Not as advertised

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Grose River 6 January 2016.  2.6m on Grose Wold Gauge

Paddlers – Steven Molino, Colin Biggin, Cameron Bolding, Matthew Vernon

It was the last week of my January leave, the rain was falling, the rivers were rising and I had nothing in particular planned.  The call went out on Yahoo to see if anyone was interested in doing a mid-week trip.  The problem was that when the call went out rivers were either red (too low) or black (too high) in the Paddlesafe App so my options were based on current levels and forecast rainfall.  The Grose was looking like a good option.  At flood level (4.4m) it was too dangerous but the rain was forecast to ease off and I was expecting the river level to drop quickly overnight.

I was joined by Colin, a new club member from Scotland who has been paddling Grade 4+ whitewater all over the world for decades. Cameron, a work colleague of Mark Brackenreg, a former whitewater kayak guide in Norway and Matthew, a former club member of grade 4+ standard. 

We agreed to meet at Navua Reserve at the bottom of the Grose at 7am, assess the current water level and, if it was looking good, run it from Quadling Hill, a 23km trip. The NSW Waterways Guide describes this section as grade 2-3 rapids at the start then after a grade 4 rapid at Wentworth Creek, several grade 4 rapids followed by 6km of flat water. 

Cameron and I agreed that the river is not as advertised.  We felt it would be better described as grade 2 rapids above the grade 3+ rapid at Wentworth Creek followed by very open, clean grade 3 rapids which can be boat scouted from eddies.  This is how I advertised it to the team.  However, we had paddled it at about 1.5m and when we met that morning it had dropped from its 4.4m peak to 2.6m but its rate of drop was slowing.  What was of concern is that the rain had not eased as expected and the BOM radar was showing a rainfall hotspot at Bilpin right near our put in.

The guide draws a line at 2.0m above which it says the river is in flood and it is not recommended for paddling.  Although it had been several years since either Cameron or I had paddled that section (and we had both only done it once) we felt that at higher water everything would still be paddlable although many of the rapids would be washed out.  We also thought that some of the larger drops might be a bit meatier.  I informed the others of this too.

Our first setback came when we drove down the fire trail to find the National Park gate locked.  This was a contingency we had planned for, hence the early start.  It meant a 4km boat drag along the fire trail to the point where you climb down to the river.  I had used the Paddlesafe App to monitor the river level and rainfall, to register our trip plan and to read up on all of the details of the trip, including the walk in.  I then used it to take us to the turn off on Bells Line of Road and to guide us along the fire trail.  I highly recommend the app for all of these things.

Using it as a satnav to guide us along the fire trail was particularly important because I did not want to miss a turn off we missed last time when we ended up adding an extra 2km of boat dragging to the walk in.  The app took us to the end of the fire trail then it stopped providing any directions other than showing that the put in point was another 800m away.  We stood on a large rock shelf which I remembered from last time but I could not recall where we went from here.  The app says to find the Telstra rope and lower yourself down the first line of cliffs which I do recall doing last time but where was this rope?

Then Cameron spoke up.  He said last time he had driven all this way and even closer to the river along a track which he saw go off to the right a few hundred metres back.  We followed Cameron, dragging our boats another 1.5km while the app kept telling me to go back.  We reached the end of the track and were closer to the river so lowered our boats down the first cliff, then the second, then the third until I lost count of how many cliffs and steep inclines we had to lower our boats down.  This was a much steeper descent that the one I took last time.

On one steep section Matthew lost control of his boat and it went careening down the escarpment before stopping 200m away.  His paddle, which was sitting inside, was snapped in two.  We continued to lower ourselves and finally reached the river at 1pm.  It had taken longer to walk in this way that it had the last time I did it and on that occasion we had a 2km detour.  A potential improvement for the app would be to take you to the climb down location.  I will look into doing something about that.

We ate our lunch and I went through my pre-paddle briefing, reminding all that this was grade 2-3 at lower levels but at this level some rapids might be washed out and other chunkier but the first part of the trip would be the grade 2s.  The guide also mentions a block up we would need to portage a few hundred metres downstream of the put in and I recalled that from my last trip.  I was concerned I had brought Colin on this arduous walk in to do a few grade 3 rapids.

