Upper Dart, Dart Loop, Walkham and Tavy

So it's always difficult running a club trip to Devon. Accommodation gets booked up so early that you need to plan months in advance, but that means the water levels could be low. No such problem this weekend as six of us set off to Devon amid flood warnings and omens of certain death. This gave us the pick of lots of rivers that can only be paddled in spate conditions.

First thing's first...bunkhouse. It was a disappointing, damp filled, pokey little place that didn't live up to the website's claim of being warm and cosy, and no amount of supposed underfloor heating in the acrid smelling toilets would make up for that fact. My favourite part was when the timer for the lights went out mid-shower, and then just for the hell of it, the shower timer also ran out so I was mid-lather in the dark fumbling around for various push buttons.

Day 1: The Dart - Upper and Loop

Saturday morning gave us a lot of rain and various river gauges showing water levels on fairly steep inclines. We decided on the Upper Dart so I phoned my mum to tell her I loved her and we headed to the get in. Gwyl and Joe headed off to the toilets hand in hand while I huddled under a tree to escape the rain. We eventually launched and the rest is a bit of a blur but included the following:

You get the picture. Sadly we didn't because we were too busy paddling to take any real glory shots. The photos are a bit light on the big stuff and don't really tell the real story... if only we had a flotilla of club GoPro head cams.

We eddied out for a breather and got an interesting message from a group which was behind us. Their lead paddler asked for our group leader. We looked around a bit and then decided on Higgo because at the time he was on the bank with a throw line and looked like he had some authority. They were some locals who said "If you don't get to Euthanasia Falls in the next half an hour you're walking out", mainly because the rising water levels were shortly going to render the whole Upper Dart a raging maelstrom of death. It's amazing what that kind of motivation can provide so we shot off.

Shortly after, the approach to Euthanasia Falls was recognised and Gwyl scouted ahead, got to the lip and pissed himself. After a moment's ponder,on the ledge above the chasm of foaming white horror, Joe, Jen, Liam and Steven took the chicken shoot far left with Gung-ho Joe on point. Meanwhile the Higster actually ran the damn thing with very little fuss and Gwyl found the most entertaining seal launch he could find.

A little later, after we shot a few more exciting rapids, which were really quite bouncy at this point, I took a munching in a stopper just above Surprise, Surprise which Higgo ran with ease, while on the bank Gwyl, once again, dropped his paddles in the foaming white stuff, danced along the bank after them, slipped and fell headlong into the flow.

We lunched under the bridge at the bottom of the Upper, set up Sandwich Station to the envy of fellow paddlers and walkers alike. We took the group 'we survived' photo and we set off to complete the Loop which by now had a lot of water in it. Despite allegedly being the easier section, the volume of water made it rife with whirlpools, strainers and immense wave chains so it wasn't lacking in drama. Gwyl kindly stopped to help some policemen rescue their boat which was pinned mid river. We all got out of our kayaks and within minutes the water level had risen so much (about a foot) that they were being dragged back into the river. Higgo's floated off for a while but Joe managed to recover it in time.

Gwyl's story of the rescue was quite epic. He basically flew through the air, diving for a strainer, swam across to a tree, ran along said tree like a gazelle, fought his way through cannibals and eventually managed to free the boat after which he swam downstream where throw lines were waiting to swing him to safety...or something like that. It was very heroic and the policemen were very grateful as they were about to abandon it as a lost cause.

Gwyl's account

We rounded a corner in the river, which at that point was about 20m wide, to see a stretch of very swift and bouncy white water festooned with fallen trees, islands of shrubbery and a variety of other strainers, eddies and waves. In the middle of this chaos, against a mid r-ver tangle of branches was a small turquoise boat and all along the bank were little groups of concerned looking paddlers. I eddied out next to the distressed vessel, observing gratefully that it was presently unoccupied. Unfortunately I was unable to get get close enough to free it because there was a jet of water between ripping right into the strainer beside the doomed little tub. I shrugged to the guys on the bank... not much I can do, sorry. I broke back into the racing main flow off down stream but had a change of heart, it looked like a fun challenge.

We all eddied out downstream and I wandered up to talk to the group. It turns out that they had tried wading out on ropes but couldn't get close. A bit of pondering and a "What the hell?" later I found myself balancing my way to the middle of the river on a fallen tree with no rope, because as my logic went, "it would just get in the way" (apparently prompting the phrase "Live baiting without a rope? That's not live baiting, that's suicide!" from Jen). Once mid river with torrents of fast moving water left and right I gathered my thoughts, planned my route over rocks, trees and shrubbery (there was a nice two level effect with a fast flow between... Ni!) and dove in the stopper above the higher shrubbery, hitting the jet below I was swept onto the branches and clambered onto them out of breath and pondering that I may have bitten off more than I could safely masticate... But there was no choice, I plunged once again into the barrage of freezing water as it blasted past, this time holding onto the branches that trailed in the water to hold myself against the flow. I worked my way, hand over hand down the branch. Just as my strength was failing and the conversation about head-down entrapment being "a bad thing" flitted and spluttered through my mind in a shower of adrenaline and pre-hypothermia fueled splashes I felt rock against my foot and as I let go of the branch I was swept upright and onto the boat.

