Fighting with the Wolves
I stand, kayak on shoulder, on a small cliff overlooking the Fairy Glen. Just enough light now enters the gorge to see the brown water. Welsh rivers flow as if poured from a teapot, a peaty infusion carried from feral moor to brackish mouth. I’m still half asleep as my eyes scan for a gauge, familiar rocks or markings that might give clues about the river’s height.
For now, the river Conwy is an increasingly rare thing: free flowing and untroubled. Transecting the Snowdonia National park, its banks clad in ancient woodland, it is home to otter and salmon. The river’s heart, the Fairy Glen, is a deep gorge cut by the Conwy’s great falls; here the river flows between cliffs of sheer rock in a bid to hide from the world. A habitat protected by nature’s severity. However, the river’s potential has not gone unnoticed by those who seek to harness its power.
I make my way down to water level. The rough fisherman’s path is slippery with the previous night’s rain. The rumble and thunder of steep rapids echo and amplify, fuelling speculation about how much the river has risen overnight. I slide into the water in my kayak, realising from my first paddle strokes that the river is high. The first wave stalls my momentum and kicks me sideways. My mind is still sleep-drunk and my arms drowsy. There is little warm-up before things get difficult – the first rapid, dubbed the Doors of Perception by the Fairy Glen’s early pioneers, is only 50m from the put on. Here the river constricts and steepens, falling over a series of boulder ledges that cause the water to recirculate back upstream. I must work hard to jump my kayak over them or risk being pulled back in and surfed violently. Swimming from my kayak with this flow would be serious.
I make it through the first big rapid without mishap. No awards for style, but I’m upright and pointing the right way; it has blown off the cobwebs and morning fug. I feel energised by the cold-water splash, the faint peaty smell of high-pressure water flushed up my nose. I look around as I wait for my friends to pass through the rapid. The eddy I sit in rises and falls with the surges of brown water compressed between gorge walls. I watch as each of my friends receives their cold-water awakening. The regulars for these dawn raids have shaped their lives around this stretch of river, made homes based on proximity to this gorge. However, our connection to this place is in no way unique. Casting a line or floating a kayak – these are merely vehicles to a place greater than the sum of its parts. These experiences connect people to their land and rivers, and offer hope for their protection.
Welsh rivers flow as if poured from a teapot, a peaty infusion carried from feral moor to brackish mouth. I’m still half asleep as my eyes scan for a gauge, familiar rocks or markings that might give clues about the river’s height.
I re-enter the downstream current – three more rapids before we exit the upper gorge. At this water level some rapids will be harder, some easier. The pools between will push through, linking the rapids and leaving little time for rest or recovery.
As a young kayaker the mythology of the Fairy Glen captivated me. Older, more experienced kayakers would talk about this place with respect and fear. Unclimbable gorge walls veiled in prehistoric moss. Water drawn through holes bored and sculpted over millennia, in low water seen as beautiful tubes of glistening stone. 3km of steep and complex rapids, world class in quality. All of this contained within echoing vertical cliffs. A paddle stroke into the wild and some days a battle to the exit.
I drive my kayak to keep momentum, keep it skipping over the turbulence, and work to punch the lateral waves that try to push me off line. I seek desperately to stay upright, pulling hard on my paddles to avoid the headwall that the Conwy River smashes into like a liquid train.
Up ahead, rising mist glows golden in the morning sun, the harbinger of coming difficulties. Fairy Falls is the hardest rapid on the section, splitting the upper and lower gorges. Steep cliffs squeeze the river into surges and boils of exploding water. I drive my kayak to keep momentum, keep it skipping over the turbulence, and work to punch the lateral waves that try to push me off line. I seek desperately to stay upright, pulling hard on my paddles to avoid the headwall that the Conwy River smashes into like a liquid train.
I enter the lower gorge, my mind and body still recovering from the wild descent of Fairy Falls. I float on a short stretch of calmer water, drifting towards the spray of the next horizon. White froth in the swirling brown highlights the subtleties in the paths of currents. I think back to the first time I ran this river – scouting and portaging, taking hours. It’s 15 years on and I’ve run it hundreds of times, no two the same. At any given water level there’s a sense of the unknown; with every big flood the riverbed changes. Large boulders shift, changing the river’s course. I now fear for this place. I wonder at the arrogance of rerouting a river, the madness of disruption and destruction of habitat. I wonder if National Park is now an arrow towards resources; SSSIs and SACs merely labels to navigate.
The lower gorge is my favourite place. The walls climb a little higher, concentrating the experience. Puzzle-pieces of sky grow smaller as the branches from either bank reach out to touch. Two more rapids before the canyon walls drop away. I know that the next will be tricky. At the critical moment, a folding wave on the lip of the drop will try to swamp the nose of my kayak. Again I confront the consequences of a mistake. I seek to calm myself, to focus on what is achievable and remove what is negative or distracting. I remind myself to breathe… one paddle stroke can make the difference between success or failure.
I grew up on wild gorges and hidden canyons. I pored over maps and pictures of the world’s hidden places. In the far north of British Columbia the Stikine River cuts a trench deep into the boreal landscape, forming a Grand Canyon of dark and foreboding beauty. The K2 of rivers. On the other side of the world, in a hidden corner of Tibet, the turquoise waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo flow at the feet of Himalayan giants: the abode of Buddhist mystics, elusive waterfalls and Great Game explorers. Stories from these places formed the landscape of my young mind. The Fairy Glen has always been the hidden canyon on my doorstep.
I wait above the final drop to check my friends through. Upstream I see steps of whitewater falling within a frame of dark rock and green life. I move back into the flow, reluctant to leave. One more ominous horizon line – the End of the World. I pull hard on my left-hand paddle blade, projecting my kayak forward and away from the river-wide falls. I land flat and on the surface, carrying momentum downstream. Anxiety and trepidation dissolve.
The far-off and unexplored have guided my life as a kayaker. However, there should also be risk, a little peril to ground the mind in the present. There should be a wind-blown and wild nature, and there should be commitment. Adventure’s qualities vary in scale and are defined by perspective. When we find these qualities, we find reward beyond measure, and with that, an obligation of stewardship. When we go to these places to experience the intangible, it is in our hands to protect them.
When we exit the gorge, the valley opens and the rapids subside. We float down the ripples and swirls of a river maturing and calming, the sun’s rays just beginning to warm the morning air. We chat about our near-misses and compliment each other’s good lines. Passing under the bridge at the take out, I check my watch: 7.30… a 15-minute adventure.
Adventure’s qualities vary in scale and are defined by perspective. When we find these qualities, we find reward beyond measure, and with that, an obligation of stewardship. When we go to these places to experience the intangible, it is in our hands to protect them.
On September 28th 2016, RWE withdrew their application for hydroelectric development in the Fairy Glen. The diversion of a migratory salmon river and the uprooting of an ancient woodland were widely opposed by environmental groups and ecologists in the National Park.
Objection to the scheme was driven by the Save the Conwy group and the Snowdonia Society. For three years they have battled to save one of the UK’s most pristine riverine habitats. However, the shadow of the scheme is still cast upon the Fairy Glen. To find out more visit https://savetheconwy.com
Thank you to Patagonia for their ongoing support for grassroots environmental activism.
Rob Litherland is an adventure photographer and writer based in North Wales and the French Alps. You can find him on his skis, in his kayak or on Instagram @bluebear_photography