|Avon Descent 2007 - From the eyes of a novice|
© 2007 P. Tuckwell
|> Paddlers' Stories Index|
It was a sweltering summers day, and the Avon river would have been devoid of water when Joel emailed me. His paddling partner for the 2007 Avon Descent (who he was intending to compete with as a team) had just advised that she had other plans, and word on the grapevine was that I was looking for an Avon paddling partner. Looking at my freshly patched, slightly twisted, deeply scratched 10 year old Avon descent veteran kayak with rusty steel bolts holding in the knee bracing, I thought, 'what better way to finally destroy this green piece of plastic'. I really had no idea what the Avon Descent involved and very limited whitewater experience, but a 2 man team was formed. Joel had competed the previous year in a team of four and I was to rely on him for much advice and motivation that enabled us to finish the race on the 5th August, 2007 and my first Avon descent.
The training was just as enjoyable (if not more so) than the actual race, and our good intentions started early. Our intended 'mega-training' sessions soon turned into more casual paddles with fellow enthusiasts, intercepted by the occasional coffee in South Perth or dumping by a wave at a metropolitan beach. Our summer 'training' took my kayak to such diverse places as a pristine river in Fitzgerald National park, virtually the entire shoreline of the Swan/ Canning Estuary and lower Swan river, and in the ocean off Dunsborough. As pleasant as the summer paddling was, the year progressed, it became cold and the winter rains began. Our thoughts turned to the really fun and challenging training whitewater kayaking.
The first step for me was passing a safety competency course essentially learning how not to die when you fall out of a kayak and get tossed down a rapid. There were about 12 people doing the course, and they were all in a ski (sit-on top kayak) apart from me. For them it was simple kayak down a rapid, gently fall off, and then ferry glide with their ski back to the shore with their feet up and with the technique that we were taught. I was the only person in a sit in kayak, and the previous week the only person also in a sit in kayak ended up breaking his front two teeth on a rock in the same competency test. It was with some trepidation that I went down the river at 8:30AM, locked my knees in, tucked my head down, then intentionally flipped upside down in the middle of the rapid and floated in my kayak the wrong way up. On pulling the rip cord of the spray deck I left the kayak and ferry glided safely back to shore. After several other tests (mainly involved with swimming) I left the water utterly cold and exhausted, with some skills and knowledge that probably saved some broken bones or worse in the coming weeks. Rule number 1 - Keep those feet up!
The river levels rose, and Joel and I were keen to get on to the rapids for some practice but given that white water kayaking is dangerous, we wanted a few more people to come along to help save us. The opportunity came when some friends and fellow Avon competitors (Jon and Murray) decided to train with their Endorfinn Skis in Walyunga National Park. Jons partner Judith also came along with a friend where they were planning to spend the day in a Canadian Canoe. On a chilly Saturday morning we found ourselves carrying the kayaks and one massive, heavy Canadian canoe, down a steep slope for a couple of km's and finally launched the boats into the Avon River at Lookout rapid. I was about to do my very first serious whitewater trip!
Now, I must admit, I was scared.
The week before Joel had taken me for a walk to have a look
at Syds rapids, one of the more daunting rapids on the river,
and that had me pretty nervous. These were much bigger than
anything I had done before (limited to the Collie River which
is a fraction of the flow and with only small grade 1 to 2 rapids).
As we started heading down the river, I discovered what all those
paddle strokes bow draw, brace etc were useful for.
The rudder is pretty useless for the
As the water level was not as high as normal, Syds was very rocky and it was a constant exercise of steering around the submerged obstacles. Judith was on the bank yelling out directions ('STAY RIGHT!') which enabled me to avoid the big traps in Syds, although there were several times I was teetering on the verge of capsize after hitting rocks. Soon enough I was in the calm waters below Syds, very wet but still upright and feeling quite proud of myself.
We passed through Walyunga chute, the pebble race and several other rapids that seemed quite benign at this water level, then it was onto the last rapid for the day Bells. The 2m drop down the first and main Bells Chute was exciting (moreso than at a higher water level) and involved dodging a big rock at the bottom. After navigating the chute, the rest of Bells back to the car was easy at the water level that day, and without a swim on my first real whitewater trip I had false confidence for the rapids at the higher water levels in the weeks to come.
