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  • Zak Warren

Scotland 2021 Days 5 & 6

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

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.

Day 5

Andy took my group to the River Garry, and we were joined by Liam, John, and Jim. They’d all survived the drops of the middle Etive, with only a dent to the back of Jim’s kayak. This was also the first day where we saw other kayakers, and even several rafts, on the river. Meanwhile, Derek ran a skills session by the Bridge of Oich for Barry, Keith, Kirsten, and Lyn.

For a change, Liam decided to bring out his OC1. We started with a warm up on the outflow from the dam then, with everyone ready, we pushed on downriver and the ran the first couple of rapids. We broke out into an eddy. There a strong, narrow flow bordered by our eddy and another rock and small eddy a couple of metres away. A diagonal wave ran from the top of our eddy to the other, which provided an interesting training ground for s-turns and high crosses.

Andy began by getting us to catch the wave and instructed us on planting a hanging draw on the wave then swapping to a bow rudder once we’re entering the eddy. It was tricky to get the balance right. If I was too low on the wave, it would require several strokes to get into the eddy. If I was too high, I’d overshoot the rock and end up doing a rock spin. Next he got us to focus on rotating our shoulders to point into the eddy, then snap to the other side to break in. This helped me catch the eddy much more reliably. Finally, he told us not to use the paddle and focus entirely on our torso rotation and so our boat’s edge. I liked this a lot and found myself doing it when catching easier eddies for the rest of the week.

The next feature was a big stopper. We pulled into an eddy beside it and watched as Andy paddled into the stopper and surfed for a while. Liam decided to show us how it was done in a OC1, doing a couple of flat spins and rolls. When it was my turn, I tentatively entered the stopper and surfed a little. I edged the boat to one side then the other to get a feel for how it would move. I overdid it on one edge and carved out of the stopper.

Andy demonstrated a couple of flat spins and encouraged us to try. I immediately capsized on my attempt, but managed to roll up. I watched carefully as some of the others gave it a go, to try to understand what they were doing. I paddled in again and surfed for a moment to psyche myself up. Then I edged and put in a sweep stroke to begin the spin. I flipped again, but this time I couldn’t get my roll and ended up swimming. I decided to leave that and only try again when I found a smaller, friendlier stopper.

We soon approached a reasonably sized rapid and Andy called us to the bank to inspect. There was a clear route straight down the middle, but Andy had different plans for us. He asked us to plan a line that would involve catching some of the eddies. He demonstrated taking a central eddy, ferrying to river left to catch another eddy, then boofing over the wave at the bottom. Liam decided to take a couple of eddies on river right, dropping down a narrow channel to meet Andy at the bottom.

We returned to our boats and made our way to the top of the rapid. Andy signalled and Pete approached the rapid. He weaved between rocks then disappeared behind the horizon line. I watched the next couple take their lines, before responding to Andy’s signal. I lined up with my marker and paddled toward it. I crossed the first eddy line and edged hard to snap into the eddy. As I turned to look for my next marker, I felt the boat floating out the back of the eddy. I tried to pull myself back in but the power of the water was too great. I put in a sweep to spin the boat round and go with it, when I ran aground on a rock just below the surface. My boat pivoted on the rock and I found myself facing downstream. I shuffled free of the rock and paddled back onto my line, boofing the stopper, and bouncing down the wave train. I joined Pete and Tim in the eddy at the bottom and watched John and Tom each tackle their lines.

It wasn’t far to go to the get out point. We followed Andy in single file as he led the way down the last couple of rapids. Occasionally he’d pause to get us to try different moves, instead of just blasting straight down.

The river picked up speed as it flowed through a narrow channel. I followed the others into a small eddy half way down this section. There was a little room at the bottom of the eddy, so I broke in there. Before I knew it, my boat was being pulled backwards out of the eddy by the flow of the water. I paddled hard to try to get back in, but it wasn’t enough. I went over the last drop backwards, my boat hit a rock and capsized. I rolled back up to see Lyn and Keith enjoying the spectacle from the bank. The others surfed a wave out to the middle of the channel, carved around, and ran the drop forwards with much more style than me!

After loading up, we said goodbye to Andy, John, and Jim as they were returning home. As for the rest of us, we had one more day of adventure to enjoy.

Day 6

For our grand finale, Derek took me, Barney, Pete, Tim, and Tom to the Spean Gorge. While Liam led Barry, Keith, Kirsten, and Lyn on a trip down the River Oich.

We launched straight into a grade 2 rapid. I broke into the flow, caught a wave and surfed it across the river to avoid a series of rocks, and turned into a deeper channel, riding it to the flat water at the bottom. We regrouped and continued on our way, floating under an old stone bridge.

