A paddle can be a powerful tool. It can get me into remote canyons and out of sticky spots on the river. And it can get me heard. Banging my paddle against my boat, I’m part of a mass of people flowing through the main streets of Podgorica, Montenegro.

We are just a few hundred meters from the Moraca River, which flows unobstructed from the grey, karst mountains of Montenegro through the capital city and into Lake Skadar.

How Kayakers Defend The Free-Flowing Balkan Rivers

We kayakers look like fish out of water, but it’s not the first or last time we will hit the pavement during the month-long Balkan Rivers Tour.

The BRD hopes to shift the perception of dams, directing the conversation towards suitable energy alternatives.

Locals mix with kayakers from eight countries as we simultaneously celebrate the local rivers and draw awareness to the threats they face. Our bright boats draw attention and banners in the four local Balkan languages—Albanian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian— convey our message.

The Balkans are home to some of the last free-flowing rivers in Europe, and more than 2,700 hydroelectric projects are planned for the coming years.

Everyone here wants the rivers treasured, enjoyed, respected and protected. Disheartened by the talk but lack of action from large river conservation NGOs, Slovenian kayaker and biologist Rok Rozman dreamed up the Balkan Rivers Tour three years ago, imaging a way to showcase what was at stake (see www.paddlingmag.com/0011).

With a crew of friends, he toured the Balkans by paddle for a month, kayaking as many rivers as possible, meeting locals fighting to keep their local rivers dam-free and photographing the beauty threatened. In the years since the annual Balkan River Tour has evolved into the largest direct-action river conservation movement in Europe.

The Balkan River Defence was created by like-minded paddlers

The Balkan River Defence (BRD) grew from the tour, consisting of a few like-minded paddlers who now work year-round to connect a network of people, from local villagers to national conservation organizations.

“BRD is effective because of its ability to gather large groups of people, travel light and get to where action is needed on the ground,” says Ben Webb, a kayaker and river conservationist from Australia who manages the Maranon Waterkeeper in Peru. As the founder of a grassroots organization working in collaboration with locals in another part of the world, Webb brought a new perspective to the tour. “Grassroots activism works because it gives people a voice and the platform to express what they need.”

The BRD hopes to shift the perception of dams, directing the conversation towards suitable energy alternatives.

They also hope to inspire more engagement with the outdoor sports industry and the people who live and play closest to wild rivers to get involved. The people who spend time in its remote gorges and deep canyons should be the rivers’ staunchest defenders.

Carrying boats through town, portaging around dams and paddling the resulting flatwater is the norm on each Balkan Rivers Tour. Social media shows keyboard warriors the best side of the Balkans, but the tour isn’t all whitewater and sunshine. Long days in the car traveling on dirt roads to get to rural villages and remote rivers are followed by late nights preparing press releases and editing content. When I crawl into bed after spending a day with villagers in Albania or Bosnia who are putting everything they have into fighting to preserve their local river, I imagine what it would be like if every person living beside a river stood up for it.

Paddle. Veslo. Vosis. Лопатка. Весло.

Depending on where you are in the Balkans, the word changes—it’s meaning doesn’t. Lately, my paddle has seen far fewer days on the river, but the Defend Wilderness sticker on the blade is a reminder why. Anyone can start a movement like Balkan Rivers Tour. Whether with a paddle, fishing rod, paintbrush or pen—it’s just a matter of finding your medium and making some noise.

Carmen Kuntz has been a part of Balkan Rivers Tour since 2017.
Feature Photo: Katja Jemecs


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