Articles - Paddlers' Guide to the River Dart

The fantastic whitewater of the River Dart in Devon
The fantastic whitewater of the River Dart in Devon
Canoe & Kayak UK Editorial - Posted on 07 Oct 2011
Beginning life amongst the tors of Dartmoor and flowing out eventually at the sea at Dartmouth the River Dart in Devon has a special place in the hearts of many UK whitewater paddlers. It has something to offer all levels of whitewater paddler. The middle section, or Loop as it is more commonly known is a classic proving ground for club paddlers and has been the first taste of whitewater for many a brave soul. When the rain falls hard upon the moors, and the waters rise, it can provide excellent big volume sport and some great playing in a riverboat. For many though the jewel in the crown is the upper section of the Dart from Dartmeet down to Newbridge. It presents different challenges at different levels but the run is always an adventure. From fun mid-level runs to eyes-out-on-on-stalks screaming flood level runs that will have the adrenaline flowing, your eyes out on stalks and your synapses firing off the scale!

Together these two sections offer some of the best whitewater experiences in the whole of the UK and paddlers often make long journeys to be able to paddle them. The following pages contain all you need to know about paddling these fantastic sections and we hope go a little way to capturing the very special character of the Dart…

The Upper Dart (Dartmeet to Newbridge)
The Upper section of the Dart is a stiff challenge and is rightly considered a bit of a test piece. Groups taking it on for the first time can take up to four or five hours, but solid paddlers with good experience of the run will do it in a fraction of that time. It is to be treated with respect as it’s nature is continuous and its setting in a deep gorge nestled high on the moor makes it a very difficult river to walk out of if things go wrong. It has seen its fair share of serious incidents, so our advice is to treat it like a mini-expedition and to maybe run it at a low to middle level as your first run. In higher water the lines stay fairly similar but it becomes even more continuous and there are some big holes hiding to gobble up the unwary or the unprepared. In very high water it’s fair to say that the Upper becomes a religious experience. We’ve seen whitewater warriors fresh of the boat after a season in Norway come drifting out at Newbridge in such levels with faces as white as snow and a very far away look in their eyes indeed!Whitewater Kayaker on Euthanasia falls on the Upper Dart, River Dart, Devon

The great thing about the upper is that it always offers a good challenge in whatever level. In low levels the first few rapids and the paddle out can become scrappy and a bit of a drag but the meat of the run will still have you grinning. As the level increases various different moves come in to play and the adrenaline levels rise along with the water! Because it’s granite the dart can rise and fall quickly, so pay attention to the forecast and prevailing conditions. We’ve hopped on at a medium level before now and found ourselves roaring a long on a high flow by the time we’ve been halfway down. Good stuff if you’re happy on that kind of water. If in doubt then it’s probably better to try and catch it as it’s dropping instead.

The Run

The Upper starts off in gentle fashion and slowly increases in difficulty. This gives you a chance to warm up on the mellow boulder rapids near the start and to take in the stunning beauty of where you are. The boulder rapids continue, getting longer as they go and it doesn’t take very long until you are crashing along through continuous grade 3 read and run water, enjoy this and use it to get your ‘game face’ on because things are about to pick up in intensity. An eddy-by-eddy guide would not only spoil your fun it would also take up a whole magazine, so we’ll focus on the selected highlights.
The first main rapid is entered from river right and there are then a series of different lines down before you need to avoid a very large boulder on river right and some other not quite so large boulder just in front of it. Once you’re past this it’s time for the real fun to begin.

Next comes a flurry of excellent ledge style drops. There are a few good ‘rock’ moves in here if you want to add even more spice to your run.
If you’re finding your flow through here you’ll be paddling hard and ginning from ear to ear. In higher levels this is continuous grade four; Upper Dart aficionado and leading whitewater coach Simon Westgarth, of Gene 17, once described it to us as ‘Speeder-bike paddling’, and he was right!

