The Upper Roy valley. Liza, Hannis and Sean.

Kate B reports on the Regents 2014 trip to Scotland.

By the time the Regent’s Scotland 2014 paddlers assembled in the car park at the get-on for the River Nith in we were already two cars down. The long trip from London up to Dumfries had been quite eventful, but at least we had conclusively proved that anything can be fixed by gaffa tape (if you use enough), up to and including a Ford Fiesta.

River Nith

It had been raining heavily all night. The Nith was running at an intimidating 5 on the gauge and looked bank full and swift. Despite the fact that at least half the group had paddled it the year before, everyone seemed to be suffering from a curious memory wipe and no one could remember much about it, other than that it hadn’t been anything like as high and that there was a gorge in there somewhere.

We had plenty of time to get nervous looking at it as we all milled around in the car-park, but there was no need, it turned out to be a gorgeous river, the perfect first-day paddle. It was picturesque, black and full of boils that threw you in unexpected directions. The flow was continuous and interesting but there was nothing too scary. If there was a gorge I didn’t notice it. To be honest, that’s all I can remember… Nith-amnesia has already set in!

When we got off we finished the long drive up to our accommodation in Fort William where we performed a vast furniture re-organisation effort in order to be able to squeeze in places at the tables for all 24 of us. It was cosy but we made it work. Sean and Hannis cooked a delicious risotto which we ate in a contented atmosphere of steam and alcohol.

Lower Roy, River Spean and Upper Roy

On Sunday we set off for the traditional first run of the Lower Roy. It had rained all night so the levels were excellent and we flew down it, enjoying continuous bouncy rapids and long wave trains.  A couple of groups had some excitement at one particularly hungry hole, but everyone made it down in one piece. Rather than get off at Roybridge we carried on down the following Grade 2 section to the confluence with the Spean.

This plan to extend the paddle and get the most out of the river seemed like a good idea in the warmth of the house, but much less so when I found myself paddling on flat water with a driving head-wind flinging the rain into my face in freezing handfuls, and nothing to look forward to in the way of rapids except for a monstrous weir at some undefined point ahead. Still, I suppose all that forward paddling was good for me.

Relieved to be finished with the  Spean some of us decided the Upper Roy would be worth a look. The Upper Roy is at the far end of a beautiful winding road which humps and curves its way along the edge of the lovely Glen Roy. I had paddled it for a few brief but exciting minutes the previous year on the occasion of the infamous Halloween Carnage when we had to exit the river half way down after losing four boats, so I was wary of the levels which looked pretty high and decided that it wasn’t for me.

Liza Upper Roy

Liza on the final drop of the Upper Roy

I helped with the shuttle instead and Liza, Aisling and Krzysztof swept down it with style, particularly from Liza who performed a magnificent endo at Rooster Tail just to show the others where the line wasn’t. They all got off buzzing and saying what a perfect level it was, making me horribly envious.

The Pattack and a return to the Upper Roy

On Monday we went to attack the Pattack, a longer drive but worth it. After the traditional 45 minute inspection of the lower rapids we finally made it to the get-on and those of us not shuttling got to manhandle our driver’s boats down the medium-sized cliff to the water. I was in a group with Greg, led by Benjo and Ed A who managed to get us down with no drama in spite of their monstrous hangovers.

This year the Gods of the River Pattack reaped their annual toll on Regent’s in the form of Mogie, who communed with the River Spirits (i.e. swam) on the first of the last trio of rapids. We expect great things from his paddling now that he has been so Blessed.

After the Pattack a few of us went back to the Upper Roy – it really is a lovely road – and I finally got to paddle it from beginning to end. It was low but charming, and I was pleased to be able to say I’d done the whole thing at last even though I got flipped on the last rapid. The evening was filled by a Tiki party organised by Sean. I did not know what a Tiki party was before this, but it involved fajitas, fireworks, some eye-watering Hawaiian shirts, a chilli-eating contest, sparklers and Benjo in tights and a blonde wig.

