The little Seine in a kayak27 mn de lecture

At the beginning

A realistic summer project: going down the Petite Seine. That is to say the part of the river that starts from its source and flows to the town of Montereau, not far from my home, where the waters then feed what is called the Upper Seine. 

I thought: in July, easy! Sunshine, heat, swimming, a vacation feeling. In my impatience, I even wrote a promising article that you can (re)read below.

The Petite Seine

Before going to explore by kayak the upper part of the famous river called the Petite Seine, which starts from the source but is navigated a little lower, let’s do some useful

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Alas!

The adventure turned out to be short-lived due to weather that was not very conducive to kayaking and self-supporting bivouacs.

The fault of this ☠️ 🧨 🕷🔪⚡️ ☔️ 🤮 July 2021!

Okay. But past the frustration and comic swearing, we still had three days of beautiful discovery that I offer you an illustrated account of. Because the Petite Seine is incredibly photogenic, wild, crystalline, and it would be a shame to miss it, even on abandonment. Let’s go : on the road!

At the source

As mentioned in the above article, I have been very organized. You bet: a school year without an outing! I made some preparations on the office carpet…

On the scheduled day – finally – my wife drives me on the highway to Troyes, then we drive on the National Road 71.

As we pass through the fields, I cast an anxious eye on the cloudy developments.

For a week now, all the weather sites I consulted have been promising me rain, rain and more rain. Not fun.

Curiously, I ignore them.

Giving in to the temptation of magical thinking, thirsty for escape and solitude, I can’t believe that already deprived of crossing the Morvan in spring because of confinement, I would have to stay home again this time for two or three poor statistically hypothetical showers. I can’t believe it. I don’t believe it. So it won’t rain.

And besides, if the sky remains low and heavy, after all it still doesn’t rain while we drag ourselves behind a tractor.

Proof that it’s going to be ok, right?

Well. Or not. 

Come on, it won’t last. Let’s stay optimistic, what the hell!

Here is another evidence : the rain stops while we arrive not far from the source. A sign.

We drive on a tiny road, between farm buildings, and then, in this end of the world, we arrive in… Paris.

I will have to be told one day the administrative trick of this curious annexation. Anyway.

We discover a pretty park, which one could believe of district, and which is used as case to a small network of walks.

We cross there first a panel which teaches us a whole heap of things. Written in french, sorry, but you can get all the explanations you want by clicking on this link.

We discover the Seine at its origin, which we can have fun straddling, to be Gulliver for one day.

And then, at one end of the walk, in a grotto of rocaille style, we discover a sculpture that adorns a fountain of translucent water. It is Sequana, the nymph, inevitably languid – like all rococo nymphs – and who snubs the visitor with her postage-stamp profile.

I am fascinated by the transparency of the water in the basin. It looks like a mountain lake. I wonder if the Seine will have this purity, a few kilometers further. 

We take the road in the opposite direction and Carole drops me off at the campsite of Châtillon where I set up camp.

Then we will locate the places of my possible launching of tomorrow.

Here, the bank is too high to go down comfortably. 

My wife abandons me to my research: she has two hundred kilometers waiting for her to return. I continue alone.

From a bridge, I see a more accessible shore. The water is as clear as at the source. One would drink it.

The launch will be perfect here. One point settled. Let’s continue the walk before going back to the campsite. Another river feeds the Seine: the Douix. 

His sources are not far away. Let’s have a look.

Here again, the water is remarkably transparent. At the foot of the limestone cliff, we see a passage under the rock. A sign tells me that this gallery can be explored over 18O immersed kilometers, sometimes blocked by rockslides; on the parking lot, while we were trying to reach the campsite, we indeed saw divers packing their equipment. Intrigued, on the way back, I came across several videos: this one is not bad and gives a good idea of what can be under the cliff.

As a new shower spreads its fine rain, I unfold my umbrella and enter the small town overlooked by an old keep.

The rain passes and a shy sun appears again, which offers me interesting photographic contrasts, for example on the church which adjoins the keep.

After walking around downtown, I retrace my steps and climb up the hill on worn stairs that wind between the old houses.

