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.
We crammed all our vehicles into a small car park. While we waved the vans in, Andy hopped out to look over the bridge. He declared the river to be at a good level, so we should have a good day. He split us into two groups. Liam would be taking Barry, Keith, Kirsten, and Lyn on the Lower Roy and the Upper Spean. While Andy and Derek would be leading the rest of us on the Middle Roy, and we had the option of another river if we had time. And so, with a nervous gulp, I found myself one of the “Big Boys”!
After shuffling boats and kit into the right vehicles, we set off. The single lane road wound far up the valley. Deep horizontal lines scored the mountains, all at the same level. These told of an ancient lake, whose cold waters filled the valley during the ice age.
Once on the water, Andy led me, John, and Jim down the first few small rapids. The river disappeared between some rocks and over a clear horizon line. We pulled into an eddy and Andy explained that it was a quick left turn, then we should dodge a rock, go through a slot, then a right turn and we’ll be through. He asked if we wanted to get out and look or just go for it. We looked around at each other, but I figured that we should look if he was asking. As we scrambled over the rocky shore, Jim turned back to me and declared “Good call!”. I glanced up to see the rushing waters funnelled through the narrow gap with a tight turn.
John and Jim played Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who would go first. Jim won and jumped in his boat to show us the line. He easily made it through, so Andy sent John and I to our boats to get ready. John went next, and I floated upstream and watched as he dropped over the horizon. A cheer let me know he was successful. Andy signalled and I nodded. It was now my turn. I sped up on the approach, put in a bow rudder to catch the flow for the tight turn, then pulled on the paddle for a forward stroke as I shot through the slot. As I passed the rocks I edged hard to the right and put in another bow rudder to avoid slamming into the rock wall and to face downriver. John and Jim whooped as I joined them in the eddy with a grin on my face.
For the rest of the morning, we took turns leading eddy hopping as the river twisted and turned through the narrow valley. Andy gave his insights into leading on the river as we made progress. All too soon the valley widened out and the vehicles, high up on the side of the hill, came into view. But first, we had one last rapid to inspect and run.
Andy explained the different options as we stared intently at the water pouring over the ledge. He gave us a demo then I found myself climbing back into my boat. The lead in was shallow, with both Jim and John running aground in different places. I followed, paddling hard on the final approach. I dropped over the edge, landed cleanly, then swung round into the eddy. Once Derek and his group joined us, it was then a long, steep march up the hill, carrying our boats, to get back to the vehicles.
I ate lunch in the van as Andy drove to our second river of the day; the Upper Morriston. I felt nervousness creeping in as Andy described the annual race that was run here. He described how you needed to have all the qualifications or a coach of his level to write a letter of endorsement before the organisers would let you on the river. On arrival, we climbed down the bank for a look at the first feature; a grade 4+ rapid. He said it was looking nice today, but all I could see was a maelstrom of cascading water.
We carried our boats down to the get on and Andy said not to worry as we’ll do some eddy hopping first, then get out to look again. I followed as we made our way to a rock outcrop and climbed out. I realised that I was now on an island and the only way off was to run the rapid! Andy explained the line and gave us a demo. He expertly made the wave, slid down the rock face, landed nicely and drifted into the eddy below.
This time John declined the offer of Rock, Paper, Scissors, so Jim went first. He just missed the wave and slid into the roiling waters. It pushed him out cleanly and straight into the eddy. It made me feel much better to see Andy’s description was true. John went next and nailed the line, sliding down the rock face and whooping his delight.
So now it was my turn. The other group arrived as I climbed into my boat. Derek gave me some words of advice and encouragement, then I pushed out of the eddy and paddled hard. I didn’t take my eyes off the wave until I reached it. But I knew it wasn’t quite right as my bow turned to the right slightly. The water was pouring down on either side of me as I dropped. My boat hit the water and bobbed up and into the eddy. I cheered with the others as my relief was palpable.
My adrenaline stayed high as we worked our way through the next few big rapids, each graded at 4/4+. I followed Andy closely, my knuckles white from holding my paddle tight, as we navigated waves and drops and tight eddies. It was the biggest and most intense set of rapids that I’d paddled. It was scary, but I was loving it.
