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Death of a River

The Coruh River in Eastern Turkey is being dammed; this is the last year it will be running as one of the classic white water runs of the world. At least that is what some would have you believe.

The reality is that although dams are being built at various points along it's course the main section of white water is to date unaffected.

You need to go before it is.

This region has all you would want from a week's kayaking trip. Early in the season, late May and early June the main section of the Coruh offers big volume rapids, as the season progresses the water levels drop drastically though to the end of July when the river will be technical and its tributaries all but dry.

Early June will provide you with a choice of rivers to push you and as an introduction to paddling big water the Coruh is as good as it gets.

Flying to Erzerum via Istanbul will put you within two hours by road of Yusufeli on the banks of the Barhal and Coruh rivers and an ice cold beer at the Greenpiece ( it did start out as Greenpeace but another organisation claimed to have rights to the name ) campsite run by the Turkish equivalent of Delboy, Birol.

Staying at Birol's Greenpiece campsite will ensure you the undivided attention of your host, who will provide accommodation, food, beer, shuttles to all of the rivers and a wealth of local knowledge.

A warm up on the Coruh followed by a blast down the fast moving Barhal from Sarigol provided us with our first days entertainment, first swim, cut eye and a 1K boat chase, did I mention the river was fast flowing?

Day two saw us on the Tortum, a true classic. Flowing from the lake created by a landslide blocking the valley in ancient times, geologists cannot seem to agree when exactly with estimates from the mid 17th Century to as far back as the Quaternary period, 1.6 million years ago. The river exits the lake over a forty eight meter waterfall before passing through a steep sided gorge and provides a waterfall run for the adventurous.

We put on as the river exits the gorge, a spectacular backdrop with sheer canyon walls rising a couple of hundred feet then opening out providing you with views of peaks and countryside. That's if you have time to look. The river takes off at an alarming pace and just keeps going, throwing the full armoury of features at you in the first kilometre and not relenting until it spills itself into the Oltu, another tributary of the Coruh.

A boat pinned midstream provided us with an hours worth of white water safety and rescue and could have been featured in any text book on the subject, with ropes, karabiners, slings, live baits, pulls in all directions, vectors and no knots all being used to successfully reunite boat and paddler to continue downstream.

Wednesday, we elected to paddle from the campsite, starting on the Barhal passing through the centre of Yusufeli before being spat out onto the Coruh for the main event, the 9 kilometre gorge section. Roadside throughout we had inspected the main rapids from on high the day before on our travels to the Tortum.

Starting with five on the water we were soon whittled down to three to tackle the first rapid in the gorge. Coming in from river right paddling hard to make the river left line and the easier route that offered. The next three hours were spent inspecting each of the larger rapids and making the moves necessary to progress downstream. This is a true classic stretch of water offering challenging kayaking in spectacular scenery and all only five and a half hours flight time from the UK.

Higher upstream on the Coruh, just downstream of Ispir lie the Joan Collins set of rapids. The first has been lost to the Dam works which near completion, the second, according to Rob Hind who had seen it a few days earlier was a gnarly mess of a rapid with the third and fourth being runnable.

An early start saw us heading upstream in Birol's ancient blue Mazda van. I have seen better vehicles in scrap yards, that said it never failed to get us to or from our destination, if at times slowly, truly a vehicle for all terrain, Birol takes his vehicle to places its designers never intended.

By the time we had reached Perfect Portage we had just about had enough of our boil in the tin experience, we all now know what re entry into earth's atmosphere must be like for the guys in the space shuttle when a couple of the heat shield tiles have come off!

Forty minutes of paddling saw us eddy out above perfect portage. Only Mike elected to make the run, entering the rapid on river right he was soon back looped and pushed right by the diagonals; where he didn't want to be! Making an eddy, he adopted the role of Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry the IVth. Discretion being the better part of valour, he walked round the evil looking pourover that had so caught our attention from the bank.

Talking over a beer or several on the Thursday night as Dave Manby presented the latest version of the Dudh Khosi expedition DVD we agreed another day on the Tortum would be an excellent way to finish the trip. Second time round confirmed the Tortum as being up in the list of favourite rivers, classic alpine boating. Tired and grinning from ear to ear we drifted out onto a chocolate brown Oltu, laden with silt from the previous day's storms it looked like the chocolate river in Roald Dahl's Willy Wonkers Chocolate factory, no Umpa Lumpa's today, just us in our boats.

There is no white water, no way of seeing the features you would expect to be warned of by white foam as the water breaks unevenly over the obstacle that creates it. The brown water splashes into my eyes making them sting, the combination of water and fine grinding paste it contains irritate my contact lenses, the silt makes the paddle shaft slippy and I am forced to hang on tightly to the shaft to make the strokes I need. This is one of the hardest leads I have done on a river.

We stop for kebabs and tea at a road and riverside cafe before continuing and floating into the Coruh for the last couple of kilometres of big water. Our paddling at an end we return to Yusufeli for tea and medals.

The local people don't want the Dam, approximately 18 towns and villages would be flooded and 15,000 people would need re housing. History and culture dating back to before Christ would be lost to the waters of the lake created. As kayakers we can hardly claim rights to paddle a river over and above the development of a country but we can demonstrate our support against the project by travelling there, paddling the rivers and putting money into the local economy, supporting the arguments of the locals who believe the region has a future generating wealth through tourism.

Perhaps the power needs and the development of the country as a whole outweigh those arguments but this has to be balanced with the longer term environmental impact. The impact of pouring so much concrete. The loss of arable land, the damage to wildlife and the people. Where do they go? Where do they live? How do they earn a living? Generations of their relatives lie in graveyards, how do families reconcile themselves to leaving their past behind?

As it stands the Dam at Yusufeli has yet to be started. Other Dams along the Coruh near completion, so the threat is very real. Some believe that it will not happen, but in case it does, make sure you take the opportunity of supporting the people of the region and that you get the opportunity of paddling a world class river before it joins the list of rivers we once paddled.

Becks getting tickled

Steve up to his neck in the action

Stopping for provisions in downtown Yusufeli

Mike, givin it, in Perfect Portage.

pretty much every bit of flat land is cultivated

Greenpiece campsite and tree houses

Nearly a new rapid on the Oltu

The Oltu, post rain, brown, silt laden and difficult to read

Lunchtime, riverside kebab shops provide sustinance for the hungry paddler.

Dave Manby, Leg end, provided us with an evenings entertainment, talking through the latest release of the Dudh Kosi DVD, now remastered and with extra previously unseen footage.  Kiss the Guns!

Thats it, done, trip over, journey home beginning, early morning at Erzerum airport.