Tag Archives: Intex Sea Hawk II

Packrafting in France 2 ~ Ardeche Gorge

See also:
• Chassezac
Allier guide
Packboating in southern France
Tarn
Includes pix by Steve L

The story so far. We’d nursed the cheapo Intex Boat Hawk II for three days from Les Vans down the Chassezac river as far as Vallon on the Ardeche, but following a brief reprieve, that boat was now a bundle of plastic stuffed into the campsite bin (right). Former Boathawker Steve was now astride a rental sit-on-top, like 98% of paddlers heading into the Ardeche Gorge.
With the river already packed with day boaters, we joined the melee towards the moderately technical rapid of Charlemagne, near the Pont d’Arc (above left).
Recce’ing the Ardeche a year ago, we’d sat at Charlemagne rapid watching the boats come through, not all as neatly as the canoe on the left. But at that time (late May) the river had been at least a foot higher. Today, the surfing wave at the exit (above) was much flatter and the 200-metre dog leg channel to get there was pretty easy to follow. Traffic was much higher though and I had to queue up and take my turn to drop in.
As I rode through, in front of me a couple of teenagers in a double rode up onto rocks and slowly flipped over (left), but in the packraft it was easy to steer out of their way and complete the run. First time SoT-er Steve also had no probs.
That done, we pulled over to watch the fun for a while. Most slipped through like us, but the double SoTs were far less agile. There’s no mystery why; put a teenage boy and his eight-year old sister – both new to kayaking – in a 4-5 metre hunk of plastic SoT weighing 30 kilos and they’re bound to cock up any rapid that requires co-ordinating a sharp turn or a bit of elementary river reading. So it was that boats piled into boats (left) and a train of flotsam flowed out of Charlemagne towards the arch: vacant kayaks, loose drums and paddles, kayakers with no paddles, and the odd swimmer. Some very young kids were not seeing the funny side of it, but the crowds applauded their dad’s rock mounting antics and I don’t recall any single SoTs flipping. Remember that next time you do the Ardeche!
Just beyond we passed under the famous arch (left) close to where the Chauvet cave had been discovered in the mid-90s. Full of fabulous prehistoric rock art (right) dating back 30,000 years, it’s exact location is little known and it’s locked up for protection. The cave was the subject of a recent Werner Herzog film and, as has been done elsewhere in France, a replica ‘tourist cave’ is planned nearby.
Up to this point was the regular half-day fun run on the Ardeche. The next 25kms entered a conservation reserve with only limited exits, and to rent his SoT for two days Steve had had to prove he’d booked a place at one of the two overnight camps or bivis in the gorge (see map below). Wild camping is forbidden, although we did spot a few doing so and I imagine you could get away with it if you don’t want to get bogged down in the need to book the bivi in advance. You’re also supposed to be off the river by 6pm. As soon as we left Pont d’Arc paddling traffic dropped off dramatically. 

