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?
Like any adventure ours becomes a gamble, undertaking our three-day, 31 Mile float in the wake of a big European low-pressure system. It’s a storm that swelled the Tarn to twenty-five times its summer flow, and even now two days afterwards, the river is still running three times its usual volume for May. Racing, dark brown waters meet our gaze as I stand with Julbo-Mavic riders Clementz and Fred Horny at the spot where we will begin our descent the next day. We survey the slick waters as they nudge and bend half-submerged willows and swirl persuasively around rocks the size of VW bugs. Come summer, the gorge would echo with the carefree fun of families tumbling from rented sit-on-top kayaks into the friendly embrace of the clear warm waters of a French tourism hotspot. Okay, today’s incarnation is no raging White Nile or Red Bull extreme paddle event, but it is a different world to that pictured on the regional tourist office website. “I think tomorrow’s paddle will be a quick one,” says Clementz.
With so many unknowns to come we first reach for solace to be found in familiarity, grabbing our bikes for a late afternoon loop around one of the Tarn’s most iconic viewpoints, the Cirque du St Chely. It doesn’t disappoint, at least from a geological angle. Fifteen hundred feet above the river we soak in the drama of a vast natural amphitheatre chiselled out by millennia of simple physics in action: the dogged determination of water under the influence of gravity. Now far below us a meandering Tarn twinkles innocently in the early evening light, its rapids muted by distance. The trail we ride back down is far from singletrack, almost a dirt road, but it flows well enough to harness familiarity and re-establish order; for an evening at least, we are back in control.
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.
The old adage says there’s a first time for everything, so perhaps bike-rafting a French river was inevitable, especially given the pandemic-restrictions on the type of long haul travel that typically frames wild-themed adventures and their subsequent editorial buy outs. Certainly packrafts are more associated with remote expeditions than a mere float between manicured riverside campgrounds (some even with pools) but the mainstream stage for our adventurous play does little to kill the pang of anxiety when we finally launch our rafts. We are after all, packraft virgins.
But whatever the apprehension felt as we push off into the enthusiastic current beneath the tiny village of Blajoux, there’s always something exciting about the moment you commit to an unknown ahead. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you can only truly relish a ‘first time’ once, or perhaps it’s the realisation that the hours ahead will be spiked with adrenaline as you navigate through an inevitable maze of instant decision-making situations. It’s why I love to explore and ride trails in lesser-known parts of the world, no matter how complicated they are to find, or how much hike-a-bike they demand. It’s the buzz of discovery, of the ‘first-time’, of reacting to whatever unknown appears before you.
A swift current whisks us along effortlessly between sets of easy rapids that leap from every bend in the river, each helping build confidence in our laden boats’ stabilities and shelving earlier concerns over their manoeuvrability. We stream past clusters of medieval buildings that cling to cliff faces, and below ruined castles that have long given up the battle with the choking desires of twisted creepers. And we drift around simmering eddies, overshadowed by towering canyon walls blanketed lime green by early summer Beech.
We make short work of the seven miles to our first take-out just below the village of St Enimie; but it’s far enough for us to take stock and feel comfortable with our rafts, without paddling time compromising pedalling time. Finding that balance was key when planning our trip, and I had found myself pouring over a 1:25000 map that showed a long curvaceous river and dozens of trails radiating from it, including a 50 Mile long trail through the gorge itself that led between riverside campgrounds. As I typed invites to Horny and Clementz, it was starting to look like the simplest adventure I’ve ever planned.
I remind myself of that thought when I’m peering off the edge of the canyon later on that first afternoon. Below me our chosen trail disappears into a void, swallowed by an impossibly ambitious gradient. Somewhere far below our boats sit beached on the banks of a star spangled river. “Heck of a start,” I think, worrying that every trail we’ve highlighted on the map might prove to be as equally steep and committing. One by one we edge into a sheer rock garden, testing both grip and nerves for as long as we dare, picking our way down fifty feet of hostile outcrops on loose, foot-wide trail. “The Tarn boasts a couple of hundred Kilometres of trails to choose from, so why did we pick this one?” I wonder, ironically just as the unrideable yielded to a perfect ribbon of singletrack cutting back and forth across the steep hillside. Of course my map has warned of what we might encounter, showing the gorge as a V of tightly packed contour lines; a dark slash across a vast, rolling plateau. Follow a trail on that same plateau and you can ride for hundreds of miles across central France. Focus on the canyon itself and you’ll find a wealth of brake searing descents each earned by some lung and leg thumping climbs.