I emptied the boat a bit and sent it off down the river to be rescued later. Now, having achieved my goal I considered my position... mid river, on the dart, in spate, the energy of the water whippin it past on both sides, a terrifying wave chain on the right and sucking, clawing strainers on the left. I recalled my confidence on the bank "What will you do when you get there?", "Oh' I'll just jump in". With a thought much akin to "Ah, bollocks to it." I jumped into the waves and was momentarily stunned by the acceleration and turmoil... "Feet downstream! Feet on the surface! Arse up!" or somthing like that... The thought of refusing the offer of a line from the bank was quickly discarded as I realised that I may well be lacking the strength to swim a breakout into the eddy... The line landed... bloody miles away but I soon caught up and gripped it with all my failing strength and swung into the eddy. In exhaustion I prematurely released the line and bumped along the bank, flailing in internal desperation but externally I was pathetically flapping my arms at passing vegetation. After stupidly refusing Jen's offer of a rope I finally came to rest in the shallows and crawled slowly out.

Back to Jen in the studio

Then, just as we thought the drama was over we came to a bizarre barrage of water, full of stoppers, waves and boiling eddy lines. Joe took a beating as he was violently capsized on the crest of every wave, rolled up in the trough only to be hammered by the next, eventually he emerged upright but very pink. Amusingly enough this whole ordeal was observed by Gwyl who was bobbing along backwards laughing and grinning, mostly at the epicness of the waves, but, he has to admit, partly at Joe's unfortunate predicament. He's laughter was cut short as he realised that, having failed to put his bung back in earlier he was sinking, a rather exciting situation in waves higher than you are.

We watched from the swirling eddy as various rescues were performed on kayakers behind us, including for an open canoeist who we awarded bravery points to just for trying. Suddenly the realisation that Liam was absent dawned, and was then snapped into sharp focus as his boat sped past upside down being battered by the waves. Fortunately it was rescued and upstream Liam was observed staggering from the water beside the mother of all gnashing stoppers. It transpired later that he had been dragged back into it by the massive swirling eddy. Caught, he was spun many times in his boat, bailed and remained in the churning water despite trying to swim out, watched over by Steven who was powerless to assist because he was fighting the same powerful eddy. Fortunately there happened to be a guy who appeared from nowhere and threw the now terrified Liam a line.

More fun ensued down to the get out, where we eventually arrived with very big smiles on our faces and quickly stuck Stephen in a group shelter as he was fairly hypothermic. Gwyl, Joe and I waited in the wendy house in the playground out of the rain while the shuttle was performed with speed. Once home, we went to the pub for a warming dinner, met some lovely Reading Uni kayakers, and retired to the bunkhouse to dissect more of the day's paddling and get some sleep (in the hope Liam wasn't going to be snoring like a trooper).

Day 2: Walkham and Tavy

Aching and tired, we awoke on Sunday to find it wasn't raining, but this didn't last long. Joe aquired some information from the Reading folks about potential rivers to paddle and we decided on the Walkham and Tavy. Nothing was going to beat the previous day's paddling but since we were tired and aching we thought it was sensible to do something less challenging so opted for a 3+ run which took us under and over fallen trees, and eventually around them too. Joe, Gwyl and Liam all seal launched off the main tree blocking the channel which was good to watch and we eventually made our way to the slot drop which we ran a few times for some diversion.

If you look through the photographs there are a couple of closeups of Gwyl, these were taken while he was rafting down a bumpy section with Joe... Gwylim observed a large rock downstream of the joyous raft, of which Joe (in his role as intrepid photographer) was entirely oblivious of, thinking they would miss it hung on until it was upon them and at the last minute pushed Joe... into the rock (the intention was to push him around but it failed). With only one hand on his paddle and the other on the camera Joe flailed and pitched skyward and sideways in a spray of water and limbs Joe was overturned, the look of betrayal and terror on his face burned into Gwyl's retini as their eyes locked for the briefest of lingering moments as he was sucked into the freezing water. Fortunately it wasn't too deep and he was able to punt off the river bed and resurfaced, camera in hand. Thanks to Joe for making the camera a priority despite being upside down.

The Walkham eventually met with the confluence of the Tavy and widened out. Luckily the wave trains remained big enough to keep us entertained and after a little while we eddied out at the bridge which was our get out. Sandwich station took place under a shelter for Liam so that his bread didn't get soggy, and we loaded up for home.

Hopefully more awesome paddling to come.

- Jen, contributions by Gwylim

Photos by Jen.