At the top, the anthracite clouds are gradually leaving and bits of blue sky appear. The sun warms up and offers me a nice view on the roofs of Châtillon.

I go back to the campsite to take a shower and make myself dinner, sitting on the kayak folded in its bag.

Then, as it is still early and that a beautiful golden light nimbs now the landscape, I decide to return to the city for a digestive and photographic stroll.

I offer myself a beer at the terrace of a bar, then I go up while enjoying the colors of the setting sun.

Then, with my things carefully folded in case of a night rain, I slip into my sleeping bag. See you tomorrow!

Second day : Châtillon - Courteron

After a night of average quality – I was cold all night, the thermometer passing under the ten degrees, and I slept badly by successive slices of one or two hours – I had breakfast and folded the camp, then I left on foot by carrying my 25 kilos to the place located the day before.

I inflate the kayak in the sun, in the grass, then, after a small passage of nettles in swimsuit – I missed it since the Loing – I embark.

It’s ten o’clock, and I’m finally on the Petite Seine!

The slight current is very pleasant. The intermittent rains since June, although painful, have had the advantage of making the water level very sufficient. This is a good omen.

I pass under an old bridge, where a small natural weir makes a mini overflow.

Having surfed it safely, I turn around to take a picture of it, and I find that the scenery has taken on a bit of a post-apocalyptic look. But hey, everything is fine, no zombies in sight. Let’s continue.

Spinning on the light current, I take advantage of the wooded environment and the song of the birds. Then the flow slows down, the water becomes a mirror: we should arrive at a dam.

Here: what was I saying.

I land easily on the concrete border and inspect the place to find a passage. There are several thresholds, but they are too high to risk with the canoe, especially since the one that seems the least dangerous is bristling with a trunk stranded at its arrival, 1m50 lower, which offers me a welcome in the form of a worrying stake.

A small footbridge on my right indicates a possibility of bypassing, but I prefer here to lower the kayak with the rope. At the bottom, a slightly submerged step will allow me to re-embark easily.

Back on the water, I let myself go in the current and I take the opportunity to go and see the weirs more closely, which suck me into their recall and make the following photo a bit complicated to take.

Further on, after the passage of another bridge, I take advantage of the ambient calm and the small declivities which make the paddling easy and pleasant.

In favor of a gravel beach, I offer myself a meditative break.

The quality of the water is incredible. Its clearness is such that I have the impression to observe a river which comes from another time. The one before the Industrial Revolution and its heavy pollution.

Further on, I enter an area of tree-lined fields. 

I pass – without being able to take a picture of them with my phone – families of ducks that run away when I arrive, a coypu that crosses like an otter in front of me and goes to hide in willow roots, a grey heron that I disturb and that takes off…

Apart from the lapping of the water and the singing of the birds: no human noise. Not even a plane in the sky. Happiness.

Then again the current slows down, the Seine widens. I pass while lying down in the canoe under a very low bridge…

And I arrive in sight of a new dam. The sight reminds me of the paintings of a landscape painter from Nemours, Ernest Gaston Marché (1864-1932), whose river scenes I like very much, especially the Loing. But I’m getting lost. Let’s go back to the dam. What about it?

Well, a priori impassable. Damn.

I come in and see if there is a way to get through after the valves. Obviously, no. I could take the kayak down with the rope, but then I would have no way to reach it, except by jumping – risky – or by climbing down the wall, hands on the thorny vegetation and its splinters – not good. Let’s look further.

At the foot of a footbridge that joins the road, I glimpse a possibility. A small reach overgrown with water lilies communicates with the pond. 

I go down the kayak in the vegetation, taking advantage of the passage that it creates me to avoid the nettles of the bank…

Then I embark for a brief moment, before putting my feet in the water a little further to cross a short threshold of outcropping rocks.

I then continue my aquatic route, taking advantage of the current and the small rapids which make navigation really pleasant.

A father and his four or five year old daughter, from the top of a bridge, give me smiling handsigns to which I respond with pleasure.

Then, after yet another small threshold, I saw a new beach and took advantage of it to have a break to eat.

