Winter Paddlers: Stories From a Spanish Expedition Down the Ebro River


, by Fabienne Lang

Photography by: David Ariño

Join David Ariño and Joan Nadal on a daring winter kayak expedition along Spain’s Ebro River. From picturesque villages to untamed rapids, follow their 100km journey as they navigate nature's challenges, as they paddle to the Mediterranean Sea.

Gliding along serene streams as smooth as glass, the only sound to break the peaceful silence is the rhythmic 'schlack schlack' of the paddle breaking the water’s surface. Wisps of steam fog twirl over the river, casting an otherworldly veil as the sun bathes everything in its golden embrace. The sky and liquid expanse are painted with hues of amber.

Against this backdrop of natural beauty, a kayaker's silhouette emerges as a lone figure navigating the mirror-like waters. With each passing moment, the scene becomes more surreal, as if time itself has slowed.

Filmmaker and audio-visual producer, David Ariño captured this moment, transforming it into a timeless masterpiece, and immortalizing the spirit of adventure embodied by his friend and fellow kayaker, Joan Nadal. Together, they had set out on a self-sufficient, three-day kayaking expedition in early February. Their setting? The expansive Ebro River, Spain’s second largest waterway.

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Launching their kayaks from the quaint village of Ascó, nestled amidst Catalonia's picturesque countryside, their mission was bold: to trace the Ebro’s serpentine course, spanning 69 miles / 111 kilometers, all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. "We weren't sure we could make it in the three days, but trying was part of the adventure,” David reflects with a hint of exhilaration.

Despite their experience as seasoned kayakers, having navigated 100km (62 miles) around the Cap de Creus on the Costa Brava in Spain, and circumnavigated both Menorca and Ibiza Islands, covering 190km (118 miles) and 140km (87 miles), respectively, David and Joan’s Ebro journey unfolded with the unpredictability befitting a grand expedition.

From the outset, the river revealed its multifaceted character, challenging the duo with swirling currents and tantalizing Class 1 rapids. It was a baptism by water, quite literally, as David found himself unexpectedly immersed in the chilly embrace of the river in February. Recalling the mishap, he recounts, "I was completely wet. Me and all my gear: sleeping bag, clothes, etc. The way a good adventure starts!”

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For David and Joan, this accident was merely their opening act as part of an adventure of resilience and camaraderie amidst the grandeur of nature's embrace.

Looking to warm up and dry off from the cold and dampness of the river, they headed to Miravet – a quaint and bucolic village steeped in Moorish and Templar history, nestled amidst the rugged beauty of Catalonia's countryside. Here, they found respite from the day's trials in the warmth of a bar, enjoying the local culture.

As night fell, they returned to their campsite at the river's edge. Despite the nighttime temperature dropping to 41 Fahrenheit / 5 degrees Celsius and the dampness seeping into their bones, the sight made it worthwhile. From this vantage point, they witnessed the timeless beauty of Miravet, its terracotta rooftops aglow beneath the watchful gaze of the ancient castle – a sentinel overlooking the tranquil waters of the Ebro. 

Each day of their journey unfolded like a cherished chapter, replete with trials and triumphs. On the second day, having charted an impressive 31 miles / 50 kilometers on the river – a personal milestone for both adventurers – they faced an unexpected challenge as dusk settled her dark cloak: a scarcity of suitable campsites along the riverbanks overgrown with vegetation. 

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Undeterred by the encroaching darkness and determined to find a place to rest for the night, even if it meant anchoring their kayaks to the riverbank and sleeping in them, they pressed on, guided by the soft glow of their headlamps. As exhaustion set in, they finally chanced upon an island in the middle of the river – the perfect camping spot. “It was a big and beautiful island,” explains David. “It was like finding an island in the middle of the ocean or an oasis in a desert.” 

Little did they know, their newfound sanctuary carried a name steeped in legend: the "Illa dels Bous," the Island of the Bulls – a place where Spanish bulls roam free, their presence unbeknownst to the weary travelers until long after their departure. So, beneath the starlit sky in February, surrounded by the gentle lull of the river, they found peace as they fell to sleep. 

The waves of the sea crashed against our kayaks, letting us know there was no more river to paddle through. There was only salt water ahead.

On their third and final day of adventure, David and Joan embarked on a monumental day of kayaking, setting another personal kayaking record. They paddled 24 miles / 40 kilometers of flatwater over 12 relentless hours, each stroke propelling them closer to their goal.

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As they neared their journey's end in the darkness of night, a sense of anticipation hung heavy in the air, mingling with the salt-tinged breeze that swept across the water's surface. And then, in a final pull of the paddle, they reached their destination: the Mediterranean Sea. 

“The moment was magic,” recalls David. “We were surrounded by flamingos that we couldn’t see but could feel, flying beside us. The waves of the sea crashed against our kayaks, letting us know there was no more river to paddle through. There was only salt water ahead, and behind us, a journey of experiences, adventures, and battles to remember.”

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