Normally a trip to the Scottish highlands around Fort William at this time of year doesn’t seem to bring much rain. This year was different providing a good mix of low volume steep creeking and big water punch and pray hole running.
Sharon and I joined up with the students from Reading University Canoe Club for their annual Scotland trip and had a great trip paddling and leading them down some of our favourite Scottish classics.
The week started with a long drive (by UK standards) from Reading to Roy Bridge (near Fort William) – with car trouble making sure we didn’t leave until late Friday evening. Stopping overnight part way, we joined up with the group as they were putting on to the Middle Spean. A low water bump took us down to the big fall and then we carried on into the Spean Gorge. It’s one of my favourite rivers, and I love how the rapids vary every time you run it due to variation in water level and it was a good low level which made all the rapids quite technical but not too frantic. The last run of the week would be completely different.
A couple of low water days saw us paddle the Arkaig, Spean Gorge, Upper Tummel and then the Middle Etive. The Tummel was great to return to – it’s been 6 or 7 years since I was last there, and most of the group had never paddled it – it’s always good to introduce people to new rivers. With this river and the scout of the Allt Feith a Mhoraire later in the week, I’ll certainly be paddling out East more on my next trip. The Middle Etive is always the source of lots of stories and fun, as is only to be expected when you guide a group of new paddlers down a steep Scottish river with a series of large drops on it. Unfortunately the weather was very cold that day which took it’s toll on the group, prevented some people from paddling and put pay to any idea of showing off our favourite tribs. The Clachaig, as always, provided a good place to warm up and show off our amazing pool skills.
Following the Etive with a half rest day, we paddled the lower Roy and happily managed to demonstrate the fun of trib-bashing which a hike into the Ionndrainn. That’s when the heavens opened. Fresh snow overnight which was washed away by the rain on Thursday morning gave us a dilemma about what to paddle. We opted for the Orchy, since it was the last full day most people had and they didn’t want to miss out on a river they’d heard so much about. It turned out to be too high and the lower section didn’t quite fulfil expectations. We made up for that with a fun blast down the Loy on the Friday before most of the students headed off to the National Student Rodeo and the few of us left headed up into the mountains to the East of Roy bridge, off the A86. We had a lovely drive up a long single track road with hundreds of deer all around and then a hike through pine forest to a beautiful old stone bridge from 1750. The river – the Allt Feith a Mhoraire – (described as Classic Californian bed rock slides by the SCA guidebook) was too high, but the drive was really worth doing anyway.
Our final day paddling on this Scotland trip saw me paddling a new section of river – the Spean from below the Monessie gorge with a couple of guys we knew who just happened to be at the put in. This was an awesome big water run reminiscent of some of the Austrian greats. I met the others who had sensibly opted for a more manageable run on the Ionndrainn and Lower Roy at the confluence and headed down the Middle Spean in the best water level I’d seen it at. Eddies were few, but once we past the burnt out woollen mill at Spean Bridge and got into the gorge, we discovered how good they had been – the rapids in the Spean Gorge were all washed out, making it a quick trip down with few eddies. I was glad it was a small group and that no-one swam, despite a few missed eddies.
We started the week with a low water run on the Spean and finished in the biggest water conditions I’ve paddled in Scotland. Very good fun. The task now is to plan the return trip in September.