THE UPPER ROCKS (are hard to avoid!)
Rain is meant to dampen a fire – not rekindle a flame. But it was thanks to the near non-stop pitter-patter of those big fat globs of water in the days running up to our trip that meant I had one of the best paddling experiences I’ve had in a very long time... here’s how I got back into paddling...
Destination: Dart (and Tavy), Devon
Date: 5/6 December 2009
Daring Paddlers: Bunny, Myles, Alan P, Olwen, John M (me) and 300+ other hardcore boaters at the Gene 17 gathering including a few of our own time-to-time BCC brethren.
It had been a miserable week in London, the forecast continued to predict continued ‘heavy rain’ and plummeting mercury as we headed in to the first weekend of December. Frantic last minute emails to bring extra thermals and woolly socks from our trip organiser (Bunny) did not bode well and made me think, not for the first time, why I had agreed to this lunacy when there were Xmas parties a plenty to get drunk at.
Travelling down in Olwen’s car with Alan, we three were the first to arrive at the Dart Country Park on the Friday night, in plenty of time to bagsy a comfy sofa, a pint or two and to flick through the numerous paddle mags laying around. Each of these magazines was filled with the latest gear and photos of kayakers doing some scary things, down some huge drops in shed loads of swirly white watery stuff – great, just what I needed to see, knowing full well that tomorrow might be my first decent down the legendary and much fabled ‘Upper Dart’.
I wasn’t alone in this endeavour; Olwen too was an ‘Upper virgin’, although the better paddler she’d never quite being around or with the right cover to make the descent before... we were both bricking it, but determined. The remainder of our little group, Bunny and Myles, turned up in true ‘team extreme’ style, well ahead of their original TomTom ETA and in time to sink a pint or two themselves – whilst providing the ‘pep-talk’...
Apparently we just needed to “grow a pair”.
The rain that we’d had up to this point was looking promising for some good levels, we decided that a clear(er) head would be better than the usual BCC hangover so, after negotiating a reasonable wake-up time we all headed to our bunks. Tomorrow, the weekend gets serious.
8.05am and we’re all sat at the breakfast table. Shocker.
As it was the Gene17 weekend, the Dart Country Park had been taken over by those with a neoprene, latex and brightly coloured plastic fetish, so even at this ungodly hour we weren’t the only people up tucking into our full English’s and talking about water levels and potential rivers. We were however one of the first groups to kit up and head on out... the adrenaline was a pumpin’!
First stop, the ‘Loop’ get-in at Newbridge, to check the level – this turned into a bit of ‘drive-by-viewing’: swinging into the car park and straight back out again without even getting out of the car. With water a few inches over the ledge, we were good to go, so up towards Dart Meet we went.
Deep breaths, a few whoops and stupid grins from ear to ear for the two Upper virgins in the car... it was a miracle we even made it to the get-in as our car momentarily veered into the curb with excitement. But we did, we were finally doing it.
Whilst we waited for the shuttle, the top car park slowly filled with paddlers... lots of them. Because of the mature of the Gene17 gathering, some of the best paddlers in the country (and beyond) had turned up in Devon. Helped of course by plenty of water and what, so far was a pleasantly dry, sunny and balmy (10C) Saturday morning.
We got on the river among a few rocks and negotiated a ferry glide to the far bank to avoid the salmon spawning areas, this ‘gentle’ manoeuvre helped me focus my mind... the one single thought I had at this time was;
“what the feck are you doing, you’ve not been in a boat more than three times this year... you’re gonna die!”
My thoughts were supported by my rigid posture, square-locked arms and look of sheer fear. But that aside we fell into a laid back grouping, with one of the three better (Upper experienced) paddlers each taking up the lead, middle and rear positions.
The first few hundred yards are reasonably tame and gave my out-of-practice body chance to accustom itself to the alien boat (despite it being my own). All seemed to be going well, looking around we had a nice clear day and Olwen was positively beaming, one of her life’s goals was finally being made possible. It was a good day to paddle.
We then hit water.
Not ‘big’ water, but water that made you have to think and, think constantly. Part submerged rocks, overhanging trees, crafty little switch backs... oh and a couple of blind corners/stoppers. Welcome to the Upper.
Despite following the line of those in front, it was up to each paddler to hold his or her own – pick their own line and take care of themselves. Especially if you’re following a ‘team extreme’ paddler in a creek boat in a smaller river runner with sharp edges through stoppers! Let’s just say my heart was racing. It continued to race as I failed to manoeuvre around the boulder poking from the middle of the flow, pinning myself for 30 or so seconds before working my way clear, in reverse, through the rest of the rock garden.
