Canoeing the Allier River, France

If you are looking for the kind of wilderness experience you can find on a canoe trip in Canada, then France is not the place for you.allier-castleview But if you want to have a different canoeing experience, you could find what many Europeans already know. Instead of remote wilderness, you can paddle through towns that were hundreds of years old when Columbus “discovered” America. Strolling into town to get fresh bread for breakfast, you will discover the other reason people in France drive small cars (many streets are simply too narrow for large ones). And while you are shopping, you may want to try some of the local cheeses and a couple of bottles of wine. We became slightly addicted to chocolate croissants as a mid-morning snack.
We paddled the Allier River the first two weeks of September. I was happy that we were not there earlier because most of the time it was pretty hot, and we had been warned that it can get crowded in the summer. We met a few paddlers, but did not see anybody else who was out on a multi-day trip.allier-butterfly
Actually, the paddling scene we saw was quite amazing. Almost all were out in rented yellow sit-on-tops. And as far as we could tell, none of them had a clue about paddling. That got pretty scary at a low dam that we had to line. Three of the yellow wonders came through while we were there, and we watched in amazement while they bumped their way down the concrete chute, completely out of control and without any protective gear. I can see why the rental boats are outfitted with replaceable bumpers – and I wonder how many people get killed in a season.
Our access to the river started with a flight to Paris and a train to Langeac the next morning. We stayed at allier-whitewaterthe campground in Langeac while we ran two day trips on whitewater sections upstream. Linda and I had hardly been in a canoe this year and proceeded to ram the first rock we saw – we were ok with rock avoidance after that. The next drop looked like a straight forward class II until the canoe in front disappeared rather abruptly. After running a thrilling 5-ft ledge, we decided not to rely too much on the river description and start scouting more carefully.
The drive to the put-in points those two days was almost as much fun as the paddling. We were on a narrow road that ran through farm yards and across ancient bridges. The river runs in a narrow gorge, and the road has twists and turns that rival some of the most “interesting” roads I have driven in Norway.
The one negative part of the trip was the water quality which got worse as we progressed downstream. We were told that some of the apparent pollution was natural, but passing through towns along the river, it was clear that much of the pollution was man made. Fortunately, getting good water was not a problem. We carried water jugs in the canoes, and every day or two we stopped in a village and found someone who was willing to fill them for us.
When we were there the water level was very low. That caused an obvious “navigational challenge”, and less water in the river concentrates the pollution, so the water would have been much cleaner earlier in the season.
At Langeac the river valley widens, but for the first several days of paddling, there are mountains close to the river – and many of those mountains have old ruins that are well worth a hike to take a closer look. As we leave the mountains behind, both the river and the landscape flatten out and more modern development appears, but there are still lots of old towns or structures to remind us that the area has been populated for a very long time.camping-on-the-allier
Traveling down the river from Langeac, we found good campsites well away from people most nights. One island site in particular we’ll remember as one of our all-time favorites. But after a few days it is nice to stop at one of the many campgrounds along the river and get cleaned up. That is one of the little “perks” of traveling in a less remote area. Before the trip, we had been told that camping along the river is not specifically allowed, but it is tolerated in areas away from the towns. We tried to help keep it that way by making sure that each camp site was cleaner when we left than when we found it.
Our trip ended in Vichy partly because there is a dam that is very difficult to get around, partly because a major road crosses the river at the dam site. After careful scouting we did bridge-on-the-Allierfind a way and decided to make a day trip to the next town without gear. That portage was one of our more unusual experiences. We started with a very short carry into a channel that feeds water to a man-made whitewater course. This let us paddle under the road. We took out at the start of the whitewater and used a cart to move the boats to the river below the dam.
Vichy was our second experience with a man-made channel. The first one a couple of days before was a bit more problematic. It started at a dam, and we thought the channel might be an easy way to get back to the river below the dam. That was not quite how it worked. We had a nice tour of the countryside until the navigable channel came to a dead end at a vertical drop between two houses. It complicated our lives quite a bit that there were houses and inaccessible private property downstream on both sides. Finally, somebody took pity on us and showed us where we could get back to the water a good ¼ mile downstream. As it turned out, the portage was not bad. We could carry our boats and gear on a paved road on the left hand side of the channel and got back on the water from a gravel bar under a bridge.
I enjoyed the trip on the Allier. It was nice to be able to stop and spend some extra time wherever we wanted and know that there was no particular place we had to get to. We were never very far from a train line, so transportation to and from the river was not an issue. Transportation for our day trips was made easy by having friends with a van in the area.
The Allier is the largest tributary to the Loire, and it is possible to continue all the way to the sea, which would make a trip of several hundred miles – a pretty good option if you have the time and want a change of pace.
Alv Elvestad

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