Adventures, Coaching, Kayak

A near miss…

I hadn’t paddled the Upper Wye before but it seemed a relatively straightforward section of river from the descriptions.  There’d been plenty of rain and although I didn’t have anybody to play with I wanted to get out on the water and explore, so a solo adventure was on…

I locked a bike at the get out at Rhayader so that I could nip to fetch the van at the end of the paddle, then drove to Dernol.  This is not the guidebook get on, but the place a friend had said was the best access point to get straight into the grade 3 section of the river.  However, I took a scenic route and, although I now know there is a really obvious place to park and get on the Wye just south of Dernol, I ended up driving round Dernol itself looking for a place to park and walk to the river.  This, in hindsight, was where the trouble started.

I parked up and quickly dressed and sorted my kit next to Nant y Dernol, a small tributary of the Wye that was running high from the rain.  I quickly scouted the next 50m or so of the stream and it looked clear so put on for what looked like an easy ride to the main river about 100m away.  And it would have been straightforward had I not come around the final bend to see this…

Hazard ahead...
Barbed wire, rusting corrugated steel and debris but luckily not a kayaker…

I was in real trouble.  The stream had a decent gradient on it and I was only a few metres away from a tangle of barbed wire, corrugated sheet metal and river debris blocking it entirely.  I had few options and no time.

I find it remarkable how much clarity one can find in these situations.  I moved quickly, to eddy out river left, in what wasn’t an eddy but was an area of reduced flow (left bank in the image) where I could desperately stop the boat drifting backwards by holding onto some tree roots with my right hand.  With my left hand I threw my paddle onto the bank, retrieved my tape and karabiner from my PFD pocket, clipped the karabiner to the boat, released my deck and then held the tape tightly.  With a kick and roll I was on the bank and seconds later the tension came on the tape and the fight to retain my boat commenced.  I was now safe, but there were moments where I thought I was going to lose the boat until I managed to get a wrap around the tree to take the weight and then manoeuvred the boat back to shore.  Time to collapse, breathing heavily!

So, what did I learn?  You might be thinking this is a cautionary tale about solo boating but quite the opposite; I honestly think that if I’d been with a couple of friends at least one of us would have ended up in a horrible situation on that barbed wire.  No, instead this is a lesson about remembering that whitewater paddling is only safe until you forget it is dangerous.

Whitewater paddling is only safe until you forget it is dangerous…

Scouting and planning ahead is critical.  If you are going to start improvising and heading off piste, recognise this and make no assumptions that anything is safe until you’ve checked it out.  Complacency based on expected grades can lead to surprises, and even a familiar, ‘easy’ river can become lethal when something changes, as is so often the case in the UK’s tree lined, contested access rivers.

Getting safely on and off the river is a hugely important part of a paddle so don’t pay it lip service.  Have a good understanding of where the get on is and accept that a normal access to a major river should look well used.  If it isn’t, maybe you are in the wrong place, keep looking.  Picking the wrong access, or like I did, jumping on a little known tributary can be dangerous and trespassing may quickly become the least of your worries.

How did the story end, you ask?  Well, I got back in my boat and had a cracking first paddle on the Upper Wye, albeit an overly cautious one where I inspected a couple of drops, just to be sure.  Once bitten and all that…

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