Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kayak in Ardeche...when we almost lost Josh...

It's been two weeks now since we came back from our trip to Ardeche but I couldn't find the words to tell this adventure. It was beautiful but also the scariest moment of my life.
It all began a couple of months ago, when I decided to organize with  some old friends in Biot (the place where Giuseppe lived from 1998 until 2005) a "reunion" to celebrate both Giuseppe anniversary and also our 7th wedding anniversary. Some of those friends came  along with us in Ardeche already 13 years ago, for a kayaking week-end. At that time, since none of us had kids, we descended the river in two days, camping in the Bivouac de Gaud at night (we had the tent, the sleeping bags, the bbq, a lot of wine and beer....what did we need more?). This time of course we had to organize our trip a little differently, since the other two couples had respectively two and four kids. But we did it.
After hours of driving across this country, surrounded by magnificent landscapes and lush countryside....we passed near Montelimar where the immense 4 chimneys of the nearby nuclear plant reminded us, shockingly, that the French, in contrast to Italians, are not worried of getting 70% of their power from nuclear sources!

After almost ten hours of driving, we arrived to The Camping du Midi, where we had our two cottage homes: two double bedroom, living room with dinette, bathroom, shower room and veranda. Not bad! 

 It was great: after so many years we still had so much to share and laugh about! Additionally all the kids (7 in total) connected immediately, despite the language (they all speak French!). Josh was extraordinary: not even one moment he felt uncomfortable with the language. The first morning, since it was raining... 

...we decided to visit the Grotte de la Madeline: a magical place highlighted by a show with special sounds and lights effect . The place has huge and amazing concretions. Wonderful. 

Then in the afternoon we had our first experience in the Gorges de l'Ardeche with the kayaks. It was awesome! 

The expedition was formed by three kayaks: the Knopp's (Cathy, Raymond and 9 y.o. Michael), the Kohrs's (Arndt, 10 y.o. Noah and 7 y.o. Alan) and the Caire's. 
Only 8 km (almost 5 miles) to begin with but enough to experience the cold water, the first white water and to familiarize with the whole paddling thing.  Josh was constantly asking us to go in the hardest part of the rapids: I can't blame him! It's fun, you get splashed and you have to move quickly in order to get out from that hell, but it's a wonderful experience. We ended the afternoon just after the 60 m stone arch which spans the river: the Pont d'Arc.

In the evening the kids played ping-pong while we prepared dinner. Then they had a very special treat: s'mores, just like in the USA.

On the next day we started around 10 am the longest ride: 24 km (15 miles) down the river, without any chance to stop in the middle. There's no way that, if you change your mind, you can climb up. The river walls are limestone cliffs up to 300 m high. In the morning, during one particular white water, both the other two teams flipped over and we all paddled back to help the kids. Of course they were scared, but overall it was fine, since they only got in the water. The "sapeurs pompiers" (rangers) are constantly monitoring the difficult areas of the river and they helped us retrieving the shoes, the paddle, the hats, etc.
Around noon we stopped for lunch: fortunately all our stuff was "sealed" into special containers, so our cheese and salami were still eatable. Then, just after we restarted our second part, that's when it happened. I was in the front, Josh in the middle and Giuseppe in the back . We were going through a white water, the Dent Noir, which is particularly difficult because there's a rock right in the middle of the river and most of the kayaks crash in the rock and then flip over. Actually we completed the white water without turning upside down and without hitting the Dent Noir, but, just when we were about to get out of the fast running water, I wasn't able to turn the kayak toward the center of the river so we crashed with our left side against a rock on the left wall. Completely. What about all the tips that the guy told us about trying to jump over the rock before tipping over so you're not stuck under the kayak? Useless, at least when everything happens in less that 2 seconds. Others before us had just hit the same rock so they were stuck against the rocky wall as well. Two kayaks, once next to the other. With the left side of our kayak against the rock and the water running against our right side so fast, we immediately tipped over. As soon as I had my head out of the water, able to breath again, I was taken away by the current. I tried to swim upstream, with all my strength, but I just couldn't. I was calling for Josh, trying to see him but in vain. After a few seconds I saw Giuseppe taken away by the water and our kayak going down the river along with him, but no sign of Josh. The other kayak, the one that was already there when we crashed, was still upside down against the rock...that's when I panicked. What if Josh was stuck under the kayak and couldn't get out? It was already about a minute and I still couldn't see him. I kept calling him but nothing, no answer. Then I guy over a rock on the side of the river gave me a sign and I saw my son. He was pale, terrified, completely in shock. After swimming back and holding on the rocks, I was finally able to reach him. That's when he told me that, not only he was stuck under the kayak, but also that the rock we crashed against had a "submerged cave", about 2 meters wide, just beneath the level of the water. He was stuck there and was pushed against the bottom of the "cave" by the current. When he realized that he had no way out, he swam with all his energy against the current, and was finally out. 
Here is a video I found on YouTube about the Dent Noir white waters: 


I am still shaking, now, even after two weeks. This place is advertised as one of the safest rivers in France: it's actually open to kids over 7 years old and during the same weekend we saw literally hundreds of kids with their family. Who on earth could imagine that there is such an unsafe area there, with a "hidden trap" underwater....A couple of days after we came back, I almost fainted when I read on a French newspaper that just the week before, a 37 y.o. guy died in exactly the same spot. Horrible. 
What or who do I have to thank for this "happy ending" we were blessed with? The almost five years of weekly swimming lessons? Someone up there that didn't feel it was the right moment for Josh to leave his crazy parents?
After this dramatic moment and after taking a long break, we had to go back on the kayak: as I said previously, there is no way you can get out of the canyon without kayaking.
Of course until the end, we were very careful to avoid all possible dangers, even though we turned upside down once more (tired, mistake...who knows?). This time I grabbed my son's hand while we were still halfway between air and water...this time I was going with him, no matter where! 
We finished around 7 pm. By that time Josh and the other kids were no longer scared or shocked. They were just exhausted and happy that everything was over.
The bus took us back to the campsite and then, after the last kisses and hugs, we drove to Avignon, just 80 km away. But of course, without the GPS app of my smartphone (right, the phone was  the only victim of the adventure....together with all the pictures and regrets, I have my son, I don't care about the pictures!) it took us more that 2 hrs to arrive there.
Let me give you a tip: don't ever try to drive your car in Avignon. It's a nightmare. Impossible. The craziest labyrinth of one-way streets and "no-parking" signs I've ever seen. We arrived in our splendid hotel: it's called the Hotel Restaurant Palais des Papes, right in the central village. It is really nice and elegant...the stair is unbelievable:

The best thing? The view from our room: 

In the morning we woke up, we had breakfast, then we crossed the square and visited the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon...then it was time to go back to Paris.
In the end, everything was fine...we were together, safe and happy. No nightmares, no post-traumatic stress...but I'm not doing it again. At least not with my son. 


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