It wasn’t a promising start…
Me: “I was still planning to leave at 1 [pm] on the basis that at least it won’t be dark”.
Perhaps Elise is right. Perhaps it isn’t sensible to leave London for Dartmoor in the middle of a Red weather warning. Storm Eunice. Risk to life from falling trees and flying debris. How will I explain to my mother if I die under a fallen tree on the A303. I’ll look pretty stupid. It wasn’t like I wasn’t warned.
Things I have learnt (1): Eunice means “good victory”.
But I can’t leave at 7 pm when the weather warning has finished. It will be 5 hours to the Dart maybe moor. That is past my bedtime. I can imagine it. I’ll arrive at the edge of the National Park at 1 am In the morning and there will be a tree blocking the entrance. There will be no signal and no hope and I will burst into tears with a car full of newbies and I will throw the car keys in the river and we will die there. No. We will leave at 4 am. Emma P will stay with me overnight and we won’t drink too much Baileys on the Friday evening and Ruslan will walk over at 3.45 am. Perfect.
Things I have learnt: (2) there is a surprising amount of traffic on the Holloway Road at 4.05 on Saturday Morning.
But there isn’t much other traffic on the road. I try to point out Stonehenge to Emma but it is too dark to see, we can’t see Woodhenge either and Strawhenge was definitely taken out in the worst storm for 30 years. I listen to radio 3, presumably this is annoying to the passengers, but it is still a long way and I need to stay awake. 4 hours predicted on the nose. The drive is not very eventful. It is almost pleasant particularly when the day begins to dawn in the East which I can see in my wing mirror. No major tree hazards. One stop at M & S to pick up food because the Morrisons’ order has been cancelled and there is no milk at the farm. Or electricity. This isn’t any generator. This is an M & S generator. That is wishful thinking.
We arrive at Dartmeet at about 8.30 to find an Elise (together with Dan Scott) struggling without wifi and halfway to the top of the snow dusted Moor to find signal. Most of the people are in the accommodation without light or heat or crucially internet of any kind. Elise needs a lift to higher ground and the RiverApp and WhatsApp enabling power of 4G. Most of the leaders are still on the road. There are fewer than planned. Working out the groups is a logistical challenge. We will need to resort to pen and paper and put the groups in a car windscreen. Practically Stoneage.
No one seems keen on the Upper Dart and thank God because I’m far too tired and slightly delirious, but I should be able to lead a group down the Loop for the first time, hopefully not into a tree.
Despite Eunice there the water level is low and there are no tree hazards. There isn’t much action on the loop except for the trip, Ruslan trying out his off-side roll in anger on the first step of Triple Step and a swimmette from one of the group of Spin Dryer (a feature that I had completely forgotten existed). Interestingly the second weir seems to have disappeared and it is a bouncy wave train down to the Country Park which is open. I’m fitter than I used to be it is easier to carry the boat up than before Lock Down.
Luckily, even if the accommodation is without electricity the pub does have some and beer and when signal arrives so do approximately 40,000 messages. Emma and I are so tired we look like we might die. I fall asleep into my lasagna, garlic bread (which I understand is the future) and cheesy chips. I might die tomorrow on the Upper Dart and, whilst I don’t believe in an afterlife, I’m quite confident the calories won’t matter if there is one.
I went to bed at 8 pm and slept through till 7 am. It was almost heaven.
Emma woke up to my complaining in French that French Johann had infiltrated our room. French Johann complained that he couldn’t understand a word I was saying. I then did a lateral flow test in the dark. Roman a new paddler from Castle has had the presence of mind to bring a gas stove of some description so there is tea and someone is finally eating the Triple Choc granola which Jane bought for Scotland and came to the Dart at Christmas. It didn’t to my knowledge get Covid and I didn’t have Covid either. Win.
Things felt a little stressful at Dartmeet, the Upper Dart get on. A newbie had been abandoned at the accommodation as someone thought I was taking her, but in fact Jasmine the Purple Scirocco was already full: of me Ruslan, Emma and a great amount of food for the Tees.