We roll from our descent with faces now stretched by grin bubbles, the fickle frustration of down-climbing rocks so easily forgotten when overwritten by the endorphin rush of fast, clattering corners and front wheel pull-ups. Back among St Enimie’s cobbled streets, our dust-caked sweat mingles with the laundry detergent overtones of meandering tourists lost in a world of ice creams dropped and selfies snapped among the village’s medieval stonework. The appeal of ice creams is swapped for that of local beer back at our campground, glad that sunshine has chased off threatening clouds that could have added to the river’s exuberant flow. “The level is too high to allow canoe rentals,” explains a woman from a nearby outfitter, about why we seem to have the whole river to ourselves, as if the swirling waters weren’t explanation alone.
Choosing the Tarn for our inaugural packraft experience was helped by its mellow reputation, it having only one obligatory portage —a churning series of siphons called the Pas de Soucis that we shuttle gear around by bike on our third day. We weren’t looking for ‘extreme’ from our adventure, hoping to find that drama in the setting instead. Right from the start we become immersed in thickly layered landscapes that force us to break the cardinal rule of descents, interrupting energetically fast gravity charges to pause and soak in the views across renaissance grand masters. On the water we crane our necks to peer upwards, scouring the rock faces for sights of huge vultures. We roll alongside the river, tyres digging deep into silty loam as we work a natural pump track that weaves through jungle-like forest, and we dig paddles into waters that run clearer with every passing hour. We shoulder state of the art carbon bikes up ancient switchbacks that were once the domain of mules, to climb high above empty castles that once hung with flags. Here in this plunging gorge we experience myriad opportunities to contemplate line choices and flow, and one to be reminded of the consequences of mistakes.
One by one we edge into a sheer rock garden, testing both grip and nerves for as long as we dare, picking our way down fifty feet of hostile outcrops on loose, foot-wide trail.
A roar signals the approach of a drop ahead. It becomes audible just as we float under a warning sign nailed to a tree — a paint daubed zigzag that indicates the safe canoe route over La Malene’s weir. The five-foot high, forty-five degree ramp ahead becomes our adventure’s only mishap. I launch over it and dig my paddle deep into the foaming water that checks my raft at the bottom. Jerome follows, clawing his way from the innocuous looking flat stopper, but Fred is caught in the back tow and his raft becomes pinned sideways in the bottom of the weir. Having lost his paddle, he leans downstream and frantically sculls with his hands to keep his raft, still strapped with bike and gear, from flipping —something that would be more a major hassle, than life-threatening.
Nearly fifty feet away and with his back to me, each of my throwline attempts fail to land in Fred’s hands. Meanwhile the Tarn continues to pour over the weir and onto the raft below, watched by a gathering crowd on the village quayside opposite, their shouts drowned by the roar of tumbling water. I re-stuff my throwbag for the fifth time when suddenly an excursion powerboat appears from downstream, and surging up the waves, effortlessly plucks Fred and his raft from danger to deposit them on the village quayside. In seconds the powerboat skipper disappears downstream again, slipping away to await his summer job of shuttling tourists downriver rather than rescuing compatriot mountain bikers.
Cold, wet and tired but still smiling, Fred gulps down a hot coffee that’s appreciatively offered, along with a replacement paddle, by a nearby canoe rental service. Fred circumnavigated Russia’s Mount Elbrus with me a couple of years earlier so I know it takes a lot to shake him, but the mishap reminds us that adventures, no matter where, are littered with curve ball moments. We hadn’t come with any expedition claims in mind, or with any specific wish to be pushed much outside our comfort zones, just to float down a river between rides; but our appetite for looking for adventure in the unlikely setting of a French tourist hotspot had led us into new experiences all the same. As we push off from La Malene’s quayside into the remainder of our three-day descent, I’m now itching to see what comes next. Whether we’re exploring the river or the trails that cling to the steep canyon walls that tower over it, we know there are more line choices and lots more flow to find; I have found convergence.
Riding the Tarn: The Lozere region around the Tarn boasts hundreds of Miles of trails, including a dozen singletrack descents into the gorge of varying difficulty. All are shown on French IGN map 2640-OT. Parts of long-distance trails like the GR60 can be built into rides and the 900 mile-long, dedicated MTB route Grand Traverse of the Massif Central (GTMC) finishes at the Gorge. Riding is possible all year. There are 22 campsites along the river, most with on-site cafes and pizzerias, and some with cabins to rent as well. See www.lozere-tourisme.com for more info.
Packrafting 101: Packrafts are small, stable, tough inflatable rafts that pack down as tiny as 20×30 centimeters when deflated and weigh as little as 2Kg (4.5lb). Very portable, they’re ideal for paddling rivers and lakes as part of a point-to-point hike or bike trip and their high buoyancy means they’ll haul camping kit (in dry bags) as well as a bike. We used the single Gaia rafts and lightweight 4-piece paddles from www.jaws-company.com