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Don those wet suits. The Lao River is flowin’.

Snaking along the pristine waters of the Lao near Papasidero, Italy, in northern Calabria, makes one grateful that there are slivers of the overdeveloped and overpopulated country that remain unblemished by pollution.

Mostly.

Occasionally, bits of trash trickle down the cold, spring-fed river and come to rest on its banks — reminders of the industrialized world just outside the boundaries of the Pollino National Park.

And yet, "this is one of the few really clean rivers left in Italy," rafting guide Federico "Orso" Stephan says of the not-so-intimidating rapids of the Lao. "It really is beautiful, no?" asks the Argentinian national, whose nickname "Bear" attests more to his cuddliness than fierceness. He is working for the summer in Italy as a river guide for Rafting Adventure Lao.

A handful of outfitters offer adventure-seekers a variety of sporting venues along the Lao, including white-water rafting, canyoning and kayaking. Most are based in an around the tiny, picturesque town of Papasidero, roughly a three-hour drive south of Naples.

Anyone can participate in river sports, says Guilo Dorelli, owner of Rafting Adventure Lao. While most people should know how to swim, he says, the important thing is to have no fear of the water. Guides provide lessons before each event.

There are three river courses of varying levels and durations, with one run suitable for children as young as age 4.

"I was hoping for more scary rapids, but this was a lot of fun," said first-time rafter Elvira Ciriello, who spent a recent weekend with her husband and brother- and sister-in-law enjoying the thrill of the outdoors deep in the hills of the peninsula that juts between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas, forming the "toe" of Italy’s "boot."

If the white-water rafting appears too tame for the adrenalin junkies out there, try canyoning — a sport that involves rappelling, climbing, sliding and jumping off rock walls and cliffs along the river and into the water.

"Trust your equipment," canyoning guide Francesco Zito says, trying to reassure a jittery first-timer that she won’t meet her death at the bottom of a 30-foot descent into a crevice, a maneuver that begins a roughly three-hour canyoning tour.

Along the route, which includes jumps of some eight to 10 feet from slippery boulders into pristine pools and sliding down smoothed rock into an eddy, Zito passionately tells historical tales behind some of the ruins hikers spy along the way, including mills secretly built years ago by the townspeople to avoid paying exorbitant taxes.

One of the several canyoning treks concludes with a terrifying belly-flop from a seated position onto a pole set across a rock wall followed by a roughly 100-foot rope descent alongside, and sometimes in the midst of, a frigid waterfall.

Breathtaking. Exhilarating.

Know and go ...Directions: From Naples, take Autostrada 3 south toward Salerno/Reggio Calabria (portions are toll). Once you cross from the region of Basilicata into Calabria, take the Lagonegro exit onto E45. Follow the road toward Praia a Mare/Scalea. At Scalea, take SP3 toward Santa Domenica Talao. Pass through the small town, and follow the road to Papasidero.

Times: Best time of year to go rafting and to take part in other river water sports on the Lao River is March through October.

Costs: Fees for rafting range from roughly 35 euros per person (15 euros for children) for a short, easy course to 130 euros for the longer weekend excursions, which include camping (tents furnished, bring a sleeping bag). Hotels are plentiful in the town of Scalea for those who don’t want to camp. Canyoning treks cost about 60 euros per person.

Food: None provided on the tours. There are sandwich shops in town, and restaurant in nearby Scalea. Or you bring your own.

Information: There are several outfitters. Two popular ones are Rafting Adventure Lao (www.raftinglao.it/031.html) and Rafting Explorer Lao (www.raftingexplorerlao.it/attivita.php); both Web sites are in Italian only. Telephone numbers are listed at bottom of each site. Most employees speak some English.

— Sandra Jontz


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