When I set off again, the sky becomes hazy again. The light becomes more dull and I approach a big farm, imposing like a castle at the edge of the river.

A new dam, then. A dubious crossing. Not enough water to pass directly : I risk to get stuck on the rocks below.

The end of the reservoir is blocked by a small footbridge with worn boards. On the other side, a grassy area seems to me to be suitable for landing. Let’s go.

Shortly after this roadblock, at the entrance to the town of Etrochey, I come across a new obstacle that scandalizes me. I can’t believe my eyes.

Under an old rusty steel footbridge, someone has strung a double row of barbed wire!

A little current, some barbed wire, an inflatable kayak: you see the problem?

I have already read on several specialized forums that this practice is unfortunately frequent on many French rivers: owners, jealous of their small plot of land, barricade the rivers of which they appropriate the passage.

Besides being dangerously irresponsible, it is also totally illegal.

That’s fine. But for now, how do we do it?

I put away the camera phone and approach cautiously, back-packing. Fortunately, the current is very small and there is no risk of me drowning on the spikes – which are relatively recent because they are not yet rusty.

I place myself perpendicularly to the metal post of the footbridge, my left hand holding the barbed wire between the spikes, then I see a possible passage, towards the right bank. There, the lower barbed wire is straightened: by lying down in the kayak, and by lifting the wire with one hand without skinning myself, I should pass. 

And I pass and the current catches me. Phew. Relieved, but still outraged by what I have just encountered, I now walk along houses whose boundary walls plunge right into the water, without respecting the obligatory bank easement. If it is this small community that has organized itself to block the river, I wish them a good old devastating flood.

Crossing an old bridge, I move on.

The tree-lined banks are fragrant with vegetation. The water does not smell at all like mud. On the contrary, it is lively and clear. I can see trout!

Then I enter a succession of meanders bordered by fields where herds graze.

Feet in the water or in height, cautious, the cows look at me passing.

We chat a little. At least, mostly me. I must not be putting the tonic in the right place on the moo because I don’t get many answers.

That said, it’s a good thing there are cows, even if they are mute, because the few miles across the fields end up being monotonous.

Although picturesque.

Where we find the influence of Ernest Marché already mentioned above.

I arrive on a new small dam, of which I evaluate the possibility of a direct crossing and which indeed lends itself to it, on the other side of this heap of debris of branches.

Then cows, again, who follow me with their big curious eyes.

After a while, I find the current and the mini weirs crossed without any problem, then the banks tighten and I enter a section with a Guyanese atmosphere.

I can’t always avoid the trees, even when I lean forward. I then collect insects, leaves, dried fruits like wood, twigs and small branches…

The stream widens again, but to reveal other obstacles in the form of uprooted trees.

Sometimes I can slalom easily…

Other times – only one, in fact – it is so inextricable that I get shagged out among the branches while moving as best I can in their labyrinth. It’s a pain in the ass. But finally: it passes.

After a new time of navigation in quiet waters, I hear the characteristic rumble of a new weir which seems to pass partly under a footbridge.

On the right, impassable valves. On the left, it looks pretty good. The rumbling is quite loud, so I approach the dam to see what it looks like. It’s ok. Nothing bad. Three weirs and some broth. Let’s have a laugh.

Except that as I was about to dive, I realized – too late – that a trunk carried by the current was blocked in the middle. Hell!

And there, I made two nice beginner mistakes : first, instead of trusting the water and letting the current carry me, I paddled to avoid the obstacle, which obviously rushed me right over it ; second, I got stuck perpendicularly to the current, very strong, and instead of paddling my way out, I leaned on the sill behind.

Immediate result: the kayak turns over and I am stuck underneath. Luckily, I have about a foot. In apnea, I lift my boat to put it back in the direction of the water and the rope in one hand, the paddle in the other, I abandon myself to the river which takes us ten meters further, to the calm finally found.

I swim to the shore, pulling the stuff, then I get back on my feet and pull the canoe against a low wall, at the bottom of the gates. I take off my sweater and my T-shirt, soaked. It is cold. I lost my new cap – another cap sacrifice on the altar of the Idle Fantasies! cf An hiking tour in Oisan – and my water bottle, which I had not tied, floats between two waters, captive of the current of recall.

