Last year I had the great idea of taking an Open Canoe down the entire length of the river Usk in South Wales but circumstances and life conspired against me and it was another 12 months before I would have the time to try the descent ... sadly, this time I lost out on paddling with my friend Nick as our diaries didn't quite match up but Ollie and I both had a week free and nothing could stop us ...
... except the weather!
The week before we set off the snow began to fall and the night before we left for our start point at Sennybridge the snow became so deep that the roads were impassable past Brecon and from Hereford (where the intrepid Ollie had to drive from)! Our trip was immediately delayed by a day and we went to bed hoping for a break in the snow just long enough to allow the roads to be cleared for us to get to our start point!
Tuesday dawned bright, clear but cold and tentatively Ollie ventured out from Hereford and down to Usk to collect my canoe and I. The roads were awful from Hereford to Abergavenny (and Ollie was caught behind a Highways Agency Discovery that had rolled off the a465 for an hour) but it was clear down to Usk and we had a straight run up to Talybont on Usk where I had to make the most influential decision of our trip, before it had even begun ... did we push on to Sennybridge or did we start at Talybont and avoid the worsening weather?? We decided to push on to Sennybridge and made it to the put-on by 11am where we unloaded in the gently falling snow and hoped for the best.
The river was pretty low at only 0.88cm and was interrupted unfairly regularly by fallen trees blocking the whole channel. The first three drops on the section were too shallow to be paddled in fully laden canoes which left us with some interesting lining combined with brave leaps into canoes as they floated beneath the waterfalls but we managed to descend without too much delay.
As we bobbled down towards Aberbran (between Sennybridge and Brecon) Ollie suddenly went very still and very quiet, reacting quite aggressively to me shouting 'what's up Bud'? It turned out, as I paddled down to him, that he had seen three otters playing along the bank before slipping back into the river as he drifted along with the current. I was only lucky enough to see the bubbles breaking on the surface as one of these otters made its way through the current and beneath a fallen tree for shelter but Ollie had seen the whole of the moment as the three cavorted and carried on in the snow!
We stopped at Aberbran and enjoyed a lunch on the gravel beach ... by which I mean, we hopped from frozen foot to frozen foot as we wedged a pasty into our mouths, helped down by lukewarm Thermos's of tea! We had made good time to Aberbran and our discussion was focussed on how far past Brecon we would manage before dark at 4pm.
From Aberbran we followed the line of the river as it wandered between boulders and rapids until we reached a beautiful section of still water bounded by snow covered trees and we began to discuss our options for the evening. We were both carrying Whelen Lean-to Tents which really needed a number of trees to give the best chances of pitching although, as Ollie was happy to point out, one of the tents had been supplied with poles so 'he was alright, Jack!!'. I was absolutely sure that we could smash through Brecon that afternoon and make camp below on one of the gravel beaches ... but I was also absolutely sure that we should never give up a perfect campsite, too soon, for a weaker campsite at the end of the day. Logic won out and we decided to stop in a secluded piece of woodland with ample space for out tents as well as firewood to keep us warm.
It didn't take us long to set the Whelen Tents up and we focussed on collecting a good load of fallen dead-wood for our fire. The Whelen's work best with a fire that radiates into the sheltered space creating a trapped warmth that lasts through the night and we harvested plenty of fallen birch, pine, beech and ash to create the heat we needed.
Changing out of drysuit and into my favoured Tilak smock we managed to spend the net few hours cooking sausage and eggs, drinking whiskey and discussing the pro's and con's of my ventile smock compared to Ollie's Fjallraven G1000 waxed cotton smock. Dusk became dark, dark became cold and we began to snuggle into our canvas bedrolls and woollen blankets. Then the unthinkable happened ... the temperature rose and the snow began to melt, with huge chunks sliding off the branches above us and exploding on our canvas shelters as if we were being mortar-bombed!
