You don’t have to be a World Champion to know about line choice; choose wisely and you enter a world shaped by smiles and endorphin highs; get it wrong and that world goes to shit in a mere second. From my vantage point, perched on a green-veneered boulder, I watch with bated breath as EWS champ Jerome Clementz makes his choices, steering his bike-laden packraft down a lumpy class-3 rapid. Like trail riding, paddling is all about line choice; but Clementz never claimed to a pro paddler.
His eight-foot raft bobs acrobatically through the wave train, water cresting and frothing like spilt prosecco over the boat’s bow and the bike that’s strapped to it. Peering over this tetris-like jumble of wheels, brake hoses and dry bags is a smile; the hole has been dodged, crisis averted, angst becomes laughter. Damn, this is proving to be a lot more fun than we’d anticipated.
Mastering a line and finding flow are addictive habits, and both weave a common thread through our gravity-infused passions, from dirt to snow. But for me, whose adolescence was flushed with competition kayaking, it is river paddling and trail riding that forge the strongest parallels and the greatest overlap in emotional rewards. But despite several decades of throwing myself at both, they never made the easiest bedfellows: each a master of its own domain becomes awkwardly cumbersome in the landscape of the other — like a parent and a teenager swapping playlists. But now, pounding the rapids of the Tarn Gorge, France’s own Grand Canyon, in packrafts rather than kayaks, and with bikes strapped to their bows, I’ve finally found the missing pieces. Of course, reaping the gravity-imbued paybacks from each comes with challenges, in this case, a lost paddle here and a throwline moment there; perhaps it would have been easier if the river weren’t in flood?