GUIDE TO THE RIVER DEE
(Horseshoe Falls to Llangollen Town Weir)
NAME OF RIVER: Dee (or Afon Dyfrdwy if you're Welsh...)
WHERE IS IT?: It flows from Bala lake into a beautiful valley parallelled by the A5 for much of the way. There is a pleasant easy stretch above the one described here.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: Put in above or below horseshoe falls, this is located just above Chain Bridge hotel on the true river left side. There's a free car park with toilets (that hardly ever open) where you can park and get changed. Walk down towards chain bridge and up the canal to horse shoe falls. Take out is 200 meters after town falls (under the bridge in Llangollen town) on river left. You'll see some steps leading out of the river and to a car park.
The other option is to park at Mile End Mill/ Factory falls/ Nomads/ Tombstones (depending on how long you've been paddling) and either stay there on the play features or do a loop using the canal. MEM is located on the A5 just before you get into the 30 zone in Llangollen if your coming from Corwen.
APPROX LENGTH: 2.5 miles.
TIME NEEDED: 15 minutes in a wild water race, otherwise at least an hour or more for playing.
ACCESS HASSLES: Currently (2013) not bad. As of 2004 there was no recreational access to the Dee so the WCA (now CW) advice paddlers to make their own decision about the river - this means paddle the river at your leisure with due environmental sensitivity. Paddlers, canoeists and rafters seem to be a lot more tolerated by local land owners and fishermen. The tourists love seeing people go down town falls.
You are requested to pay at Mile End Mill for use of the car park and site, usually around £4/5 to the cafe or coaching centre. In early summer 2013, the buildings on site fell down so everything has closed apart from the car park and the river so paying is difficult.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: You can paddle this section of the Dee at any level (in between empty and Deebezi levels, it all goes).
There's a gauge at MEM, the lowest you'll ever see it is 2 which makes a great introductory level. Anything above 8 is considered medium, and when the gauge isn't there - that's high. The gauge is based on an island in the middle of the flow, sometimes the island isn't there - that's Deebezi levels.
Looking up from the bridge in Llangollen, if it looks stepped with rocks showing - that's low. If no rocks are showing in the channel then around medium. If the river is wall to wall full, then it's between high and Deebezi.
The Dee takes a while to fill up, usually comes up the day after rain and stays up for a good few days afterward.
GRADING: Mostly grade 3 depending on water level with some sections of Grade 4 (Serpent's Tail and Town Falls). The river can be run in low water by relative novices to WW paddling, given appropriate leadership and portaging. In high water it's an entirely different story, needing skill and experience to enjoy safely.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: Three weirs - Horseshoe falls, broken weir on the right hand channel of MEM, broken weir next to the get out after Town falls.
Many people run Horseshoe falls at low levels but anything around or above medium then the tow back becomes rather dangerous... and big, you can't reach this weir with a throwline. An alternative route is the far left side but watch out for trees. The broken weir at MEM is on the right hand side of the last island and is closed off by an orange floating pipe. It's full of metal spikes. The broken weir below Town falls is also full of metal spikes but there's a channel on the left to the get out.
Serpents tail can also produce an almighty stopper capable of handing out some spankings. The play weir at MEM is grabby on a medium but washes out in higher flows.
Richard Moore...'Sunday 7th January 2003, two (maybe more) cut off scaffold poles just under the surface (medium water level) approximately two foot out from the river left bridge support of the right hand channel, the one everyone runs and swims etc. having paddled Town Falls. Maybe someone should impale the contractors who have done some repairs to the bridge in the past year on them? Or ask them nicely to remove them properly?' - Never seen these poles, they might have gone?
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: For the whole run, start at Horseshoe falls which is the horseshoe shaped weir at the put in. Careful running this down the middle at anything around or above medium flows (see hazards). There's a couple left channels which by passes Horseshoe falls if it's too high to run the weir. Sometimes there are trees in these channels so keep your eyes peeled! Alternatively you can just portage on river left.
