This was my third trip in 3 years to the Sesia valley in Italy. This beautiful valley to the north west of Milan holds some of the best white water kayaking I’ve found. Accessible, easy logistics, great water, good food and cheap beer, what more can you ask for on a boating holiday?
I got home on Friday evening after a manic few weeks at work to meet Pete, pick up Will and Tim and start the drive to Dover. Traffic was heavy and we only just made it to the long term parking where we met Andy and Tony. Piling the boats onto his trailer and fitting ourselves and gear into the van we sped off to the terminal.
I’d been working away the week before, and as a happy coincidence saw my girlfriend at the ferry terminal who was heading out to the French Alps for a week too. Next I was getting honked at as the van rolled towards the ferry, a quick run and jump into the moving target and we were on our way!
I thought two beers on the ferry was ambitious with a 15 hour plus drive on the other side but hey ho. We drove the most direct route down through France paying the tolls on the way, eager to get to Valsesia we drove through the night; Andy, Tim and Pete taking shifts as Will, Tony and I preserved our energy in the back!
As we got to the valley we all woke up a bit, I was having flashbacks from the year before, great memories with good friends. We drove through the Aosta valley where last year the car brakes gave out and we spent three nights wild camping in the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever been in – Happy days. This year we were focused on Valsesia and had an apartment to stay in that Andy had found. We drove up the valley, I was wracking my brains trying to remember the names of the runs we passed; I largely failed.
We got the trailer around the tight corners and over the narrow bridge in Campertogno to drive up to the apartment. It was brilliant, a modern Alpine cottage compete with a patio and garden. A big beer fridge, and a spacious rooms – or at least mine was
Middle Sesia, Campertogno to Quare
Unpacked and ready to go we headed down to the campsite at Campertogno on the bank if the Sesia to run to Quare. First day faff and a long shuttle later and we got onto the water. The stretch down from the campsite is a nice 3+ with some good play waves and holes, but nothing too serious for the first day.
I managed to get stuck in one hole, but got out OK – a reminder that even though I’d run that section a dozen times, Italy isn’t the place to be complacent. We got out just above the falls at Quare, a class 5 river right slot drop. Pretty serious business, a little tough for the first day!
Middle Sesia, Mollia to Scopello
The next day we headed off to run the Middle Sesia from just below Molia to Scopello. This was one of the most fun runs I had done in the valley in previous years, and this year promised to be just as good. We launched into the large pool below the last drop of the Molia section.
I remembered the line, left or right? Right I thought, so I briefed the guy’s I was with and pulled out of the eddy, GoPro running. As I dropped over the first little rock and got slammed hard right, spun around and flipped I remembered the line was left. I rolled up and looked down river; I was most definitely on the wrong side!
I barrel rolled my way down the river, smacking my paddle of rocks and doing plenty of body blocking. At one point I caught a glimpse up stream and happily the lads had seen my plight and gone much harder left. The main thing I saw was Will styling his was down laughing at me. To add insult to injury I had the wrong case on my GoPro which was now flooded and broken – great. We headed down towards the campsite, and then on to Scopello without further event but portaging the two grade 5 falls.
My second time on the Mastallone but the first time this trip; I remembered there was a nasty non-flushy looking constriction about half way down just above the gorge section. We inspected the gorge from the road and thought all looked OK on the drive up, probably a medium level. I was a little nervous, on my previous trip down I remember this being quite pushy.
Geared up once again in the sunshine of the Mastallone valley we set off. Will and I lead most of the way down, and this helped my calm but I was very conscious of the impending class 5 constriction. We eddied out well above it. Walking down the bank we realised we were well well above it and got back in our boats.
We saw a young guy and his dad on the water, amazingly the kid’s dad was above the constriction with a line and a camera as his son ran the rapid. He made it and that’s a good job, if he hadn’t his father was in exactly the wrong place to help! We all walked the constriction this time, as I had last time, and set off into the gorge. The gorge was OK, not as intense as my last run with just two sticky holes to negotiate, both of which kicked my ass, rolls number 2 and 3? No one counts on our trips – except the person rolling!
