Ailort and Fassfern

The landslides having been cleared from the road and the way reopened to Fort William for non-emergency traffic, we suddenly had a much greater choice of rivers available again, but a lot was still pretty high. We knew some folk had run the Ailort in big water, which was now dropping, so we headed off past Loch Eil and soon found ourselves looking at a river that had clear water, but lots of it. After shuttling, we put on from the loch and dropped down over a small weir. We’d reccied the line under the railway, so knew we’d need not to get pushed too far right…

Almost immediately, the current under the railway bridge wants to push you where the arch will cause grief…

This proved to be fairly straightforward and we all got down this and the next couple of short rapids. We were now eddied out right, with a view down a big stepped rapid, steeper at this side than river left which we probably couldn’t get to. At various stages we all walked to get a better view of what was in store. Lowri and Mary went down first, not without incident. Michael took a line slightly further left – the first drop still looked quite steep with a big stopper, but he blasted through this quite successfully.

Michael blasting down a series of steps

I decided that there was an easier line further left still, so dragged the boat back upstream to the highest put-in I could conveniently reach, and from where the ferry to make my line proved easier than I’d expected. I almost went too far, in fact, but had plenty of time to line up – the inundated willows providing excellent landmarks.

Between the trees – this line would normally be land, I think.

This line proved to be straightforward, no stoppers too big, and time for several paddle strokes between each step, so never any shortage of speed where it was needed. Reunited below this, there were another couple of short steps, then an interval of flat water with an island before the river picked up again. However, it was all easy rapids for a while until we reached a long tongue of water with slides off either side into meaty waves. The line looked easy – straight down the middle of the tongue – but you couldn’t see the tongue from above the horizon line, so you had to reccy the landmarks well. A diagonal wave just before the drop was the thing to work on, but the current at the lip was also not straight, so a bit of allowance needed to be made. Overall, a little bit too far left was probably safer than too far right. Lowri was only just far enough left, and Mary, following, had not quite allowed enough for the cross-current and was slightly right. Falling off the right edge of the tongue, she was capsized immediately, and the nature of the river was such that she had the paddle knocked out of her hand, bashed her head, and was pulled from the cockpit with never a chance to set up for a roll. Ooops. Michael got the line just about right and I followed last, needing to correct my line just a touch on entry, but then missing a hole lower down that Michael had just blasted through.

By the time you are close enough to the horizon line to see the line – you’d better be on it !

This proved to be the last real obstacle, though multiple channels round submerged trees provided some entertainment before we dropped under a bridge and took out river left to inspect the bottom weir. This was definitely not to be messed with, so we portaged left and put back in for the last couple of hundred metres to the cars.

This left us plenty of time and daylight for another river, so we stopped for a look at the Fassfern. This drops off much more quickly, so was already on its way down, but we reckoned there would be enough water for a run. Mary decided not to paddle, so Michael, Lowri and I shouldered our boats and headed up the track. I decided not to run the grade 5- bit near the top, so put on below it, ferried across, and got myself to where I could usefully deploy a throw-line and camera.

Michael on the first drop of Tango.

The first drop didn’t look that hard, but a mistake here would take you into the next drop, with a large undercut boulder in the middle. Left of the boulder, Lowri dropped down to an eddy, while Michael ran both in one and came out to where I was, by now, waiting in the big pool below. There were now a series of shallow rapids separated by flatter water – slightly technical at this level, but not at all pushy. There are overhanging trees to avoid and a few stoppers to punch, but overall nothing too difficult.

Andy breaking out at the bottom of one rocky rapid

Towards the end are a couple of slides down slabs, the second and longer one being known as “backwards slab” because it is apparently bad juju to run it forwards… Michael ran backwards, but did roll up after hitting the stopper sideways. Lowri and I risked the superstition and ran it more conventionally. Upright.

Paddling forwards down Backwards Slab

From here it is but a short way to the end. With the river dropping, it was a sidle down river left under low branches to find enough water, but then cut to the centre for a final whoosh under the bridge to the take-out.

A splashy finale at the take-out

There is another drop below this, “Master Blaster”. This is meant to have a big towback but at this level it was just manky so we gave it a miss and avoided paddling right down to the sea. Now we know the river we’ll hope to run it again with a bit more water some time.

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