Downstream, waves take you under a road bridge and past the Chain Bridge Hotel towards the famous Serpent's Tail. In high water the approach to this is impressive, with 'play' stoppers and big surf waves all over the place. The Serpent's Tail itself is perfectly named, with all the water disappearing into a narrow channel on river right which will scare the bejesus out of those new to Grade 4 rapids. A few breakouts are possible, and the rapid ends by squeezing through a stopper inconveniently lurking next to an undercut...the sting in the Tail. It is at the easier end of the Grade, but still deserves a Grade 4 rating as it seems to unseat a remarkable number of paddlers! Inspection, portage and protection are all available from the ledges on river left. In high water, these begin to cover up and produce their own rapid, along with an almighty stopper at the sting of the tail.
Flat boily water follows directly afterwards, giving swimmers a chance to be fished out. A rocky weir follows, with opportunities to play. The railway passes overhead, and another broken weir offers a chute on river left.
The next bit to look out for is the Grade 3 Factory site, known as 'Mile End Mill'. The large building on river right is the home of Nomad kayaks. See the ACCESS section above for more info. A broken weir begins these rapids, watch out for debris in it... it used to be known as the 'Tombstones' due to concrete obstacles in the weir which have been removed since. A fatality occurred near here during one of the old Mike Jones' Rallies. Below the broken weir you reach a good play stopper which you won't miss...look for the crowds of paddlers queuing or actually in it. The Factory site ends where the river splits around an island, go left (as right has the nasty metally spiky weir). The left channel has a super awesome play wave which you can spend hours and hours on.
Now it's time to get apprehensive about the Grade 4 Town Falls. The river is easy for about half a mile. Paddlers who do not want to run the Town Falls can get out in a number of places on river right, the last opportunity appears just after the river bends left and the Town Bridge comes into sight. The Falls tend to be run heading towards the far right arch of the bridge, although many other routes are available in high water. The lead-in to the Falls involves bypassing a series of weir steps which generate fearsome stoppers in high water (a friend has healthy respect for them, after spending 15 minutes stuck in one during a WW race). The Falls proper begin with a small drop into the 'Pot', a boily stopper (I once rolled up here and noted that one paddle blade had fallen off...now get out of that!). The main Falls are a series of steps, choose your own route but the central 'slot' where the water converges is best avoided, I personally think hard right over the slab works.
Directly below the Bridge is Llangollen Town Weir, the metally spiky one (See hazards). Slide down the hard left shoot to the get out with the steps - easy! In high flows this can produce a biiig stopper.
You could go for another lap if you're keen by walking up the steep hill to the canal and paddle back to the top.
Video of Serpents Tail (from Paul Smith)
OTHER NOTES: One of the truly 'classic' rivers of the UK, let us all wish for a future when it can be paddled sensibly and quietly at the individual paddler's whim. The section above is recommended but has similar problems.
The river below Llangollen is enjoyable.
There is pleasant and access hassle-free easy paddling on the river downstream near Chester.
Andy adds...' I've personally been strained under a fallen tree at Horseshoe Falls and agree with your comments. I can't really add to them, other that to underline them in bold and use a red font for the instructions that must be adhered to. I feel lucky to still be paddling (don't tell my wife, and some 3 years later still have nasty flashbacks (come on BCU - what about PTS counselling for paddlers?). I therefore want other paddlers of this great, but benign river to understand its potential hazards. But more importantly, the Coach 3's and above in whose hands our safety often lies should understand its potential on the 'carnival' tour days.'
CONTRIBUTED BY: Mark Rainsley, Andy, Richard Moore, Adrian Pullin and Ieuan Belshaw.
The biggest change is at Serpents Tail, which at medium levels now is considerably more difficult (around 6-9 on gauge at Mile End Mill, or 0.65 to 0.85 on EA gauge). The bottom drop is bigger, pushier and a little stickier... We recommend scouting. (Otherwise to be read as "Woo - new boof drop on the Dee!")
Also worth noting: the following broken weir rapid, by the motor museum, has a bit more broken off concrete on the left side which has eaten at least one boat. There's also some broken off walling on the very left of chainbridge rapid, but that's more obvious and easy to avoid. At town falls, the Cornmill has scaffolding on which is worth looking out for in higher water.
The play waves at Mile End Mill have also altered slightly so playboaters might need to recalibrate...
Plenty of fun out there, just a few places to keep an eye on, especially with a mixed ability group... Happy paddling!