GUIDE TO THE RIVER AFFRIC
NAME OF RIVER: River Affric (Abhainn Afraig).
Described as “the finest river you’ll never paddle” by a previous writer, the Affric has all the right ingredients to make the perfect national test piece – a large, loch fed catchment, a huge amount of gradient, and more polished bedrock than you can shake a stick at combine to make probably the most powerful and impressive white water you’ll find anywhere in the country. Unfortunately the Scottish hydro board noticed this too, and all the water which once was in the river now flows through one of Scotland’s biggest hydro schemes. As a result it can only be paddled on extremely rare occasions when the dam is releasing. It does however make a great gorgewalk if you want to scout it out in low water! If you do happen to be lucky enough to be in the area and find the dam releasing, be warned that this river is a serious undertaking. Only hardcore grade 5 nutcases will get the most out of this run, but even if you portage all the big stuff it is still worthwhile just for the scenery and the bragging points of saying you’ve done it!
WHERE IS IT?: In the very scenic Glen Affric, west of Drumnadrochit.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: Take out is at Fasnakyle power station (NH 32021 29410) on the road from Cannich to glen Affric. Put in is at the dog falls car park further up the glen (lots of signposts) (NH 28313 28255). This is also a good place to check the level. If the rapids at the bridge look like a low/medium level then it’s on. You’ll know if the dam isn’t releasing!
APPROX LENGTH: 4.5 km.
TIME NEEDED: All day probably, there’s a fair bit of portaging.
ACCESS HASSLES: None reported. Just make sure you pay for parking! See the SCA Access notes on Scotland.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: The only way this river ever runs is if the dam is releasing. This usually happens when they are doing maintenance on the dam, but it does sometimes release after heavy rain – be very careful not to get too much water in this case though! There is an online guage, and 0.7 on the gauge is roughly optimal. However this only applies in dry summer months as the gauge is just below where a major trib (the Abhain Deabhag) joins, so any spikes after rain will be due to this rather than the main river. http://apps.sepa.org.uk/waterlevels/default.aspx?sd=t&lc=234215
GRADING: 5(6) – An experienced grade 4 team will be able to get down this, but there will be lots of portaging
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: All of it.
Ok so the main drops which you DEFINITELY don’t want to run by accident are Dog falls and Badger Falls (A.K.A Madness). Also there’s the grade 5 “Choss Drop” which warrants respect and then “Sparta” – a mandatory portage just below Badger falls and a final grade 5 just as the gorge ends… in fact this section could basically turn into a full description so just read on...
At the put in below the bridge there is about 100 m of grade 3 before you drop into the first main rapid Entrance Exam (4). This is a very photogenic 2 tier fall, but if you have any swims on this rapid then simply don’t carry on because it doesn’t get any easier than this.
Alison Galloway on the rapid above Dog Falls. Photo by Jon Harwell.
Once in the pool below the drop you should immediately get out river left and portage round the horror show that is Dog Falls (6). I would normally call this a “portage or die” drop, but some folk claim to have run it so who am I to judge? Basically the entire river drops 40 ft through a 2 m wide slot and into a massive pothole-style pool complete with undercuts and zero safety opportunity – so basically just your standard “local’s grade 3”.
Putting back in on a footbridge below the gorge the river is flat for a few hundred metres and then slowly starts to increase in gradient as it enters the main gorge. The rapids slowly ramp up from grade 3 to grade 4, and in all you get about 700 m of really high-quality pool-drop grade 4 rapids. Great fun and super scenic!
Alison Galloway on the first rapid of the gorge. Photo by Jon Harwell.
Alison Galloway in the gorge, photo by Jon Harwell.
All too soon you see an ominous horizon line flanked by a landslide coming in from river left which marks The Choss Drop (5), where the non-stop portaging begins. This is a steep rapid formed by boulders falling in from the cliffs above – it goes pretty nicely river right but would perform some radical facial reconstruction if you were to decide to do it upside down! Portage is straightforward but arduous over the boulders river left.
