This weekend, Elizabeth and I joined the Windhappers kayak club on a whitewater ("wildwater" in Dutch) excursion. Elly, Annette, Paul, Jan, Han, Cees + and his girlfriend, Jacques, Elizabeth, and I piled into three cars (stacked high with whitewater boats) and road tripped to the Ardennes, a densely forested region in the south of Belgium. Two days of chilly but adventurous paddling, Belgian beers and other strange drinks, pepernoten, and glamping ("glamorous camping") ensued.
The Ardennes is a region of rolling hills, forests, rivers, and natural terrain. Most of the region falls in Belgium and Luxembourg, but parts are also in France and Germany. The highest point, Signal de Botrange, is 2,277 feet, so were not talking about huge mountains, but anything's huge compared to the Netherlands! The region was passed back and forth between European powers throughout its history, and was the site of three major battles during the World Wars, including the Battle of the Bulge. Today, it's mainly a region for forestry and tourism. All the villages look the same (I kept getting them confused), with a small stone church in the...
The kayaking part...
Day 1: Lesse River from Pont de Barbouillons to Chanly
On Saturday we all drove to the first put-in at Pont de Barbouillons, where Elly, Annette, Elizabeth, and I putzed around in the water while waiting for the others to shuttle cars to the take out in Chanly. We practiced some ferries and eddy turns. First, we had to translate all whitewater kayaking words from Dutch to English, and vice-versa, so we all improved our language skills. I'm planning to write another post with a list of Dutch-English kayaking word translations, so stay tuned!
We stopped for lunch ~1.5 hours later, at a small park with picnic tables. Jacques was there with his camera, snapping shots from atop the bridge. I ate my incredibly Dutch lunch (bread + cheese + hardboiled egg -- apparently called the "healthy sandwich" if you order it at a cafe), and the Dutch folks teased Elizabeth and I for eating vegetables (carrots/peppers). They claim to eat vegetables for dinner, but I have yet to see this!
At one point, the river split in two, and half of us went each way. It soon became clear that one branch was dammed. Elly, Paul, and I watched with amusement from below as Elizabeth, Jan, and Hans approached the top of the dam (ok, it was more of a sill). After some scouting, they determined it was safe to pass, and one by one they slid down the smooth dam face to the bottom. I admit, I was a bit jealous.
The takeout was just before a bridge in the village of Chanly. We changed into warm dry clothes (best part of kayaking), and Paul showed us his fantastic mini-van-trunk-changing-room-contraption.
The launch was within walking distance of the cabins. Elizabeth and I hung out on a narrow footbridge while we waited for the drivers to shuttle cars to the take-out point. A mother and son were washing their BMW at the river, which was quite amusing since they later drove up a dirt road to leave, and because the son was wearing the fanciest fur-lined sweater we'd ever seen.
The second day took us through a less-developed landscape, with woods on both sides. We saw many trees chewed-down by beavers. We also passed some cute cows, who greeted us with curiosity/confusion. It was clear that much of this region is in the logging industry, because thick/organized stands of relatively young trees alternated with freshly harvested fields of bare stumps. Gorgeous stands of green and golden pine trees alternated on the hillsides adjacent to the river. Sadly, Google is not telling me what the golden pine trees were, so you'll just have to believe they exist!
Close to the end, we found ourselves in a wide open calm area, with the rumbling sound of a waterfall in the distance. As we approached, we saw that it was another low dam. Jan and Hans scouted it out and pointed us towards a ramp-like structure on the far right side. All other parts of the dam were covered with concrete spikes to dissipate energy of the falling water. Luckily, none of us were "dissipated" in the process, though Elizabeth came close (not realizing there was a ramp). The dam/sill is marked on the map, below. We played in the surf behind the dam until we were too tired of paddling upstream.
We took out in a grassy field and carried our boats up a trail until we found the road. It was sad to say goodbye to the river, but hopefully we'll be back for more in the spring!
...photos! (click to enlarge)
Duration: ~4 hours each day
Distance: ~11 km each on the Lesse River and the Ourthe River (13.5 miles total)
Weather: Supposed to be rainy, but managed to avoid it both days, with the sun even showing itself once in a while!
The driving, camping, and drinking parts...
We unloaded piles of gear into three little fully-heated 4-bed cottages. The heated bathroom building was equipped with hot showers and vanities, 80s and 90s American soft rock playing gently over the loudspeakers. Minutes after arriving, everyone convened in the boys' cabin to share drinks and conversation. Elizabeth and I attempted to share an American camping classic: hot cider with rum. One Dutch person tasted it, and it was fully rejected by everyone. I will admit that it's a drink suited to cold environments, and sipping it in the toasty cabin was less appealing. Dutch snacks abounded (mini sausages, pepernoten, kruidnoten, and nuts), and we chatted late into the night. It was the most Dutch Elizabeth (American roomie from Michigan) had heard since moving to Europe. Elly told us about being one of the first Dutch girl scouts! Interestingly enough, Wikipedia tells me that nowadays, scouts in the Netherlands are now roughly 50%-50% male/female.
After paddling on Saturday, we enjoyed the hot showers and went to dinner at a nearby "frietkot," Au Bel Accueil. Most of the group ordered a massive hunk of meat (wild boar??) with fries and beer. I attempted to practice French by asking the waitress to describe some items on the menu. In true Dutch style, we paid the bill in the most precise way, down to the euro-cent, based on what each person had ordered. We went to the campground cantine for more beers, where US license plates were plastered on the walls. The owners visit the US or Canada each year to go skiing! Thanks to two beers, I woke up in the middle of the night urgently having to pee. I attempted to use the super-old-fashioned key to open the door, to no avail. Eventually, I decided to climb out the window rather than wake up a more key-capable person. No problem! It did feel a bit sketchy when I climbed back in through the window...