Cold day on Allt A'Chaorainn

However, in one of the articles, you asked if anyone has done the ALLT A' CHAORAINN at silly water levels.

I guess I can say "yes" to that, but I must warn you that this tale might not be quite what you were expecting ...

It was just after new year in '96 and there were two paddlers, Colin Kingswood and I, and we were both at Glasgow University back then.

It was rather cold, even for Scotland in January. In fact, a few days earlier Glasgow had recorded one of its lowest ever temperatures: -26'C!

We drove up aiming to do the Etive or the Coe ... but they were far too low. In fact, they were hardly flowing at all .. they were nearly frozen solid! However, something rather strange had happened to the river. It wasn't the normal snow covered banks with a channel through the middle that you normally get ... The river had changed and its new colour was astounding ... a sort of luminescent pale blue bordering on cyan. I'd never seen anything like it before or since.

We had to get quite close to the river to see what was going on. Inspection revealed that the river floor was frozen, but there was water flowing over it. Presumably there'd been a bit of snow melt higher up and that water now had no option but to flow over the ice. Both the Etive and Coe were too low, so we decided to do the Allt A' Chaorainn. It was the usual slog, carrying the boats up the hill past the farm, but at least it kept us warm. Collecting together enough willpower to start touching the chillingly freezing water was the biggest obstacle.

Colin went over the first narrow flume first, and all went well. I followed. No idea what went wrong but I capsized and got washed up against the wall on the opposite side. After two attempts I rolled up, but the shock of dipping my head and then trying to roll whilst getting the paddle caught on bits of ice was nearly too much and by the time I was upright I was also thoroughly soaked in very very cold water. I didn't own a dry cag back then ... just a splash cag.

Arrrrgghhh!

There was ice on that river. If I remember rightly, the situation was a bit complicated. The river bed was frozen and only the largest rocks could be seen through the water. There were also blocks of ice protruding from the bank and big blocks of ice over the shallower bits. So in effect the water sometimes flowed over the ice and sometimes under ... which gives the river an extra source of danger. The ice created a mass of undercuts in which a swimmer could potentially have become entrapped.

It seemed safe enough as long as we stayed in the boats. However, getting in and out of the boats was very tricky. We couldn't wedge them on rocks as is usually done, since the rocks were covered in ice. Once out of the boat there was ice everywhere and hence the banks were extremely slippery. Each step had to be taken very gingerly. I guess that falling into the river was one of the biggest dangers that day.

The rapid with the slabs was something else. They too had a thick layer of ice over them and once we were on them there was nothing else we could do. We couldn't paddle forwards or reverse, we couldn't steer or turn and we couldn't slow down. There simply wasn't enough water flowing over the ice to paddle against. We ended up sliding down the slabs doing slow involuntary 360s, rather out of control! It was highly amusing :)

At some point whilst going down, Colin hit a block of ice at chest height very hard. The ice being sharp went straight through his outer layer leaving a 5 inch gash that was about 2 or 3 inches deep. He seemed rather winded, but fortunately there was not a mark on him. Hurray for buoyancy aids!

The route down the pinball was blocked by ice jutting out from the banks at about paddler level. This time we weren't going to get stabbed so we worked for 10 to 20 minutes using our paddles to hack the protruding ice away. My set of Schlegel's started delaminating under this harsh treatment, but at least Colin's descent went very well. By gosh was it fast through the sharp turn at the bottom though! The water flow tends to slam the paddler into a sharp rock so if he happens to be leaning the wrong way ... it would hurt...a lot. Having seen the speed and the lack of time to make any corrections, I decided to portage the pinball. The earlier misadventures had taken their toll on my confidence.

The final fall is quite a thrill. Its a short gorge, barely as wide as a boat that goes round a corner and ends up in a fast shoot that gets deflected at the bottom by a rock wall. The narrowness means that the sensation of speed is amplified. Unfortunately, I banged the nose of the boat somewhere along the wall at the bottom which killed both my speed and style in one fell swoop.

After our descent we had to cross the Etive. However, the level was too low to paddle across so we had to get out of the boats and walk them across. I'll always remember that walk. It was like walking in a flooded ice rink. The frozen river bed was smooth and flat and enjoyable to walk upon, which contrasts with the ankle twisting rocks we usually have to stumble over. The larger rocks left smooth bumps but there was nothing sharp and it was possible to run along the bottom of the river. If I'd had ice skates on, it might have been possible to use the light pressure of the current to skate along the bottom of the river! Wonder if that classifies as a new sport?

So ... yes, I've paddled this river at a silly water level :)

By Jay Sigbrandt

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