I’d been put off the Ardeche for years by the rather intimidating description in the Massif book, but Charlemagne had been a doddle and levels were low or perhaps just normal and i was a brilliant paddler? I don’t think so. That book had over-egged other rivers and rapids over the years, but it is aimed at Brit families in canoes (not a huge market it must be said, never seen any). While my old Gumotex Sunny would have swamped harmlessly here and there, and also been tricky to turn fast in some rapids, the Alpacka Yak has the effect of reducing the WW grades by a factor of one. You can turn the Yak with one swipe and you’re so low and stable, especially with the UDBag sat over the bow, it’s hard to think how it could ever flip. The only times I feel in was getting in and out of it on the slippery river bed. In a way it made the Ardeche a bit too easy; with another foot of water it would have been more exciting. We wound our way along the meanders, passing the odd knot of kayakers as well as hikers following the gorge on foot, something which includes the odd bit of via ferrata (right).
The rapids ahead held little dread now and even the notorious Dent Noire mid-river rock (left) passed without incident. I managed to pass to the right, the correct way but which the current makes quite difficult; Steve took it on the left, grabbing a small bite from the Black Tooth on his elbow as he passed. A pair of river rescue firemen are stationed here each day, but with a ‘chicken run’ channel dug out of the shingle bypassing the rock altogether, they’d be having a pretty quiet time as long as the less controllable doubles took that line, as the signs advised.
We arrived at the empty Gard bivi early and took our pick of the pitches. After days packed like sardines in holiday camps, it was a relief to spread out over a sloping field as on a normal farmer’s campsite. There’s nothing here but toilets, water, free charcoal for the BBQ pits and a 2km track up to the road, as well as warnings to keep food sealed against the wild boars. The field filled up towards evening but it was still far from the overcrowding for which the Ardeche is notorious. A weekend here may have been another matter.
Friday was another wonderful day, hitting the frothiest lines we could find (left) and drifting with the breeze under the overhanging limestone walls. Only one rapid flipped Steve’s rigid SoT out of the blue, while the following Yak just hung up on the same rock, pivoted round and slid off.
At times stiff a breeze blew along the gorge, either in our face or our backs, depending on the orientation of the meander. As the walls subsided towards the take-out at Sauze near St Martin (left), that turned into a strong backwind which rushed us downriver. At one point after a break, I swam out with my boat and planned to get in it off the water just to remind  myself it was easy, but the little tab I was holding onto broke and the boat was gone like a balloon in a gale. Just as well Steve was downriver to catch it.
At Sauze beach the rental outfits’ vans and trailers line up to retrieve their clients and SoTs. Me, I didn’t want to get off the river, but our original plan to paddle on for a day to Pont Saint Esprit was only possible with our own boats. Steve could have bought another cheapie from a toy shop but it would have meant rushing for tomorrow’s train from Avignon. So it was time to roll up the Yak on this mini adventure and head for out allocated patch in the Camping Municipal.
Our week in the Ardeche was all a bit of a holiday, not the sort of thing we normally do, but a fun run on which it was safe to take a chance with the cheap dinghy. There wasn’t a mark on the Yak but I was shocked how easily and quickly the Hawk had got mashed. Conclusion: you do indeed get what you pay for. With some duct tape we could have kept it going and for the £35 it cost, it was still worth it as a one-trip wonder, compared to the commitment of buying a proper packraft.
Combined with the brilliant Watershed bags, the Yak made light work of it all and makes me realise I be happy to do the Massif rivers I’ve done in the Sunny all over again with the Alpacka. It would also be fun to do the Ardeche again at higher levels and maybe start from Aubenas to make a meaty 100-km run down to St Esprit.

Getting to the Ardeche
We took an infrequent Eurostar non-stop service from London to Avignon – just 6 hours but £260 return each. An Easyjet to Lyon or Ryanair to Nimes may have been cheaper but not quicker and much less fun. From Avignon we backed up to Montelimar by train and from there took the connecting bus service on to Ruoms (one ticket about £15 – 1.5 hours). At Ruoms, just north of Vallon, an empty minibus turned up bang on time and took us on to Les Vans for just €3 (30 mins). Simply getting a TGV train to Montelimar may be a better and cheaper way, but from the UK would probably require changing stations in Paris (40 mins walk) – or maybe just platforms in Lille.
Coming back we got a lift from St Martin to Pont St Esprit (no buses – taxi €15 for 9km – 16km by river). And after wandering through the Saturday morning marche (above left), took the bus on to Avignon for just €2.50 (90 mins) for another 6-hour train ride back to London.
Tracking down Pont Saint Esprit timetables online unearthed a sinister history to the town: the Incident at Pont Saint Esprit. A recently published book (right) claimed that in the early 1950s, as part of what later became their MK Ultra mind control program, the CIA drugged the town with LSD with predictably terrifying results. Several people killed themselves in the hallucinogenic torment, many more were locked up in asylums. If it’s true then CIA stunts like that make an exploding cigar sound positively benign!

