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Thread: Baltic Beaver Bonanza Paddling Latvias River Gauja

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Lochwinnoch, West Central Scotland

    Default Baltic Beaver Bonanza Paddling Latvias River Gauja


    In May 2019 David, Robbie & James (Robbies 18-year-old son) paddled 105 kilometres of Latvias beautiful River Gauja, from the village of Gaujiena near Latvias frontier with Russia to near the town of Valmiera. Canoeing this great but, relatively little-known river, for five Spring days through the remote boreal and temperate forests bordering Estonia, gave us the chance to experience the northern woodlands at their very best.

    Paddling solo, with all our equipment & supplies, over this distance and living self-sufficiently in the forest was a challenge we were keen to overcome. With bears, lynx, elk (moose), wolves and beavers (lots & lots of big furry beavers), inhabiting the surrounding forests, alongside its unique bird and insect life, we wondered what sights and sounds wed experience during our expedition in the Baltic states. For David the trip would be especially meaningful, as he returned to the homeland his father had fled in 1945.


    A year earlier, as wed finished a previous canoeing expedition in Eastern Europe (see: Tanks, Trees & Teenagers Paddling Polands River Obra) the cry had gone up of So where are we going next?. The answer came during the Ginger Paddlers family holiday to Latvia in July 2018 when wed had a great days canoeing in the Gauja National Park, 50 miles north-east of Riga. Here was a stunning, readily paddlable river of a scale wed never before encountered: 460 km long, up to 100 metres wide but, shallow, slow-moving and majestic.

    With the help of all the mapping and aerial imagery tools now available on the internet, along with translations of German and Polish accounts of earlier Gauja expeditions, during the dark winter months a plan was hatched. We would focus on the most remote section of river, running through the empty forests near Latvias border with Estonia.

    This 105 km section would not only offer great paddling but, also the chance to experience a historic landscape of ancient woodland, traditional hay meadows and a meandering river shaped by time and the work of hungry beavers.

    A superb local canoe supplier was found in the form of Jānis Ramanis who operates a canoe and kayak rental business called PieGaujas. Jānis, who speaks excellent English, readily shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for his local river, helping shape our plan and make the very best of our time on the Gauja.

    With Ryanair flights booked, car hire arranged, pre and post trip accommodation reserved and a detailed plan prepared, we were almost ready. A final step was to spray all our clothes and kit with Permethrin (the stuff that mozzie nets are treated with), to help deter any ticks or mosquitoes we might encounter - this worked a treat and we had only a couple of bites during the whole trip. Then with bags packed and anticipation mounting (David was literally bouncing with excitement), we were good to go.

    Day 1 (Wednesday 22nd May) Lochwinnoch to Valmiera (2,136 km travelled)

    A VERY early start saw us heading east along the M8 by 04:00 en route to Edinburgh Airport, from where our flight was scheduled to leave for Tallinn in Estonia. Buzzing with anticipation, a short walk from the multi-storey car park took us to check in, seamlessly through security and finally to the Wetherspoons for a healthy paddlers breakfast of eggs benedict, sausage, bacon, fried eggs, mushrooms, beans & tomatoes, all washed down with lashings of orange juice and coffee.

    With our flight called, we quickly boarded, found our extra legroom seats and settled in for the 2 hours 45-minute flight across the North and Baltic seas.

    Being next to the emergency exits meant we got extra attention from our flight attendant. This bubbly and gorgeous Polish lass immediately melted Robbies heart, despite being half his age, and kept him doe-eyed for much of the flight. Our route took us over Norways mountains and fjords but, the early start meant that our three adventurers were soon fast asleep and missed the views.

    Landing at Tallinns AMAZING airport, we quickly retrieved our bags after clearing Passport Control and headed off to pick up our hire car from Right Cars. Despite having limited English, their staff had us on the road quickly, heading south on the Via Baltica in our shiny Nissan Qashqai. In the sweltering heat, its air-con was working hard to keep us comfortable.

    Estonia has clearly taken the Roman style of road building to heart. As we drove along endlessly straight highways, through a billiard-table flat landscape, we marveled at the dense pine and birch forests flanking much of our route. We spotted many white storks often nesting on the top of telegraph poles - and common cranes feeding in the roadside meadows.

    Our views of these majestic birds became somewhat tainted when, the following day, Jānis explained that, although beautiful and seen as bringers of good luck, they are fierce predators with a taste for rabbits and even small pets.

    At Parnu we stopped at a roadside cafe for a quick comfort break (code for: a chance to scoff ice cream) and then continued on to the Latvia/Estonia border at Ilka where we stopped for a more substantial break. Plates of schnitzel, chips and salad were promptly served by what appeared to be ex-members of the Soviet ladies olympic shot putt team.

    Then it was across the border into Latvia on a south-east heading towards Valmiera. Arriving in this small town just after 17:00, our first stop was the well-stocked Gandrs Outdoor shop to pick up canisters of gas for our camp stoves. A huge hornet and an enormous cockchafer beetle flying passed us as we loaded the car helped us realise we were definitely in pastures new. Even on the ground, these huge beetles were a bit intimidating.

    Then it was onwards to our luxurious overnight accommodation in the nearby Park Apartments located next to the Multi-Klubs Discotek that David and his grooving shoes seemed mysteriously drawn towards.

    After checking in and unloading the car we headed to a local supermarket, Maxima XX, to stock up for our trip.

    As the route we were paddling was remote and we wouldnt pass close to any villages for several days, we had to buy all our provisions at the start of the trip. We opted primarily for jarred and dried food, along with vacuum-packed cured sausages, which, when combined, made some very decent and tasty meals. This was, of course, complemented by Pringles, biscuits, dried fruit and nuts and maybe some beer actually, quite a lot of beer, cider, Guinness and Cherry Balsam. Then it was back to the Park Apartments to properly pack our kit ready for the morning.

