Paddling to Protect the Last of Europe’s Wild Rivers
River conservation from the seat of a packraft. Story by Carmen Kuntz, photos courtesy of Balkan River Defence unless otherwise credited.
A boat, paddle and some basic whitewater skills can lead you through some incredible landscapes and into some amazing river experiences. You can access remote stretches of river, inaccessible fishing spots and exotic canyons. You can seek out adventure, getting away from the daily grind to “refill the tank” with adventure…and misadventure.
A packraft can give you access to the places that fuel you. And can also be a tool to protect the rivers and water systems that nourish you and nourish our earth. Right now, more than ever, those wild places need help. They need protection. They need paddle-wielding warriors.
What is Balkan River Defence
As paddlers, we are privileged to experience the wilderness that a boat and paddle take us to. But this access also means we are the first people to notice, discover or identify the threats to our waterways, like dams, pollution or resource extraction.
Balkan River Defence (BRD) was founded on the simple premise that people who paddle the wild rivers of the world also have a responsibility to protect them. Seeking a way to take action in defence of rivers, professional kayaker, ex-Olympic rower and biologist Rok Rozman turned a simple idea into the biggest river conservation movement in Europe.
Rox had enough of listening to complaints about the funding, organization, and bureaucracy needed to stop 2.700 proposed dams to be built on the last free flowing rivers of Europe – in his backyard, the Balkan Peninsula. He wanted to do something simple and effective that would give people an option to join in and get involved directly.
So, he took his kayak and his friends (some cameras and beers too) and paddle as many of the threatened rivers of the Balkans as possible, naming it Balkan Rivers Tour (BRT).
The Conservation Adventure
Over the course of one month in 2016, they paddled 23 rivers in six countries; through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania. BRT created an atmosphere where a fisherman and a farmer, a scientist and packrafter, could join together – around the bar, around the fire or around the river – to develop solutions to the threats their rivers face. They created a wave of momentum that prompted the involvement of Patagonia in what is now their biggest global environmental campaign of 2019; Save the Blue Heart of Europe.
BRT also caused a huge surge in international media coverage, helping to spread the word about the wild rivers that still exist in Europe, the dangers they face from hydro development, and the locals fighting to protect them. From Germany to the United States, Canada to Albania, word was getting out. The last wild rivers of Europe are in danger and paddlers are helping to protect them.
Balkan River Defence Today
Today, Balkan Rivers Tour has turned into an annual paddling action, and the river conservation movement has evolved into Balkan River Defence (BRD) – a registered NGO in Slovenia. A version of grassroots activism, it blends science and river conservation with kayaking and adventure sports.
Their mission: Reveal the remaining free flowing rivers and intact ecosystems of Europe; Support a community and network of local river activists; Expose hydropower as an unsustainable and destructive form of energy production; Provide alternatives using science, education, creativity and adventure sports.
Rok and his partner, Carmen Kuntz, lead the team of crazy artists, activists, paddlers and partiers who make up Balkan River Defence. They spend a few less days on the river each year, so that they can spend more time behind the computer, organizing events, protests, petitions, and paddling actions.
The duo created a formula that makes nature conservation inclusive, fun and light. And effective. Together with a greater network of river conservation NGOs throughout the Balkans, they have helped stop dams. Just 2,693 to go. And along with Alpacka Raft photo ambassador and all-around badass, Andrew Burr, have just completed their first multi-sport packraft expedition: paddling, skiing and fishing British Columbia’s Coast Mountain Range this past March.
They are also touring with the feature-length documentary that BRD has created, telling the story of the rivers of the Balkans. The Undamaged takes viewers on the wild ride that is Balkan Rivers Tour and shows them the rivers and villages of the Balkans, from the seat of a whitewater kayak.
What you can do?
Join us on tour! Book your holidays in accordance with one of the three weeks that will make up Balkan Rivers Tour 4, and paddle, protest, and party with us in Romania (April 15-20), Slovenia (July 7-13) or Bulgaria (Sept 24-29). Help us show local, regional and national decision makers that there is more value in attracting paddling tourism to their wild rivers, than damming them. That tourism can be a sustainable source of income for their economy. But it requires respect and conservation of their rivers.
Or, start your own grassroots river conservation action. Imagine if everyone came together to protect their home river, home watershed or lake? If everyone started their own river conservation movement. All the mini river defence actions would link up to create a big web of locally-enforced, river defences.
There are no rules. There is no template. Show the world what makes your river special and tell decision makers that you won’t give it up to pollution, hydropower or development. Not ready to dive in head first just yet? Then stand with us and support the work we are doing through donations and support.
Imagine if each little group of packrafters banded together to protect their local watershed? Imagine the web of river defenders that could connect across the states and the world?
I imagine the rivers would say thanks and that each day spent out there on the water, would taste and feel sweeter. The rivers give us so much; it’s not hard to give a little back.
Check out the dates and locations for Balkan Rivers Tour 4. Packrafters, kayakers, hikers, bikers, and river-lover are all invited to join!