May 30, 2022 | Words by Kieran Creevy | Photography by Lisa Paarvio
As we go down the steep slope, we have to choose the terrain carefully with our heavy luggage. At the bottom, the river mud is hardened and cracked on the surface, but brittle and insubstantial. Our first steps break through, occasionally falling to our knees.
After dropping off some essential snacks with the river gear, I load up my backpack and then head to our scheduled meeting point on foot. Ahead of us is the impressive Congost de Montrebei National Park. As I walk up the hill, I hear the hiss of the air being pumped into the paddle boards. Eko dances around the team, clutching a giant branch between his jaws, begging someone to play with him.
As soon as I reach the edge of the gorge, I hear cheers from above. A hundred meters away, on the Aragonese side of the canyon, bands of green and orange flicker in the sunlight. The climbers, hidden in the various folds and curves of the wall. Soon many of the cliffs will stop hearing human voices and will be a refuge for multitudes of nesting vultures and eagles.
Deeper into the gorge, the rock face curves over my head as the path narrows. Cables anchored to the wall provide security and a lifeline for those who fear the void just a few feet away. Far below, the water turns glorious shades of Prussian blue as the sunlight finally clears the ridge.
Fragments of Catalan words echo off the walls from the river. The voices are mixed, confused, their original meaning is lost. Far below me, the SUP team moves at deceptive speed in time with the paddles.
The path widens and heads back into the woods. I turn and look in amazement at the beauty of the landscape. This roughly carved and hand-laid trail pales in comparison to the majesty of the canyon. Its walls are carved in wondrous shapes, all smooth lines and curves, banded with color. The tapes show geological forces and timelines beyond our imagination.
Unfortunately, this beautiful landscape, like so many others, is in danger. The signs of a massive drought are everywhere, none more evident than the water level. Where the river normally rises almost to the edge of the forest, it is now almost 20 meters lower. For those who still believe that climate change does not exist or is not having an impact on our landscapes and livelihoods, just turn to the areas most affected by the changes. Here, in this gorge, the river levels have dropped. On the other side of the planet, entire islands are about to be swallowed by a sea that has risen less than a meter. Now imagine what a 20 meter rise in sea level would mean for billions of people!
Since the river is well below its normal level, I descend with a fixed rope to a floating pontoon anchored in a cove. I carefully put my backpack on the tandem SUP, our food for the trip is neatly stowed in it. As Chuan paddles out into the slow current, we hear a splash behind us. A slim, dark shape flows below, chasing carp in the depths.
Around the next corner we found a huge stone well shaped like a small cave. The perfect place for our lunch break. We turn on the stove, unpack the isothermal containers and in no time we have our simple Trinxat lids.
While they cook, part of the team is at the river bank filtering water for the next leg of the journey. With a full stomach, hydrated and refilled water bottles, the team left me on the shore to continue my walk.
As the sun sets, I'm outside the national park waiting for the team at the riverbank, but something has changed. This morning the river was calm, moving slowly and changing color from clear to green to light blue. It is now greyish brown in color and small rapids are beginning to form. Upstream, one of the power companies has opened locks, whose currents carry mud, stones and small debris. Then comes the call on the radio.
The team had to beach their SUP boards downstream and were unable to paddle against the rising current. With the water level well below normal, miles of gentle tidal flats lie between me and the team. Ditching and crawling through waist deep mud while towing a twenty pound SUP is backbreaking work. What should have been a simple paddle now becomes an adventure. My job right now is to check in with them regularly to make sure they are safe and have food and water ready for their arrival.
Hours later they turn the corner, on the other side of the river. We're only a hundred feet away, but first they have to slip through a much faster current.
Faces and hands covered in dried mud, the team drags their paddleboards the last few yards and falls to the ground. His breasts heaved, but with a smile a mile wide, they rolled onto their backs in excitement.
Tonight we feast on a slow-cooked Catalan stew and sleep in the moonlight, ready for whatever the morning throws at us.
- 1 head of cabbage, cleaned and cut into 4 pieces
- 1kg potatoes, peeled and diced
- 8 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 2 teaspoons of black pepper
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- sal marina
- olive oil
- 4 thick slices of bacon, finely chopped
- 1 leek, finely chopped
- Baby lettuce leaves to serve on the go.
- Bring salted water to a boil in a large saucepan
- Boil the cabbage for 10 minutes.
- Add the potatoes and cook for another 20 minutes.
- Drain and shred coarse.
- Spice with salt and pepper
- Let it cool down a bit.
- Heat a little oil in a pan.
- Add the garlic slices and cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Add the mash and fry until the potatoes are well coloured.
- If using bacon, add it after the garlic but before the mash.
- Serve on a plate with Iberian ham, grilled black pudding or bottifarra.
If you skip the bacon, this dish is great for chilling and as a hot lunch on the go since it contains no animal fat.
Slow-cooked rabbit stew
If you don't like rabbit, you can replace it with lamb or kid.
- 1 whole rabbit, cut into 8 pieces (ask your butcher about this)O
- 1.2 kg of rabbit loin (whole), plus 1 whole roasted chicken carcass.
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 4 banana shallots, peeled and quartered
- 1 leek, cleaned and chopped
- 1 pot of roasted tomato puree
- 1 jar of roasted red peppers
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
- 4 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 glass of red wine
- 1.5 liters of a good vegetable or chicken broth
- sal marina
- 4 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 4 teaspoons smoked paprika powder
To serve Padrón peppers, toasted and salted.
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil.
- Season the rabbit with salt and 1 teaspoon of black pepper.
- Sauté the shallots, garlic, and rabbit until the rabbit is lightly caramelized.
- Place in a slow cooker over medium heat.
- If using rabbit loin and chicken carcass, place both in the oven.
- If you don't have a slow cooker, use a large pot on the lowest heat setting.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the stove/pot.
- Cook over low heat for 6 hours or until rabbit falls apart.
- Allow to cool and then remove as many bones as possible, as rabbits have many small bones that can be a choking hazard.
- Once cooled, refrigerate when eating at home and reheat the next day.
If you want to take this meal on the go
When the rabbit has cooled, transfer it to insulated food containers (without lids) and freeze overnight. Close the lids and take them with you while you travel. A well-insulated food container should keep the stew frozen for 5-6 hours, so on a day hike it should be thawed by dinner time.
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