    Having had a long first day, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the Wolmar Hotel in Valmiera, where we met Charly the talking parrot - Why doesnt every bar have one? Wed not noticed him on the way in and wed been sitting for a few minutes wondering where the strange noises were coming from. On investigation we came across Charly who was very friendly and noisy.

    We treated ourselves to some regional cured meats and cheeses, followed by pizza and washed down by some local beer, all served up by a very nice and chatty Valmiera-born girl who had spent some time working in London and who spoke better English than we did. Then it was back to the apartment and off to bed to dream of our adventure ahead.

    Day 2 (Thursday 23nd May) Guajiena to Ala-Konnu (19 km paddled).

    Waking bleary-eyed to a balmy sunlit morning, we were soon washed, dressed and breakfasted with a hearty portion of porridge inside us. With a little time to spare before we were due to meet Jānis, we decided on a bit of sightseeing in Valmiera. Parking near the towns medieval castle, we caught our first sight of the magnificent River Gauja.

    Valmiera and its river turned out to be truly picturesque, with an amazing bridge adorned with something resembling what Loki wears on his head in the Avengers movies.

    A modern art installation beside the ancient Lutheran church caught our eye a work in the shape of an hour glass which, lit up and turned in 1-minute cycles symbolising our need to make the best of our short time on Earth. How very appropriate for the journey we had ahead of us!

    Then it was onto the Baili campsite on the eastern bank of the river to meet Jānis and get first sight of our canoes. This short journey was enlivened by Robbies failure to navigate a roundabout on our third lap David helpfully asked if he was trying to recreate the famous scene from National Lampoons European Vacation.

    We arrived to find a smiling Jānis waiting for us but, with two boats rather than the three we were expecting. This slight confusion in understanding was quickly solved, and a short drive took us to his canoe store where a third canoe was added to the trailer.

    As we drove the 75 km by road to the drop-off at Gaujiena, Jānis shared his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for the Gauja, along with its nature and its heritage. As we left Valmiera he told us of a recent bear sighting on the edge of town. Around every corner on the road (first tarmac and then gravel), we got a new insight into rural Latvian life.

    We saw storks, cranes, hawks and deer in abundance, along with a fox happily sat by the roadside in broad daylight, calmly watching us drive past. An old babushka pushing an ancient bike along the roadside suddenly engulfed in a cloud of dust from a passing tipper truck, driving too fast on the gravel road, seemed to encapsulate rural Latvias tension between tradition and modernity.

    All too soon we reached our destination Gaujienas outdoor singing stage - beside which the Gauja gently flows.

    With the kit unloaded and gifts exchanged Glenmorangie Malt Whisky for local Valmiera-brewed dark ale we waved goodbye to Jānis, loaded our kit and readied our canoes (Mad River Explorer 16 TTs) for launch.

    With a last-minute Womble to ensure we hadnt left any equipment behind; we were off on our Gauja paddling adventure.

    As the sun climbed and the temperature rose to over 25 degrees Centigrade, we settled into this first section of river, characterised by willow trees and traditional hay meadows.

    From the outset, the presence of beavers was evident from the slipways they had made to get between the river and the numerous oxbow lakes. The evidence of their feeding was clear, with numerous branches stripped of their bark left lying on the bank. They seemed to be particularly fond of the young willow saplings that covered huge swathes of the riverbank on the inside of every meander.

    As we settled into our paddling we were accompanied by cuckoos, kingfishers, goosanders, wagtails, sandpipers, lapwings and plovers in their dozens.

    In the humid heat, small grass snakes made an appearance, skittering across the surface in front of us as they hunted for frogs. Robbie, a long-term ophiophobe, tried to stay calm as they skittered around his boat.

    Keeping the pace easy in the heat, we kept up a steady 4 5 km per hour as we wound our way deeper into the forest.

    A pattern began to emerge of sweeping meanders, ox-bow lakes, sandy beaches and undercut banks teeming with sand martins flitting in and out of their nest holes.

    Signs of human impact became rarer as we paddled on a couple of cows staring at us from the bank the first sign of farming wed seen since launching several hours before. This remote riverside shack, clearly intended for axe murders and ritual cannibalism, gave us the heebie-jeebies.

    After a couple of hours, we spotted a border marker post. For the next 26 km wed have Estonia on the right bank and Latvia on the left. The identical landscapes on both sides of river were a poignant reminder of the absurdity of borders in a global world.

    Three kilometres further on we stopped to appreciate our first confluence, as the River Mustjgi joined the Gaula from the depths of Estonia. Accompanied by corncrakes serenading us from the meadows with their coarse rasping crex crex calls, we tucked into pasta pots, washed down with a can of beer, to keep our energy levels up for the paddling ahead.

    Under a hot sun our weariness grew, so we were grateful when Robbie, checking our GPS (a Garmin 401), said we were almost at our first overnight stop the Ala-Konnu bivi camp. Round the next corner, we landed on a small beach and unloaded our boats.

    Estonians love their forests and rivers, and they provide great facilities for those who make the effort to explore. The Ala-Konnu cabin, although privately owned, is left unlocked for the benefit of weary paddlers like ourselves.

    With David and Robbie keen to use their hammocks, James opted to sleep upstairs in the cabin rather than set up his tent.

    David, the teams pyromaniac, soon had a roaring fire going, using dry chopped firewood laid in for the use of visitors like ourselves.

    No sooner had David made himself comfy by the fire, when we saw a flash of lightning and heard an ominous boom of thunder. The sky darkened and the dazzling forks of lightning drew nearer. Before we knew it, a monsoon downpour of biblical proportions hit our camp and lightning forks struck nearby tress, with deafening peels of thunder leaving our ears ringing. Nervous grins were exchanged from under the cover of the cabins porch.

