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Fighting for Rivers in the Balkan Peninsula, Europe

Posted: 07.28.2015

A documentary about the last free flowing river in Europe. Wilderness, free flowing river, species diversity, simple and loving people, exploring of the river valley, sleeping under the stars, whitewater kayaking, and why we have to fight for the rivers...

 

Doing good things takes lots of time and effort, much more than I thought before; this is why it took so long for my first AT blog to appear. Anyhow, I honestly believe it is well worth...

This spring we got engaged into something I wished for since I can remember. Bringing together all we have; knowledge of biology, limnology, paddling, photography, videography and the so important bit of being a rebel.

The thing I am talking about outlines everything that means so much to us kayakers and the ones in love with Nature. It consist of saying no to the insatiable appetite of the ones with money and no conscious, having a well prepared battle plan, enthusiastic people that spend most of their time outside the office (inside only when fighting for the things that are outside), taking care of the most amazing rivers in Europe and an honest belief that we can make it. It is called Save the Blue Heart of Europe and it is a campaign that now stands firmly in place with idea of stopping unbelievable dam craze in the Balkans, the South Western part of Europe where Yugoslavia once stood. 

With Leeway collective we became an ambassador of the campaign in early April and right after our fist meetings we decided to go to action with the most pristine river in the whole Europe, the only river that has no dams on her way from mountains to the sea. She is the river that flows from the Pindus Mountains of Greece all the way to the Ionian Sea in Albania. From canyons in Greece to alluvial plains in Albania she changes not only her character but also her name, from Aoos to Vjosa. With 270 km of wild river this is something we have a duty and right to protect as now she is in danger of being stopped with 33 dams...

Back to the start and to decision to experience this amazing river first handed and to present her beauty to the world... Words soon led to actions and in the middle of May we were already on our way to Greece and Albania.  

River surprised us with amazing scenery at the source part and unfortunately with a huge dam that established a big reservoir just before small streams come together to form Aoos. 

Anyhow this brutal intrusion is not affecting the river that much and we were soon able to find a put in with a good flow. Paddling in Greece was amazing; canyons were so deep and remote that it was hard to realize that we are in Europe. Second canyon was amazing and so was its whitewater - very technical and tight with numerous siphons and sieves. 

It took us quite long to get to the Albanian border, but more because of fishing than because of scouting. The main idea of expedition was to connect communities that are most connected to rivers for the first time; kayakers, fishermen and scientists. Since I am a biologist, kayaker and fisherman this was not that hard and bringing scientists from Balkan Trout Restoration Group to the story proved to be a wonderful idea. It was hard to catch and take tissue samples of trout in the deepest of canyons but at the end it was well worth the effort. 

Once we reached the flats at the Albanian border the river completely changed her looks. She was now getting bigger with every new tributary and alluvial flats were becoming vast. We passed by first bigger settlements and met some really friendly locals that even invited us to their humble place to have a party there! An amazing experience that made the River even more alive in our eyes.

Our journey soon brought us to the sad part - the most amazing tributary that is now stopped behind a dam at the top of the 3 km long box canyon. Paddling trough it just enforced our decision to fight against this unnecessary aggression over rivers!

We experienced the unpleasant side of locals, dam construction workers, at the biggest dam construction site in Kalivach. We disobeyed their commands and paddled past the dam site just to show this to the world. This is what we are fighting against in the first place!

From then on paddling was relaxed and the river was slow flowing all the way to the sea. The last leg was anyhow quite interesting as we reached the estuary in pitch dark and got lost on the sea. Luckily we were able to call our media part of the crew who lit the fire on the beach so we could find our way back to them and this way finish our astounding relation with this River. 

Jeff Johnson once wrote, "If you love a place you have a duty to protect it". We can not agree more, this is why we started to work on the project of showing this to the world the day after we came home. Now, after the premiere and the official release of the documentary it is time for you to see what the wildlife and people down there still have.

Please visit our webpage to see the photo story with text that describes the river and the 30-minutes long documentary that shows the river from the eyes of a kayaker.

