rapids [up to Class 4]” which end at Chapeauroux.

On the train line from from Brioude, it was from Chapeauroux one June that I blundered rather naively down the Allier in my early Sunny days, after having found the Dordogne a bit of a doddle the previous year.
As mentioned elsewhere, a dam up from Monistrol (30km below Chapeuroux) has by now been rebuilt and lowered to salmon-friendly levels so that the long taxi portage I had to do around the now non-existent reservoir from Alleyras is, from 2022, just a carry around the new dam at Poutes. (At the back of the book is an article entitled: ‘Hydro-electricity; the least renewable of renewables’). For the 12km from Monistrol to Prades (above left) you’ll again want a deck or self-bailing, otherwise you’ll find yourself as I did, pulling over to pour the water out of your boat. From Prades it’s all a less fraught and as enjoyable two days to Brioude.

You can have a lot of fun with the English guidebook – in some ways I find the basic design and layout a bit less dense. But once you’ve seen it and done it all, Rivières Nature has many more paddling suggestions in the fabulous south of France.

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