Part I: Winter Kayaking Trip To The Flooded Kingdom of Nature
“Could you tell me a bit more about your kayaking experience?”, I did ask Janis?
Janis Vilcans is a kayaking addict. He also consults other kayakers and rents kayaks. Janis finds the most exciting kayaking places in Latvia and brings other people there. When I contacted him in January I had forgotten that he goes out kayaking regardless the season.
“Of course, I’ll tell you everything I know, Roland! But maybe you also want to join us on a kayaking trip this weekend? There is an incredibly high water level in Daugava River. That will be an amazing reportage!”
“This weekend? My dear friend, it’s cold and wet out there!”, I mumbled silently. But it was too late. At that moment I understood that I have no other choice than to accept his offer. And not because I wanted the interview. I just knew for sure that it will be an amazing experience.
In order not to “suffer” alone I convinced a couple of friends to join me. To my surprise, they agreed. There are only some friends that are crazy enough to wake up at 4 a.m. on Sunday to drive three hours God knows where. And I know exactly who they are. Besides, hey, it’s winter out there! Hiking, yes. Skiing or ice skating are also good options. But kayaking in winter? One must be a real outdoors addict, right?
Not really! As for all the things, the limits are only in our heads. We are the ones who decide what is and what is not possible for us. It is all about our attitudes and beliefs.
First Day Of The Winter
Despite some doubts, the weather forecast for Sunday was promising. After heavy rains during the last two weeks, it was finally the time for snow and winter. So it was. Our kayaking day was also the first day of a real winter.
The early dark Sunday morning greeted us with heavy snowfall. The large snowflakes lowered the visibility on the road almost to zero.
“Well, it looks that this will be one exceptional kayaking day!” I thought (still being excited, to be honest).
As we approached our destination, the picture changed. At one moment it looked dark and hopeless. Yet some ten minutes later the sun was rising and skies got absolutely clear. We left the clouds behind and got a gorgeous sunny winter day. That was our prize for early wake-up and patience.
Our kayaking trip took place in the remote Dviete Floodplain. It is a protected area of European Union importance (Natura2000). This conservation area is the floodplain of Dviete and Ilukste rivers. These rivers connect with the largest river in Latvia – Daugava. Thus when the water level in Daugava raises, the entire area of grasslands along with some woodlands gets flooded.
Dviete Floodplain is one of the most diverse and richest bird sites in Latvia. It’s an important stopover site for migrating waterfowl in spring. Thousands of geese and ducks gather here every year. Hence spring is the best time for visiting the site.
Information Centre “Gulbji”
There is also an interesting information center “Gulbji” in Bebrene Parish. You can get lots of attractive and interactive information about Dviete Floodplain here. Plus you’ll get some local spirit and hospitality too. Yet be sure you call before your arrival! It’s a remote off-the-beaten-path place, and it gets not that many visitors to be open all the time.
What’s The Fun In Winter Kayaking?
While there are no migratory birds in winter, Dviete Floodplain is still an amazing place to come while traveling in Latvia. The snowy fields and trees give a magic feeling on a sunny day.
We arrived when the winter had just begun. Thus the thick ice layer had not yet developed on the water. The thin ice in some places broke with an ease under our paddles. Yet unusually the ice formed on our kayaks like it does on the ships in winter.
Riga Black Balsam
A cold wind blew in our faces when we first got out of the car. Janis met us with a wide smile and determination on his face. A shot of traditional Riga Black Balsam woke us up immediately. This dark and thick drink is what you usually get as “a must” while traveling to Latvia. We drink it with tea or pure when it’s cold out there. The original brew is to say quite challenging for those who have not used to it. But you get acquainted with it soon, as it warms you up.
Getting On But Not In The Water
We packed our stuff in the kayaks and slipped off them in Dviete River, trying to get on but not in the freezing water.
We had three professional/single kayakers with us. Two double recreational kayaks were for us. Both are fine for winter kayaking. Yet, the double touring kayaks are more stable, while the single ones are faster.
The Flooded Kingdom Of Nature
From the moment we got on the water we entered a different world. I had visited this place several times during the summer. The locals had earlier told me that the grasslands I was walking on are under the water when the water level is high. Yet I could not imagine the scale of these floods until I saw them myself.
Kayaking in winter or in spring here means that you are kayaking in the pastures and woodlands. Everything is under water. Hay bales, pasture fences, and trees are all flooded.
We crossed the fences and entered the birch and alder woodlands. Kayaking among the trees adds some surreal feeling. The sun was shining and gave a great energy and mood boost. We felt happy that we came to this magic place.
We made some ten kilometers (six miles) altogether. It is not cold at all when you paddle intensely. And you have to paddle, as there is no water stream that would carry you on a floodplain. Just get warm and comfy socks and waterproof pants and boots! This will let you enjoy your trip to its fullest.
