Sunday, 19 August 2012

On the Loire

Day 2: The Canoeing Starts

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On our first morning we take our breakfast in the cafe at the camp-site and then break camp. Kristine and I walk around to the canoe outfitters and try and get ourselves sorted for the canoe trip ahead. The guy doesn't speak English but eventually he figures out who we are, recognises that we have actually booked boats for a few days and then calls to get Cyril over. I don't know where Cyril is but he's the guy who we arranged via email for the hiring. It takes an age for him to get over here, but meanwhile we get some gear organised and arrange all our stuff in an assemblage of water-proof tubs. We get our life-jackets sorted too.

It turns out Cyril is keeping us waiting because we kept him waiting yesterday and he remarks that we should have called to say what time we were going to arrive. It's a bit mean of him to take umbrage like that but what can we do? I'm hopping about impatiently but Steve and Coral zoom off in the car to get some provisions. Eventually Cyril turns up and we eventually jump into the van to drive to the put-in. This turns out to be 200 yards down the island, but it is beyond a little set of rapids that run under the bridge.

We unload the canoes, good ol' Old Towns, and load them up with our gear and strap everything down with a variety of bungee cords. We've had a brief look at the map of the river and decided on a strategy to spread our journey over 3 days canoeing. Today we will attempt to get past Tours and find an island to camp on. In our keenness to get going I omit to do the safety drill and neither do I give Steve and Coral any rudimentary paddling advice. We'll do it as we go and practise when we get to an island or something. It's about 11am now and we have a long way to go. On the other hand the evenings are long and we can stretch our paddle into the cooler part of the day. In fact we are lucky with the weather as it is warm but not unbearably hot as I feared it might be. No sign of rain either.

So we pull out into the stream. I say stream, it's a massively wide river. The widest I've paddled on and sometimes it seems we are paddling in the middle of a lake. Underneath us the current is running quite fast and I estimate we will be doing about 6km an hour. We've got 80kms to do over the 3 days, so about 30 a day gives us about 5 hours paddling a day.

At first we paddle relatively close to one another as I try to give some basic instructions, on the paddling strokes, on keeping one on each side of the boat and on trying to keep the boat straight. It's inevitable that they zigzag a bit but they don't seem to mind and are soon getting the hang of things. After a hour we come across some small sand-banks and islands and decide to pull up on one for a spot of lunch. We spring into action and soon have a picnic spread all laid out on a blanket. Everything we need we have: Bread, Cheese, Sausage and Kristine's pickles. We also open a bottle of wine. This is the life.

After lunch we continue our drift downstream past the villages of Montlouis on one side and then Vouvray on the other. We get glimpses of small ch√Ęteaus and houses built into the cliffs (Troglodyte buildings). We've also been paddling for a while so we pull over on another small island. Steve complains of a sore bum He's not used to this canoeing lark!

We paddle on for a couple of hours until we reach the large town of Tours. Cyril had warned us that there is a small rapid at the Wilson Bridge and that we would have to portage around it. He'd given us a set of wheels to helps us do this. We passed under two other bridges before the old stone bridge came into view. Kristine and I paddled gingerly down the left bank as we approached it and then decided to back up to a ramp where we could start the portage. I decided to go and have a look at the rapid whilst the others sat in the boats and waited. It didn't look too bad to me and I thought it would be OK to run it. First however we could paddle down to a rocky beach just before the rapid and start the portage from there. It would be shorter! This would have been OK apart from the fact that a row of fishermen had lines out into the water and we have to paddle around them ... getting perilously close to the rapid as we did so. The fishermen inevitably shouted at us for disturbing their sleep! One of them even came across to us to shout. I shouted back that it was dangerous to expect us to give them a wide berth so close to a rapid. He turned back. I was expecting to take both boats through on a solo run but when I turned back after a pretty straightforward run through the rapid I saw that Steve had also decided to do it! And he did too! Even if he did spin out at the end. Eventually both boats were safely at the ramp on the far side of the rapid and we decided to take a break and sat down and had a beer from the conveniently close bar. Kristine and I also took a small walk into town to get some provisions and some sun-block stuff.

Suitably refreshed we started off again to find an island for the night to camp on. First, however, we had to get past the next bridge. I'd been told that this also had a small rapid but that it was usually passable on the right-hand side. Kristine and I approached it and I thought that the rapid didn't look like much. certainly not like the Wilson rapid. I chose the 2nd arch from the right and took our canoe down the V, but half-way down a smooth under-water rock almost tipped us and we rocked a bit before sliding away. I turned around and indicated frantically to Coral and Steve that they should try the right-most arch but it seems they were already committed to the same arch as us. We turned around to wait for them and they were almost through before that rock turned them sideways and spilt them into the river. Oops!

Luckily a handy sandbank was close to our boat and we paddled over and run our canoe aground before I hopped out into the stream to catch the debris! Coral was swimming in front with her paddle and came nicely around the back of me before it was safe for her to stand up and wade to the island. She was laughing and didn't seem too fazed by the experience. Steve meanwhile was swimming behind the boat (good man!) and gently pushing it towards us. Fairly soon we had the boat on the sand-bank, removed all the tied in tubs, and emptied it.  It looked like nothing was lost but later we discovered that a pack of water had gone overboard and that some loose clothes had drifted off too. Not a bad result though. It's a pity we got no photographs of the mishap.

So after a short break we got back on our horses and continued on our way. It's always a shock to find yourself in the river unexpectedly but at least the water was warm and they soon dried off in the sun.

We came across one island fairly soon but rejected it as being too close to the bridge and paddled on a little bit further before rounding the point of a tiny island and finding that there was space enough for a camping spot. This was it then. Beaver Island, as it came to be known. We unload the boats and choose our camping spots. We are on the point and Steve and Coral under the tree. The canoes are pulled up beyond our tent where the point narrows to about a yard. As long as the river doesn't rise in the night we'll be fine. Steve decorates the tree with some wet clothes. It seems one of the tubs leaked a little during the dip.

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When we are all set up Steve gets out the cooking apparatus and we get an instant meal going. I can't remember what it was. Pasta and Rice I think, but it's good, and we have wine and bread and cheese too. After our repast Coral decides that a fire would be a good idea and dives off into the undergrowth to find some fuel. It's easy to find. Winter debris is suspended in the trees a couple of yards high and it's bone dry. After making a hearth with a few stones a fire is soon blazing. As the sun goes down we watch an almost full moon rise. This is magical.

Steve H. in his wisdom decides to take a canoe out in the dark to photograph the moon and the camp-site from the river. Kristine is not impressed, but I don't stay out long and quickly rejoin the fireside party which is now aided by having some of the home-made Walnut Wine that Kristine has brought.

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After the fire burns low we retire to bed. In the night we hear some ominous splashes in the waters around the point of the island, just outside our tent. In the morning we decide it must have been beavers; hence the naming of the island. More prosaically they could have been large fish!