Sparklers with Kate, Sean and Christine

Alt Cam Ghlinne

Tuesday was a day off for some. Sean tried to expand our interests by organising a tour of a whiskey distillery and did his best to convince us that Fort William was full of non-kayak related delights. Nevertheless a fairly substantial group still turned up in the morning for the river meeting.

It had rained all night again and most of the rivers were up up up. We took a chance on driving to the Etive, with a vague plan of paddling the Lower if the usual stretch was too high.

It was definitely too high. A fat boiling mess of whiteness that was fascinating to stare at but totally unthinkable to paddle. Apparently half the usual drops were hidden somewhere in the clouds of foam. We mooched our way down to the get-on for the Lower but when it came down to it no one felt much like paddling it. I suspected I would be in for another Spean-like experience, plus it ends with a long slog across a loch, possibly not the best plan what with the weather warnings and everything.

Ian then suggested an Etive trib. The description he read out from UK Rivers sounded good – a twenty minute walk up to a mixture of grade 3 and 4 drops, perfectly runnable when the Etive is too high. We piled back into the cars to drive back up the valley.

Glen Etive is beautiful, but bleak. I was quite cold after spending too long staring at the Etive and the whiskey tour was sounding more and more appealing. The trib, when we identified it, was called the Alt Cam Ghlinne and lay on the far side of the River Etive. It looked distant and steep. Ian was filled with enthusiasm and did his best to instil a spirit of wild adventure in the rest of the group, to psyche us up for what he called ‘proper kayaking’.  He said, it will be different. He said, it might be a Regent’s First Descent! (it wasn’t as it turned out). Don’t worry, he told me – it probably isn’t as hard as it looks once you get up close. (When, in kayaking, has this ever been true??)

His enthusiasm propelled us out of the car and into our kit, with the exception of Annie, who opted to go for a walk instead, proving once and for all that she is a woman of great good sense. And so we ferried our boats across the Etive and began the long walk up the hill beyond. On the plus side, as Christine pointed out happily, there was no shuttling to be done.

The one good thing that can be said about lugging a kayak uphill across rough moorland is that it doesn’t half warm you up. The Alt Cam Ghlinne was beautiful – tumbling, rocky, clear. We skirted it doubtfully. I don’t know who wrote the description on UK Rivers but their idea of Grade 3 rapids is in no way the same as mine. There would be short stretches that looked fairly reasonable but they all seemed to end abruptly with something nasty.

Alt Cam Ghlinne

Alt Cam Ghlinne

Dragging our kayaks, we toiled on across the wind-blasted heath. Eventually there was a sort of mutual acceptance that it definitely wasn’t going to get any easier further up no matter how far we went, so we picked one of the less intimidating stretches and doggedly began to get on. It was a short stretch of fairly bony water with a must-make eddy at the bottom before the first little patch of hideousness so we split into two and one half of the group did safety for the other half. We did try to be efficient but it still took ages.

Watching everyone go before me I had plenty of time to note the small but surprisingly sticky stopper a few metres from the get-on, so it really was inexcusable that when at last I got on myself, I skittered wildly across the rocks for a few metres, immediately got knocked off line and dropped right into it sideways. I braced desperately for about a minute before succumbing to my fate and the shortest, shallowest, most ignominious swim of my paddling career so far. Shortly after that the drizzle turned into sleet.

In the hope of finishing this trip report some time before I die, I’ll sum up the next few hours. With grim determination we worked our way downstream. I didn’t get on again as somehow it didn’t seem quite worth it. Instead Olga and I stood waist-deep in the next must-make eddy for a while catching boats in the hope of speeding things up, wondering vaguely when hypothermia would set in and how we would know when it had. Better paddlers than me ran some of the nastier looking drops, and all managed to get stuck excitingly, each in a slightly different way, apart from the magnificent Aisling who has a new boat and is now completely unstoppable.

Every now and then the clouds would break unexpectedly and a few shafts of sunlight would light up the sweep of the valley in gold, redeeming the day. For a while a rainbow floated right overhead.

Eventually we made it to the bottom and ferried back across the Etive to tie the boats back on the cars with raw faces and numb hands. Luckily no one had to cook that night, as we were all eating at the Ben Nevis Inn where I refuelled with vegetarian haggis and red wine and tried to convince the others what an amazing time they’d missed out on.

