River leader assessment

For the first time in months we were heading to North Wales and it was raining. It was raining hard and there was more rain forecast.

Gemma and I were heading up the motorway. Off to Bala to meet up with Hannis and undertake our River Leader (formerly 4 Star) Assessment. We were excited by the idea of getting to paddle something other than the Dee or the Treweryn. Even though were were constrained to a grade 2/3 remit, paddling a new stretch of water is always exciting.

We met the rest of the group at the Rug Estate on a very wet Saturday morning. Three students, our assessor, Alex, who was also being assessed and Hannis. Here we checked water levels, found out our students previous paddling experience and came up with suitable river options. We decided to try the Conwy and if that wasn’t suitable it was a short drive to the Llugwy.

As we were driving to the Conwy the rain kept coming and coming. It was warm and wet, Ideal paddling weather! We arrived at the get-on and went to check the levels. As we looked over the bridge all we could see was a seething boiling brown mess tanking through the trees and round the corner at high speed. It looked fantastic! However, it was too far out of remit for the assessment to even be a consideration. So we got back into the cars and headed further west to Plas y Brenin and the lake which would serve as our get on for the Llugwy.

After getting changed in a very wet and windy lay-by and shuttling we headed down to the lake. Here we had to give a full briefing to the group. This includes kit check, safety brief, medical questions, signalling and answering any questions or concerns anyone in the group may have.

After getting in our boats and onto the water we had a warm up session on a small wave. Myself, Hannis, Gemma and Alex were broken into two groups of two. Two of us would take charge of the students while the other two hung back out of the way. It was here our assessor could observe how we dealt with leading a group down river.

It soon became apparent that we were dealing with pretty high conditions as the river was up in the trees and eddies were small, filled with tree branches and barbed wire fences! Along with the added pressure of being constantly assessed the game was on!

The river starts off easily enough. Meandering through tree lined banks and small relatively simple rapids. This gave us the chance to really watch how the students paddled and their ability to carry out certain crosses and eddy catching ability. However, after a couple of portages the gradient started to drop and the rapids became chunkier and faster in nature.

The river was also rising so we knew any swim would have to be dealt with fast and efficiently. Many of the eddies were quickly become too hard for the students to catch so we often had the whole group moving at once which added to the risk of multiple swims. Luckily this only happened on one occasion and was dealt with quickly.

One group member decided the river was too much for her at this point and opted to walk around the remaining rapids. I spoke to them after and they said it was the hardest stretch of water they had paddled to date. Quite an achievement for all of us I think!

We made it to the get off. The students were all beaming with smiles (even our walker) and had had a great day. We had also had lots of fun but I was also wondering if we had just led them down an out of remit stretch of water. If we had it could cause problems with our assessment.

Day two, and after meeting a different group of students and a new assessor we came up with another paddle plan. Today we would head to the wonderful Dee. Here we would lead the students down the upper section to Horseshoe falls and then they would leave us there. From there the plan was for myself, Gemma, Hannis and Alex to continue on down for the skills based part of the course.

The paddle down to Horseshoe falls was a world away from the first day. The water was still high but the river much wider and deeper. The raids were fun but forgiving and the eddies large enough for twenty people and not a submerged barbed wire fence in sight!

We breezed through this section, waved goodbye to the students and had a bite to eat. From here we were peer paddling. Getting on at Horseshoe we paddled down the route on the left hand side. It was at the bottom of this I unintentionally passed the rolling section of the course by relaxing a little too much in a boily eddy.

We eddy hopped, surfed and crossed our way down to Serpents Tail. It was much higher than usual and the water had covered much of the rocks which we usually use for inspection. However, some still remained and we got out for a quick look. Turns out rivers can change in nature pretty fast! The tail on the feature is now horrific (especially at those levels) – it had changed from a small sticky hole into a huge monster! Our assessor for the day has named it “The Coach Eater” as it has made a few pro coaches swim recently! Most of the group paddled the feature skirting around the hole to the left. I definitely advise this line.

A little bit more surfing and eddy hopping, some throw line practice and we were done!

Arriving back at Mile End Mill we got changed, packed our kit, stopped a Landrover rolling into the river and had a bit more food. We all passed the assessment with flying colours.

I can highly recommend the course for any budding river leaders. The skills and techniques learned are a vital part of safely taking people down a river.

James Mogie

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