With the festive season came the rain; long awaited, we welcomed it at first. At last there would be water in the rivers. Then it became clear that after having how to rain for so many weeks it had also forgotten how to stop. When John Spooner posted his picture of the Usk out of its banks the week before the trip we began to question whether an advertised “WW novice suitable” trip was going to be on at all. The Upper Usk has a very short catchment. It rises quickly and falls just as fast. It went up to “very high twice in the week before we were due to leave, but on Friday it dropped back to just over 1 metre. This is the top of the normal range, meant it would be higher than any of us had paddled it before, but should be just peachy as a run. We checked the guides and took advice. Everyone said to watch out for the third of the three ledges that spice up the trip. It might have a challenging stopper. Eight people dropped out the night before. It’s good to see people making sensible decisions.
One of the difficult things for a chronicler to have to face is that now that Janet organises trips she always turns up on time. One of life’s certainties has been taken away from me and I might have to sulk about it. Sorting out cars and loading boats was a model of snappy decision making and efficient organisation. It sometimes feels as if I’ve been magically transported to a new club. My faith was restored as we headed towards the motorway and realised that we had forgotten the split paddles and would have to turn back to collect them.
It’s a two and half hour journey to the Sennybridge. We each took our own route, the traditional one marred by the closure of the services we always bought coffee in. Once again, I was displaced. PK helped to bring me back by pointing to all the places on the route that he had experienced stag night disasters in. That boy has been to a lot of stag nights. It all fell back into place when we arrived at the river bank and could have a proper faff. The shuttle cars seemed to take forever. When we ran out of conversation we began a warm up. Emma offered her version of exercises and we will definitely be supermarket shopping as a warm up again. Welcome back, Emma, we’ve missed you.
We split into two groups for the river – Brian and Janet led one group, with Shep and I taking the second. Steve and Penny formed a satellite group in the two open boats, staying in contact by paddling between the two kayak groups, at least to start with. Dave and I had the less experienced paddlers and we began cautiously, scouting the bigger rapids and placing safety. We were soon happy that the group had a good skill level, they just needed more confidence. This is a situation that I’m familiar with. The river was definitely running fast. The first drop came up before I was expecting it and Dave and I jumped out to check it. The first group was already through and playing below. It is run through a narrow chute on the far right. Dave put himself in an eddy just above it and I led Krystina through. She nailed the line and came out with a big grin. PK led Jackie and Mark down afterwards. I could see their confidence rising.
The second isn’t far below. The first group were mostly out of their boats inspecting it. It was forming a river wide stopper. Brian had tried a line on the far left but some branches obstructed his approach and came through with some spectacular sky gazing. Ben demonstrated a centre line with skill, but we decided that a swim there might be a problem for safety cover so we took the rest of the group through a far right boof. For my group the sight of Gareth, Emma and Dave popping through without trouble inspired us to go for it and the only one to mess it up at all was me, landing my boof on a submerged rock with a modicum of swearing.
We pushed on to the third drop and where we had agreed to stop for lunch and to scout it out. It was a good decision. The whole ledge was running a rather savage looking stopper. On the left, the side we inspect from, there was a eddy that was rushing water back into a stopper that was very white and bubbly – not a good place to be needing a support. It seemed to be flushing through to the centre, but is undercut . On the far right there was a debatable line over a series of ledges, but it was shallow and error in line would drop you back into the stopper. We all decided to walk.
As we broke out our lunches Penny set up to line her lovely new open boat down though the eddy to save her from carrying it. We watched her whilst chatting to a couple of paddlers from London. The boat landed slightly awkwardly and, within a micro second, the water grabbed it, capsized it and fulfilled every prediction by dragging it out towards the centre of the fall. Steve quickly grabbed her BA and I took the stern line to help. It took quite a lot of effort to pull it back out of the stopper and get it to safety.
With lunch done we toddled back onto the water and set off again. We caught up with group one and had a quick play at the confluence with the Cilleni where there were some friendly play waves. Then they were off again. All the smaller rapids were pretty much washed out, making reading them mostly a case spotting the occasional rock or tree and avoiding them. We encouraged the group to pick their own lines, with a leader in front and PK with the other at the back to pick up pieces if required. I was in front and had just spun round to check the group after a nice turbulent stretch to see Jackie pushed sideways and in no time she was displaying her boats bottom. Although we were at the bottom of that rapid the water was fast and Jackie needed help from Dave to get into the side. PK collected her paddles but her boat and I ran another rapid together before we were able to make it to the bank. It’s very easy on a high river to lose track of how fast you are actually travelling. Jackie’s dry suit did its job magnificently and she was no worse for wear when we reunited her with her kit.
We usually get off the water at Nant Bran Bridge. Because of the speed of the flow we were sure we would have time to double the distance and go all the way to Brecon. We arrived at the Bridge at 3.15pm and I began to worry that we had got it wrong. It had taken three and a half hours to get to that point and we had as far to go again. There isn’t a guide for the next section – we had the impression that the difficult bits were behind us so we should be able to go with less stoppage. The bridge had an interesting wave below it, made harder by the Nant Bran stream coming in from the left. Dave led it and we successfully made it through. I took over on the front and we set off for Brecon as fast I could push us. The rapids from here to Brecon continued at a reasonable rate. We sight read them all and the whole group made a good job of following and finding lines. There was washed out ledges, rocky bumpy bits and big whoopy waves. The Open boats had stopped to bale after the ridge and fell a long way back so we took a quick chocolate break to let them catch up.
Shortly afterwards the river braided each side of an island. As my group came through I looked back to check on them and saw Steve on the island, clutching a swim line his boat floating sideways off and around. I took my group into an eddy, coincidentally already occupied by group one and leapt out, grabbing my new throwline, convinced that I would at last have a chance to prove that it was worth buying. I was to be disappointed, the news quickly came that he was back in his boat and paddling down. We took the chance to check our location using mobile technology. We were amazed to find that we were nearly in Brecon. I relaxed about the risk of being caught by darkness. Even with that stop we covered the second half of the journey in three quarters of an hour, a testament to just how fast the river was running.
Everyone had a fabulous day on the river. We had one swim and there was only a small amount of rolling. Traumatising PK by singing eighties songs in the car on the way home was the icing on the cake.
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