Two weekends later there had been a lot of rain and the water levels were up, so we all decided to go back up to the river for some practice. This time we launched just below Emu Falls in the Avon Valley national park, again finishing at Bells Rapids in a long 40km stretch. The water levels were much higher than the previous trip, and it was going to be interesting to navigate the same rapids as before but at the higher water level.
We launched into the valley and I began my first experience at the higher water levels. This time most of the rocks had virtually disappeared, but in their place were huge stopper waves, holes, whirlpools etc that tossed the kayak around like a cork in a cyclone. In most of the larger rapids the spray was going over my head as I carved through the standing waves, momentarily blinding me while trying to navigate. Someone I managed to make it down half of the valley before my first swim ever in whitewater.
Moondyne is one of the harder rapids on the river, both in technical difficulty, but also with the navigation at the top and bottom of the rapid. You enter a large drop around a corner after going through a thicket of Ti-trees that block the view to the approach. I managed to enter the rapid OK after narrowly missing a trapped ski, made it down the rapid and through the hole at the bottom upright, and was just starting to make smartarse comments to everyone else who had fallen in. Then the inevitable thing happened the current was so strong that it pushed me into the Ti-trees, which pushed me out of the kayak. In an instant I joined the other six people swimming in the rapid below Moondyne, all ferry gliding for an eddy near the shore.
The Moondyne capsize was good, in that it was my first whitewater unintentional swim and it didn't hurt a bit plus it was easy to rescue the kayak and paddle and make it back to shore. Others weren't so lucky, and there were the remains of a K1 racing kayak and half a ski lodged in the trees at the bottom of Moondyne. We pressed on, past the Lookout rapids (our launching spot the previous trip) and made it again to Championships rapid. This was really cranking, with much more water and a large hole at the bottom of the rapid. I entered the rapid, then fell into the hole at the bottom, more underwater than above. The massive current in the hole tossed me around for a few moments with the blinding water up around my face, before deciding to spit me out without a capsize. Jude and Marcus in the canoe followed, and quite impressively they also remained upright. However, so much water flowed into their open canoe while they were in the hole that the buoyancy decreased and they literally sank after it spat them out, with both of them still sitting in the canoe.
Syds and the other rapids in Walyunga national park followed, which I found easier at the higher water level (although I did take a swim at a small rapid after getting the kayak stuck in a tree and having to bail out). Bells was approaching, and I wasn't worried at all we were nearly back to the car, and I'd had no trouble at Bells on the previous weekend. We approached the chute and I went down the rock which caused problems the trip before was completely submerged, and therefore no longer a risk. Cocky and overconfident, the experience down Bells at high water began, and ended with me half drowned, bruised, battered, and much more down to earth with renewed respect for the river.
Going down the Bells chute was easy just steering afterwards was hard, and I became trapped side on on rocks in the middle of the river. It was stuck fast (right next to another kayak that someone had abandoned) and no amount of paddling would overcome the huge force of water pressure pinning it there. Somehow I scrambled out of the kayak and onto a mid river rock without getting wet, but in the process I broke rule number 2 of white water kayaking and tilted the cockpit towards the current. The boat filled up and bent, threatening to break under the immense force of the water, until somehow I managed to pull the boat free just enough to get the cockpit out of the water. By this stage the kayak was so heavy that it was impossible to hold onto along with the force of the current and I was forced to let go. As I did, the kayak knocked my paddle, which I watched disappear into the next rapid and into god knows where. The kayak also floated away, but was luckily rescued by a playboater instead of being pinned and destroyed elsewhere by the current.
So there I was. Up a creek without a paddle. Or a kayak. My dignity was destroyed, I was already contemplating how many hundreds of dollars I would have to fork out for a new paddle and there were crowds on the bridge overhead all enjoying the entertainment I was providing. Stuck on a rock in the middle of a large rapid in fine until you realise that the only option available is to jump bum first into a raging torrent, which I did, but only after several minutes of working up the courage. Self rescue without a kayak to worry about was easier than I expected and soon I rejoined my kayak (which had been placed on another rock in the middle of the rapid by its rescuer). But, again I faced a similar problem stuck in the middle of a rapid with a kayak, but no paddle. Then I remembered the emergency breakdown paddle that I had stowed way down the back of the boat for a situation just like this and, utterly exhausted, headed back down the rapids.