    As the lightning moved on but, the rain increased, David decided that an impromptu shower was required. Laughing at the absurdity of the situation, the three of us stripped to the waist and washed off the days sweat as the downpour continued. Estonias got talent!

    Soon, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. With the temperature now much cooler and more comfortable we went to check our gear. It was no surprise to find our boats filled with water we estimated at least 5 cm of rain had fallen in around 20 minutes leaving a tide mark of yellow pollen washed out of the air in the brief storm.

    With no damage done other than a bit of dampness on Davids hammock, it was time to address our hunger pangs and get some dinner on the go. David and James prepared Pasta Bolognese with diced smoked sausage, accompanied by black rye garlic bread to be the dish of the day, washed down with the beer Jānis had kindly donated: a meal for kings. Robbie did the washing up!

    With the temperature dropping, we took the chance to light the fire in the cabin and set our damp boots and socks to dry off.

    As the sun set on our first day on the river, we relished what an amazing experience the Gauja was providing us.

    Day 3 (Friday 24th May) Ala-Konnu to Tilikas (11 km paddled)

    Waking from a great nights sleep throughout which, wed been serenaded by nightingales singing their endlessly complex songs, we were up by 06:00 getting ready for our day on the Gauja.

    Wed deliberately planned our second day of paddling to be a short one, to allow us more time to enjoy our next bivi camp and to rest muscles not used to long days of solo paddling. After a quick breakfast of cereal and coffee, we broke camp and were back on the water in no time.

    Easy paddling round sweeping meander after sweeping meander on the smooth flowing Gauja got the day off to a great start.

    After the previous days intense rain had washed the ground clear of tracks, it was easy to see where beavers, moist from their aquatic nocturnal activities, had been busy only a matter of hours earlier leaving behind fresh signs of their passage up the banks.

    On every beach we saw fresh tracks: deer; otter; wild boar; and, elk (moose). As we paddled on, chasing an osprey down the river from tree to tree, we counted off the kilometres by the Estonian and Latvian border marker posts on either bank.

    After 4 kilometres, we passed the Korgeperve bivi camp on the Estonian side of the border with its distinctive chimneyed fireplace.

    On an inlet formed at the end of an ox-bow lake we found an active beaver lodge.

    With beavers probably fast asleep inside, we kept quiet to avoid disturbing their slumbers.

    A couple of kilometres beyond Korgeperve we pulled over on the Estonian bank for a leg stretch.

    The short meadow grass was dappled with a blaze of flowers from wild strawberries. The bears would be in for a juicy treat later in the year!

    We explored the excellent bivi camp provided by the Estonian authorities. The picnic table, firepit with adjustable grill and spotlessly clean long-drop toilet (with soft-close lid no less!) were free for anybody to use.

    The well-stocked firewood store even had an ingenious log-splitting device mounted on an upturned log outside.

    As a little drizzle started to fall, we got our jackets on and got back on the river. With kingfishers zipping low across the water ahead of us and the constant calls of cuckoos and warblers in our ears, the river just kept giving us a thrill. Round the next bend, we encountered our first faster flowing section. Weaving between the boulders, we loved the chance to practice our moving water skills.

    The look of joy on James face as he effortlessly threaded his way down the optimum line spoke for itself.

    Despite Davids magnetic attraction to rocks and sandbanks that would become a recurring theme of the trip (hed earlier hit the only rock on a 60-metre-wide section of slow-moving river), even he managed to avoid this monster.

    As the river returned to its more normal sedate pace, we took the chance to enjoy the wild forest landscape around us and thill at the wildlife the river provided us to enjoy. David was captivated by this pair of goosanders who seemed unperturbed by his presence.

    Around 11:30 the objective of this short days paddling hove into view as we approached the bivi camp at Tilikas on the Latvian side of the river. Unfortunately, this excellent camp had everything except a suitable safe spot to land our boats, so we paddled 150 metres back up the river to a section of sandy bank where we could safely get the boats ashore.

    With our canoes briefly secured by their painter ropes to a nearby tree as they were unloaded, it was then a simple but, exhausting task of moving all our kit, food, bottled water and beer (about 180 kg in total), and then the three canoes themselves, the 150 metres along to our camp. Next task was to get our homes set up for the night, with David finding a lovely spot slung between two small oak trees, giving him an excellent view down the river.

    The aim of our short paddling day was to give us the opportunity to catch up with our admin, so in no time we had our portable Indesit washing machine in action (actually a 40 litre heavy duty dry bag filled with river water and some travel wash agitated by two of us for a few minutes).

    With our laundry rinsed and wrung out on the wooden sun lounger and our washing line set up between two birch trees, we then had the chance for a wash ourselves.

    A hot shave followed by a head-to-toe scrub in refreshing water straight from the river got the dirt and sweat off and the chance for a tick check. Well spare your blushes but, suffice to say that we were able to confirm to each other that the Permethrin treatment of our clothes and the use of DEET repellent on exposed skin, meant we were tick and mosquito bite free.

    With a fire lit, we could crack open a beer and chill out to enjoy this beautiful spot, serenaded by cuckoos and cranes calling in the distance.

    With our stomachs rumbling and the clouds starting to look a bit threatening, we set up our 4 metre x 4 metre tarp in case it rained and then James set about making our main meal of the day. Our pasta ninja had a tasty sausage, garlic, onion and tomato ragu ready in minutes accompanied by more delicious black rye garlic bread and cans of locally brewed beer.

    With our hunger pangs fully addressed, it was then simply a case of Robbie cleaning the pot, plates and cutlery before getting coffees on the go.

