As so often, we decided to paddle the Irrel Waterfalls this weekend.
At 82 cm on the LSB-NRW web-gauge, he water level was good, but not
exceptional (the rain since the reading on Friday had added maybe ten
more centimeters, making this stretch of WW class III/IV). That's why I
was so surprised to find about half a dozen Dutch vehicles in the
From the amount of people hauling older models boats, PVC spraydecks and
other gear, it quickly became obvious that either a commercial company
or a club had descended upon Irrel. Considering that, besides the rating
of class III and IV, there are a load of potholes, a couple of nasty
undercuts and some strainers in this stretch of river, it's not common
(to my knowledge) to take beginners down the Irrel Waterfalls.
When my German friends arrived, they too expressed their surprise at the
scene before their eyes. It was going to be the first in a long line of
I had changed before my German friends arrived, so I decided to do a
quick run of the gorge before they had changed. As I walked up, with my
boat on my head, I was surprised by the number of people (maybe fifteen
or so) walking around in identical outfit... Hmmm, this started to smell
more like a commercial outdoor company than a club.
As I walked towards the upper rapids, a strange scene opened up before
my eyes. There were people standing on both sides of the river, and one
seemed to be standing on a rock in the river. There were several
throwlines dangling from both river banks towards the guy in the middle,
obviously connected to something, and there were a bunch of people
gathered on the river left bank.
As I got closer, I noticed that the tree that we had pulled out on shore
a couple of months ago, was now suspended by the different throwlines in
a very dangerous position partly across the current halfway into a drop.
We had pulled it up on some rocks, so that only the last couple of feet
of tree was still in the current, with the angle towards the current
being to small, that it was beside the three normal lines through that
I erroneously assumed that the people gathered there knew what they were
doing, and with all that manpower and gear, they should have no problem
getting that tree out of the rapid asap... Not so.
After arriving at the top of the gorge, I walked towards the put in.
There were a couple of uniformly dressed paddlers (paying customers, aka
"Uniforms" from now on :-)) sitting there, looking bored. I could see
the looks going from one to the others as they noticed that I wasn't
carrying a paddle. It was obvious that they thought that I had forgotten
it. They sure looked surprised when I pulled my handpaddles out of my
I entered the water, looked at the downstream situation, and decided to
catch an eddy near the top of the first big rapid, to see what was
happening. After surfing across the current a couple of times to keep a
good look at the situation that was unfolding here, the complete picture
After they had pulled the tree further from shore (the situation I saw
before), it started to go over the next drop. The river right crew now
pulled on their line, causing the tree to get stuck on a rock to the
right of the main channel, with the other end stuck under water on river
left. It was now positioned straight across the current, being in a very
dangerous position indeed. A couple of people were shouting, pointing at
who knows what, and utter confusion seemed to spread, untill someone
ushered a couple of the "uniforms" upstream. They were now needed on the
opposite shore. As I had been waiting for at least twenty minutes, I had
had enough, and portaged around the strainer, continuing my route down.
By the time I came walking up again, I could hear by the noise they were
making that they had finally managed to get the tree out of the rapid.
Hmmm, there were a couple more strainers (some completely under water,
stuck between some rocks) downstream... that promised to become an
eventful day, if they tried to get all that wood out as well!
Now an even more bizar scenario developed: Left and right there were
people standing on rocks, in pairs and with some of them holding
throwlines. Sounds normal, you'd think... But on the end of the
throwlines they had attached people!
Unlike the rescue lessons that I have followed, where it is very clear
that you try to keep the amount of people in the water to a minimum,
they actually actively used people who jumped in to collect swimmers,
boats and paddles! I was flabbergasted, to say the least.
Even more worrying than this rather puzzling technique used by the
supervising instructors (a handful) was the paddling skill displayed by
the "uniforms". We stood looking at ten paddlers trying to make their
way down the first rapid, seven broached, got stuck in holes, or
otherwise flipped in the first real rapid.
It was almost painful to see that most of them had trouble keeping their
boats in a straight line on the flatwater before the rapids! When they
entered the rapid, they tried the filosophy of "a straight line is the
shortest distance between two points... Of course, that's completely
ignoring the rocks, holes and drops that riddle this stretch of river.
If you think that it was painful to witness the swims, it was even more
worrying to have to see the rescue attempts... They jumped in after
flooded kayaks (think Prijon T-Canyon and T-Slalom kayaks, with 280 plus
litres/65+ US gallons of displacement), after which the guys on shore
tried to haul them back in or ferry them into lower eddies (that not
always were available!).
Sometimes the lines which were attached to their PFD's would get stuck
on some rocks or so, and the swimmer would be temporarily suspended in
the current. It was clear that although they had quick-release belts and
sometimes cowtails on their PFD's, they had no clue how and when to use
Also, as most of this happened close to a nasty drop near a bunch of
undercut rocks, there were plenty of opportunities to get the line
snagged on or under something...
