Canyon echoes and river travel – SUP’ing in a Spanish nature reserve

SUP'ing down the river gorge in Congost de Montrebei national park

Canyon echoes and river travel – SUP’ing in a Spanish nature reserve

Adventure begins when things go wrong.

Scrambling down the steep slope, our heavy packs force us to choose our footing with care. At the bottom, river mud is baked and cracked on the surface, but fragile and insubstantial. Our first steps break through, sinking to our knees occasionally.

Leaving some essential snacks with the river team who will be making their way down the river on Stand Up Paddleboards, I shoulder my pack, departing on foot to hike to our planned rendezvous later. Ahead of us lies the stunning Congost de Montrebei national park. As I hike uphill, I can hear the whistling of air being pumped into paddle boards.

I’m barely at the edge to the canyon before I hear shouts of joy from high above. A hundred meters away on the Aragonese side of the canyon, ribbons of green and orange flicker in the sunlight. The climbers, hidden in the various folds and curves of the wall. Soon, many of the climbing areas will be clear of human voices, instead a refuge for a host of nesting vultures and eagles.

Climbers as well as SUP’ers take advantage of this stunning gorge. Photo © Adri Martinez

Deeper into the canyon, the cliff face curves over my head, as the path narrows. Wire cables anchored to the wall, providing reassurance and a lifeline for those who fear the void mere metres away.Far below the water turns into glorious shades of Prussian Blue as the sunlight finally clears the ridgeline. Snippets of Catalan words echo up the walls from the river. Voices blending together, becoming muddled, their original meaning lost.

Far below me, moving at deceptive speed, the SUP team dip their paddles in rhythm. The trail widens, and bends towards the forest again, I turn to stare in awe at the beauty of the landscape. This rough hewn hiking track, constructed by hand pales in comparison to the majesty of the canyon. Its walls carved into wondrous shapes, all smooth lines and curves, banded with colour. The bands displaying geological forces and timelines beyond most of our comprehension.

Unfortunately this beautiful landscape, like so many others are in danger. All around are the signs of massive drought, none more stark than the water level. Where normally, the river rises almost to the forest edge, now it’s almost 20 metres lower.

For those who still think climate change doesn’t exist or have an impact on our landscapes and livelihoods, just go to the areas most affected by the changes. Here, in this gorge the river levels are down. On the other side of the planet, whole islands are about to be consumed by a sea that has risen less than a metre. Now imagine what a 20 metre sea level rise would mean for billions of people.

With the river far below its normal level, I descend on a fixed rope to a floating pontoon, anchored in a cove. Gingerly I place my backpack on the Tandem SUP, our food for the journey carefully cached inside. As Chuan paddles us out into the slow current, we hear a splash behind. A sleek dark shape flows underneath, chasing carp in the depths.

We find a giant wave of stone, formed into a small cave around the next corner. The perfect place for our lunchtime refuel. Firing up the stove, and unpacking insulated containers, we soon have our simple tapas of Trinxat (click here for the recipe).

While cooking, some of the team is at the river edge, filtering water for the next leg of the journey. Bellies full, hydrated, and water bottles topped up, the team deposit me on the bank once more to continue my hike. As the sun wanes, I’m outside the national park, waiting for the team at the rivers edge, but something has changed.

This morning the river was placid, slow moving, shifting in colour from clear to green to light blue. Now it’s grey brown, with tiny rapids starting to form. Far upstream, on of the power companies has opened sluices, the currents carrying mud, stones and small bits of debris. Then the call comes over the radio. The team has had to beach their SUPs far downstream, unable to paddle against the increased current. With the water levels far below the norm, between the team and I now lie kilometres of soft mudflats. Post-holing and crawling through hip deep mud, while dragging a twenty kilo SUP is exhausting work. What should have been an easy paddle now becomes an adventure.

For now my job is to check in with them at regular intervals to make sure they’re safe, and have food and water ready for when they arrive. Hours later, they round the corner, on the opposite side of the river.

We’re only thirty metres apart, but first they have to ferry glide across a much faster current. Faces and hands streaked with dried mud, the team pull their paddle boards up the last few metres and crumple to the ground. Chests heaving, but with mile wide grins, they flip over onto their backs, elated.

Tonight we feast on slow cooked Catalan stew, and sleep under moonlight, ready for whatever tomorrow brings.

Words by Kieran Creevy and Photos by Lisa Paarvio