By Brian Anderson - Cologne, Germany
author of "Small Boats on Green Waters"

During the early days of Autumn, I had a chance to dip a paddle in the Boutonne River, about 20 miles south of the in-laws’ place in France. It is a pretty little river, wandering through the flat countryside on a rich alluvial plain, though not what one could  call a wild river. There were many dams and weirs, and in places the waters were held back by dikes so old I didn’t even notice them until I saw that the land sloped down from the river bank, in one or two places as much as 10-15 feet.


Rachel helps out with Papa’s thrift-store double paddle. The paddles were made in the old East Germany. The ferrules are solid brass tubes machined to such a close tolerance that they simply slide together without any spring buttons.

click images for larger views

It was a nice drive down, through the rolling countryside, past the occasional hunter and the odd Chateau or semi-fortified farmhouse. I could tell we were getting close to the river as the land flattened out and we passed the village of Petite Grenouille (Little Frog) and then a sign for the village of Grand Grenouille (Big Frog). I put in near the town of Saint Serverin-Sur-Boutonne.

Rachel gets her first boat ride.

To put in, we found a little park that had built around the village lavoire, a little stone building with a sort of big stone tub open to the river where the women would come to wash their clothes. The water was only a foot or so deep with a sandy bottom and no current, so I decided it was the perfect place to give the girls their first boat ride. They loved it, and weren’t at all afraid. We paddled across to a pasture full of the local Parthenaise cattle. A couple of them were drinking from the river. The girls were entranced, the cows less so. I was a happy man. It looks like maybe next year, Rachel could be up for an afternoon trip on a calm little river like the Button. Have to dig out the life jacket I bought for her a couple hours after she was born though.

Maia digs the ride.

The Parthenaise cattle. They are raised for their excellent beef, and are mostly found in the region around Parthenay, the city from which they took their name. They are not at all common, but the herd is growing because of the new “foodie” emphasis on eating local and as well as possible. Kind of makes me hungry just looking at them -- a nice fillet, grilled rare and covered with a cognac gravy...

After unloading the girls, I paddled off down the river. The day was warm and overcast, and the river, if rivers can be said to sleep, was like my father-in-law dozing off after a big lunch washed down with the gamay/chardonneret red wine he makes. I paddled slowly along, past bunches of grazing cows and the ubiquitous plantations of poplar trees. I was getting kind of sleepy too. It was just that kind of afternoon on that kind of river. But then I came around a bend and there, for no reason that I could immediately see, was this wild black steel Picasoesque statue on the river bank, apparently for the edification of the occasional canoeist. Only in France.

Wild Black Steel Picasoesque Statue for the Edification of the Occasional Canoeist.

I went on and soon I was paddling on a sort of liquid alley that ran in several courses through the village of Dampierre-sur-Boutonne. A moment later, I found myself paddling in the moat of a huge castle that had obviously been rebuilt sometime during the Renaissance. Big towers and walls built for defence but now sporting lots of windows. Nice.

Entering Dampierre-sur-Boutonne.

I found a place to get out of the boat and in one of those lovely moments that happen sometimes in France, the first thing I saw when I reached the street was a sign with an arrow and the words “Asinerie National.” What on earth could that be? An asinerie is a place where there are asses. Maybe the castle I saw was some sort of medieval Parliament of Toffs? But the arrow was pointed in the wrong direction. Then it hit me, ass as in donkey, not as in idiot human or part thereof. And sure enough a little later I saw another sign that explained that the asinerie was dedicated to the protection of a kind of donkey, the Baudet du Poitou, the asinine, as it were, version of the Parthenaise cow. Apparently plenty of people like eating the Parthenaise cow, and so there are a fair number of them around. Practically nobody eats or otherwise profits from the Baudet, however, and the race is in danger of dying out. Hence the Anisette National. They are kind of cute. A farm a couple of miles down the road from the in-laws has a bunch of them and they are very well-mannered little beasts. Take grass and carrots from your hands all day long without even an accidental little nip. The same sign told me that the Chateau de Dampierre dates back at least to the 11th century, and was essentially rebuilt in the 16th century, changing it from a primarily defensive structure to more of a palace.

