The Sartonis in Soca

The Soča valley is a whitewater paradise in the small European country of Slovenia. This lush valley lies in the western part of the country right across the border with northern Italy. The high peaks of the Julian Alps enclose the valley, and the aqua-marine waters of the mighty Soča flow right down the middle of it. This river is why we are here!

Since my first visit, last October, I haven’t stopped talking about coming back. Armed with our Hala stand-up boards, three of us have made the trip from the Reno/Tahoe area. We are joined by other paddlers from the USA, UK, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany.

Our base is the bustling town of Bovec, nestled in the heart of the whitewater center of the river. During our trip planning, we scored a spacious 2-bedroom apartment a couple of hundred meters from the town square. The place has all the amenities we need plus some: storage area for our SUPs, clothes lines for hanging wet gear, and a fertile garden with beautiful flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees. Our hosts are a young couple of “retired” raft guides: Miha, a local kid who has paddled and guided all over the world; and Brooke, originally from California, earned her stripes as a river guide in the waters of Colorado. Miha’s parents live in the apartment above us. Although we only speak a couple of words of Slovenian, our fluency in English and Italian give us the ability to communicate with just about everyone in town.

Our typical day begins with breakfast at the coffee shop in the main square, followed by a quick stop at the information office to purchase a river pass for the day, then onto the market to get sandwiches and fruit bars for lunch; everything is in walking distance here in Bovec.

We are here for twelve days and plan to get as many days on the water as the weather and flows allow. In mid-July, because we are upstream of all the dams, the flow of the river is dependent on water from the natural spring at the source, small side-creeks, and any significant rain event that might pass by. This high up the Soča is a low volume river and the gauge at Zaga reads 14-15 cumecs; on the low end but still really fun. The main targets on our paddling hit-list are the Upper Soča, the Srpenica, Trnovo, and Otona sections. The difficulty is mostly in the class 3 range with a couple of class 4 rapids thrown in for good measure. The paddling is extremely technical and slalom-like due to the rocky nature of the river and the lower flow.

The Upper Soča between Kršovec and Čezsoča is one of the most visually striking sections. The water is so clear, that in pictures it appears we are paddling in midair. At current water levels, many of the rapids are quite shallow and require precise navigation. Highlights of this run are tackling the incredibly narrow Zmuklica gorge and playing on the natural whitewater park on the Koritnica just above the confluence with the Soča.

Below Čezsoča the river opens up into a scenic flood plane; several kilometers of easy paddling leads past views of the great Boka waterfall and then onto the more popular whitewater sections.

Srpenica1 to Trnovo1 is where the majority of the commercial rafting is taking place this time of year, so it’s very busy for Soča standards even during midweek. The run warms you up with some easy rapids before the river begins to narrow and change in character as it approaches Srpenica2: gradient increases, rocks become larger and more numerous, and the flow is constricted, resulting in deeper pushier water. For our current level of ability, this is our favorite stretch. The continuous technical rapids that follow provide us with ample opportunities to refine our whitewater skills. Three-quarters of the way down from Srpenica2, the giant Jumping Rock warns that we are approaching the two siphons (sieves) on this stretch of river. Although manageable at current flows, they are a great reminder not to ever let our guard down when paddling on the Soča.

The footbridge across the river leading to Kamp Trnovo indicates the end of this run and the beginning of what the locals refer to as the “Slalom Section”: Trnovo1 to Trnovo2. As we are told, this half kilometer of the river is where kayak and canoe slalom races used to be held before the advent of modern artificial courses, now common in many towns and cities across central and eastern Europe. The difficulty here goes up a full notch, making it a serious undertaking on a SUP. Only the most elite of SUPers should consider giving it a go. A good trail on river right allows anyone feeling outmatched to bail and hike back to Trnovo1. This trail also gives a great option for scouting and planning the tight lines through the maze of rocks. If you choose to paddle this short section, be sure not to miss the take out as the dangerous, siphon-filled stretch of river known as Kateract lies beyond.

A quick drive below Trnovo is the pullout and steep trail that leads back down to the river below Kateract for the classic Otona run. Approximately 200 vertical meters and 400 steps will bring you down to the bottom of the gorge. Slightly easier in grade than the “Slalom Section”, Otona is the most remote stretch of the Soča. Those that make the effort to get here are rewarded by challenging technical rapids in a stunning location. The grand finale is the opportunity to paddle beneath the historic Napoleon bridge just upstream of the takeout.

River sections on the Soča are relatively short and shuttles are fast, so one can easily paddle two sections in a day or either paddle in the morning or afternoon, leaving time for either relaxing or exploring. The area is a true adventure valley so one should not miss out on the plethora of other activities this place has to offer: hiking, climbing, via ferratas, mountain biking, road cycling, paragliding, canyoning, and rafting to name a few. Not to worry if you didn’t have room in the suitcase for the extra kit as Bovec has dozens of outfitters that would be psyched to set you up with equipment and/or a guide. The history lovers in the group should also plan a visit to the Kobarid war museum near the take out for the Otona run. The Soča, or Isonzo (Italian name), was the front for many fierce battles during WWI. Relics of the war can still be spotted on the hills around the valley. Unlike the soldiers of the past however, we didn’t come here to wage war. We came to the Soča Valley to take in the beauty of this place and test our skills against the swift current of the river.

At the end of each day in Bovec we gather our motley crew together at one of the tasty local eateries. We indulge in everything from gnocchi to pizza, from grilled Soča trout to Texas style BBQ, and from kebab wraps to burgers; all while washing it down with Lasko or Union unfiltered Slovenian beer.

As we reflect back on our adventures and think of the great friends we have made, we feel a strong connection with this place… we are already planning a sequel. Maybe it’s really true what the locals have told us: drinking water from the Soča binds you with the river and assures of your return. We indeed have drank the water and we just can’t wait to get back!

Davide Sartoni is a Hala Team Rider.

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