I pity the loss of my cap – indispensable if it rains – but I console myself by realizing that I had done well to attach my glasses with a cord: otherwise, ciao the vision of distance. The two waterproof bags, solidly secured, did not move.

Dried, but vexed, I recovered my water bottle and set off again to, shortly after, meet a new weir, in Mussy sur Seine. The jump seems a bit high but never mind: all the riders know that after a fall without gravity, you have to get back on the horse right away. Let’s go!

And it works, at the most left – that is to say right out of the picture. This time, I let myself go with the movement of the water without trying to fight against it. I’m taking on quite a bit of water, of course, but I’ve got my Neoprene shirt on and my swimsuit is still soaking wet. So no worries. And then my kayak is self-bailing – which means that it evacuates all the water on board, even by buckets.

On an island, I photograph the ruins of this old mill, in a pictorial atmosphere that makes me think of the pre-impressionist painters. Ernest Marché in mind, again him.

The sun returns a little further. At the exit of Mussy, I see a bench from the water. I stop against the current and go ashore. There, I took advantage of the returning sun to dry my stuff and eat a bit, to inspect the content of the waterproof bags and, incidentally, to be bitten by a voracious horsefly that bit me through the Neoprene and that I thanked with a vigorous slap followed by a finish with the sandal.

Snacking makes me feel better. I was hungry. It’s not late yet – only five o’clock – but I’ve been paddling for seven hours and I’m starting to feel tired.

And I also wonder where I’m going to sleep. Not here, anyway.

Let’s resume our descent. 

A new roar of water warns me of an upcoming dam. As usual, I pull over to the side of the low wall along the gates to see if the direct descent is possible. It is. At first sight. It bubbles a bit, it’s a bit high, but let’s go anyway. 

And it goes through! Soaking wet, but still sitting in the kayak at the end. Fun!

The sun now seems to want to settle down. Its rays play through the branches of the trees in golden grapes that ricochet on the yellow water lilies.

Then I arrive at Plaine-st-Lange, whose exit is very problematic. I first pass on the left side of a clean, flowery island, with a mown lawn, which I don’t know if it is a park or a private property. A whole network of valves surrounds a half-dry basin.

At the end, impossible to pass: an insurmountable barrier forbids the access to the water. I land anyway in the mud, along the wall of a property, but this wall is itself blocked by another one. Obligatory half-turn.

Going around the island again, I see industrial buildings.

At the end, a new and implacable observation: no way.

I deactivate the airplane mode on my phone and find the story of Michel and Jacques, the two kayakers whose experience I mentioned in my preparatory article.

I recognize the hydroelectric plant facing me. My predecessors have passed on the left. Let’s dock on the grass and have a look.

I rope down the canoe, then I pass over the limestone blocks which then make a perfect step to re-embark.

Thanks for the tip, Michel and Jacques!

A little further on, I go along an impressive place, La Gloire-Dieu, an old fortified farm which integrates a monastery of the twelfth century – and of which I will discover at the time of the drafting of this article, that is to say later, that it is also a bed and breakfast.

For the moment, I ignore it more especially as I see only the monastery of the twelfth century and that I am in search of a place of bivouac, not of a spiritual retreat.

That I do not find. The place of bivouac, not the retreat. The banks are high, steep, which is confirmed by the contour lines on my map application.

So I continue along the current, and I end up arriving at Courteron.

Nice view on the village in a dead end.

I go to the end and land on a clean pier. I walk back up the alley and then retrace my steps. Obviously, my road will not pass by here: on my left, another power station forbids me any access.

I take the kayak again and go upstream to a dam that I saw on my way in, bristling with bushy vegetation.

There again, as so many times during the day, I take foot on the concrete coping to inspect the possibility of a crossing. There is only one: high and bubbling, but without dangerous junk at the landing. Come on, it’s worth a try.

I jump in and splash around, I don’t drown but I am well soaked.

The place is magnificent. I recognize it for having seen it in Michel and Jacques’ pictures.