The steepest grade 4+(5) you’ll find. Looking up the valley from Molino, the bottom of the short Egua run (2km) you see little but a church and mountain, no water can be seen. This is a tight pretty technical river at some 80m/km gradient. Starting with a long tight channel into a 15 foot slide that turns into a into a 15 foot drop (ish, I have memory vision on) this is definitely elbow pad territory! I’d run the river two years previously on my first trip to Italy and I remember feelings of nervousness and worry as I geared up last time. This year we sat in the van and ate lunch before getting ready in the rain. Looking around the group some of the feelings I had had two years before were present in the team! I was feeling good and hoped that my confidence would rub off onto the group.
Eventually we set off on the first slide with camera’s out and a token throwline in the bottom pool. Will hit it first and I was on camera, he nailed it and the look of trepidation flew off his face as he flew into the pool at the bottom, popping up with a massive grin on his face. One by one the group ran the rapid and each felt better for the splash of water in their face as they hit the bottom. Suggesting now wasn’t the time to relax we pushed on.
The river continued in the same pool drop style punctuated with slides and technical rapids. About half way down where we found the stiffer drops, two pretty high, pretty grabby drops into a pool followed by a slight double drop and a nasty looking reactionary wave. I say the first two drops were sticky, I spent ages in one of them on my first run a couple of years before! Fortunately I’m luckier now than I was then and I got through the first two drops fine into the pool above the horrible looking shoot. I was first down, and I decided to hit the shoot fast, half way down the nose of my boat got turned a bit too much and the cushion wave flipped me over. One roll down. Bugger.
Everyone safe we continued down the river. From here back to Molino the style continues to be pretty technical but fun. As we passed Molino we got to the final few drops; a nice book off a slab (which I nailed!), a corkscrew shoot, a long ish slide, and the final walled in Cylinder drop. Tired and thirsty for beer we continued on with deteriorating energy and style! By the time we got to the Cylinder drop all had called it a day except Andy. After setting up a few people on safety he ran the last drop. A little flip roll combination and he was clear – we all breathed a sigh of relief and headed for the nearest bar.
The Sesia gorge was a good trip, this being the first new river for me I was excited! We put on just below the stone bridge which marked the end of the horrible rapid on the Lower Middle Sesia section at Scopetta that we’d run up to a few days before. This rapid still looked too big to run with a huge tow back on a nasty looking walled in stopper. Seal launching off the rocks after the bridge we entered the gorge with a plop, moving as a group down we found the first rapid which was significant and inspected form the left.
The river bent in a chicane, with a class 3 run in to a scary looking river wide stopper with a nasty looking line on the right and a sneak on the left. If that wasn’t enough this was closely followed by another big stopper which you had to hit river right. Andy and Will opted to go first, both decided to sneak down the left side to hit the first drop then push right to make the second. Andy set off first and got pushed right into the centre of the channel, not quite making the ugly wave he was flushed out of the stopper shouting that it wasn’t as sticky as it looked! Moving on he hit the second drop well.
Sixty seconds later Will also got pushed right, with a couple of deep breaths, his game face and a couple of well-placed strokes he styled the first hole without getting his deck wet and rocked over the second in perfect position. I’ve paddled with many people on many trips but this was one of the best sequences I’ve seen – well done mate.
The rest of the gorge held few surprises for us, one monstrous grade 6 falls was portaged and the gorge continued in classic high walled style. This is not 999 territory, you’re on your own in there with little hope of climbing out.
We’d visited the river the day before but decided that wasn’t the day, now though we were on! Having read the guide book and scouted the gorge as best we could from the road some 70ft+ above we decided to go for it. The put in was near a car park in Boccioleto, after a shared shuttle with another group and seeing the most bruised legs ever on a girl that took a playboat to Italy (talk about taking a knife to a gun fight!) we walked down to the river.
