Easter Whitewater trip, Fort William
Following our 2012 Easter whitewater trip, with various friends, we were keen to include more SOC members this year, so the trip grew ... and grew - until we found ourselves with twenty two paddlers. This was perhaps too big a group, as we ended up split across three rented houses, one of which was not really within walking distance of the other two. It was also too many to all eat together in one house, so the trip was not as cohesive as we could have hoped.
However, the main problem was that this year we had something of a drought - bad enough that there had been fires in various parts of Scotland, some of them on the verges where we were staying, on the back road from Banavie to Mucomir. We usually try to find something to paddle on the journey up, and the lack of water further north meant that one group chose to paddle the Nith on Saturday which, though a bit low, turned out to be good choice, as it also fortuitously avoided a chunk of the M74 that had been closed.
Notorious for its wet weather, it's unusual to struggle to find local rivers to paddle from Fort William, but the Spean gorge is always a good bet, even in very dry conditions. This turned out to be the lowest any of us had paddled it, which makes it very tight and technical. We needed portages at Headbanger and the Constriction, but also one more rocky narrow bit where we've never had to walk before.
We now had to search further afield for runnable water. A biggish group went over to the Findhorn, quite a long drive, where we paddled the Lower River. We deemed it too low to run from Daltulich bridge and walked down to Randolph's Leap, which meant no warm up before some of the harder rapids. Again, this bit at our put-in is technical when low (grade 5) and only one person ran it, the others putting on in the Cauldron just below. Everything else went well, and two people ran the slot at the end (also grade 5 owing to a big undercut that tends to trap debris which can't be checked). The walk out was as heinous as always - especially if you walk right up to the road having failed to realise that cars can be taken part way down for a short while, just to load up (sorry Dave, we couldn't catch up to tell you!).
The Meig is on a constant compensation dam-release and can always be run, so one group went there. As it was something of an unknown, this was kept to a small group, scoping it out to see if others would find it a good run later in the week. One group chose to stay very nearby and run part of the Arkaig (but not all of it had enough water). Several people on various days walked up Corbetts (we weren't equipped for the higher Munros which still had a lot of snow which was obstinately failing to melt into the rivers). One large jolly party had a day skiing in excellent conditions at Aviemore. The Lower Findhorn and the Meig were run again by different parties later in the week.
Thursday had the great advantage of a dam-release on the River Garry, a relatively short drive for a short river which had plenty of water, and was little effort to carry back to the top for multiple runs. I think everyone had a good day here !
Finally, the longest drive of all - most of the way to Thurso and Wick, it seemed, to run a couple of gorge sections on the Carron, by Bonar Bridge. The trip was not without incident, with odd swims and rolls and some rapids which really did need walking round. There was also some faff as it's not a river often run, and the guidebook was a bit vague about landmarks. One "old school" which was a marker for a layby to take-out, has been turned into a newish-looking house, so we didn't recognise it on the first pass.
Many thanks to all who came, and particularly to Mary for organising the accommodation - getting people to commit and agree who would stay in which house was a bit like herding cats ! I think we may have to go back to smaller numbers if we go again next year, simply to ensure that everyone is staying within communicating distance.
Article copyright © Andy Waddington 2013