© Michel S, Jacques S, 2014

Since their passage, seven years ago, the vegetation has grown enormously and now hides most of the waterfalls, except the one on the left on the picture, by which I arrived.

I then go around a trunk lying across the stream and I see a tiny beach, which I approach.

I look at my watch: 6:45 pm. A glance at the map also proves me that nobody will come to disturb me here. I am on the edge of an island, surrounded by water, and the access to this part, even by kayak, is quite rock n’ roll.

So I found my bivouac (left top of the red triangle on the map).

I set up the tent – putting the stakes in the sand is a bit tricky – I dry myself, improvise a hanging, put on dry clothes and prepare dinner: macaroni with three cheeses. Yummy – and the author’s silly smile to conclude this beautiful day.

Third day : Courteron - Bar sur Seine

Stunned by the fatigue, and in spite of the noise of the waterfall, I fall asleep while it is still light. But in the middle of the night, again like the day before, I am awakened by the wet cold. I sleep with pants, warm sweater and socks, and it seems to me that the temperature is less low than yesterday. But nothing to do, I shiver in my too light comforter. I put on my windbreaker, which warms me up – I should have done it before – and I go back to sleep until 4:30 am. There, I wait a little bit to see if the sleep will come back but nothing to do, my night is over. On my phone, I check the weather forecast: showers from 7 am.

It’s five o’clock. Let’s optimize.

I go out in the chilly dawn. My breath smokes like in the middle of winter.

Camp dismantled and partially repacked, I have lunch of a hot muesli whose warmth makes me feel good. An eye on the cloud formations, however not very worrying. Optimistic even.

Once again, I summon the magic thought: I don’t want it to rain, so it won’t. And until half past six, I believe it. At least… I think I believe it. Which is the same as not believing, fatally. I know, it’s a little confusing. I didn’t sleep well.

And at seven o’clock sharp, the time predicted by my favorite and hated, because reliable, weather application – Yr, once advised by a camping neighbor in Stockholm – the surface of the water is covered with unambiguous circular waves.

It is raining. Ah. 

But hey. Everything is packed up. The rain remains reasonable, the current carries the kayak without too much effort… Come on. What’s up?

Except that the rain is getting more intense. 

I take shelter for a moment under an old disused boathouse, which borders the river. I watch the rain splashing on the surface of the water. Well. So what? I can’t stay there all day. 

A corollary of the rain is that I am reluctant to open my waterproof bag, in which I place the camera phone. So I take less pictures than yesterday. Unless my heart is not there anymore? Oh no! Do not give in to the ambient greyness. On the road again! Let’s continue our way. And the first one who adds « Of the Cross  » leaves the classroom. Bet ya.

So I set off again, trying to take advantage of the relative shelter of the hornbeam and beech trees planted on the banks.

After some time, I arrive at my first dam of the morning.

Impossible to pass directly: not enough water.

So I see an angle on the right, where I can easily lower my boat by hand.

And then… Fatigue? Lack of vigilance? I miscalculate my movement at the moment of re-boarding and plop: the kayak and its pilot turn over. There, on the left of the branch on the picture. Complete broth, head included.

Usually, I get along with myself pretty well. But now I’m auto-raising hell with me : how dumb do you have to be, you schmuck, ah really complete idiot, and so on…

I’m now soaked and my spare tops haven’t dried since yesterday, so I’m condemned to sail in wet clothes, while the rain persists and the air temperature reaches a ceiling of seventeen degrees – the same as the water temperature. Advantage: when you dive, you are not particularly surprised. 

I go back to the current, pestering and chattering my teeth, gradually warming up while paddling – regretting moreover the loss of my cap which would have usefully protected my glasses. I try to smile, but frankly…

That being said, and in spite of conditions not very favourable to « nautical leisure », navigation on the Seine remains really pleasant. In good weather, it must be really nice : there is a lot of current, fed by a lot of springs that I see flowing from everywhere in small rapids that run on the right and on the left, in a very pleasant forest and aquatic atmosphere.

There are still some obstacles, from time to time, otherwise it would be too simple… 

… but apart from that, the kayak goes without too much effort to the entrance of Neuville sur Seine, where the grey weather makes the scenery vaguely sinister.

