By Natalie @ Frogs Rafting, Morzine
Unless you’re living in a box, the fact that we’re in the middle of a heat wave won’t have passed you by. Perhaps it’s the drying-out grass you walk though in the mountains, the dust choking you coming down the bike trails that has drawn your attention to it, or perhaps it’s just that you can’t cool off. The unusually long dry patch hasn’t escaped us on the river either. In a normal summer we run a couple of trips in the morning followed by one in the afternoon, so white water rafting has been what we’ve put most of our energies into. This year the dry conditions have meant that (even after the May floods) the water level in the reservoir at Le Jotty is going down. The impact has been that the hydroelectric power station, which is responsible for releasing water from the reservoir down the Dranse, has had to reduce the hours it can open the flood gates. They are currently opening in the mornings, which means we’re limited to just a couple of trips a day. So we’ve had our afternoons off and Jeremy jumped on the opportunity to explore areas that he’s hardly ever seen without water. The area I’m talking about is the ‘S’ bend starting just before the second tunnel when you head down to Thonon les Bains, an area called Les Ex. We’ve never been able to raft though there because of the potential dangers to swimmers, and even experienced kayakers have to walk around various obstacles there. The risks there are very real at high water as the whole river narrows and the current becomes very strong, and the river runs under huge boulders. When the flood gates are open there’d be no way you could control where you were going, or know what you’re going through. Now however, with the river being at it’s minimum level in the afternoon, Jeremy got himself down there to explore a bit more and find out what’s going on in there. When he’d discovered that it was worth a look, he took me (the guinea pig for Frogs Rafting) exploring yesterday. Here’s how it went.
I got kitted up in a full wetsuit to protect me from rocks, and also because for all it’s hot outside, it’s still fresh in the water. By the time we were ready for off I was hot, sweaty and irritable, but the first dunk sorted me out….We started just before the second tunnel and floated down a couple of rapids, before finding ourselves where no one ever sees, all by ourselves! There is a huge cave which goes under the cliff. This used to be used as a secret place of worship during the Revolution, which gives you an idea of its size. There are enormous boulders littering the river course, making you feel very tiny, and when the water rests between them they form deep pools, around which the rocks form perfect jumps for beginners, (2ms) up to pretty big stuff (7-9ms). There’s still enough of a flow to allow you to float down some rapids, but when the water reaches an eddie, it’s calm enough to float around, a bit like a natural swimming pool. Jeremy has often explained to me why we can’t go through this area when the water’s high: there are ‘syphons’ he tells me, and you don’t want to get sucked through them. Having no idea what a syphon was, I imagined a whirlpool that would whisk me away, never to be seen again. Yesterday I learned all about the Syphons of the Ex, and actually swam through a couple! It turns out syphons aren’t so scary when there’s no water. The ones I saw yesterday are big boulders resting on one another, making a hollow that is normally covered in water. When the water’s higher you could get dragged under, through the hole, going where the river goes. If there’s nothing stuck in there you’d pop up at the other side which would be scary enough, however if trees or other debris get wedged in there you and you couldn’t pass through, you would not pop out the other side, hence the danger. Yesterday I could see all the way through the syphons which was beautiful, and quite awe inspiring, when you realise exactly what they are, and how they can be such a hazard. Swimming through the tunnels into the blue-green pools is like swimming through a natural maze, and when we got out at the end we were only 500ms from where we’d parked the van!
Spending pretty much every day in summer taking pictures beside the river, and I’m often struck by how beautiful it is, and how lucky I am. Yesterday though it was a different experience – rather than watching rapids and water speed past carrying rafters, hydrospeeders and kayakers, it was lovely to stay in one place and jump, swim and explore more. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in learning more about we’re proposing gorge walking trips through Les Ex from 40euro pp, in the afternoons when there’s no water. Do contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org, or 0033 (0) 609 308 077 if you’d be interested in finding out more about it.
Please do not be tempted to explore on your own: it is essential that you go with a fully certified guide who knows the Dranse River and the opening times of the dam that controls the river. The area we walk through is beautiful, but the dangers there are very real when the flood gates are open.