Corsica River Guide


Planning the Canoeing Programme | River Grading | Portages

River Access | Water Levels | Disclaimer

1. Planning the Canoeing Programme


The varying geology and geography across Corsica produces a wide variety of scenery and rock patterns. Despite this the rivers of Corsica can be divided fairly easily into three set classifications.

The extreme upper stretches of all the rivers are difficult and steep. The rivers are cut into tight gorges, with pool/drop conditions or steep boulder falls. These will rarely be in condition as too high a water level is as bad as not quite enough. Best conditions come from a hot sun producing lots of snow melt with no attendant rain fall. Some paddlers will visit Corsica in late May hoping for a higher probability of such conditions on these higher rivers.

The gradient eases off. The mixture of pool/drop and boulder field conditions continues, but as the rivers grow in size the problems are more likely to come from larger and more powerful water flows. Depending on the river these sections can be run after rainfall or snowmelt, and are more often in condition.

The big rivers ease off to produce stretches of grade 2-3 in almost all of the bigger valleys. On the Golo and Tavignano, big rivers running through the eastern schist valleys, these easier stretches are longer and can each give two or three days of grade 2-4 paddling.

Additionally, near the coast there are a number of smaller rivers requiring high rainfall to put them in condition due to their small catchment areas. I have paddled few of these small rivers, and they are not described in this guide.

On a first visit to Corsica most of the rivers attempted will be in the second category. The middle sections of the bigger rivers such as the Liamone, Taravo, Vecchio and Golo are reliable and produce good canoeing. It is often possible to add a few of the more exotic rivers such as the Travo or Rizzanese with their famous waterfalls. But these are smaller rivers and less likely to have ideal water levels.

On a second visit the pattern may well be repeated, but the desire to paddle new rivers will be growing. This is where the importance of a Corsican approach to paddling comes in. The key is not to rush it. Many continental paddlers return to Corsica year after year. Paddlers with 8 years experience are common, and some with over 20 years can be found. Each year they get a feel for the water levels, the weather conditions and the state of their own skills. They then decide what to paddle. If they paddle a new river then the satisfaction will be immense. But if the conditions are not right then they paddle a different river, or sit in a cafe instead. The river will be there next year, so why rush it. This relaxed approach will lead to many years of superb enjoyable paddling, with each river picked off at it's optimum level. It is only those that cannot wait, and go onto a river at the wrong level, that have bad trouble in Corsica.

Canoeists with experience of paddling in North Wales or Scotland should have few problems adjusting to the canoeing on the island. There are some differences however, and it is best to prepare for them. In Britain a grade 5 river could consist of 6 kilometres of mixed grade 3-4 water, with only 2 or 3 short stretches of grade 5. A Corsican grade 5 is nearly all grade 5, and will consequently take much longer. Allow between 60 and 90 minutes per kilometre for any grade 5 and 6 river. The upper Vecchio often takes 2 days for a first descent of 5 kilometres.

In Britain paddling in the rain is a fact of life. In Corsica it is something to avoid. Rain destroys the good grip of rubber soled footwear on the granite rocks, and makes portages and inspections treacherous. Secondly, in the tight gorges of Corsica high water is definitely not a good thing. The aim is to have just enough water to float down the wider shallow bits of river. In the gorges the water will be channelled and quite deep enough. Paddling a gorge in rainfall is asking to see all the last ditch breakouts disappear in front of you.

Roads rarely follow the river, and normally follow a winding course high up the valley sides. The hillside between road and river will be covered in dense undergrowth called maquis, a mixture of low trees, thorns and shrubs which is very difficult to walk through. It took me 3 hours to walk 2 kilometres out of the Liamone valley after an incident, and that was not from the gorge section. Scouting rivers is often made equally difficult for the same reason.

Because of the time taken to travel around Corsica it can be very easy to waste time journeying from river to river. The best plan for the first year is to spend a few days in each of the big river valleys. The Taravo can give a few days of paddling, and is a good warm up river, as is the Gravona. Further north a few days can usefuly be spent in the Liamone/Cruzzini valleys. A short drive across the spine of Corsica then gets you into the Golo valley, with easy access to the Asco and Calasima.