We decided to stop shaking our heads, and go paddling instead. I arrived
at the put in, and started chatting with one of the "uniforms", while my
buddies got in their boats. I asked him about the kind of course they
were doing, and what they had done so far. His reply almost made me
Most of the group had done *one* weekend on a class II river in the
autumn! However, this summer they were going to do a week in the Durance
region, and they were told that they would paddle some of the class V
rivers in the area, like the Guil and the Ubaye! After expressing my
doubts, he became less gung-ho, and remarked that the "experts" in the
group were going to run those harder stretches... Hmmmm. I had not seen
any experts amongst them, and that includes the "coaches" I had seen at
work so far. This guy, and his buddies expressed a lot of respect for
the coaches, and when I asked him what had happened with the tree, he
told me that one of the coaches had given it a shove, after which it had
become necessary to haul it out of the river... <sigh>
As we carefully made our way down the rapid, in between all the ensueing
carnage, I asked someone who was busily waving the next willing victim
(lemming-like) down, if it was customary for them to take absolute
beginners down this stretch of river?
The macho response that I got was not really unexpected, with a very
degenerating look on his face he said:"Oh, just paddle on down, move on,
Interesting... I must have run this stretch of river well over a
hundred times, at all kinds of water levels, but I had never seen such
a massive screw-up there. As Mark, Ralf and I went from eddy to eddy,
Birgit slowly followed. I went down after Ralf, carefully checking that
I wasn't going downstream alongside one of the lemmings.
As I get down the second part of the rapid, towards the second drop, one
of the uniforms comes sailing out of an eddy! Even though he could
clearly see me come down from along way up and we made eye-contact, he
jumps right in my path, *after* I had passed the last eddy before the
drop. I had to evade him, causing me to go through the center of a big
hole. After I witnessed him give instructions to one of the "diving
teams" on shore, I realized that he was an instructor! Another lemming
came flying downstream, with shouts of "paddle! paddle!" coming from
both shores... He flipped, and all the floating debris made its was
towards the diving brigades. It was quite interesting to see the
jumpers completely miss the intended targets because they hadn't read
the water... :-)
Now Mark and Birgit followed, and Birgit flipped going down the seond
drop. She was self rescueing very fast, getting to shore shortly after
her point of swimming and she even tried to hold onto her kayak (big
volume Necky creekboat, dunno the name). After she indicated:"I'm OK!",
we went after the gear. The kayak and paddle both ended under a tree in
a narrow but steep side-channel, so Ralf and I got out of our boats, and
rushed across shore to get both out before they washed downstream. As
Ralf went for the boat, I went for the paddle.
I had only just gotten the paddle out of the water, as a very strange
torpedo entered that piece of water. A big red Prijon T-Slalom,
completely flooded, with someone desperately clinging to the end came
flying into the channel. The boat broached, and the swimming uniform
went partially under the boat, before finding ground under his feet...
To my surprise the dude was still attached to a rope, which now
prevented him from getting up. As the current was moving the boat, there
also was quite a bit of risk of him getting stuck between the boat and
some rocks. He actually tries to lift the boat from the middle, while
the current was still flowing straight into the cockpit!
I gave him some tips, but he played the macho dude and snapped at me:"I
know!". I left him at that, but Ralf was more humane, and actually tried
to help the dude. Ralf lifted one end, trying to get the cockpit out of
the current, and the guy tried (again) to lift the boat from the middle.
I had seen enough, so I talked to Birgit about her experience, and themn
went back to my boat. By the time I had gotten there, two more lemmings
had floated past, both swimming...
Ralf and I talked about the really bad positioning of the diving teams,
and the lack of throwlines being used for actual rescueing by throwing
the line to the swimmers that is, and we just shook our heads again...
We slowly but steadily worked our way downstream, from eddy to eddy,
untill we reached the comparative quiet of the small "lake" in the
middle of the gorge. There, a lone instructor in a Wavesport Forplay was
waiting for boats, paddles and swimmers that made it past the gauntlet
of dicing teams... We witnessed this guy trying to ferry a swimmer
across in this low volume boat, and he had a very hard time indeed, but
after being swept off course a couple of times, he finally made it.
Great rescue boat! Not!
We came across several other paddling groups, mostly Germans, and of
course I chatted a bit, both in eddies and later on shore. They were as
astounded as we at this display of ignorance and incompetence displayed
I had two more runs down the gorge, and even though I tried to get
through the carnage-infested upper part asap, I couldn't help being
apalled time and again at what I saw there. Even now, several hours
later, as I'm typing thuis, I'm still shaking my head.
The Irrel Waterfalls gorge, through which the Pruem river flows, is a
pretty sensitive natural beauty. Because of the herds of commercial
paddlers that clambered up and over the rocks today, the moss, which
covers most of the rocks in the gorge will be gone from most rocks for a
long time to come. Besides that, having clearly unexperienced people
repeatedly jump in a stretch of river that is well known to be riddled
with potholes and undercuts, that is almost asking for accidents.
Accidents may have severe repercussions from the local city counsil, who
sees the gorge as a tourist attraction, and not a white water theme
park. I'm not happy with what I saw today...
BTW: the company involved is C&P buitensport, a Belgian outdoor company.
I have cc:'d this trip report to the e-mail address that I found on
their site, as well as to the paddling buddies who were with me today.
I'm curious to hear how (and if) C&P try to defend themselves from
The good side to this day was that I had a lot of fun paddling with my
German paddling buddies. :-)