Avon Descent 2015
Well what a roller coaster ride we had leading up to the Avon Descent. The river was the lowest that I had ever seen it at this time of year, in fact there was really no river. Paddlers were unable to practise and if they tried they had to walk a lot. Because of the low water, few novices entered the race and with paddlers who wanted to race not able to paddle on white water, it was the worst winter for whitewater practise and for sales that we’ve ever had. Being a sponsor of the Avon Descent unfortunately brought little reward this year, so let’s hope it will be better next year.
With water low and weather predictions being pretty grim there was a lot of negativity floating around about the race which really didn’t inspire first timers to enter. Being an old codger it seemed that social media was actually doing more harm than good for paddlers thinking of entering the race.
I, like many others were getting ready for a low river. I have done some strange things in my time so a low water race didn’t bother me one bit, in fact I was looking forward to it. I’m all for a hard race, to conquer it brings out the best in us and it shows us what we are really made of.
Just as we were getting comfortable with the low water contingency plans and with only a few days before the event we finally got some good rain in the wheat belt and suddenly everything changed. The river was up and we were back to the normal course, which meant that the time I spent lengthening my black wild water kayak cockpit to help me to get out when portaging wasn’t now necessary, I changed back to my usual golden wild water kayak.
Unfortunately the rain was a little too late to help our sales, and it didn’t help the Avon Descent either, numbers were still down, but it was a life saver for the media and Channel 10 and for the future of the event. One of the good things about the Avon Descent is that it is very unpredictable and there probably wouldn’t be a race anywhere else in the world that was so complicated and complex to get ready for either as a competitor or an organiser. Strategies changed daily and by the time race day came only a handful of paddlers would have paddled the course in the higher water levels and I wasn’t one of them. However it really didn’t matter to me. I had been in 24 Avon Descents and I had paddled the river hundreds of times and although I have difficulty in remembering what happened yesterday, I can still remember the T trees and the rapids as I had sketched every rapid and written a book, so I was more prepared than most.
To make it more interesting most people wouldn’t have paddled white water for a year and nor had I. I rarely get to go down the Avon in my race kayak before the event anyway as I’m usually working or running courses so I always have to hope that my skills hadn’t deteriorated over the past year. It didn’t used to be a concern when I was 34, 44, 54 but when you get to 64 you start to wonder. Do I still have the skills? I know my speed has declined but will I mess up on the rapids? The Avon Descent gives me an opportunity to see if old age is creeping up. If I start falling out of my kayak, if I start getting into trouble in the trees and taking the wrong routes I will know that old age has set in. So it was going to be interesting to see how I would cope this year. The relatively easy course on day one, without too many rapids would help me and others to acclimatise to our craft and to moving water.
My usual support person was Alaine as my wife Jenny had done it too many times to be eager to do it again, but Alaine couldn’t be my support this year as her daughter Emily was flying off to England the day after and she might not see her for 5 years so she wanted to spend as much time with her as possible. Luckily I had two other good friends to fall back on, Pam Riordan and Olywn Brown. I first met Pam in 1990 when I was doing my Around Australia expedition. I had just paddled, walked and cycled 24,000kms around Australia taking one year and my last hooray was to paddle across to Rottnest, paddle around the Island and then paddle back to Fremantle. Pam was on Rottnest at the time on some sort of course. She had heard of me, but not met me. We met there and have remained friends ever since.
So on the Friday afternoon before the event I took my kayak up to Northam and registered. Whilst there, the rain was so heavy the streets were turned into rivers, which gave good indications that tomorrow’s race was going to go off with a bang, there would be no portaging or getting out of our boats every few minutes. The race was really on. With the higher water level I thought I might have a better chance against the lighter girls who were paddling very well and who would certainly have had the advantage in the lower water conditions.
We arrived at Northam about 7.20am. Pam and Olwyn soon got into support mode. Over the speaker we were told that paddlers were off at 8.40am so I had plenty of time to check out the weir and visit the toilet three times and to eat a tin of rice pudding. Hopefully the rice would keep me going for a few hours. It was cold, real cold and a few minutes before the power boats were going to start there was a delay due to the powerboats grids not sorted. That wasn’t the best news as it meant that paddlers had to hang around and get colder than they already were.
There wasn’t the same buzz around the start line as other years as the numbers were really down. The regulars who usually do it, but didn’t like the thought of low water weren’t there, but now they were going to miss out on the good water levels and some good fun.
I was dying to get off to get warm as the delay was making us more chilly. At last the power boats had gone and we were able to get on the water. I was off on Grid 5 with the other WWK1s, the Wavehoppers and a few other boats. Once on the water paddlers were orderly.
