In 1979 Nigel Foster and Tim Franklin set off to cross France in a "class 4" racing tandem called the Tasman, built in England by Kirton Kayaks. "Le Baguette Rouge", as they loving called her, required the addition of a few tether points to attach camping gear on deck.
The planned route was from Calais to the canal that follows the Marne valley close to the French/Belgian border, then down the rivers Saone and Rhone to Port-Saint-Louis on the Mediterranean... and back.
It was all Tim's
idea. I'll make that clear from the start! He figured the best direction to go in March was south, and armed
with a book on the French canals he announced confidently that we could
paddle to the Mediterranean and back. "It's only 700 kilometers!"
We borrowed a kayak and booked our vacation time. Then Tim casually let slip; "Nigel.... you know I said it was 700 kilometers? Well, actually it's 700 miles. As I digested this new information. Tim added "... Each way."
Then one cold, dark, rainy evening Tim came breezing in with "Hi Nige!" He looked troubled. I asked him why. "Do you fancy a pint?" he countered. "Okay... but how's the planning going?" "I'll drive!" he offered. We ran through the rain to his car. "So... how's it going?" I tried again. Tim sucked in his breath. "I'll tell you in the pub!" Then he added brightly "I'll buy the first round!"
Our glasses clinked. "Cheers!" With the foamy Guinness at my lip he blurted out "220 locks!" Foam flew. Then he added the coup de grace "That's each way!"
It was March after all, and March in France can be cold. Waking one morning and anticipating a steaming cup of coffee we were dismayed to discover our water had frozen solid in the plastic bottle. The solution? From then on we took the precaution of filling a pan with water in the evening. Even when it was frozen solid by morning we could always thaw it on the stove.
Arriving at a lock.... (this one was the 2nd lock at Lesdins) our typical procedure was for Tim to run up to arrange the opening of the lock. Then I would paddle the kayak in and secure it. Once the levels had equalized and the exit gates were open, Tim would climb back into the kayak before we left the lock.
Google Earth image of the second Lesdins lock
2nd lock at Lesdins, near St Quinten. (image above the map, the map and the image below) Here we are on a downhill
stretch, entering the lock at the high level, dropping in the lock and
paddling out at the lower level.
On the climb up the Marne valley, there were few places to camp that were not flooded.
A rapid pack-up before the first barge of the day sent water washing over the bank.
Beyond the canal bank, the wide flooded river valley.
Toward the upper reaches of the Marne, the canal dives under a few hills through long tunnels built in Napoleonic days. Tow paths to either side of the canal used to accommodate the horses that towed the barges. We kayaked... and the only creatures we saw were big rats. But it did get us out of the rain!
Inside the tunnels.... there are lights here and there, but it's pretty dark!
There is no sign yet of light at the other end of the tunnel...
Finally... we're getting closer to the end! There are several tunnels. We were not permitted to kayak through the longest one. A friendly barge owner carried our kayak and paddles through on his barge, while a canal worker drove us to the other end to camp. The barges emerged the following morning, having been towed through by an "electric horse".
The rivers Saone and Rhone were in flood, and closed to commercial traffic. It was a swift downhill run for us. Three weeks to paddle half way across France, and one week for the remaining half.
Sometimes all that stood above the water in the valley were the trees...
A series of big locks and barrages make the river navigable in easier times by quite large sea-going freighters.
We portaged these barrages and launched into the fast water below
The locks are amazing! Deep in this one was a sailing yacht, waiting for the flood conditions to ease and for the lock to be reopened
Sunset, within a day's run of Port-Saint Louis... After sunset, an odd snuffling noise in the grass behind us started making us nervous. After half an hour we went to investigate. It was a local man, on his hands and knees in the tall grass, collecting snails!
At Port Saint Louis Tim pulled out his map to locate
the rail station for our return trip... but we soon discovered there is
no passenger service from Port Saint Louis... and we had no time left to
paddle the coast to Marseilles or to return upstream.
Tim, less than convincingly. "I think the buses here have roof racks...
we can strap the kayak on the roof to Marseilles!" We checked the bus
timetable. Next morning we dragged our gear to the road, but missed the
bus. Standing waiting and wondering what to do, we passed the time
trying to hitch a ride from passing trucks. Of course we had no luck.
However we did get a ride from a girl driving an orange Citroen 2CV in the opposite direction... she took us across the Carmargue all the way to Marseilles Railway Terminal! Colette Maulet... thank you! ! You're a star!
At the railway station we attempted to buy a ticket to England with our kayak as accompanied baggage... to no avail. The kayak was too long! We tried one ticket officer after another we finally found one who sold us one ticket... we had only enough money left for one of us to return by train. We flipped a coin...
So that was our March 1979 trip to the Mediterranean... snow, ice, rain, floods and all! If anyone knows Tim Franklin please pass on my greetings! It would be great to get in touch again!