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Meet the Sava River

.: Words – Carmen Kuntz

.: Photos – Katja Jemec, Katja Pokorn, Mitja Legat

A river is worth more than just its best whitewater. Us kayakers often only paddle the portions of a river that have the best whitewater. But rivers are different than mountains or trails – they are dynamic, fluid and flowing. And while what goes on above and below the put in is often a mystery, it doesn’t have to be.

On June 1st, 2021 four kayakers quietly put onto Slovenia’s Sava River for what would be a very small but eventually a very loud version of Balkan Rivers Tour 5. With a film and photo crew following by van, we spent 11 days paddling over 250 km of the Sava River, from its dual sources in the Julian Alps, not far from the border with Italy, to the Croatian border.

Along the way, we worked together to complete the first continuous waterfowl survey of the Sava River during nesting season and also the first complete environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling of the Sava, while our media crew captured all the moments along the way. Why bother stopping to sample water, or constantly scanning for birds? Because politicians have plans to build 10-12 new dams on this deep green river. And we want to prove that this is a disastrous idea – for biodiversity and for humans. After all, a river is also worth more than just the power it can produce spinning a turbine.

We could have asked these politicians to come for a float down the Sava with us, to show them how alive, healthy and rich this river that already has many dams and barriers, somehow still is. But…we figured that might not end well. So instead, we brought cameras with us to show Slovenians and any other viewers, what the Sava River really looks like, sounds like and feels like. What was originally to be a 25-minute film turned into an 84-minute documentary. About the Sava. For the Sava. Created to add pressure to decision makers, to ignite pride and to show that this river is worth fighting to protect*.

The Sava is a special river. Not only is it the home river for Balkan Rivers Defence’s founder, Rok and most of the BRD Team, it’s also an integral part of Europe’s greater freshwater ecosystem and home to Natura 2000 and IUCN Red List species. It is the largest tributary (by volume) to Europe’s second largest river, the Danube. And, it is a river that connects four Balkan countries, providing drinking water to major cities as well as water for agriculture, industry and long-standing traditions and lifestyles.

This kayaking trip was far from an extreme whitewater trip. It was about exploring eddies, camping on white pebble gravel bars, cooking fish over driftwood fires and observing birds overhead and animals along the banks. But we also paddled through villages and towns and gained a tangible understanding that humans are a part of this–and any–river ecosystem. To look at humans and nature as separate entities is like looking at your favourite stretch of a river as its own waterway. Humans have an impact on rivers, and rivers impact humans. This is a natural, traditional and historical connection – especially in Europe. The chance to understand the complex relationship between humans and rivers made this trip about so much more than just kayaking. It also strongly illustrated the effect that dams have on a river. Playful strokes through whitewater contrasted very heavily with pulling a blade through the flatwater of a reservoir.

One for the River: The Sava Story, follows a similar theme to our first film, One for the River: The Vjosa Story. But the experiences are all new. Like finding old WW2 weapons, rescuing a bird, slurping bootie beers and laughing around the campfire. We premiered the film in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana on June 1, 2022, one year after we started paddling. Now, you can catch the film at international film festivals, where it will circulate until summer 2023. To date, it has played at 17 festivals in 14 countries and won 7 awards. Slovenians were able to see it at 40 outdoor cinema screenings all summer and fall, and this winter Slovenian primary school kids are seeing it during special local cinema screenings. Fingers crossed Slovenian national television will show it – if nasty politics don’t get in the way. And then we will release it online for free, so everyone can meet the Sava River.

Who knows, maybe it will inspire you to explore the stretches of river upstream and downstream of your put in. Maybe you will find a new surf wave, or a historical artifact. Maybe you will rescue wildlife, or maybe stumble upon a hidden dam plan that needs to be exposed. To truly know a river, you need to paddle as much of it as possible. And take care of it.

*Spoiler alert: BRD wrote a kayaking guidebook for the Sava River – and in 2023 will have an English version. So, you can replicate this trip and explore this incredible river, showing local businesses and decision makers that it is better to let this river push kayakers, than push turbines. And who knows, maybe you enjoy it so much you paddle all the way to the Danube!