15 April 2007

Into the depths of a Gorge

It was the first whole day we had spent in Scotland after travelling up from Preston the day before and with little water in the rivers our options for a Sunday paddle were limited. After sitting around for some time in the chalets watching 'LVM 21: Newlyweds, Newborns and other Big Mistakes' we finally pulled ourselves together and headed off to Spean Bridge and the put in for the gorge section of the Spean. When we pulled into the car park at the Woollen Mill it was apparent that every other kayaker in Scotland had, had the same idea; the car park was packed with plastic and neoprene clad paddlers.

It was a god send that we had the bright idea of getting kitted up back at the chalets 3 miles away in Roy Bridge as this meant we could quickly scuttle down to the river and get on ahead of what looked to be an extremely large university group.

Four of the group getting into their boats.

Once on the water the level did not surprise any of us. It was low, dog low in fact. All of the easy shingle rapids at the beginning of the trip, before you make it down into the gorge were a scrape and the odd one required you to jump out of your boat, drag it down the section of rapid and jump back in when the water depth increased. This, when compared to the previous year's attempt on the gorge, was staggering as these rapids were near enough washed out. Even with the low water some enjoyment was found in the beginning sections of river. It also allowed me to warm up a bit and get use to my dad's Wavesport Diesel, which I was borrowing as my Jackson Rocker has still not arrived (supposedly 23rd April now).

One of our group enjoying themselves in the deeper sections of river.

Eventually, the river began to narrow and we were soon into the entry rapids of the gorge. This was much better. The narrowing of the river had meant that the water level sat comfortable above the river bed meaning there was no more scraping of plastic on the rocky bed. However, even in the gorge the difference in level, when compared to the previous year, was something to be shocked by. Fairy steps for example, which looped me (in my All Star) last time were three small rocky ledges instead of the giant river wide stoppers of the previous year.

Another one of our group dropping down one of the Fairy steps.

With the low river levels many of us could not recognise the gorge as the water sat so much lower in it's rocky casings. This meant that the rapids and lines needed were unfamiliar or just too unclear from the boats meaning, at times, one or all of us would have to jump out of the boat to have a quick look-see at the line. Usually this left us slightly embarrassed as what greeted us, when stood upon high, was just another blind bend with some ripples at the end or half way down or even near the top. Though I suppose it is better to be safe than sorry.

One of the rapids, which I got out to inspect and relayed the line back to the group. Perhaps this did actually warrant some inspection. It went hard left.

Soon enough we were onto Head Banger - the crux of the gorge. Last year I was told, when having successfully descended it, that at the higher flows we experienced back then, it was easier and didn't warrant it's Grade 5 status. Today in the lower flows I was hoping that I would catch a glimpse of this infamous drop when it warranted it's high grading. The group, on sight of the lead-in, disembarked and headed, river left, down the bank to inspect the cascading drop. On route to the inspection I had a quick chat with a paddler from Leicester who was just shouldering his boat to start the horrendous portage of the drop after his mates had run it.

When reaching the lip what greeted me was somewhat daunting. There was a siphon on the left, just at the lip of the drop and then on the right was a recirculating eddy into the back of the fall. After a couple of minutes looking at the drop I thought it would go and so I headed back to my boat, with one other member of our group, who also felt good about the drop.

I went first. I hit the line on the lead-in how I wanted, which meant I could line myself up to hit the lip just right of the siphon, pushing away to the right of it. Whilst my boat took this course I aimed to plant a left 'boof' stroke to push me away from the siphon and then take a quick right stroke on landing to move away from the recirculating eddy. I feel I was close to hitting my line, but it wasn't perfect as after a quick wave of the arm I collided with the rock wall at the exit of the drop. Over I went. I rolled quickly to break out on river right to watch the next member of our group take the lead in.

A member of our group taking the lead in to Head Banger.

Unfortunately, they did not manage to hit the line needed to get safely away from the drop, but instead plopped off the lip into the outer reaches of the recirculating eddy. They stopped dead in their tracks, the falling water pummelled the stern and a back loop was in order. A couple of attempts at a roll were made but the end result was evident as the throw line crew took aim. I was ready lower down to pick up any pieces, which may float off downstream, by a suitable place to chuck them. A couple of seconds, which felt like minutes, later the deck release was pulled and up popped their head. They were caught on a rope and pulled out from the clutches of the drop, into the vertical rock wall. Another line from the other side came across and after a quick shout they took hold of this and swung into a suitable eddy to climb out of the river. I hopped out of my boat to grab the paddles floating in the eddy above me and help with emptying the boat, which had been rescued by the chap I had previously chatted with on the bank.

The end result was evident as you take a look at this picture.

The swimmer back in their boat, happy that they had attempted the drop, but slightly ruffled.

Once everything had been sorted out the remaining members of the group walked back up to their boats as another group passed them to inspect Head Banger. Whilst the portage was going on, which looked just as fun[!] as running the drop, another couple of paddlers ran the drop. One hit the line spot on and the other had a really good pummelling at the foot of the fall. We eventually moved off downstream to avoid anymore carnage. We ran Cauldron blind without much incident. I think there was a bit of a cheeky flair to be had on this rapid, but we quickly moved on leaving no time to reminisce on lines had and could have been had. At this point there were plenty more paddlers piling down on top of us as the groups had caught each other up in the gorge. This left us with some entertaining moments as at points our group could be split up by the scouters from another group.

Eventually we came up to a ledge drop, then a rock island and then the river disappeared down two channels, one either side of the rock island. With no clear line one of us dropped down the ledge drop to an eddy, which gave some view of what was downstream. It would go after the quick boat inspection. We all followed down and round the island to be greeted with another ledge drop and a tree planted firmly in it. It would still go. I ran it first and broke out on river left as the next member down followed. A couple of seconds passed as we got tossed and turned in the eddy as we fought to get back out. Meanwhile the rest of the group were descending the drop, some of them joining us in the eddy some of us moving off downstream.

The drop with the tree in (left of centre in the photo) and the recirculating eddy (right of photo).

The group was eventually reunited just before Constriction, which had the previous year been a boiling mess of rock and wood. A portage for certain. Remembering this little fact I had got out of the boat to have a look at what I thought to be Constriction, but it wasn't so I was back in my boat split from my group by a couple of other paddlers. I managed to overtake them before Constriction to watch the penultimate member of our group squeeze through the narrow rock gap. Here I had trouble getting the Diesel through the gap, I just couldn't get it on edge instead I was left with no other option than getting out, once again, lifting it over the rocky mass and getting back in to carry on my way down the gorge, which was all but over.

One day complete, one river done, another five days to fill.

As an aside...
On the journey back to the chalets from the Loch Lochy dam
we heard a clunk on the roof; we thought nothing of it. However, when I lifted my dad's Diesel down from the car back at the chalets I noticed that one side of the full foot-plate had a wing nut missing. Not good. So it was back into the car with no real idea of where exactly we had been when we heard the clunk; somewhere near the Upper Inveroy sign maybe. Therefore it was from here we started the needle in a haystack search. Forty-five minutes later we found the wing nut laying inconspicuously in a drive way a couple of miles from the sign for Upper Inveroy.

More pictures can be found here and a video can be seen here.

Good lines, stay safe and see you on the wet stuff...

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