Baudet du Poitou.

Paddling in the moat of the Chateau de Dampierre-sur-Boutonne.

An old photo of the Boutonne a little downstream from the section I paddled.

After Dampierre, the river ran through the countryside. Lots of little weirs to control water levels for mills and the like. So I spent quite a bit of time portaging. Luckily I wasn’t loaded down for a week, or it would have been a real pain. As it was I could just set my drybox and paddle aside, and then pick up the boat and walk it around.

At one weir, I met an English woman, and her daughter and granddaughter fishing. The woman had sold up in England and used the cash to buy a picturesque old house in France and was fixing it up and planning to run a bed-and-breakfast there. Got to hand it to her -- from the way she spoke to me in French before she realized I was American, she was still learning the language. Fixing up an old, old stone house is a real job, doing it in a country where you don’t speak the language very well must be three times as hard. She helped me carry the boat around the dam and hinted that although her inn wasn’t officially open, if I was looking for a place to stay for the night, she would be happy to make me her first customer.

I was tempted, but hadn’t planned on a two-day trip and my wife was planning to pick me up in a town downstream, so I declined. The future innkeeper said that in any case, she was going to put up a little sign for other stray canoeists, and maybe talk to a couple of the local rental places.

A little while later I paddled out into a small pool built up behind a low weir. There was a small panel truck outfitted as a camper parked on a level area and a couple of guys were hauling speakers and a gasoline generator out of the back. A young woman in the truck’s kitchen looked startled to see me paddle up. I stopped to jaw a bit, to try to figure out exactly where I was, and to see what they were up to. They were setting up for a DJ party, and had apparently been wandering around the countryside doing their thing. The guy in charge wasn’t overly friendly (he told his girlfriend to go find something else to do besides check out my boat) but the other one gave me a beer and invited me to stay for the party. I was again regretting that the plan was for this to be a simple day trip, and again had to beg off. As I paddled away, the guys were rummaging around in the truck, but the girl stepped out and stuck her fist in the air, in a sort of salute, as I paddled away. Maybe the all night parties, or a boyfriend who tells her to vanish when somebody turns up asking for directions, were wearing a little thin and she was thinking a nice paddle on a sweet little river might be a good change of pace.

An old mill dam, recently reinforced.

One of the interesting things about the trip was realizing how little water there actually was flowing in the river. After a portage, I was often confronted by a tiny little stream, a couple of feet wide and a couple of inches deep. Sometimes it got so narrow I couldn’t even paddle. I just had to sort of float along and fend off with the paddle to avoid strainers or rocks. One of the things I thought of when designing my boat was that I wanted a minimum draft, and the flat bottom certainly helps in situations like this. I wasn’t overly loaded up, but even so I was floating along in about 3” of water many times during the trip.

Thin water.

In one shallow stretch through a forest, I was drifting along daydreaming and noticed a young Roe deer on a small point just in front of me. They are tiny things, a little under 3 feet at the shoulder when mature. The stream was only a foot or so deep and maybe 15 feet wide with a bank a couple of feet high on one side, and the deer was tensed up to jump off the bank and cross when he saw me. It was a little like being in a car barreling along, seeing the deer, and hoping it doesn’t leap out in front of you and get itself killed while tearing up your bumper and grill... And sure enough, in this case I froze and the current carried me along until I was almost under him and then something snapped and the little beast leapt into the air and just about landed in my lap. Why it didn’t just melt back into the forest I will never know, but it landed so close to me that I had to dry off my glasses after he had run off into the woods on the other bank. If it had waited a little longer, and I had been a little hungrier, I could have grabbed and strangled the thing and eaten well that evening.