After the bridge, the Seine divides into two arms. I don’t really feel the left one: it seems to me to go towards an old mill – thus a possible danger – but the right one is forbidden by a dam. So I go to the left, frowning, until on my right I see a weir. I rush there with my paddle because I prefer to pass by there rather than to continue towards some infernal machine crushing kayak and kayakists.

The jump of this natural threshold is funny and I take a few liters of water at the arrival. Don’t care. Already soaked. At least, I have fun.

Continuing my way, I see the exit of the other arm: no mill wheel but two half-opened gates, where the current would have rushed me and stuck me. I did well to be wary.

The rain loses strength, while I paddle along the current. There is only a kind of fine drizzle. My upper body is not really cold anymore and I am not shivering, but my legs are bristling with goose bumps. 

After another weir, higher than the previous one, but well negotiated…

I stop for a break.

The place is not great. It’s probably more of a rental canoe pick-up place than a rest area.

I look at the map. I’m not far from Bar sur Seine. Continue? Stop? There’s a campsite at the entrance, but the idea of pitching a tent in the rain and taking a warm shower doesn’t appeal to me much. And then the impossibility to dry my stuff there is prohibitive. A quick online search allows me to find a hotel, not far from the Seine, in the heart of the city: I think that I could usefully stop there and enjoy a cozy night in dry sheets… Let’s think about it: I should be there around 10:30 am. By the time I pack up the gear, it will be 11 o’clock. Too early? Well, if the hotel can’t accommodate me right away, I’ll wait in a bar.

Well. 

I only stopped for five minutes but I’m shivering again, chilled. Come on: I have to get moving again.

After a passage on a widened Seine, I arrive in sight of an umpteenth dam, which I am obliged to cross with the rope.

When I get back in the boat, I am careful not to make the same mistake I did in the morning, i.e. to turn the kayak over with me in it. I don’t have a sense of running-gag today.

Then I continue on the Seine, wider than before, sometimes made of meanders punctuated by gravel beaches, in a landscape of wooded hills, sometimes lined with properties and big trees soaked by the rain – which comes back in force. When I arrive at Bar sur Seine, the downpour increases in intensity. I run up against a dam, then I turn around in a cul de sac blocked by a factory.

Opposite the dam, on my right, there is a nice grassy park, whose access is defended by low gates. Impossible to enter. This is not intended to prevent kayakers from landing, but rather to prevent distracted city dwellers from falling into the water… 

Speaking of falling in the water, well, my project is taking a hit.

My glasses are soaked, just like the rest. I’m cold, despite the movement. In short: I’m fed up. And not only a little. I see an opening that gives onto a small tarred handball court. I put the canoe away along the bank…

Then I pull the stuff on the gravel and I go to take shelter, relatively, under the big oak of a nearby garden, whose branches exceed the fence.

New self-portrait, to keep the moved memory of these minutes of happiness…

Then I make a makeshift mini-tent by wedging my umbrella on the top of the gate and holding it with the paddle. After that, I undress, under the circumspect look of municipal employees who smoke not far away, near their truck.

Ah : I forgot an important precision. I myself quit smoking, after forty years of regular addiction: and I quit on last Saturday. Obviously, in these circumstances, I don’t miss cigarettes at all at all at all at all… Anyway.

Then, kayak deflated and folded, dry clothes of the night put on, glasses wiped, I think by consulting the weather forecast. I settle on Troyes, a city halfway along my route.

The verdict is clear.

A real disaster for the next four days.

What to do?

On the one hand, pride. Don’t give up. On the other hand, wisdom: all I’ll manage to do, besides not enjoying it, is to catch a good bronchitis. And I need my bronchial tubes, in ten days, to go diving in the Mexican caves.

Dilemma.

Let’s make a decision. I call for help and then I go to a bar to wait for my wife to come and get me.

Drinking two hot chocolates, I console myself by saying that I will come back to finish this journey, another summer less spoiled by this ☠️ 🧨 🕷🔪⚡️ ☔️ 🤮 weather!

That’s it.

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