The fourth Balkan Rivers Tour was based on yet another fresh concept. This format was a direct response to what we felt the local river conservation scene needed; a solid chance to share knowledge, exchange experience, connect with each other in a non-hectic environment and find ways to speed up and broaden the process of river conservation.
Unlike previous tours, which were continuous month-long trips, we divided this tour into three separate weeks. Each week was spent at the same location, our BRT base camp. Our hosts were local river defenders, and they presented the problems they are facing and we did our best to help them with our resources.
BRT4 WEEK 1: ROMANIA
In Romania, we were stunned by the environment, the architecture, designs, little details, (the strength of local liquor, tuica) and by the hospitality of the locals. We immediately felt at home, yet at the same time like we were in some kind of fairy tale.
The action-packed week of April 15-20th 2019 was one for the books. Week 1 of Balkan Rivers Tour 4 gathered a diverse group of activists and 23 kayakers from 11 countries (Romania, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Mexico). We paddled 5 incredible rivers and spent countless hours discussing alternatives, solutions and creative ways to keep these rivers wild. The Basca Mica, Basca Mare, Basca Rozilei, Buzau and Jiu are all rivers that you have to experience in a kayak. Little Basca Mica (Little Basca) surprised us all with its continuous slides, boulder gardens and drops that go on for 25 kilometers, ending right at our basecamp. Its bigger sister, Basca Mare (Big Basca), was even a step better, with a boulder-packed, class IV middle canyon and a super fun class III-IV lower section; it’s a river you can paddle over and over again. And we did, 3 times!
After all that time spent playing in the whitewater of the Basca Mare we went on an exploration mission up a logging road for 2 hours, only to receive a harsh slap of reality when we reached the dam construction site. Seeing the devastation made by the construction of this controversial dam, we could instantly understand why local kayaker Catalin and his friends have been fighting for this river for the last 5 years. The dam is in the midst of a Natura 2000 protected area called Penteleu and is currently on hold due to the collapse of one of the tunnels which provided the construction site with materials. If this super illegal project gets completed, a tall dam would block the river completely, flooding the side valley of the 3 major tributaries and diverting the entire flow of water downstream of the dam into a 20 km long tunnel that would provide the poorly designed Siriu reservoir with more water. Basically, the Basca Mare would be only a distant memory.
Our protest there in Romania was small and symbolic. But every single person there experienced what is going on deep in the Romanian forest. Each kayaker and local who was present was left with a determined look on their face saying, we will do everything possible to help stop this unnecessary massacre.
A note to kayakers: We only got a taste of the Basca Rozliei, a river born from the confluence of the Basca Mica and Basca Mare, but what we saw from the road further downstream are some super fun rapids, especially in higher flows. The main river of the region is the Buzau and the rafting section is a cool class III run starting just downstream of Siriu hydropower plant between plum orchards and the town of Nehoiu. But to paddle it you have to be lucky to catch the outflow from the turbines since the dam authorities are reluctant to provide information on when dam releases happen.
At its roots, Balkan Rivers Tour is a group of passionate kayakers, but we did more than just kayak in Romania. We visited 2 mayors to discuss pending dam plans and how sustainable tourism can be a more economically viable alternative. We organised a day of action and workshops with kids at the local Gura Teghii Elementary School and got kayakers fly fishing on the Basca Mica River with the help of local fisherman and rod designer George Minculete. We finished the week off with a big garbage clean-up action on the Buzau River in the village of Nehoiu, followed by a projection of The Undamaged and a real Balkan party that wrapped up in the early morning hours.
BRT4 WEEK 2: SLOVENIA
There is no place like home. The majority of the Balkan River Defence (BRD) crew call the Soča River their home river, so week 2 of Balkan Rivers Tour 4 was a homecoming of sorts, where the kayakers of BRT invited kayakers from around the world, to their home run in Slovenia from July 7-13th.
