Spotting seals at the Westerschelde

Autumn, start of the packrafting season. Little rain has fallen this autumn causing low water levels in the Ardennes rivers. Plan B is flat water in the Netherlands: the Westerschelde.

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Saturday we’ve explored a part of the Verdronken Land van Saeftinge (“the Lost Land of Saeftinge”), on Sunday the Plaat van Ossenisse. Small packrafts floating among big ocean-going vessels.

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Eastern winds cause low temperatures. People we meet on the beach ask if it’s not too cold for sailing and if we’re taking the currents into account. They seem to think packrafting in these conditions is extreme?

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Back on the beach we find a more extreme activity. A man undresses and goes into the water in his swimming shorts. On the beach he leaves behind a pile of clothes and his shoes. After a minute of adjusting to the cold he dives into the water. No dry-suit, no wet-suit, no beer-belly with insulating fat. Fifteen minutes later he’s back on the beach, still healthy. Amazing.

And the seals… they choose swimming over sunning on a breezy sandbank. We’ve counted around ten seal heads appearing out of the water. Are we curious to see seals or are the seals curious to see these inflatable intruders?

Photographs

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Packraft course of The Low Countries*

The packrafting scene in Europe is growing! The Swedish Packrafting Roundup (Jacob) (Konstantin) was organized in May, now is the time for the packraft course of The Low Countries* followed by a tour on the Allier.

Surviving white water

We meet Servaes Timmerman at the camp site in R√©otier. He’ll teach us about white water. It will be his first impression of packrafts, for a number of us it will be a first encounter with white water.

The course is best described in pictures and a small anecdote:
On the third day of the course we’re on the Ubaye. Servaes goes to an eddy and tells us to disembark and scout the next stretch of the river: we need to determine our own line in a river filled with a number of big boulders. Servaes will take pictures at the end of the boulders. I leave the boat and climb onto a big boulder. Jan-Ivo just finished scouting and passes by in his yellow packraft.

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The rest looks easy, I don’t look any further and walk back to re-enter the water. The part I’ve just scouted is not that difficult. At the end of the stretch the noise of the river rises. A rapid…
I round the last boulder and see the rapid. I see Servaes sitting on top of big a boulder. At that moment thoughts come to mind: “Of course Servaes is waiting at the most exciting part of the river.” The most exciting part, the part I didn’t scout…

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Two things I’ve learned this course that I won’t forget:
1. Kayakers are lazy.
2. How to eat French bread without hurting your palate.
… and maybe a thing or two about paddling technique. ūüėČ

Cowboycamping along the Allier

Splendid days, hot, 30C. It’s a pleasure to be engulfed by cold water once in a while. The Allier is a varied river, quiet stretches alternated by wilder water, sometimes wide, sometimes so small that one packraft barely fits. We’re rafting all day and bivvy along the river. Cooking on the bonfire and sleeping under the stars, what more does a man want.

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Maybe it’s not only the kayakkers that are lazy…

*) The Low Countries is the name of Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and a small part of France during the Middle Ages. The people that participated consisted of Belgians and Dutchmen.

Packrafting Schweiz

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Ingredients of a weekend full of fun in the water:
– Beautiful surroundings, preferably with autumn colors.
– Good people joining.
– Sun!
– Enough water in the rivier and a sufficient number of rapids.
– Wood fire to warm oneself in the evening.

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All ingredients were perfectly mixed in our trip to the Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein in Switzerland.

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Photographs

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Video

Alaska rocks

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Two Cheechakos* travelling to the last Frontier

Most of our travelling we’ve done in Europe. This time we’re leaving for the other side of the world, to the last Frontier, the last wilderness: Alaska.

A frontier is never a place; it is a time and a way of life. Frontiers pass but they endure in their people.
– Hal Borland

We came here to experience this wilderness, the vastness that we don’t know in the small and crowded Europe. No map does justice to this vastness. We’re used to bring maps with a scale of 1:25 000, now we used maps with a scale of 1:225 000, the scale of a road map. We start to grasp the feeling of this scale when we leave Anchorage. At the end of the Knik Arm the landscape suddenly opens up: we enter a plain and see the mountains in the north. It takes over an hour by car before arriving at the foot of the mountain range. In the same amount of time we’ll pass through half of the Netherlands back home.

