Who Needs the Himalayas?
Scotland, arguably the last place in Britain where you can just drive to a random blue line on the map and know you'll find a great river waiting. Far too good a place to just leave to the Scottish! For the last four Easters, we've dragged ourselves north to paddle all the 'classic' guidebook rivers. But...each time we've made several new discoveries; strangely, one of these rivers always turns out to be the trip highlight! Could the Scots paddlers be hiding these rivers from us? The first year, it was the Ghuilbinn and Ossian, next year, the Moriston (dead scary), in '99 the Kinglass, and the Kiachnish. This year it was the turn of the Fechlin. And it was pretty darned good, as good goes...
A busy paddling week had started with little water around, so a couple of days were spent flinging ourselves down silly rock-bash ditches in Glen Etive; look up the Allt A'Chaorainn and Allt Mheuran streams on your map if this excites you.
The Rivers Spean, Blackwater, Findhorn, Braan, Averon, Garry and Nevis kept us soaking in the following days as the water levels improved; all enjoyable, but we just knew the big one must be lurking out there somewhere. We didn't expect to find it on the bone dry day!
Come Thursday, the sun was shining and there wasn't a drop of wet stuff in any river. We decided to head to the mighty River Moriston where the dam would be releasing water...not a decision taken lightly, given how much it put the wind up us last time! We didn't expect the dam to release until the afternoon (in fact it never did) so we had time to kill.
"Howz about a quick look at the Fechlin? It's just across the valley apparently."
So we headed up to the Fechlin area. Literally up, as the road inclined steeply away from Loch Ness until we were right up above the clouds (okay, I made the clouds bit up). First discovery was that things were wet around there (hallelujah!). Despite blazing sun, we found a tiddly little beck (or 'burn' in Scottish) chock full of water flowing beneath the road. Changing into kit quickly lest it vanish into thin air, we carried our tupperware suitcases upstream to where an enjoyable gorge began.
This was over too soon, and we found ourselves hopping out of the suitcases to inspect an ominous horizon line...a small confined waterfall plunged into a bubbling pool against a cliff. Falling off it wasn't going to take a great deal of skill, but we decided that heading left-ish to avoid the stopper wouldn't be a bad idea. Test probe #1 launched himself off the edge, followed by #2. Having seen Chris and Simon both get safely clear of the waterfall's stopper, I decided to give it a go myself. Basing your decisions on probabilities never was a good river-running tactic! As my boat cleared the lip of the fall, something niggly niggled in my mind...what had I forgotten? As I plunged hard into the guts of the stopper, it came to me.
"Oh yes, I remember now...I was supposed to be heading left to avoid this!"
Things went very dark, and my boat just stayed underwater. The noise of the water landing on the hull of my boat was deafening. I thrashed my paddles around, achieving pretty well nothing at all. I tried and failed again, just for luck. Time to use the ejector seat! I went to pull my spraydeck and found it half off already. Out of the boat and swimming, things remained very dark and wet; not my idea of fun at all! I was rather chuffed when I finally popped up to the surface a long way away from the waterfall. Jolly times!
Back in the car, the map told us that the titchy river I'd just been drinking was called the Allt Breinach. We carried on up the valley to find the River Fechlin proper. Soon we saw it trickling a long way below in the valley...
"I don't think we'll get a boat down that. It's pretty darned low!"
We reached the put-in, where we got a closer view of the river.
"Hang on, it's flowing over the banks. It's pretty darned high!"
We didn't know where the huge amounts of water were coming from and we didn't care. Before anyone could say, "who's carrying the splits?" we were launching from the gorgeous loch and bobbing downstream into the unknown. All we knew was that the water flowing from the loch had to be at least a foot deep to make the trip worthwhile. I stuck my paddle down and lost the whole length of it!
Straight away the river was fun and bouncy. We wavewheeled our way downstream, our sole concession to river safety being to make sure that someone more expendable was always up in front.
"Erm Simon, should we get out and inspect here...Simon? Wait for me! Don't leave me!"
Thankfully, there was nothing really nasty waiting around any corners, but the river cranked up to fantastic big-n-bouncy grade 4. Catching his breath in one eddy, Chris spluttered,
"That last one was bigger than anything I paddled in Nepal!"
He wasn't wrong. And the sun was shining. Who needs the Himalayas?
The odd harder bit appeared, but always obvious from above. The best kind of Grade 5 rapids; dodging stoppers and powerful water, rather than butting rocks with your face; and always with an easy portage for the weak-kneed! The river ended with a peculiar rapid...all the river piled into and over a huge rock, with an amusing stopper waiting beneath to chomp any surviving paddlers! Some hobbled around shamefaced, some pinballed down the chicken chute. The river flattened out without warning and the fun was over. A wire fence blocked the river above a large dam. Water was blasting over every sluice and spillway, leading into a confined grade 6 gorge downstream. Know when to quit! The three of us shouldered our boats and headed off back to meet the others, knowing that crowing on about the river they'd missed would be nearly as much fun as paddling it.
We returned the next day with the full crowd to find the Fechlin flowing a metre lower...
Still a superb trip, which challenged everyone and generated a few 'Swim Trophy' contenders!
Moral of this story? Next time you're in Scotland, throw away the guidebook and just look at your map. The best rivers are still waiting...but remember to send your info to this website afterwards!