After what seemed like weeks of stormy weather, with first Ciara, then Dennis, and finally Jorje passing over the UK, a sunny day coincided with a day off work. It had been too long since I had been out on the water. I was impatient to wet a blade and while it was still rather windy, the headwaters of the Don, my local river, were nicely up. It looked like I could combine a cycle ride on the Trans-Pennine trail with a paddle downriver from Penistone to the delightfully named Cheesebottom, below Thurgoland. It’s a trip of around 6km, with a nice selection of windy bits and broken weirs. Most of the obstacles would be grade 2, with one pushing grade 3 in higher levels.
Usually the river, which passes within 50m of my front door, is about ankle deep, but with all the heavy rain this winter, had been running quite high considering how high up the catchment we live. The source is only around five miles west of us. Today, an overnight peak of around 1.1m had dropped to 0.85m on the local gage. I have done the trip four or five times in the last couple of years, so know the river quite well, but the levels were a bit higher than usual – normally the river peaks around 0.7m, but if it goes below 0.6 the trip becomes quite scrapey.
So, a short drive and a 20min cycle back home saw me wheeling my boat a few hundred yards along the road to the get-in. I had decided to take my Swift Raven out. It had been a while since I’d used it, and today’s trip should be perfect for it.
But things didn’t go smoothly right from the start. Crossing the road, the wind blew the boat clean over. Fortunately, no cars were coming, and it was a royalex boat, not one of my composites, that got dumped on the tarmac.
It was only a few more yards to the river, so I was afloat without too much delay. The extra six inches of water really made a difference – the current was banging from one side of the river to the other, with a lot of the usual eddies actively recirculating or inaccessible due to trees now sitting in the flow. It looked like it would be a fast and bumpy ride.
And sure enough, the first major feature, a sharp 90-degree turn was just that, the current hammering into the stone wall with two eddies complete with whirlpools. A bouncy wave train followed, leading to an S-bend through a flooded shrub-covered bank and into calmer waters. The first half kilometre had zoomed by in a few minutes. This was going to be interesting.
The passage under the bridge in Water Hall Park is usually a gentle trip down tree-lined meanders. Today it passed at a run and I ripped on under the viaduct that carries the train line to Huddersfield.
Not long beyond this is the first of the weirs. Usually this is simple enough, with a line dropping into a small hole by the broken righthand side avoiding rocks and trees further right of the shoot. With the increased levels, there was a very active stopper below the left-hand side, and the shoot lead straight into the bank not much more than a boat’s length below the drop. I skirted the edge of the stopper to stay clear of the bank but strayed too close to the turbulence and fell into the hole.
The subsequent swim was brief but invigorating, and after a pause while I emptied the boat and went back to look at my line again, I was in the boat again heading downstream.
Next came what is probably the technical crux of the route – a broken weir followed by a sharp bend first right then left. A tree used to lay in the water on the apex of the second bend, just where the current would take you, but the floods had cleared this. With the water being six inches higher than usual, the current was passing through and under another fallen tree that usually sits in shallow water but there was a sneaky line left, usually too shallow but carrying enough water today, to the edge of the main flow and into an eddy. A possible righthand line would let the current take you clear of the obstruction but was blocked by overhanging branches stout enough to potentially snag paddler or boat in a strong flow.
I stopped, taking a long look before committing myself. The left line looked best, allowing a loop behind the obvious hazard of the tree. Once more things didn’t go as planned. I missed my entry into the eddy, the bow getting knocked rightwards by the turbulent eddy fence and the current grabbed the boat. Space was tight, just a couple of boat lengths to work in, and I was very aware of the rapidly approaching tree stump. An almost instinctive decision to back ferry saw me furiously paddling upstream, short swear words punctuating each stroke.
It almost worked. With just about eighteen inches to go to clear the obstruction, the bow kissed the trunk. That gentle knock was enough to give the river the advantage. The stern was thrown sideways at the tree. For a few seconds things hung in the balance, then the upstream gunnel started to dip.
A final explosive syllable accompanied my exit from the boat. The funny thing is that there didn’t seem to be any time intervening between the decision to jump ship and finding myself stood thigh deep by the bow.
The boat was properly stuck, one gunnel hard into the riverbed. I stripped what I could from the hull and waded ashore. The painter wasn’t quite long enough to secure the bow to a tree on the bank, so I went back to get the throwline off the stern of the boat and fixed it to the bow loop. This did reach far enough, and with a swift no-knot held the bow from folding with the weight of water.
The problem I had now was that my pin kit was still in the boat, secured to the gunnel at the bottom of the river. I couldn’t reach over the tree and even lying on the trunk couldn’t get down that far without the risk of getting pinned against the hull myself. My phone was in my pocket though, and a quick call to a friend brought help, a canyon line and some more rigging kit. Between the two of us we soon had a 3:1 haul system set up. With a bit of muscle, the boat started to shift. It was looking like I might get away with this after all.
But after a few feet of progress, the stern came free of its support. The boat rotated on its axis like a salmon on a line and was pushed bodily under the arched trunk of the tree. The crackle of the gunnels shattering was loud enough to be heard over the noise of the rapid, and the boat bent into a V.
Now the only aim was to clear the river of wreckage and prevent anyone risking themselves looking for a stuck paddler. At least my remaining gear was now accessible – I managed to salvage all of it; even the trolley wheels had stayed where I had stowed them. After ninety minutes of submersion in the full flow of the current, the seals of my waterproof box had given up though, and I didn’t hold out much hope for my camera.
We needed to change tack to complete the salvage. The hull was wedged firmly under the tree, so we first rigged a line high into a tree on the bank to lift its weight off the canoe. This gave us a few inches more lateral movement before things stuck again. Tying both the tree and the boat off in their new positions, we re-rigged the ropes to make a 5:1 haul system running straight upstream, aiming to pull the boat out from under its restraint.
What we actually managed was to haul both the boat and the tree off the shallows and into the main flow, where they finally swung to the bank. A couple of heaves, and the tree was free and clear, soon to be lost downstream.
The raven was a sad sight – holed where the pressure of the water had forced a branch through the bottom, the gunnels so much matchwood. The seat was off its bolts, and the sides of the cockpit had been crushed and ripped by the weight of the tree.
Reaction was slow to set in. It was only later in the evening that the realisation of how close a call the pin had been impacted emotionally. That small miscalculation, in water I felt reasonably confident in, could have proved fatal rather than merely expensive. With hindsight, I can see my head was never properly in the game on this trip. It’s a feeling I learned to listen to right from my early days kayaking and sailing on the East Coast, through days on cliffs and mountains and beyond, and relearned today. Ignore it and you pay – better to walk away.
I was lucky this time, and did walk away, a bit battered and bruised but with no lasting harm done. And all the wiser for receiving a sharp reminder of the power of the forces we play with.
The boat was damaged beyond my abilities of repair, but I offered it up as a salvage project to anyone who wanted to take it on. I was very happy that Ellery stepped up, and look forward to his repair blog!
This blog is necessarily a bit different to my usual offerings, both in content and style. Conditions limited how often I had a free hand to lift the camera, and events soon took over to make that impossible. I’ll leave you with a final image of the death of the raven, as a reminder that things don’t always run to plan.