    As afternoon turned to evening, and with our laundry moved under the tarp to finish drying by the fireside, we were all off to bed by 20:00 ready for an earlier start and a longer paddle the following day. With nightingales again serenading us off to sleep, we were all comatose before we knew it.
    Robbie & Steph

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Lochwinnoch, West Central Scotland

    Default Baltic Beaver Bonanza Paddling Latvias River Gauja (Part 2)

    Day 4 (Saturday 25th May) Tilikas to Veki (24 km paddled)

    With today being the first of our longer paddling days, wed agreed to get up just after sunrise to make the best of the morning which, we knew would be calmer and sunnier than later in the day. At 05:00, to a deafening avian chorus, we wearily climbed out of our sleeping bags into the cool misty dawn to be greeted by the sight two cranes on a fly-past as they made their way upriver and the sound of black grouse cackling nearby.

    After breakfast and getting our wood-smoked laundry packed away, we broke camp and moved all our kit back the 150 metres up river to the launch point. Being well rested from a great nights sleep we were surprisingly fresh despite the early start. Nature was slowly waking up to its day. This damselfly sat trying to warm itself up in the sunshine on the shore beside our launch point.

    Soon we were off making the best of the early start. With this being a Saturday, we thought we might encounter other people for the first time on our journey. This quickly proved to be the case as we saw an elderly fisherman setting up his rig on the Estonian bank.

    Small black flies buzzed about our heads. Although they didnt bite, they started to get on James nerves (along with the endlessly calling cuckoos), so his mosquito head-net was brought out for the first time on our trip.

    This section of the Gauja had plenty of variety, with grass covered islets peppering the river, giving us the chance to pick our own lines downstream and weave our way amongst them.

    We started to see trees washed down by the winter floods. The winter past had brought relatively little snow but, even so there was plenty of evidence of what had happened when the Spring thaw had raised the river level.

    The logs stacked up in earlier Spring floods provided us no hazard and the complete absence of any rubbish in the strainers reminded us of what a special river the Gauja is. One fallen tree left Robbie retching, after he got too close to a bloated and rancid decomposing wild boar that had snagged on it.

    The wildness and natural beauty of the Gauja was giving us a real thrill. There was really nothing to dislike about this stunning river and the looks of joy on our faces as we paddled spoke for themselves.

    The character of the river was slowly changing as we paddled north-west before turning south-west. Whilst there were still some mighty oak trees and plenty of birch, straight trunked pine and spruce were becoming increasing dominant on the banks.

    After 8 km we passed the end of the section where Estonia was on the right bank. Wed now be in Latvia for the rest of our journey. As we approached the bridge at Anni, we saw a group of kayakers preparing to launch their boats.

    Beyond the bridge we saw a newly formed ox-bow lake and looked on enviously at a huge cabin-style house where the owners had buit two sloping ziplines across the river for their kids to play on. Our pleasures were simpler though, as we glided along at a steady 4 5 km an hour.

    After a while, the kayakers caught up with us. They were a group of Estonians, ranging from a father and his young daughter in a traditional double kayak, clearly having great fun together, through to very competent looking paddlers in sleek solo sea kayaks.

    Their leader, a lady who spoke excellent English, happily chatted away to us for around 10 minutes and explained that they were from the university town of Tartu, of which they spoke enthusiastically, and that they planned to cover 80 km over the weekend. On the basis of their recommendation, we subsequently visited Tartu on our way back to Tallinn and saw for ourselves what a lovely town it is.

    As the kayakers paddled off downstream, we settled into a steady rhythm, soaking up the beauty of the Gauja. As hour after hour of gentle paddling slipped by, we enjoyed sights of marsh harriers, honey buzzards and lesser spotted eagles hunting, black woodpeckers and jays crisscrossing the river as they sought food for hungry chicks, sandpipers piping alarm calls to our presence and family groups of goldeneye and goosanders, with parents dutifully shepherding their fluffy ducklings. This was all too much of a distraction for David as he repeatedly ran aground in the shallows on the inside turns of the meanders.

    The rivers cycle of destruction and recreation was especially evident here, as we saw many hundreds of pine, birch and oak trees that had fallen into the water as the river had undercut the sandy banks.

    As we approached our final objective for the day, we were greeted by two ponies, stood perfectly still on a beach on the inside of a meander.

    Pulling our boats ashore at a bivi site near the Veki nature trail, we soon had our camp set up and we were ready to explore our surroundings.

    With David leading the way, we set off along a trail through a lush birch and oak woodland.

    After passing close to a small farm, we turned back towards the river and found a stunning wildflower meadow awash with thousands of tiny blooms.

    James reminded us that it was really time to have something substantial to eat, so he and David prepared a gnocchi and bean ragu whilst Robbie went to collect firewood. A girlie squeal from Robbie, as he lifted a log from a pile of chopped birch to find a snoozing grass-snake beneath, had them in fits of laughter. With dinner done, it was time to write up our diary with the highlights of our day whilst they were fresh in our memory.

    After dinner, David sprung a surprise as he pulled out a fishing kit from his bag. With some big fish seen close to the bank, surely wed be in with a chance. Unfortunately, David placed a mistaken faith in Robbies confident talk of fishermans knots and casting into the eddies. Before he knew it, the first lure and weight had been snagged and lost. The second and final lure, a fluorescent green thing that looks more like ectoplasm, was evidently not to the fishes liking so, after a disappointing half hour, our attempts to catch breakfast were abandoned.

    With the fire lit, there was time to chill out for a while. Being blokes of an earthy persuasion, conversation turned to the quality of the long-drop composting toilets. James seemed to have little to add to this chat and it became clear why despite all our healthy eating, hed not had a movement since leaving the cabin at Ala-Konnu. With this providing the basis of half an hours fireside banter, we eventually realised how tired we all were.

    With another early rise and a long day ahead tomorrow, it was time for bed. As the sun set, the nightingale chorus restarted, accompanied by James nemesis the cuckoo. With James making threatening noises about what hed like to do to said cuckoo, we said our farewells and headed to our respective hammocks and tent.

    Day 5 (Sunday 26th May) Veki to beyond Oliņas (32 km paddled)

    This was the day that turned our trip into an expedition, with 8 hours of paddling to be completed, sometimes into a fresh headwind, as we headed south west through increasingly dense boreal forest. Another 05:00 reveille saw us up and stretching off stiff muscles in the chilly but, sunny dawn. A beaver tail-slapped the water close beside our camp, irritated by our presence, as it finished its overnight shift of willow collecting.

    With breakfast eaten, we struck camp and moved our kit down the sandy bank and loaded it into our waiting canoes.

    Setting off under a clear blue sky, morale was soaring as we started this longest stage of our journey.

    Nature was putting on a great show for us in the morning sunshine. Our world seemed to contain every possible shade of green from freshly burst leaves.

    Deer were seen around almost every corner. Normally theyd quickly spot us and bound off deep into the forest. This one however, seemed oblivious to us as we approached from downwind and it let us get within 20 metres before it too disappeared with a flash from its white tail.

    This was smooth river paddling at its very best. After already having canoed for three days, we were well into our rhythm as we ate up the miles; paddling for an hour and then resting for 5 10 minutes on a beach, soaking up the joys and spectacles of Baltic nature.

    Occasional faster sections kept us on our toes and spiced up our morning with fun-sized thrills.

    After 6 km we passed under the bridge at Spicrāmis, carrying one of the few metaled roads that cut through this region of forest.

    We saw the well-equipped bivi site adjacent to the bridge that, being close to a road, is sometimes used as a put-in for local paddlers or fishermen and their boats.

    The character of the river evolved into a series of higher yellow sandy banks being eroded on the outside of the bends.

    The sound of a putt-putting motor broke the silence and a couple of local fishermen cruised up behind us. Their boat a strange roofed contraption cobbled together from two smaller craft sailed past as we exchanged cheery waves and sign-language descriptions of the huge fish wed seen swimming in the clear Gauja waters.

    Evidence of beavers continued in abundance. In addition to trails, lodges and stripped branches on the beaches, we saw large food caches of fresh willow ready for later consumption.

    Not content with willow saplings, some beavers clearly had a taste for bigger fare.

    Although the Gauja definitely has a look that is particular to this beautiful river, it has plenty of variety, and it constantly changes in subtle ways that kept it from ever getting tedious.

    13 km after starting, we passed the bivi site at Ieuleias. The sound of children laughing and playing revealed a group, presumably from a youth organisation or Sunday school, getting ready to launch inflatable rafts.

    A few hundred metres further on we pulled over for our second break of the day. Sweet oat Latvian biscuits, along with dried fruit and nuts, topped up our energy levels as we took the opportunity to review our progress on our maps.

    Bracket fungi growing on a fallen log reminded us of the forests cycle of growth, death and re-birth in this stunning natural landscape.

    A cry from James of Dad, David come and look at this! caught our attention as he pointed to a trail of almost palm-sized predator footprints in the soft mud at the far end of the beach wed stopped on. A lynx (Latvia and Estonia have Europes greatest concentration of this forest predator) had recently been down to the waterside for a drink.

    No sooner had James shown us the tracks, then he sprinted back up the beach to grab hold of Davids boat that had started to float away as the current had pulled it off the sand. His turn of speed was another good reason why itd been a good idea to bring an energetic teenager on our journey.

    We could feel the weather starting to change as the breeze picked up and the sky clouded over. Despite this, the river had new sights to show us in this case a series of stepping stones over the mouth of an ox-bow lake as it joined the Gauja.

    As our muscles tired on the windier sections of river, a bend in its direction would offer us a respite, with the flow returning to a glassy calm as it broadened out to almost 60 metres wide in parts.

    Good things always come to an end, and another bend would see the return of a stiff headwind. James struggled to find a comfortable rhythm in the windier sections, despite a couple of attempts at re-trimming his boat. David, as an electrical engineer in the real world, was otherwise distracted by the design of the Latvian high-voltage power lines passing over the river from a wide swathe cut through the forest.

    With 28 km paddled since wed started that morning, light rain begun to fall as we neared the tiny hamlet of Olinas, Jackets were donned as we pushed on in the early afternoon.

    In the first sign of habitation for many hours, this rustic sculpture in a riverside garden had us chuckling and exchanging a wave with this old man of the forest.

    As we pushed on against the wind, the rain grew heavier. We stopped briefly to check out the bivi site on the south bank near Olinas but, for the first time, were disappointed by the condition we found it in. We decided to push on the extra hour to the next bivi site we knew of.

    As the rain abated, we made it to our destination for the day a bivi site on a high bank overlooking a sweeping right-hand bend in the river.

    Pulling our boats ashore, we saw fresh evidence of where a beaver had gnawed away at an overhanging tree until it had collapsed under its own weight into the river.

    Exhausted from 32 km of paddling, we hauled our kit up from the pull-out and set up our camp for the night.

    With a little rearrangement, we got the camp set out to offer us some shelter from the strong breeze and occasional showers.

    In short order, we had our main camp complete and all our gear under cover.

    That simply left David and Robbie to set up their hammocks in a nearby stand of pine whilst James made a start on dinner.

    With full stomachs thanks to James excellent meal of grey peas (a Latvian specialty), tomato and vegetable sauce and the usual sausage and bread, and refreshed by a can or two of beer, we could relax and reflect on a tough but, successful days paddling.

