One With The River

Whitewater kayaking and environmental action on Slovenia’s Sava River

Feature type Story

Read time 15 mins

Published Feb 18, 2022

Author Carmen Kuntz

Carmen Kuntz
Carmen Kuntz Work and play are a blend of whitewater and words for Canadian writer Carmen Kuntz. Now based out of Slovenia, she has experienced many remote parts of the world from the seat of a kayak.

Put-ins and take-outs: that’s how whitewater kayakers break down a river. We divide rivers in segments, based on the features and the difficulty of whitewater. Often, we only paddle the most appealing part. And that means, we don’t get to truly experience a river. We don’t experience how she moves and functions; what tributaries feed her upstream or what threats or pressures she faces downstream. To truly get to know a river, you need to paddle as much of it as you possibly can.

Whitewater first thing in the morning is better than a shot of espresso. Upstream of the town of Kranj, we left our river-side camp spot to start day 4 with a zing! © Katja Jemec

In spring 2021, a small group of whitewater kayakers paddled for over 250 kilometres across Slovenia on the Sava River as a part of the annual river conservation action, Balkan Rivers Tour (BRT). Together, we got to know the river, from its source in the Julian Alps to where it becomes a lowland river and flows into Croatia. We were immersed in the flora and fauna, but we also gained a tangible understanding that humans are also a part of this river ecosystem. To look at humans and nature as separate entities is like looking at each segment of a river as a separate body of water. Humans have an impact on rivers, and rivers impact humans. This is a natural, traditional and historical connection – especially in this part of the world. The opportunity to understand the complex relationship between humans and rivers made this trip about so much more than just kayaking.

We had originally planned to paddle the entire length of the Sava River for 1000 km over the course of a month, from its source in Slovenia through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to where it joins the mighty Danube River in Belgrade, Serbia. But, due to travel restrictions and border crossing regulations, we were forced to use creativity to bypass our lack of freedom of movement and decided to use our river trip to make a documentary about the Slovenian Sava. This way, we still could maintain the original objectives of Balkan Rivers Tour – to showcase the Sava River, and to stop the impending construction of dams.

After paddling across the calm blue-green water of Bohinj Lake, Bor and Carmen disappeared into the canyon of the south fork call the Sava Bohinjka and spotted a kingfisher nesting hole in the river bank and lots of fish underneath their boats. © Katja Jemec

Balkan River Defence (BRD) is a Slovenian NGO, which for the last six years has been changing the perception that hydropower is ‘green’ energy, while simultaneously challenging the approaches of modern nature conservation.

As a kayaker and freelance writer, I got involved four years ago. I have since moved to Slovenia where I co-manage the organisation with my partner, Rok. Frustrated with the all-complaints-no-action approach to river conservation he was exposed to, he started the NGO in 2015 just before embarking on the inaugural BRT. With this first tour, he unintentionally created a Balkan-wide river conservation movement and a branch of grassroots activism where science and river conservation blend with kayaking and adventure sports.

The BRD team, together with friends and supporters, have since completed four tours, using the unique formula of ‘paddle + protest +press release + party’ to support local river defenders, raise international awareness, and place pressure on decision makers to protect the last wild and free-flowing river of Europe which has contributed to halting the construction of seven dams.

The Sava Dolinka is a proper alpine river, with ever-changing gravel bars and cold, milky water which rise and fall based on the season and weather in the Julian Alps. © Katja Pokorn

Into the Sava

On June 1st, 2021, we loaded four kayaks with camping gear and research equipment, loaded a van with four friends, all of whom are filmmakers and photographers, and set off for Balkan Rivers Tour 5, to paddle as much of the Sava River as we were able to.

The Sava is a special river. Not only is it the home river for Rok – where he first learned to swim, fish, kayak and connect with rivers – it’s also an integral part of Europe’s greater freshwater ecosystem. It is the largest tributary by volume to the mighty Danube, Europe’s second largest river. And, it is a river that connects four Balkan countries, providing drinking water to major cities as well as water for agriculture, industry and long-standing traditions and lifestyles.

We started as two crews at the dual sources of the Sava, with two kayakers on the north fork, called the Sava Dolinka and two on the south fork, the Sava Bohinjka. After two days, we arrived at the point where Dolinka’s milky blue water mixes with Bohinjka’s clear green, and continued for the next nine days as one crew. Along the way, we worked together to complete the first continuous waterfowl survey of the Sava River during nesting season and also the first complete environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling of the Sava, while our media crew captured all the moments along the way.

I have learned, after years of exploring rivers around the world, that intentional observation is an essential component of any good river trip. Growing up in Canada, I spent my summers on multi-day canoe trips, where I noticed that it takes a few days for my senses to start to properly take in the world passing by under, above and beside my canoe. I need to detox from the sensory overload of the modern world before my senses wake up to the natural world.

