After my mishap in Glen Lyon, it was pretty obvious I was in need of a skills update from BackcountryBiking. Clearly, not killing myself in a river accident would be advantageous to my well being, and so some white water training was the way forward. After a very snowy night out in the Cairngorms, David H and I met up with Andy Toop and went down to the river.
Before that though, it was throwbag practice. Andy explained the pro's and cons of different bags, and we had a go and throwing and catching. Important to have the right weight and length for you personally. Throwing in a straight line is not as easy as it looks, even when not under pressure on terra firma. Re-coiling and throwing in an emergency is an art in itself. Qualified instructors and users alike need to be able to do this at speed for the skill to be effective in extremis.
We practiced our white water skills on a stretch of the River Feshie, in the Cairngorms. Our day was mostly class 2/3 rapids with one or two smallish drops, and pitched spot on for both of us. By which I mean I looked at the route at the start of the day and thought, "I'm seriously out of my depth here, I'll never manage this'', and by the end of the day, I had some appreciation of the tools needed to read river hydrology and I was playing with the pullback in the bandersnatchers, charging at the drops, surfing riffles, and grinning like a cheshire cat.
This next bit is going to sound like an infomercial but I'll happily and shamelessly promote BCB forever because it's a personal business and rooted in passion. One of the things I like about their operation is that it's still small enough to run completely bespoke classes. The years of outdoor education experience just tells, as well. Less experienced people will try to show off or blind you with science - it becomes about them, not you, it's kind of embarrassing and can lead to everyone else overcompensating - not big, clever and certainly not safe, especially in an outdoors ed context. That's not what I've seen with Andy and Rob's delivery, quite the opposite. Their courses are a laugh, inclusive and information rich without being lost in gobbledigook. Most importantly, it's experiential - learning rooted in doing. As someone who taught from community ed to degree level across London for the best part of a decade prior to moving north, I honestly can't fault their methods. This is modest, generous and empowering teaching. There's clearly more than just a safe pair of hands at work here.
We looked at a host of technical stuff we'd read about in the Dial book - ferrying, up and down river V's, pour overs, slots, brace positions, backpaddling and finding shelter in smaller eddies within the rapids themselves, tilting the boat into and against the flow ...and on and on... but the truth of the matter is in practical application, again and again on the same rapids until the lessons are not so much learnt as felt.
The breaking news is that BCB are now the official distributor for Alpacka boats here in the UK. I understand they have boats to hire as well as buy, in addition to their existing courses. So, for the first time there's a qualified outfit offering both the tools and the skills to use them, safely and to full potential, to packrafters in Blighty.
We warmed up our chilly digits in the fine surrounds of the Suie bar in Kincraig. The day was a huge confidence boost in exactly the right way: a huge amount of FUN can be had managing the risks of white water boating, but it's a balancing act and I'm really glad I got a little more insight into just how much. As Andy says ''the river will not stop killing you!''. Respect to that.