She was standing on the side of a mountain in the highlands of Scotland, wearing a wetsuit and a lifejacket and a helmet.
“When you’re out there on the raft and the water pulls you along, it’s just thrilling. There’s nothing as good as white water rafting.”
And behind Jess, the River Garry was, indeed, promising thrills. The press of the water as it surged down through Glen Garry and onwards towards the River Tummel brought an endless soundtrack of crash and gurgle.
The first sporting challenge was to get into the wetsuit. This was made more difficult by the fact the small parking area was full of people talking and laughing and walking around.
Who could have known that zipping yourself into a wetsuit could bring such humiliation? Or the encouragement of so many passing motorists?
In the minivan bringing the first-timers up the river to the start of the raft-ride, Jess is asked whether people fall in? “Yes,” she said.
That was probably obvious or understood by all in a theoretical way, but hearing it said out loud brought a quicker beat to the heart.
The safety instructions issued on the river bank quickened that beat still further. Don’t panic if you fall in. Hold onto the rope that rings the side of the raft and you’ll be pulled back on board. In time.
And if you lose grip of the rope, don’t panic, just wait in the water and we’ll throw you another rope.
And if the raft flips and you end up trapped under it, don’t panic, and try and push yourself down under the water and back out.
And if you end up being thrown into the deep channel, down under the water, don’t panic. And definitely don’t breathe in. Apparently, many people who drown do so because the shock of the cold water when they are submerged draws them to open their lungs and fill them with water.
So don’t panic, refloat and head for the shore.
There are instructions on how to paddle and how, when the shout from Jess came to ‘Get Down’, the thing to do was to hold the rope and crouch into the raft and wait until she calls for something else to be done when the worst of the rapids were passed.
The River Garry is a dammed river. The dam is opened on Thursdays and Saturdays. This brings a still greater flow of water. And, naturally, it was a Thursday and the water was gathering and swelling as we lifted the raft along a narrow bank and into a shallow pool.
The section of the river where we are stepping into is deemed to be Category 4. There are six categories of difficulty in whitewater rafting. The most dangerous category is 6 — these are rivers which are so dangerous they are basically not navigable. Huge waves, huge rocks, dramatic drops bring a reasonably solid
likelihood of serious injury. Or death.
The categories fall down to 1 — these are stretches of water which are so gentle you may as well bring the bubble bath.
And Category 4? Medium waves, medium rocks, and demanding of sharp manoeuvres to stay afloat.
These categories are set out by the International Rafting Association, which organises competitive whitewater rafting competitions, culminating in a world championship.
The sport has become increasingly popular since the decades immediately after the Second World War. It demands teamwork and initiative to guide the inflatable raft (between three and four metres long) down a river.
And, in northern Europe, in April, it also demands a capacity to cope with the cold. The sharp blast of cold when first stepping into the River Garry was intense. And then it’s out of the water and into the raft. A brief paddle around a shallow inlet to confirm the instructions and practice paddling in unison.
And it’s out into the white water. Six of us on a raft. With six paddles.
Immediately, the water splashed up over the side of the boat and it was freezing again.
And absolutely unnerving. Jess was shrieking with happiness. And sending out instructions on what to do: “Paddle forwards.” “PADDLE FORWARDS!” “Go left!” “GO LEFT!” “That’s not left!”
And she told us that we were about to come to the first serious stretch. Here, the river was falling away quickly, across huge boulders. It was darker, too. There were high birch trees and tall firs on the left bank. And on the right bank, row after row of native Caledonian Spruces punctured the clouds. In the middle distance, a couple of chainsaws roared away.
“GET DOWN!” she shouted. “GET DOWN!” And down it was, crouched into the raft as it lurched and spun and bounced. There was water everywhere. A cold jet shot into the chest and the face. Everything was now wet. People were laughing and screaming and nobody else seemed to be panicking.
Through the first section, a quick count saw we had lost nobody. And then it was through the second section. And the third. And on down to the end of the course.
All the clichés apply — it was utterly exhilarating,
thrilling, spectacular, frighteningly brilliant.
And, best of all, it was over.
Except it wasn’t. It was back into the minivan, back up the glen, back to the bank, back in the raft and back down the river.
This time is was different. There were a dozen kayakers coming down around us. They were being trained as instructors. They were part of a university course that is helping to transform the ‘adventure sports sector’ and helping, also, to bring a renewed sense of life to towns such as Fort William, where they are based for their practical studies.
All winter, this beautiful area is home to hundreds of students who come to take a course in Adventure Tourism at the University of the Highlands and Islands.
They learn about adventure sports and running a business and minding customers and about the ways of bringing new dimensions of learning to people who are in a raft for the first time.
And so it was now that on that second run down the river we turned the raft and paddled furiously back up into the worst of the rapids.
There was a purpose to this. A change on the river bed, and the presence of slower moving water, kicks up the water that was flowing rapidly across the rocks. This breaks its normal flow and causes it to ramp up to make a wave. This wave folded back on itself, and by putting the raft on top of it, we were able to surf. On the top of the wave it felt like we were flying along the river – but in reality we were going nowhere. It was a stunning way to finish.
Only one man fell out of the raft. It was on the second trip. He didn’t panic. He got cold. Very cold.
He didn’t breathe in huge gulps of water. He held onto the rope and was pulled back into the boat. He loved it.
- Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin