Rafting on Struma

It is Saturday, Oct. 5, the smell of pines and fresh resin relaxes our senses, the sky clears up and with the start of the noon heat, our rafting journey begins. The level of the Struma River is rather low, but the adrenaline is high. At first, the water seems docile and calm until we hear the angry voice of the first rapid. The boat rushes through the rocks, and the current takes us captive.

Rafting is about willingly jumping into a boat filled with air and testing the will of a violent river. In other words, it is fun and above all thrilling. Being both playful and dangerous, rafting is an inherently bonding experience for participants. If you are not paddling, you are swimming and if you are not laughing, you are screaming.

For centuries the combination of whitewater and water vessels meant bad business as a violent rapid was a sure sign that one would lose their boat, their life or both. Nowadays, we have turned our past fears into a thrill-chasing sport with worldwide recognition. A testimony to the popularity of this sport is the daily rafting trips organized in the Struma River.

Driving 30 minutes South of Blagoevgrad, adventurers can find a couple of rafting camps such as the one owned by Adventure Net which holds an excellent reputation for its services. Depending on the weather, this year’s rafting season might last until the middle of November, so if you wish to take advantage of the remaining few weeks and give rafting a try, here is some information that you might find helpful.

Rafters cheering with their instructor, Ivaylo Kalpachki, after overcoming a rapid in the Struma River. Retrieved from Adventure Net.

The price of the rafting trip is 50 lev and includes a two-hour descend into the river, transportation back to the rafting camp and the rental of equipment such as neoprene costumes and boots, life jackets, helmets, and paddles. Visitors can change in the available dressing rooms and buy a drink or food from the restaurant. After the guests have the necessary equipment on, the guides brief them on safety and basic commands. Everyone signs an insurance form.

The number of people gathered determines the boat size. Rafts come in sizes for groups of four, six, or eight. Keep in mind the instructors are not counted in the body capacity of the rafts. Each boat has a guide who sits at the back and controls the direction of the raft while the group moves the vessel. There are three basic commands: paddle forward, paddle backward or stop. The group’s duties are to follow the commands, listen to the instructor and collaborate with each other.

A tail of rafts rushing through a rapid in the Struma River. Retrieved from Adventure Net.

Since the river level is lower during the fall, the length of the rafting route is about eight kilometers, which takes roughly two hours to complete. In those two hours, the rafters are fighting rapids of classes II and III, as put forward by the international six-point scale of difficulty. To experience the full length of the 12-kilometer route and add more difficulty to the overall rafting run, people seeking a higher adrenaline rush might want to sign up in early spring when the Struma River is in full strength.  

Summarized version of the international six-point scale of difficulty. Created by Yoan Bondakov.

The rapids are not merely an accumulation of rocks but have some character to themselves too. Do not be surprised if the guides call them by names such as “The Matrix”, “The Washing Machine”, and “The Dryer”. When rushing and clashing in the water and rocks, the rafter might get a sense that each rapid has its own charming way of flipping boats and throwing people overboard.

Hitting a rock does not catapult people off the boat because the straps attached to the base of the raft hold their feet steady. Apart from the rapid’s class and the water intensity, core strength determines whether or not rafters will have the necessary tenacity to balance themselves. For those who are not afraid of heights and cold water, the end of the trip can culminate in a six-meter jump from a cliff arching over the river.

Tihomir Tsonev, the instructor in the red jacket, guiding his group in the middle of a rapid. Retrieved from Adventure Net.

The instructors are trained and licensed by the International Rafting Federation which means they have a very good understanding of the water dynamics within the river and above all have the knowledge and skill to rescue a drowning person. Do not worry about a language barrier as they speak both English and Russian. Apart from being guides, the instructors are also entertainers, so expect a lot of jokes, tricks, and laughs.

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