An island broke the river into two. We followed Derek down the left channel and took an eddy on river right. A standing wave had formed beside the eddy, which was ideal for surfing. We took turns riding the wave, while Derek gave us some coaching to help improve our skills.

The river disappeared over a distinct horizon line, bordered by a sheer rock wall and a rocky ledge. We took turns to enter a small eddy and pull our boats out. The rocky ledge was narrow, so took some time to all balance our boats in a secure place. We climbed over the rocks to inspect the rapid. The approach was shallow and rocky, but there was a clear line to make that fed into a narrow, fast flowing channel with a number of diagonal waves to punch through. Derek demonstrated the line and climbed back up to provide safety, and photography, cover.

We returned to our boats to get ready, having to get in our boats one at a time as there was limited space on the ledge. Pete and Tim each disappeared over the horizon in turn. I slid into the river with Barney and watched where he lined up as he dropped over the edge. Derek signalled and I paddled forward, following the same line Barney had set. I shot down the channel and, recalling Derek’s coaching tip, ensured I planted a key stroke as my boat rode up the front of each wave. The water below the rapid was still flowing at pace. Barney, Pete, and Tim filled an eddy. I attempted to catch one on the other side of the river, but the water boiled up and churned inside it bouncing me away. I had no choice but to carry on and few more metres around a corner, where a large eddy awaited me. However, I’d lost sight of the others. I started climbing out of my boat as Barney came around the corner to check on me. I waved to Derek and the others to let them know I was alright, then watched as Tom ran the rapid and joined us in the eddy.

We slowed as we approached another distinct horizon line. Derek pointed to a tiny eddy and said that it was a “must make” eddy. He went first and got out, hauling his boat up onto the bank above. We then broke into one at a time. Derek grabbed our kayaks to make sure we made, then we’d lift out boats out the way as he signalled the next person. With everyone ashore, we gingerly made our way along a narrow path along the edge of the bank. This opened out onto some rocks where we could clearly see our next grade 4 rapid.

I stared at the maelstrom of water for a moment before Derek asked if I could see the line. I wasn’t sure I could. He pointed at a large triangular rock sticking out on river right and said to stay to the right, aim for that rock, and the flow would take you safely to the bottom. I could see what he was describing, but I was tired after a week of hard paddling, so wasn’t sure if I wanted to run it. Derek looked at me and said “Do it. You can do this no problem. Don’t think about it, just get ready, get to your line, and trust that you can do it.”

I watched Derek and Barney run the rapid, then went to my boat to get ready. Pete launched ahead of me and I watched where he went, just as Derek had described. It was now my turn. I took a deep breath and paddled hard towards the triangular rock. Before I knew it I was there, the flow took me downriver, and I eddied out next to Pete with a sense of great relief.

Soon the river narrowed, the banks became sheer rock walls, and we were in the gorge proper. Here the water behaved strangely. Great boils would erupt at the surface, pushing our boats in different directions. A couple of times a boil erupted over the back of my boat and capsized me. Each time I managed to roll up and bring myself back on course. We took it in turns to lead a section of eddy hopping as the river rushed around a series of tight corners and large boulders.

My section came to the end and I passed the lead back to Derek. He led us all into a large eddy right next to a narrow gap in some rocks, with a very clear horizon line. He climbed out the take a look and declared that the “boof was beautiful”. Pete flew over the edge as Barney gave me some pointers, then launched himself over. Derek signalled and it was my turn.

I paddled hard to build up speed, then paused as I wound up for the boof stroke. I heaved on the paddle as I reached the lip of the drop, experienced a moment of free-fall, then landed with the characteristic boof sound. Water rushed over the tail of my boat and I went vertical before landing upside down. I went to roll, but my deck came off and I ended up falling out of my boat. As I surfaced a line landed over me. I grabbed it and swung out of the main flow, while Barney pushed my boat into the eddy. Derek shouted to let go and I swam the last couple of metres to the shore.

As I emptied my boat, I watched Tom tackle the drop. He landed cleanly, but the water pulled him back and caused him to capsize. He ended up swimming as well, tumbling a couple of times in the swirling waters. Derek threw his line over Tom and hauled him out.

With the river levels rising, and the hole at the bottom of the drop getting stickier, both Tim and Derek decided to portage. With everyone back in their boats, we continued on through the gorge. The river became wider and flatter, while the rock walls fell away and were replaced with steep, wooded banks. We followed a heron for a short stretch, before it decided to fly back over our heads and watch us pass by. A cormorant perched on a branch, as it dried its extended wings, watched us paddle to the get out.

All that remained was to get warm drinks and cake at the local cafe, while Derek gave us some feedback. It had been an incredible last day of the trip, and we were all looking forward to the next one.

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