The campaign is doing great on Vjosa and idea of having this river protected by a National Park is now more alive than ever. Correspondence with Albanian Prime-Minister is established and there are more meetings to be held in near future. Anyhow the River will need your help too. Follow our social media and get notified when actions will take place.

Lets prove that even in these days we are able to step together and make a difference where everybody says we can't!  Together we will save amazing rivers we still have and bring the ones with dams back to life!

Please consider visiting the biggest event for rivers in Europe this year; Balkan Rivers Days in Belgrade from Sep. 25-27th. Register for the event, get connected with Leeway collective fb page and get some of the travel costs covered for you! It is time to show that kayakers are the ones that don't just give up but fight even when the going gets tough!

See you on the Wild and Free River,

Rok 

Photos by Anze Osterman

 

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How To Properly Charge Eddies

Posted: 06.15.2015

     Creek boating involves subtle movements and techniques.  Although the result consists of flying over rocks and falling off waterfalls, the ingredients are sound techniques that accumulate to create a dynamic experience.   The technique that I will try to teach is how to charge through eddies, using them to navigate down river, without slowing down or eddying out.  I will even go on to say that in this brief moment while going against the grain your boat is almost surfing on top of the current. Therefore surfing techniques can be used to navigate a creek boat.

 

       When I started paddling in the late 90’s playboating was in.  I spent most of my first years in a boat cartwheeling and stern squirting able to move anywhere I wanted forcing my way.  But when I hoped in a creek boat, I couldn’t just go wherever.  It was quite the opposite.  I was at the mercy of this big, long boat that reacted to every current.  Although creek boats boof well, are stable, or safe with lots of volume, they can be a trial to paddle because all the volume and length that is beneficial to creeking can also be hard to control and dial in.  And every creek boat is different. So I hope to teach some techniques to help paddle down river without veering out of control.  

     Imagine you are paddling down a sweet rapid hitting boofs and turning left and right dodging rocks but suddenly an eddy or even a patch of slow moving current comes at you grabbing your boat sending it where you don’t want to go.  Or maybe a move consists of hitting this eddy or some other opposing current and gliding over it.   All the current that you are riding, that your boat is part of is easy to handle, you just paddle normally.  But once your boat hits the opposing current it can fly out of control grabbing your bow and quickly take hold.   

 

      Firstly you need to be able to read water to know when these currents are coming.  If this is not obvious then the techniques I am about to teach will be hard to implement.  But basically when your boat collides with the opposing current it has the ability to carve in it, glide on top of it, and ride it much like you would surf a wave!   Surfing is riding an opposing current.  You use a whole different set of strokes while surfing, mainly ruddering, while opening and closing your blade doing draw strokes simultaneously switching your edges to carve (see the video for a visual).  This technique is not entirely describable but can be learned quite easily by charging as hard as you can into the biggest eddy you can find and simply keeping your boat straight and gliding on top of it.  It actually feels like you are accelerating as the current goes rushing under you hull.    

 

      You can practice carving your boat, putting it on edge to travel left or right.  Typically putting the boat on the left edge and ruddering your left blade will move you left and putting it on the right while ruddering your right blade will move you right.  You can also use draw strokes as you hold your edge to move more aggressively from side to side.  As you carve through the eddy it will start to slow you down but by this point you are hopefully through it heading in the desired direction.  If you were to hit an opposing current that is coming at you with a lot of speed, try to carve through it and glide on top of it until you are part of that current able to continue paddling down.  It is best to hit these currents with speed leaning back slightly to keep the bow up taking them head on and taking control.  

 

     Boofing over a hole can produce the same situation.  Once you boof over the hole you are riding the opposing current that is being sucked back upstream.  You will have a brief moment of planning out over this current.  A quick rudder in-between strokes can send you gliding down the river in style.  As you land the boof, take the landing stroke and then hold your rudder opening and closing the blade in the water using your wrists to steer the boat in the desired direction.  I find keeping my Wave Sport Recon on edge in the direction I am going actually makes me go faster. 