On the start line I was on the outside and close to the island. Then the wind started pushing paddlers my way and I was nearly forced onto the island’s shoreline. First mistake choosing that position I thought and although I had to be careful not to hit the underwater rocks when I took off, I got away okay when the hooter sounded. Phil Edwards, Sam Pilton, Sue Quick and Kieran Simpson shot off ahead as expected. Bonnie also got in front of me, I expected that as well. I’m not a good sprinter. Approaching the weir I was still ahead of Baillee, yippee, and watched Phil and Sue take a path to the left side of the weir and post where the flow was stronger. I picked up speed and paddled straight over the lip and when I reached the bottom, Bonnie who was just in front of me took the left channel so I did a bit of a U turn and paddled into the right channel hoping to get ahead of her. When the two channels joined Bonnie was a boat length ahead. The water was high enough not to get stranded on any rocks so we both skirted and meandered down the channels and beyond the railway bridge and the Mortlock River. The Mortlock was carrying a good amount of water so our pace increased even more. I managed to get on Bonnie’s wash, but she eventually slipped from my grasp. How annoying! Bonnie was paddling a Fury and it seemed the perfect ski for her in this water level. She was fast and now I realised that she was faster than me and I wasn’t going to keep up if I didn’t work harder.
There were very few paddlers having trouble on this first section and paddlers were generally well spaced so if anyone ran aground you could see them. There were also very few paddlers pass me for the first few kilometres, but then some faster paddlers who were in grids behind me and team paddlers started to overtake. I dreaded Baillee passing me which she eventually did.
Katrine Bridge came into view. Pam and Olly were standing on the right side before the bridge shouting out if I wanted anything. I didn’t. The teams were readying themselves after the bridge, but there weren’t many of them there. I just can’t understand why there weren’t more teams as even if the water was low it would have been fun and easily achievable.
Paddlers started passing me coming up to the Glen Avon Rapid including Dave Worthy who was in a team this year, Kieran Simpson, Jarrad Eaves, Adam Roujae, Ray Campbell and the double plastic of Martin Clancy Lowe and Warren Munns. David Worthy took a centre route across the weir rapid whereas Martin and Warren paddled over to the right. About 5 paddlers followed them giving me space to go where I wanted.
I slipped down the first part of the weir with ease just scratching over a few rocks before aiming for the second bigger drop. Paddlers started coming over from the right so I paddled faster to reach the drop before them. Martin and Warren beat me to the drop but I narrowly escaped sharing it with another paddler. The rapid was running well, I got down but the tricky current and a big eddy at the bottom tried sweeping me and others towards the tree. I managed to get away leaving some of the other paddlers to get caught.
Before long Ray, Dave and a few others had passed me yet again, although one or two paddlers had capsized at the rapid so they wouldn’t be passing, not yet at least.
Jane Liddle caught me, she was teamed up with Erica McKnight and what a powerful team they were. I didn’t realise how powerful until Jane passed me and started drawing away from me like a woman possessed! I chased her as we moved under Dunbarton Bridge and the rapid. The photo below looks as if I’m catching up but in reality she had just passed me and was leaving me behind. My goal was to beat all the Saturday morning crew but it wasn’t panning out how I wanted. I had Bonnie, Baillee, Peter, Adam now Jane already in front of me.
Jane’s daughter Baillee was ahead of Jane and I could see Jane slowly catching her up. As we approached the long pool before Extracts Weir, Jane who was now several hundred metres ahead of me caught up with Baillee and when they reached the weir they both headed straight for it to go over. It gave me a clear path to portage. The bank was a little steep, and it was here that I realised my aging body wasn’t as supple as it used to be. It was a little more difficult to prize my body out of the small cockpit and climb the metre bank, but once I got out and started running there was no stopping me. I heard Lawrence Greed on the loudspeaker mention my name as I slipped by all the spectators and to the end of the portage trail at the river’s edge, where Pam and Olly were waiting. I shoehorned myself into my cockpit, wrapped the spraydeck around the combing and Pam handed me a banana and a slender plastic bag of rice, which I placed on my spraydeck to eat later down the river.
The rescue crew wait for paddlers paddling the weir. Many of the paddlers paddling plastics boats will give it a go and when stopped by a rock will get off and drag it. Novices have to portage the weir. For me it is quicker and safer to portage.
I was now ahead of Jane and Baillee again and I stayed there for some time but eventually they caught up and passed. Watching them go by was a sad time for me. A little joy came back when I passed Martin and Warren who were on the river’s edge emptying out their double plastic Molakai ski. Reminiscent of the last two Avon’s. I became sad again when another lady, Aya Okano passed me and she was on an Endorfinn ski going like the clappers.
There were cheers from the bank as I moved through Toodyay and the team’s changeover point. Further along and before Toodyay there were groups of people along the shores having picnics and cheering. One young lad was giving away marshmallows. The Toodyay Rapids were flowing much better than last year and it didn’t seem that any one was having problems getting down it.
