I’ve run this exciting river twice now and envisage many trips back to enjoy its many drops, deep pools, bends and twists. There are many other blogs and guidebooks that show you how to find the river and get in so I’m going to launch straight into describing the paddle. I will add that as this river is gorge narrow even a little rain can change the dimensions greatly, creating stoppers with strong tow back and making some lines foolish to run. Always check falls and rapids you are not 100% sure of and have enough people to run safety when required as there are many boat and paddler munching possibilities along the Etive!
The start of the river is a run of three drops aptly named ‘Triple Steps’ (4).
The first drop can look quite intimidating and, as I was still recovering from a bad swim a few days previously, I didn’t run this one, ferry gliding across to the left hand bank and putting in at the eddy above the second drop. I went down the first drop the second time and you want to aim for the middle, slightly left of the rooster tail, taking into account the force will likely push you forward into the second drop without much time to think about it. When I put in at the top of the second drop, I ferry glided out a couple of feet, turned the boat and attempted a boof off the drop! In higher levels there will be a lot of turbulence and pull back on the falls so be ready to paddle hard out of the pool, leaning forward and staying strong.
There are a couple of mini drops until you enter a calmer pool. From here you can run the final drop, which is a little higher at about 12-14 feet. You take this line at an almost diagonal angle, hitting the edge of the drop towards the middle, but aiming towards the right hand rocks. The force of the water carries the boat down to a lovely open pool which will allow you to roll back up or collect boats and paddles quite easily!
The beauty of this section of the river is its ability to be run over and over again, as the drops are so close together. You can also leap from the cliffs into the pools, but obviously use common sense when doing so.
Once you’ve had enough fun on this section and wish to press on, the river twists and turns a little without much difficulty, although do take care in lower levels as the bed is a bit of a rock garden, often having to squeeze in between rocks not much wider than your boat. The next rapid is ‘Letter Box’ (4+), which would be highly advisable to scout. In higher levels you will get pulled back into a stopper (I’ve seen it happen) and think it has been named ‘Letter Box’ as there is generally only one line down, with not much wiggle room if you get it wrong! Take this as far left as possible, aim for a straight boof to avoid pencilling in and avoid the rock wall on the left.
Next up is ‘Ski Jump’ (3-4) which is a lovely wide drop into a soft cushiony pool. You should notice, as the river falls over the edge, a rock, which you want as close as possible to you right hand side. Aim straight and you will fall easily upright into the pool.
A few twists and turns will bring you to ‘Crack of Doom’ (4). I portaged this the first time round as I was viewing with the memory of my last major swim, but I ran it the second time, with a slight hiccup when I hit a very slippery boulder that spun me round. Thankfully I thought quick and reacted by forcing the back of the boat into a mini eddy allowing the water to pull my front end round avoiding running into the gorge backwards! You want to follow the flow down close to the left, avoiding rocks, before sliding into the narrow gorge section between two boulders, which can be quite tricky. In lower levels you want to stick to the left and drop into the pool below because a rock ledge is exposed just under the surface on the left which you would not want to land on! In higher levels however, you will be aiming more for the left to avoid getting caught in any tow back.
Just round the bend is ‘Crack of Dawn’ (4) which I’ve not run yet. This is where I got out on my first visit and the second time round was too shallow, with boulders appearing just under the surface, which would make a nasty landing after a 10 foot drop!
A few moments later we bumbled down ‘The Great Waterslide’ (4), which was a bump and a scrape over a 5 foot drop, plopping into the water rather effortlessly.
Now onto the grand finale, the reason we’re all here, the rush we got out of bed for. ‘Right Angle Falls’ (5+) looms just around the bend. Definitely get out of the boat and have a look at what awaits you. There is an initial curved drop into a pool just before ‘Right Angle’ and care will need to be given. After speaking to a few who have run this before, lower levels can come with its own problems. The curved drop meets opposing forces of water which can cause unwanted turbulence and possibly even a capsize! Take care when dropping in, be prepared to brace or lean and of course if you do capsize….MAKE THE DAMN ROLL!! Personally it’s always these kind of things which catch me out so I focused hard on not letting it. I took my time getting in my boat, breathed and told myself I could do this no problem but if I were to capsize I haul ass and make the roll like never before!
Centred, I started off, sticking to the right and following the curving flow down into the pool before the falls, leaning forward, staying strong and putting in positive, stable strokes. Before I knew it, I was in the pool aiming for the right of the drop which I didn’t want. Knowing I missed the eddy I edged the boat to the left and corrected my direction, aiming dead centre of the water cascading over the lip of the falls…and I was off, falling, placing my paddle to the right, head down, eyes fluttering to a close, meeting the water with the nose of the boat, overturning, instinctively rolling up and hearing the roar of pride from Fergus, being grasped by arms and then hugged.
This was on par with pulling off the ‘Falls of Linn’ on the Tummel and I felt exhilarated and stunned in equal measure. I realised, however, this was no small accomplishment and I have started to run features on rivers which demand respect, strength, determination and often courage to succeed intact. I’ve been watching the videos, reading the blogs and pouring over my friends’ photos of massive waterfall drops and today, this part of the journey has been experienced by me and I could not be happier.
Scraping our way through a rock garden, having to get out at one point we make it to the last rapid on this stretch, which is a 5-6 foot drop into a pool. There is a rock just under the surface on the left hand side but towards the middle there is a bit of tow back so try to boof it and gun it out of there!
All in all a fantastic but challenging river to run requiring safety on many of the features for intermediate and in higher levels advanced paddlers alike.
A couple of final points I think are particularly important. The first is something I have come across on blogs and magazines about river grading. I feel strongly that the grading is in place for a reason and a very good one at that. It provides an indication to anyone running the rapid of what to expect, how much care needs to be given and if there are any specific routes to be taken. There are some who argue the grading system in place on the Etive is too high but I wholeheartedly disagree and feel the 4-5+ grading is highly appropriate, the rapids aligning themselves accurately to the descriptions provided below by the UK Rivers Guidebook. I’ll also be damned if anyone is going to make others feel naive or overly cautious for looking out for themselves and valuing the life of others.
“Severe waves, drops, stoppers and other obstructions. The route is not easily recognisable and will usually require careful inspection from the boat or bank. Grade 4 encompasses a wide range of rivers, from those with pool-drop rapids to those with extended continuous rapids; so there is a huge variation in difficulty. It is common to distinguish easier grade 4 rapids by grading them as 4- and harder rapids as 4+ (or in some cases, 3/4 or 4/5).”
Describing rationale for Grade 4 (www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk)
“Extremely difficult rapids with precise and technically demanding routes to be followed. Stoppers, currents and waves will be powerful and inspection is essential.”
Describing rationale for Grade 5 (www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk)
What the grading systems fails to mention is the level of damage that can be incurred on taking on a grade 4 and above rapid. You must at least consider the consequences of a swim or a missed ‘must make’ line down a rapid. There have been reports of broken limbs on ‘Letter Box’ and broken backs on ‘Right Angle Falls’ which I’m not sharing to scare people, I only want to highlight the reason behind these grading’s, which need to be respected.
Lastly but equally as importantly, it is imperative you always run rapids you are happy undertaking. Never let others cajole you into running a rapid and always listen to what your head is telling you. Remember that you learn much from watching and championing those who are capable of tackling the big stuff today, cultivating your own abilities and bringing you that much closer to running that rapid more confidently tomorrow.