Keep focused, as before you know it you’ll reach a Lucky Tor. An island splits the river at this point and the best route is to the right. It’s a tricky lead in through a maze of boulders before it fires you though a steep section through a hole and then spits you out through a naturally formed sluice at the end. If the paddling up to know has had you at the limits of your comfort levels then this is the last point that you can realistically walk out if it’s all too much, from here on it gets harder still.
You have now entered the Mad Mile a blast of brilliant grade 4 boating. A series of drops and rapids follows before the river drops to the right and signals the approach of ‘The Slabs’. In low to medium-high levels these are fun and fairly easy, but in high water they can become serious river wide holes that will easily stop and hold you, and in those kinds of levels a swim would be very serious indeed.

More great rapids follow until you reach another island. The left hand chute is full of choss and trees and should be avoided. The right hand channel leads in to Euthanasia Falls, considered to be the main event by many paddlers. Eddy out on the right Whitewater kayaker runs the classic line on Euthanasia Falls on the Upper Dart, River Dart, Devonand walk along the bank to inspect, take photos and set up safety if required. Despite its moniker it’s not really all that bad. There are two usual lines. One is to enter the rapid at the top and then run the granite gutter down, making a nifty move to the left at the bottom. In recent years it has become the thing to take the ‘boof’ line. This involves exiting at the bottom of the eddy above and them boofing of the granite shelf that overhangs the river right side of the gutter, changing edge and angle in the air. Get it right and you land softly on the foaming pile and rocket through the gap. Nice!

More fun drops and rapids follow until you finally reach the final big rapid of note. For us this is the trickiest of the lot. It has a few different names, its true name is Sharrah’s Pool but it is also commonly called Pandora’s Box or Surprise, Surprise. In high water it can be sneaked down the far right, but we’d always recommend that you run in on river left. The left is tricky and ends in a nasty looking slot, but it is far safer than the middle which is a jumble of evil boulders just waiting to trap and pin you (this has rapid has seen some nasty accidents). It’s a messy lead in through a jumble of small boulders but keep focused on the very hard left boulder on the lip. To run this clean you want to go more left than you think and lift the nose of your boat as you launch in to the slot. Get it right and you’ll land on the small lip below and pop off upright and smiling in to the waiting pool below. If you pencil in then you need to roll quickly as the water is pushing up against the river left wall. It’s all OK though as a swim here will just flush out in to the large pool.

All that remains now are a few more boulder garden style rapids before you reach the dog water of the paddle out. There are a few fun ledgey drops just before you reach the take out at Newbridge grinning like loons and jabbering about your Upper Dart adventure.

Info:
Grade 4 (5)

Get in: Park at the car park at Dartmeet and then carry your boats over the road. Head through a gate in the corner of the small grassy area next to the river and then follow the path round to the obvious put-in. There are salmon spawning beds above, so please resist getting on at the car park, or just below the bridge as you risk damaging them.
Get Out: Take-out is at New Bridge where there is a big car park. Please don't use the section of the car park reserved for non-paddlers.
Levels: Check the rock ledge on river left at New Bridge. If the water level does not reach the ledge, then it’s is low. If most, or all of this, is covered then the river is at a medium or high level. If water is flowing through all three arches on the bridge at New Bridge and the ledge well under water, it's very high. If it is lapping up the steps leading down to the river… It’s biblical!

The Loop (New Bridge to Holme Bridge/Dart Country Park)
The middle Dart or the Loop as it's more commonly known is one of the most popular runs in the UK. Its fun rapids, mellow nature and beautiful surroundings make it justifiably loved. It’s an ideal river to cut your whitewater teeth on and has a real sense of adventure for canoe clubs and groups. For experts it offers some fun paddling and some great little playspots. As the level gets higher these play spots get better and better and in super-high water the Loop become a roaring freight train of big wave trains, holes and fun.Tripple Falls on the Loop section of the River Dart

The Run
Launch your boat from the slabs at the bottom of the steps at Newbridge and then head under the bridge and away. There is a fun little play-spot within sight of the start. In low to middle levels you can surf around in here and maybe even hit the odd cartwheel. But in high water it becomes a fantastic wave hole with a big breaking pile.