At the West Toodyay bridge where Pam and Olly were waiting I sped by throwing to them my empty plastic rice packet. I didn’t want it to slip off my deck and into the water leaving rubbish for all behind to see. After the bridge the tea trees were getting closer but it still felt like eternity to get there. First I passed Weatherall Reserve where the team changeover was located with cheers from the crowd, then I headed towards the trees feeling pretty okay despite only eating a banana and a little rice since leaving.
About 500 metres from the tea trees I could see a crowd of paddlers entering. They all disappeared, then I saw Baillee enter the trees soon after. I was a long way from them so I didn’t think they should bother me in the trees. The 12km tea tree section is made up of tea tree channels a few hundred metres long, some channels are thicker than others and more difficult to negotiate. There are faster channels and slower channels. There are also dead end channels so the more familiar you know the different channels the better chance you have in doing well. After every set of treas there is a pool. These pools can be very shallow in low water conditions and be extremely hard work.
When I arrived at the trees I was alone, although I had paddlers following behind but it didn’t take me long to catch up and pass some of the ones in front as they must have taken the low water route which is much trickier with overhanging branches with more tight turns than the route I took. Within less than a kilometre I had overtaken several paddlers. I was happy.
I caught up with a few more paddlers. I saw them take the centre route in another section of tea trees and I took the right route which was possible in these higher waters and I came out and into the next pool before all of them. Yes I like it, I was on a roll. One by one I whittled the group down.
As I approached Lovers Lane and Jimperding Brook there was another big group of paddlers 150 metres ahead. I wasn’t looking forward to catching up as the next two channels were the worst in the day one tea trees. They disappeared around a right hand corner and when I got closer I could see they had not taken the proper channel so they were all stuck in the trees. Steve Cashion was the only one that managed to get around. As I sneaked through the usual gap I could see Baillee was stuck at the front of the pack. I smiled to myself, yes I got her! Somewhere along the line I had also passed Aya, Danny Moreton, Dave Martin, Ray Campbell, Jarrad Eaves, Kieran Simpson, Adam Roujae, Gary Killan, Malcolm Percival, and many others.
Steve was now the only paddler I could see in front which was good as one of the worst sections of tea trees were ahead. A team paddler who had passed me several times before was teetering up my backside. At the Devil’s Den Steve took the right safe route which I expected to be too shallow. There was no one in front so I took the left channel into the Devil’s Den where the channel meandered around trees and low hanging branches and then had two fallen trees blocking the channel near the end. I moved into the channel with the paddler behind clipping my stern. We were in this narrow channel trying to thread around several trees with a dangerous chicane at the end and this guy was clipping me. I was expecting to be pushed sideways but I refrained from telling him to get lost.
I reached the tricky tree section and threaded myself through a gap on the right of the first tree. Branches from another tree were poking out like moose antlers. I steadied myself and pulled myself around them and off I went, happy as Larry. John O’Sullivan and another person were waiting at the end of the channel with cameras in hand and with cheers of support. They knew people would be capsizing at that point which happened to the guy behind me. That’s justice for you. I never saw him again after that. Steve Cashion who took the other route still hadn’t appeared. I took off alone very thankful to have survived the worst section on the river.
Another tricky section lay ahead but in this water level I knew I didn’t have to follow the low water route which had a tree blocking it. There was no one in front and no one that I could see behind so I approached it alone. I paddled down a small rapid which I had to portage only 6 days earlier. I knew my way and I was soon along the easy bit and down a narrow fast channel and out in the open and all was honky dory.
Once I had passed those two technical sections I knew it was going to be easy going from here. There was no one in front so I had a clear run but within a couple of kms I had caught up with a bunch of paddlers struggling to find the right way. I followed for a while as I couldn’t pass and then when I knew they took a longer way I slipped down the quicker channel leaving them to flounder in the thick trees as they tried to enter the main channel again. I smiled as I left them all behind. I now had passed heaps of paddlers many of whom had passed me earlier on in the day, so things were going very well.
I paddled a little further to see Bonnie and another paddler coming away from trees on the right bank. It was a mystery to which channel they had taken, but it didn’t matter, catching up with Bonnie was the icing on the cake, the best thing since sliced bread, as she was a long way ahead when we entered the trees. Bonnie turned her head to look behind and saw me bearing down on her. The surprise on her face was so rewarding.
I chased her along a long pool but she kept me at bay and then Steve Cashion caught me up yet again. Steve had been leapfrogging me most of the day. About 2 kms from the finish line Bonnie and Steve were still ahead but I had two sneaky turns up my sleeve that could catch them out if they didn’t know the quickest route. As we reached the end of the last long pool there is a channel to the right which is usually quicker so when Bonnie failed to take it and paddled straight on I was confident I would pass her as the route she took was usually blocked with trees. Feeling cocky and happy as Larry I paddled on but when both channels came together again Bonnie had managed to get through and she was still slightly ahead. Bugger, now I only had one more chance to get ahead.
