I’ve been interested in kayaking ever since I first tried it 20 years ago on the little River Thérain, 70 km north of Paris. On that memorable occasion I experienced the challenges and joys of paddling à deux (we capsized within five minutes), of silently gliding along the dappled lush riverbank sharing the same viewpoint as the moorhens and ducks, and the adrenalin rush of successfully shooting the rapids with eyes tight shut.
Since then I’ve made several further attempts, on the Seine, the Marne and on rivers in Chile and Turkey. But none of them ever came close to the thrills and spills of that first experience, and now I know why. I enjoy kayaking most when I am paddling with someone who synchronises their movements to mine at the front of the boat, is happy to do the lion’s share of the work and will slow down and drift tranquilly with the current when the mood takes us.
All this became clear to me last Sunday on one of the hottest days of the year when a friend and I hired a kayak from a little-known club close to the Parc de la Poudrerie on the Canal de l’Ourcq, 21 minutes from Paris by train. I have written about the Parc de la Poudrerie, named after a former gunpowder factory situated in a woodland park, in Half An Hour From Paris, so thought I knew the terrain quite well. But I had no idea of the existence of the canoe-kayak base half a kilometre downstream. It is a delightfully modest club, run by a relaxed group of people and presided over by a retired sports teacher who is also President of the Comité Départemental 93, part of the local authority. With no fuss, we were shown the changing room, given life-jackets, shown how to use the paddles, helped into the two-seater boat and then left happily alone to explore the canal.
After about ten minutes we developed a working rhythm and steered a more or less straight course upstream towards the park, even managing to wave to other boats without bumping into them. For the first time I had a close-up view of the inaccessible bank opposite the towpath where on previous walks I had seen water-voles scampering and wild orchids growing. Within minutes we spotted blackberries, fully ripe a month earlier than usual, growing at the water’s edge. With one accord we stopped paddling and each gingerly grasped a prickly blackberry stem to steady the boat while we filled the other hand with berries and stuffed our faces. Every few minutes we paddled on to find fresh pickings, sweet, juicy and impossible to resist.
In what seemed no time we had reached the Pont du Vert Galant three kilometres away and reluctantly turned the boat around. On the way back we hardly used the paddles as the current carried us gently past some blackberries we had overlooked – but not for long – and we arrived back at the base replete and relaxed, in just under two hours.
A handful of staff were sitting around a table finishing lunch and cordially invited us to help ourselves to salad and a big bowl of Mirabelle plums fresh from the garden, ripe a month early. We changed out of our wet clothes and joined them at the table, adding to it the picnic lunches we had brought. We spent a leisurely enjoyable hour sitting in the shade drinking their coffee and exchanging views on the cultural differences between Britain and France, with we Anglophones extolling the virtues of France and the French taking the opposite view. When my friend made an observation on the reluctance of some French to give up their privileges in spite of subscribing to republican values I saw a rare sight – French heads all silently nodding in agreement. After offering to wash up we left to explore the Parc de la Poudrerie to a chorus of good wishes and a glow of mutual appreciation.
Unlike my first trip we did not capsize, but it would not have mattered much if we had, as now I know that I need to bring a change of clothes. I wore swimming things under a t-shirt and an old pair of rolled up trousers – your bottom gets soaked in a kayak – closed water shoes and a sunhat. The clubhouse facilities are simple but unlike some more prestigious clubs include everything you might need, even a hairdryer. It was a less thrilling but more quietly satisfying experience than that mythical first kayaking trip and we have already made plans to return. And to bring a container for the blackberries.
Ourcq Can’ohe Club Sevranais, 31 Boulevard de la République, Sevran 93270, tel 06 30 79 18 66 or 06 17 45 81 39, http://occs.clubeo.com
Gare RER B Sevran-Livry and 600m walk along the canal.
Open to the public during weekends in July and August from 10.30 am to 5 pm, 10€ for around 1½ hours, 5€ for under 16s. Equipment provided, no need to book.