Later we walk the Kesugi Ridge east of the highest mountain of North America, Denali. A huge forest and the wide Chulitna river is located between the ridge and the Denali massif. Denali has its own micro climate like so many high mountains and wraps itself in fog and rain clouds for two-thirds of the time. We have been walking here for two days and could have had some beautiful views on the mountain, if only the mountain feels like taking off its thick grey coat. We only saw the foothills and some big glaciers. When Mount Hunter pierces through the fog, our jaws drop: We had no idea that such a mighty mountain was hidden in the clouds!
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The next morning we walk back up to the ridge. We talk about last night: the loud wind made the tent fabric flap all night. That same wind luckily also brought us clear skies, the sun shines. Upon arrival at the ridge we receive the view we’ve hoped for the last days: Denali, almost one-and-a-half times higher than yesterday’s impressive Mount Hunter. We’re flabbergasted, how could this unbelievably high mountain have been hiding behind a few lousy clouds the previous days?

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This exceeds our feeling of scale. We spontaneous decide to stay one day longer at Byers Lake, such an impression the landscape makes. When we’re in Talkeetna, 60 miles from here, Denali still towers above the landscape. Impressive.

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It’s not only nature that impresses us at this side of the world. We’ve been touched most by the people here, but more on that later.

The Alaskan people are a population generally set apart by their unrestrained spirit and ability to make life happen in a most delightful manner under the some of the most un-delightful circumstances.
– Bob Huck

*) Cheechako, greenhorn, newcomer to the North (term developed during the Klondike years).

Bears

In Europa, we humans are always at the top of the food chain: all animals are afraid of us. The few bears that are left there are so shy that they are scared of their own shadows. Things are different in Alaska, that’s why we’ve been preparing well for bear country. Preparing is one thing, being there, experiencing and feeling it is something else.

We drive to our starting point near Kings River by shuttle bus. Don is our driver, baseball cap, big beard, checkered shirt and a little belly. He likes to talk a lot and tells a lot of jokes. “Hey guys, you know the difference between scat from a black bear and that of a grizzly? No? Black bear’s scat is filled with seeds, berries, etc. Grizzly’s is filled with bear bells, bear spray, hiking boots, …” He’s the one who laughs the loudest.

It’s still morning when we start walking to the woods. A thick forest. The wind blows and the leaves rustle. I can smell the pines. Though everything looks normal, our brains work overtime. Where are the binoculars? Is that a tree trunk over there or is it an animal? Do we have to use the bear bell here? In our heads the forest turns into an alley with big hairy monsters behind every bush, ready to scare the wits out of us. We see footprints and scat. Then we arrive at the fording place of the Kings River.

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The idea is walk higher than the tree line the first day. That we won’t reach today. Charissa hasn’t had a relaxed moment the last hours. Let alone she’s able to enjoy this rough scenery. We take the tough decision to abandon the tour we’ve prepared so well and return to the tarmac.

While returning I immediately see a change in Charissa. She’s already more relaxed now, almost relieved, while we walk the same trail as just before. The feeling of this impenetrable forest is hard to image and impossible to approach rationally. Tom Waes once said: “Bear country, land of light sleep.”

We return and are being helped with making new plans. We’ll be walking more open terrain and we will meet some more people there. “More” in a relative sense. We’ll meet four people per day at most.

We walk the Resurrection Trail and are out of water. Fresh water is never far away, the trail runs along the Resurrection Creek. Charissa goes to get some water. “I see a bear, a black one!” The bear didn’t see us yet, we’re downwind so he didn’t smell us. He’s only about fifty yards away on the other side of the creek, he’s also thirsty. We shout but he still doesn’t notice us. He did hear something, but doesn’t know what, because he stands up tall to get a better view. The moment he sees us, he rushes off. We see the bushes shake a dozen yards from the riverbank when he runs through them. We’ve seen a bear, and he reacts exactly according to the book.