It was 15 minutes since the drama began, and my group of fellow kayakers had patiently waited at a mid stream eddy created by a large rock. On approaching them, they held up my lost paddle, which somehow had floated straight down to them 50 metres away (and the river is quite wide and full a paddle trapping snags at this point so it was a miracle). I approached, and graciously took the paddle, before losing balance from exhaustion and capsizing once again. My friends left on their final 50 metres down a rapid before the car. My thoughts were on a second lunch, dry clothes and the trip home as I once again drained the kayak mid river, and took off towards the days final destination down a rapid.
Then, it happened. My lack of concentration took its toll and I hit a rock in a waist deep but fast flowing section of river. Into the water again, but this time the ride was rocky. One after another the current hurled me into an exposed or underwater rock, slamming my back and buttocks in a very painful manner. At one stage my foot became stuck temporarily in an underwater rock and I thought my leg would break before it luckily freed itself (yes, I broke rule number 1 and had a foot down I don't recommend it). After much water swallowing, battering and bruising I regained composure, found an eddy on the riverbank and dragged myself onto the mud of the shore. Coughing up water and nursing some large bumps, scratches and bruises on my back, bum and legs that would hurt for a week, my overconfidence and cockiness was gone and replaced by a lot of respect (or fear) of what the river can do to you. And that was important, as the next day Jon, Joel and I had plans to do one of the most tricky and dangerous sections of the river the Ti-trees.
Sunday morning found us starting to paddle at the flat but fast flowing waters near the town of Toodyay, with a finishing point just below Emu Falls (our launching spot the previous day). Practice navigating the Ti-trees was our aim, but we were also in a race against Judith, who was running the 20km to our destination.
The Ti-trees are notorious with kayak mishaps and scary experiences and I was nervous about this trip, particularly at the higher water levels. We entered the Ti-trees and it became evident why they had the reputation they did. The water flowed swifty through vast groves of tightly packed Ti-trees, with channels flowing between them. Some of these channels were clear and open, only to come to a dead end around the corner. Some of the channels were very narrow and low, with not even enough room to swing a paddle or travel without ducking. With reversing not an option in the fast flowing river, immediate directional and navigational decisions were essential and changing your mind was a sure way to end up trapped side on against a tree. Basically choosing the wrong way was better than not choosing a way at all.
There were several times that I nearly capsized once getting caught in a snag midstream along with Jons ski, and several times after hitting a chest high overhanging branch that I nearly had to go sideways to avoid. Remembering that speed was the trick to navigating these narrow fast flowing channels, hitting such a stick would be painful. However, I made it to Cobblers Pool (the 1st day stop for the Avon Descent) without a swim, then down a small rapid to the final section of the ti-trees. It is here that I became caught on a tree side on and was quickly overturned by the swift current. The water was around thigh deep, and I only just managed to keep hold of the kayak with one hand and keep a grip on the river bottom with my feet. I didn't dare to go for a swim the Ti-trees are dangerous things to get caught in both for a paddler and a kayak. After several minutes of tug of war with the current, and losing my footing several times, I managed to haul the kayak into an eddy and drain it, ready for another ride.
The end of the day was sensational, with a few large rapids with a bad reputation that we all conquered. The superchute was first, where the whole river effectively narrows to a 2m wide and tall gush of water and turns the corner like a giant waterslide. Then came Emu Falls themselves, a steep and rocky torrent of water that was difficult to navigate and in several steps of rapids. At the bottom of Emu Falls we were all quietly chuffed that we made it down without a swim, and were feeling good about the time it took to get to that point from Toodyay until we found out that Judith had beaten us on her cross country running adventure.
And, with that, training was over for Joel and I. The next time we sat in a kayak was for the actual Avon Descent the following weekend. With 3 Avon whitewater trips and plenty of flatwater training under our belts we felt ready, but the race was to throw in a few surprises of its own.
