Adventures in flooded Glen Orchy

Four inches of rainfall was always going to provide interesting conditions for our first day on the water of a five-day Scottish trip. Rivers were already tanking as we drove up on Saturday afternoon. By Sunday morning, the large number of boaters in the area seemed all to be driving round looking for anywhere un-scary enough to put on. We’d chosen a pretty tame bit of river – the Lower Orchy, but hadn’t necessarily reckoned with the roads. Getting to the put-in was OK, but the river was certainly impressive (the put-in is just below the Falls of Orchy, which we were not planning on running, but normally you can’t see a line at all…)

Normally a scrotty fall into a gorge with loads of pinning potential…

Now Lowri and I set off to drive downstream. At Catnish picnic site, yet another road-wide puddle appeared, so I headed in, but soon dropped the speed as a bow wave over the bonnet would have reached the air intake… At a sensible pace, I was through OK in the diesel Subaru, and a slightly shallower flood was dismissed a little more circumspectly. At this point I parked in a passing place and waded back for a conflab with Lowri who decided it was going to be more sensible for her van to drive round via the Bridge of Orchy and the main road. By the time I’d waded back towards my car, a German gentleman in a shiny new BMW had come to a halt in the shallower puddle. It transpired that his engine was now dead, the car (an automatic) stuck in “P” and no way to move it. After a valiant attempt to drag it out with his towrope, we decided that it had good grip in the wet, and was a fixture, so he and his son waded like British seaside tourists in bare feet with their trousers rolled up and I drove them to Dalmally Police station, where the policeman that answered the doorbell immediately knew exactly where we meant. “We had a police car washed away into the river from there”. Lowri now appeared, so I hastily left the Germans to the police and headed for the take-out. I dropped the car and the van set off back to get Mary and Michael warmed up and on the river. A further delay ensued as we had to change Lowri’s wheel almost as soon as we had got parked. Would the adventure end here ?

What do you paddle when the rivers are off their tits ? Tribs, obviously !

Breaking in below Falls of Orchy was slightly less scary than expected (we’d moved well downstream of the epic boils just below the bridge) and the little weir that we had been a bit concerned about was completely washed out with no wave at all. Soon, however, things got a little bigger (bear in mind that these pics are from GoPro helmet footage which always makes everything look flat).

The first of a series of Nile-esque waves

What goes up must come down – about to crash back from the top of a wave

Things did settle down a little over the next kilometre or so, but we arrived at the Catnish picnic site (where we’d taken out after a reasonable length run on the previous visit) after little more than ten minutes. Continuing, we came to another set of rapids, normally a bit of a slidy ledge. It looked somewhat epic, so we broke out to check for trees and assess the rest of the rapid. Mary walked round a little, while the rest of us took a left-hand channel that would normally have no water whatsoever…

The start of the channel was a bit minging, with a tree strainer river left if one didn’t make it across the flow and down to (or past) Lowri in the eddy. Right channel wrong way up was definitely better than the wrong channel upright, and I rolled up anyway 🙂

Normally no water here – quite a stonking river in itself today

Picking up Mary from river left, we piled on down the rest of the rapid, normally a sedate grade 2…

“This slow moving, meandering section brings its own delights to those who prefer their rivers with a little less excitement” (Scottish Whitewater guide)

Now the river did flatten off, but hardly slowed down, as countryside flashed past either side, revealing flooded golf courses, trees nowhere near land and birds of prey hunting for drowning lemmings and suchlike. Finally, as we entered Loch Awe so near Halloween, what better way to round off the trip than to paddle through an eerie submerged forest to a haunted castle ?

On the way back, we had to return to Glen Orchy to retrieve Lowri’s van from the put-in. This entailed passing two “Road Closed” signs at the turn off by Bridge of Orchy, but we were happy that we weren’t going as far down as Catnish… Many shallow puddles later, we noticed that the river was just about level with the road on our right. Then a deeper puddle appeared, and beyond it, another, with a significant flow from the hillside to our left. From having driven the Catnish flood earlier, I was confident enough to drive through this one, but it was just as deep, and we now had a bit of an issue. Was it worth driving down to Lowri’s van (with water levels still rising, and now getting dark, too) if she would not be able to drive it back ? We decided we’d better go and see if it needed to be moved to a safer place. The rest of the way had no deeper floods, and I turned round hastily for the drive back, waiting to see if Lowri was going to risk driving. That question was answered as the van set off ahead of us (Lowri thought we were waiting for her to go first). All went well until we got to the deep bit. It didn’t seem to have come up noticeably, and Lowri got through, so we followed confidently behind (well, I was confident, anyway). It wasn’t too long before we crossed the Allt Kinglass and climbed away to the main road. Home and dry !

Well, not quite…. The main road was itself equipped with some quite long (though not that deep) stretches of water, now almost invisible in the dark. On one of these, hit at fifty or so, we were quite pleased that the road was straight ! Just beyond Balachulish, as we neared our destination, we were flagged down and told that the road ahead was closed by landslides – but it turned out that this was between Corran Ferry and Fort William, so since we were only going to Inchree, we were allowed through (phew!). We were glad we hadn’t picked Spean Bridge or Roy Bridge as our base for this trip. Apparently the landslides had occurred at about 10 on Sunday, and it was expected that the road would be open again within 24 hours. By Monday, the road was indeed clear, but not open, except to emergency vehicles, pending a risk assessment (it was still tanking down). So all in all, we were quite pleased to get back to a dry bed !

The Orchy peaked about three hours after we’d left the Glen, at around 3.3m on the gauge (average level is about 0.6m), so it is by no means clear that we would have been able to get Lowri’s van back if we’d been delayed much more. We seriously doubt that a tow truck would have ventured down the glen after the police had closed it, and we saw the German BMW still there as we paddled the river, so I am very much more confirmed than ever in my view that I would never want to have an automatic gearbox. I’m rather cheered by the fact that that opinion drove me to having a diesel Outback this time 🙂

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