Packrafting Amidst Golden Mountains and Turquoise Water


It’s that yellow time of year again. The afternoon light filters through the trees like liquid gold. The tips of the tamarack trees and the edges of the beech leaves start their makeover from lush summer green to sleepy fall blonde. Even the grass dresses to match, losing its emerald elasticity for brittle beige. Walking in the mountains allows an opportunity to observe these variations in colours, the changes that seasons offer to those who are paying attention. And a weekend trip like this—although not wild in distance, location or activities—acts as a sort of tangible transition, letting my mindset shift with the season, slowing down from go-go-go summer into a lower gear until winter kicks in. I will walk away from summer and paddle into fall packrafting the Soča River.

I look up from the trail and pause, pressing the back of my skull into my stiff pack, arching my back in a movement that’s half stretch, half sightseeing, enjoying the sound of silence and the feeling of solitude that comes with going out there alone. I’ve got some kilometers over and many meters up to cover before I can unpack and inflate the burden on my back and float back home. The river is calling.

I started before the sun, walking out my door and through the sleepy town of Kobarid in northwestern Slovenia, perched above the Soča River. With my paddle, packraft and lifejacket strapped to the outside of my pack I look like a kid running away from home. Leaning over the arched Napoleon bridge, I take a guess at the water level, then confirm it with a look at River App. Twenty-four cubic meters per second. High enough for fast flows on the shallow gravel bars the upper stretches and yet low enough to paddle the Grade II-III rapids without stress. This historic bridge marks the start and end point of this weekend trip. It’s where I start to walk uphill, and where my downstream descent will end.

The trail from the town of Kobarid up to the mountain meadow of Zaprikraj is all dirt, a sort of transect that cuts across the road that winds up the mountain, allowing tractors and trucks to access the fields where cows from the villages spend the summer. Concealed by moss and shrubs are old stone walls and chiseled blocks of limestone line the outer edge of the trail, acting as a reminder that these trails were here before the road, and weren’t built for happy hikers, but to transport ammunition and food to a war front.

With no one for conversation, I wonder to myself what it was like for the young men fighting for either the Central Powers (Austro-Hungarian and Germany) or the Allies (France, Great Britain, Russia and Italy). The 90-kilometre-long section of the front that ran along the Soča River from north of Bovec to the Adriatic was named the Isonzo Front. Fierce mountain warfare took place for 29 months from May 1915 through October 1917. Wondering how they survived in the long winters makes my little trip feel trivial, silly almost, and reminds me of how lucky I am to be hauling a heavy pack for paddling rather than ammo for combat.

The going is slow, but I’ve got time. This summer’s storms have left washouts and downed trees to navigate. My hiking poles become extra limbs used to probe at the loose shale slides and push branches out of my face. Going alone means carrying the full weight of a mini-expedition. Water, sleeping bag and Thermarest are always in my pack, but going without a partner on this trip means I can’t split the weight of the stove, pot set and tent. Navigation is also all on me, but I’ve been on many of these trails before, either running or hiking. This trip is basically linking up trails I’ve walked before with short sections of new trail.

Stopping at one of the many streams I cross, I splash water on my face and take a few sips, lean back on my pack and close my eyes for a few minutes. The stream and I are headed in the same direction: down to the Soča.

After descending through different zones of forest, the trail transitions from limestone pebbles to spruce needles to beech leaves. I can finally hear the river. I cross the wooden hanging bridge and find a spot on a small gravel beach with overhanging willow trees. Upstream of where the Koritnica tributary meets the Soča and just outside of Triglav National Park, I drop my pack. I want to jump in the river while I’m still warm, and before the evening chill sets in. The water is colder than where I usually swim, some 25 kilometers downstream in Kobarid, but it feels good to wash the trail off and get ready for river travel.

As I set up the tent I see a couple on e-bikes whiz past on the trail that runs along the river on the other bank. I’m not alone here, not even close. The Soča Valley sees hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, and the season extends well into September and October. But as darkness falls, I’m mostly alone on the little beach. My sense of sound heightens as my ability to see diminishes. I turn on my headlight and boil water for noodle soup, tossing in a mish-mash of garden veggies with a can of tuna on top and set it on the rounded white pebbles to let it cool. When you’re on a solo trip, there’s time to just sit. I left my book at home, and my phone is on airplane mode—I’ve eliminated all distractions.

I’m not out here to soul-search. Nor am I trying to prove anything. I’ve been on solos before, both in Slovenia and back in Canada where I grew up. Then why am I out here alone? Because my boyfriend and usual adventure partner has work? Perhaps. But I chose to go alone for the same reason I like paddling alone. It feels good. It’s simple and satisfying. And sitting alone with the sound of the river (along with the unsettling sound of something snapping twigs behind me), this simplicity and self-sufficiency feels revitalizing.

The shorter days of fall left me no daylight for painting last night, so I take a half-hour-long coffee, waiting for the sun to rise over the mountains and wet my paint brush in the Soča before wetting my paddle. With a small notebook, a mint tin containing paints and a sawed-off paintbrush, my backcountry paint kit may be bare bones, but it’s become another way I document trips; a supplement, and sometimes replacement, for words.

When the pages are dry, I inflate my packraft and arrange my gear in the tubes. My feet dangle over the side of the boat as I float the first few hundred meters, gazing up at the limestone formations shaped by the river. Am I starting a paddling trip with hiking, or ending a hike with paddling? After yesterday’s 20-kilometer hike, traveling by water feels like cheating, and being suspended above the crystal-clear water is like being in a whitewater fairy tale.

Similar to the forest zones I passed through on my descent from the mountains, I notice the river also has zones as it winds from Bovec at 434 meters above sea level, to Kobarid at 235 meters. After the canyon segment from Koritinica to the village of Čezsoča, comes the gravel bars. With sun bleached stumps and spindly willow shrubs and a 365-degree view of mountains, I feel like I’m drifting through a mini British Columbia. I can pick out the peaks I have stood on top of and rest my eyes on the many I have yet to visit. As the water starts to gain speed, my float trip becomes a bit more active, and I pop my skirt on to navigate around boulders. After passing the rafting put-in usually bustling with tourists, I’m into some proper whitewater.

After wrestling my packraft back into a bundle, I shoulder my pack, which is heavier now that my boat and gear are soggy. The three-kilometer portage around the Grade IV/V section of the Soča is part of the Juliana Hiking Trail and provides high-vantage views of the section of rapids that I usually enjoy from the water. It’s slightly inconvenient to need to pack and re-inflate for such a short walk, but my complaints are only to myself. My sour mood washes away once I’m back on the water, playing my way down the Otona rapids that will lead me to the bridge where I started.

It’s all the same when you go out there alone. The weather doesn’t treat you differently. The rapids don’t care if you are solo. Yet, it feels different. Cleaner, quieter, more cautious and possibly even more satisfying. For me, the transition of seasons warrants some celebration, some time alone to digest the past season and prepare for the next.

The slow pace of walking gave me the time to taste the streams, say hi to the snails, smell the flowers and slide on the scree. And the versatility of a packraft meant I could smile at locals stacking firewood at the riverside, punch through some waves and float home with ease. The overlap of these seemingly separate zones of mountain and river was stitched together by packrafting. And it was done with excellent company.