The night passed without harm or incident but the delivery of snow to ground level had been frequent and when we finally woke at 8am our first thoughts were about how high the river had risen. Ollie was first up, and tending to the fire, and he asked me how high I thought the river might have risen ... about 20cm seemed fair to me, but so did staying in bed all day too ... Ollie thought a little more but it wasn't until we logged onto the 'river levels' website that we realised the river Usk had risen from 0.88cm to 1.60 overnight! We breakfasted and broke camp but realised the seriousness of the paddle ahead of us as we struggled to launch the canoes into the fast-flowing brown flood waters.
Adding the the sense of adventure I realised that I had worn contact lenses on our first day and had forgotten to bring replacements or glasses for the rest of the trip. I was forced to surrender trust and control to Ollie as I simply couldn't see the hazards far enough in advance to make the best decision for passing them ... I mean, I wasn't going to die, but I certainly wasn't going to be the first to spot the way past a fallen tree until we were upon it. Roles agreed, we spun our canoes into the current and paddled on.
The next sections were bouncy and exciting as we paddled to Brecon, portaged by sledging our canoes across the golf course (never to be repeated in the dry!), and continued to Brynich Lock and Millbrook Falls. The river was continuing to rise from 1.60m to 1.80m as we paddled and I couldn't help but remember December of last year when the river was only at 0.76m on this section and I was having to work hard to cross from boulder to boulder, picking my way along the best of the flow to travel through the scrappy shallows of the river. This year we simply barrelled through the sections, big volumes of water hurtling us over the rapids and down into the braids between Brecon and Talybont-on-Usk.
As we paddled through the maze of braids at Scethrog the weather took a turn for the malevolent and heavy winter showers blasted us with rain, sleet and hail. The river continued to rise past 2.00m and, although the volume of water was helping us cover decent distance, the size of the river was now forcing to consider the sections that lay ahead of us.
The river continued to rise with snow-melt and rainfall as we paddled towards Llangynidr and we realised that we had a decision to make ... should we stop above Mill Falls and be cowards or should we carry on to almost certain trouble? Ollie was paddling a Mad River Explorer 14 while I paddled a Venture Prospector 16 and we were both aware that we would struggle to rescue each other, without losing equipment, if the canoes were to swamp or capsize in the Grade 3 waters below us. We paused in an eddy and discussed the situation but it was already futile. The reality was clear. The river was now at 2.20m and there was very little chance that we could paddle the next few kilometres of Grade 3 river at this level without swamping the canoes. That was it, decision made, we would have to stop at the Llandetty Monitoring Station and call for a lift from my wife.
It sucked. It felt like failure. It felt like quitting.
As we pulled the canoes from the water a massive squall hit us, forcing us to leave the boats on the waters edge and seek shelter from the ferocious winds and hail that lashed down upon us. I had pulled my canoe about two-thirds of the way up the bank but the sudden winds threw it back into the river and Ollie and I had to race to grab the painter before my kit was bucked into the racing river.
This was a sign, we had to stop.
As the storm weakened we pulled the canoes up to the roadside but the sense of quitting and failure still took precedence in our minds and conversation as we waited for my wife to collect us. It wasn't until very shortly later that we drove over the river at Llangynidr and saw the full extent of the river, no running at 2.50m and still rising, that we knew we could not have descended the next 6km of Grade 3 rapids, stoppers and waterfalls without swamping the canoes. Last week a kayaker died on the river Dart and it would have been both foolhardy and inexcusable to push our luck in expedition laden canoes ... even though we both knew we could paddle the section in different times, even at the same levels.
It was a tough decision but the right decision.
I was bothered afterwards by the thought that I had forced us to start from Sennybridge rather than Talybont and that a lower start might have seen us complete more of the river descent. It didn't take long for me to realise though that there really are no bad decisions in life ... just how you deal with them. We had failed to complete the whole river as we had hoped, over 5 days, that we would; but we saw the most incredible winter wonderland as we paddled through the snow, we logged a number of fallen trees that posed a hazard to other paddlers, we saw three otters loving the snow, we had a perfect camp in the wintery conditions and we bounced our way through two sections of river in half a day before wisely stopping before we got hurt.
An old man once said to me: 'know your limits and stay within them' ... and I think we did this time!
You can see our whole trip in the following video: