GUIDE TO THE RIVER SPEAN
(Spean Bridge to Lochy Confluence - The 'Spean Gorge')
NAME OF RIVER: Spean.
WHERE IS IT?: Keep going up the A82 from Fort William and you'll find it, flowing through Spean Bridge.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: Start at Spean Bridge. You can gauge the water levels here too! Park at the very back of the car park behind the woolen mill (NN 22212 81634). A small path leads from here down to the river. Take out near Mucomir Power Station. Drive out of Spean Bridge towards Inverness and take the minor road to Gairlochy at the Commando Memorial. Eventually you will pass over the hydro spillway (NN 18341 83847) - there is a layby here by the house, however if it is busy there are possible laybys a little further down this road that only add a half km or so of flat paddling. Another possibility is to continue down the River Lochy to the sea at Fort William.
In low water if you want to avoid the flat scrape from Spean Bridge to High Bridge there is a possible put in on river left from the High Bridge road near Fairy Steps (NN 19981 81870). This is not an easy put in and involves a bit of steep scrambling!
APPROX LENGTH: 5km
TIME NEEDED: The Spean gorge takes two or more hours.
ACCESS HASSLES: The inhabitant of the house by the take out at the power station was extremely paddler unfriendly (see “other notes”), however he appears to have moved!
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: Gauge available here http://canoescotland.org/where-go/wheres-water
If the Laggan Dam has pipes open or if much water is coming out of the River Roy, then the Spean Gorge will be too high; paddleable but washed out. With the Dam releasing it's time to look at the upper section from Laggan Dam.
Jim Wallis adds...'there is a gauge for the Spean Gorge, river left downstream of the bridge. Very Green and only readable by starting with a number you can make out (i.e. 10 because it is the first double figure) and working backwards! Conventional wisdom says:
- Below 2 feet. Grade 3 with some drops of 4, headbanger is quite hard and certainly dangerous.
- 2 feet - 4 feet. Grade 4, Generally a bit harder, headbanger is more reasonable, the constriction is a big drop.
- Above 4 feet. Grade 2 (4) with a couple of rapids. At 4 and 5 feet the constriction may form a big hole, which can be portaged.
- I ran it at 7.5 feet earlier this year and it was Grade 2 (3)! Even the constriction was sort of washed out, but with a big whirling eddy and massive boils!'
- If it’s not touching the gauge and there’s lots of bedrock visible below the bridge consider that maybe you’re doing the wrong sport for the weather conditions.
GRADING: Grade 3/4(5) in low water, when it is usually paddled. Boily grade 3 in high water with one grade 4 fall.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: Plenty of undercuts and siphons. Catches trees fairly easily, so be wary of paddling around blind corners.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: This is perhaps the best bit of the Spean, but can only be done in low water (in high water the entire gorge VANISHES and becomes flat and boily, leaving only a grade 4 rapid where the 'constriction' used to be). The gorge is a remarkable and unusual place...undercuts and sumps abound, so splatting rocks is probably not an advisable pastime and the whole trip deserves respect. Even so, there is at least one excellent cartwheel hole around if you keep your eyes open.
Launch from the car-park in Spean bridge. Grade 2 water leads off for the first mile or two. Eventually the river narrows and the gorge begins, as General Wade’s High Bridge comes into view. The obvious tall bridge stanchions (the second set, the first are a dismantled railway) are at the bottom of Fairy Steps, a long grade 3 rapid with some stoppers to avoid. Note that a large tree has been stuck at the bottom of this rapid since at least 1997. From here on the river is narrow and technical grade 3/4.
The most notable fall is 'headbanger' where the gorge opens out a little and flows left, then sharp right down into a grabby hole with a rock on the left about where your head will end up. In low water plenty of the water sumps here and it is very dangerous (grade 5)...see the comments below. Portage on the left to a nice seal launch spot. A major siphon here collapsed a few years ago, however this has not really cleaned the drop up at all. With sufficient water the line cleans up to a nice grade 4 and the whole rapid washes out in very high flows!
Another fall you will remember is Cauldron, a drop where the river bends right over a drop with a very sticky hole into a boily cauldron to catch out the unwary.
You won't miss the 'constriction'...take a wild guess what happens here! Portage on the right is fairly easy - the rapid itself ranges from unrunnable at various levels to a fairly simple boof ledge at others, inspect on the day as minute changes in the level make huge differences.
After the constriction there are only a couple more drops before the gorge opens out into flat water all too soon, and you paddle on down to Mucomir Power Station where big pipes enter on river right. I haven't seen these open, but the big chunk missing from the far bank suggests that they can have some power! Climb up the bank to the road and change discreetly. Directly below the river flows into the River Lochy. Continue if you want a longer trip.
OTHER NOTES: The Spean Gorge is an unusual and brilliant trip. There are more possibilities on the Upper Spean. The Spean also has some excellent tributaries; consider the Roy, the Pattack, the Allt Ionndrainn and the remarkable Ossian and Ghuilbinn trip.
Some stories from the Spean Gorge:
Colin Curwen adds...'We paddled the Gorge section from Spean Bridge down when Laggan Dam was on two outlet pipes. This washed the gorge out but created a lot of other features, which we used for a bit of playing. It also didn't take long to paddle as the normal scouting necessary in the gorge when the water is low wasn't necessary when high. The only bit we scouted was headbanger, as we erred on the side of caution, but as mentioned above this was now transformed into a small drop with the boiling eddy presenting more of a problem than the drop. Not as exciting as paddling it when it is low but worth a second trip if you find out that the at least two pipes have been pumping out.'
