Sunday, 3 March 2013

Packrafting the River Dee (Scottish Highlands)




 


About to set-off in the late afternoon.


The river turned out to be superb (which I'd had a feeling it might). The Dee is one of the 'Big Four' of rivers in Scotland (the others being the Tweed the Tay and the Spey). But the Dee is in a class of its own by comparison to these other long rivers. 

The River Dee


The river valley (strath) of the Dee is far quieter than most long river valleys in Scotland, and the river's character is far more natural (as well as more boisterous for the most part) than any of the other three mentioned above.

I think much of the character of Strathdee can be put down to the fact that although a road runs up it, it is a 'no-through' road. After passing through the attractive town of Braemar on the road, you can't go much further (only as far as the Lin of Dee) before the it ends and you can go on only by foot. The settlements are therefore small, and the volume of traffic is relatively low.

The banks of the Dee, at least for the most part, are wild and natural by comparison to many others. They tend to be rough with rock and heather, and lined with old Scots Pine which lean in over the water. So the immediate feeling of being on the river, inspired by these surroundings, was more 'intrepid' than I've found with the other big ones (although I've yet to paddle the Tay). And this feeling was only re-enforced by the background surroundings of hills and mountains, rocky and snow capped.


Wells of Dee (Sept 2010)


The fountain of all truth and wisdom gives the meaning of the name Dee to be 'Goddess', but even that miracle can get it wrong now and again (and I personally have no idea).

But I know that the source of the river is at over 4000 feet, not far below the summit of Braeriach, and that it made me a lovely cup of tea on a backpack through the Cairngorms in 2010. There are a cluster of little boggy indentations on the high plateau (one pictured left) which are called 'The Wells of Dee'.



Chest of Dee (Sept 2010)


From here the water falls down in a thin cascade first to Garbh Coirre, and then though the Lairig Ghru. It cuts across moorland and then drops through a little gorge of shelf-like falls known as The Chest of Dee. The river gathers strength as it meets its first tributaries.

There is a great deal of potential for good packrafting trips involving the Dee. The obvious one would be a true source to sea, climbing Braeriach to the river's source and then making your way down. But with imagination and some good maps, there are a myriad of possibilities.






It was a beautiful morning when I woke up for the first full day on the river. The water at the edges of the river had frozen.

A Winter Paddling Trip



My trip down the river began (kind of) on February 22nd. I travelled up from Edinburgh by train and then bus as far as Braemar, and by the time I had arrived it was after 2pm. I sat in the Fife Arms for a steak pie lunch and a galss of coke before heading down to the river. All in all, it was close to 4pm by the time I got onto the water and the temperature was below freezing already. I paddled only about 5 kilometers out of town before finding an excellent spot to camp beside the river (the best spot of the entire trip), and settling down. 

The next morning was superb, and although I was up and out of the tent before 7am I didn't get going for a couple of hours. Instead, I kicked around in the woodland beside the river and ate a slow breakfast with multiple cups of coffee. I was nowhere near the road, and it was completely silent other than for the river and the songs of birds. In both directions, the views were of snow bound peaks.

When I finally got moving downstream, the water was flat at first. This soon changed as the current gathered and small rapids sprung up around. The first significant rapids were at Invercauld brdge (I had researched the river quite thoroughly before setting out). After a brief inspection from the the right hand river bank, I paddled the first stretch of this section before taking out again on the left hand river bank for a more extensive scout down the main stretch of rapids. There were a few drops but a fairly clear line to follow. I think they would probably be easier in higher water (with a slightly wider margin for error), but would probably have been fine for me to shoot straight through as it was. Out of caution I decided against (they aren't going anywhere), and carried my boat around.

Bank on the water the river continued to pick up pace, alternating between flattish straight sections and bends where the river lost height and threw up waves and small rapids. For some sections (where it was flat) I paddled with my helmet off. But for the most part, the helmet was firmly on as the river is rocky and fast. This upper section is where the banks of the river are at their wildest, and the combination of fun water and a beautiful setting made for a very enjoyable day.

I was making fairly good progress, but made camp earlier than I had to simply because I spotted a good looking site. Overnight snow fell, and there was a light dusting on the ground in the morning. Snow began to fall again as I was packing up, and by the time I was on the water it was coming down steadily (and continued for the next few hours). Again, the water was good fun and its boisterousness continued to build throughout the morning. 

I made a serious mistake on this second full day out. My research had led me to the conclusion that there would be five sections of the river to be treated with particular caution. The first, at Invercauld, I had inspected and portaged. The next, Dinnet rapids, would be coming up during the second day. On setting off in the morning, it had been my intention to take out before the rapids and use that as a general break and also to scout the rapids (which I anticipated portaging). To my great discredit, I failed to keep a close enough eye on exactly where on the river I was and, all of a sudden, the straightforward white water I'd paddled during the morning took a step up. Looking at it later from the bank, there was a clear line that I should have taken which would have been fine. But having not scouted the rapid, which I hadn't intended to paddle and didn't realise was immediately upon me, I went the wrong way (into a hole I'd have chosen to avoid), flipped and ended up swimming to the banks.

When on dry land, I stripped out of my drysuit (was completely dry inside) and made a cup and coffee and some food to rest with after the swim. It was barely the afternoon, but by the time I'd finished my drink I'd decided to camp early and leave the river for the next day. Although it meant a short day (it barely being the afternoon) it gave me an opportunity to have a walk along the river bank and gather as much dryish wood as I could for a blaze in the evening. I read my book ('The General Danced at Dawn' by George MacDonald Fraser) and enjoyed a fire later on.

The next day was another good one, but I began to see gradually more by way of agricultural land and saw more people than I had up until then. The river, although not without fast sections, became flatter and more placid. I approached an narrow stretch known as Cambus o' May in anticipation of some excitement, expecting big waves and turbulence in this section. But it was almost completely flat, I think probably because the water level was fairly low. I had a couple of breaks beside the river during the morning and afternoon, but then took out at Potarch Rapid (the third of the sections I knew to be particularly cautious of). It was another fairly early finish, but after camping early at Dinnet I had already decided I wouldn't be going all the way down to Aberdeen. I was heading home the next day, and rather than paddle in the morning and find a bus stop to Aberdeen further down the strath I decided to spend a lazy morning beside the river. In the end, rather than wait for the bus to arrive in Potarch, I hitched a lift into Banchory and caught the bus from there.

I'll be seeing more of the River Dee.

My feet were ice blocks for many of the paddling hours. It felt good to warm them with fire.

A Word on Safety


There are few outdoor pursuits which contain no element of risk. I love to read about people's long distance treks, climbing and mountaineering exploits, or whatever else. It is usually fairly clear that they know, understand and accept the risks involved. However, there will always be people on hand to say that to do these things by oneself (as if a partner were a talisman against all danger) is unforgivably reckless. Put simply, I disagree with this.

That said, we are all responsible for our own decisions, our own safety and our own acceptance of risk (or otherwise). I for mine, and you for yours.



15 comments:

  1. great, great post, love the video - that looks like an awesome river....Sea to source...

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    1. Thanks David, it is a really nice river in a nice locale

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  2. Very interesting trip you did here David! Seems to be the perfect river to float after a hike through the Cairngorms. What is the ww-rating of the Dee btw?

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    1. The rating is generally given at 1 - 3, although only a few stretches push 3 and there was very little flat water, so mostly 2. You're absolutely right about the Cairngorms going well with it. It would be great for a spring trip. There is some other interesting stuff around there which warrants investigation!

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  3. Hi David! Cool trip you had there, happy you wore a drysuit during this unintended dive. Joery has a good point there, looks like the highway back to Aberdeen after a Cairgorms trip :-)

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    1. Thanks Willem. Yes, couldn't agree more - much more interesting to paddle back into town than catch the bus.

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  4. Great blog and video. Where do you find the technical info on Scottish rivers?

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    1. Hi John - The UKRGB website is the best, it has a wealth of info:

      http://www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk/rivers/scotland

      Also, there a number of books published by the Scottish Canoe Association (SCA) that have good info.

      Another good resource is http://www.songofthepaddle.co.uk/

      Cheers
      Dave

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  5. Really enjoyed reading about your adventures.....packrafting opens up a whole new world. I'm recovering from surgery at the moment but if all goes to plan I'm keen to get into packrafting when fit. I'll probably be in touch in a few months for advice about clothing as also based in Scotland
    Cheers
    Caroline

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    1. Thanks for your comment Caroline. You're right = when you start to think about the possibilities they just seem to go on and on.

      I hope your recovery goes well. Feel free to contact me anytime!

      Cheers
      Dave

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  6. Like the video.
    Awesome trip.
    Interested to see how your Alpacka behaved.
    Thinking of getting one myself.
    Any advice?
    Cheers
    Steve

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    1. Thanks. Not sure I have all that much advice off the top of my head, but it is a good idea to get on packrafting.org (the forum) which has loads of info!

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  7. Interesting comment at the end of your blog entry regarding making these trips solo. I've been happy to do that when walking/mountaineering and biking but the rafting has taken me to a whole new level of worry. I'm just back from a Spey trip with the Backcountrybiking guys and that has helped me gain some confidence in moving water so I'm looking forward to doing a few more trips this year now.

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    1. I saw bcbs photos from your Spey trip - really lovely river. Looks like it was fun!

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  8. Awesome blog and a great read.

    The fire needs to be bigger though!

    D

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