On days like these.

On days like these we go paddling. The Sesia river Italy.

We’ve been looking forward to this trip since Autumn of last year, the day is bright and sunny, people are excited and keen to get onto the water. Levels are good in the Alps, a late snowfall in February put down three to four meters of snow at altitude and we are benefiting with the highest waters I have seen in Italy in five visits.

Levels are also high in other areas of the Alps, shortly before we leave we hear and read news of the loss of Bren Orton, a world leading boater, in nearby Switzerland, does this weigh on our sub conscious, inevitably I think it does, its not all consuming, its not at the forefront of the mind, but, it’s there.

Days like these can bring joy and sorrow, the two almost living side by side, the highs are high whilst the lows plummet to depths we do not want to go to. So much goes unsaid, perhaps necessarily so. Issues off the river have no place on the river, even if river related. On days like these, focus, on the job in hand, for some its a return to the Sesia, for others an new experience, for all here it’s perhaps the thing we need in our lives to sustain us. It could be worse, we could just like watching people do stuff instead of getting involved ourselves.

The Job in hand this week, amongst the rivers is to enjoy, the challenge, to capture the moment in our minds and with the camera, I love this shot, Brian Clough dropping Landwasser waterfall on the Mastallone, nailing it.

Sesia River

We warm up on a chunky Sesia, clear waters under blue skies to let us get the feel for the water and the levels. I christen the Zet, having bought it new on return from Ecuador earlier in the year. Some are in half slices and I don’t envy them, with these levels and the steep creeks awaiting I reckon volume is your friend and whilst everyone paddled well all week the half slice brigade had a harder time of dealing with the levels, the low volume back decks causing issues at times. I hear on a podcast after returning home, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Italy is a gunfight.

We have a real mixture of weather, sunshine and the levels come up due to snowmelt, rain and the rivers come up with all the input from the streams and tribs, basically the rivers are up.

We tackle the Gronda, more flow than I’ve seen, its daunting but the extra water covers the scrapier sections and provides flow over the slabs and slides with the associated added chunk to stoppers, as ever there’s some carnage over the four or five descents we manage whilst there, inevitable with numbers and levels. Mostly is cool lines, air miles and big smiles.

We don’t really have rivers like the Gronda in the UK, there’s a couple of ditches up in Scotland, the Fassfern and the Allt a Chaoruinn spring to mind but the Gronda is roadside, flowing through the village, a short walk and carry up, and it’s STEEP, with a capital F

I know some dismiss rivers like this, some say its not really paddling its just falling off features Some say you can paddle playboats in this environment. Some say its not that hard and some say what’s the point of getting on. Well SOME, can have their opinions, but mostly, some don’t or haven’t paddled stuff like this.

Some say its daunting requiring some mental athletics to overcome a combination of doubt, fear or anxiety perhaps. Some say it requires good boat skills to edge, carve, boof. Some say it requires blade control, to navigate, steer, support. Some say it requires a degree of balance and body control to stay upright and prevent injury.

I know which camp of Some I fall into, it messes with your head, you rehearse the strokes, mentally, physically even. To dismiss a river of this class, to dumb its grade down or contemplate the ankle breaking potential of paddling anything other than a big boat down here could be described as foolhardy, but, each to their own I guess.

Dave tackling the suggested line on auto boof on the Gronda, Grade 2 moves practised on the Dart or the Treweryn with Grade 4 consequences if you mess up, that little cheeky stopper at the back of Dave’s boat is a grippy little sucker, I know it caught me out last year and caused an injury that lasted for weeks, all it takes is a missed stroke.

waiting to pick up the debris at the bottom of the Gronda

The added water allows us to link the bottom of the Gronda with the top of the Sorba slides, there’s a crux move mid section that catches me, I’m upside down momentarily, get back upright still in the thick of it with moves to make, thankfully my roll returned snappily after some missed support strokes on the Mastallone earlier in the week.

Sam clatters a rock on this section and gives himself elbow issue for the rest of the week, he’ll be wearing elbow pads next year, a chipped bone is diagnosed three weeks after he gets home.

We’re getting onto the Seremzina, only a couple of us have done it before, it is a classic, its also hard. Its physically and mentally demanding. Even with guides who know the river there is a lot of time out of the boat to inspect, decide, plan.

We know Trumpet falls is in there, we’ve seen the pictures, I’ve done it before a couple of times, but not at these levels, its not high, but its flowing for sure. A rock bash it is not. Davide tells us he always tries to boof Trumpet but rarely gets it right, and Davide is better than good.

Its a bit of a 50/50 drop, you’ll be ok, or your gona get canned, in some shape or form. True to form some are ok, some get canned.

Stuart in the gutter, about to jump to lightspeed.

We inspect, we decide, we take our ticket to ride. The crux of the drop is getting your line in, its not hard, its not easy and there is room for error, an error would not be good, if you nail your line, you drop into the gutter and off you go.

