Monday, June 7, 2010

Tranquil but treacherous

This delightful stretch of the Bourne lies below the Trois-Châteaux mountain, which separates Choranche from Pont-en-Royans.

The mountain was so-named because because medieval sentinels, posted on its slopes, could keep watch over three impressive feudal domains down in the Royans: the Bâtie fortress of the powerful Bérenger lords, the Flandaines castle erected on clifftops (reputedly inviolable, and consequently razed to the ground, in a fit of jealousy, by king Louis XI) and the exotic castle of Rochechinard, whose ruins are still perfectly visible today.

At this spot, the Bourne emerges from beneath the Rouillard Bridge, near the ancient mill of my neighbor Jack Oyhancabal, and flows just twenty meters down from the road, alongside a convenient parking zone for vehicles.

As everywhere in the Bourne, there are huge fragments of limestone—some as big as a house—that have tumbled down from the slopes in remote eras.

This is an ideal place for sunbathers and trout fishermen.

But the river, so tranquil most of the time, can become abruptly treacherous. Passers-by who have the privilege of being able to read French would do well to take notice of warning signs put up at this spot, and elsewhere alongside the Bourne between Choranche and Pont-en-Royans.

The meaning of this pair of signs can only be grasped, however, by local people who are already fully aware of the situation.

—The top sign, of an old-fashioned and straightforward appearance, has been pasted over an earlier version in which the phrase "Il est dangereux" was not yet in upper-case characters. We're told that it's dangerous to wander around in the river or on the banks of gravel (?) because the water level can change abruptly as a result of the presence of hydroelectric works and dams upstream.

— The lower sign is inextricably complicated. First, it's funny to discover that the sign has been installed by two quite different partners, who apparently combined their efforts in order to design this warning message: the national EDF authority (in charge of French electricity), and the local AAPPMA (fishing association). Maybe the presence of the latter partner is due to the fact that trout fishermen are the most vulnerable potential victims of surges in the level of the river. Instead of saying this, though, the fishing folk have terminated the sign by a couple of lines of banal propaganda, in red letters: "The river is a fragile environment. Thanks for avoiding all pollution." Then they've inserted their big colorful logo. But the most intriguing part of this sign, by far, is the small print about a so-called "warning wave". Truly, few passers-by could be expected to imagine what this might be. I myself, having lived here for 17 years, have never actually seen such a "warning wave", but local folk have told me about this phenomenon. To understand the situation, you have to go upstream a few kilometers. Unknown to most of the tourists who drive past on a road up on the slopes, there is a dam on the Bourne, just upstream from the village of Choranche, and it backs up a big lake.

From time to time, after high rainfall up on the Vercors plateau, or following the melting of snow, the EDF authorities realize that they'll be obliged to release a lot of the water that has been accumulating in the lake. Now, they've invented the notion of a "warning wave" as a way of letting people know, between Choranche and Pont-en-Royans, that the river is about to evolve into a roaring torrent. That's to say, five minutes before opening the valves completely, they release a relatively small quantity of water: just enough to let sunbathers and fishermen know that they should immediately scramble out of the water and up the banks to safety, before the massive overflow reaches them. Those EDF people are thoughtful, aren't they…

Not long after my arrival in Choranche, I recall a sunny afternoon when I was having a beer at the Jorjane in the village of Choranche, and chatting with Georges. We were annoyed by the repeated shouting of what sounded like a few boisterous youths wandering around in the woods alongside the Bourne. It took us about twenty minutes to realize that the cries came from stranded fishermen. Meanwhile, fortunately, village folk who were more alert than Georges and me had called the local firemen, who rapidly got the fishermen out of trouble.

Incidentally, the fly-fisherman seen in the above photos is in a particularly dangerous situation, because there's a vertical cliff behind him, and he would have to wade across the river to get to safety.

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