River: Ashley River, Canterbury, NZ
River Conditions: 17 to 14 cumecs at Ashley Gorge. Water slightly discoloured, swift and cold. Grade 2 to 3.
Weather Conditions: Sunny & warm, no wind.
Number on Trip: 20 people.
Time on River: 5.5 hours.
Comments: This was planned to be a trip to the Hurunui, but heavy rain over the week pushed the Ashley up to over 200 cumecs, a little too challenging for me at that flow. Fortunately by the weekend the flow had dropped to much more manageable levels and I had the choice of both a Saturday or Sunday trip. The weather looked better on the Sunday plus there was the added bonus of running the upper gorge (grade 2) as well.
There was quite a group at the Belfast Tavern and we consolidated vehicles for the trip up to the camp ground, where we were meeting up with even more paddlers. Hugh was along and was planning to paddle his pack raft, a recent addition to his fleet, and there was also another pack rafter along for the trip. These seem like a great idea, as they are light and easily transported but are still more than capable of running a wide range of white water, including some that would be very hard to access carrying a kayak.
The drive in to the Lees Valley is fairly long and winding, but seemed to have stood up to the recent storms reasonably well. Some of the rapids can be glimpsed from the road but the major grade 3 rapids flow through a section quite distant from the road. After leaving the middle bridge, we climbed into the low cloud which blanketed the Lees Valley and obscured the sun.
Nineteen of us put in by the Lees Valley bridge under a heavy blanket of fog, with Doug and another driver planning to meet us at the middle bridge. As usually it was good to be back on the river and I soon found I hadn’t completely forgotten how to paddle. We started off as one big group but soon split in to two smaller groups, with the front runners disappearing off down the river and Bruce and me acting as tail end Charlies to keep the stragglers in line.
We soon left the fog behind and paddled out into the sunshine on an almost perfect Canterbury day with plenty of sun and little wind. We had a good strong group, with even the newer paddlers having a good solid roll and plenty of skills to keep them out of trouble.
Everyone had plenty of fun, pushing personal boundaries and playing along the way. The grade two section is a great little run with enough challenges to keep even experienced paddlers amused. It took us a bit over two hours to reach the middle bridge and we stopped for a wee break to stretch our legs. Doug joined us here and Hugh and another kayaker got off o shuttle the vehicles back down to the campground.
Once we left the bridge behind, the level of challenge gradually increases. Our groups had changed slightly with our rear group gaining a few extra paddlers. At this flow, most of the bigger rapids are not quite so pushy and you have a bit more time to pick lines and catch eddies, the downside is that more of the rocks are exposed and this can catch out the unwary. Everyone seemed to rise to the challenge and I didn’t see any out of boat experiences, with all the upside down paddlers I saw, quickly righting themselves. Rolling training has certainly come a long way since my beginners course.
The boulder garden rapid above the main gorge was particularly fun today. It is long and with this flow has plenty of rocks to dodge and eddies to catch, great fun. After a brief rest in the forever eddy to regroup, we entered the gorge proper. Here the walls move in and the rapids are more closely spaced but still with plenty of recovery space between each major one.
One of the surprises of the day was encountering a jet boat in the gorge. A cry of “jet boat” went up and we all pulled over to the side as the tiny one person boat sped by. Bruce had encountered the boat the day before and he seemed to be on the look out for kayakers. The cry “jet boat” went up again as he returned down the river just after we had negotiated a fairly tight rapid. He pulled over for a chat below the rapid and we were all quite impressed that he had managed to navigate such a tight and rocky river at such a flow without mishap.
The gorge is really beautiful and it is a real pleasure to be there on such a perfect day, especially with such a great bunch of people.
There are some nice rapids in the gorge and no one seemed to have any dramas. The main drop was good and I didn’t do too badly, avoiding the upside down experience from last time. There was the odd roll but everyone managed it well, even those doing the grade 3 section for the first time.
There are some great surf spots with the one pictured above, being enjoyed by everyone. It was wide and smooth with very nice open ends. It was easy to get on and if you got it right, you could ride it forever (or at least until you felt bad about being a wave hog and let someone else have a turn).
The large rock with the buffer wave wasn’t too challenging today and several of the braver paddlers went into the eddy on the right hand side above the rock. I choose the option that avoided this, the vision of breaking out and then being swept upside down against the face of the rock seemed an all too real possibility.
The last major rapid always looks impressive, with its narrow gap to run but didn’t present any dramas. From this point I always feel a bit more able to relax and really enjoy what the river has to offer. This resulted in my only roll of the day as surfing a hole didn’t quite go as planned. Still I popped up quickly and just a little wet, so no harm was done.
After a long but enjoyable paddle out (there is still plenty of smaller rapids after last grade 3 rapid), we finally reached the get out, feeling tired and sore. Drivers quickly got changed and Doug drove them back to Lees Valley to complete the shuttle. It was a long wait, broken only by conversation and a brief game of ninja warriors (a standing tag type game), and by the time the vehicles returned, it was getting rather chilly and the sky was darkening. The drive back to town was quiet as we were all tired after spending over 5 hours in our boats, sleep was well earned that night.