Jumping onto Grenades

First Published in Canoeist magazine

As you read this, five regional co-ordinators across England are putting together a new paddling guidebook, 'English Whitewater'. The editor is Franco Ferrero and it will be in similar format to the well known SCA guide.

I was asked to put together the section covering the Southwest region. Although my knowledge of the area mostly stemmed from having briefly spotted it from a sea kayak some years back, I accepted happily. I could write up the rivers I did know, and ask people about the rivers that I didn't. How hard could that be?

In early enquiries I found no shortage of advice from fellow boaters. This tended to take several recognisable forms

"You certainly must include the upper Bogtrot".
"The lower Treeditch is a real classic".
"Oh yes, we run the middle Manureduct all the time".
"There are some great rivers down in Inbredshire".

The troubling part of these conversations came when you then asked said expert to elaborate. A recognisable pattern was soon established

One third of the time, some specific details were forthcoming; although always just short of enough to write a river guide around. The second third of the time, info would be supplied along with a few 'hmm's and 'um's; meaning that the information originated in a pub from a friend of a friend. The final third of the time, the conversation would be rapidly changed. This would generally indicate that I was talking to a great big fibber. There are a few about!

It became worryingly clear that, small as my role in 'English WW' was, it wasn't going to get done by propping up a bar or watching my email in-box. I was going to have to get out and do some actual boating. From the moment this decision was made some months back, work, marriage and home life all seem to have receded to become a hazy backdrop to endless boating. Bliss.

When I first sat down to map them all out, there proved to be an awful lot of rivers in the Southwest. I knew the classic trips; Dart, Exe, Erme, Lyn and the like. But there were a great many question marks over wiggly blue lines on my map. As the new season started down at the Dart, there wasn't quite enough water on the moor to try the steep upland ditches. Hence, my first mission was to tick off the easy gradient rivers on Dartmoor; Teign, Walkham and lower Tavy. I am as guilty of mindless repeat runs on the Dart Loop as the next club paddler. Researching the book forced me to hop onto these other grade 2/3 runs and they were, well, great. Each offers a perfectly decent alternative to the Dart Loop crowds with no one else crowding the eddys, and nobody asking to see your ticket. More crucially, my wife Heather loved these rare trips at her comfort level and was hence persuaded to take part in the next stage of the research

The biggest gap in my knowledge was Cornwall; although I'd paddled the entire coast, I had never taken a boat inland. October half-term came. Heather and I went to visit an old friend in Cornwall as a flimsy excuse to get out on the rivers. A bit of timely rain completed the picture, and we ventured onto Bodmin Moor. Several rivers drain the moor and I had been unable to speak directly to anybody who had seen them.

The River Camel came first; to my surprise it had a good section of continuous grade 3 in the upper sections. In true pioneer fashion I continued on downstream until I was repaid with the section from hell; barbed wire, low bridges, and huge trees fallen into the river. Heaps of rubbish were piled up against one tree and I made the dangerous mistake of trying to climb out onto it; a long and painful repeat of the Star Wars 'garbage compactor' incident commenced. You won't be reading about that section in 'English WW'.

I am still laughing about the De Lank River three months on; if I don't laugh I'll cry. This bizarre ditch suddenly drops off a plateau with the kind of bone-crunching falls that only a South Wales paddler could love. Just when you're getting into the swing of things, quarry junk pops up in the river. Whilst you're pondering the best way to boof a block of sharp quarried stone, the river disappears underground. How the quarrymen sniggered, as an odd fellow carrying a Java creek boat popped up in their yard. They had the last laugh; where the river resurfaced, a good section of grade 4 commenced. Except that a big pipe had taken most of the water away.

Cornwall also has some mellow paddling. Neither of us had paddled the Lynher and Tamar Rivers and we'd borrowed Carolina touring kayaks in preparation for the various hazards of touring rivers (flat water, out of control open canoes, men with beards). I guess we're just narrow-minded, as both rivers proved a delight to paddle. We never knew grade 2 could be so good! The Tamar was shrouded in spooky mist and the silence was, well, quiet. The weirs and rapids came at surprisingly frequent intervals and boredom was never an issue; paddling a long touring kayak turns a technical grade 2 rapid into grade 5! The only hitch came when we pulled in at Gunnislake at sunset. We needed a taxi for the shuttle. Gunnislake is an awfully long way from the put-in, and even further from the twenty-first century. They don't have taxis. Has anybody seen the film, 'The Wicker Man'?