RIVER INTELLECTUALS + STUDENTS FOR RIVERS CAMP
During the week we officially launched a new BRD subproject, an initiative called River Intellectuals (RI). The objective of RI is to connect the academic world to the river defenders on the ground. By promoting the Balkans as a region for research and extend studies, RI’s objective is to create self-sustaining partnerships between local Balkan universities, western European universities and small local river conservation organisations. In this way we can examine the layers of impact hydropower has on the environment, society and economics but most importantly, provide and distribute data, research and studies related to river conservation to be used as hard evidence for legal and legislative battles for free flowing rivers.
River Intellectuals launched with Students for Rivers Camp (SRC), a week-long event which ran parallel to BRT4. SRC was an interdisciplinary approach to river conservation which brought students, experts and professors from around Europe together to discuss river conservation and alternatives to hydropower. Through lectures, river-side research simulations and a final project, students started to bridge the gap between in-class research and on-the-ground action. The students and professors joined the BRD crew on the water on for the flotilla, fully experiencing the Soča and a real outdoor classroom. The River Intellectuals platform later evolved into an NGO called River Collective.
Kayaking together from Lepena to Most na Soči, BRT4 was made up of kayakers from Peru, Australia, Nepal, UK, Ireland, Austria, Germany and Canada. A pop-up cinema was created in the evening, which screened The Undamaged and Mission East to West, a film by Nepali paddler Anup Gurung who presented his story of river conservation in Nepal.
Balkan Rivers Defence isn’t the first group to defend and protect the Soča. Local heroes honored us with a visit on evening and spoke to us about how they defended the Soča River in the 70s against a series of proposed dams that would have turned Soča Valley into massive reservoirs between Bovec and Tolmin. The stories told, the photos shown and the emotions present were simply incredible and kept us awake long into the night.
BRT + SRC
The Students for Rivers Camp had the chance to ditch the lecture hall and explore river-related research and study topics on the water. They joined the BRT4 flotilla under Kobarid’s iconic Napoleon Bridge which drifted into an afternoon of river-side lectures, warm burek pastry and a few more paddle strokes downriver to get them to the final BRT4 camp near the Most na Soči reservoir, where the week would wrap up with a bigger Free Soča Flotilla (as well as a concert and beer mile) to celebrate the rivers of the Balkans and all those who are protecting them.
FREE SOČA FLOTILLA
BRT4 wrapped up with a huge flotilla that gathered 150 people from 23 countries making noise on the Most na Soči resevoir in celebration of the free-flowing segment of the Soča River and recognise the locals from Tolmin that defended the river in the 70s from 2 HPPs. We sent a loud message to HPP company SENG that we won’t allow new dams to be built on the Soča’s tributary, the Učja River, and started a discussion about dam removal on the Soča.
BRT4 WEEK 3: BULGARIA
Venturing into a pocket of the Balkans not yet explored, we had no idea what to expect as we drove south to Bulgaria for week 3 of BRT4 from September 24-29th. After a quick stop at Kayak Fest Tara to see the familiar faces and rivers, our van rallied the winding roads from Montenegro’s Tara Canyon to Bulgaria’s Kresna Gorge. The 10-hour trip gave us plenty of time to dream, brainstorm, scheme, plan and prepare for the week ahead.
Arriving late, the next morning greeted us with bright views of the Pirin Mountains and coffee with an eclectic group of Bulgarian River defenders. The first presentations of the week started with the talk on the geography, history and current struggles within the Kresna Gorge and on the Struma River. Threats to the waterways of the region vary from mega highway development, cross-boundary industrial (predominately mining) pollution and the rampant construction of small hydropower dams.
LOCAL RIVER DEFENDERS
Members from the bad ass fishing-club-turned-river-conservation NGO Balkanka, walked us through their online database with photos, stats, flow measurements and info on almost every small HPP in the country (check it out here!). Like BRD, they received Free Rivers Fund funding which they used to purchase equipment to monitor water flows downstream of dams. With this info they notify the EU Commission for the Environment when dams are not meeting their minimum biological flow requirements. How’s that for organized, motivated and rebellious fishermen!