The start was tame, and didn’t get beyond grade 3 for most of the upper section of the river, just one picturesque falls of note. We continued down to the run in to the gorge. Boat scouting on river left of the sweeping right hand bend Andy moved down, Will then me then Tim followed. We’d seen the rapid from the road and it looked like read and run 3+/4.
Will and I set off on the run in, as we got further towards the gorge entrance the river intensified until it was a full on boulder blast. The pin potential was very high, I don’t think any of us styled it, but no one got a spanking. I burst into the top eddy of the gorge, closely followed by Will, both with beaming smiles and a couple of exchanged ‘You OK?’ glances we waited for Tim and Andy to join us.
I was fighting to maintain my position in very messy water at the top of the gorge entrance next to the only egress option I could see. Tim and Andy were getting back into boats as had entered the gorge. After what felt like an age Tim splashed down near me, we continued to wait for Andy. He had been further up the river and so would have taken longer to get down but I was getting nervous. About 30 seconds later he landed too, grinning away. He’d been pinned on a boulder but managed to get free without a swim, a close call.
It was impossible to see up the rapid once you were into the gorge, in hindsight we should have broken the rapid up more and eddy hopped more aggressively to maintain line-of-site among the group, but this isn’t a text book. Generally we moved in twos watching each-others back, but in fast boulder gardens we’re not always that good enough to be that good! (but we are working on it)
The gorge continued, we inspected one drop after the entrance, but it was pretty trivial. We continued down with a little pace, but not so much as to miss the experience. The last drop was the big one, a ledge drop on river right with a large boulder below in centre river causing the water to back up into a pretty horrible looking stopper, harder than a 4, but only just into the 5′s the guidebook calls it a 5-.
Protection may have been possible on river left but the line was clearly river right and any left hand cover would have pulled a swimmer back into danger. We stood on the bank chewing the fat about lines and safety for ten minutes and concluded it wasn’t really feasible. As we stood there Will finally said ‘F##k it, let’s just go before I start s##ting myself’ and we headed back to the boats, we went as a chain, Will, then me a short gap then Tim and Andy. We all styled it! Full of energy, just a short mini canyon to go and back to the van for sandwiches.
Gronda and Sorba Slides
Day after day we went to the Sorba slides. These impressive looking drops sit just after the confluence between the Gronda and the Sorba. These are a rite of passage for the English paddler in Italy, everyone must do them! We’d looked at these drops over at least 4 days but there wasn’t much water in them but after the great run on the Sermenza we decided today was the day!
We inspected the Gronda, a steep creek dropping into the village from the mountain side above finishing in three brilliant drops under an ancient stone bridge. Only Tim, Andy and I wanted to get on here and with some scraping and bouncing we plopped into the last pool. Perhaps it was a little low after all? We continued on to the Sorba slides down an innocuous stretch of boulder garden.
One significant drop lay between us and the slides, it crept up on us and I managed a last chance boof to clear it, Andy wasn’t so lucky and found himself vertically pinned under water. After a mad dash I eddied out with Tim above the drop also, as we did this Andy had managed to free himself from the water, a foot on the cockpit rim and he managed to clip the boat with my line before he jumped clear. All safe and no damage except a scratched boat and bruised pride. On to the slides!
We got to the slides and one by one slid and bounced our way down. We regrouped after each of the drops, and found ourselves above the last of the three drops, a couple more paddle strokes and gravity did the work. That was the Sorba slides done and rite of passage complete. With the water dropping we’d be lucky to get back to the slides this year.
Packing up and heading home on the last day we waved goodbye to Campertogno, the bar, the beer and the sunshine. One last run on the Sesia down through Little Canada and that would be it for another year. Italy is a brilliant destination, not just for the paddling but for the picturesque views, ancient buildings and welcoming people. Next year the festival runs form the 22 May to the 26th of May and I’ll be heading back.