Bonnie and Steve led through the last section of tea trees before the end. They were a little cautious and as we approached the last sneaky tight gap that I had up my sleeve I waited to see which way they were going. They paused when they had two channel choices. Whichever one they took I knew I could get through the other channel quicker as I had done it several times before. When they took the left channel I smiled. I took the right and bingo I got ahead of them with only Leatherhead Rapid left in my way. With no one in front to bother me I paddled down Leatherhead with no problems and into the last few hundred metres of flat water with Bonnie and Steve trailing.
I was so happy and when I saw Peter Liddle ahead I was even happier. I was so close to him. I hadn’t seen Peter all the race and I hadn’t realised that he had started 2 or 3 minutes ahead of me so it meant that I was faster than him on day one.
I crossed the finish line all smiles, I would have passed at least 20 paddlers in the trees and I had beaten all the Saturday morning paddlers and other paddlers that I wanted to beat except for Sue Quick who was also paddling a WWK1. She was just too quick for me this year. Looks as if I will have to paddle harder and do a lot better tomorrow!
Within seconds of paddling over the line Bonnie turned up. She wasn’t quite as happy as me but apart from Sue and Sam who were paddling composite kayaks she was the fastest lady in a plastic on the day.
A week earlier I was thinking that I wouldn’t have to get up so early on the Sunday morning because of the shortened course but that thought was dashed with the high water and the organisers going back to the normal course. So about 4.15am after a good sleep I was out of bed, having breakfast and off to pick up Pam and Olwyn at Guildford and we were on the road by 5.15am.
There was no fog when we arrived at Cobblers Pool, but it was cool. Although it was dark it felt as if it was going to be the perfect day with the water being close to 0.7 at Walyunga Park and the day being clear of rain.
I was off at 7.07 on grid 15. Paddlers started getting on the river in an orderly manner although a paddler accidentally clipped the rear of another surf ski as he was about to enter the water and the other guy got really shitty. It was nothing, but he made a real song and dance about it and I felt like pushing him in the river to cool down.
I was on the start line with Steve Cashion, Peter Gigengack and a member of team 603. Peter said he would let me go first and he would follow as I knew the way. That suited me perfectly. I hit the first narrow gap in the trees with the three others following. Within a few minutes I turned off the main channel to the left and charged through a channel of tea trees without incident and passing Sam who was hooked up. In those first minutes we had passed a few paddlers who took an alternative route. The river then opened up and it was easy moving water for about 600 metres before we headed into the next and final forest of tea trees. Everything was going well until halfway through where two paddlers in front were jammed and seemed to take forever to decide what to do. We held back making sure we didn’t bump them and eventually they got off their skis and freed themselves. Meanwhile Neil and Rosie were stuck in a right hand channel, with a boat in front wedged as well, so they might be there for a while.
We were soon out in the open and heading for Posselts Ford and the first rapid of the day. In lower water a rock at the bottom of Posselts Ford can cause some damage but with the good water level it was well covered. Super Chute which capsizes lots of paddlers was next. I was lucky there was no one in front to ruin my line so I was successful but three other paddlers floating around at the bottom in front of me weren’t as lucky.
T2 soon paddled passed me. I think he had troubles at Super Chute, apparently a kayak hit him in the ribs. The next few rapids were easy and although Narrow Neck Rapid is not big, it has a good drop with a curly wave that I always respect. It’s funny but I take more care on this rapid than any others. It’s too early in the day to capsize.
As I headed down the easy rapid Rice Pudding three other paddlers were up my bum with one coming along side. I hurried towards Stodgy Porridge hoping to get distance between us. I did. (I camped here when I sketched the rapids and I named them because I had rice pudding for dinner and stodgy porridge for breakfast.)
When I reached Razorback 2 (named after I saw wild pigs here when I was sketching the rapid) the paddler in front took the left channel. I usually take the left channel but today I thought I would take the right channel to see which would be the quickest and the left side proved faster. In lower water though rocks and trees at the end of the left channel can be very tricky to get through.
Emu Falls was ahead and I could feel a paddler or two behind me eager to pass so I quickened my pace to get there before them. I paddled Scorpion’s Tail and thankfully there wasn’t anyone that I could see in the next bigger and trickier section the Shredder Rapid to mess me up or cause me to make a mistake. If I messed up it would be my own fault. I didn’t and cleared it but then I faced the Washing Machine Rapid. The banks at Emu’s were lined with rescue crews in red PFDs. They were just a blur as I concentrated on the river and took the right channel, braced on the hump of water piled up from the big rock and cleared it as well.
In the days when the water level used to be higher than 0.7 I always took the centre route. It is a bit trickier but a smoother drop. It was very pleasing to have Emu Rapid behind me. If you capsize there everyone around the world gets to know as photos are posted on the internet.