Together, Balkanka, Za Zemyata/Friends of the Earth Bulgaria, Nature School Vlahi and Balkani Wildlife Society form a crazy group of fishermen, conservationists, scientists and nature lovers who have created a web of river defense in Bulgaria. BRT’s goal for the week aimed to support the efforts of these groups and share their messages, both nationally and internationally. (And to experience the Struma.)
We put kayaks in the water later that day for a quick paddle and the Struma River greatly surprised us with its teeming aquatic and birdlife, making it obvious just how much there is to fight for here.
On day 3, we swapped paddles for hiking boots and walked the riverside with a personal bird watching guide. Slowing down and looking around isn’t something kayakers do often, so taking in the river in slow motion opened up a world of creatures. Kingfishers, lizards, insects, and aquatic invertebrates made for a kid-like day, flipping over rocks in the river, sneaking up on birds and in the end even coming across a Balkan tortoise!
CASTING A LINE
We explore rivers of the Balkans through kayaking, but local populations are often more connected to their rivers through fishing. The BRT4 Bulgaria crew tried our hand at fishing on the morning of day 4 and enjoyed the simplicity and challenge of fly-fishing with a tenkara rod (a reel-less, collapsible version of the conventional fly rod).
In the afternoon, the lead fish scientists from the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History treated the team to in-depth presentations. First, Tihomir Stefanov taught us about the endemic and threatened fish species of the Struma River. And then Ivan Pandakov walked us through the badass river conservation that the Bulgarian fishing-club-turned river-defenders, Balkanka, are doing.
Balkanka went from stocking rivers to protecting them and has become the most successful group protecting Bulgarian rivers from small hydropower dams. These guys are the coolest, bravest and most effective group of fishermen out there! They regularly file official complaints to the EU Commission for the Environment and have stopped the construction of many small HPPs on Bulgarian Rivers.
What is often known as a selfish sport, has been transformed in Bulgaria into a sport where respect and action have reached a new level of strength and success. Imagine if every fishing club in the world was like Balkanka, rivers would be very well defended!
SCIENCE + DRIECT ACTION
Two opposite sides of river conservation—science and direct action—collided on day five of BRT4 Bulgaria. The crew got their hands wet examining macroinvertebrates, comparing diversity of species above and below a dam on Gradevska Reka, a tributary of the Struma, with two dedicated river defenders who had both previously spoken at BRT4 Slovenia’s Students for Rivers Camp.
Small hydro and mega highway development are threatening to kill the Struma River, and so the group put their passion into action, with a ‘sign restoration’ action. Putting our paintbrushes to work, we helped the local NGO’s fighting to keep the mega highway out of the Kresna Gorge, encouraging a bypass or a tunnel.
Conservationists in Bulgaria aren’t against development and understand the need for this highway, which connects Vienna to Athens. But being smart about where and how the highway is built—i.e. keeping it out of this biodiverse and rich Struma River valley—is what they ask for.
The final day of BRT4 Bulgaria saw over 50 people take to the water in celebration of the Struma! In true BRT style, the news cameras followed and Ivan, president of Balkanka, spoke to two national TV stations about the three main threats to the river: small HPPs, industrial pollution and the highway project. The crew gathered at the put-in with whistles and banners and paddled and played their way down the Struma River. Local kayakers, fishermen, rafting companies and even the Bulgarian National Rafting team all made their voices heard, shouting loud and proud that the Struma River is an important Bulgarian waterway that should be respected and protected! The flotilla was followed by more interviews and beer and food at Reflip Rafting base, who provided free rafts and gear for flotilla participants.
The week in Bulgaria ended with a screening of The Undamaged under a starry night sky with homemade local cognac keeping us warm. These slow moments and the camaraderie formed after spending a whole week in one river valley together made this new format of BRT4 so enjoyable and so effective.
And just like that, we concluded the fourth annual Balkan Rivers Tour. The Balkan River Defence team drew inspiration and ideas from each interaction and plan to carry the good energy, crazy ideas and peaceful defiance from each of the communities visited this year into next year’s tour…