Spean Gorge

On Tuesday night it finally stopped raining for a while. This meant that on Wednesday the levels had dropped a bit so we hastened to the Spean Gorge to make the most of it. Despite being the first to get on the river my group was the last to set off, as poor Debs set a new Regent’s record by injuring herself a few metres from the get-on. It was horribly unlucky but with two deeps cuts on her hand and some nasty bruising around the knuckle it didn’t seem like a good idea for her to go paddling into the gorge, so we had to patch her up and leave her behind.

I will admit to being indecently excited about finally having the chance to put some of my Wilderness First Aid skills into practice in the Wilderness of the Spean Bridge Café Car Park. Luckily she was a very stoical patient. Ed and Colin shuttled down her dry clothes, but having to leave her there all disappointed took a bit of the shine off the day.

The Spean is a lovely river, one of my favourites. We paddled over dreaming black water studded with drifting golden leaves, past ruinous bridges and tangled forests. Despite our late start Benjo, Ed, Mogie, Colin and I soon caught up with the others, and in fact we actually overtook another non-Regent’s group who we found standing in an anxious huddle on the bank of Fairy Steps.

The Spean Gorge

Taking a sneak route around the ‘Constriction’ in Spean Gorge

We came, we inspected, we ran it, and hopefully they were reassured by watching our performance. I for one demonstrated that even if you do an accidental 180 and drop into the biggest stopper backwards everything can still work out more or less OK. We left them there on the bank, gazing after us, awed (I like to think) by our faff-free efficiency. Ben made me swear to mention this in the trip report as it’s a Regent’s first!

We caught up with the rest of the group shortly after that. Mel and Aisling obligingly provided safety for us and I’m afraid to say we leapfrogged them shamelessly to be third off the river. But the most hilarious moment of the day was watching the go-pro footage afterwards and seeing Krzysztof and Beata’s gloriously inept attempt to get a throwline to Greg from the top of a rock. The clip ends with Beata doing a flying nosedive while poor Greg drifts away in the distance.

Back to the Upper Roy, and the Loy

On Thursday it was high time for the whole group to make the long pilgrimage up the twisting road that seems to lead nowhere but the Upper Roy. This time the many-faced Upper Roy was running at a strong medium, a swift conveyor shooting us down between high banks and rocky outcrops over continuous bouncy wave trains to the final rooster-tail rapid. It seems to be a river that changes completely depending on the level you paddle it at, and secretly I’d really quite like another chance to run it in spate.

A hardcore group of paddling experts consisting of Christine, Matt, Tokie, Krzysztof and of course, Aisling, had decided that it was time, at long last, for Regent’s to run the Roy Gorge. They disappeared off into the gloom of the gorge and that was the last anyone heard of them for about five hours. Meanwhile a slightly less hardcore group consisting of me, Liza, Beata, Reuben, Ben and Colin, with Paul Watham acting as shuttle-support went to check out the Loy.

The Upper Roy valley. Liza, Hannis and Sean.

Liza, Sean and Hannis in the Upper Roy valley

A road runs right next to the Loy for the whole stretch so you can easily inspect the rapids as you drive up – the trick is then getting them in the right order and remembering the line for each of them. It’s fairly short, only about 2k long altogether and the first kilometre is fairly straightforward. All the excitement happens in the second half where there are four relatively significant rapids in quite quick succession.

The guidebook dismisses these nonchalantly as ‘a series of drops’, which I don’t think does them justice at all, so, for ease of discussion post-river, Beata suggested we give them names. The Loy was running quite high and looked fast with few eddies so we decided to paddle it in two small groups of three. This plan didn’t work at all – by the time we’d got to the first rapid we’d already merged into a single mothergroup and things quickly began to fall apart.

The first rapid we named The Kettle, because of the eddy full of mad, frantically boiling water just next to the drop. It looked intimidating but I can confirm that it was in fact rather cushiony and forgiving, having run it on my head after doing the classic trick of just missing the eddy right above, slipping out the back of it, sliding into the rapid backwards and falling in. Luckily it spat me right out and I was able to roll up at the bottom.

