First of all, I am a sea kayaker and have been for the last ten years. I run Green Adventures and I guide and coach people on the sea, so turbulent water and messy waves are not on my bucket list as a paddler. So I'm happy I didn’t die back in the days when I thought I was going to be a whitewater paddler. But I had a pretty scary experience going out with a bunch of good friends on a Coca Cola coloured river a few hours from my house.
I had just come back from an introduction course at Kajaktiv in Dala Floda, Sweden and had had a great few days on the river learning about eddies, undercuts, reading the water, crossing over to river left and then back to river right, going upstream, downstream and all the other fancy words you need to know to get closer to becoming a real whitewater paddler. I had no idea how to roll a kayak at that time (I had more of a happy go lucky attitude), so yes, I swam a lot in the chilly October water. But I didn’t mind, I was having a fun time in a small river boat. Actually I had so much fun I brought a river boat with me back home. The wrong one, it turned out a few weeks later when I went paddling with my friends, who had just discovered whitewater paddling a few months earlier.
Don’t get me wrong, I like my friends a lot but on that particular day I think I could say that I liked them a little less than usual. We (some guys and me) went to a river with lots of obstacles, meaning rocks, trees, tricky route choices, too much water at some spots, too messy waves for my taste and yes, I swam again. And again. And again. And yes, I had some full contact with a few rocks along the way (luckily all my teeth stayed in my mouth), tore my dry suit (not a fun thing to be thinking about when continuing down the river knowing that if I capsize and swim, that is a very bad idea) and was pretty cold. It was in the beginning of November. In Sweden. The whole thing was just a very bad idea.
So with my self confidence stuck way down in my shoes on the way home from the river, I decided to sell my boat as quickly as a possible. It was a playboat, a low volume one, which wasn’t really the perfect match for me and the rivers in my home area. I can’t remember now what I did with the money I got for it but I’m sure I celebrated in some way.
This happened about eight years ago I think and for many years I had so much respect for moving water that I had nightmares about me getting stuck in a big hole that would eat me alive. Then I went to Wales and realized that if I want to enjoy all the sea kayaking in that part of the world, I should really like being in messy water. Bummer! Exactly what I didn’t want to be dealing with. But the more time I spent over there, the more I could feel the waves pulling me closer and closer and closer.
Why, why, why did I do that paddle that cold November day in Sweden on that damn river? That mantra wouldn’t leave my head. That day had shaped me as a paddler and had turned me more into a chicken paddler than I wanted to be. Damn it! So what to do now?
Well, maybe start by taking the stairs instead of the elevator might be a good idea? I knew I was going to love spending time in those kind of waves, I just needed to give myself time to approach them. So that’s what I’ve been doing over the last few years. I’m not a hardcore paddler and never will be, but slowly I’ve come to love (but still respect) more challenging conditions. But the river has always been in the back of my head, and when Leif (who runs Aterra kayak company in Helsingborg and who's also a Palm dealer), asked for the sixth year in a row if I would like to join him and the gang in the Soca Valley in Slovenia, I finally dared to say 'yes'. I had also been given a brand new, purple, Luna PFD and a set of the Wairoa NeoFlex gear which was a perfect match for the river.
So we went and that was one of the best things I’ve done in a long time (not counting all the skiing, rock climbing and alpine climbing in Chamonix last winter, the desert mountain biking in Namibia last autumn, the hike up the highest sand dunes in the world in Sossusvlei, the fantastic visit to Greenland with a great boat trip along the west coast and a few other things, well I guess you get my point here) and I can’t wait to go back.
Slovenia has it all. Green, lush mountains that are just rolling down the valleys where they meet a turquoise, crystal clear river that meanders its way through the mountains. Everything feels like it’s the beginning of something. It feels new, fresh, undiscovered, untamed and above all it’s habituated by great people.
We spent a week in the Soča Valley, in a party of fifteen from Sweden. Some did the five day course, some were tag alongs, some paddled on their own but everyone seemed to be having a great time. Staying at Camp Toni was super good and it was interesting to be discovering a new part of Europe I’ve never been to before.
So then, any close encounters this time? Well, yes of course! The first four days of the course with Fabian Bonanno from Alpin Action, was a real energy and self confidence boost for me. My learning curve was straight as a flagpole. Until day five. Then we were on the Otona stretch of the river, a part that some of the others had waited four years to do. And I did it after four days … Well, I didn’t really do it. I went, I failed and I lost my confidence. Again. Damn it.
I got stuck in an undercut. A place where the water has carved into a rock in the river and where it’s not super comfty to spend too much time in. And this is where my roll failed for the first time that week. And this is where I got all the bruises I still have on my body. I had to swim. I know. Everyone does it. But man, I didn’t want to. I swear. And lets just say that I didn’t really enjoy the rest of the Otona stretch.
But I have managed to deal with that mentally and I’m super happy I went to Soča. I’m now hungry for more paddling on rivers. I won't abandon the sea, which is still my favourite playground but I want to go back. I want to learn more. Do more. Swim more. Touch the rocks again. Feel the flow under the hull of my boat. Look up and be amazed by the mountains that are looking down on me and I definitely want to make friends with Otona again. I just have to go back. It’s as simple as that.
Thanks to everyone who made this such a good trip. You know who you are!