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Canoe trip on the River Spey

Spey Trip 2021

132.5Km 82.3M

Day One

The trip started in Spey Bay looking out over the Moray Firth, the weather was with us the sun was shining, the wind had died down and the wildlife didn’t disappoint either with dolphins jumping within the surf and ospreys actively hunting in the river mouth, this was set to be a great trip.

Our Highland Yaks shuttle arrived with trailer to take us to our starting point at Loch Uvie and I must say this is by far one of the nicest shuttle buses I have ever been in. After a quick stop to Aviemore to pick up a boat for Rowen and Luke we headed off to start our paddling adventure.

After a quick paddle across a loch we saw that the outflow had been blocked and so had to portage and line our boats out onto the river and we set off. The first day of paddling was a slow one with not much flow on the river, but the snow capped Cairngorms and the sun promised something later to come so we paddled on amongst the tall pines covering the sides of the glen.

Our first campsite was sandwiched between a highland cow paddock on a bend in the river giving us just enough pebbles and grass to be comfortable and would make a perfect spot for a fire above the pebbles on our fire pit. Once the camp was setup and the fire burning well Jacob started our evening meal, a delicious blend of chilli, vegetables, sausage and rice which we ate with great vigour and relaxed by the fire for the rest of the night

Day Two

We awoke with the sun breaking its way through a mist across the campsite all prepared for the day ahead and as soon as we left I found myself stranded on a gravel bank and having to step out of the boat and getting wet feet for the first time I can definitely say that river was fed by the snow capped Cairngorms.

We put in a staggering distance on day two a total of 36km ( 22.3m) the river was calm and still with a few small quick sections until we reached loch Insh. Now I’m not usually one for open water and paddling the 1km across did worry me a little at first but I slowly picked my way around windsurfers and pleasure boaters until at last we all made it to the water sports centre on the other side for a well deserved lunch.

Leaving the loch we searched for a known ospreys nest. Ospreys like to nest right at the top of a tree and as we rounded the corner of an island there it was with chick inside, the parent bird came from the back of the island carrying a huge fish and landed in the nest.

Our second campsite we had to search for, the recommended campsite we were aiming for had now been turned into a golf course (of course) so we continued down river to find a suitable site which turned out to be a tussock filled field, finding a flat spot was difficult but not impossible. I had only brought a small tent so I found it easy whereas Luke and Rowen were sharing a three man but didn’t seem to have to much of a problem. We set up camp and started to collect the fire wood for dinner. It was my turn to cook and I had settled on a carbonara with fresh garlic flatbreads made with wild garlic butter. It went down a treat and we all settled down for a good nights sleep.

Day Three

The third day (Monday) started well the river started moving faster and the number of small rapids was growing so I was in a cheerful mood then all of a sudden we stopped under a bridge to find the post office just up the road in a village, which we were informed, provided weary paddlers a decent cup of coffee. This was the day new COVID rulings came into effect for Scotland so we went into the village obeying them all. Here you can see Jacob explaining the two metre rules to Luke.

Whilst Rowen sent a postcard home we gratefully received our coffees then we all headed back to the boats and back on the river! The rain came and started to fill the boats up making them unsteady, something I’m not used to so the ritual bailers came out. With the rain came the wind and everyone became cold and hungry so a lunch stop with a coffee half way through the day warmed us all up.

We headed on down surrounded by the oystercatchers flying above our heads trying to draw us away from their nests. But then the clouds parted and the sun arrived to warm us once again.

The rocks breaching the surface had started to get bigger and to top it all off the heavens opened again which softens the tell tale sings of an underwater hazard so I had a couple of heart in mouth moments whilst dodging the camouflaged sandpaper like snipers laying in wait. Day three was by far the wettest and a constant bailing routine commenced after each rapid. We were all soaked through but didn’t mind because the paddling was such good fun. Finding a good camp spot was proving to be more and more difficult because of the fly fisherman. They have taken every part of flat ground, mowed it so it was in keeping with the fly fishing fraternity and claimed it for their own. However they hadn’t counted on the likes of us and we pitched up along a footpath against some stock fencing and now the pressure was on for me (the bushcraft instructor) to find some dry wood after all that rain so we could cook dinner. Luckily I found two dead standing trees fairly close to camp which provided enough fuel so Mark C could feed us a feast of sweet and sour sauce spam and rice. He put everyone to shame however when he brought out the cake and custard (I could have kissed him). It wasn’t long before we each had a dram around the fire telling tales about the washing machine and the other rapids we would encounter over the next day.