Things I have learnt (3): Jasmine can only take two passengers.
Matt Collins is badgering me about being late to arrive and having some shocking parking, even by my standards. However that is all quite premature as Mark Rowe is nowhere to be seen. He is staying far away in a Travelodge in Exeter and cannot be contacted. This leaves me time to arse about with my (Jane’s on loan) WRSI elbow pads, admired by Seb. It is my, Seb and Adam Brill’s first time on the Upper and Adam’s excitement is palpable as, I expect is my fear. We are waiting for about an hour but at least I have the anxious spirit of Debs with me and a lovely memory of a picture of Benjo in hospital from dislocating his shoulder on Surprise Surprise.
I’m in a group with Birtles, Mark Rowe (who has now arrived), Seb and Elise. The river is Low. 0.7. This is a good condition for a maiden voyage on the river but there will be rocks. The Upper Dart is legendary, long and isolated with a section known as “mad mile”. The advice is not to get on on a river that is rising because the grade can increase dramatically quickly.
Birtles tells us not to be believe the hype. It is a lovely river which I’m capable of paddling. The Loop will never be the same again.
Everything is fine to begin with. The Upper Dart warms you up slowly before the start of many boulder gardens the first of which has pinning potential for the ripper, Elise’s boat, which is duly pinned but not for long. The river gets steeper and the bolder gardens more intense. I’m trying to follow Mark’s line but my Machno is arriving on the line too fast. She isn’t maneuverable enough. At least not with my shoddy back paddling technique. I go over on a ledge which is a bit silly, but I roll back up. Good.
The large boulders just keep on coming. I feel like I am in a kayaking computer game where the bounders are computer generated. As soon as you get round one, there is another, and another and suddenly they are all there at once and you can’t get round them. Mark comments that my rock magnetism (a famous super power of mine) is even better than his. The river descends and there is no line. The one that Birtles and Mark have taken in front of me disappeared magically into the river and was replaced by, you guessed it, at least three boulders. I am sideways on one of them and it isn’t pretty. I lean in but I can’t stop the Machno capsizing and I am stuck on a rock which I shrug off and roll up. Nice.
The river continues in a similar vein. Not entirely continuous at this level interspersed with some chunky features which are less problematic than the rocks but sometimes knock me over. I get back up again another four times. It all seems to merge into one big rapid and roll fiasco. I couldn’t tell you which one was Pin Ball or Lucky Tor but I did notice that it never seemed to end and it was carved into a great valley with brown barren country reaching up above and the wag tails who always seem to follow my paddling. Birtles has her own names for many of the features including a ‘’motor cycle turn’ and ‘carpety slides’ which slowly lead the kayak to a cushion wave which can be menacing in high water but was of limited consequence at these low levels.
Finally we reach Euthanasia one of the two biggest features and I am getting quite stressed by the now six rolls I have taken. It doesn’t feel like my day. I do go and look at the rapid which both Adam and Seb, among others, run. It’s a diagonal wave dropping into a slot. It doesn’t look impossible but it doesn’t look fun either, although neither does the steep portage which was actually quite a lot less hassle than I expected.
Shortly after is Surprise Surprise, which I inspected only to find a ripper (not Elise’s) pinned in the rocks above. We got a tutorial on advance boat rescue including observing how not to throw a line before it was rescued and Elise and I ferried over to undertake a portage.
Things I have learnt (4) and (5): Keep practicing your lines and don’t pin your boat on a tree during a portage.
The tree pin portage debacle meant that Elise had to come looking for me and I missed all the action on Surprise Surprise. There must have been some because Seb’s expression about his trip down the rapid was not positive. Mark Rowe asked me about the geology of the river. I had been rolling so much I must have had a good look at it. Soft I said. A lot softer than the Tryweryn. No concussion. I’d call that a good victory.