Next stop was Exmoor. We checked out various obscure streams, none of which came close to the ineffable East Lyn. I met my first defeat here, exploring the West Lyn. The river starts conventionally enough, and then goes berserk, dropping 500 feet in the final mile to the sea. Peering into the gorge, I saw nothing which would entice me in there. My good friend Chris Wheeler ventured in sometime in the eighties, when it was fashionable to exist in a world of pain whilst bouncing off rocks. All Chris could recall was walking out in despair, which was enough for me. The West Lyn remains a big blank for 'English WW', you go paddle it yourself.

As the weekends passed by nearer to Christmas, Dartmoor became soggier and soggier, allowing exploration of the upland creeks. Finding paddling partners was becoming tough. Word had gotten around that paddling with me would involve obscure ditches of unknown quality. Chris in particular, stopped taking my calls. He must have had a weak moment however, as he was certainly there when we trekked across a large bog into the upper North Teign. Launching high on the moor to the amusement of hikers, we found that the upper section was agonisingly tree-choked. At one point I couldn't even see which route Chris had taken before me. Only trees. Lots of. I heard the characteristic 'bang' of plastic contacting rock, and I spotted some trees rustling in the same direction. Who needs river signals? Like the soldier who jumps onto a grenade to save his comrades, our sacrifice was not in vain. Somewhere amongst the Ent-wrestling sessions, we uncovered a rather good tree-free section of steep grade 4+. You'll have to buy 'English WW' to find where precisely it is, but suffice to say there are some horizon lines. Simon Westgarth disappeared off one of them with the intriguing words, "Tell the others what happens to me".

Clearly someone upstairs was on our side. The Southwest had fifty per cent more rain than the annual average in 2002, and the warmest December on record. It was so ridiculously warm that Heather and I were happy to camp at the River Dart Park for the Christmas holidays. Admittedly the beer and steaks from the bar detracted from the 'Captain Oates' experience. This tent was base camp throughout the two weeks, with only a brief irritating gap to return home and do the seasonal thing. Much as I love my family, their welcome was considered 'outstayed' from the moment that it rained on Christmas morning.

Luckily the rain continued to fall through the New Year week, bringing every possible Dartmoor ditch into condition. I went into overdrive and worked through quite a list. The Swincombe, East and West Dart, East and West Okement, Bovey, Taw and others were conquered (although the Taw - flowing through an extended thicket - arguably conquered us) and duly typed up on the laptop in the bar. We even found time out for some 'classic' rivers and I am duty bound to report that all this varied boating has brought Heather's skills on no end. She completed her hardest river and her first Grade 4 rapid during a high water Upper Tavy run. The moral is worth spelling out; having to read a new river will give you more experience than a hundred and one Dart Loop trips, with its named rapids and well known hazards.

January 1st, 2003. Early morning hangovers from the New Year's Eve party at the River Dart Park were coming through loud and clear. Despite this, three of us trekked through torrential rain and flooded roads for a spate run on the upper Walkham. On a hint from Bill Mattos, I'd checked this out with different friends in low water a few days' previously. We'd been impressed. It was rather good, and the trees that Bill described from years past were no longer a big problem. Now, on the return visit, my beer-damaged companions were whinging endlessly and daring to question the quality of what we were about to experience.
"Yet another bloody tree ditch."
Three hundred feet of descent in a single mile of stopper infested grade 5 later, both the whinging and the hangovers had vanished.
"You had to jump on a lot of grenades to find it, but that was really quite good".

At time of writing, there are a few things left to explore and an awful lot of writing up still to be done; this report itself is a work avoidance tactic. If there is any point to this report, it's simply to relay how much fun a bit of exploring can be. If it isn't fun, then at least it'll be an adventure! When 'English WW' appears in print, then exploring something new will be that much harder. Some recommendations; either get out quickly and try some new rivers, or wait until 'English WW' comes out.and don't buy it.

Mark Rainsley thanks Heather Rainsley (she of infinite patience), Perception Kayaks and Nookie for continuing help.

By Mark Rainsley.