Within 50m we hit our first rapid.  A grade 3 with a steep drop.  I didn’t recall this but maybe we put in downstream of this last time.  Then the next was a grade 4 that we needed to paddle from right to left to avoid a nasty cushion onto a rock on the right which fed into a huge rock with water pouring over to create a large hole.

Colin led the way and made the line look easy.  I followed but managed to flip at the top and when I rolled up was pushing onto the cushion where I again flipped.  I rode out the drop, rolled and then paddled over the edge of the big pour over and landed in the edge of the hole which I managed to surf out of quickly.

This was followed by more grade 3 and 3+ rapids, some of which were fairly challenging and Matthew and Cameron had to also put in a few rolls.  We must have paddled over the block up somewhere in there.  All along the way beautiful waterfalls cascaded into the river, increasing the cumecs.

Suddenly we reached Wentworth Creek which was absolutely pumping and almost doubling the flow in the Grose.  We got out and inspected this long rapid which was runnable on the hard right but there was a big stopper that risked knocking you off line into a big hole which was clearing into trees.  After quite a bit of thought Colin decided to run it while the rest of us portaged.  He got an excellent line and we paddled on.

By now it was apparent that Colin was by far the strongest paddler in the group and, when we couldn’t see the whole rapid from the top, he would make a hard-to-get eddy to take a closer look or read and run as he went, making challenging moves to avoid features as they loomed then giving us the line.

The rapids were getting bigger and more challenging: Grade 4 but all open, clean and runnable, if you took the right line.  Some of those lines meant following the main flow and punching through big waves but others meant intense paddling across confused water as you motored from one side of the river to the other. 

On one of the longer, more challenging rapids I paddled hard from one side of the river to make an eddy part way down on the other side which Colin and Matthew had just left.  Once in the eddy a rock was obscuring my view of their line so I tried to jump into the eddy Cameron was in so as to get a better view but being winded I slipped out backwards.  Not wanting to run the rapid in reverse gear I spun around only to see Colin fishing Matthew and his boat out below the rapid.  What was the line?  I headed in the direction I last saw Matthew heading and as I approached the bottom drop saw a towering stopper which was too wide to go around.  I put in a few power strokes, leant forward and reached for the top of the pile.  The boat stopped, went vertical and I was flung back but somehow it bounced over the pile and I landed upright and I paddled down to help Matthew.  He had been thrashed by the stopper but when he flushed had been unable to roll.  His paddle explained why.  The metal shaft was bent at a 120 degree angle.  Out came my breakdown paddle.

We paddled on and the rapids got bigger.  Colin took on more and more probing duties until we reached a rapid he needed to bank scout.  He signalled to walk it which we dutifully did.  From the top in looked runnable but the line between a big hole and getting slammed into a rock was too narrow for any of us wanting to risk it.

I thought we had reached the flat water but there were several more big rapids to come.  I followed Colin down one of these but was so focussed on negotiating the features immediately in front of me I missed his line on the bottom drop.  He was sitting in an eddy signalling to go river right so I followed the main current and shot the last drop on the right only to hit another huge stopper which completely stopped me this time.  I tried to surf it almost vertical but it flipped and flushed me.  I rolled to see Matthew and Cameron better understanding Colin’s signal and motoring flat out to the far right of the river to avoid the hole altogether.

When we were finally in the flat water the adrenalin levels started dropping and the muscles started to ache.  We got off the water at 6:15 about four and three quarter hours after we started.  Colin commented that after the first few rapids he was thinking we Australians have rather large grade 2s and 3s.

When I got home I saw that the river had risen again that morning but by the time we got on, the water had dropped again to 2.6m.  In my opinion this section of river is runnable at higher than 2m. 

At the 2.6m we ran it, it had numerous open Grade 4 rapids with final features which could not be boat scouted from above the rapid.  We portaged two rapids but both are runnable if you can precisely nail grade 4 lines in big water.  You do need to make an early start as the walk in is long and there is plenty of opportunity for mishaps on the river to slow you down.  We carried a PLB and EPIRB, 4 break down paddles (we used 2) and some basics to get us through the night if necessary as there are few walk out options.  We registered our float plan on the Paddlesafe App which I highly recommend both as a tool for this purpose but also as a river guide and a satnav to put in and take out points but remember, not everything is as advertised.

Steven Molino