Within 200 metres the Ford Cruncher came into sight. If you go straight over it, which many new paddlers do most slip over the lip of the ford with a crunch and then hit the sharp big rocks below with their bow and scrape the lip with their stern. Often there is a lot of air under the craft. The best was is to go to the right side close to the right bank and angle down the drop. Although the craft might touch a rock it is much smoother. One paddler way in front of me did paddle straight over the lip and survived but two other paddlers knew the smoother route and we all cleared it.
The next big rapid of concern was Bone Breaker, although there were three small rapids to get through before I reached it, but they were easy. As soon as I saw Bald Hill in front and high over to my left I knew Bone Breaker was getting near. Two hundred metres before Bone Breaker the water accelerates down the Bone Breaker Thicket. It’s quite a narrow swift passage between tea trees with a good size stopper at the bottom. I skirted the stopper by staying to the right.
Reaching Bone Breaker (named because it has broken a few bones in the past) a paddler in front of me took a wide line on the approach and I thought he was bound to mess up on the main drop, but he cleared the rapid to my surprise. I followed, slipping through the corridor of lightly exposed rocks without incident. If you don’t have the right approach though it is easy to be drawn into the big boulder left of centre of the rapid or get thrown to the left after the drop and be pushed into the rock garden at the bottom. It happens to many and it would be interesting to sit there and see how many paddlers the rapid would snare today.
Raging Thunder was only 100 metres away so I had to concentrate again. I usually take the right side but there is a rock halfway down that if exposed even a little can throw you off line and there is a huge boulder near the bottom ready to take you out. It posed no problem for me but when I saw Sue Quick facing the wrong way next to the bank it looked as if it had claimed her. Seeing Sue, who started several grids in front of me made me instantly feel happier as I had now passed her. I now not only had all the Saturday morning crew behind me, now Sue was behind too. I couldn’t be too cocky though as she beat me yesterday by several minutes and she is faster than me in the flat water so I have to get home well in front of her to beat her overall. The challenge is on.
Steve Cashion started making an appearance. Steve trains pretty hard and he is certainly faster than me on flat water. In the last two Avon’s he was leap frogging me all the way down the valley, I saw him a lot yesterday, but today when he came alongside he said he felt more confident just following me. I didn’t mind as it was great to have him close by and leap frogging me at times.
At Helipad Rapid a ski in front didn’t judge the swift water flow at the bottom of the rapid and got swept into the trees so I reached Hammerhead Haunt the next small rapid first. There are two routes, the right route has some sharp rocks at a small drop in lower water levels and can be more damaging than the left route which although has two or three rocks in the centre of the channel it is smoother if you miss those rocks. I took the less damaging side.
Before the rapid Accelerator, young Kieran Simpson came along side. I was hoping to keep him at bay. He is very good in white water so I knew if he passed me he would stay in front at least until we hit the flatwater. Then I might have a chance to wear him out. He said he had a hole in his kayak and he was going to stop at Stronghills, the team changeover point to fix it. That was good news for me, and just as I was feeling happier I saw Sue Quick cruising behind and that wasn’t so good. There were now three Wild Water kayaks about to paddle the Accelerator Rapid together. Kieran led down the rapid, but I sensed he didn’t know it as he got swept onto a rock shelf and was high and dry when I paddled by.
I was back in the lead again and feeling smug as I weaved my way through and over the rock shelves and over a scattering of sharp hidden rocks near the bottom. This would be a great rapid for doing a rapid sprint competition. It’s tricky but quite safe. After exiting the 200 metre section of whitewater I lifted my game to reach Moondyne Rapid before the others behind. A ski was tangled in the tea trees before the rapid but I was going a different route so he didn’t bother me. I knew it was about 0.7 at the park and in my Avon River guide book I advise paddlers that the Chicken Chute at Moondyne is best to paddle above 0.9. With that in mind I still decided to take the Chicken Chute to see how rocky it really was at that level.
The Chicken Chute is easier than the main route if the water is high enough. The main channel can be very tricky especially if you don’t know it. When the water starts to accelerate between the channel of tea trees the current flows around two slight bends which although are very slight are quite difficult, but it’s the last left hand bend that paddlers get caught out. The main body of water is swept over a high ledge and if you don’t know it is coming and even when you do know and haven’t positioned your boat to take the left hand bend you just get swept over the ledge. If you survive the ledge there are other rocks to worry about and avoid downstream. Get it right, have control of your boat and it is quite easy.
I moved to the left to find the tiny opening to the Chicken Chute channel. I pushed through a narrow gap in some tea trees at the top and took the narrow channel. The first part was very paddle-able, it was the last 10-15 metres where the current became very swift and rocks started to be exposed that was the dangerous part. I threaded through the rocks, scraping a little and keeping my kayak as straight as I could so not to become broadside of them. I kept clear of a tea tree at the bottom and left Moondyne Rapid with a big smile on my face. It’s always good to know your different options.