Hmm. That was an odd little aside there. See deer, think lunch. France does things to me somehow: even just thinking about it brings out the carnivore in me. But when one reflects on what, say, a ragout of venison cooked with a red wine, apple and wild mushroom and thyme sauce would taste like, it becomes a little more understandable. Or maybe not, but anyway, my mouth is watering.

All good things must come to an end, and the afternoon was getting on and so I pulled up under a bridge to figure out where I was so I could call my wife and let her know where to pick me up. I was in a town called Nuaille-sur-Boutonne. A fisherman was trying his luck from the bridge, and I asked him if there were any dams on the river between there and the next town, Saint Pardoult, about a mile down river. He said no, and so talking to my wife, I decided I could squeeze in another little stretch of the river and meet her in St. Pardoult.

Bad idea.

It was getting dark fast, and I found not none, not one, but two dams. The second was tricky and involved carrying the canoe down through a patch of ankle-breaking broken stones the size of footballs. It was getting dark, so I gave it a miss, and decided to head back to Nuaille.

It got darker and darker, and it was the dark of the moon, and pretty soon I realized that not only was I not going to be able to get to St. Pardoult, I was also not going to be able to get back to Nuaille because I was lost in a section of the river where there were a a maze of little channels in a place that a quick inspection of my map told me was called the “Little Swamp.” I could barely see my hand in front of my face.

There wasn’t any real danger, the river was slow and shallow, and there were a couple of houses and a road in sight. But I was wondering how to meet up with my wife, and if she was going to strangle me when we finally did.

It is funny, being married. I only got hitched a couple of years ago, and I am still learning there are things I wouldn’t have thought twice about when single, like lingering a little too long on the river, that have the power to turn a normally sweet and gentle woman into a raging typhoon, a cyclone and anticyclone all in one. Not of course that I am always entirely blameless or that it is unreasonable, when one has graciously agreed to drive a half an hour in the night to pick up one’s husband to, you know, actually be able to pick him up.

Then I had the brilliant idea of calling my mother-in-law to tell her, in case Valerie called wondering where I was (we only have one cell phone -- this is nice most of the time because I hate the filthy things, but a second one would come in hand in times like this) that the plan had changed and I would meet Valerie in Nuaille-sur-Boutonne. The problem is that my mother-in-law sometimes struggles with my French and Nuaille sounds remarkably like the French word for drowning. Pierrette heard the words Valerie and Nuaille in the same sentence, and promptly lost it.

So I calmed her down as best I could, and was looking around for a place to park the boat so I could walk out to the road and walk back to the unfortunately named Drowning-on-Boutonne when Valerie called. Mercifully she had not yet spoken with her mother, but she was pretty fired up never-the-less. Apparently I had about two minutes to get my butt to Drowning, or I was going to have to hitchhike with my canoe, forcibly implanted in my anatomy, all the way back to Germany.

OK. So I walked out to the road and headed off, stopping occasionally to stick out my thumb. Amazingly, nobody stopped in the night to pick up a scruffily dressed bearded man in muddy boots carrying a neon orange dry box and a canoe paddle. Go figure.

Then a pack of adolescent Hells Angels wannabes on unmuffled 40 cc scooters turned up. They didn’t bat an eye at the American wandering through deepest France in the middle of the night carrying a canoe paddle, and helpfully pointed out the long way around when I asked them directions. A little while later I was lost, somebody having decided to rewrite all the road signs in the neighborhood, with a 12 gauge shotgun by the looks of it. Maybe that’s how the local kids who weren’t old enough to drive a scooter had fun evenings.

The damp rubber boots were grinding exquisitely painful open sores on my damp feet and I was starting to lose my enthusiasm for adventure when, Hooray!, I saw a woman outside in her courtyard. I didn’t see the pack of savage hunting dogs scattered around in the uncertain light, but a “Bonsoir” later they were leaping at the yard’s fence in a frenzied but fortunately vain attempt to tear my throat out.