On Friday 3rd August, Joel and I found ourselves with my support crew (aka girlfriend) Erin, locked out of our accommodation in Northam, the night before the Avon Descent. Also joining us were Murray and Jon, who were also competing, and their girlfriends and support crew, Lisa and Judith. Earlier in the day we had gone and checked out the upstream parts of the river that I had not yet paddled, including Northam Weir and Extracts Weir. We also checked out Katrine Bridge, a deceptively safe looking spot with a dark history. This was the site of the last Avon Descent death in 1995 when someone drowned after getting caught on a pylon, and the high water levels this year meant that we had to be careful.
We also registered for the race and dropped Joels kayak at the starting point just above Northam weir. It was hard finding room for his kayak amongst the hundreds of skis and kayaks there which ranged from ancient plastic sit ins (I think mine was the most ancient and scratched of them all) to mega expensive 6m Kevlar sit on gold plated diamond encrusted platinum reinforced double skis. We also caught a glimpse of the paddles that people were using for the race, which mainly consisted of carbon fibre or fibreglass bucket paddles which cost three times what my kayak is worth. They seemed to store these paddles in special felt paddle bags to stop them getting scratched. We nicknamed them 'Gucci paddles' and wondered how the hell they were going to keep them in that condition over 60km of Avon Valley rapids.
To make a short story shorter, we made it into our Northam accommodation and the next morning Joel was in his yellow Finn waiting for the start. He was doing the first section to Katrine Bridge, then we were alternating until the end of the day at Cobblers Pool (2 sections each). The race started with the powerboats, then shortly afterwards the paddlers took off over the chute at Northam Weir. Our support crew and I watched Joel, Jon and Murray take a graceful slide down the chute before heading to the changeover point.
Joel made good time to Katrine Bridge without any mishaps and I took over in the green kayak. I had never paddled this stretch of river before but had the impression that there were no rapids, so I took along my best racing paddle and wore a pair of unstrapped sunglasses. Around me was a plague of skis, nearly all Endorfinns, and it was a real challenge keeping up with them as the pleasant green scenery floated by. Then, in the distance, a dull roar turned into a decent size rapid (Glen Avon) straight ahead. What? A rapid? I didn't know there were any rapids on this part of the river? Oh well, here goes!
The first rock on the first rapid of the Avon Descent caught me out and immediately I was upside down. The spectators and cameras, thirsty for some capsize action after a year of drought, paid special attention to me over the other capsized paddlers, who were back on their skis quickly. Somehow my sunglasses stayed on and I ferry glided around trying to find some shallow water or an eddy to drain my kayak. Meanwhile, the race was still on. A shout rang out 'On your left!' and I barely missed being run over by a double ski. Moments later and Endorfinn painlessly banged against my helmet 'Sorry mate!'. I had made it onto a submerged island of rapidly flowing Ti-tree covered shallow water in the middle of the river, just above the second drop of the rapid, and without any dry shore to drain the kayak on. This was going to be really tricky.
5 minutes later I had half drained the kayak and flipped it upright (after watching my bailer come loose and float downstream). My aim was simply to get out of that rapid and drain it properly at an easier spot. Hopping back in and re-clipping my skirt, I prepared to launch, just as my paddle flipped out of the clip and became lodged under the kayak. Bugger! It couldn't be reached, so I had to evacuate from the kayak and repeat the whole draining exercise, this time nearly losing the whole kayak down the rapid. Eventually (after storing the paddle safely in a Ti-tree) I was decked back in, with a sea of spectator eyes waiting for my re-launch. Launching just a metre above a rapid from an eddy was going to be tricky and I was worried more for my pride than my health!
A massive cheer went up from the crowd as I made it down the rest of the rapid safely and suddenly I was feeling better again, even though I has just wasted 10 minutes of the race in its easy early stages. 5 km downriver I decided that racing with 40 litres of water in the boat was not ideal, and after a short stop to drain it, continued past Extracts weir (portaging the kayak) and on to the changeover point where Joel took over.
Now, the Avon Descent took on a new meaning. It was not just a race between kayaking competitors, but also a race between my paddling partner on the river and the car to deliver me to the next changeover point. The traffic was horrendous and clogged with spectators and competitors alike, and Erin and Joel had only just made it at the last changeover in time (which made me feel better about my 10 minute capsize adventure). Erin bravely pressed on through the traffic to the next changeover point to arrive just in time, and I was just about to have my first bite of lunch when Joel arrived. There was no waiting. The lunch was instantly rewrapped and stowed in my kayak and I was off to do the dreaded Ti-trees.
