Thursday, June 30, 2011

the mighty Dordogne

We are done. Twelve hours of ferocious paddling down the Dordogne River, from Souillac to Coux-et-Bigaroque, split between two days.

The canoe is drying in the courtyard of our restaurant with rooms in Coux. Tomorrow morning, we have some early buses to catch so that we can reunite with our car – up river in Souillac. We’ll then drive four hours back into the Languedoc region, for a final two nights in France, slowly, slowly moving closer to Barcelona, where, right after the Fourth of July weekend, we’ll fly home, to be at the farmhouse Tuesday.

Time now is precious and posting is far harder than in the days in Sorede where we easily could take two hours to mull over and decide if we should move from one side of the room .to the other.

Let me say in a word that the river journey was, indeed, fantastic. Let me also say that in many many ways we were extraordinarily lucky.

I knew that when we left yesterday morning. The skies remained gray and the weather forecast indicated showers at least until noon. Not optimal paddling weather. We leave our lovely little restaurant with rooms...


... fortified with a hearty, bready breakfast indoors...


(It’s that cool: of the sixty or so breakfasts, lunches and dinners we’ve had this month in France, I’d say no more than five have been indoors) ...and drive to Souillac. As the crow flies, it can’t be more than forty miles. As the river winds – that’s another thing.

In Souillac we buy several baguettes, cheese, tomatoes and a tiny bottle of wine. Those kinds of supplies can go far.

If we had wanted to set out early – forget it. By noon, we are still putting together the canoe and puffing air into its bladders. Ed chooses this time to say to me – you know, I really do not like this canoe. Back on Craigslist it goes when we return. Too wobbly? Too dainty! Fragile. And one of the bladders has a leak. As does his cushion, it turns out. By the end of the first half hour of paddling, he is sitting at the base, in a puddle of water. At each stop, I use spare underwear to bail out as much as I can.

Should we patch anything? I ask. There is, after all, a patch kit. Ed reads the instructions. Needs to dry for 24 hours. Worthless patch kit. We leave it in the car.

12:10 pm and we are on the Dordogne. I keep my rain jacket on. There is a threat of rain and indeed we go through a period of rain. Here’s the first lucky break: it lasts for less than two minutes.


After, the skies stay cloudy, but the air is warm. No need for a jacket.

I am, of course, a terrible boating companion. Ed, shouldn’t we go that way? Careful now! I see boulders to the left. It’s his fault. He tells me he can’t see as well with me in the front and so I have to take some responsibility for the routing. I take this job seriously. Too seriously perhaps.

But you know how these rivers flow: sandbars, boulders, fallen branches – they shift the current in mysterious ways and if you do not find the optimal place to direct your boat, you’re either going to get stuck in midriver, where getting out is no fun, or you’re going to bump around rocks until your bottom blisters. Or, in our case, the canoe trips, rips or does some other nasty thing.

Since it is cloudy and a weekday, there aren’t too many others on the river. Things are quiet. Subdued.



But then, even at peak times in the most popular spots, things are pleasantly quiet anyway. No radios, boom boxes, none of that. And, in the total of four days we (more Ed than me, but me as well) have spent on the river, we never encountered a single motorboat or jet ski or anything at all that would disturb the peace of the river. If a fisherman had a motor on his boat, he did not use it: a standing paddle, oars yes; never, not once a motor.

By three, my arms are feeling the strain. Why are you working so hard ? – Ed asks. Well that’s easy – he fires up my competitive streak. If Ed can do it in two days, so can I. Preferably in 1.95 days.

Sometimes, my paddling speeds things up (Ed has marked the time he passed any bridge and so we are able to compare). At other times, the wind hits us in the face and our boat drags, loaded down now with another person and her camping gear.

We pause for lunch. On an island, with water rushing over beautiful pebbles on both sides. But it’s too cool for swimming. By four, we’re paddling again.


It is helpful to know where the good stops are. Where Ed had his beer, for instance. You could lose time figuring out which village has what, and most often, you have to walk some before you reach a place serving food or drinks. And so at 7 we stop where Ed paused and we examine the eating possibilities and decide that actually, his bar-restaurant looks quite good for food. For instance, a cup of onion soup followed by an omelet with fresh chanterelle mushrooms and homemade fries.


The skies clear while we are eating dinner. The forecast told me they would, but the fact that they followed the sage prophecy of the weather person is insanely wonderful for us.

I’m not sure where the time flew, but it is nine by the time we are on the river again. I’m okay about violating a rule not many seem to be able to articulate for us with any precision – the one about not being on the water in the evenings or early mornings – but I’m not okay about navigating rapids when the sun is just approaching the horizon and the river is flowing west and you can’t see a damn thing out there. It is that bright.


Ed says – it’s just for a few minutes. I left a stick marking a good campsite. Just after the first rapids. Look for a stick.

A stick.


We never find it, and still we are lucky, because we do land in a space that is even better (by Ed's account): a spot that is on a easy flat surface, behind enough branches that we are not seen from the water, far from roads so that perhaps we are even (sort of) in compliance with the camping rule that permits you to pitch a tent if you are far from roads. A spot next to another set of rapids that gurgles and splashes and lulls you into heavenly dreamland in no time flat.


Except for the froggie conversation and the bird warbles which go an all night long. I wake up to a chortle, fall back asleep, wake up again to some frog or bird noise and so it goes.

It is, in fact, a wonderful way to sleep.

Let me pause now and continue with the next day later. But I want to end with this thought: Ed would say that any camping is good camping. Not so, I want to say.  Looking down the river the next day, I can see that there are long stretches with no good places to pitch a tent. We had the benefit of Ed's past experience and again, luck.

And here's something else: we’ve had many, many camping days and nights in our travels when the bugs were so ferocious that you could not venture out of your tent to eat a meal, or even brush your teeth or splash water on your face. Not so here. We have no bugs. The sky at night is ablaze with stars and we keep the rain fly off the tent. We know we wont need it. Such great luck.

Still, isn’t it the case that when you learn not to be bothered by an absence of luck, life is far far less stressful?

The air is cool in the evenings here, even on sunny days. I wake up (thanks, frogs!) just before sunrise, I walk over to the river and wade the shallow waters. The mist is bouncing off the river, the light turns pink, then golden...


A perfect sunrise.


...oh, undoubtedly it is for these mornings that I continue to take that chance and hope for luck, in the anticipation of those better camping moments...

(photo by Ed)

...when the air is cool, and the mosquitoes have gone elsewhere and there is a fresh scent that reminds you that this planet is one hell of a beautiful place.