 

     Some folks might ask why I don’t just keep paddling through all these eddies instead of ruddering and gliding?  I certainly do paddle through eddies throwing in sweep strokes to overcome the currents or even taking forward strokes while ruddering to keep my speed.  But the the determining factor is many creek boats can’t hold that much speed.  Paddling hard against the opposing water will cause the boat to veer out of control even more.  And I like to conserve my energy and spend my time turning and maneuvering looking smooth rather than powering my way down river.  So, smooth, stealthy strokes that conserve energy allowing me to glide around makes for a more enjoyable day on the water.  

 

      Trying these skills in class 2 and 3  finding every little spot to practice will make a huge difference when you step it up to class 5.  I encourage everyone to paddle well within their limits to attain the skills and muscle memory to take on harder whitewater.  And building up a repertoire of basic skills that can be practiced in easy whitewater or even flat water will ensure a strong and safe paddling style on the gnar.  I hope this helps and has made you more conscientious.  See you on the river!

 

By: Shane Groves

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New Home, New Rivers and New Races!

Posted: 06.05.2015

About three months ago I moved to Washington, D.C. to start a new job working for National Geographic in their adventure travel department.

It was a big and scary change for me- I went from traveling the world guiding trips and living in the small mountain town of Bryson City, NC to working in an office and living in the big city. I am happy to report that the move has been great so far. My job is great and I have found pockets of small town living even in the city, and have especially loved getting to explore new rivers and kayak races in the area!

First up was the Top Yough Race which took place the first weekend in April. Since I had never paddled any section of the Yough before, we headed out early on Friday to get a few practice laps in. I had heard so much another Upper Yough, but never much about the Top. I was pleasantly surprised as to what a classic the Top Yough was! Short but sweet, it reminded me a lot of the Tobin section of the Feather out in California. The water level had been really low, but rain on Friday afternoon and evening started to get it bumped up. I think we all went to sleep that night a little worried about what kind of level we would find in the morning.

My group of friends had totally planned to get up early and get another practice lap in to see the current water level before racing it, but after it started snowing motivation was hard to come by. Ultimately we traded a practice lap for coffee and a delicious breakfast in a warm cafe and hoped for the best. Thankfully, while the river had risen, it wasn't significant and if anything made the section easier to race because you didn't have to worry as much about getting hung up on rocks.

The race was a lot of fun. The Top Yough is a perfect Green Boat race, with fun lines and relatively easy moves to make, but with enough action to keep you on your toes. I told myself (as I do before most races with class 4-5 moves) to just keep it smooth and in control. I'll take a safe and clean, but slightly slower run, over the possibility of a fast but loose one any day. In the end, I was very pleased with my race lap and made it through without any flips, or spinouts, or pins and it didn't feel too slow either!

Photo: Michael Maloney

After the race, it was time for celebrating with beers and the award ceremony. In the men's category, Geoff Calhoun and Jason Beaks took the wins for the short and long boat class and for the women's, I won the long boat class just ahead of Erin Savage and Margaret Williams took the win for the short boat class.

Next on my list for new river and races was the Cheat River Race and Festival, which took place the first weekend in May.

I snuck off after a half day of work the Friday of Cheat Fest in order to arrive at the river just in time for the race. There were over 100 people at the starting line with a wide assortment of watercrafts. Some people were definitely there to go fast, but it was obvious everyone was there for a good time.

The race was long with lots of flat water. It was my very first run down the Cheat, so it was really interesting trying to pace myself without having any idea how far into the river I was. Fortunately, there were plenty of nice people around me who didn't seem too bothered when I asked them "are we there yet?!" After an hour and 20 minutes of pushing myself, I finally reached the finish line.

Photo: Jennifer Beth Sass

I finished second in the race behind Ashley Knee placed competitively amongst the males as well. I am new to the area so I don't know all the locals yet, but I hear Ashley is a local slalom racer and she's fast!

The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying the river and the festival with good friends. We paddled the Top and I had my first lap down the super classic Upper Yough section on Saturday. Sunday I enjoyed a much slower float down the Cheat with good friends. The festival itself was super fun and one I highly recommend everyone checking out!

Photo: Jess Daddio

Next up on the racing list for me is the Great Falls race on the Potomac July 11. Stay tuned for a full race report!

 

By: Laura Farrell

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Hercules. The Paddle, The Myth, The Legend.