I reached Easy Street with a paddler in front in a faster kayak having passed me several times before. Easy Street has three channels, the right one is easy and safer in any water conditions but it’s longer and shallower in low water but still the safest way to take groups. The centre channel used to be quite dangerous but a few of the trees have gone and although it still has a fast flow and a little tricky it is the most used and quicker than the Easy Street right channel. Then there is the left channel I named Devil’s Den when I first wrote the book because it used to have a mass of tea trees blocking the channel and was extremely dangerous. I hadn’t taken it for many years so I really didn’t know what it was like now. When I saw a paddler 100 metres in front of me take the channel I was very interested to see how he would go. Would he come out?
I took the middle channel, cleared it but I didn’t see anything of the K1 paddler when the channels came together. I soon paddled Side Winder and the Wall Rapid and entered the long pool before Stronghills and the teams changeover. The paddler who paddled into the Devil’s Den passed me saying I think I took the wrong route but at least he survived. I was keen to get a bit more information, but he was gone.
Team Paddlers at the changeover cheered when I passed them. Jane Liddle who was in a team with Erica was still there so it meant that I had passed Erica somewhere along the way. So I was now in front of all the paddlers I wanted to be in front of and several team paddlers like John Vanmannan and Ken Smith who were faster than me on the flat.
Hart’s Thicket was a few hundreds metres ahead. It used to be one of the worst rapids in days of old with lots of boats being broken by the tight tea trees and powerful current but it’s less destructive these days as many of the tea trees in the rapid had gone allowing paddlers that don’t know the rapid to sneak through. I decided to take my old route through the forest of tea trees before the rapid which took me beyond the rapid. I don’t think it would have been any quicker, but I knew it and was confident I would get down. I did.
I lost Steve somewhere but I’m sure he would still be behind me. I also hadn’t seen Sue so hopefully she was having a few troubles to allow me to get further ahead. There were others chasing me down and sometimes passing me, for me to pass them again.
There were few rapids to be afraid of before reaching Deadly Mistake but many of the tea tree rapids including Spaghetti Junction have changed over the years. When I first mapped Spaghetti Junction it was one mass of tea trees, now it was quiet open, fast flowing with lots of great waves to make it a fun rapid.
Once through Crocodile Carcass it was only 900 metres to Feral Cat Corner. It was here that Steve Myers and his partner passed me in a double. I had heard someone calling my name for sometime but I didn’t know who it was. Steve said he hadn’t followed me for several years. I remember when he started paddling. He was pretty good even when he first took on white water and it didn’t take him long to be one of the best white water paddlers. They passed me by.
As I approached Feral Cat Corner I was interested to see if there would be any capsized paddlers at the bottom. It’s not a big rapid, but it is a fast narrow ‘S’ shaped rapid with the current getting faster and faster on the way down. Nearing the bottom there is a huge eddy on the left side with the main current flowing swiftly towards and into the right bank. The key is to keep to the left of the main current but not too left to hit the eddy which would spin you around. Paddlers who don’t know the rapid usually follow the flow and get swept towards the bank and trees on the right and many paddlers capsize. Today I didn’t see a capsized paddler but Jabin Herd was turned and facing upstream so something must have happened to him. Jabin was teamed up with Peter Gigengack who started on the same grid as I this morning, so Peter had beaten me to the teams changeover which wasn’t surprising as he was a much faster paddler than me. The question was, could Jabin turn his craft and pass me and take the lead again?
About 300 metres before Deadly Mistake Michael Liddle came along side. He said he had been trying to catch up with the legend all morning, he had passed his dad, his mum, his sister and he was dying to pass me. He did pass me about 100 metres before Deadly Mistake. I said my goodbyes and shouted out to him, this was Deadly Mistake and it was a tricky one. I don’t know if he heard but he certainly found out it was tricky as he hit one of the big rocks near the bottom and rolled over.
Michael was now splayed across the river his ski momentarily jammed between two big boulders and the boulders that I was going to go between. I only had seconds to decide on another strategy, another route or I would be the next one to go over. There were a number of exposed rocks to the right of Michael with a very slim gap between them. I focussed on the gap and headed straight for it. I don’t know if it was luck or good judgement but I slipped through the gap just lightly scratching the kayak and headed off leaving Michael swimming. Deadly Mistake is probably the most difficult rapid in the valley to paddle correctly. Often if a paddler is successful in missing the line of rocks they get caught in the tea trees and rocks at the bottom. This rapid causes many capsizes.