We’d managed to time our get-on to avoid a huge group of 12+ paddlers in front and another dozen or so behind, so as we approached a blind corner and the tops of trees beyond a horizon line, I wasn’t surprised to see/hear the group in front. We had met them at the first big rapid... or so I thought.
I was the forth in our group to leave the eddy and ferry to river left and pootle on down what I discovered, on approaching, was a drop of about 4ft into a flushing stopper. Bugger. I made it down. Hurrah. Then caught my tail and capsized, botched a roll in the swirls and elegantly left my boat, confused and disorientated, and being pushed downstream at a rate.
I’m staring at a group of paddlers in an eddy that weren’t my own who were shouting ‘swim!’, so I did, and as I made it to the side of the river and got pulled to the bank by a very nice chap, I turn and see what I so narrowly missed... a crashing 6ft drop.
In the time it took me to get my bearings Myles, Alan and Bunny had secured my wayward boat and paddle and were waiting in the pool below for me to walk down. Olwen however was now in the eddy between the two drops and couldn’t see the line the guys had taken chasing my lost gear – sorry Olwen!
In fairness all she could probably see were the guys in the eddy taking it in turns to ram into a rock on the horizon-line, spin and then drop out of sight below, whilst the main waterflow crashes in from the side... now I know why we needed to “grow a pair”. Olwen took the other, less gnarly, line down the centre flow and waited for me to get back in my boat before all five of us headed on down.
My mind is spinning; “Wow, I’d just taken a swim at what must have been a deadly Upper rapid?!” in actual fact this was just a minor drop, not even worthy of a name on this beast of a river, plus we were only about 20 minutes in. Oh Bugger.
It wasn’t long before we hit the next stretch of tight rock garden (literally around the corner, as there is no rest-bite on this river!) and we had to engage all skills to navigate our way down. I successfully found another beauty to plant myself against, only shaking free after two of my companions shook the nose of my boat so that I floated off, backwards into the nearest rock-eddy to right myself and face down river. Almost taking out Olwen in the process – sorry Olwen!
Please repeat-read the previous paragraph a number of times, and then...
I swam needlessly, catching my boat tail in a stopper at the bottom of a 3ft drop, I held in for a few moments setting up for a roll but after my head started smacking the submerged rocks I OBE’d and went topside. Again to a super speedy rescue by the boys – thanks guys, you’re the best safety cover a klutz like me could ask for.
At this point as I got back into my boat I realised that I wasn’t paddling to the skills I was (and should have been) capable of due to my shameless lack of practice in recent months and wouldn’t even bother trying to run the two biggies on the river; Pandora’s Box and Euthanasia. With my mind made up, my fear subsided and I started to paddle better, adopting the Grade 4 style of paddling I was being taught by the guys.
We continued onwards.
To be honest, it’s a bit of haze in which order things came but I recall a daunting narrowing of the river (read: speeding water) around a corner (read: no-clear line) between some sizable boulders (read: huge mothers!) that dropped down into a frothy white cascade... the buzz that followed getting through that was amazing. I believe that might be called ‘Cannonball Run’.
At one stage, through a marathon stretch of continuous dodging and dropping, Olwen got caught by a side current and flipped, only to smack herself in the head with a rogue paddle stroke and then right side herself mid flow and continue through to the eddy below.
Around the next corner we discovered a mass of coloured plastic against the right bank... we parked up to investigate. My first glimpse of Euthanasia in full flow. Bugger, bugger, bugger – I was glad I’d already decided to portage.
I’m going to attempt to describe it, but this won’t convey the true nastiness of what I saw:
1. The 70m lead up to the main fall was a complex maze of stoppers to side wind, each waiting to trip you up before getting to the drop itself
2. There was a small eddy to river right where those who made it were hanging around, waiting for their turn to take the plunge
3. The fall itself looked to be about 12ft (you can look up the real value if you want to!) that diagonals from the middle left to river bank right (about 25ft)
4. Almost directly below is a massive boulder in the middle of lower level of the river
5. All water shoots over the ledge, rebounding off the boulder (and other big rocks) causing a cushion of frothy white water that shoots down the narrow space between boulder and rocky outcrop of bank
6. The space is tight, rocky and full of messy water pummelling through.
[tune in next time to find out if we made it... to be continued (eventually)]