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Bear country, land of light sleep.
– Tom Waes

I’ve had two moments of being ready to use my bear spray: the first time when I was getting some things from the tent and I was being sneaked upon by a dog. He suddenly emerged from the bushes with a lot of noise. Before I realized I was outside of the tent, bear spray ready in my hand. Later his owner said: “Maybe we should give him a bear bell, he has the tendency to sneak upon people.” Maybe a good idea indeed, for his own sake.

The second time I was squatting behind a bush to provide it with the necessary manure, when I heard a drumming noise. It sounded just like some heavy animal running towards me at full speed. I look up the mountain (pants still to my ankles) and I have the bear spray ready in my hand again. Nothing. When I look the other way I see Charissa cleaning her packraft from sand and small stones before packing. To remove the stones she drums on the bottom of the packraft with her hands…

At the beginning of the Resurrection Trail we meet an old Alaskan guy on a bicycle. “You guys have some bear protection with you? Just saw some blackies down the road, big ones.” He must have scared them away, because we didn’t see them. Or it was some fine Alaskan humour.

Sourdoughs*

Before visiting Alaska we only knew the country from the Discovery Channel: prospectors, tuna fishermen, loggers, rough people in a rough country. How wrong could we be.

[…] it is the people of the place and the joy filled insanity that gave me years of adventure and laughter and who are the source of the memories that truly make my heart of hearts smile with abundance and an awesome gratitude.
– Bob Huck

There is no public transport by bus and only one rail road. When we wanted to go back to Anchorage from our first tour there was no other possibility than to hitch-hike. When making plans for later tours we get the advice: “You should hitch-hike your way across Alaska. It is easy, a lot of fun and you’ll meet a bunch of interesting people.” It couldn’t be more true.

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The first day of our first trail was long, hard and filled with bear stress. We hitch-hiked our way to Palmer, one city before arriving in Anchorage. In theory we could have been in Anchorage within one hour. In practise we’ve tried to get a ride for over an hour without luck. We were exhausted and ready to look for a place to pitch our tent and try our luck tomorrow. Exactly at that moment a car pulls over and we met a guy who drives 90 miles to Anchorage and back, while living only fifteen minutes down the road. We were unbelievably grateful meeting him.

In total we’ve hitch-hiked nine times, almost 250 miles. All rides were with locals, the tourists in RVs all passed. We notice that the locals genuinely like giving you a ride and are interested to hear what you have been doing, where you’re from and how life is there. They, in turn, tell about their country, what they do and are proud of that. Maybe it’s the large distances between the villages, the ever changing weather, the strong hand of nature in this country that makes that people are more dependent upon each other and more willing to help each other (and two backpackers). For us this was a great experience and wonderful to meet so many people that are so open and proud of their country.

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*) Sourdough, an old-timer in Alaska, a name that came from the fermented dough used by prospectors who didn’t have yeast.

A Word of Thanks

Alastair Humphreys once wrote: “Most of my memories of people are from the briefest of connections.” This journey our path has crossed the paths of numerous other people we would like to thank and although they were the briefest of connections these encounters will always be engraved in our memories.

Casey, thank you very much for the incredible ride at a moment that we were so exhausted.
Base Camp Anchorage: Eric, Nate, Ole, thanks for the great care, ideas for new trails and lending some walking poles when ours were gone.
Patrick & Harlow, thank you for the lighter when the one we brought broke, for the good ideas and the hospitable invite.
Terri, thanks for pulling over in the pouring rain to give two paddlers, wet to the skin, a ride.
Joel, thank you for the numerous inspiring talks over coffee.

Photographs

Click here to see all photographs.

Video

(English subtitles available via the CC button.)

