Big water days in Scotland

Posted by Andy Waddington on 2014-11-21

Four inches of rainfall was always going to provide interesting conditions for our first day on the water of a five-day half-term Scottish trip. Rivers were already tanking as we drove up on Saturday afternoon. By Sunday morning, the large number of boaters in the area seemed all to be driving round looking for anywhere un-scary enough to put on. We'd chosen a pretty tame bit of river - the Lower Orchy, but hadn't necessarily reckoned with the roads. Getting to the put-in was OK, but the river was certainly impressive. Setting off to drive downstream we soon came to Catnish picnic site, where yet another road-wide puddle appeared, so I headed in, but soon dropped the speed as a bow wave over the bonnet would have reached the air intake... At a sensible pace, I was through OK in the diesel Subaru, and a slightly shallower flood was dismissed a little more circumspectly. At this point I parked in a passing place and waded back for a conflab. Conclusion - the van would drive round via the Bridge of Orchy and the main road. By the time I'd waded back towards my car, a German gentleman in a shiny new BMW had come to a halt in the shallower puddle. It transpired that his engine was now dead, the car (an automatic) stuck in "P" and no way to move it. After a valiant attempt to drag it out with his towrope, we decided that it had good grip in the wet, and was a fixture, so he and his son waded like British seaside tourists in bare feet with their trousers rolled up and I drove them to Dalmally Police station, where the policeman that answered the doorbell immediately knew exactly where we meant. "We had a police car washed away into the river from there". Reunited with the shuttle, we hastily left the Germans to the police and headed for the take-out to drop the car and get back to get Mary and Michael warmed up and on the river.

What do you paddle when the rivers are off their tits ? Tribs, obviously ! Photo: Andy Waddington

Breaking in below Falls of Orchy was slightly less scary than expected (we'd moved well downstream of the epic boils just below the bridge) and the little weir that we had been a bit concerned about was completely washed out with no wave at all. Soon, however, things got a little bigger (bear in mind that these pics are from GoPro helmet footage which always makes everything look flat).

The first of a series of Nile-esque waves. Photo: Andy Waddington

Things did settle down a little over the next kilometre or so, but we arrived at the Catnish picnic site (where we'd taken out after a reasonable length run on the previous visit) after little more than ten minutes to see the drowned BMW still in place and some puzzled fishermen with a Landrover turning round. Continuing, we came to another set of rapids, normally a bit of a slidy ledge. It looked somewhat epic, so we broke out to check for trees. As we couldn't see all of the main rapid, we chose to run a little side channel that would normally be dry.

Normally no water here - quite a stonking river in itself today. Photo: Andy Waddington

Picking up Mary from river left, we piled on down the rest of the rapid, normally a sedate grade 2...

"This slow moving, meandering section brings its own delights to those who prefer their rivers with a little less excitement" (Scottish Whitewater guide). Photo: Andy Waddington

Now the river did flatten off, but hardly slowed down, as countryside flashed past either side, revealing flooded golf courses, trees nowhere near land and birds of prey hunting for drowning lemmings and suchlike. Finally, as we entered Loch Awe so near Halloween, what better way to round off the trip than to paddle through an eerie submerged forest to a haunted castle ? There's a video of this trip.

Getting the shuttle back was more exciting... The Glen Orchy road was officially closed, but we assumed this was the dead BMW at Catnish... Many shallow puddles later, we noticed that the river was just about level with the road on our right. Then a deeper puddle appeared, and beyond it, another, with a significant flow from the hillside to our left. We drove through this, but weren't sure we'd get the other vehicle back through it (nor mine if it came up any more). On the return, all went well until we got to the deep bit. It didn't seem to have come up noticeably, and we both got through, soon crossing the Allt Kinglass and climbing away to the main road. Home and dry !

Well, not quite.... The main road was itself equipped with some quite long (though not that deep) stretches of water, now almost invisible in the dark. On one of these, hit at fifty or so, we were quite pleased that the road was straight ! Just beyond Balachulish, as we neared our destination, we were flagged down and told that the road ahead was closed by landslides - but it turned out that this was between Corran Ferry and Fort William, so since we were only going to Inchree, we were allowed through (phew!). We were glad we hadn't picked Spean Bridge or Roy Bridge as our base for this trip as that would have involved an extra 150 miles or so of driving (the Corran Ferry was also shut, as it couldn't make the ferry glide against both wind and tide).