Calum Peden runs the Choss Drop, photo by Murray Gauld.
Below this drop there is a short grade 3 rapid but you need to be really on your toes as just round the next corner the river plunges off the face of the earth in Badger falls. Stick hard left to catch one of the many micro eddies and then get out to inspect/portage the spectacular cascade which follows. First up is The Edge of Madness (5). A cool looking drop which would be fun to run were it not for the fact that you have about 10 metres before the river plunges over Madness (6). This rapid is so big I was never able to find a camera angle that takes it all in, but suffice to say it would make a fine centrepiece to the highlight reel of any pro kayaker in the world. Everyone I spoke to who looked at it said “It totally goes! But I wasn’t feeling it that day…”. See if you can step up to the challenge! Below madness there is a large pool in a spectacular amphitheatre to pick up the (many) pieces, before another 30 foot slide called This is Madness (5), which is meant to be the best drop on the trip. Another pool and then immediately after follow This is Sparta (X) which is basically a 40 ft freefall onto rocks.
Mere mortals will probably be thinking about portage options at this point, and fortunately it is possible to portage the whole lot of this set by hiking out of the gorge river left above “The edge of madness” and dragging your boats along the side of the gorge for about 500 m to a (very) steep gulley, from which you can lower your boats down to join the river just below “This is Sparta”. You then have a must-run grade 4+ rapid which most people tend to end up doing on their faces but seem to come out fine.
Alison Galloway runs the must run grade 4+ at the end of the Madness gorge. Photo by Jon Harwell.
The alternative hard core portage option if you want to stay in the gorge is to take an extremely delicate portage round madness (or run it…), paddle “this is madness” and then climb up a steep, blaeberry filled gulley on river right just above “This is sparta” You can then rejoin the gorge just below the must-run drop. Just round the corner a horizon line marks the very last grade 5 drop, portageable on river right, before the river drops down to grade 3 before becoming a scenic bimble for the next few km back to the car. At this point flat water will seem like heaven to you!
Neil Gauld on the final grade 5 drop. Photo by Murray Gauld.
The hardcore portage option worked for us when we were gorgewalking, but would be significantly more difficult if you were carrying kayaks! Probably not impossible but teamwork and ropes likely required.
This river is a great adventure with some quality rapids and a lot of hot, sweaty, and at times quite sketchy portages. Bring lots of supplies! As a humble grade 4 boater I had a great time and it’s nice to say that I’ve done it, but honestly I wouldn’t rush back to it in a kayak unless I got good enough to say I’d definitely paddle the grade 5s.
We gorge walked this in July (because warm) and the compensation flow was sufficient. We started from the forestry site and floated/walked/scrambled down to Dog falls where we had to walk around the gorge on the tourist path. We then got back in and swam/climbed a km or so of what would be good grade 3/4 with enough water.
The next obstacle was a massive boulder choke which would probably be grade 5. A few more corners and we came to the crux of it all - the small grade 5 the guide calls "Edge of Madness" just above the enormous 3 tiered drop called Madness. A good head for heights and some light scrambling gets you round the side of this on the left. The next drop is the big slide "This is madness", then after that is a huge (30ft, maybe more) drop onto rocks we called "Sparta". This would not be do able! However, since we were unsure of what was round the corner and didn't want to descend a cliff we couldn't get back up, we can confirm there is a route to escape the gorge by scrambling up a gully on the right - which in July was full of ripe blaeberries, making the climbing much more enjoyable.
We descended another gully just round the corner and scrambled back up what would be a 4 - 4+ drop to confirm there was nothing scary on the corner, so next time we'd just slide down the cliff beside "Sparta". The river is pretty much flat from here, save for one rocky drop, but I don't recommend deciding to try to make it to the road as soon as the cliffs end, because it's a very long way up through 7ft high bracken and by the time you've fought all the way to the road in your damp, sweaty and muddy gear, no-one is going to give you a lift back to your car!
CONTRIBUTED BY: Jon Harwell, Ron Cameron and Kirsten Rendle.