I entered the long pool and there was only a small rapid Tea Strainer between Deadly Mistake and the Back Hole. Tea Strainer is another rapid that has lost most of it’s trees. I usually use this long pool to eat a bar, some rice or a chew but today I didn’t want to stop for a second, there were too many paddlers I’d passed who were trying to catch up so I decided I would eat something when I reached the Upper Swan Bridge.
Steve Cashion caught me again, he said he hit a rock back at Deadly Mistake and his bow was a little bent and fragile. There was no one ahead of us at Black Hole, so we skimmed down the left hand side and missed the big hole. It sounds easy to go down the left but you have to beware not to eddy out or get too close to the huge tree at the bottom. Paddlers that don’t know it though would have a rough ride if they followed the centre and hit the hole.
A few hundred metres further was the Spinning Moon rapid. It’s important to get out of the fast flow of the left side of the river after Black Hole to get to the right side before Spinning Moon. The drop is easy if you get it right. I got it right but one of my students didn’t 20 odd years ago when her kayak got wrapped around a tea tree and would most probably have lost her life if I hadn’t been there to do a rescue.
Reaching Heart Stopper I noticed a ski paddler take it over to the right. I must admit I hadn’t tried that way for 37 years. Back then it wasn’t the route to take, too dangerous, but maybe it had changed and it’s okay now. Nevertheless I took the left side and on the way down watched the paddler being cascaded over the rocks and swimming after his ski.
Scared Rabbit was easy and so was the first part of the Lookout Rapid but the last part got much wilder with a deep hole, big waves and large boulders to avoid. The Passage used to be quite difficult but nowadays the tea tree passage at the end has widened so much it is now very easy to get through.
I watched a paddler paddle go down the Fortress Rapid. He went far too right, where the drop is bigger, but he got down. It’s times like this I feel I should be doing more coaching. I watch so many paddlers take the wrong line, most would have no idea that the rapid could be done better.
Halfway down Championships Rapid, which was running well I slipped to the left side of the big rocks. It isn’t so exciting as the centre route but it is the safest and causes a lot less damage to the kayak if you can control your boat, but if you can’t and get it wrong all hell can break lose and expect a capsize. Most paddlers not familiar with the rapid will go straight down the centre and have a much rougher and more exciting ride. I’m not quite sure which route Steve chose.
There was only one more rapid left with two small drops, before Syds Rapid, Redback Run. Redback is a fun rapid and by cutting the corner at the first drop and committing will bring a positive result but if you follow the current you have a big chance of getting hooked in the tea trees below.
Steve was still behind me on the approach to Syds Rapid. The rescue crews and spectators were watching on. I didn’t approach the main drop as neatly as I should have done as I was watching the paddler in front. I went to the right of a slightly exposed rock before the drop, instead of the left, so I got a little closer to the right bank than I wanted to be but it made little difference, I ended up taking the right track anyway. Halfway down the rapid the rocks lining the main channel appeared to be a little out of place, had they moved or was I in a dreaming state of mind, I just focussed on the main current and followed it.
I cleared Syd’s Rapid and then Dual Carriageway and in the long pool before Walyunga Steve passed me by. He now knew his way so he must have been confident to head off with me in his wake. We passed through Walyunga and headed towards Bells with only Terminator 2 that could halt our progress but with the water level being as high as it was, it was easier to paddle. Last year in lower rockier water I took the left route as I thought it safer.
I reached Bell’s Rapid with Tom O’Blak 50 metres behind me. Steve had already gone down. Lawrence Greed was telling the crowd over the loudspeaker that I was coming down. I was determined not to capsize as many had capsized before me and many did behind me. With Lawrence giving me a big wrap, it wasn’t the time to mess things up. The big eddy before the bridge forced me to do a quick back stroke to line myself up for the main drop. I didn’t do the drop absolutely perfect but it wasn’t so bad considering I was less than fresh. Most paddlers follow the current down the drop and they either get spat straight onto the downstream rock shelf or get caught in the big eddy on the left and have to do a complete 360 turn. To have more success going down the drop it’s best to angle the boat to the right as you go down and this will help you to be facing in the right direction at the bottom of the rapid and prevent you from being pushed towards the rock shelf or eddying out.
With only four more small drops left to paddle before hitting the flat water I took care to approach and slip down Devil’s Slide. This rapid is extremely tricky mainly because of the angle of the narrow drop and a slow eddy current to one side on the approach that effects boat control. Devil’s Slide causes a lot of capsizes and many happened today.
I reached Dogs Breakfast which in low water is extremely rocky but today it wasn’t so bad but at the bottom Steve was stuck on a rock ledge. I didn’t mind as I passed him again, reminiscent of the last two Avon Descents when he faltered at Bells. Once I paddled the last rapid at Bolland’s Bend I felt free. I knew now there was nothing ahead to stop me finishing.