Down stream the river bends to the right and there is another low shelf that forms a shallow sticky hole. There are big eddies on river left at most levels. From here it drops away in a series of easy red-and-run rapids, mainly wave trains but with a few boulders thrown in for good measure. Eventually you’ll come to a small rapid with a big eddy on the river left, where a road comes close to the river, just before the river turns right. The eddy-lines here are pronounced and great to practice tail-stands. Around he corner lays another fun boulder rapid, which then leads down in to some grade 2 water before the River Webburn enters on the left. Where the flows of the two rivers converge is also a good spot to practice eddy-line move and it’s a favourite haunt for squirt-boaters. In certain flows, right where the Webburn drops in forms a small hole that is good for practicing sins in.

By now you should be nicely warmed up because the first of the bigger drops approaches. You’ll see an island appear in the middle and an obvious eddy beneath a cliff on river right, just above the right-hand chute. This signals the Washing Machine. Run the right hand chute as close to the island as you can for a clean run down a green tongue or head over the middle of the ledge that forms the Washing Machine and boof for a few more thrills. In high water the lines stay the same but the hole becomes a huge beastie that can give a fun ride if you’ve the coconuts to drop in. Below the river opens out a bit and this is a popular lunch/brew stop for groups. In high water a great surging surf wave can also form in the middle of the flow.
More fun rapids follow until you’ll finally reach a narrower section with some high granite out crops on river left. If you’re so inclined these have seen many a paddler clamber up and then perform a super-hero sea launch, with varying degrees of success. From here the rivers flattens out until you reach a large pool on a right hand bend. This signals Lover’s Leap, probably the best rapid on the run. It’s named after a steep cliff at the bottom of the rapid, where, legend has it, love torn lovers would throw themselves off in to the icy waters below. Enter on the right and negotiate your way down this short but fun rollercoaster ride until you finally avoid the cliff at the bottom and eddy out in the large pool on river right. When playboats were longer it was all the rage to ferry back out in to the flow above the cliff and then dip the stern until your boat was perfectly splatting the cliff, surfing vertically on the pillow wave before sliding off and rolling back up.

Below here is a long section of fun water that has a few play holes and wave trains depending on the water level. Eventually the river take a significant turn to the right and don a rocky rapid and this signals the approach of Triple Falls. This varies depending on the level. In lower levels it is three small rapids, the top one being the most ‘fall’ like, but in high water they all blend in to one bug stonking series of big waves and holes. The best thing is that there is a path the runs along the river right back, so you can yomp back up and do it again, and again. A great little play hole forms at middle levels, with eddy service on both right and left and it’s not uncommon to find paddlers queuing here to take their turn. Things calm down a bit from here on in and after a section of bimbly water you’ll come to the Spin Dryer. This is basically a fast green tongue of water that slams in to a rocky outcrop at the bottom with a large swirling eddy of doom on the river right. Stay middle right and be ready to low brace of the cushion wave if you have to and you’ll be fine.

From here it’s a fun section of wave trains down until you go under the bridge at Holne. Many people choose to take off here, but we recommend continuing down the next short section to take out at the River Dart Country Park. You do have to pay a small fee to park there but it’s worth it, A: for the fact that it keeps the narrow road at Holne clear of parked cars and B: the section down to the park still has some fun features to paddle including the fearsome Holne Weir and the purpose built Anvil play hole just before the take out. It’s a brilliantly fun run for all abilities and we guarantee that once you’ve run the Loop you’ll return again, and again and again.

Info:

Grade: 3
Get in: New Bridge car park.
Get Out: Take out at the River Dart Country Park
Levels: Check the rock ledge on river left at New Bridge. If the water level does not reach the ledge, then it’s is low and the Loop will be a scrape. If most, or all of this, is covered then the river is at a medium or high level. If water is flowing through all three arches on the bridge at New Bridge and the ledge well under water, it's very high and you’re in for a fantastically fun ride.

Useful Info:
Dartcam -
River Dart Country Park

Check out or Online River Guides for more great whitewater paddling Trips HERE



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Low water fun on The Upper Dart July 2011 from mark allen on Vimeo.


High Water Upper Dart from Jamie Conn on Vimeo.

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