Long skis and composite materials are great for speed in flat water and have a great advantage over small plastic kayaks like mine where manoeuvring isn't an issue. To say that manoeuvring is an issue in the Ti-trees is an understatement, and I quickly found my self overtaking a multitude of Endorphins, double skis and sea kayaks that had become trapped in the Ti-trees. Most of these became trapped sideways in the current, both blocking off the passage for other boats and probably damaging the long vessels. I had narrowly avoided several capsized skis before I came to one that was still upright with a bearded paddler anxiously sitting on top trying to free his boat. He was right across the channel, and there was no missing him at the speed I was travelling. In one enormous wallop we both connected and capsized into the current. My hungry eyes watched my salmon sandwiches float off towards Fremantle. I hope the seagull that found them was happy.
In terms of Ti-trees, this was a lucky position to capsize as we were both within metres of the river bank in knee deep water, and it was an easy matter to drain the boat. I found the navigation easier than the previous week due to that experience, and several km's downriver passed a purple Endorfinn stuck around a large tree trunk, oscillating in the current , with the owner nowhere to be seen (it turned out that he/ she was safe). Passing many skis and long kayaks, I soon found myself passing through the Ti-trees with no one to follow and a dozen paddlers blindly following me through the maze. Inevitably I led them all into an overgrown dead end that resulted in a queue of boats all trying to go no-where. Somehow, after some bailed out and walked along the shore line, and others pretended that they were scratch proof, we all made it out into clear water. For some reason no-one followed me after that.
Day 1 ended with a small but fun rapid just above Cobblers Pool, before being met by Erin, Joel and the rest of our friends. After a hearty meal back at Northam we retired early, ready for the hardest day of the Avon Descent.
I think that the hardest part of day 2 was waking up at 5AM. After chipping ice of the windscreen, we all headed off through the fog back for the 1 hour drive back to Cobblers Pool, where most of the other competitors were in a 'refugee camp' as Joel described it. The start at 7AM was just barely visible, with the fog reducing visibility significantly and the temperature just a few degrees above freezing as the sun rose. Paddling in those conditions would be wet, cold and miserable, particularly if you fell out. I was glad that it was Joels turn!
Shortly after Joel disappeared into the Ti-trees, Erin and I drove to the next changeover point along a normally closed road in the Avon Valley National Park. This time traffic was not an issue, and we arrived with plenty of time to talk to other competitors and watch the race leaders speed pass in their K1's. One by one the teams arrived for a changeover, and we started to hear horror stories about the pile ups at the Ti-trees due to the congested start. One chap told me how he rescued a guy by grabbing his head (which was submerged) and reefing him out of a Ti-tree as he floated past. Another came through with stories of mass kayak pile ups at the bottom of Moondyne rapids and all at freezing temperatures. Erin and my thoughts were for Joel and we were looking forward to his arrival.
While waiting for Joel, I also started thinking about the leg ahead which was familiar to me, having done the route twice before. This time the water level was higher again, so it was going to be exciting doing the rapids of Walyunga again. My main concern was the dreaded Bells rapids, and the scabs on my knees reminded me of the last painful encounter. Speaking to another waiting team competitor about Bells, I obtained advice that later proved to be valuable in navigating my nemesis.
To our relief, Joel appeared after a safe journey and I was off into the swirling bubbles of the Avon river. The river levels were higher and it was a fun ride navigating the rapids as quickly as possible. Spectators cheered at each rapid descent, and again the smaller kayaks seemed to have an edge on the longer skis (which were less stable on the rapids resulting in swims for many ski paddlers). It was a game of yo-yo the skis would pass the kayaks on the long pools, then the kayaks would pass the overturned skis in the rapids. Soon enough I caught up with Murray on his Endorfinn and it was good having some company.