Finally the high mountain town of Corte provides an interesting, enjoyable place to spend a few days, and has easy access to the Vecchio, Restonica and Tavignano. The two close valleys of the Fium Orbo and Travo make an optional excursion if the water levels look promising. This route can be followed in any order depending on arrival and exit ports.

To match this pattern, the rivers in this guide book are grouped into "families", of either a major river and it's tributaries, or a group of adjacent rivers which are easy to move between by vehicle.

2. River Grading

This guide lists the rivers I have paddled myself in 1988, 1989, and 1990, and lists a few more rivers described to me by paddlers I trust. It is not intended to be a step by step guide to every river, but simply an aid to other skilled canoeists, to help them enjoy the island without too much unneccesary hassle. Please note that as my interests are mainly paddling on grade 4 to 6 rivers, these receive most attention. I have included information about other rivers in the grade 2 to 3 category, but the information is often less complete.

My problem when describing any river is with the current grading system. There has been a massive development in white water canoeing over the past 10 years, and I believe that the grading system we use is no longer useful when trying to describe an island such as Corsica. I have therefore extended the grading system to bring in grades 7 and 8. This may cause some confusion and consternation, so I have explained in detail the thinking behind the modifications. I realise that this may turn my guidebook introduction into an essay on grading systems, but as I feel that the extension to the grading system will cause debate. I want to ensure that my arguments in the debate are fully understood.

The grading system we use today describes grade 5 as possibly dangerous, and grade 6 as the limit of difficulty and danger. But the amount of danger in a river depends mainly on the skill of the person attempting it. For example the Fairy Glen and Swallow Falls have been paddled repeatedly this year, with no injuries to my knowledge. By contrast, on the day I write this chapter there have been 2 boating deaths on the flat calm river Trent in Nottingham. The Welsh paddlers were well prepared and competent, and therefore reasonably safe. The drowning victims were in danger due to inadequate skills and the wrong approach to safety.

Similarly my only injury in canoeing was on an easy grade 5 fall on the river Liamone. I was too relaxed and drifted into a pile of boulders. I have paddled much harder and more committing falls than that, but I was much safer as the adrenalin was pumping and my attitude was correct.

Terry Storry in his North Wales guide introduces two separate measurements, numbers for technical difficulty and letters for potential danger. A difficult dangerous rapid therefore becomes 6F. I believe that this system has some arguments in it's favour, but I also believe that the major factor in the measurement of danger is the skill, attitude and training of the paddler, which cannot be measured in a guide.

I prefer instead a grading system that makes no comment on danger, and refers only to technical difficulty. You define your own danger levels with your degree of skill and commitment in relation to the fall.

The use of only 6 grades of technical difficulty also introduces a problem. If we do not increase the number of grades available, then the system gets compressed as skill levels increase. It is ridiculous to have only 2 grade levels between what would be attempted by an averagely competent club paddler (grade 4), and the best paddlers in the world today (grade 6).

But if we want to amend the system, those of us practising at the difficult end of the grading system should not force changes at the lower and middle end of the scale. The calm water paddlers and novices need a clear and easy distinction between grades 1, 2 and 3. We have no right to push increasingly hard and complex rivers into the grade 3 category simply to solve our own grading problems.

The present system works within a group of paddlers that know each other well. In a very competent group each paddler describes a fall as grade 6 if it is at or beyond his limit of difficulty, grade 5 if he finds it challenging but can paddle it comfortably, and grade 4 if he finds it easy. You need an intimate knowledge of each paddler's skills before you understand his grades. I regard the Fairy Glen as being a good grade 5 with one portage. A second paddler might call it grade 6, for understandable reasons. One North Wales tyro took time off from bouncing down mega-waterfalls to paddle the Glen last year (i.e 1990) and told me it was grade 4. Because I know him, I know to inspect any fall he classifies as grade 3 or above. A different and less experienced paddler might think "grade 4, that's the same as Llangollen town falls. I'll paddle that", and get seriously embarrassed.

