Braemar is the perfect packrafting location. The River Dee has many miles of easy touring or challenging whitewater, and the Cairngorm mountains contain a wealth of adventure, whatever your mode, or modes, of transport. We chose packrafts and feet for this trip as we sampled a variety of Deeside goodness from well run rivers to crazy spate burns.
Colonel’s Bed, Glen Ey
Starting of the trip, and a walk up Glen Ey to check out the Colonel’s Bed gorge. Not to paddle it, just to look at fantasy lines.
Colonel’s Bed gorge from above
Lots of photo ops here. It’s a stunningly beautiful gorge.
Love my DJI Spark, it gets to places that might be otherwise tricky to get to.
Later in the day we went for a play on the Dee behind our holiday cottage at the Linn of Dee. The rapids just below the Linn are quite entertaining, and as the Dee was at a good level swollen with melt water the river was fairly tanking along.
Dee from Victoria Bridge to Invercauld Bridge
We parked our hire car at Invercauld Bridge and walked back to Victoria Bridge over the hills above Braemar.
Time for a brew up on the woodburning stove before getting on the river. Lots of nice dry wood by the river.
It’s a bit early for the salmon yet, so we didn’t see any fishermen on the river.
Looking down the Dee towards Braemar.
The rapids at Invercauld come as a bit of a shock after 6 miles of near flat water. We picked a line we wanted to try and follow from a prior bank inspection. However the melt swollen river had other ideas and we had to go with the flow whilst avoiding the meaty holes. Having backed off this rapid at lower levels last year we were happy to have run it that day, and enjoyed it so much.
Time to practise the rescues
The following day we fancied having another play on the rapids behind the holiday cottage. Walking down to the river, all 50m from the cottage, it was clear that we would not be getting on the river that day. The warm temps had massively increased the melt rate and the Dee was too high for us. What previously had been fairly chunky waves and holes had become a continuous series of holes linked by huge boils rising out the water surface.
So we spent a few hours practising throwing throw lines into the river and setting up back belays to allow us to throw from otherwise unsafe positions on the river and to increase the distance we could throw out in to the middle of a wide river with a 15m throw line. Not sure this setup is great, in theory it should be easy to get out that waist sling, but it comes with risks too. Paddling as a pair comes with some extra challenges that we are always discussing and working on. Going to do a swift water rescue course soon to learn more. Loch Avon
Leaving on a big day out from Linn of Dee to Loch Avon in the heart of the Cairngorms.
Packing the night before.
Perfect weather nearly all day, still a cold bite to the air, but warm enough to not feel challenged by the weather.
With warm comes swollen burns to cross. Normally this burn is a few stepping stones. It wasn’t that deep but it was fast and powerful so we roped up. On the way back it was more serious having risen during the warm day and swept Suse of her feet, we were both glad of the rope.
Heading up to the Hutchinson Hut, starting to feel like winter up here.
Zarna demonstrates her built in crampons!
Loch Etchacan is so beautiful when it is frozen, I never tire of seeing it like this.
The drop down to Loch Avon from Corrie Etchacan still had heavy snow and ice so time for ice axe and crampons to protect the descent.
Yet another brew stop.
Looking past Loch Avon to Cairngorm.
Surfing the burn that feeds Loch Avon. Moments after this I got out my boat and took my hand of it only for the wind to pick up the boat and blow it down in to the loch, luckily the wind was across the loch so the packraft ended up nearby, rather than 2 miles down the loch.
And ices floes to finish! We had planned to paddle the full length of the loch and run the burn down to the stepping stones but the lower half of the loch was still frozen. I suspect Zarna the dog was ready to get out!
No paddling, then it must be time for sledging.
30 mile round trip for about 20 mins of paddling, but still smiling. That was a proper mountain adventure day out.
For our third river adventure we fancied something a little easier. The Dee was still looking pretty chunky so the lower section we had planned to do was out. As a group it would have been fine, but for a pair of paddlers it was just a bit serious for our abilities. So we chose to head up Glen Derry again to look at the Derry Burn. Also swollen with melt, it looked serious but like something we could manage and protect due to it being a bit shallower with good bank protection. The sun was beating down and it looked to be the epitome of packraft adventure riding a spate burn down out the mountains back to our holiday cottage.
We carefully scouted the river from the paths up the side.
Identified the hideous grade 75 with stuff gorge section to be avoided. Identified all the fallen trees across the river.
Rock garden fun, it looked serious but doable.
Even with some nasty hidden strainers for the unwary swimmer.
Suse setting off down the Derry Burn from just below the gorge.
From the get in the paddling was tough. The burn was going hard with few eddies and no calm down the banks.
Waterlogged beauty under the flow.
What we had failed to see on our inspection was a single 200m section of grade 3 rock garden terminating in a 5m slab with a big drop and a nasty wave at the bottom.
The rock garden started just round this bend. Within 20m we were both out our boats. Suse managed to get to the bank by the second bend, but I was caught in the main flow with no way to get out and constantly being swept over rocks and through holes. I’d felt quite smug when I first came out. I’d managed to calmly get out the thigh straps, I’d hung on to both my boat and my paddle and was calm in the water with a good defensive swimming posture and staying calm as I got dunked through the holes. My plan was just to float it out out to the end of the rapid as there were no real eddies to get to and the constant rocks made it hard to move across the river to the banks. Then I jammed my paddle behind a rock so had to leave it. Still floating, increasingly battered, but still calm.
Calm until I went round the third bend to look down this, the slab shown above! Luckily in the bend was a small eddy, so I launched myself in to it, jettisoning my boat to use it as a spring board and front crawling like crazy, I felt the current tugging at me, it was a fight to get in that eddy. That first handful of heather at the back of the eddy felt amazing. Having checked that Suse was safely out the water, I then had to chase my packraft half a mile downstream.
I’m glad I didn’t go down this. Either as a swimmer or in a boat. Many lessons learned. Spate mountain burns are something else, adding in so many new elements to a paddle. And properly inspecting every metre of them is something now firmly ingrained in our experience. Some different strategies for running and protecting rivers as a pair of paddlers needed. And having a throw line that is in a boat that you have lost is less than optimal!
Fourth trip out for my Alpacka Stowaway dry suit. It kept me warm and dry but the rocks cheese grated the butt, and bruised my butt and spine pretty badly.
We walked back in the next day to look for the paddle. The levels had dropped by about 30-40cm revealing the rocks and my paddle just. Sadly the fibreglass shaft was pretty trashed.
Still smiling, still alive, some new stories to tell and lots of new river knowledge gained the hard way.