Whitewater Activists: Can Kayaking Save The Wild Rivers Of Europe?

THE DAMMED
SOCA RIVER – SLOVENIA AND ITALY

Crashing through the Kool-Aid blue whitewater of Slovenia’s Soča River, we dodge car-sized limestone boulders and paddle our kayaks onward in joy. With the snow-dappled Julian Alps towering above, and dense blankets of forest crawling up from both sides of the river, the Soča contains the most beautiful rapids in Europe, arguably the world.

 

Albania’s Moroca River: still free from mountain to sea, but for how long? Photo: Andraž Fijavž Bačovnik

Words: Carmen Kuntz

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As the whitewater mellows, we crack celebratory beers and float along in bliss until the flow under our boats slows, and then stops. A massive span of concrete – the Podselo Dam – plugs the river ahead, turning the deepest section of the Soča gorge into a stagnant reservoir.

We shoulder our boats and start walking, twenty kayakers carrying boats past what used to be beautiful whitewater. Half an hour later, feeling more like a rock climber than a whitewater kayaker, I’m wedged on a rocky ledge high above the river, eye level with the 20-story, algae-stained concrete wall that chokes the mighty Soča. We rope up the boats and lower them down into the shallow trickle below.

This isn’t your usual weekend whitewater trip. It’s a paddling protest aimed at protecting the last free-flowing rivers in Europe from ending up trapped behind concrete like the Soča. This is the Balkan Rivers Tour, where kayaking, beer drinking and fun goes hand in hand with ecology, environmental conservation and political protest. As our boats hit the defeated water after the dam, I could feel my anger stirring, swirling, building…

 

 

Since founding the Balkan Rivers Tour, Rok Rozman, has become a kind of Lorax for the rivers, speaking on their behalf. During 2016, BRT’s inaugural year, the crew paddled 23 rivers in six countries, protesting and partying along the way. After helping stop six dams in the Balkans, the tour was deemed a success. BRT2 was born.

An eclectic mix of creatives, the BRT team is made up of an almost entirely Slovenian crew who share a love for wild spaces and strong opposition to capitalism. Other than myself, the Canadian writer, three Slovenian professional kayakers, a pessimistic designer, a 4-foot-tall photographer, a policy watchdog, a marketing whiz and three dedicated filmers create this wild team on a wild ride.

“After witnessing the destruction, loss and irreversible damage as a result of dam development, my priorities have shifted. I wonder why it’s taken me so long to engage in river conservation. Why aren’t more kayakers involved in conservation?”

When planning the second tour for the spring of 2017, Rozman decided to focus on paddling just two rivers, but running them from their high mountain sources, all the way to the sea. First up, the heavily dammed Soča River in Slovenia and Italy, followed by the free-flowing Morača-Bojana River system in Montenegro and Albania. In between its two source-to-sea protests, the BRT team explored the kayaking, skiing and fishing potential of Greece, Albania and Montenegro.

. . .

After abseiling around the Podselo Dam, we continue paddling the Soča and run into six more dams in four days, forcing us to portage around weirs or scrape kayaks over concrete. From the raw, wild energy of whitewater to the dead water below a dam, we experience a physical understanding of how dams fragment rivers. We watch the Soča lose her clear, aqua hue, and notice that fish no longer dash beneath our boats. Hydro is referred to as ‘green energy,’ but we are seeing firsthand that the destruction it causes is anything but environmentally friendly.

 

When the river is dammed, we walk. Photo: Andraž Fijavž Bačovnik

Hours of paddling pass in quiet reflection disturbed by moments of mayhem orchestrating riverside press conferences, meetings, interviews, events and concerts. These stops are critical as the presence of foreign paddlers and bright kayaks draw local media attention and international awareness. Coverage of the first tour was instrumental in stopping the mega hydro project on the mighty Vjosa River, the last, big, free-flowing river of Europe.

During media pit stops I notice that most journalists and broadcasters who cover the story are female. The Balkans are known for being a macho and male-dominated culture, so I’m surprised to see so many ladies behind the cameras, notebooks and microphones, telling this controversial story. When it’s my turn to conduct interviews, I discover that other than Rozman, most NGO’s in the Balkans, including those tackling the contentious issues of hydropower and corruption, are nearly all led and managed by women.

 

THE SOON-TO-BE DAMMED
VALBONA RIVER, ALBANIA

After paddling into the Adriatic Sea in Italy, we hop a ferry south to explore the still free-flowing but threatened rivers of Greece, Albania and Montenegro. In each village, the chaotic collision of history and natural beauty illustrates the strong connection between locals and their rivers. Paddling modern whitewater kayaks through ancient villages and endemic forests, we meet locals who fear their canyons, gravel bars, crop fields, cobblestone streets and dusty soccer pitches will be drowned beneath reservoirs. These people are bonded to their rivers, linked by their day-to-day existence. Their lives depend on their river and now, the river depends on them to defend it.

 

Paddling the at-risk Valbona river, Albania. Photo: Andraz Krpic

Sitting around the campfire, the sharp, limestone peaks of Albania’s Valbona Valley are silhouetted against the star-strewn sky. Tranquil thoughts of our day spent paddling the baby-blue whitewater of the Valbona River are shattered by the blast of dynamite as construction on the hydropower plant continues through the night. Despite the lack of environmental assessments, legal paperwork and a lawsuit filed against the Albanian Government, dam construction on the Valbona River proceeds. Sadly, this booming, echoing sound and the sickening feeling that accompanies it are common in many valleys of the Balkans.