Bob Evans has an unpleasant tale...'Last time I did the Spean Gorge in very low water, we all portaged Head Banger, it didnt took much fun at that level. At medium levels it looks much easier, and has always went smoothly for me. It sounds like we did the right thing. A group I was with had an epic in the gorge a couple of years ago. A few sections before Head Banger but below Fairy Steps, someone got pinned in their boat across, an otherwise, fairly harmless looking narrow section. He was totally under water for some time and was finally pulled out forcibly dislocating his knee in the process. Had it not been for the swift and effective action of the group he would not be around today. All that remained was to get his boat out, about 10 minutes, and then get him out of the gorge with a dislocated knee, about 1 hour. This took place on my first ever trip to Scotland, and was the first river of the trip. I have always had a healthy respect for the Spean Gorge after that. In the picture the boat is just visible under the surface, this was the position the paddler was rescued from. Faces and clothing have been altered to remain anonymity, our lucky paddler didn't tell his wife fully what happened and she may recognise the rescuers!).
Chris adds...(July 2001) 'I have only paddled this twice, the first time was with a bunch of experienced paddlers who hadn't run it before, we had no idea about the levels. The gorge never appeared, there were many big unpleasent looking stoppers all the way down and boily eddies that needed caution at all times. At what should have been the constriction the river was a good 6m wide. All told we had 5 swims between 8 of us including a 1km chase of boat and paddler to the end of the gorge. It didn't look that high at the entrance, the river dropped by a foot in the hour and a half it took us to paddle it. The second time down was at low levels, headbanger was looking nasty, boof a surging boil to avoid the towback. We also found out that the river had been about 4 meters higher in the gorge when I ran it the first time, it had been 3' up the bridge stantions half way down the section. The levels at the start had only been about a metre or so lower.'
Chris Bolton...(March 2003) 'We paddled in very low water, and found the river enjoyable at that level. We put on a mile or so below Spean Bridge to avoid the flat section, by carrying down from the minor road above the left bank. It may help avoid confusion to know that the badly undercut grade 4/5 fall usually known as Headbanger is referred to in the [original] SCA guide as Witches Cauldron, and the Cauldron itself is not named in that guide. The Constriction was so tight that we had to pull up on the gorge wall to lift our boats through it. The last fall in the gorge is called Right is Right and Left is Wrong, which normally gives a clue to the line, but at a very low levels, a tree is exposed in the Right side, invisible around the bend, and probably unavoidable. At this level, we found that the tree on the left can be avoided. So don't take the name too literally and if in doubt inspect it.'
Tales from the take out:
Marv Higgs...'We paddled the gorge recently (January 2005), and as we drove the shuttle we were approached by the owner of the house (he is known to be anti-kayaking) next to Mucomir power station (at the get out). He told us that "the Police had advised him if more than two cars were parked in the layby at the getoff then he was to inform them, and they would subsequently ticket the cars". Not wanting an argument (multi-river day!), we drove one of our cars half a mile down to the Caledonian Canal and left the others in the layby.
He was very amenable and thanked us for moving the vehicle, but as to whether the Highland Constabulary would come out to ticket cars on that B-road is very debatable. Be warned!
There is also a fallen tree on the path at the getoff, blocking the path. He mentioned that he had objections to people climbing the bank and would rather paddlers went over the tree (tricky with a boat!).'
Frith Wood (November 2004)...'The fella living at the take out sees a lot of traffic from the not so nice type of fisherman, as well as boaters. hes got himself kinda conflicted over the years, to the extent that paddles leaned on the fence, and cars in his drive upset him. If all paddlers could make an effort to extend a warm greeting and consideration then perhaps we could start to defuse this guys problems. He needs generosity and kindness not confrontation, when you get him talking he's alright. Don't just put your head down and hope hell go away.'
Stephen Ward (April 2004)...'We completed the river and had a great time. We parked at the Powerstation to change and head off. Upon arriving their after paddling the river we were greeted by who I assume was the caretaker. We had in all fairness hung our cags up on his chainlink fence to help them drain. However he was VERY aggressive. Apparantly canoeists have been breaking his fence and leaving a lot of litter. He took our number plate and threatened to report us to the police. He also accused us of leaving a can of Tennants Super on his grass (it was rusting upon closer inspection). He also refused to pass it over the fence when I offered to take it away with us. Great river have fun and BE NICE to the man :-)'
Marc, Sheffield (December 2002)...'I thought I would let you know of an incident after a fantastic trip down the Spean Gorge. Whilst getting changed (discreetly) the owner (presumably) of the house next to the power station (that we were parked in front of the power station fence) approached us and very angrily told us that 'if we dared to show any flesh or damage the fence then the police would be called'. We asked him, politely, what was his reasoning for this, he replied that all EVERY canoeist that parks here destroys the fence and indecently expose themselves...and that canoeists have no proper upbringing or morals - we argued that this is certainly not the case, and that a few unfortunate incidents does not justify such a view....anyway he wasn't open for any form of democratic discussion, and seemed rather put out that we didn't argue back at him. I'm not sure what his position is with the power station, as the fence has nothing to do with his property. We asked 'If there is such a problem then maybe it would be prudent to put up a notice'. his reply 'why should I'. I got the impression that he did not have any authority in trying to prevent us from changing at the power station, more like he just didn't like people being there changing and parking after canoeing. I thought I would let you know, so that others on his approaching can be prepared...'
CONTRIBUTED BY: Mark Rainsley, Kirsten Rendle, also Colin Curwen (LMUCC - ThinkDrink), Bob Evans, Chris, Marc, Chris Bolton, Stephen Ward, Marv Higgs, Frith Wood and Jim Wallis.
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