I was alone once again but then a K3 with a leaky bow came by and then Steve passed again so did Malcolm Percival in a K1 who has also been leapfrogging me all day. Steve was just in front when I reached the Upper Swan Bridge, I stopped long enough to swap my paddle and for Pam and Olly to throw me a banana and a small pack of rice onto my spray deck. Within a few seconds I was off heading through the Upper Swan tea trees eating a banana. I ate the rice once I was out in the open river. When I reached Amiens Crescent Steve was stopped, I slipped by him and within 200 metres I was out of the trees with only 26.5kms of open flat water to go.
Crowds of people were having picnics along the river at various spots. I was lonely for a while as there were no paddlers nearby then Steve eventually caught up and when he passed again I jumped on his wash.
Having 20 odd kilometres of flat water when you are tired can be very disheartening but it is on this stretch of river that you have to keep paddling and only think of finishing. I never stop on this section, I just keep paddling in the hope that my competitors will get tired, get hungry, get thirsty or get mentally frustrated and stop. Many of my competitors behind me were faster than me on flat water so the chances of them catching me if I stopped was very possible. I had to wear them down, I had to hope their mental state was such that they thought my lead was too much for them to put in that extra effort.
Steve looked strong yet he kept stopping, to stretch, to have a drink which allowed me to get ahead but it wasn’t long before he was passing me again and I was back on his wash. Malcolm joined us again. We had passed him somewhere back in the trees, now he was back with us. The leaky K3 also passed a few times and they had to stop and empty out every so often. When we reached Middle Swan Bridge Steve was shouting out for water so I took off again. Last year his wife was waiting closer to the bridge and I’m sure she was there this year. I was pleased to be in front again but it meant that I couldn’t washride or use him to keep up a good pace. Malcolm came by again and for a few minutes I rode his wash but he was too fast for me in his K1.
At Reg Bond Park Pam and Olly were waiting to give me something but I knew I couldn’t stop and I didn’t need anything anyway. I plodded on hoping that a faster paddler would come by and give me a lift but the odd one that did was too fast. Eventually Steve caught up.
We could see Ray Campbell ahead after West Swan Bridge. He was tiring and we were catching and by the time we got to the pipeline at Bassendean where there was a festival we had caught him. I started taking the lead giving Steve a rest but that didn’t last long, Ray livened up and started paddling faster than me. I managed to keep on his wash for a while but he found his second wind and was off. Steve had fallen behind but after 2 or 3 kilometres he was back again. He stopped a few times to drink or stretch and I passed him again for him to pass me minutes later. We moved passed Ascot Kayak Club and the festival at Garvey Park together and although we were weary we only had 3 kilometres to go and that was a great feeling.
I was thinking about becoming blood brothers with Steve. We had been together all day today. He followed me down the valley, I followed him on the flat. Last year I was with him most of day two as well and in 2013 when he was in a team we saw a lot of each other on day 2, although I remember him flying passed me at Tonkin Highway Bridge leaving me in his wake. Overall I beat him on both occasions so it would be interesting to see who would win today. I felt Steve deserved to as I had been wash hanging him on and off for the last 20kms and although we started on the same grid this morning I wasn’t quite sure if he was faster yesterday.
Our pace quickened as we approached the line, Steve being a nose in front as we crossed it. Looking at the results later Steve finished up beating me overall by 18 seconds. Although I beat him over the line on day one he started a grid or two behind me so he was 18 seconds ahead when we started day two. I was happy with the result but my chance of beating Sue was shattered when she came in a few minutes behind and beat me by 2 minutes 45 seconds overall.
It’s hard doing the race without a support team, many thanks to Pam and Olwyn for being there.
In conclusion my 25th Avon Descent was nearly perfect and I couldn’t have asked for a better result considering the training I had done. I was the 30th single craft across the line, I was the 13th kayak, and 2nd male in the WWK1 and the first paddler over 60 years. Although I didn’t train as much this year, and the fact that when I do train my longest training run is usually around 5kms, unless I’m in a race, I thought I did pretty well. Because of my previous experience paddling long distances I knew I could make the distance even if I didn’t train as much but it was very rewarding to have beaten everyone from our Saturday morning training group, many who were much faster than me on flat water.
Going into the race I knew I didn’t have the speed but I had the knowledge of the river and the experience which proved crucial on day one in the T trees and day two in the Avon Valley. I probably passed about 20 paddlers in the day one t trees and caught up and passed paddlers that were 10 minutes ahead of me going into the trees. On day two I passed many paddlers in the first five minutes through the t trees and although I didn’t paddle like a world champion down the Avon Valley Rapids, I was careful and didn’t make any mistakes so I hit the flatwater knowing that I had a near perfect run with many of my opposition behind me. So next year if I’m not on a big trip somewhere I will be 65 years old so I will be faced with another milestone.
Congratulations to the organising committee, Avon Descent Board, Rescue Crews and all the volunteers and sponsors for putting on such a great event.