Packrafting in France 1 ~ Chassezac

Part 2 – Ardeche
See also this and Tarn Gorge 2018.
Includes pix by Steve L

The Ardeche Gorge was the last big river I’d yet to do in the Massif Central and is one of France’s best known family friendly kayaking adventures. Some days in high summer you can run from bank to bank, skipping from one rental sit-on-top (SoT) to the next, just like Tarzan across a crocodile log jam. That’s because the main Ardeche Gorge is a fabulous run of around 32kms through a wild, meandering 1000-foot deep limestone chasm from Vallon Pont d’Arc down to St Martin d’Ardeche (see map left), and includes enough easy white water action to keep you alert.
At either end it’s also easy to string it out for a few more days. We chose to start up at Les Vans and follow the less busy Chassezac river east to its confluence with the Ardeche for a day or two. We also planned to continue past the end of the Ardeche Gorge at St Martin for another day to Pont Saint Esprit from where there were buses back to Avignon.
Doing it in my packraft seemed like a great way to put the wind up the Frenchies, and I persuaded kayaking chum Steve that his £40 PVC Intex Sea Hawk II dinghy was operationally indistinguishable from my more expensive Yakpacka. We’d trialed it on the Medway back in the UK and, apart from a leak, it paddled well enough.
In just six hours we trained from London to sunny Avignon, and by 7 that evening were tucking into a pair of steaming pizzas and an Orangina at the campsite in Les Vans. How great it was to be back in La Belle France!
Next morning a 20-minute walk brought us to the bridge over the Chassezac where other kayakers were putting in their rentals (left) for the standard, easy 8-km run down to Chaulet Plage. That was our undemanding plan for that day too, as Steve was going to have to experiment with getting the most out of his Intex.
The start was a bit of a scrape and within sight of the bridge, heel-bashing the inflatable floor on rocks had pinched and gouged holes right through the Intex. It was just soft PVC after all, not a coated fabric as I thought. It still floated fine on its two big outer hull chambers, but as the day wore on more holes appeared until Steve was sitting in- and hauling a few inches of water.
This section of the Chassezac is busy with riverside campsites and holidaymakers in rental SoTs, as well as a few owners, mostly in Sevylor IKs. We met a guy who’d had his Sevy 10 years with only one flat, as well as a Brit couple enjoying their Sea Eagle. Perhaps these brands aren’t do bad after all!? At times it was like passing one long seaside beach with kids shrieking and bobbing around on inflatable dinosaurs, dolphins and teapots – almost all made by Intex.
Steve rode his Boat Hawk stern first, then bow first, but it made little difference, the semi-swamped dinghy steered like a wet mattress and required as much effort to paddle, while still floating in a legal sense. But despite what the Massif canoeing book (right) said, none of the rapids along the Chassezac caused us or most others any concern, and we arrived at Chaulet Plage camping that afternoon to assess the damage to the Hawk’s floor. It was pretty mashed up (right) and his small roll-top dry bags had leaked too, soaking almost everything and giving a soapy tang to the coffee for the rest of the trip. Duct tape would have been a quick fix, but with none around, we dabbed on some glue and a few patches on the bigger holes.
With the Intex so easily damaged by normal paddling, we were unsure it would last, but you couldn’t take a rental SoT from the Chassezac to the separate Ardeche which was another day away. To get there was a 20-km stage of less frequented river but as long as the main chambers held out, we’d make it to the Ardeche rental outfits to finish the trip as planned.
Day two started with a fun maze of limestone pavement (left) to navigate through; we took a few runs in the Yak. After all the playground commotion of yesterday, beyond lay a quiet, rural river with just the odd angler, far from the dreary expanse of ‘dog water’ the Massif book warned of. We dropped ankle-high off riffles, waded occasional shallows, watched masses of kites overhead and came across remains of old fibreglass canoes (below), 2CV chassis and stick sail boats. The lunch stop revelled that Steve’s plan to sit out of the swill on his one good drybag had backfired: that too had got holed with his weight over the floor, so all was soaked yet again. Warm rain fell that afternoon as an easy portage around a strainer brought us to the Ardeche and a
return to some sportier rapids. Down here I had a spell in the Intex and could see why Steve was gagging for an SoT. It was like paddling a sack of mouldy potatoes and a new split was opening up between the floor and the side. The Sea Hawk was decomposing before our eyes
Down river an old mill house and a false horizon were a sure sign of a weir, one with hopefully a glissiere or canoe chute running off it (left and below). If this was England there’d be red flags, safety booms and neon arrows. Here in France you get just a couple of tiny green markers on the weir wall identifying the discrete entrance to the chute. Miss that and you’ll land on your head. By the road bridge to Vallon were several holiday camp sites with an adjacent canoe rental outfit, so we found oner with a space and spread out to get dry.
Next morning the mangled Sea Hawk was rolled up and stuffed into the dumpster, but half an hour later it was hauled out again. We could only rent an SoT here if we joined a group. Independent rental was possible elsewhere, so the wretched Hawk was dragged back to the river bank, inflated and loaded up. Another glissiere awaited us just downriver and this one managed to put a small hole in the outer hull; not such a trivial problem as the floor. Steve bravely hauled his sodden water mattress onward, stopping every once in a while to pump it up. Now he sat on the back and had his gear out of the water on the other end like a packraft. The end was surely nigh for the Squawk, even if it was now Monday and Vallon would have shops with duct tape. I tried to persuade him to tape the Sea Hawk up like a gimp, and keep taping until we got to St Martin, but though it makes a good story, where’s the fun in that? I wasn’t paddling it and as it was the boat handled like a wet paper bag in the rapids which made further damage inevitable. And even on a good day it was just too wide to paddle comfortably – the one-man version may have been a better choice in that respect.
Right near Vallon were a couple of portages, one surprisingly kayak-unfriendly, the other a boat drop where I discovered to my pleasure that my Watershed bags where up to the job. Downriver the bank was packed with campsites and kayakers at the start of the main gorge stage. This time of year all camps were full, but a chance riverside encounter with one patron got us a spot right over the river. The next day it rained, so we sat in our tents eating and reading, me with my Alpacka on my Black Diamond Lighthouse tent (right) which had become rather porous – perhaps it needed a reproof. But despite the rain, kids were still gambolling around in the river below late into the night. Although two weeks in a packed holiday camp is not my sort of holiday, it was fun to see so many people having fun.
By Thursday we were keyed up for some red hot paddling action. The Intex was binned, this time for good, and with Steve in his SoT, we headed down to the famous Charlemagne rapids just before the famous Pont d’Arch, were a crowd of spectators were already assembled to enjoy the daily carnage…

