“Did the earth move for you?!”

French Alps Women’s Course 2000


The first I heard of this course was at the end of May doing the shuttle for the Findhorn – a maniacal white transit van shot past me, slammed its brakes forcing me off the road.  Before I could retaliate with some choice verbal abuse, Jim bounded out of the van towards me mumbling something about French Alps, women’s course, and was I interested??  From this shaky start, a weekend was organized at Jim & Steph’s in June for us all to meet and tentatively make plans for France (I think this was the point Jim had severe doubts about our ability to organize ourselves especially seeing as one of us (who’ll remain anonymous) forgot all her clothes for the weekend!) but, the kayaking was great and we were starting even then to work like a team (although I’m sure Jim’ll disagree with that!)    several phone calls, e-mails, letters, etc later and we were all sorted and crossing the days off the calendar ‘till we were off.


Thursday 20th July arrived and Pauline and myself set off for Inverness to meet Lynn then drove off in convoy to Kirkintilloch and picked Kate up from Glasgow.  Next day (Friday 21st July) the four of us in two cars set off south and picked Claire up at Ferrybridge (somewhere in England).  We stopped at Medway Services near Dover and one of us used her skills of deception to sneak five of us into a Travel Lodge room booked for 3 adults and a child only – we smuggled 7 paddles in through the window (don’t ask!) and text messaged Jim on our mobiles to say we were on our way and would (hopefully) see him tomorrow (still can’t believe Jim was gullible enough to believe I was bringing my non-existent “child” with me!)


Saturday 22nd July, we set off early, escaped Customs and experienced our first time driving on the right.  After a very, very long drive in blistering heat we made the fateful decision that it would be quicker going to Briançon via Italy … ok, you look at the map yourself – there’s more motorways indicated going through the Tunnel de Frejus and Italy than going via Grenoble so it wasn’t a blonde ‘girly’ mistake!  (don’t even think of commenting here, Jim!)  By 1am we were clinging to the Italian gorge going down what became nicknamed the “intestines” – none of us had ever experienced a mountain pass that clung to its sides with 360° hairpin bends!  By 2am we finally discovered “Camping le Verger” and started hunting for Jim’s van on foot.  After some wee silent(!) stage whispers, we heard a tent grunt and the sleepy apparition of Jim materialized mumbling about what a racket we were making and something about a storm?!  To Jim’s credit, he helped us put Claire’s four person tent up and we crashed for the night.


We woke to a beautiful Sunday morning (Sunday 23rd July) and after pitching the rest of the tents, we headed off to the slalom course at L’Argentière.  I don’t think any of us had ever seen moving water so clear & blue, moving extremely fast (compared to Scottish rivers) and with so many fantastic playholes, waves, etc in the one wee stretch of river.  Jim and Nikki threw us straight into the course by splitting us into groups and asking us each to take turns leading down, breaking out into eddies and working on different ways of running it – eddy hopping, working with a buddy, leapfrogging, etc.  We also managed some rescue practise with throw lines as the speed of the river and sharp eddy lines caught many of us off balance!  After running the slalom course 4+ times, we headed off to the supermarché to stock up with essential food and alcohol.  That night swigging back the old vino in Bernie’s massive (now communal) tent, the heaven’s opened up and the storm Jim had warned us about descended.  It rained constantly for 15 hours that night and Jim kept assuring us it would have no effect on the rivers as they were all controlled by dams and barrages, so we slept(?) fairly relieved that everything would be ok even though the thunder & lightning lasted solidly for 12 hours – at one point when the storm was at its peak directly above us, an almighty clap of thunder shook the very ground we were all sleeping on – so the earth did literally move for us all! (Steph wanted this added!)


Monday 24th July we awoke to a very drowned looking campsite and Jim scurried off to check the river levels.  He came back looking serious and took us all back to the slalom course at L’Argentière to show us the devastation.  Our wonderful clear blue river that we’d been paddling only 20 hours previously had become a raging torrent of chocolate coloured gunk with trees and other debris rushing down it – it had risen about 2 metres and all the wonderful playholes, stoppers, etc disappeared either entirely or mutated into horrific holes with jammed trees sticking out and, there were warning signs posted forbidding people to kayak as it was way too dangerous.  (Jim & Nikki – a wee piece of advice … for our second day this didn’t exactly boost our confidence!?)  They both made the wise decision to hold a flat water session on one of the Lakes nearby as all the rivers we drove past had distorted into rampant mud torrents.  We started with the basics (forward paddling, backward paddling, support strokes, rolls, etc) and worked hard undoing all the lazy habits we’d gotten used to.  Steph videoed us so that we could watch our own mistakes and see how we could improve and develop our techniques – this sounds like it was all hard work and no play, but there were loads of fun especially when the ball came out and we all fought over it – I think this was when Jim first realized we’d all naturally gang up against him!  That afternoon, we were allowed some time off and headed into Briançon for some shopping and icecream.


