NAME OF RIVER: Oykel
WHERE IS IT?: The Oykel is a fairly large river, starting in Ben More Assynt and draining a large portion of the north east of Scotland. Although flat and boring for most of its length, the upper reaches of this river can offer some excellent white water if conditions are high enough. At a good flood level this run is an awesomely powerful high volume run, like a cross between the upper and lower Oetz, complete with a steep, low volume gorge to warm things up at the start. I imagine that at lower levels it would make an excellent intermediate grade 3 run, however I have never done it at a good level for this so can only speculate on what it would be like.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: From Bonar Bridge, follow the A837 west until you cross a bridge over the river next to the Oykel bridge hotel (NC 38572 00876). The take out is where the rapids end downstream – just above the confluence with the Einig. This is also a good place to check the level. If the rapids below the bridge are bony then go elsewhere – perhaps the Einig or the Cassely? If they look runnable but low then you can either put in at the Allt Conacher by driving approx. 4 km upstream and putting in at the bridge (NC 35412 01787), or by hiking up the fishing trail on the river left, and putting in above or below the falls of Oykel. If the river is running at medium or above, a longer trip is possible by putting in at the Allt Eileag (NC 30901 07137) about 10k upstream on the A837. At the upper put in it should be obvious whether the Eileag is running or not.
APPROX LENGTH: 14 km for the full trip, about 5 km from the alternative put in
TIME NEEDED: ?
ACCESS HASSLES: This is a fishing river, with the usual considerations
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: Similar in character to the Greta in the lake district, this run needs more water than one would expect for a river of this size and is definitely not a low water run. For a high-volume grade 4 blast you want as much water as possible – above 2 on the SEPA gauge means an awesome run. With less water the run will become much easier, probably around grade 2/3, but it can become depressingly empty in dry conditions. There is a SEPA gauge with calibrations on, but I can’t speak for its accuracy. The rapids under the bridge at Oykel bridge are a good indicator for what the run will be like, as they are the best of the whitewater.
GRADING: 2/3(5) for low levels, rising to 4(5+) in flood
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: Oykel Falls (marked on the OS map) – definitely hike up and look at these before putting on so you know where and how to inspect/portage.
The main drop on the Eileag – A big constricted drop in the gorge, which could be easy to do by accident
From the upper put in you are straight into a surprisingly steep and powerful grade 3+ rapid which is great for wiping away the cobwebs from the drive. About 1/2 km of flat water then leads to an ominous horizon line which is the start of the main gorge on the Eileag. Get out and inspect river right. The first drop is a perfect, clean boof, however we were prevented from running this because there was no way to stop before the next two rapids, which consisted of a chossy grade 4, with a very small pool before immediately dropping into a 6 metre waterfall with a very constricted line and a very sticky hole at the bottom. The guidebook describes this as “steepish grade 3”, but I would consider it a solid 5 at this level (perhaps it’s easier with less water?). Fortunately it can be easily inspected and/or portaged on the right without missing out any other rapids. From here it is lovely continuous grade 3+ boulder garden down to the confluence with the Oykel. From the confluence, the Oykel flows through a wide and open glen(unusual in itself in Scotland…), and there are about 10 rapids which slowly get bigger and bigger as you go downhill. In high flows these all merge into one mega rapid with lots of big waves but now nasty surprises. In lower water I am told that it is mostly pool-drop grade 3 boulder garden rapids. As you go down, you pass two tribs on the river left (the Allt Ruadh Mor and the Allt Raudh Beag) which both looked quite tasty if anyone fancies a hike up for a probable first descent. Not long after the second trib, the river goes round a sharp dog leg to the left and flattens out briefly. Be on your guard here as the river is saving its energy for a much larger grade 4 rapid just round the next corner which can catch out the unwary. It can be easily inspected on river left, and the river is flat for the next 6 or 7 km so there is lots of space to pick up the pieces if a swim occurs. We may have bombed down this without inspection on our first time down this and all got munched in the main hole in the middle…. We got our backsides handed to us on a silver platter! Unfortunately you now have a lot of flat to cover before the next white water section – just sit back and enjoy the scenery and enthuse about your experience! After you pass the a allt conacher and the alternative put in, the river slowly increases in gradient until, after a sweeping left – right dog leg, the river throws everything it’s got at you in Oykel Falls. A powerful lead in rapid starts things off, before off a big grade 5 drop (see pictures). Probably not the grade 6 test piece the guidebook claims, there is a decent looking line down the river right, but it still deserves respect as the total drop is at least as high as right angle, and lining yourself up correctly after the lead in rapid would be no easy task. Portage is easy river left and you can put in right at the base of the falls. From below the falls, excellent rapids continue down to about 500m below Oykel Bridge – grade 3 in low water, reaching powerful grade 4 when high. Hike back to the car on a fishing track river left to complete an excellent run!
OTHER NOTES: This author has only ever done this river when it’s honking – i.e. between 2 and 2.7 on the sepa gauge, so take this description with a pinch of salt. My descriptions for lower water are based on a mixture of looking at the rapids in VERY low water, online photos, and extrapolating from my own experiences.
There looks to be another fairly chunky rapid about 2 km below the take out next to an old hill fort. Anyone done this?
The nearby Einig and Cassely are both cracking runs to add to this trip.
CONTRIBUTED BY: Jon Harwell