Bibliography

Several maps of the surroundings of the Talkeetna Mountains
1 : 63000
Available from http://store.usgs.gov/

Maps of Alaska
DeLorme Alaska Atlas & Gazetteer
1 : 300000 tot 1 : 1200000
ISBN 0-89933-289-7

222: Denali National Park
National Geographic Trails Illustrated
1 : 225000

Backcountry Bear Basics, second editions
The mountaineers books
Dave Smith
ISBN 978-1-59485-028-8

Trails we walked

Trail along King River
Coastal Trail (by bicycle) in Anchorage
Around Spencer Lake, then packrafting Placer River
Resurrection Trail from Hope to Cooper Landing
Mount Marathon
Lost Lake Trail and Primrose Trail from Seward to Primrose
Kesugi Ridge Trail

21 amphibians on the Semois

It’s spring, the time for our yearly packrafting weekend with our Flemish friends of Hiking Advisor. This weekend we are found on the Semois.
We took our drysuits. As an experiment we’re going to use them as rain clothes as well, when needed. Of course it’s needed: whens leaving it is raining, so we dress in our sweat suits and walk to the Semois.

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We put off the backpacks, eat and inflate packrafts. The green meadow is brightened with yellow, red, green and blue rafts. The first “rapid” can be seen from here which nourishes the doubt for some of the novices.

The weir at Cugnon is located a few kilometres downstream. After inspection and explanation of Joery and Willem a big part of the group crosses the weir over water. “It’s quite okay, how big is the chance that you have to swim over there?” At the moment the question is asked, it looks like a very remote chance. A few minutes later someone’s swimming in the water.

During the break we ascent the viewpoint and caves of Saint-Remacle. It’s only a short stretch to the bivouac zone from here.

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We learn some things: Taking charcoal with you for barbecuing is a great idea for a weekend trip. There are many ways to bivouac, with a tent, a tarp or just using a packraft, some wood and a piece of aluminium foil.
Raindrops and the first mosquitoes are scared away by the camp fire. Being together around the fire we discuss cultural differences and exchange practical advices. Now we know why Debbie takes a Dutchman to the woods.

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We wake up in fog which disappears quickly when the sun starts shining. We continue our sailing in beautiful weather. Between Dohan and Bouillon we eat in lovely sunshine. The last part on the water we build one big floating circle with all 21 packrafts, that just fits in the Semois. Arriving in Bouillon we build a leaning tower of Pisa with as many packrafts as possible.

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Hiking Advisor, thanks again for organising this great event.

The idea of the packraft tripod is based on the one from the Deliverance team. A great idea, tack!

Semois at Bouillon: waterheight 71 cm and flow 19 m3/s

Photographs

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Video

Chez Bertrand, la deuxi√®me fois cette ann√©e

When the last rainshowers leave the area, we start driving to our neighbours in the south. Last spring we started the GR571, Vallée des Légendes. Coloring leaves on the trees and a good weather forecast for the next days is a nice excuse to continue this route.

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We leave the car in Trois-Ponts and walk along the Salm. A sneak preview for what we will encounter when we want to packraft this creek later this week.

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The first night we do a painful discovery: our stove breaks down. We eat lukewarm macaroni and have no option to cook hot tea the next day.

We continue to Gouvy the next morning and return to the car. For the second time this year we eat at Bertrands, the well-known, local frieterie (sort of mobile snackbar) in Trois-Ponts. Like aways, it’s very busy.

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The next day we arrive at the railway station at ten. Twenty past ten the train to Vielsalm will leave. Nineteen past ten an announcement is made. “Le train √† Luxembourg […] de dix heures vingt […] Excusez-moi” We don’t understand everything that has been said. Something is said about the train we would like to catch, but what exactly, we missed. We wait for another five minutes and then walk back into the railway station. Previously three other people were waiting there, but now the railway station is empty. We find someone from the railway who tells us the train will not come.

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Maybe a bus will leave in twenty minutes. According to the timetable route 142 will leave, but the sign near the busstop only indicates route 42a. We’re lucky, the bus arrives and this one will head for Vielsalm.

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According to Ardennes’ terms the Salm is quite small and fast flowing. Contrary to most other rivers no canoes can be rented here. Fallen trees are therefore not cleared. For a few hours we enjoy the packrafting. We find seven floating soccer balls and have to step out of the packraft for six times to walk past fallen trees. One time the cows like us that much that they start running with us for two hunderd meters.

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Water flow at the Salm: 3.2 m3/s. Barely enough for packrafting. We didn’t get stuck, but scratched the river floor quite some times.

Click here to see all photographs.

