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 Scottish version of the lower Oetz, complete with a steep, low volume gorge to warm things up at the start. At lower levels it is used by the locals as a grade 2/3 intermediate run, but if you are making the effort of a trip from afar it really needs to be tanking it to make the drive worth the effort.
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 the river is at a good level then drive 10k upstream on the A837 and put in where the road crosses a tributary called the Allt Eileag (NC 30901 07137).
If you are low on water or time, a shorter trip is possible by hiking up the fishing track river left up to the falls of Oykel and putting on below (or above!) the falls. This makes a very short run but still incorporates the best of the whitewater, and it can be paddled at lower levels than the rest of the river.
APPROX LENGTH: 14 km for the full trip, about 5 km from the alternative put in
TIME NEEDED: 3 hours ish
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. There is a gauge on Where's the Water. The calibrations hold for using the run as a grade 2/3 club trip, but most people will want it to be at least at “very high” (1.4) on the gauge in order to get the most out of the run. This section is a great place to go if all the other runs in the area are too high, and as long as you can handle high volume grade 4/4+ it can take as much water as you can throw at it (just make sure you know where the big rapids are..). My personal record is 2.5 on the gauge, but if you beat that be sure to send pictures!
When you reach the area, the rapids directly underneath Oykel bridge are your best guage as they are the best of the whitewater – what you see is what you get!
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.
The main drop on the Eileag – A big constricted drop in the gorge, which could be easy to do by accident
From the put in on the Eileag you are straight into a surprisingly steep and powerful grade 3+ rapid which is great for wiping away the cobwebs from the drive. At some levels you may wish to put in below this as you need lots of water to open up the cleanest channel. 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 “Hook” is a perfect, clean boof which is quickly followed by “Line” - a rocky grade 4 rapid. However running this pair is a very risky prospect as there is only a very small pool before the river plunges off “Sinker” - a constricted 3 m drop with a dangerous boulder siphon on the river right. The guidebook describes this as “steepish grade 3”, but I would consider it a solid 5 at most levels. As the names suggest, the first 2 drops could easily sucker you into running Sinker blind -don’t let this be you! Fortunately, the whole lot can be easily inspected and/or portaged on the right without missing out any other rapids.
Below sinker it’s just one lovely continuous grade 3+ boulder garden down to the confluence with the Oykel, which is where the real fun starts! 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 no nasty surprises. In lower water the river loses much of its power, but still forms some fun pool-drop grade 3 boulder garden rapids. As you go down, you pass a small trib on river left called the Allt Rugaidh Mhor, which has an awful lot of sweet, slabby grade 4 if you have the energy to hike up! Not long after a second trib (the Allt Rugaidh Bheag –smaller but also probably paddleable) joins from river left, 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 (best run hard left, or on a banter line hard right). 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! This flat section goes on for a long time but you still need to be on your toes as Oykel falls is approaching. After passing some ruins the river slowly starts to steepen with some grade 2 rapids, and not long after you will see a long grade 4 rapid forming after a right hand bend. This is the lead in rapid to the falls, so immediately get out before this and inspect/portage on river left. If you inspect the falls in low summer flows you will laugh at how this rapid could ever be called a grade 5+, but if you see it in high water I guarantee you will change your mind! Again make sure you inspect this before putting on as the lead in rapid looks quite tasty and could easily sucker you into mandatory martyrdom. 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, they become an awesomely powerful grade 4 rollercoaster blast when high. Hike back to the car on a fishing track river left to complete an excellent run, or maybe burn off all that extra energy by doing a few more laps of the bit below the falls – you know you want to!
OTHER NOTES: 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 river gets *very* low in the summer months – it’s quite depressing to see if you’ve done it when high.
CONTRIBUTED BY: Jon Harwell
Very high water on the first drop of the Allt Eileag. Paddlers Andre Phillips and Jon Harwell, photo by Kirsten Rendle.
Hook and Line on the Eileag, photo by Jon Harwell.
Jonny Hawkins inspects Sinker on the Eileag - photo by Jon Harwell. The syphon is under the boulder behind Jonny.
Big grade 4 on the Oykel near the the Allt Rugaidh Bheag. Photo by Jon Harwell.
Jon Harwell on the rapids under the bridge. Photo by Jen Hartnett.
Playing below the bridge. Paddler Jon Harwell, photo by Jen Hartnett.
Just above the old bridge in very high water (2.5m on the SEPA gauge). Paddlers Jon Harwell and Andre Phillips, photo by Kirsten Rendle.
The road bridge at 2.5m on the SEPA gauge. Paddler Andre Phillips, photo by Kirsten Rendle.