The landslides having been cleared from the road and the way reopened to Fort William for non-emergency traffic (after 30 hours), we suddenly had a much greater choice of rivers available again, but a lot was still pretty high. We knew some folk had run the Ailort in big water, which was now dropping, so we headed off past Loch Eil and soon found ourselves looking at a river that had clear water, but lots of it. After shuttling, we put on from the loch and dropped down over a small weir. We'd reccied the line under the railway, so knew we'd need not to get pushed too far right...

Almost immediately, the current under the railway bridge wants to push you where the arch will cause grief... Photo: Andy Waddington

This proved to be fairly straightforward and we all got down this and the next couple of short rapids. We were now eddied out right, with a view down a big stepped rapid, steeper at this side than river left which we probably couldn't get to. At various stages we all walked to get a better view of what was in store. Lowri and Mary went down first, not without incident. Michael took a line slightly further left - the first drop still looked quite steep with a big stopper, but he blasted through this quite successfully.

Michael blasting down a series of steps on the Ailort. Photo: Andy Waddington

I decided that there was an easier line further left still, so dragged the boat back upstream to the highest put-in I could conveniently reach, and from where the ferry to make my line proved easier than I'd expected. I almost went too far, in fact, but had plenty of time to line up - the inundated willows providing excellent landmarks. This line proved to be straightforward, no stoppers too big, and time for several paddle strokes between each step, so never any shortage of speed where it was needed. Reunited below this, there were another couple of short steps, then an interval of flat water with an island before the river picked up again. However, it was all easy rapids for a while until we reached a long tongue of water with slides off either side into meaty waves. The line looked easy - straight down the middle of the tongue - but you couldn't see the tongue from above the horizon line, so you had to reccy the landmarks well. A diagonal wave just before the drop was the thing to work on, but the current at the lip was also not straight, so a bit of allowance needed to be made. Overall, a little bit too far left was probably safer than too far right. Mary, following Lowri, was just slightly too far right. Falling off the right edge of the tongue, she was capsized immediately, and the nature of the river was such that she had the paddle knocked out of her hand, bashed her head, and was pulled from the cockpit with never a chance to set up for a roll. Ooops. Michael got the line just about right and I followed last, needing to correct my line just a touch on entry, but then missing a hole lower down that Michael had just blasted through.

By the time you are close enough to the horizon line to see the line - you'd better be on it ! Photo: Andy Waddington

This proved to be the last real obstacle, though multiple channels round submerged trees provided some entertainment before we dropped under a bridge and took out river left to inspect the bottom weir. This was definitely not to be messed with, so we portaged left and put back in for the last couple of hundred metres to the cars. There's a video of this trip, too.

This left us plenty of time and daylight for another river, so we stopped for a look at the Fassfern. This drops off much more quickly, so was already on its way down, but we reckoned there would be enough water for a run. Mary decided not to paddle, so Michael, Lowri and I shouldered our boats and headed up the track. I decided not to run the grade 5- bit near the top, so put on below it, ferried across, and got myself to where I could usefully deploy a throw-line and camera.

Michael on the first drop of Tango on the Fassfern. Photo: Andy Waddington

The first drop didn't look that hard, but a mistake here would take you into the next drop, with a large undercut boulder in the middle. There were now a series of shallow rapids separated by flatter water - slightly technical at this level, but not at all pushy. There are overhanging trees to avoid and a few stoppers to punch, but overall nothing too difficult. Towards the end are a couple of slides down slabs, the second and longer one being known as "Backwards Slab" because it is apparently bad juju to run it forwards... Michael ran backwards, but did roll up after hitting the stopper sideways. Forwards seemed to result in remaining upright, whatever the consequences for future karma...

Paddling forwards down Backwards Slab. Photo: Andy Waddington

From here it is but a short way to the end. With the river dropping, it was a sidle down river left under low branches to find enough water, but then cut to the centre for a final whoosh under the bridge to the take-out. There's yet another video of this trip.

By next day, most levels had dropped off and the Lower Roy proved more of a scrape than we'd hoped, but the Middle Spean was still being fed by six pipes (the dam had overtopped earlier in the week, very unusual this early in the winter), so was big and fast. There's just one significant obstacle in a ledge drop towards the end, but unfortunately this had a substantial stopper which ate Mary (it did spit her out after she swam). Our final river was the Etive, not that big, and with lots of groups on the river. Tragically, both Michael (Crack of Doom) and Andy (2nd Triple Step) had swims here, so the less said about the trip the better.

Andy Waddington

Article and photographs copyright © Andy Waddington 2014

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