Paddling modern whitewater kayaks through ancient villages and endemic forests, we meet locals who fear their canyons, gravel bars, crop fields, cobblestone streets and dusty soccer pitches will be drowned beneath reservoirs.

Listening to the violent explosions late into the night doesn’t scare Valbona local, Catherine Bohne. An American, she came to Albania as a tourist 12 years ago and never left. This is her home now. She and her husband run an eco-lodge and campground on the water’s edge. Their livelihoods are tied to the river.

“They have started bulldozing the banks,” Bohne tells me the following day, cigarette in one hand, red pen in the other as she outlines the tributaries where construction has started. “We are taking the government to court, but it’s easy for them to delay and postpone court dates. That is why we need to stop the construction now, before the lawsuit has a chance to succeed.”

Bohne is a true river-defending badass, frightened by neither dynamite nor jail time. Some men in Albania still find it uncomfortably humbling to follow her while she takes charge in the battle to protect their river. But for most, her courage is inspiring and her help appreciated.

. . .

ABOUT BALKAN RIVER TOUR

“The “Balkan Rivers Tour (BRT) was a party-night idea that became a river conservation movement,” says BRT founder, Rok Rozman. The Slovenian whitewater kayaker and biologist was inspired to act after discovering that 3,000 dams were being planned in his backyard, the Balkan Peninsula. Covering an area of Southern Europe about the size of Spain, the Balkan Mountains encompass ten countries. From Slovenia to Greece and Croatia to Romania, the Balkans are often associated with historic war zones and Mediterranean vacations, but they’re also home to the last intact river system of Europe, where snowmelt can run undisturbed to the sea.

At a river conservation conference in Belgrade, Rozman stood up and told Europe’s biggest freshwater NGO leaders his plan to kayak as many threatened rivers in the Balkans as possible in order to draw awareness to the increasing number of unsanctioned and environmentally devastating hydropower dams. His intention was to combine kayaking and conservation to build a resistance.

Largely fuelled by foreign investment saturated in corruption, dams in the Balkans provide an outlet for money laundering while disregarding environmental compliance and policy.

Largely fuelled by foreign investment saturated in corruption, dams in the Balkans provide an outlet for money laundering while disregarding environmental compliance and policy. The energy they create is not delivered to local populations, but instead exported while private hydro owners fill their pockets with the subsidies granted for being a ‘green’ energy supplier. By paddling whitewater in the unknown canyons and tributaries of the Balkans, Rozman hoped to expose the corruption that was destroying the last pristine ecosystems of Europe.

. . .

THE UNDAMMED
MORACA AND BOJANA RIVERS, ALBANIA AND MONTENEGRO

While the legal battle for the Valbona continues, the BRT tour continues its way south to taste the fresh, free-flowing water of Montenegro’s Morača River. For now, the Morača runs free to the sea, but twelve dams are planned for this river. The clock is ticking.

We launch our boats into steep, technical creeks of the Morača high in the mountains and paddle 200 kilometres to where the fresh water turns salty and meets the Adriatic Sea. We don’t encounter a single dam. The river’s freedom is in stark contrast to the concrete barriers of the Soča. My mind is also full of contrast – at home in Canada I’m a competitive kayaker, always chasing the next chance to train, paddle and compete. Here, sitting on the beach scrolling through social media, I find myself less interested in posts about the newest gear, kayak competition results or first descents – things I drooled over pre-trip. After witnessing the destruction, loss and irreversible damage as a result of dam development, my priorities have shifted. I wonder why it’s taken me so long to engage in river conservation. Why aren’t more kayakers involved in conservation? Without wild rivers, our sport will cease to exist.

It’s the ladies of grassroots conservation who have the balls in the Balkans.

Until now, kayaking was a completely selfish endeavour. But by combining kayaking and conservation – my favourite sport with a larger purpose – Balkan Rivers Tour has given my paddling a purpose. My previous perception of nature conservation has been smashed. Preserving our wild spaces isn’t just about carrying a banner in a street, protesting and signing petitions. I don’t have to hug trees or stop shaving my legs. It can be about drinking beer, having fun with friends and enjoying the rivers we want to protect.

 

Just as Rozman and his kayak define conventional nature conservation in Europe, the ladies boldly fighting for rivers in the Balkans also defy cultural norms. Many times during this trip I am the only girl on the water, but when it comes to grassroots river conservation, the Balkan women outnumber the men.

I think of women like lawyer Aleksandra Bujaroska who defends rivers while wearing red high heels in the courtrooms of Macedonia. Or Slovenia’s Neza Posnjak, the administrative powerhouse behind BRT and an endless source of information on legislation and policy of freshwater conservation. Nataša Crnković puts her life at risk by speaking up in the media and organizing street protests in defence of the Sana River in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Or the committed ladies of the Krušnica River, who formed a four-month-long blockade preventing hydro workers from continuing construction on the hydropower plant.

When Balkan Rivers Tour paddles into a village, it’s the kayakers who are thought of as daring and bold. We may take cameras into deep gorges of the Balkans, sharing the wilderness and whitewater through photos and videos, but it’s the women leading the battles on the ground who are the real warriors. It’s the ladies of grassroots conservation who have the balls in the Balkans. They are fiercely determined to keep concrete out of their rivers and maybe this unlikely combination of women leading the paddlers and kayakers is just what is needed to save Europe’s rivers and keep them flowing to the sea.

balkanriverstour.com

 

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