    As we sat, thinking we had the river to ourselves, a small grey inflatable motored into view with two fishermen on board. They were so busy cheerfully waving to us that they didnt notice a partially submerged rock that almost ripped their outboard off. They passed by with embarrassed grins and the silence returned as they pootled off round the bend. By 19:00 we were ready to head for our beds, proud of our days work but, a little saddened to know that tomorrow would be our last day on the Gauja. James bowels were still un-moved!
    Robbie & Steph

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Lochwinnoch, West Central Scotland

    Default Baltic Beaver Bonanza Paddling Latvias River Gauja (Part 3)

    Day 6 (Monday 27th May) Beyond Oliņas to Jāniss campsite at Cīruļi (22 km paddled)

    After some heavy showers in the earlier part of the night, the clouds had cleared to reveal a panoply of stars. As the sky lightened, the volume of birdsong increased to a crescendo at sunrise. By 05:00 we were climbing out of our cosy sleeping bags into the chilly morning air. Keen to make an early start to our final day on the river, breakfast was quickly devoured, kit packed and canoes readied for launch.

    As we finished our preparations, disaster struck! Were still not quite sure how it happened but, as James helped move Davids boat along the bank, David lost his balance, the boat tipped and our non-swimmer was ejected sideways for a bracing dip in the Gauja. With the grace of a leaping dolphin, David shot out the chilly water with three Adams apples and was up the bank in a flash.

    Hed changed into dry clothes in a matter of minutes, ready for a second attempt at our final departure. Saying our farewells to this pretty spot, we were off, graced by a majestic fly-past by three whooper swans, much more at home on the water than we were.

    On this, our final paddling day, we took the time to savour the beauty of the river; the laughter and comradeship wed shared; and, our pride in having got this far. This final day would bring new sights the village of Strenči and new experiences a series of minor rapids wed need to navigate in the afternoon.

    New natural wonders of this unique river continued to be revealed. A large raft of almost twenty Goldeneye chicks bobbed in front of us as we turned a bend, apparently without parent birds in attendance. As we drew nearer, their nerve cracked and the whole group skittered across the river towards the safety of the overhanging bank.

    The mix of clouds and sunshine produced a pattern of ever-changing lighting with an almost heavenly quality.

    Huge accumulations of timber, washed down in Spring floods, lined sections of the shore.

    Spotlights of sun illuminated wildlife snapshots here a sandpiper resting in between frantic bouts of territorial defence against encroaching neighbours.

    Little riffles gave tasters of the longer sections of simple Grade 1 rapids we could expect later beyond Strenči.

    Occasional reminders appeared of the many ox bow lakes bracketing the sides of the river, just out of sight beyond the high banks.

    Mother Goosanders, attended by swarms of chicks paddling furiously in their wakes, reminded us of why wed chosen May as a great month to visit this natural wonder.

    After just over 6 km, we took our first break of the day on a straight northward stretch of the river.

    With James holding a pose as from an indy band album cover, we stretched our legs and quenched our thirst from our water bottles. Suddenly an enormous white-tailed eagle appeared over the river, loudly pursued by two ravens desperately trying to drive it away from their nest. With slow sweeps of its giant wings the massive eagle, making the stocky ravens look like sparrows, flew on seemingly unfussed by the ravens noisy antagonism.

    With our energy levels restored and enthusiasm soaring, we were soon back on the river heading for our next stop in Strenči.

    Around 10 km from our mornings start point, the bridge into Strenči hove into view.

    As we cruised under this solid Soviet-era structure, we could see that concrete clearly hadnt been in short supply, even if thoughts of aesthetics had been.

    As we landed next to a pontoon moored to the riverbank in Strenčis public park, we were pleasantly surprised by a collection of fantastic wooden statues celebrating Strenčis lumber rafting heritage.

    An information board, with English translation, explained Strenčis pivotal role in Latvias timber industry prior to the development of metaled roads and logging trucks. This sleepy village had clearly once been a thriving hub of commerce.

    David had started to develop a rasping cough, so he offered to look after the canoes whilst James and Robbie set of into the village to find some soothing ice cream. As we turned a corner, we stumbled across a pharmacy in a striking pre-Soviet building and, by miming a cough and sore throat to the chemist, we secured a bottle of locally-manufactured linctus.

    After picking up emergency supplies of Laima chocolate and cornettos, our foragers returned to the park to discover David had been joined by Strenčis courageous fire fighters and their Thunderbirds-style truck on a water rescue exercise. Here followed the most hilariously incompetent demonstration of boat handling skills wed ever witnessed. With their raft spinning helplessly in circles we almost launched to go to their aid but, thankfully one of their spins came close enough to the bank for one of them to step out into the shallow water and pull their boat ashore. Pity help anyone in Strenči who needs a river rescue! We really hope they are better at putting out fires.

    Chuckling into our cornettoes, we noted a sudden change in James demeanor as he leapt up and sprinted for the nearby long-drop toilet. With squeals and groans more associated with childbirth, his guts finally shed their load accumulated over the last four days. After 10 minutes of noisy discomfort, James appeared in the doorway to cheers from Robbie and David. As he hobbled out of the loo, several kilos lighter than when hed run inside, we wondered aloud how much higher his canoe would now float.

    With his ice cream finished, David opened up the bottle of linctus and took a hearty swig. Turning bright red for a moment and then letting out a gasp, he looked for an ingredients list on the side of the bottle. The English version of these revealed that the mixture was 90% ethanol, alongside herbal extracts that probably count as currency inside UK prisons. In seconds, all his symptoms vanished and he had a spring in his step for many hours to come.

    With the whole team now in fits of laughter, we headed back to our boats, with James sitting down rather nervously, fearful of the damage done to his nether regions by the escaping anaconda! No sooner had we launched than we left behind the outskirts of the village and encountered the afternoons first set of rapids.

