The rosy fingers of dawn had just began to grasp at the horizon when we met at the car park. With boats and equipment loaded, we said goodbye to our loved ones and set off on our twelve hour drive to the highlands of Scotland and a week of high adventure.
I pushed off from the bank and floated gently into the middle of Loch Arkaig. Its surface was so calm it was like a mirror, reflecting the soaring peaks of the surrounding mountains. A school of wild swimmers passed by with a cheery hello.
As we waited for everyone to get ready and get on the water, Derek, one of our guides, took us through some warm up exercises and skill practices. With everyone afloat, and the obligatory introductions of our guides, we set off under the bridge and onto the River Arkaig.
The current picked up as we paddled the first half a kilometre. We beached ourselves above a hydroelectric scheme and made our way over the bridge to the island. Here we could observe the natural course of the river and our first significant rapid of the trip. Derek ran it first to demonstrate the line and to get into prime position for taking photos.
As those of us that decided to run it returned to our boats, we noticed the weir at the top. We asked Andy about it and he said not to worry as there was a slot designed for kayakers in the middle. He hopped into his boat and disappeared over the horizon. Barney, Pete, and Tim followed. I was next. I lined up my kayak, took a deep breath, and paddled hard for the slot. I crested the weir, landed, and immediately struck a rock, which flipped my boat. I tried to roll, but the water was too shallow to move much. I knew Barney was in the eddy so tapped my boat and waved my arms, hoping for an Eskimo rescue.
It wasn’t long before my lungs started to burn for fresh air. I pulled my deck and felt something collide with the bottom of my boat. I surfaced next to my kayak, which was well wedged between some rocks. Barney was about half a metre from reaching me. There was also another boat, upside down and drifting just downstream. Barney went to its aid as Keith appeared next to it. I waded back to shore and emptied my boat as Tom threw a line to Keith to help him with his own boat. Finally, Lyn came over the weir and swam in the same place.
Once we were all sorted, Barney disappeared down the rapid. I followed and found it far easier than the weir. The rest of the river was a gentle mix of flat sections and short, easy rapids. Before we knew it, we floated under another bridge and into Loch Lochy and our get out.
After carrying our boats up to the vehicles, Andy announced that there was a good bridge jump here. Pete was first to leap off. Once he’d proved it was fine, we all took turns leaping from the bridge into the deep waters of the loch below.
We hurried lunch then jumped into the vehicles and headed to Kinlochleven. We spent the afternoon on the short section of the River Leven that runs out of a hydroelectric plant and through the town. Andy and Derek used this as a training ground to help hone our skills. Despite all being at different levels, we all found it worthwhile. I even managed to make up for my earlier swim by rolling after an overenthusiastic taily!
We pulled into a lay-by beside the River Etive. There was some commotion by the river’s edge. We climbed down to join our guides Andy, Derek, and Liam who were watching some kayakers run the big drops. These kayakers plunged over the edge and into the pool below with style. There were some nervous looks between our group, but Andy declared it was far too high for us to consider. We hopped back into our vehicles and continued to the car park, where we met John and Jim from Yeovil Canoe Club who were joining us for a few days. Once ready, we dragged our boats along a small stream, under a low bridge, then up onto the bank of the Lower Etive.
Liam took John and Jim onto the water first, followed by Andy who took Barney, Tom, Pete, Barry and Tim. That left Derek with me, Keith, Lyn, and Kirsten. We launched into the flow, moving down river at a good pace. The current picked up and the familiar sound of rushing water rose to greet us as we approached our first rapid of the day. Derek instructed me to lead Lyn down the right channel as he led Keith and Kirsten down the left channel.
I paddled to pick up speed, pulling myself over the drop. I bounced along the wave train, flared a rock, and dropped into the eddy below just in time to see Lyn come over the drop. As she paddled down the wave train, I broke into the flow and we met back up with the others below the rapid.
This was a good warm up for the following rapids and for the small leadership tasks Derek gave me. These included signalling people down rapids one at a time and leading short sections of eddy hopping.
Up ahead the other two groups had pulled their boats onto the bank and were starting to walk. It turned out to be a grade 4+ rapid with particularly high levels. Derek headed into the eddy, followed by Lyn and Kirsten. I broke out next. As I turned to face upriver, I saw Keith’s boat upside down. A moment later he appeared next to it. I turned to see the others were facing the bank and about to get out. I shouted “Swimmer!” and paddled out to Keith, encouraging him to swim for the eddy. I glanced back to see we were closing in on the rapids. I shouted at Keith to swim with greater urgency. Derek appeared beside me and took up the encouragement. Someone threw a line from the bank and managed to haul Keith in. I slid into the eddy with great relief. We watched as Derek chased after the boat and disappeared around the corner.
We pulled our boats out and met Keith on the bank. He was in good spirits, despite losing his boat and a shoe. Tom walked up and let us know that Andy had taken one look at the rapid and declared they were all portaging, as the water levels were particularly high. I was breathing hard by the time I got to the end of the portage. There was no sign of Derek or Keith’s boat, but his paddle had been chucked on the bank. We ate our lunch, surrounded by the sun-dappled peaks of Glen Etive, as we watched Andy and Liam set up a line and pendulum Keith to the other side of the river. With no boat and only one shoe, he had no choice but to climb up to the road and hike to the get out.
As Keith set off, Andy hurried us all into our boats and onto the river. He was keen to find Derek and make sure he was alright. We paddled around a corner and into a beautiful gorge. Sheer rock walls towered above us with waterfalls tumbling down their sides into the river below. We all stopped paddling and floated through, enjoying the vista. It was privilege to be there, as the only way to see it is by boat.
The gorge came to an end and we drifted into an eddy by a high, grassy bank. Derek was sat there waiting for us with Keith’s boat. We set off again, this time as one big group, sharing the towing of Keith’s boat. The river widened and we had a mix of rapids and flat water sections.
The incline increased and we spread out to tackle the rapid. I followed a few boat lengths behind Kirsten. A fast tributary joined the main river producing some confused water. Kirsten capsized. I followed and capsized in the same place. Instinct kicked in and I quickly rolled back up. I saw Kirsten swimming into the eddy, while the stern of her boat was pointing upward and spinning as it floated downstream.
I drove into the eddy to catch my breath. The speed of the tributary wound the eddy so it spun with significant speed, hence it’s name “The Room of Doom”. I did a lap without paddling. Derek entered and gave me Keith’s boat, asking that I push it into shore while he helped Kirsten with her boat.
Soon I found I was alone in the swirling eddy. I paddled another couple of laps as I tried to escape. Pete joined me and asked if anyone had shown me the secret to getting out of it. I admitted that no one had, and he graciously led me to freedom.
We took the next drop one at a time. I watched Tom disappear over the edge, then powered forward taking the same approach. With a slide and a few bounces, I eddied out. Lyn was close behind. A cheer went up from the eddy on the other side of the river. Liam lifted Keith’s missing shoe above his head.
The silver bands of water cascading down the sides of dark mountains provided an awe inspiring backdrop to the final stretch of calm, flat water. We clambered out onto the bank and spotted Keith walking down from the road. He was relieved to see his lost boat and shoe.