Colin on the other hand styled the rapid taking the perfect line to the right to snick past the cauldron of doom, only to get taken out by a boil at the very end. Unluckily his roll was foiled by a badly-placed rock which he hit at just the wrong moment, and I’m afraid that was the end of that. Beata and Ben went haring off after his boat over the next rapids, with very little sense of self-preservation.

That left Liza on her own to cope with leading myself and Reuben down the next couple of drops to catch up. Liza was feeling a bit under the weather, thought she might be coming down with something, possibly, in fact, pneumonia, and hadn’t really wanted to paddle all that much in the first place. I’m happy to say that between us Reuben and I provided her with a thrilling range of rolls, swims and near tree-entanglements to sort out, just to keep her on her toes and stop her getting complacent.

In this way we made it down The Devourer (so called because of the recirculating stopper which gobbled up Reuben) and the Trident (because of the three-pronged drop, one consisting of a monstrous churny shoot, one blocked by a tree and one with an inconveniently placed branch you had to snick past). The Wath was our White Knight speeding along the bank in his car, shuttling dripping paddlers up and down at crucial moments as we tried to reunite boats, paddlers and paddles and generally work out where everyone was and what was going on.

Eventually we managed to reunite the remains of the group and continued together to the last of the four main rapids, which is now to be known as Stump Falls because of the large and friendly eddy that lies just above it in midstream behind an enormous old tree stump. This eddy was so appealing it enticed all four of my leaders into it. Unfortunately you couldn’t see the line from it, and you couldn’t really get out of it either. I was safely tucked into a little eddy of my own upstream (I was giving Beata’s ‘Stop’ signals instant obedience by this point) and watched with my arms folded as they milled around in there for ages. Luckily by this time Colin, resplendent in head to toe orange, was on the bank to point them in the right direction.

I thought it would be a bimble after that but it wasn’t, there were still some significant churns, chutes and stoppers to be coped with before we could haul ourselves onto the bank at the end. I might be making it sound slightly more dramatic than it was. Really, really fun day’s paddling though. Benjo’s throwline was nowhere to be seen afterwards, but he had a call a week later from a bemused walker on the Caledonian Canal offering to return his ‘bag of rope’!

Roy Gorge

The really hardcore crew made it safely out of the Roy Gorge after four hours of epic paddling in rising levels. This trip report is already far too long and I wasn’t there so I won’t try to go into detail but it sounds like they successfully paddled it at a pretty high level. I heard different reports from the people who were there: ‘It was gorge-like’ (from Krzysztof) to ‘It was mind-altering’ (from Ian) to ‘I was just hanging on in there really, to be honest!’ (from Matt).

Ian in the Roy Gorge

Back to the Pattack, the Loy and the Gloy

And then it was suddenly Friday. Most of the group went for a final second-run down the Pattack, apart from a few who’d missed out on doing the Loy the day before and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Apparently Christine, Ian, Krzysztof, Ralph, Ben and the Don made very easy work of it (though I’m sure the levels must have been much lower!) Then they went on to the Gloy, which seems to be often discussed alongside the Loy but rarely run.

They report that it’s excellent, slightly longer and more feisty than the Loy and definitely one to add to the Regent’s list of regulars. I would be jealous if I hadn’t already had such a good week’s paddling I can’t really find it in myself.

Christine on one of the harder drops in the Gloy

And that was it. Huge thanks to everyone for everything they did to keep the whole show on the road – all the drivers, leaders, boat-chasers, throwline-throwers, cooks, washer-uppers, recycling gurus, river planners, obsessive quartz-checkers, to Olga and Debs for keeping me so diligently fed and watered with good red wine and blue cheese and not complaining when I left the skylight open and caused a very peculiar smell to emanate from the damp patch on the floor of our dorm, and of course especially to Sean for organising the whole thing so well. It was a great trip and I’ll definitely be back for more next year.

In the meantime, see you on the Dart!

Kate B

Final pool of the Pattack

Images by Krzysztof and Hannis