Sight and sound seem to be the first sense to awaken, and on the upper portion of the Sava we were focused on looking and listening for water birds. The survey we performed would provide information on the species present on the free-flowing, and dammed sections of the river, to give scientists a better understanding of how man-made barriers affect our feathered friends. And it proved to be a great way to help us tune into life on the river.

The opportunity to understand the complex relationship between humans and rivers made this trip about much more than just kayaking.

Kayak, paddle, tarp, sleeping bag and mat + (plus) cold beer, freshly caught fish, crackling campfire and dancing stars = (equals) an awesome river trip. © Katja Jemec

Understanding the Flow

As the days passed, I started to get in touch with the flow of the river, becoming aware of the pull of healthy, free-flowing sections, and the dull current and deceleration of altered sections. As we paddled through the middle Sava, we could feel and even smell a dam before we could see it. The once lively water felt sluggish under my boat and the power of the river disappeared. With the loss of flow came stagnation and I watched the water colour change too, as garbage and natural detritus like pollen accumulated on reservoirs.

The Sava flows past villages, towns and cities – and has a series of large hydroelectric dams on it. Portaging around a dozen dams was an ugly affair and we negotiated razor wire, deep mud and irritated dam employees. These dams and dead reservoirs made the wild and beautiful stretches of river that we found throughout the trip even more incredible. But these wild and flowing sections of the Sava in Slovenia are threatened by plans for 10 more dams, so our awe of this river was constantly tinted with gloom.

These new dam plans fed our desire to collect data that would be used as ammunition in the fight to protect the wild stretches of the river. By performing our eDNA water sampling we were providing new information and a way to quantify the changes a dam makes to a river. In boats, we carried a basic set of sampling tools and stopped at predetermined locations to collect water samples. Using a water pump powered by a drill machine, we pushed river water through a special filter, that a crew of ichthyofauna specialists would later analyse in the lab for the presence of fish DNA (isolated from particles of skin, scale, and feces), with the goal of getting a clear picture about the fish diversity in the threatened and last free flowing section of the Sava.

Kredar is a pool known for trophy huchen fishing and strong eddies. This playground would be flooded by one of the proposed dams, which is why the crew is making a documentary about the stunning Sava River. © Mitja Legat

After we struggled through flat water and portages, the flow came back, and our collective mood improved. We were amazed by how quickly the river regained life after the chain of hydroelectric dams. Dippers and kingfishers replaced the ducks and swans of the reservoirs and as we neared the Croatian border, we were even treated to another set of rapids, which would disappear if these new dams are built. With our blood pumping again, we were reminded of how resilient rivers are, and that if we keep our impact to a minimum, healthy humans and healthy rivers can coexist.

Our sense of taste was employed when we met locals along the river who, over a shot or two of schnops (Slovenian homemade liquor), helped us understand the connection locals have had with this river for centuries. Paddling under castles, past hundred-year-old stone houses, we realised that those people living closest and connected to the river, still have a respect for her.

These people depend on the Sava for food production, industry, drinking water and tradition. And it’s them who will lose their farmland and tourism agencies if these dams are built. They are active members of society, not some off-grid hipsters. They know that spring flooding is a natural cycle of any river, so they don’t build houses too close. They know their drinking water comes from the rivers, so they don’t use pesticides on their fields. Too many people living along rivers have lost this basic connection, and the understanding that rivers represent life for humans too.

With our blood pumping again, we were reminded of how resilient rivers are, and that if we keep our impact to a minimum, healthy humans and healthy rivers can coexist

Parting the Karavanke Mountain range on the river left and the Julian Alps on the right, paddling the glacial valley of the Sava Dolinka is a full sensory experience. © Mitja Legat

Towards the Confluence

On the evening of June 11th – our eleventh day on the river – we pulled our boats on shore just a few hundred meters upstream of the Croatian border. With the sun setting upstream, our minds wandered downstream and were tempted to see what this river, looks, feels, smells and sounds like as it winds its way toward the mighty Danube, which eventually drains into the Black Sea.

During our time on Slovenia’s Sava, our previous notions of humans and nature being separate entities, were dissolved. Humans have learned, and in some parts maintained the knowledge, of how to live with nature, not separate from it. And watching this in action, from the seat of a kayak, made for a unique and colourful learning experience and storytelling opportunity too.

With a better understanding of the deep connection between rivers and people here in Slovenia, I’m more and more convinced that our approach to the environment shouldn’t be an ‘us-and-them’ relationship, but looking at how we can co-exist as part of nature. People depend on the Sava just like the birds and the fish do – and we can live harmoniously with the river.

Ensuring no new dams are constructed on the Sava is our main objective, but we also strive to help people of Slovenia, the Balkans and elsewhere see that their backyard rivers are still rich, alive and have many healthy stretches. The remaining wild rivers of Europe are worth fighting for, and that struggle is something to be proud of. Our hope for the Sava is that its free-flowing sections are preserved for generations to come.

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