    50 metres of easy riffles put grins on all our faces. All too soon, we were back onto a smooth wide section, framed by a beautiful mix of trees, each in a different shade of green.

    As we neared a railway bridge, the river sped up once more, adding in a tight turn and some tricky eddies to spice up our day.

    Longer sections of easy rapids appeared every kilometre or so as we paddled on towards our final destination.

    As we completed each new section of faster moving water, our grins got bigger and our laughter grew louder.

    This was the most fun wed had on the whole trip and it just kept giving as we raced downstream from Strenči.

    David in particular relished this section; his first real experience of solo paddling on faster moving water.

    Even here, the river kept offering natural spectacles with a plover boldly facing up to us as we briefly pulled our boats alongside his beach.

    All too soon, and with a heavy heart, 10 km beyond Strenči Robbie announced that our end point was in sight. Hopefully Jānis would be waiting on our arrival.

    Bringing our three boats into line abreast, we paddled the final 200 metres in formation, in silent contemplation of an expedition now complete.

    Sure enough, Jānis was waiting on the shore along with his wife and two infant daughters, at the woodland campground he owns near Cīruļi, just north of Valmiera. Offering a helping hand to pull ashore, he helped us get our gear up the bank and then, with one arm, hefted the heavy canoes onto his shoulder before laying them down on his canoe trailer theyre big strong lads in Latvia!

    As we caught our breath, he talked us through how to use the camps wood-fired sauna yes, sauna! as we looked on amazed. Robbie then dug out the car keys, and in a matter of minutes, they were all off to collect our rental car from where it had been parked up at the other side of Valmiera.

    With James and David left to their own devices, we set about hauling all our gear up a steep sandy slope to a perfect spot overlooking the Gauja 25 meters below.

    On Robbies return, our camp was completed and a small smoky fire lit to clear out any lingering mosquitoes before we all headed back down to the riverside for a head to toe wash, hot shave and invigorating sauna.

    Now in clean fresh clothes, James and Robbie sorted out all our gear ready for packing for our return journey to Scotland, whilst David made a start on dinner.

    With the sun dropping lower in the sky, and a beer in our hand, we watched a huge flock of sand martins catch insects above the water in the evening light, returning periodically to feed chicks sheltering in nest holes mere inches below where we stood. What an amazing five days the Gauja had given us.

    With the cuckoo and nightingale chorus providing one last performance, it was off to our tent and hammocks for the last time on our trip.

    Day 7 (Tuesday 28th May) Cīruļi Campsite to Tallinn via Tartu (330 km travelled)

    Our final dawn on the Gauja didnt disappoint. Light mist hung over the smooth water as sand martins flitted above, catching the first of the days insects. Packing up our camping kit for this last time in subdued silence, we were each lost in our own thoughts about what we had achieved and what we were leaving behind.

    Lifting the mood, Robbie suggested that rather than cook breakfast ourselves, we could perhaps start our return journey straight away and treat ourselves to breakfast in Tartu, an hour and a half up the road towards Tallinn. Having heard all about this lovely small university city from the Estonian kayakers we met a few days before, we all agreed on this plan.

    A final stop at the best long-drop toilet of the trip (Jāniss wife had created a palace of wonder, with mood lighting, scented hand cleanser and fragranced reeds) and we were on our way.

    Driving through beautiful countryside in first Latvia and then Estonia, Robbie soon realised from the snoring coming from both the rear and passenger seats that he was flying solo. On smooth roads, near empty of traffic, the drive to Tartu was delightful. Parking up in the city centre, with the aid of a wonderful lady who helped us translate how to buy a parking ticket, we strolled into the main square and found a caf for breakfast.

    This 1920s Parisian-style restaurant provided us with dishes ranging from smoked salmon on toast, through to salami croissants, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and strong coffee served in beautifully ornate glass cups.

    Full up from this luxurious treat, we headed back to our Nissan Qashqai, marveling on the way at this almost canoe-portable micro car clearly designed for Hobbits.

    Two more hours of easy driving, with many courting storks displaying along the roadside, got us to Tallinn where we topped up the cars fuel and put it through the car wash. As we sat for almost 10 minutes in the most hi-tech washdown any of us had ever seen, we were left speechless and horrified as a local strolled over to a 25,000 litre LPG tank, sat down on its protective crash barrier and lit up a cigarette. Surely Darwinian selection would soon remove this individual from Estonias gene pool.

    We parked up near the railway station, a short walk from our hotel in the citys old town. We explored the glorious market adjacent to the station, savouring the colours and smells from stalls laden with fresh fruit.

    Checking into the Hotel Imperial, located in the heart of the Old Town, we quickly showered and changed before heading out to explore the delights of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    Near the magnificent town hall we spotted The Peppersack, a medieval-themed restaurant that had the twee charm and meat-heavy menu we were looking for. Agreeing wed come back later for dinner; we continued our explorations. Strolling on, we had a pleasant stop for ice cream and beer, accompanied by an Apache helicopter flying above us,

    With Spring in the air, romance was on our minds, so it was no surprise when we turned around to find David smooching one of the local ladies. With udder contempt for his conduct, James and Robbie dragged him away.

    We climbed up to a viewpoint overlooking the rooftops, stopping briefly in a tourist-trap shop to buy quaint gifts for our loved ones at home.

    Turning the corner of a narrow alley near the Estonian Parliament, we were left awe-struck by Tallinns orthodox cathedral.

    With David modelling his knight-wear at a monument to the creation of the Danish flag and James and Robbie hamming up their fears of creepy faceless monks, the team decided a quick pint in a nearby sports bar was required before they headed for dinner.