We are in the situation now where the group of "established" paddlers in Britain know each other, know the system, and can cope with it. They have no problems and many see no reason for a change. But there are many more up-and coming paddlers who do not yet have access to the grapevine, and they can get very confused. If we look forward 5 or 10 years, when standards are higher, the situation will become even worse. At present many paddlers are refusing to grade Swallow Falls because it is a "unique waterfall", and not a real rapid. What will we do in 1993 when it is paddled routinely by club level paddlers?

All this is in the future. My immediate problem is grading Corsica for this reiver guide. I will use the island as an example of the present system's failings and how to overcome them.

B (i) The Present System

If I use the present system there are no grading problems below grade 4, and grade 4 is well understood. Examples in Britain could be Llangollen town falls, the Spean gorge and the Tryweryn. There are many example of that level of difficulty in Corsica. I will call them grade 4.

No problem. The next grade up is grade 5, similar to the Fairy Glen or lower Findhorn gorge. No problem here.

Grade 6 is next. There are many examples in Corsica of falls a step harder than grade 5, so I will call these grade 6. Strictly speaking these have been paddled for years by many paddlers with few problems, so they cannot be the limit of difficulty and danger, but I will ignore that discrepancy. What do I do about falls a step harder than grade 6. All I can do is describe them as grade 6 as well. Along with the falls two steps harder, and those at the absolute level of difficulty.

My reader then comes along, not knowing Corsica, and does his warm up on grade 4 and 5. Wanting a step up he picks a grade 6 river. If he is lucky it will be one step above the 5 and he will have a superb day. If he is unlucky it will be 3 steps up, although still described as grade 6 in the guide. He will not be in danger because he is experienced and cautious, and does not need me to tell him what is dangerous. He inspects every fall, portages what he can't paddle (all 25 drops), and reaches the bottom safe but shattered having had a terrible day.

The guide will have failed him, by not pointing him towards a river suitable for his experience.

B(ii) The Expanded System Used in This Guide

The simple solution is to follow the climber's example, expand the system, and leave it open ended. This guide therefere contains rivers described as grade seven and grade eigth.

Grade 6 is NOT necessarily dangerous. If you have only paddled on flat water before then you will be in danger. But as a flat water paddler you would be in danger on grade 3. By contrast if this is your sixth time on this grade 6 river you are probably safe. Then again you could have a terrible hangover and not be paddling properly. I do not know if you are safe or not. All I am saying is that this fall is about one step harder that the average grade 5. The river one step harder than grade 6 then becomes grade 7, with grade 8 and 9 following on as required with no upper limit.

There will be much debate in first few years as to what is the standard for each grade level. But we have managed to agree roughly what is a standard grade 2, 3 and 4. I am sure that a standard 5, 6 and 7 is not beyond us.

By using this system, the experienced grade 5 paddler knows which river to go for, paddles grade 6, and avoids the grade 9. Years later, with much more experience, he or she can come back, work up again, and go straight for the grade 9, avoiding the boring simple grade 7. The guide is then doing it's job; efficiently advising paddlers which rivers they might want to paddle, and giving them the best possible chance of having a superb day out.

In the river descriptions, the grade of each section is listed using the following format:

Grade 3 The section is mostly grade 3, apart from the stretches of flat and low grade water to be found on virtually any river.
Grade 3-5 The section has stretches running between grades 3 and 5.
Grade 3 then 5 A stretch of grade 3 leading into a stretch of grade 5.
Grade 3 (5 ) Mostly grade 3, with one or two grade 5 falls. This classification means that the river can be run at grade 3 with a reasonably small number of portages, "grade 3-5" classification would require an excessive amount of portaging to run the river at grade 3.

See MAKING THE GRADE, a Canoeist article on River Grading for a fuller discussion of the Grading System.

2. Portages

I try not to be too specific when describing portages. It is for each of us to decide what we do and do not paddle. Each of us makes a personal choice for our own reasons. That choice may well be different on successive trips down the same river, varying with water level, experience and mood.

