Scotland - New Year 2004

Warmth is the Work of the Devil

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A very thin line. Miniscule in fact. Maybe even thinner than that. So you’d better fall on one side of the line or another, else I can imagine some rather nasty wedgy related consequences.

pleasure pain
good idea absolute madness
hungover violently sick
go kayaking go for a beer

All of us were pondering which side of what line we’d arrived at as we stared at the first of four biggish drops on Allt A’ Chaorainn, a small burn in the bonny highlands. The temperature was -4ºC. I could have doubled the flow if I went for a pee. In places the stream was entirely frozen over so we could walk across it. We even tried jumping up and down in the middle. And we were thinking of kayaking it. I feared we’d passed some sort of line a long time ago. But here was the trick – it was steep. Like a big slide, really. And we all know how much fun slides are…

Tell kayakers that a river’s steep, and the next thing you know they’ll have shouldered their boats and be off walking to the top. If the map shows all the contour lines start getting friendly there too, they’ll be running. Impelled by forces beyond our control we found ourselves in damp paddling gear and sub-zero temperatures avoiding ice pillars down rapids such as ‘Pinball’ and the ‘The Slot’ on that wee Scottish burn. It was freezing, there was no water, and it was awesome. I think we might have to forget thin lines altogether and make large grey patches instead. What sort of shape we’re talking about I haven’t the faintest idea…

The concept had been simple. Scotland has some of the finest and steepest creeking in the UK, we lazy students have holidays over Christmas, and the weather and water levels we’ll have to leave to Lady Luck. Sounds great, and despite mild frostbite, it was. Turning concept into reality saw a group of us at the put-in to the River Orchy at a quite simply ridiculous hour in the morning. I think I might well have been asleep still, but I have vague recollections of loads of people running around half naked trying to struggle into as many thermals as physically possible. Quite disturbing really. With the light only holding out to about half three in the afternoon, our ingenious plan for the week was to get up really early in the morning, get as much paddling in as possible, and call it a day fairly early in the evening. A lifetime’s habit of drinking till late is a hard one to break however, especially when the pubs seem to stay open for ever, and it was matchsticks all round by the time we returned to London.

The temperature of the river water soon woke us up, and it was worth being awake for. Its mostly pool-drop grade III/IV, and our hardened Glaswegian Claire (honestly) introduced us to the idea that rapids are for paddling, pools are for swimming. She had it down to a fine art – paddle the rapid, swim at the bottom, get back in boat just in time for the next one. Soon, others were following her example, with Ruth in particular excelling herself by, in addition to swimming, finding large sharp rocks to bash her head on. In kayak | out of kayak seems a simple line (or grey patch) to me. I followed the example of my fellow southern-softies and let out a small girly scream every time the water splashed my face instead. There were a couple of bigger grade IV/V drops along the way too, which a few of us had a pop at with varying degrees of success, but thankfully not a single girly scream due to the watching eye of the video camera. Glyn was even sucking in his stomach as he paddled over the lip. Washboard. Or was it tea-cup?

The next day, fortified and all the better for extensive consumption from the booze bucket the night before, we made it to the Spean Gorge. With Alice, Paula and Ruth off the river on a girly quest for new and exciting implements to bash people’s heads with, it was a diminished group that braved the water. A committing grade III run in a fairly tight gorge led down to the feature rapid ‘Head-banger’. With our expert in this area off the water, we still managed to find a variety of decent lines. And luckily no pools, so no swimming from Claire. We had enough daylight to paddle the Arkaig after, which was a quick one shot wonder. Tim, of course, had ‘paddled this before’ and ‘knew where the line was’. Funny then that when I went ahead as video bunny for the main drop, he carefully described a line that took me into a rather hefty pourover, and then everybody else came down the other side of the rapid. I remain suspicious, but enjoyed chatting to the dudes that live on the river bed anyway. They even offered me a cup of tea, but I had to refuse as by this point was running out of breath a little.

The Etive was lined up for day three, but we got there to find the river frozen over and not really an option. With some rebellious types off snowboarding instead (no dedication) and some electing to walk, it was in the end only three of us who found ourselves in paddling gear staring at the Allt A’ Chaorainn wondering quite what we were doing… Ah, I remember, we were doing steep stuff. What fun.

After our highly cold exertions my eyelids simply couldn’t open the next morning. I refuse to believe this had anything to do with extensive playing of ‘Mess of Death’ the night before, and attribute it instead to a curse from the riverbed dudes because I didn’t drink their tea. In future I’ll take a bigger breath before going anywhere Tim tells me to. With water levels still dropping the early crew didn’t have much luck finding a river, much to my smug satisfaction. After a romantic stroll by the lake with a lovely Irish lady in howling gale force winds, we all eventually convened in the local sauna for the afternoon. Some of us nearly didn’t realize until too late that warmth is the work of the devil, but we just about managed to make it to the cold flume ride back into the swimming pool before being seduced by the warm side… With the day being new year’s eve, which “doesn’t come round every year” [Tim], some sort of party was in order. Going to a local ceilidh was a good option. Equipped with glow-sticks and absolutely no idea how to ‘strip the willow’ I fear we may have caused carnage on the dance floor - but possibly carnage is what a ceilidh is all about anyway.

Not sure who’s brain-child it was to get up early on New Year’s day, but it must have had something to do with the fact that it had started to rain heavily during the foggy mist that were my memories of the night before. Thus at 7.30am seven kayakers were staggering around like eejits at the get-in to the lower Coe. With the water up and still raining, it was a quality but fast run, and well worth the stomach churning journey. No rest for the wicked either, as it was back to pick up everybody else for a paddle down the upper Roy. Miniature icebergs joined us in the descent of the river. Before the gorge most crawled off the river muttering something about hangovers… The strong, proud and ill-fated carried on down the gorge section. First Ralph had a tumble (‘deck popped’, translation ‘I spooned and swam’) and decided to walk out to the road. Further down Mark swam and had a long chat with the riverbed dudes. He had not only tea but biscuits and a good slug of whisky with them too. With his boat and paddles taken by the river dudes when he couldn’t pay for his whisky, he ended up walking out to the road too.

The next day was our last day on the water, and after the ‘cleaners’ ran a quick boat and paddle retrieval run down the Roy gorge, we all headed to the Etive again. It was running at a perfect level, and is a fantastic grade IV waterfall run. No technique required, merely an urge to paddle off the top of large drops. With everyone on the water running the final 6m drop at the end of the run, it was a great way to round off the trip!

Photos still to be orginised, but for now, you can see some on Theo's homepage

This trip report was written to appear in the sports section of felix. Makes a change from football! ....But if you're thinking this lacks some of the gorey details Tim has prepared a detailed muppetry audit (23kb word doc)

new year 2004