Tuesday 25th July – as the river levels were still extremely high, we drove to a different valley to try paddling the Upper Ubaye which is normally dried up at this time of year.  We put in at St Paul’s (get out was at Jaussiers) and all enjoyed this scenic grade 3 river – there were a couple of ‘interesting’ swims, notably Pauline’s impression of a continuous forward roll (helmet, feet, helmet, feet, etc) until Nikki & Jim intervened!  We all headed off separately and Joan (amongst others) worried when one car (driven by someone who’ll remain anonymous) took a slight wee detour and didn’t get back to the campsite until 9pm!


Wednesday 26th July – the weekend’s storm provided enough water for us to tackle the Lower Clarée – a fast scenic Grade 3 river with some annoying tree hazards that caught some of us off guard!


Thursday 27th July – today we paddled the Upper Guisane – a fast flowing Grade 4ish river with 250m of “S bend” rapids.  We eddied out and inspected it and all made the decision to run it in buddies.  There were two epic swims (thankfully no one hurt but a lost paddle) and those that survived intact (and upright) jibbered for hours about the amazing rapids from the pure adrenalin rush!


Friday 28th July – Jim and Nikki decided that since our group comprised of varying degrees of skills and competency, we’d split into two separate groups for the day.  Joan and Claire joined Nikki to experience the Middle Guil (account of it from them later) while myself, Pauline, Lynn and Kate initially went on a magical mystery tour of the French Alps with Jim – we took a look at the Grade 6 rapid on the Gyronde, looked at the Gyr and the Onde before finally heading down the valley to the Middle Durance.  This relatively easy Grade 2 river allowed Jim to hand over the leadership to myself and Pauline (and gave him the opportunity to cause mischief – never, ever believe Jim when he talks about rainy squalls, or “wait a sec – you’ve ripped your cag” or “you’re plug hole is out” as they all end up in one thing – getting very, very wet!  Mind you, we did get our own back on him … and not only with the loaded water pistols!)


Saturday 29th July – we all paddled the Gyronde today putting in below the Grade 6 rapid.  Jim and Nikki made me scout ahead and the others split into two groups and ran it by whatever method they’d agreed on (leapfrogging and eddy hopping with buddies, etc) - I’m still convinced Jim was trying to subtly get his own back from ‘drowning’ him yesterday as I’d to look out for a nasty weir that we’d all have to portage- fortunately the weir (with a nasty chunk of iron sticking out of it) and another tree hazard was spotted well in time.  After the tree & weir portage, Pauline was given the chance to scout ahead.  This wonderful river gave us all the chance to develop our leadership/teamwork skills whether we were scouting ahead or leading our own individual wee groups down the river to the slalom course at L’Argentière (which was still really high although now bluish in colour rather than chocolate brown!)  As this was officially the last day of the course (and Joan was leaving the next day), we all went out for an evening meal in La Roche-de-Rame.  Tales of epic adventures from the week flowed with the heady mix of good wine and excellent food – Jim even managed to live out one of his ‘fantasies’ … just picture this … Jim walking through the streets of France and dining with eleven young females surrounding him (his ‘harem’) – the looks he got from the French men said it all!


Sunday 30th July – Claire joined Jim and Nikki to paddle the Lower Durance while the rest of us had the day off swimming in the Lake near to La Roche-de-Rame.


Monday 31st July – for those of us who were left, today we put in at St Clément and paddled the Lower Durance culminating at the infamous Rabioux wave – my everlasting memory of this whole holiday will be Steph paddling just ahead of me, dropping down into the Rabioux wave and then shooting straight up for the moon as she ‘tail-ied’ big time!


Tuesday 1st August – Jim took us up to the Middle Guil and seven of us (myself, Steph, Sarah, Pauline, Claire, Kate and Jim) paddled this excellent Grade 4 river – I think this was my favourite river as it’s like a non-stop slalom course with lots of drops and boulders to navigate around and I’d have loved to do this stretch of river over and over again all week long!


Wednesday 2nd August – our last day of paddling so we headed back to the slalom course at L’Argentière.  I’m not sure if it was exhaustion from a week and a half of paddling or too much wine the night before, but most of us only managed to run the course twice (Jim didn’t even venture near his kayak!)


On behalf of all the participants of this course (Joan, Claire, Lynn, Pauline, Kate and myself) I’d like to thank both Nikki and Jim for all their hard work, time and patience, and skill at hastily re-planning our week due to the storm and consequent high river levels – for Nikki’s beaming radiant smile as she lead us on the rivers, her calm demeanour, the ‘smiley faces’ and chants of “we’re big fat hairy bastards” to boost our confidence on rapids – and, for Jim’s perseverance that he’s not living in denial … how can one man lose so much stuff, ‘accuse’ everyone about it (even blaming first us, then ‘dogs’, then ‘wolves’, followed rapidly by ‘bears’ about nicking his socks!), then ‘find’ it all and claim he knew exactly where it was in the first place and we were the ones in denial for thinking he’d lost it … ok, I admit it must have been human hands that put his knickers in someone else’s car but it certainly wasn’t one of us!  Anyway, there’s loads of stories of epic thrills on the rivers and tales of après kayaking that haven’t been mentioned (like Steph’s roasting chickens!) so catch up with one of us for more (except Jim of course who’ll claim he’s got the ‘real’ truth – Jim … just accept it - how can eleven women be wrong?!?)


June McMillan