Part 2 here

 

Packraft versus cheap dinghy

To most people a packraft looks much like an inflatable dinghy you can get on ebay for £30. The difference is in the design and materials: bigger diametre tubes enlarged front and back mean more buoyancy plus an upturned and narrowed bow to better ride over waves. It’s also lighter, less bulky and tougher than an ebay dinghy such as the Intex Seahawk 200 pictured above (235cm x 114cm, 220kg claimed payload) which manages weighs 6kg I’ve since discovered when I persuaded a mate to buy one.
An Intex ‘pool boat’ like the blue boat, right, will be made of PVC plastic like a beach ball. Alpackas, IKs and the like are made of urethane- or rubber-coated fabric – that is the big difference. It’s like having a tent made out of bin bags versus a tent of PU-coated nylon or whatever. A bin bag tent will keep the rain off but won’t last so long. Pakboats can be pumped up stiff – critical to good performance – while retaining a pre-determined form and won’t burst when they heat up a bit in the sun or at the sight of texrolloxsome nettles. Closer examination of the Intex Sea Hawk II hull suggests an underlying fabric covered in PVC coating, but in fact it’s just the texture of the PVC – there is no fabric underlay which is why the boat is so squidgy like a balloon, even at full pressure.
Build quality less good, but it’s still a boat that floats. Is performance and durability related to price, or are old PVC dinghies the packrafts we never knew, and packrafts the ‘glorified inner tube for yuppies‘ quoted elsewhere? Summer 2011 we found out, when a mate in an Intex and me in the Yak did the Ardeche in France: short version, the Intex lasted 5 minutes…


 

Alpacka Yak vs old style Denali Llama

Back in the UK and took a run today in the new-shape Yak on the sunny Medway in Kent with my old-shape Llama. Impressions: the slightly longer Llama sure is roomy – you can stretch your legs which is relaxing, like my old Sunny IK – but the feet-jam feeling in the shorter Yak I’ve quickly got used to.
Other things, the rounded Llama does seem to yaw left to right more (as you’d expect), especially without a frontal load – but this impression is strongest when watching the boat rather than actually being in it, as you body moves left to right with the boat, be it Yak or Llama. Yawing is in the eye of the observer. Most obvious best thing besides the colour is that new seat; no more messing around yanking the annoying back up as you hop in in less than ideal circumstances.
A week or two later I took the Yak out on a windy loch in Scotland. How easy it is to inflate with the wind at your back! On the water with the bow splashing water over my head, I got a chance to appreciate the skirt as well as how stable it feels with gusts up to 25mph or more. One thing I did notice was after stepping out in the shallows the thing was gone in the wind (towards the shore, luckily). I’d never have caught it if I was in the water and hyperventilating from cold shock. It reminds me that in such conditions I ought to attach the stick to a loop in the bow chord to slow down an escaping Yak.
Is the pointy Yak faster? Forgot the GPS to find out for sure and our paddles where too different in size to run the Yak and Llama side by side (plus we were towing a sick Intex), but we felt the Yak had the edge, again as you’d expect but we’re talking less than  1mph here. Now I’m up north in packrafting country I have more Yak mini adventures planned. More about the test against my mate’s £30 Intex dinghy here.