We start off in a big clear pool, rain is falling, its a gloomy day, it’s a perfect day to be on a river in Italy, its a perfect day to be on the Seremzina, just so long as we can be perfect, or close to. We gather ourselves, we all have our little ritual, our checklist before we drop in. We signal, we see it repeated back to us, we break out, into the flow, there’s my rock, my first marker, to the right by a boats width, now for the crux, there’s my mid river marker, kiss that, just to my right, I’m in the gutter. Its the jump to Star Wars light speed. We’ve plotted to coordinates in our mind, we’ve made the calculations and we’ve committed. Punch it chewy, the last third of the rapid is a blur and a blurred blur at that. My mind can’t keep pace with what’s going on. My ticket allows me to fire right on landing to the safety of a deep pool, away from the rock wall river left. Others are not so lucky and to be honest there really is an element of luck here.

We’ve put safety in place and its needed, bank based and water based, lines thrown, slings and karabiners appear, swimmers in the water, boats loose in the flow. There’s a ten foot drop out of the pool below Trumpet and that in itself isn’t easy. A swimmer out and safe above the drop, a boater just up in time to do the drop upright but unbalanced. Elena is on a live bait, waiting, waiting, not needed thankfully. Boaters reunited with boats we re set for the next paddler. This is paddling, this is hard, this is a mind fuk, this is why we do it, I think!!

You DO NOT want to be in here, here is bad

Its taken a couple of hours for the group to progress down river, maybe 400 meters, partly due to numbers, a lot due to difficulty. People are lost in their own world of thoughts, some get chatty, some go quiet, some need to process alone, maybe with a word or two of reassurance, some need to discuss as a group, to hear the views, opinions, then make their decisions.

This is not the place to be pressured into something, this is your decision, peer pressure, pish. I hear about peer pressure, thankfully I haven’t really experienced it, I know people have and that grinds my gears. I hear people say I should be paddling this, lets remove the word should from our paddling vocabulary. Can I? Do I want to? These are the more important questions I would suggest.

A moment of quiet in the noise of river running, a nod is as good as wink to a blind man.

There’s no peer pressure here, encouragement, support and the challenge, the challenge of the river, the challenge of our mind. And a beer at the end of the day, or your chosen tipple.

The river continues , the grade eases, but there’s still inspection, portage and challenging white water to deal with. As a group we exit the river whole. As individuals within the group and I speak for myself here, I am in bits, mentally and physically, this has been a hard day, short in distance, long in hours. I’ve used nearly every bit of safety kit, and I take a lot with me. I’ve dropped into stuff blind, on someone’s instructions and based on my own inspection, I’ve spent as much time out of my boat as I have in it. I have had an awesome day on the river.

The drive back is quiet, we’re lost in our own thoughts, someone asks a question, there’s a discussion, then its quiet again. What and where do we want to eat tonight, don’t know, don’t care. I just need some fuel, cos it’s all going to happen again tomorrow.

Andy Holt, on it, riding his luck, he chose wisely, exit to river right

We rock up to the Egua, yikes there’s some water, it’s been a theme of the week, everything has had more water that I’ve seen before, this theme is across the Alps and continues after we leave. Rivers across the alps burst their banks, change and whilst we like good flows, it’s a terrible year for kayaking. The flows are too great and the white water community looses friends, even if we do not know who they are. Unfortunately I do know one.

Harry Guberfische, 2008, about to enter ‘The Constriction’ on the Zanskar.

The Egua, a insanely steep creek

Italy delivers in spades, perhaps more than any other Alpine trip, there’s a combination of big water and tight creeks all within a short drive from pretty much anywhere in the Val Sesia region. This year has been exceptional with incredible water levels into what is considered, usually, late season for Italy. The traditional seasons for Alpine water is Italy, France then Austria. 2024 has been outside that curve, as I write flows in the Alps are still high, dropping, but high. Rivers will have changed, maybe easier maybe harder, but there’s an old adage that the river is never the same, cos the river is different and so is the paddler. The river brings variation in levels, features, we bring attitude, confidence and ability, how good do we feel on the day.

Some say the river teaches us, I prefer to learn, semantics I hear you say, perhaps. At school I didn’t get taught, I got talked at and I was supposed to learn from what was said. Am not sure I did. In later life I had the confidence to speak up and say I didn’t understand, explain it in a different way, and people did and I did learn, one or two things. In kayaking I have been coached, by some great boaters/coaches, for which I will always be eternally grateful. I continue to learn, from the river, from others, from listening and ignoring.

Boating has given me more that it has taken, and it’s taken a lot over the years. Italy, WOW, world class white water, world class memories and friends. I’ve spoken to people from many countries, the language used, the language of the river, a common understanding, that creates a bond, the bond of the river.

I am sure this bond is available elsewhere, in other sports, but you can’t nip down to the supermarket and buy it off the shelf. The bond, in whatever medium you choose is gained by hard work. Our hard work, our medium is the river, it doesn’t fuk about and nor should we. As much as this pastime has taken, it’s given more and I’m excited about the next day on the river, the next trip, the next time I see my friends.

I love boating, at times is causes me almost untold anxiety, but I love boating.

Thanks to all on this trip, a pleasure. I’ve used other peoples pictures, I have no idea which pictures were taken by who, but cheers all.