Rafting and canyoning on the Lao river: sport meets nature in the Pollino National Park

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We are in the heart of the Pollino National Park, at the border between Calabria and Basilicata. It is the widest conservation area in Italy, number two in the whole of Europe, a natural habitat for Appennine wolves, roe deers, golden eagles, great black woodpeckers, peregrine falcons, eagle owls, ravens and otters; also, a location where a complex and at times enchanting vegetation can be found, such as the Loricate Pine ,  a survivor from the last ice age as well as the symbol of the Park Authority, strong enough to survive on the highest peaks of the Pollino Mountain range.

From one of these peaks (Serra del Prete, 2181 meters in height) flows the Lao river, the protagonist of this article, which for some years now has been the theatre of fascinating, quite peculiar – and in a few cases competitive – sporting activities.

The Lao river is one of the most important watercourses in the Pollino National Park. Along its downstream meandering, a number of other torrents flow into it, some of which are of particular natural interest, such as the Battendiero, the Iannello and the more famous Argentino river, which lends its name to the natural reserve set in the valley of the Orsomarso Mountain range.

Founded in 1987, the reserve is a mix of different landscapes composed of steep boulders, rockfaces cleft by the downflowing streams , five- and six-meter waterfalls cascading off vertical cliffs which overlook the riverbed. From any point along the riverside, it is possible to set off for walks towards the top, going through the woods on paths that are flanked by holms, oaks and turkey oaks. It is a very enticing natural setting, undoubtedly among the quaintest in the whole park area.

Going back to the Lao river, its features make it particularly suitable for the practice of certain water and mountaineering sports, such as rafting and canyoning.

Rafting is the downstream navigation of a river on a particular kind of dinghy known as a raft, a pneumatic boat conceived to be resistant to any form of solicitation from the river. In 2010, Coni (the Italian National Olympic Committee)officially recognized it as a sporting activity associated to the Federazione Italiana Canoa Kayak – the Italian Association of Canoeists and Kayakers. Differently from rafting, canyoning consists in travelling upstream through a torrent, the Iannello in this case, an affluent of the Lao marked by the presence of many waterfalls which make it suitable for this activity and enhance the spectacular character of the scenery.

In the gorges of the Lao, these activities have been practiced for more than twenty years now, not only because of the peculiarities of the river, its beautiful gullies and the morphology of its surroundings.

At the beginning of the nineties, thanks to financing allocated by the Cassa del Mezzogiorno (Fund for the South), the Italian-Arberesh Mountain Community of the Pollino set up a Canoeing Centre in the town of Laino Borgo, which, as is easy to imagine, has acted as a driving force for the diffusion of rafting and of the other river sports that are nowadays practiced on the Lao.

Suffice it to say on this matter that over the past years a few highly professionalized associations have been created in the towns of Laino Borgo, Orsomarso, Papasidero and Scalea, which, connected as they are to the Italian as well as European sports and tourism industry, have been promoting and planning such activities from an entrepreneurial perspective.

The associations operating in this field that are officially recognised by the Italian Rafting Association are three. Two of them are based in the town of Laino Borgo and one is in Papasidero. At their service, they have about 40 professional between guides and couriers and 30 logistics operators (carrying out secretarial tasks, rigging and equipment maintenance, the transportation service etc.) There also are other entities working in parallel with them which, despite being unofficial, have been providing their contribution to the economy that revolves around these sporting activities.

The number of the permanently employed in this field, if we include the associations that are not connected with the Italian Rafting Association, adds up to about 200 people, which is an interesting economic microcosm, particularly if one considers how peculiar the involved activities are.

Recent estimates have shown that the catchment area for these activities is of about 10.000 people each year, coming from all regions of Italy and, to a lower extent, from some European countries. It certainly is a remarkable figure, contributing to an ever-increasing income in the hospitality industry, which has by now reached peaks of excellence acknowledged well past the regional borders.

In 2011, the Township of Laino Borgo hosted the Italian Rafting Championship, with an affluence of athletes from the whole of Italy. The event, organised by the Amateur Sports Association Canoa Club Lao Pollino under the aegis of the Italian Rafting Association, was attended by contestants of all age brackets coming from clubs in the Valtelline, the Aosta Valley and Trentino-Alto Adige. A fairly  good number of  participants from the Southern regions was also present.

As of today, the activities belonging to the river sports category (and especially rafting), whether played competitively or amateurishly, have become major attractions for tourists in the Pollino National Park area. One reason for this is that, together with other environmentally friendly activities, they have integrated the offer  of sporting and natural amenities in this conservation area.

For this reason incentivizing, promoting and financing activities of this kind is of utmost importance in the context of those public policies that are aimed at the development of inland areas.