    Taking their seats in The Peppersack, we gave our food and drink orders to a charming buxom wench, before tucking into an elk and pork meat feast that left us almost unable to move.

    Fortunately, an entertaining respite was provided by a ham-acted but, well-choreographed sword fight between two of the costumed waiters.

    Well fed, well entertained and well refreshed, fatigue set in, so we retired to the hotel for some well-earned sleep.

    Day 8 (Wednesday 29th May) Tallinn to Lochwinnoch (1,842 km travelled)

    Having been on 05:00 get ups for several days, it was no surprise when Robbie woke early. Sharing a room with his still sleeping son James, he decided to head out for an early morning stroll through the deserted streets of Tallinn.

    With the alleyways empty of locals and tourists alike, he enjoyed a peace almost as quiet as experienced on the Gauja but, without the rivers accompanying deafening dawn chorus. A different kind of chorus broke the silence bang on 07:00 as a trumpeter played Estonias national anthem as the countrys flag was hoisted up a tower beside the parliament building.

    Back at the hotel, he met up with a now woken David and James and we all headed down for a fabulous breakfast. After spending almost an hour working through hot dishes, cold continental cuts, fresh-baked croissants & muffins, and Scandinavian pickled fish, all washed down with what seemed like gallons of tea, coffee and fruit juice, we checked out, walked across to our car and drove the short distance back to the airport.

    After a short delay whilst we waited for the Right Cars staff to open up their office, we checked in at the airport (Tallinn Airport staff have some oddly relaxed ideas about baggage safety) and were through security and ready at our boarding gate without incident.

    A comfortable flight back to Edinburgh (sadly, this time without Robbies favourite stewardess) and an easy drive back to Lochwinnoch saw us home safe and sound from our Baltic adventure.


    The Gauja truly lived up to all our hopes and expectations. It offered us stunning natural beauty; accessible remoteness in the natural wonder that is Latvias northern forest; a sense of real adventure on one of Europes great paddling rivers; and, all at a remarkably reasonable cost under 600 per person, for everything we spent - from flights and car hire to cornettoes and cough linctus!

    Jānis Ramanis of PieGaujas supported us brilliantly, providing: great advice before our visit; good canoes for our expedition; a warm welcome when we arrived at our final destination; and, perhaps our most spectacular campsite (with a sauna!) overlooking a great sweeping curve of the river. We wish to publicly thank him here for all his help in making our expedition a success. If you are considering your own Gauja canoe adventure, he can be contacted by email at or by telephone on +371 2627 75761 (he speaks very good English).

    So what were our lasting impressions of the Gauja?

    - Smooth water river paddling at its best, spiced up by just enough of the simple faster sections to stop it ever being anything less than joyous;

    - Endless boreal and temperate forest where the hand of mankind seems barely evident;

    - Wildlife spectacles that provide a sense of genuine remoteness;

    - Deep and enduring friendships built through the teamwork required to overcome a physical challenge in a stunning setting;

    - A thoughtful, loyal and compassionate friend growing to know and love his fathers homeland, lost to his family through the futility of war;

    - And finally, the pride of watching a young man gain strength and confidence in his resilience and outdoor abilities through completing the kind of wilderness adventure most other 18-year-olds would struggle to even imagine.

    So why not give the Gauja a try yourself. As a first taste of exploring wilderness by canoe, you simply couldnt do better.

    If you want to give the Gauja a try, wed be delighted to share all the information we used in the planning of our trip, along with our kit lists and maps.

    Good luck, and we look forward to soon seeing your own pictures of sunset over the Gauja.

    Robbie & Steph

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    ludlow shropshire


    Excellent trip, write up and photo's makes you feel like your there enjoying it with you.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Nov 2005
    Lochwinnoch, Scotland


    Great blogg as always. Almost tempted with the lack of portaging but still not convinced by the tick checking duties

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    I've properly enjoyed reading this, what a fantastic looking trip. Its great to see completely new places (to me), and that looks really good. You've certainly got me losing much time on google maps looking at the course of the river, and wondering about the logistics. Which seem pretty simple.

    Thanks guys, one of my favourite blogs for ages!
    Paddler,blogger,camper,pyromaniac: Blog: Wilderness is a State of Mind

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jun 2006


    It looks like it was a most excellent trip thanks for sharing ��

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Nov 2016


    What an excellent write up of a really interesting trip. My wife is Estonian and I have been looking at some multi day trip options over there. This looks ideal, with a great sense of wilderness, straightforward paddling and great support. It looks like a good time of year to go, before it gets too hot but after the spring floods.

    Tallinn airport is great, I agree and I am pleased you enjoyed Tartu and the Old Town.

    I was also very moved by the references to David’s family’s experience. Having spent a lot of time in Estonia I know that the traumas of the time of the Soviet occupation are never far below the surface. But these are proud countries and it’s great to see people enjoying themselves there.



  9. #9
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    Yalding, Kent


    Really enjoyed reading this years trip. Looks like a lovely river with everything in place to make it work well folk. Thanks for sharing it.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Kettering Northamptonshire


    Nice trip, well blogged - I know the area from motorbike trips so great to see from a watery perspective.
    A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope - Epictetus

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Lochwinnoch, West Central Scotland


    Thanks for all the kind remarks about our blogg. It really is a fabulous river and I'd be delighted to provide assistance to anyone who fancied doing it for themselves.
    Robbie & Steph

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Nov 2017


    Lovely blogg. Made me a bit late for work this morning though :-)

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Apr 2012


    Hi Ginger-Paddlers, it's nice for me to hear that you enjoyed the river Gauja so much. The blogg was funny to read.
    It's one of my favourite rivers, and I'm sure we'll start one of our first summer holiday trips with the grandson on this river.

    Greetings from Berlin, Michael

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