Posted: 05.04.2015

By: Anna Bruno

It is no wonder that AT named their new Advanced Series Whitewater line of paddles after heroes and legends.

In the past few months, I have taken the Hercules blade creeking, river running, hole-boating, bigwater playboating on the China’s Salween River, and out for the casual flatwater stroll. In every river environment, the Hercules blade takes after the Greek demi-god that inspired its name, living up to it’s illustrious namesakes in strength, versatility and sex appeal.

For those of you who need a mini refresher in Greek Mythology, Hercules was the son of Zeus and one of his many mortal mistresses. He is famous for his strength, as well as his many adventures and escapades, most notably the 12 labors of Hercules which he completes to claim his place alongside his father on Mt. Olympus. While my Hercules paddle has not slain a lion, cleaned a stable in a day, or captured a Cretan bull, it has proved its strength, durability and versatility in the “Trials of Hercules” I have brought it on to earn it the first place in my paddle quiver, if not on Mount Olympus.

Trial One: Boofing on the Kaituna: Strength!

The Kaituna river in New Zealand is a great place to test drive a paddle. Short, easily accessible with multiple line options, you can play all day long to get a sense of how a piece of gear preforms. The Kaituna is famous for Tutea falls, a seven meter waterfall, but the river has plenty more boofs to play on. Having a paddle that pulls with power and feels solid taking a boof stroke is key for me. I was hesitant to switch to an all carbon blade, rather than the foam core I was used to, but the Hercules assuaged my fears. The paddle still feels buoyant, but is stronger and more efficient in how it uses the energy I put into it. When I go to boof, ‘Herc’ pulls cleanly and efficiently for the stroke, sending me flying. The blade doesn’t flutter, and I can only describe the way the paddle pulls in the water as sexy. 

Trial 2: Wave Surfing in NZ and China: Weight and Flexibility

Wave surfing is possibly my favorite element of kayaking, and I want a paddle that will perform, whether I am stopping to surf on my way downstream, or focusing on spending my day parking and playing. Once again, my Hercules does it. The carbon fiber and Innegra blend means my paddle is lighter weight, reducing strain on my forearms so I can maximize my rides and sessions. It also makes it easy to move my paddle around so I can rotate faster. The shaft is flexible, with just the right amount of give to not burn out my shoulders and elbows, even when I spend time setting up in the foam pile. This blade makes me want to take an acceleration stroke.

Trial 3: Big Water Boating on the Salween: Strength and Durabilty

The force of 60,000 + cumecs of water is undeniable. Dropping into the massive waves and holes on the Salween, the last thing I want is to lose or break a paddle. Luckily, the smaller shaft of the Hercules makes it easy to grip onto firmly without exhausting the muscles in my hands. When I went to dig my blade into to the tumultuous whitewash, my boat shot through cleanly, hitting the line I wanted easily.

Trial 4: Teaching Kayaking: Durabilty, ctd..

When you paddle 300 days a year, you want a paddle you know is going to last. Teaching kayaking means you may need to frantically abandon your gear at a certain point to chase down someone or something, or even more terrifying, lend your gear out. Shuttle rides and trailers can beat your gear up, causing nicks, dings and scratches that may lead to gear failure down the line. Normally, I wince when paddles get chucked onto rocks as you get out of your boat, or ask for my paddle to be gently protected on the way to the river. While I am still taking care of my Hercules, I feel confident in its ability to resist the dings and scratches from small rocks and hits along the way that will prolong its life. This means… paddle tosses for days!

Trial 5: Buoyancy

If you flip over, you want a paddle blade that feels stable, and dare I say it, a little floaty, to help give a bit of leverage as you roll up. I was dubious of transitioning to an all carbon blade away from my foam core AT2, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the blade slices easily through the water while paddling, or while rolling. It rose to the surface easily, and had plenty of surface area to push against, making my roll feel effortless, as If I didn’t even use the paddle.