Bibliography
GR571, Vallées des Légendes Amblève, Salm, Lienne
Topo-Guide du Sentier de Grande Randonnée
ISBN 2-9600450-6-8

IGN Carte Topographique, 1:50 000, No 55: Durbuy
IGN Carte Topographique, 1:50 000, No 56-56A: Sankt Vith

Monkey climbing over the Swalm

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Sunday afternoon, halfway through October. 23C has been measured at de Bilt, the highest temperature since people started to jot down this list in 1901.

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It’s a beautiful afternoon to raft on the Swalm. One of the few patches of nature in the Netherlands with the least amount of human intervention.

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The Swalm feels like monkey climbing in elementary school. A high level of flexibility is desired.

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Click here to see all photographs.

Route
It takes forty-five minutes to get from the railwaystation in Swalmen to the border with Germany. Expect a lot of fallen trees, you’ll need to get out of your boat quite regularly. The sailing will take longer than expected.
The water level was 37 cm when we ran it.

Taming the green Llama

‘Bitter water’, I think, when I swallow a mouth full of water from the Markkleeberger See. Why is the reptile part of my brain so fast and so powerful? Why does it take a while for the more intelligent parts of my brain to kick in and take over? We’re at the Kanupark Markkleeberg where they pump 10000 litres of water per second through a concrete gully. No man can drink that fast.

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Just a few more white crests before the current spits me out in the small and quiet lake. This morning we started our packraft course by practising different paddlestrokes. After the basic paddlestrokes our instructor, Jurgen, took us to the grassfield to practise with throwbags and to explain how to rescue someone. Of course we not only practise on dry land. The sun starts to shine forcefully on our drysuits, we’re allowed cool down in the water. In the afternoon we use the boats again to put into practise what we’ve just learnt. Not only the paddling part, also the swimming part we’ve just learnt.

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Kanupark Markkleeberg is situated near Leipzig. It used to be an open coal mine like more that can be found in this part of Germany. The coal mine has been flooded with ground water and converted into a recreational area. The Kanupark was meant for the Olympic summer games of 2012, but those were eventually held in London. Now the parc is a training location. It consists of 130 metres of training course and 270 metres of competition course. The training course is mainly in use to learn how to kayak, the competition course is used for commercial rafting and by playboats.

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The training course is well suited to learn how to packraft. It is well equipped with eddies, stoppers, drops, etc. The competition course is mainly about surviving. There’s one point where one can rest in this 270 metres of constant boiling and pushing water. Good for a well-filled day of water fun.

Film

*) Licking the lens is a well-known trick to have fewer drops of water stick to the lens.

Bogs, moorland and a dinghy on the Dee

“We had an early departure and are being helped by a nice tailwind. Our navigation computer indicates that we will arrive at Aberdeen about fifteen minutes before schedule”, says our KLM captain. In reality we arrive five hours later on Aberdeen airport: the Scottish weather covered the airport in a thick blanket of fog, divirting our flight to Glasgow. From there it takes another three hours to get to Aberdeen by bus.

The weather is actually quiet nice here. Aberdeen is covered in fog, but the rest of Scotland is sunny. A day later than planned we get off the train in Aviemore. It’s starting to get sunny while we walk to the start of the Lairig Ghru.

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Lairig Ghru.

The Lairig Ghru is one of the paths crossing the Cairngorms from north to south. The next few days we will be walking through the Cairngorms to the source of the river Dee. Then we will inflate our packrafts and paddle back to sea, about one hunderd kilometers.

“You are going to do what? Walk from here to the Dee and then paddle back to sea? Haha, I feel better already!”

We end our day just after the Pools of Dee in a drizzle. When dusk arrives around nine o’clock, we see two women and a dog approach. They left Aviemore this morning to walk to Devil’s End and back. Perhaps a bit too far for one day, they tell us with a smile. “No, we’re not going to camp, tomorrow we’ll have to be at work.” They have enough energy bars and a good torch with them. As long as they will have left the Pools of Dee behind them before the dark. From the Pools is a good path back to Aviemore. The only thing lacking are dog cookies. Dog Skye hasn’t been eating all day. They ask for our plans and burst out laughing: “You are going to do what? Walk from here to the Dee and then paddle back to sea? Haha, I feel better already!” When we get into our sleeping bags, they’re walking back to Aviemore.

