River Tweed Canoe Expedition 15-19 March 24

River Tweed – by Thomas Ridsdill

I led my first canoe expedition for Helensburgh canoe club this weekend. 114km of fantastic river Tweed from Peebles to Berwick upon Tweed.

Water levels were up presenting an intimidating volume of flow over the Peebles weir but, once on the water, the group began to tune in to their new environment and started to relax. Stuart (very experienced), Gordon (a few rivers under his belt now) and Steve (novice canoeist) made up this formidable team and we speedily ventured around the first bend and into the wilderness for our 4 day open boat adventure. 

There were sections where the road meandered alongside the river but the noise of the traffic was barely noticeable. The pristine mowed grass of either golf courses or fishing spots were as frequent as the roads but, on the whole, we were in the wilderness with woods or agricultural land all around and barely any contact with people.

Due to the shuttle runs we got paddling around 1400 and covered around 25km by dinner. Averaged approximately 8km/hr! Our first campsite was a small mid channel island. We parked our boats in a swampy bay and set about the wild garlic, establishing our home from home. Stuart brought a spare tarp which was set up as a communal area for cooking and story telling. Just in time to shelter from the brief rain that fell. 

Overnight the temperature dropped below zero but stayed dry and windless.  

Day 2 and the first set of rapids around grade 2 were 29 km in. These were easily negotiated. Then the main grade 2 of Fairnilee begun. The rapids start just down stream of a 3 arched bridge. As I approached the bridge the flow looked decent river left and through the middle arch and I made the signal to ‘All Follow’. As I passed through the middle arch it quickly became apparent that the left arch would have been the better choice as a small island, initially hidden from view, popped up out of no where. A quick signal to go left helped 2 out of the three, however, Gordon had the same surprise as me and realised he would have to put some additional correction strokes in. Tbh, it was only after we had passed the entire section that we realised it was Fairnilee such was the wash out due to the river levels.

55kms in and the first big (and very noisy) weir of Mertoun Mill appeared after a right hand bend. This was lined down as the normal route on river left had very high volume with large haystack likely to swamp a canoe very quickly. 

At 59km in we took the decision to stop 3km short of the intended camp spot. The Island looked ideal and the weather was turning. So the tents and bivi were set up and the big blue tarp erected. And then the rain started. The rain didn’t stop until 4am and my bivi tarp finally had enough. At 0100 I woke to the heavens coming through the tarp and into my sleeping bag. Nothing like a spot of midnight damage control to get the blood pumping. With the spare tarp in place I managed to get to sleep again.

After a rather late set off we were quickly treated to Rutherford Weir and, again, lined. This woke us all up. It was also where we were supposed to have set up camp and we were chuffed with our decision the night before. 2km later and the crux of the river turned up to great us. Makerstoun rapids is a low grade 3 with a line down the right hand side. It was also a rather tricky lining activity and careful attention needed to be paid to the bottom section getting the canoes past a curling boat flipping wave. Not a problem for our veteran adventurers though. The group offered to set up safety cover just to watch me attack the rapids in the hope that they would see me go in. No such luck as I enjoyed a few hundred meters of checking and setting, reverse ferry gliding and running some nice waves and holes. (quite a bit of water made its way over the sides though. The Weh-No-Nah is a wet boat with a low freeboard)

We were at Kelso weir by midday (lined) and a chance for some lunch and leg stretching was welcome.

The next long section took us to the 75km mark and another large weir. River left had a 4 tiered fish ladder. Too good to avoid and so we didn’t. Last down was Steve. We all watched as he decided to attempt a broadside approach to running the top drop. The tail back would have meant a rescue so the relief was plain to see when he straightened up at the last moment and enjoyed an oblivious descent out of imminent peril.

The last Weir to be tackled on the trip was the huge, massive, and highly dangerous (or so I thought) Coldstream weir. During the shuttle run on day 1, I saw the weir from a high vantage point and when the river was quite full. It looked pretty impressive, and so this was to be a portage once there. But on the day, river right had a fairly decent flow but with no danger. And the weir wasn’t particularly bad either. Oh well. Didn’t I look the fool. 

At this point in the day we still had a few hours paddling in us making St Thomas’ island, the last ideal island on the river, our hotel spot for the night.  As we wove our way through the cacophony of crow calls and the farmers modern method of scaring the geese from their land, I couldn’t help but think how similar the noises would likely be to that of artillery gunfire zeroing their shots before a battle during the napoleonic war. The loud bangs continued throughout the days all down the Tweed valley but, thankfully, stopped during the night. 

The end of day 3 was celebrated with a tot of red label and we got our heads down shortly after sun set. 

The last day we had a deadline to be at Berwick upon Tweed by midday in order to deal with the necessary transport to get Gordon back for 1900. We left promptly at 0900 and 1 1/2 hours later we speedily emerged around the corner to be gifted with the sun shining on the plethora of rail bridge arches spanning the border of England and Scotland.

It was a fantastic way to end a very enjoyable expedition. Thank you to Gordon, Steve and Stuart for your company.

I aim to lead more canoe expeditions and overnight trips for HCC and to get the club boats ready for white water. If this article has wetted your appetite for some open boating look out on the club calendar. Unfortunately I am unable to plan too far in the future at the moment but will try to put any trips on the calendar with as much notice as possible.

Some may be interested in a new canoe trail starting next month. www.gotweedvalley.co.uk