The woman was very old and bent over from a lifetime of work on the farm, and was wearing an old-fashioned white frilly housecoat and knee-height rubber boots like mine. She gave me a little wave and shuffled back toward the house. My heart sank. But then she stooped over a little more, picked up a long flexible piece of bamboo, and, calling on startling reserves of enthusiasm, energy and agility, proceeded to beat the dogs, and they were a noisy dozen or so, into whimpering submission. It was a remarkable performance: something like a five minute whirlwind of snarling, howling beagles bouncing off the walls, fences, each other and occasionally the old women as she lashed around with that bamboo stick like a Shaolin swordsman in some martial arts flick and all of it only sporadically lit by a tiny flickering fluorescent tube. I might be mistaken, but I think for the last two or three minutes she was mostly just revelling in the sheer, atavistic thrill of it all. Or maybe she was just more of a cat person.

In any case I will certainly carry the scene with me to my grave.

So, after giving one of her favorite dogs a last and not strictly necessary kick, she walked over to the gate and, not even breathing hard, asked me what I wanted. I asked for the road to Drowning, and she said, “You aren’t from around here, are you?” I explained that I was an American and had been canoeing. She nodded and smiled as if to say: “Sure, I have heard that there are people who do that sort of thing and many of them are no doubt Americans.” She said “That would explain the paddle. Did you get lost in the Little Swamp?” She didn’t wait for my answer but told me that Drowning was about a kilometer down the road.

I trudged off, and about 20 minutes and several kilometers later, while I was wondering if it might not be a better idea to take off the boots and go barefoot, I spotted our car parked on the edge of Drowning-on-Boutonne. I walked over. No wife.

I walked into the village to look for her. It was well lit, but devoid of life, and I noticed a truly wonderful old Romanesque church. So I stopped to look at the amazing stone carvings around the door. The region where my wife is from underwent a brief flowering of culture and construction in the 12th and 13th century. Eleanor of Aquitaine who divorced her husband, Louis VII, the king of France, and married Henry II, the king of England, (and set off several centuries of war in the process) pretty much ran the region throughout her long and varied life. Along the way, she created one of the earliest traditions of literature, and she and her father, the Duke of Aquitaine, ruled well and many wonderful churches were built. The region languished after this time, however and so there are many churches that were not later enlarged or rebuilt in the gothic style in a more theologically orthodox age, as often happened. The stone carvings reveal a Christianity that was still heavily influenced by local pagan and Celtic mythology and symbols and even, on occasion, Crusader imports like the signs of the Zodiac. Wild stuff, if one is interested in that sort of thing.

The door of the Church of The Assumption in Nuaille-sur-Boutonne.

Anyway, I was standing there wandering through the iconography of 12th century Poitevan Christianity and trying not to pay attention to the seeping feeling that my boots were filling with blood from the open blisters on my feet when my cellphone went off like a smallish but infuriated weasel had woken up in my pocket and wrenched me back into the 21st century.

“Where the &@$%^*^& %$&*^&$@, @#$#$@ are you,” my wife asked. I said: “In Drowning. I was looking for you and found this wonderful old church.” She said that she had noticed the church and it was indeed a jewel of its kind and that she was happy that I was enjoying myself at the church and hadn’t been devoured by wild beasts or sunk to a watery grave but that she was fed up and had almost driven the car into the river looking for me and that it had taken her ages to find a house in which she could talk the people into allowing her to make a call to our German cell phone, and that when she found me she was going to inflict punishments that were in direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions. She was just starting to get into the ghastly specifics of what I had in store for me, when, apparently figuring that threats carry more force when they are left vague, she instead paused to take a breath. On the upside, it turned out that France’s rugby team had, against all predictions, just beaten New Zealand, who had been favored to win the Rugby World Cup, so I was lucky.

And in fact, I did feel lucky. What a day.

Afternoon idyll.

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