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Scottish grouse.

The famous day two, when the muscles speak up, is being accompanied by the famous grouse. We see the Scottish grouse everywhere, but in real life they’re a bit less elegant than shown in the whisky commercial from 2008. Today there’s not a cloud in the sky and this night we look a bit more red than usual. No, we didn’t take suncream with us.

A number of times we meet people of the National Trust for Scotland. When, after leaving the Cairngorms, we arrive at Mar Lodge we meet someone from the National Trust who is doing the maintenance of the estate. He takes the time to have a chat with us. He asks for our plans and tells about last winter. The enthusiastic way of talking displays a pride for Scotland and a pride of his work here. He wishes us good luck and success and goes his way on his quad.

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Mar Lodge.

At Victoria Bridge we inflate our packrafts. For one second we were doubting our schedule. We lost half a day by the divirsion of our airliner, but the beautiful weather guided us through the Cairngorms faster than expected. It should still be possible to reach the sea. The Dee at this point is wider than we expected, the water level is high enough and even where the river is wide there is a nice current. When paddling you don’t notice the current that much, but it is secretly helping a lot. In no-time we’ve passed Braemar, where we have to land. Just after Braemar a wild fence has been put over the Dee. In our guidebook it was written that a kayak-sized hole would be present in the fence. It has been repaired, no hole anymore. We land our packraft, lift our gear over the fence and drop in the Dee again.

Unexpectedly fast we arrive at Invercauld Bridge, class 3 according to our guidebook. As we’ve been taught, we get out of the river to scout the rapid. We discuss which line to sail and try to imprint the marks in our heads: “Just right of the big rock in the beginning, that’s the gate. Then follow the large V of black water and stay right of the white water.” Later this week we can do some more rapids. We enjoy each of them, they’re not too difficult.

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Packrafting river Dee.

“Hi there, how are you? Was it you, camping on the riverbank a few hunderd meters back? Beautiful spot, good choice!”

At the start of the Dee, the river is tranquil and wide. After Ballater the river becomes narrower and more rapids emerge. That’s where the fishermen are, in almost every bend there are one or two fishing. The banks of the Dee is decorated with a lot of small fishing cabins. Some shiny new, others almost taken back by nature and all have a woodstove. Because of the large amount of fishermen, we find it difficult to find a spot for our tent. When we finally pitch our tent after a cold, rainy day, we’re really glad to sit in a dry environment and have dinner. It’s the disadvantage of bad weather, we take almost no break and don’t eat many energy bars. Having the shelter of a tent and dinner simmering on our stove is real happiness then. Though the wind is blowing hard and we’re sleeping on bumpy patch of ground, we both sleep like a log.

We thought we wouldn’t be noticed in a green tent, pitched behind some bushes. The next morning we start to paddle and within a few minutes we meet the first fisherman of the day. “Hi there, how are you? Was it you, camping on the riverbank a few hunderd meters back? Beautiful spot, good choice!” The next fisherman tells us exactly the same a few minutes later!

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From Peterculter the Dee becomes wider again and more tranquil. Just before arriving in Aberdeen we see two otters playing in the water. It was a week filled with beautiful, rough landscapes, we’ve seen deer, many swallows and oyster catchers and lots of small birds. Although there are small villages next to Dee, civilization can’t be seen easily until you’re almost in Aberdeen.

Click here to see all photographs.

Film

Route
Aviemore
Old logging road
Lairig Ghru
Mar Lodge
River Dee tot Aberdeen

Water level Dee: 0.7 m – 0.8 m

Bibliography
36, Grantown & Aviemore
Landranger Map
1:50 000

37, Strathdon & Alford
Landranger Map
1:50 000

38, Aberdeen
Landranger Map
1:50 000

UK Rivers Guidebook
River Dee – Above Braemar to Potarch

UK Rivers Guidebook
River Dee – Potarch to Banchory

UK Rivers Guidebook
River Dee – Banchory to Aberdeen