Having paddled in Corsica with a fair selection of experienced British paddlers, I have simply tried to indicate the number of times that we portaged on each river, to give an guide to the river's difficulty and continuity. In most cases I have not even described the exact location of each portage. My memory is fallible, and often different paddlers within the group portaged or paddled different falls.

The few exceptions to this rule are where innocuous looking falls have caused a number of problems over the years because of dangerous formations which are not particularly obvious. The two main example are on the Travo and Rizzanese. These falls are described in more detail in the text. If you wish to paddle a fall I describe as a portage then feel free. I do not regard it as a challenge issued. Almost all of the falls in Corsica have been attempted (often inadvertently) at some stage over the years. There are few first descents on offer, and quite a few dead continental paddlers.

4. River Access

In any area access is never a problem in the early stages of canoeing development. No matter what the laws of the land, a single canoeist or a few small groups will always be welcomed and tolerated. It is only when the numbers grow and canoeists are seen to be a nuisance that access problems start.

In Corsica the canoeing season is short, and not many paddlers are spread around a large island, so few access problems exist. But this pleasant state of affairs will last only as long as we canoeists act responsibly, do not cause problems, and do not annoy the local landowners. One way to preserve the welcome is to buy as much food, fuel and wine as possible in the shops and bars local to the canoeing areas.

As far as I can tell large areas of Corsican land, including control of the rivers, is owned in common by the nearest village. The villagers know that tourism is big money, and rarely object to canoeists passing. However there is a common understanding in many French areas, including Corsica, that anglers fish in the early morning and late evening when the sun is low. Canoeists keep to the middle of the day when the sun is high and the fish dormant. The early morning restrictions should not affect most canoeists, but be sensitive when passing fishermen late in the evening if you have been delayed on the river. Although most villages are friendly to paddlers, they can be tough when roused. On the Travo a few years ago there were a series of deaths on one particular fall, and the villagers got fed up pulling bodies out of the river. They decided to teach the canoeists a lesson, and shut the river for a year. Any paddler was met by a team of villagers and invited not to paddle. Few argued. Since then there have been few problems, and a lot fewer deaths.

Although most Corsican canoeing can be carried out on this "common land", there are a few areas where paddlers encroaching onto enclosed private land have caused access problems. Almost invariably this in unnecessary, and an alternative access point is available nearby. Use it.

5. Water Levels

Where possible I have given an indication of good water levels, or levels above and below which I would consider the river not worth paddling. These are not absolute values however, so feel free too make your own mind up. In some cases I have quoted the levels given by Joseph Haas in his river guide. There are other rivers which I have not paddled, and for which I have no information, on these again you will have to decide for yourself by recconaissance.

The important point to bear in mind is that Corsican gorge rivers soon become very nasty if the water level increases. If you have no other information then a good rule of thumb is that the safest level will occur when the water away from the gorge is only just deep enough to paddle. The water inside the gorge will be much deeper and probably adequate for a first descent. The optimum level may possibly have more water, but a change of only 10 or 20 centimetres on a river gauge can have a dramatic effect. This is unlike North Wales where a rise of 2 metres in a river will have paddlers flocking to it from all over the country.

If the water levels in the high mountain rivers are too high due to rainfall, then sections on the rivers Rizzanese, Tavignano, Cruzzini, Taravo, and Golo can be found wich are good in high water. See the river descriptions for more information.

6. Disclaimer

My final comment may appear strange coming from a guide book author, but I mean it sincererely. The fact that something is written in a book does not neccesarily mean that it is true. The information in this guide is here to help you. I hope it does. But the information in this guide is only accurate on the day I paddled the river. Levels change, trees fall, water authorities change gauges (not always to the same calibration), and weirs are built. In particular be aware that hydro-electric power schemes can appear on many rivers, affecting the water flows immensely.

Do not be afraid to ask for up-to-date local knowledge from the paddlers you meet. Many, especially the Germans, have years of Corsican experience behind them and they are often only too willing to pass on that knowledge. At the end of the day however it is up to you to make the decisions. Do you paddle the river? Do you portage? What line do you follow? By all means be influenced by what you have read, and what you have been told, but please make your own decisions on what you see in front of you. That is the only truth..

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