Live “Grazing Machines”
The grasslands have to be kept open and free from extensive vegetation in Dviete Floodplain. This is very important for the protected bird species like Corncrake that are nesting here. For this reason, the area is grazed by semi-wild cows and horses. These highly effective “grazing machines” are working on their own all-year-round. As we approached one of the watching towers the heard curiously watched us but kept at a safe distance.
Winter Kayaking – An Ultimate Experience
At the end of our amazing kayaking trip, Janis asked us if we are maybe interested to “go pro”, and try some rapids in winter or spring. We did not say no.
At the end of the trip, one of our fellow kayakers Ivo demonstrated his skills of getting up after the kayak flips in the cold water. The smile did not disappear from his face. Hence it was pretty encouraging.
After all, winter kayaking is very enjoyable. Besides, it is available not just for advanced kayakers but for everyone. Yet you have to be well prepared and a bit lucky with the weather.
The flooded Dviete meadows are worth seeing, and you won’t see them while traveling to Latvia in summer. The best time to enjoy the floods here is spring. Yet the snowy winter adds some more magic to this flood-land adventure.
Part II: What It Means to Be An Avid Kayaker
(An interview with Janis Vilcans)
Janis had fulfilled his mission to hook us with the gorgeous winter kayaking trip. Finally, he was ready to tell me some of his avid kayaker’s secrets about his passion.
How long are you a kayaker? Do you consider yourself a pro?
I became a kayaker not that long time ago. There were times in Latvia when it was difficult to get a kayak, and it was almost impossible to afford one. At the beginning of ’90s, I started to explore local waters in slow and clumsy rubber boats. In the first decade of the new millennium, I had a chance to try first kayaks and I was hooked. I don’t consider myself a pro, but rather a serious amateur. My level is compatible with the difficulty level of Latvian rivers. Yet, I am professional, if we speak about knowledge of rivers and lakes in Eastern Latvia – Latgale.
Which kayaking place in Latvia do you enjoy the most?
I like all the rivers in Latvia when there is a high water level. It is more important to choose the right kayak depending on river and water level, be it a whitewater kayak, a touring kayak or a sea-kayak. Yet, if I have to choose I love Latgale’s rivers the most. First, they are not far from my home. Second, Latgale is not crowded and nature is still pristine here. If you have to choose an off-the-beaten-path destination Latgale is a place to go.
Why kayaking in winter, spring, and autumn? Isn’t it much nicer to enjoy the good weather in the summer?
I rarely go for kayaking in summer because it is the hot kayak rental season. I work when others have holidays but I like what I do. Spring is the best time for professional kayaking in Latvia. It is the time of high water levels when the snow melts. Winter, spring, and autumn is the time when most of the people do not think about having their weekend on waters. Therefore I use this time to go kayaking myself.
Which places are the best for kayaking in Latvia and in which season?
As said all the places are good if there is a high enough water level and you have the necessary gear. Yet the spring floods are the best for extreme kayaking. While summer is the best for recreational kayaking.
Can anybody be a kayaker? What would you suggest for beginners?
Yes, anybody can do kayaking. Start with calm waters to understand how to paddle and steer your kayak! Consult with experts about basic principles, best routes, clothing and other things to take with you!
What is the difference between recreational kayaking and more advanced (sports) kayaking? Is there any clear line between them?
Well, recreational kayaking is sports too, especially considering the sedentary modern lifestyle. I would call the kayaking recreational when somebody rents a kayak one or a few times a year. Recreational kayaking is typically a few days on waters with the family or friends. It is an escape from mundane life. More advanced kayaking is when somebody is dedicated to spending much more time on this activity. An advanced kayaker does not care much about the weather. He will go kayaking no matter if it’s gonna rain or not. There is only one criterion – is the water level high enough for kayaking. Advanced kayaker learns and develops his/her skills and tests them in competitions.
How experienced one has to be to get into wild rapids? What should be the safety precautions?
Some experience is a must. You should know the kayaking route, obstacles, and dangerous places. You should also know the basic principles of paddling a kayak. Wear the right clothes! Take care of safety gear and emergency kit! You should be aware that you are always taking some risk. Besides, it is also a risk for your potential rescuers. Don’t go alone! There should be at least someone who can help you on the river or get out of the river, if necessary. If you are not sure about something, don’t do it!
What are the advantages of kayaking for those who want to enjoy nature?
You can see nature from another angle. You can feel the enormous power of nature. Kayaking is also a very eco-friendly activity.
Is the kayak rental more a business, a hobby or two in one for you?
In Latvia, it is more a hobby. The kayaking season in Latvia is short and depends on the water level and weather. The financial revenue is small compared to the time and work that it takes.
Finally to make this story more alive and credible here is a short movie on our incredible winter kayaking trip to Dviete floodplain. Enjoy!
What do you think about kayaking in a floodplain like this? Would you come for such a trip to Latvia? Write your comments below or send me a private message for more details to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want me to arrange your kayaking or any other adventure trip in Latvia, please contact me or visit my page at www.idaadventures.com.