Just before we headed to bed the river looked higher to me and to prove I wasn’t going mad I asked Luke, he was in agreement so we decided to move the boats up the bank a few metres. (Just in case) .

Day Four

The forth day was the day of whiter water. The river had a definite quicker pace to it and the mini rapids were greater in number.

Running through these smaller rapids which just need you to pay attention and not hit any rocks above the water line is fine unless, like me you have the attention span of a goldfish, I suffer from a terrible affliction, every time I see something interesting I’m hitting this boulder, bracing over there, dodge the tree ARGH! Ben pay attention!! But……what was that bird.......? It’s a real problem.

Anyway we moved through the slower stuff and finally made it to the top of the washing machine. Granted we made the eddy below the one we wanted and had to sort out our approach. All safety measures had been put in place with throw lines just in case but it was a fun bouncy run down for everyone and the sun was shining.

Once through we continued down until we reached a fantastic sand bank to have lunch and some of Rowens famous gourmet coffee. The sun was shining the salmon were jumping and fishermen seemed .. ok and then we continued down to the section of knockandu for more white water fun. The lines I had been taking on the river had been more conservative up until now but I’ve had my canoe for a few years now and I wanted to see what it could do so I was picking tighter lines through questionable features and it didn’t miss beat. Paddling this river for this long had definitely allowed my paddling to progress a long way in a very short amount of time.

We stopped for another break further down stream as the pace of the river and work involved in navigating it had taken its toll on us. A hot drink, a stretch of the legs and maybe a photo shoot of the clubs new poster boy saw us refreshed so we set off to look for camp.

We could see on the paddle down that the fishing industry on the spey was huge and so lots of the banks had been set up for fishing and instead of the lifesaver rings we have in town along the river they have large landing nets which gives you some idea of the task we had of finding a campsite. We searched for another half an hour which meant we travelled another few kilometres downstream until we couldn’t paddle any longer and claimed a site for ourselves most of us pitched up along the riverbank but I found a nice spot beneath a cedar to spend the night. Mark H and Rowen prepared the fire site whilst Mark C collected the firewood and I filled the water bottles up using the filter. Luke made a wonderful chorizo rice dish and the whiskey flowed until the wee small hours so we could recall our heroism and bravery over the rapids of the river. Whilst sitting there enjoying the last of the sunset we all noticed a bat roost in the woodland and what looked like common pips streaming out. Then a peregrine came barrelling through and snatched one out of the air. I love this river.

Day Five

Now the bigger rapids were behind us we could relax into the last day of the trip or so I thought. when we began on day one we were travelling at 5kph and now as the water comes down to the moray firth we were moving at 10-15kph.

The river dropped dramatically at the base of a pine forest and we moved faster still. The landscape had started to change, we had left the mountains and rolling hills for shear cliffs either side as the river cut its way out to sea. The flora had also changed, the lupins and deciduous woodland that hugged the shoreline further up the river had now turned to the dreaded giant hogweed and Japanese knot weed with a definite shrub layer. The oystercatchers had started too disappeared and little terns started flying past our heads. New hazards presented themselves and it looked as though a very recent storm had sent trees in full leaf toppling over and swept downstream causing blockages to navigate.

We rounded a bend and saw a abandoned house surrounded by fallen trees, I was at the back of the group and saw everyone eddy out to explore the house, not being able to see the size of the eddy I thought it best to find my own so I paddled past and decided to investigate a gravel bar in the middle of the river to see what I could find.

Upon leaving the the house one of our team turned their boat so a rescue was needed but with the amount of training we have all had it was an easy retrieve and everyone was safe, surprisingly no kit was lost so hats off for the tying down skills. All I can say on this is running down a rocky pebbly river bank at full speed after lockdown is not fun and watch out for the hogweed.

With a mile or so to go we all returned to our boats and paddled the last leg still navigating the gravel bars that stretched across the river and picking our lines but then we could see the ice houses at the bay where we started all those days ago and the sea! I had to tell myself to concentrate yet again because if I missed this turning I would be playing in the surf, but we finally got onto the beach…we had done it.

The feeling of accomplishment when you turn to face the Cairngorms and realise you have paddled down over 1000ft and across 82m from the base of the mountains to the mouth of the river is fantastic. It is a trip everyone should do and I for one can’t wait to do it all again next year.

I would like to personally thank the club for putting the trip together. A special thanks to Mark Corti, Jacob Baisley, Mark Harris, Rowen Spears and Luke Alexandre for putting up with me teaching them all things bushcraft throughout the whole trip.

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