The car park where we met our guides had spectacular views of Glen Coe. The mountains were illuminated with shifting light that cast deep brooding shadows across the emerald grasslands.
We split into three groups, each tackling a different river. Liam took Jim and John to tackle the big drops of the Middle Etive. Andy took Barry, Keith, Kirsten, and Lyn to the upper section of the River Orchy. This left Barney, Pete, Tim, Tom, and me with Derek as our guide on the classic section of the River Orchy.
We began with a warm up on a small rapid under an old, stone bridge. As we paddled down river, the size and technicality of the rapids increased. I followed Tim down a shoot. I took a diagonal wave side on and capsized. The chaotic water tumbled me around, but I managed to roll up. I found myself facing Barney upstream and immediately went down a drop backwards. I spun round and ran the rest of the rapid forwards.
With everyone accounted for successfully in the flat water at the bottom, we paddled on. Clear, blue skies arced above us. The sunlight danced over the surrounding mountains and woods. With such nice conditions, we weren’t the only people enjoying the river that day. We paused as we approached a group of fly fishermen. Derek spoke with them briefly, then asked which side they wanted us to go. They pointed to the opposite bank, so we floated in single file on that side. They waved their thanks and continued on our way.
The river dropped over a horizon line. Derek approached, then gave us the “everyone go” signal, and dropped from view. We followed, giving each other a couple of boats lengths of space. As I paddled over the edge, I saw Barney capsize. He rolled back up as Tom hit the same place and capsized. He came out of his boat as I hit the same point and flipped over as well. I was half way through my roll when I dropped back down. It took me a moment to realise that my paddle wasn’t in my hands any more. I pulled my deck and swam into the eddy with Tom.
As Derek went downstream to look for my paddle, Tim stopped him. He was pointing into the rapid, where my paddle was sticking vertically out of the water. Barney managed to reach it and pull it free.
Once everyone was back in their boats and ready, we continued on. We got out and inspected a couple of rapids, planning our lines, before tackling them one at a time. At one point Derek said we were portaging the next rapid. I hefted my boat onto my shoulder and followed the others, carefully making my way through a moss-carpeted forest. We stopped at the top of some steep slabs of rock and looked at the monstrous cascades of water upstream. Derek pointed out how the separate falls all pushed the water back upstream in a huge stopper, though apparently it was runnable at much higher water. I wasn’t convinced and was glad we avoided it altogether!
We left our boats and walked downriver. We studied the next set of rapids and discussed our line. On returning to our boats, Derek climbed into his and slid down a slab several metres to the river below. I followed, bouncing a couple of times as my boat skimmed the water. We floated downstream a little, then Derek pointed to an eddy. He asked me to stay there and relay his signals. He continued on down the rapid and caught an eddy there.
I passed on his signal for one person to follow. Pete launched off the slab and paddled by, nailing the line with only a couple of strokes. I continued signalling until everyone had ran the rapid, then it was my turn. I took the line the others had demonstrated and reunited with them in the eddy below.
After the next couple of rapids, Barney complained his deck was leaky and had to empty it out. As the water poured out, Tim remarked that it was a lot more than would seep through a leaky deck. Barney rolled his boat round and we could see daylight through a crack in the hull. Fortunately, Derek had a repair kit and managed to patch Barney’s boat.
The last rapid of the day was upon us. Derek explained the line, which involved a couple of eddy hops and culminated in a right hand boof stroke off a ledge. I heard the cheers as Pete and Tim landed successfully. Tom signalled and left his eddy, which Barney took in his place. I was next, so readied myself. I heard the cheer as Tom reached the bottom. Barney signalled to me and left the eddy. I took it and turned to watch as he bounced down the rapid and launched himself off the ledge.
Andy and his group were stood on the bank watching as Barney reached the eddy. Andy signalled and it was now my turn. I broke out of the eddy and paddled hard towards a point just left of the rock we were using as a marker. As the lip of the ledge came into view I recalled Andy’s lesson on boof strokes. I paused paddling and wound up my torso and waited a second to the reach the edge. I planted my paddle and heaved. The front of my boat lifted and even spun slightly to the left. I landed flat on the water below with the characteristic “boof” sound. Success!