Probably the hardest river we paddle frequently, club paddlers are probably familiar enough with it that we take it less seriously than if it were far from home. However, it is also very good, so it gets done often, since there is all-year access and the trip will run in fairly low water (often paddled several times a year in high summer).
The best gauge is at Middleton and it really needs to be above about 0.6m to be worthwhile paddling any of the easier parts of the river between the main rapids. You can scrape down these and still have worthwhile sport on the harder rapids, down to about 0.47m. The water comes from three sources - Maize Beck and Harwood Beck are free flowing and respond quickly to rain. But in dry weather, the level is largely controlled by what is being released from Cow Green reservoir, just upstream of Cauldron Snout. This source is a major reason why the river often goes in summer, and has a gauge just below it, but unfortunately, the EA don' t make these data available online.
For a map showing the Ettersgill put-in (a short walk from the parking) and Newbiggin take-out (somewhat longer) see this OS Openspace map - you can swap this to a satellite view on Google maps, too - there' s something very weird about the aerial photography just down from Low Force... Some people use a direct route to the river from the Ettersgill layby, but this tends to result in being shouted at, especially during lambing. The route shown uses entirely public footpaths to and from the river.
From the put-in, it's a short warm-up (often the shallowest part of the run if water levels are down) to a drop above Lowcroft Pool, just where Ettersgill Beck comes in on the left. In low water, there's only one line, but as levels increase, more possible routes open up, so it's worth a quick hop out to inspect if you are not familiar with it. It can form quite a good playspot too, unless levels are very high. There follow a series of rapids, none really difficult, although one has a tendency to catch the unwary... The "main event" is Dogleg, or Salmon Leap Fall, which is grade 4 at most levels, technical when it's low and with some powerful eddy lines and boils when it's high. This HD video has footage mostly at lowish summer levels, but Jim's run was on a very wet day in May when the river was quite well up.
Dog Leg, or Salmon Leap Fall, one of the most photographed rapids in the north
There's a relatively calm stretch below Dogleg, making rescue and recovery of debris fairly straightforward unless evels are well up. The river picks up a bit more energy as it starts to cut down towards Low Force with some awkward little drops culminating in Horseshoe Fall. This can have a meaty stopper, and directly above Low Force is not a good place to swim, as the current can easily carry you towards the left-hand drop which can be nasty. Horseshoe is often portaged (easy river right), even by folk who cheerfully run everything else, so it's worth some safety cover, if nothing else. In lowish water, a line as far to the left of the main right-hand side drop as possible finds a chute which avoids the stopper, but a sharp break-out to the right is recommended before Low Force. In higher water, a chicken chute may open close by the right bank.
By contrast, Low Force is a little intimidating, but relatively easy, usually taken by the right-hand fall, with a bit of speed and a boof. There's a huge pool below to collect swimmers and at most levels the stopper isn't holding.
Low Force, normally run over the right-hand drop
Left of the main drop is a much more serious proposition - Jacuzzi chute. This has changed recently (2015) and had become much harder and more dangerous, as a protective cushion wave is now absent. Even before this, it needed quite a lot of water, and a misjudged line would involve some painful impact - now the impact is more likely and additionally, there is a suggestion that the stopper has become far more retentive at the bottom.
If the water is up, the river also flows in a separate channel well to the left of Low Force, and arrives via a small waterfall (Little Force) which can be fun to run, but the channel does get fallen logs across it, so have a good look first. At the level shown below, the channel was too bony, but a short carry up to run just the fall made a pleasant diversion.
Running the far left drop with plenty of water
Below the big drops, the river flows slowly towards one final cascade, just before Wynch Bridge. This can be taken on the left down a drop with two steps. The first slows you down in its stopper, and the second has a tendency to turn you right, where a rock tries to stop your escape from the stopper into the centre of the river. A bit of speed and a strong steering stroke are usually enough to overcome this. To the right, starting either side of a large boulder, is a run out over a projecting rock slab, from where a boof will see you clear of anything nasty. However, the line is invisible from above, and a current tends to take you rightwards towards a nasty slot, so it's as well to have a look before running this way for the first time.
Michael almost exactly on line boofing towards the Wynch bridge
Under Wynch bridge is a narrow gorge with deep water, before the river opens out to a series of fun rapids, usually with a choice of routes. There's one final diagonal drop, with an apparently attractive ramp/slot on the right which is best avoided, and a shallow landing on the far left. Anywhere in the middle is good, with the drop being a bit lower the further left you run. At low levels, too far left will ground you on flat rocks immediately after landing....
Johnny taking a middle course on the last drop at low-moderate levels
Now it's essentially flat down to the footbridge. Get out river left above or below the bridge, and follow the public footpath back to the road at Newbiggin.