The Scottish Highlands

"The Gnarly River of Death!", Iain MacKinnon exclaimed as the rest of the crowd in that old Fiat minibus were eerily quiet while the tension in the atmosphere grew stronger by the minute. We were approaching one of those magnificent, roaring Scottish highland rivers that only true Kayakers would dare to paddle. The rain was pouring, as you would expect on the verge of the Atlantic, and despite BLT lunch and hot chocolate, it was Baltic.

 

Being an average kayaker, the first bit of the river was a dander - a few waves and a couple of rapids - but nothing serious. We approached the pick-up point where we had the option of getting off or to continue down the gorge. I felt secure enough in Iain's leaking, duct-taped boat to accept the challenge and do the gorge, which was unthinkable the first time I did the river. The gorge is one of those things you don't do if you've got family - steep sides with no pick-up points, roaring water and treacherous subsurface currents.

After mastering some demanding rapids - we arrived at, what I would call the Gnarly Rapid of Near-Death. It was a complex three-phase line down between upwelling water and sharp rocks. Most of the guys had already checked it out and made it, and now it was my turn. So I set off toward the first turning point in the narrow side-channel, bypassing the big hole on the other side. It all went well until the current from the hole hit me on the side. I kept paddling and managed to do the turn despite the unbalance I was in after repairing the previous blunder.

And it would have gone well had the rest of the second phase not been such a balancing act on the middle edge between two upwelling cells of water separating one giant rock from the other. I slid into one of the cells, flipped over and got caught in the downward current. Immediately I realised that this was no place for an Eskimo-roll. I pulled my spraydeck and felt myself being drawn down into the dark, cold depths of the gorge. Paulo - the Portuguese guy that was aptly placed just downstream on a rock - threw a rope toward me immediately as I went down. I grabbed onto it but there was only one problem - the currents spun me around such that the rope was now in a circle around my neck! Paulo did the right thing as he saw me grabbing on to the rope - he pulled it.

With the last bit of clear mind I had left after the blood flow to the brain had been blocked, I grabbed onto the rope above my neck and just held on as Paulo pulled me up. A while later while catching my breath on the rock, I saw the boat finally emerging again at the upwelling point downstream - I was glad I pulled my spraydeck that day.

 

Many a thing has Braveheart country brought me apart from just knowledge, such as friendships that last much longer than the time it took to build them up. Maybe I'll live there someday.