Trails 6: Kids: Weight, Strength, everything…

In China, I had to fight seven year olds to reclaim my paddle when it was captured. Even the little kids- aged six, or seven- could pick up and use my Hercules with ease as a shovel to dig sand with, as a splash wars weapon, as a bat in sponge tag, or as a tool to propel them down the river thanks to its lightweight lay up and smaller shaft. Plus, they looked good with it, and they knew it. I was fully confident that my Hercules could handle whatever paces the kids put it through- on or off the water. Despite my confidence, was I scared to see my paddle kidnapped? Absolutely- but only because I knew I might not be able to get it back. 

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Jondachi Fest: Saving Ecuador’s Jondachi River

Posted: 05.01.2015

If you've ever been to Ecuador on a kayaking trip or have it on your paddling bucket list then you've heard of the Jondachi River.

The Upper Jondachi is considered Ecuador's most classic steep creek. It's 6 miles of class 4-5 creeking through a lush jungle gorge. In addition to the Upper, there are Middle and Lower sections of the Jondachi with equally, if not more beautiful,  scenery and slightly easier class 3-4 rapids.

Unfortunately, a few years ago the government-owned thermal electric generating company proposed the building of a dam on the Jondachi River which would de-water part of or all of the river. Not only is this sad from a recreational standpoint, it would also be very detrimental to the amazingly biodiverse environment. In an effort to try and bring awareness to the cause, the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute hosted the inaugural "Jondachi Fest" this past January. Due to my love for both the country of Ecuador and the Jondachi River, I decided to take another trip down to the equator this year to support this great event. The festival included nightly festivities in Tena, a race down the Upper Jondachi and a group paddle and overnight on the Lower Jondachi/ Hollin section.

After having been in Ecuador for a couple weeks, it was finally time for the Fest! There were tons of international boaters in town for one reason- to help save the Jondachi River (and of course to run some of the best whitewater in the world)!

The First big event for the festival was the Upper Jondachi race. In order to prepare for the race, we tried to squeeze a few laps down the Upper leading up to the festival. Because the race section was to be determined based on the day of water level, we had to try and remember the entire run as best we could.

There was a race meeting on Thursday night at a pizza shop in Tena, then Friday morning everyone was awake early and ready to paddle fast! We all met at the put in of the Urcusiqui to get race bibs and a few more logistical details.

Once at the confluence, we were told the approximate start times of the race, the exact ending point as well as given a safety talk. The race would run from just below the confluence to walking bridge over the Jondachi. It was a mostly class 3 race, but did have a few rapids (especially the last one) that you had to be paying attention to.

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After the race, there was still a lot of paddling to do as the finish line was pretty much at what most people consider the start of the Upper Jondachi. In an effort to avoid the crowds, Emily and I snuck downstream on our own and ended up having the river to ourselves.

The evening after the race there was a super fun awards ceremony at a local restaurant in Tena. It was a great night to celebrate a successful race and kick off to the festival. Congrats to Hannah Kertesz for taking first place amongst the women. I was a few seconds behind her securing second place.

The next morning we had to wake up early to prepare for a long day (19miles) on the Middle and Lower Jondachi as well as a portion of the Hollin. As much fun as the Upper is, I think quite possibly the most beautiful sections of the Jondachi lie downstream. Steep jungle walls line much of the many miles of river. As part of the festival, there was a large group putting on a the lower in both kayaks and rafts and paddling down to an eco-lodge perched on the side of the river. I volunteered to lead a group of kayakers down the lesser done Middle section. We all then regrouped at the beautiful lodge for a camp fire, cold beers and an overnight jungle retreat.

The lodge where we spent the night was a 5min paddle from the bridge where our taxi driver was picking us up. We paddled out first thing in the morning and it was bittersweet for me. On one hand, I knew it was my last day in Ecuador for a while, as I would be heading home to the States that evening. On the other hand, I felt a sense of joy that with the success of the festival, there was the slightest hope that the Jondachi might be around for many more years to come. If you want to support the cause, please consider donating to the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute (http://ecuadorianrivers.org/donate/), the non-profit that hosted the festival and is on the front line of fighting for Ecuador's rivers.

 

For more coverage of the Jondachi and the festival, check out this digital piece by Canoe and Kayak:

http://www.canoekayak.com/photos/ecuadors-jondachi-river-threatened-paddling-classics/

See you at Jondachi Fest 2016!

 

By: Laura Farrell

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