American adventurer Charles Hedrich recently completed an extraordinary voyage, rowing throughout the French waterway system. Between late May and the end of October 2016, he covered 3000 km of canals and river navigations, passing through more than 500 locks. The experienced oarsman was constantly amazed by the natural beauty of the landscapes and the fascinating engineered heritage of the waterways. He described the system as an ‘unknown treasure that is accessible to everyone’.

Charle Hedrich ties up on the quay of the river Seine in Paris, at the end of his 5-month voyage (image removed April 19, 2021)

Hedrich’s log offers an interesting perspective on the waterway network. ‘It is even more extraordinary than I imagined’, he declared during an interview with the regional daily newspaper Le Dauphiné Libéré. ‘I regularly travel throughout the world, but I had forgotten that France is such a beautiful country. The waterways have some magnificent structures. Yet despite their appeal they are very little used, whether by tourists or commercial barges.’ Along the 240 km of the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne, for example, he met only five boats – two barges and three private boats – in eight days.

From his position barely above water level, it wasn’t always easy to know where to stop to find food. He came to rely on the view of church steeples as indicating at least minimal ‘refuelling’ possibilities, but was surprised to find that so many villages no longer have any grocery store. The French institution of the boulangerie was fortunately still often present even in small villages. As a result, Hedrich consumed large quantities of bread!

The ‘adventure’ may seem low-key compared to Hedrich’s treks to the North and South Pole, to the Atacama Desert in Chile, to the Himalayas and the Amazon, but with this experience under his belt his observations on France’s waterway heritage are even more striking: Hedrich underlines the unique resource that France has at her disposal: a network of more than 8000 km of canals and rivers ‘irrigating’ a substantial part of its territory: infrastructure for sustainable transport, a vector of cultural and economic development… yet France has done nothing, or very little, to exploit this potential.

At a time when our frenetic rhythm of life makes burn-out an occupational disease, at a time when the concentration of activity and traffic creates bottlenecks that are difficult to control, parts of our territory are totally neglected. Yet the navigable network is there, lending itself to development and potentially giving a dynamic image to entire regions. The wealth is there, almost under our feet. Charles Hedrich respectfully suggests to French decision-makers that they wake up to this potential!