All was good until Championships, which I had twice conquered, but it was not to be today. The crowd gathered on the bank watched me enter the hole at the bottom as one, then exit as three (kayak, paddle and me). As the river current was quite swift at this point, it was 50m downriver before I could safely get to shore and continue with the race. Murray paddled past trailing a rescued paddler, having conquered Championships. Murray and I continued to paddle together until we collided at one tricky small rapid and both went for a swim. Here I lost my paddle, and was starting to panic until Murray found it for me after remounting his ski. Murray was well ahead of me after I had drained the kayak, and then the roar in the distance announced another big challenge for the day.
I turned the corner and there was the main drop of Syds. This steep rapid had rescue personnel stationed and a large crowd gathered at the bottom of the main drop to watch the mornings entertainment. I narrowly dodged a trapped ski at the top of the rapid (the paddler was being rescued) and it was into the steep drop at Syds, for better or for worse. In my head I could hear Judith yelling 'Keep Right!' even though she was probably 10km away. Obeying the voices in my head, I kept right for the exhilarating ride and dodged the deceptive rock at the bottom to arrive intact to the calmer pool at the bottom of Syds. Here the crowd gave a big cheer and clap, and it was a pleasant and dry journey through the rest of the pools and rapids of Walyunga.
A familiar thicket of Ti-trees, the lookout on the hill, and the sound of many people cheering and clapping I couldn't see it yet, but I knew that just around the corner was Bells. This kayaking leg was nearly over, but the biggest challenge was still to come. The bruise on my back from the previous week throbbed as the bridge above the Bells Drop came into view, packed with spectators. This was it! My chance to conquer Bells!
I had a choice to make listen to the advice of a stranger I met that morning and hit the Bells drop at an angle from the left, or follow my gut instinct and go down straight. Based on my previous record, the stranger was the more trustworthy source of advice, and I passed under the bridge from the left. Within moments I was at the bottom, and after a few unsteady moments I was free of the current that had trapped me the previous week. Thanks Mr Stranger, whoever you were you made me very happy!
Heading towards the second rapid (which I had not attempted at this water level) the route was unclear, and I capsized. This time I found an eddy quickly and forced a team of newspaper photographers on a riverside rock to move so I could drain the boat. This time, my Bells capsize was no-where near as painful as my previous experience, and very soon I was down my last set of rapids for the race. Erin and Joel were awaiting my arrival, and as Joel paddled off for his last leg of the Avon Descent, I felt like I had conquered Bells (simply by not getting hurt!)
The next changeover point was at Sandalford Winery, where a fete was taking place and a passing baby decided to suckle on the _" threaded nipple providing ventilation to my kayak. At this stage the power boats started to come past, much to the joy of the spectators (I guess kayaks paddling flat water are a bit boring to watch). After giving some water to a parched lonely paddler who hadn't seen his support crew all day, Joel arrived and I was off on the last leg of the Avon Descent for 2007.
The trip on the calm, estuarine waters of the Swan River were vast contrast to the forceful rapids I had been paddling just a couple of hours before, but nevertheless pleasant. Fellow paddlers, happy to be close to the finish, came up and had a chat before they passed me, including two exhausted looking chaps in a sleek looking double kayak. Their boat had broken somewhere upstream in the moving water and was held together with gaffa tape. At least once when they were in my view they had to go ashore for repairs or drain the boat. They eventually finished (ahead of me), a great achievement for a broken boat.
During the last 15km, there were numerous groups of spectators. Kids, Mums, Dads, Grandparents and dogs all cheered as we passed, and provided an essential psychological boost for the exhausted lone paddlers around me. The river widened and turned a corner under a bridge, and there it was in the distance the finish line. I became concerned, as in my head I thought the cut off time was 4PM, and it was now 3:45PM. I wasn't sure, but didn't want to take the risk. Paddling like crazy, I passed through the finishing line at 3:55PM to the awaiting congratulations of my team and friends.
And that was it the Avon Descent for 2007 was over. Jon (who had arrived an hour earlier) assured me that the cut off time of 4PM was for Sandalford so I had plenty of time. We all received medals and a free beer, and we heard an official in the presentations mention that '2007 was the best Avon Descent in 10 years' due to the high water levels and great weekend weather.
Then, like that, our 7 month Avon Descent adventure was over. For me, none of it would have been possible without the initiative, advice and encouragement from Joel, the great support crewing from Erin on the race weekend, and all of the organising and training with Jon, Judith and Murray. Thanks and congrats to all of you for a great race.