Friday morning I got an email from some friends at the local university paddling club “Levitas” if I wanted to join them for a one day kayaking trip to the Upper Rur near Monschau in Germany. With all the snow that had fallen the last weeks and the predicted temperature of 10 degrees Celsius, that could mean only one thing: All rivers in the Eifel in Germany and the Ardennes in Belgium would be having lots of water, maybe even flood levels for some of them. Some flood levels were already reported on the news.
The upper Rur is runnable at 60cm on the pegel, is classified as III+ at high levels > 90, and at 130cm flood levels a IV- with possible problems at the bridges in Monschau. It’s a short stretch of about 7km, so the plan was to run it twice on the same day. The level in the Rur was rising and was about 90-95cm on friday evening.
After thinking about it for a few minutes I decided to join and canceled my plans for surfing some waves at the ocean on Saturday morning. Ivette was also asked to join, but she wisely decided that this was not for her and that she would stay home.
After work I needed to prepare my Jackson Fun for the trip, making sure I had some decent footrests for my big 6mm neoprene boots. I also wanted to prepare a holding place for my throw rope. Because of a serious lack of time, after a few minutes I decided it would have to wait for another time and just go with it as it was. Which is not that bad, but not so optimal either.
Saturday morning at 6am it was time to get up. After a brief check of the levels, it was at 110cm, a III+. I should be able to handle that, so I got up, packed my gear in the car and drove to Levitas. After half an hour of packing bags, putting kayaks on a trailer and some other stuff, we drove to Monschau, a trip of almost 4 hours, including some pitstops and not finding the right entrance road near Reichenstein, the parking lot at the put-in.
Around lunchtime we arrived, changed into our gear, drove the cars around and we were ready to hit it. One of the experienced guys had a real playboat and a creeker with him and asked me what I was paddling today. As I had only my Jackson Fun with me (I hadn’t boated in my ancient Riot Glide since summer, so that was not a good choice for me and I don’t have a creekboat yet), I pointed to my Fun. He decided he would grab his Jackson AllStar and have some playboating fun on the river. It was his first time on the Rur, as it was my first time. At the end of the day we would have advised each other differently
We had a group of eleven and divvied up in 2 groups, each group had some experienced and less experienced people in them. I was asked if i could be a trip leader for one group, but after pointing to my boat, somebody else in a semi-creeker got that job.
The start of the Rur didn’t seem so bad, but we were warned that after the corner you better be ready for some fast flowing water with some wave trains. Not thinking much about it, we just started with sledging over the snow into the water and into the first eddy. After some group organization we got going.
The first part went alright, flowing nicely along the middle, but most eddies were really small or non existent. The normal eddies behind trees disappeared at this level and a lot of overhanging branches made the best route a bit difficult. This could become an interesting trip. At the first point in this river indicated as a bit harder we should have eddied out and scout it. Unfortunately we hadn’t discussed the communication signals we would use, and instead of the eddy out signal I believed I got the signal to go left and just run it.
Off course I should have scouted it, but not thinking straight I just paddled down without too much speed and not leaning enough forward. At the hole under the bridge my stern got caught and without speed, I did a backloop. Fortunately I floated out of the hole, waited some seconds and rolled up. Catching my breath from the cold water I paddled into an eddy and waited some minutes before my breathing became a bit normal again.
As I lost the rest of the group, I paddled into the main stream to see where they were, but without the right boating position my edge was caught by the current immediately and I was upside down again. After rolling up and not feeling so well, I decided to wait for another group before trying again. After a while a nice group of Germans got passed me, asked if I was okay, and if I wanted to join them to see if we could find my group again. A couple hundred meters of a bit more normal flowing water later, I saw one of my group walking on the bank downstream. After some discussion with the Germans about how to get back to the parking lot (over the bridge, 800 meters upstream) if we wanted to, they continued on and I got out to check if she was okay.
She had tipped on the same spot as I did my backloop, got out and took a swim for the side. Her boat got dragged along the Rur, which our trip leader grabbed and put in an eddy a couple of hundred meters later. We had a small discussion on the communication signals and that we should have gotten out in the eddy above the stopper.
The next kilometer should be alright for the whole group, so we decided we would go on. After a couple hundred meters downstream while we were in an eddy a green creekboat came floating by, with 2 boaters from the other group chasing it, in order to get it into an eddy. Our tripleader decided to join the rescue, while leaving the three of us in an eddy.
Unsure if the three of us could continue and if we could be rescued if we had to swim, we waited some time to see if our tripleader would reappear. After 15 minutes, I decided to get out and see if i could find out what was happening further downstream. After discussing with the two others to stay put, I walked downstream. After 400 meters I found the experienced guy with the playboat, also not sure where the others were. After some discussion he and I decided that we could continue with the four of us. After walking back and telling the other two, we were a bit hesitant if that was the right plan. If one of us swam, we would have a really hard time to rescue the gear, with the experienced people in two playboats.
After a bit of back and forth, we decided this was not a good plan and I walked back to the experienced guy. At that moment the three rescuers of the green boat came back, telling that they hadn’t succeeded to get it ashore, so it was gone. In the process one of the rescuers got into a hole, did a lot of unintended freestyle tricks, and eventually swam out. That boat and paddle were also gone with the river.
After hearing this story this was enough convincing for me to get out and call it a day. The other two decided the same. The three rescuers and the experienced playboater would finish the course, the rescuer who had lost his boat would take one of the boats of our group as we wouldn’t be needing them anymore. After some photo shots we tied my throw rope to the two boats that were left and pulled them to get to the parking lot where we had started our trip.
Walking back up we crossed another member from the other group that had stopped a bit earlier. He was on the other bank, but seemed to have intentions to get to our side. It was difficult communicating over that distance. However, with only one throw rope and high banks this would not be that easy. Remembering what the German guy had said about a bridge and walking back, we pointed upstream. A hundred meters before the bridge he really wanted to cross, but fortunately we could point him to the bridge, to get this plan out of his head.
After talking to him when he crossed the bridge, we heard the other group had some swimmers, one had paddled the green boat and another had hit a rock with his chest. They had gotten out as well and were probably already at the parking place at the put-in. After walking the last kilometer with my Fun on my shoulder, and the other two boats on the throw rope, we got back to the parking lot.
Talking to an experienced German boater with a big creeker that had done the Upper Rur before at the same levels and preparing to do it again we heard that the levels were already at 130cm and still rising. I realized that maybe it was even better that we stopped when we did.
Our ride was already to the exit point, not expecting that we would get out and walk back. After some phone calls to some friends back home, we got the correct cellphone number and a few minutes later the car with dry clothes was welcomed by us.
The rescuer that had borrowed the boat to get down had another problem, that boat hit a rock, got split in the process and sank to the bottom. Another rescuer got into a hole and also had to swim the last bit. The experienced playboater got both boats to the shore at the take-out. He was the only one that wanted to run it again, but then in his creeker. But wisely he decided to do that the next day, he was already a bit chilly and probably tired from all the rescue stuff and staying upright in his playboat.
2 lost boats, 1 lost paddle, 1 other found paddle, one broken boat, and some bruises and pains were the result of this trip. After loading up, a part of the group decided to check with the stausee (reservoir) at the end of the Rur to see if any of the boats had been found there. We had the trailer and drived directly home. After 3 hours we called to check if the boats were found, but they weren’t yet. Happily today it seems both have been found and not in too bad of a shape.
It was an interesting trip to say the least, with a lot of learning points for me (and others hopefully).
The most important learning points :
- If the levels say flood, expect flood and take the right gear. For me a playboat in such conditions is foolish and it could have gone a lot worse. Take a creeker next time.
- Check your gear, don’t use old plastic boats at such water levels. Apparently old plastic is really soft and can rupture.
- Good paddling clothing gear makes all the difference, I had no cold feet thanks to my 6mm booties, and the dry pants are really nice when sitting or walking through snow, ice and water.
- Make sure you have enough preparation time to prepare for a trip, so your gear is in optimal condition and outfitted the way it needs to.
- Always bring your safety gear, even if you think you won’t need it. The throw rope was handy for towing and getting down a high bank to fetch a paddle.
- If paddling with a group you don’t paddle too often with, or haven’t met before, clearly communicate signals you will use before you start and not after you need them.
- Take telephone numbers of everyone in the group (and emergency numbers) and make sure everyone has a cellphone with full battery’s.
On the Water
- Next time take a bit easier stretch to warm up and then do the hard stretch, instead of just hitting it after just 50 meters. The middle Rur would have been a good warmup and might for some be enough to not do the Upper (myself included with my Fun probably)
- If the levels are rising, expect even more rising during the day. And act according to the highest levels that it will get to.
- Scout,Scout,Scout! Don’t think that because everyone else is running it, you can do it also. Next time I will walk a bit along the bank to see what it’s like.
I’m glad we’re all back together in one piece, with only one broken boat and missing paddle as the result, things could have been a lot worse. Maybe I’ll write a more detailed blog post someday about the safety and rescue stuff that went wrong on the Upper Rur, but most things you can already guess or read in the learning points summary.
For now, enjoy the photos in the gallery and be safe on the water!