GUIDE TO THE RIVER DART
(Dartmeet to New Bridge - the 'Upper Dart')
NAME OF RIVER: Dart.
WHERE IS IT?: The classic SW paddle, this trip is on Dartmoor, would you believe it, not far from Ashburton and the A38 Plymouth - Exeter road.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: Put-in at Dartmeet (SX 6719 7318), where the East and West Dart rivers converge. There is a convenient car-park, carry your boats downstream of the bridge.
Take-out is at New Bridge (SX 7114 7088) (put-in for the Loop section) where there is a huge car-park. Don't use the section of the carpark reserved for non-paddlers. Alternatively, carry on downstream on the Loop section to New Bridge.
APPROX LENGTH: 5 miles.
TIME NEEDED: I've run this in low water in 40 minutes, but if you are unfamiliar with the river you should allow at least three hours to inspect and run the river.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: Can be run at most levels, hence the popularity. At New bridge there is a rock ledge on river left. If the river covers most or all of this, the river is at a good medium or high level. If water is flowing through all three arches on the bridge, then it's very high and you may need to reconsider your plans. If the water level does not reach the ledge, then the Dart is low. If it's a job getting under the bridge without a scrape, really don't bother...there are plenty more rocks upstream. Another simple marker is to look upstream of New Bridge. If all rocks are completely covered (especially two diagonally lined up boulders in mid current) then the level is at least medium...you're in luck!
The old gauge is in an obscure eddy on the Loop section of the Dart. The gauge only goes up to 7, but higher levels are 'guesstimates'. As a rough guide...
3.5+...a bit rocky but certainly paddleable. Mostly grade 3/4, some grade 4 rapids.
4.5+...medium/ high - probably the ideal level for most, forgiving grade 4.
5.5+...very high - kicking grade 4+.
6.5+...flooding - full on, huge, possibly grade 5 from the ledges to 'Surprise, surprise'. Experts only.
8+...definitely continuous grade 5, really powerful surging water.
10+...most local experts won't run it above this level...!
GRADING: Somewhat debatable. It has been referred to as 'Grade 5' in Terry Storry's Guidebook but this doesn't stand up to scrutiny. In low water (as described above) the majority of the river is continuous Grade 3 but Euthanasia Falls and the Rapid which follow it, 'Surprise Surprise' are Grade 4. In medium/ high water the river begins at Grade 3 and gets progressively harder to continuous alpine-style Grade 4. In full flood (river out of banks), the river is 'full-on' and the 'Mad Mile' leading up to Euthanasia Falls is perhaps Grade 5. See directly below for more to do with Grading...
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: There have been a number of serious accidents on this section, which may be due to some of these factors:
Access to and from the river is difficult...in the event of an emergency, Steve Balcombe notes...'For an upstream escape there is a well used path river left which is much better than anything on the right. I have carried out a couple of miles on that bank with no problems. It's in fact possible to walk the entire length of the Upper Dart on the left bank, and this makes a pleasant walk in the summer or when the river is too low to paddle. Lower down there are one or two scrambles which would be difficult with a stretcher case, but it's never impossible and is possibly better than getting a casualty across the river to the right bank.'
The level can change with terrifying rapidity, changing the Grade and seriousness beyond recognition.
Huge meaty stoppers turn up in high water.
Trees regularly drop into the river and should be watched out for.
A final point is that, due to the 'booking a ticket' system, it's possible that people with tickets may have paddled the river in conditions they aren't really up to, rather than lose their opportunity. Use your brains in making the decision on the day.
The river is far more continuous than most English rivers, especially in high water.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: For the first few hundred metres, you'll wonder what the fuss is about. The river is mellow and easy, but doesn't take long to crank up to continuous Grade 3. You pass Coombestone Island (best by the narrow river left channel). The river keeps getting progressively harder and a rock-by-rock description is futile...but look out for these notable rapids...
A river-wide ledge forming a grabby stopper in medium levels.
A long rapid where the river parts around an island and reconverges dropping into a narrow rocky channel (on river left) which spits the paddler down through a wave/ stopper. A stream is seen entering on river right directly after this...Vennford Brook.
A long series of steep rapids and 'flumes' where the river is accelerated through steep channels and ledges with plenty of rocks and the odd stopper to dodge or enjoy. In high water this is continuous Grade 4.
The 'Mad Mile'. Unless you're paddling in low water, you need to recognise this and get out before to inspect. The river drops away suddenly on a right-hand bend. Your only other clues are an island above on river left (try to get out to the left of it, on river left), and rock slabs leading into the river on the brink of the rapid, although these may be covered in high water. Directly below is a steep ledge, which forms a powerful stopper in medium/ high levels. There is always a 'sneak' route through/ past it, but you must inspect this first. (I stuffed up the line here in big flood and performed a rapid series of 'unintendos' before winding up swimming...I wasn't best impressed as I was held in the stopper for a while and repeatedly pummelled into the river bed, not to mention that the boat I temporarily lost wasn't mine!). Directly below this ledge are two more natural weirs with big stoppers in high water but little to worry about in low water. This section carries on for about half a mile (despite the name) and is quite fantastic, continuous Grade 4 paddling. You need to keep inspecting if you are unfamiliar with it. Note that this is actually one of the easier sections in low water, as the ledges become rather tedious dry slides. Next up is...
Euthanasia Falls. Despite the ludicrous name, this is quite runnable and no more dangerous than anything else on the river. If you go river left of Bell Pool island, you can completely miss it anyway. I've seen it in big flood, washed out to a huge curling wave, which is big but straightforward. In high water the fall is straightforward also, with most obstacles washed over. In medium or low water, the route on the main Fall is more restricted (you don't get much choice); head river right of Bell Pool Island, slide down the chute and squeeze through the gap where it turns sharp left. Many people roll here. It's a bit painful in low water where you basically just bounce off rocks. In medium water or higher there is also a straightforward chute on the far left of the Fall with the Island just to your left.
There are now two ledge drops before you reach a point where the island splits either side of an island...
Not too far downstream is a rocky and complicated fall known variously as 'Sharrah's Pool', 'Surprise, Surprise' or 'Pandora's Box'. This gives you a choice of going either side of an island. river left of the island means you wind up dropping into a narrow slot, which may have a rock inconveniently blocking the entrance. Going river right of the island takes you down a series of drops with many rocks in awkward places. The centre route is horrible, full of pinning rocks and siphons. This central chute has pinned people in low water and was the site of a major incident in January 1999 when someone simultaneously pinned and twisted their knee, leading to Helicopter and Mountain Rescue call-outs. The rapid is perhaps less risky in higher levels but clearly deserves caution. Incidentally, in flood ALL rocks are covered and the entire rapid washes out...see it in low water and try to visualise this!
Directly below the river narrows and flows steeply down the final big rapid. Watch out for a nasty piton rock in the main flow, at some levels.
You have now passed the most difficult part of the river...relax a bit! However, there is still a significant tree hazard as the river braids between islands. The paddling isn't dull either, with continuous Grade 3 pretty well until the end. The final few hundred metres has several small ledges which produce stoppers. The final ledge puts you within view of New Bridge, where you can either finish or continue down the Loop section.
OTHER NOTES: The Upper Dart in flood put the wind up us directly after we'd just returned from a paddling trip in the Himalayas! This is possibly the best Grade 4 paddle in the UK, in medium/ high conditions. Judge for yourself.
CONTRIBUTED BY: Mark Rainsley, BCU SW, Jonathon Evans and Steve Balcombe.