GUIDE TO THE ABHAINN SHLATACH
NAME OF RIVER: Abhainn Shlatach.
WHERE IS IT?: As you take the road to Mallaig from Fort William you pass through Glen Finnan, once through the village carry on up the road until you see waterfalls to your left across the railway tracks. This is the Shlatach. Map.
PUT-INS/ TAKEOUTS: This is described in the Scottish Whitewater guide; there is a top and bottom section. I have not paddled the bottom section apart from during an epic mistake, since the upper drops are fantastic at spate levels. The final drop in the top section washes straight into the bottom section which is not viable at the levels described here.
The put in is at the top of the rapid you can see from the road. Find a safe parking spot once the gradient flattens out past a narrowing of the road about 2km out of Glen Finnan. Then cross over the train tracks and head towards the river through some boggy marsh. Get out after the second rapid and head back to the road. Parking is possible in a large layby on the river side of a road.
APPROX LENGTH: 1 km.
TIME NEEDED: 1.5 hrs, 2 drops that you'll look hard at and try and work out protection for.
ACCESS HASSLES: Seems to be fine.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: For this description I'm describing very high levels. I have only paddled this section when it has been raining for days and there's also been snowmelt. Last time was after Christmas when roads were getting washed away and the Spean was blowing all pipes with a foot or so or pourover at the top of the damn. The Fassfern and burns along the road need to be juicy for this gem to reach its full potential. The river can be run at lower levels at grd4/4+ and a bottom section included, but for this description the flat sections were running through trees and feel like it's well out of the banks.
GRADING: Drops are grd 5, but not continuous. Rest is fast grade 3+/4-.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: The 2 falls. Also, ensure that you get out before the 3rd section since this washes into a what can be a nasty weir and a nasty 8m waterfall onto rocks then into a lower section that is very serious at high levels.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The 2 rapids are what this section is all about. The first is roughly 150m long and is simply the first horizon line you come to and is the rapid you saw from the road. It drops over a 2m ledge which doglegs to the right; although the hole at the bottom has some bite, it pushes right back into the main flow, the next 75m the river widens (15-20m) through rolling holes and rocks (to catch the unwary) where you should pick a line centre or left to the final constriction. The final constriction falls 3-4m as the river constricts to a few metres wide. Try and boof either side of the seams because the speeds picks up and getting caught upside down could be unpleasant. Some rocks in the flow after the river widens again mean that a quick roll would be nice if you find yourself upside down. Eddy out and grin inanely.
The second rapid is a shorter but equally brutal affair about 3-400m downstream of the first. Eddy out nice and quickly as soon as you feel it approaching, it is marked by more trees around the river and is pretty obvious. This rapid is also great at high water. It starts with a 1m diagonal ledge, right side further downstream and a hefty hole on the left. This feeds into big diagonal stopper pushing hard left. The river then ramps down into a hungry and violent hole at the bottom, worst on the left. Sooo, boof the ledge hard right, punch the hole on the right and keep heading right. Easier said than done. Last time I ran this rapid, I half made the boof, drove the nose of my boat into the rocks at the bottom as I tried to punch the stopper, pogoed over the stopper (on a good line, if in an unplanned an ill-advised manner) and rolled up in time to paddle through the friendly right side of the bottom hole. The first time the stopper pushed me left, I went straight into the left side of the hole at the bottom, it all went dark, my elbow pads were ripped down to my hands and I came up somewhere downstream, luckily past the tow-back.
Seriously fun, big, steep creeking on bedrock.
OTHER NOTES: This all runs at lower water but I haven't paddled it there. The first time I visited this river it gave us a lession in spate caution. The top section was absolutely fantastic, if a little intimidating. When we got on to do the lower section the river turned into a canalised frieght train and it was getting dark, this worried me. There were no eddies, the water charged through trees. We had to duck/capsize under a wire just above the river surface. Seriously worried now; the river went round a corner and a sight that chills all kayakers came upon me, a horizon line with spray going straight up and no stopping. Colin in front of me charged and boofed right, I watched in horror as he went straight into a rodeo winning sequence in his huka. I decided to head further left and boofed straight into what I remember as a massive mushroom of water which threw me violently right next to Colin. To be honest I have no idea what happened to Rob behind me, but apparently he did not escape without a beating either. After an eternity of rolling-up off the bottom of each other's boats and cartwheeling away (Rob, who took a beating and was a little way behind us, said we were trashed for a good minute or so while he could see us after he washed out and grabbed a tree on the left bank), we washed out. Colin joined Rob on the river left with death grips on trees, whilst lucky old me washed up on an island towards the right bank. Great! I decided it was a good idea to get out here since the main flow charged off to God knew what at the time. However between me and the wilderness right bank was a 2m wide strainer filled torrent of a ditch. Rob ran down-stream of the main current, reappeared and motioned a hand cut across his throat. Probably not great down there then, I guessed. They tried to throw me a line, it took 2 of them to get just the bag back out of the current. Hmmm. I ended up throwing my paddles across the ditch, Colin and Rob got a line which I held as I leaped the ditch with my boat to the opposite bank. Emergency plan if I started getting washed down - ditch the boat and pull myself back to where I started. Not ideal, but luckily I ended up making it across. This treated me to a long trudge back up to the top, in a bog, in the dark and a very nervous ferry glide above the very first drop on the river to find Colin and Rob on the verge of calling mountain rescue.
Lessions learnt - 'Spate rivers are of a very different nature. Know the river well, and still check the whole damn thing out. And definitely don't do it in the dark. In winter.' Oh, and Rob lost his paddles. We smoked a lot of cigarettes on the way home to Edinburgh and didn't talk much. Sorry it's a long story, I just needed to get it off my chest.
Has anybody out there run the lower section?
CONTRIBUTED BY: Billy Powell (Colin Hamilton and Rob Brackley). Ex-Edinburgh Uni.