A wildlife guide once told me I should wear a hat with a peak when bird watching. ‘In bright light, if you look up to the sky to focus on a bird, the peak helps shade your eyes’, he said.
With the hope of spotting some rare birds on a canoe trip down the River Spey, I followed his advice and wore a favourite cap, grey with a red band round the peak.
I also wore a waterproof jacket, waterproof over trousers, kneepads, old trainers and the most important addition to my less than sartorially elegant outfit - a buoyancy aid.
Before getting on the water, our group, friends for many years, had met the previous evening to acquaint ourselves with other pieces of necessary kit that included paddles, waterproof storage bags, a rescue rope and heavy blue plastic barrels which were something of a mystery. All of this equipment plus our own individual luggage would be packed into the Canadian canoes.
We were a party of seven which included our leader Dave Craig – a vastly experienced canoe coach, whisky aficianado and sole proprietor of the company Spirit of the Spey. Before heading out to a local hostelry for dinner he had poured each of us a wee dram and we all raised a glass of 12 year old malt in a toast to the success of our forthcoming adventure on the River Spey.
The next morning we met on the banks of the river near the Old Spey Bridge at Grantown-on-Spey. Here, still on dry land, we packed the canoes, tied everything in and practised various paddling strokes that we would need over the course of the next three days. Instructions in case of capsize were listened to with rapt attention!
Then we slid the canoes down the bank and into the water. Now we were ready. We set off in a line.
The river here is some 40 yards wide and appears black with depth. For long stretches it runs rippled but placid with occasional breaks showing white in the flow. When our canoes glance off unsighted half submerged rocks, it’s a reminder we have to be ever vigilant. These rocks could cause difficulties but we manage to steer clear of most of them.
Whenever there is a potential hazard ahead, such as a bridge or rapids, Dave explains how we should tackle it before he goes ahead. We then attempt to follow his line.
Along the river we pass a few fishermen and women. Usually they are standing in the water, sometimes waist deep, casting a fly in the hope of hooking an elusive Atlantic salmon. Here the grass banks have been cut to allow easy access from the huts provided for their comfort. With a shout, Dave attracts their attention as we approach and they let us know on which side they would prefer us to pass to avoid their lines. From time to time large fish rise and fall back into the water.
Beyond the edges, the river banks are thickly tree lined with oak, birch and rowan. Higher up the slopes conifers reach for the sky.
We spot grey herons, buzzards, one red kite, numerous ducks and one osprey. To follow the flight of these birds, I’m pleased to be wearing my peaked hat.
Our first stop is at a fisherman’s hut. We enjoy a substantial lunch, packed that morning in Grantown-on-Spey. Dave gets the primus going. Tea and coffees are followed by a wee 12 year old whisky produced nearby in Dufftown. We sniff and sip the whisky as instructed and listen to our own expert who enthuses about this particular nip. Now we know what’s in the blue barrels!
On this first day of paddling in fine weather we’ve covered about 15 miles. In late afternoon we leave the water and while our equipment is being transported, we walk the short distance to Cragganmore House. Not so long ago these canoe trips involved overnight camping. Now the participants partake of the hospitality, quaintness and excellent home cooking of this family run guest house.
Cragganmore House can be found near the Cragganmore, Ballindalloch and Glenfarclas distilleries. There’s no bar in the guest house but it seems only natural, having brought our own makeshift bar to savour a pre-dinner whisky aperitif in the guest’s lounge.
On day two, suitably rested and replenished we’re back on the water in fine weather. The rapids we will meet today have acquired reputations that have grown with each telling over the years and have been named – the Washing Machine, Knockando and Millionaire’s rapids. These stretches of churning white water are much longer than we’ve met so far. The waves are bigger, but we bounce through – damper but undaunted - to calmer water.
In the afternoon we leave the river by the Thomas Telford Bridge at Craigellachie to visit the new Macallan Distillery. It’s a vast complex where whisky is made on an industrial scale. The tour with a knowledgeable guide includes an impressive sound and light show. When it ends, visitors are then entertained by the guide and offered small tastings of different stages of a final aged and bottled product before exiting by the gift shop.
When we leave the distillery a prearranged taxi takes us to Craigellachie Lodge. After another tasting session where slices of lemon add something else to our whisky aperitifs we walk the short distance to the popular Copper Dog pub in the Craigellachie Hotel.
For the menu here, locally sourced produce features as much as possible. As well as our dinners, we enjoy the pleasant atmosphere, live music and the ‘craic’ (conversation with many laughs) as they say in this part of the Highlands.
Our overnight stay and fortifying breakfast before leaving Craigellachie Lodge sets us up for our last day on the water. The scenery may be glorious but we can’t see much through the mist and heavy rain. It’s cold and we’re buffeted by a wind from the north. We paddle on, under bridges and through rapids. But at a particularly big rapid, our canoe is caught sideways in a standing wave. In the blink of an eye we’re tipped into the water.
Our leader is aware of what’s happening and issues instructions. I leave the now upturned canoe – turn on my back and with an ungainly frog–like leg action, soon reach the shore. Being in the water is actually warmer than being out. Meanwhile my canoeing partner has wrapped the extended rescue rope round a large rock. It’s not long before we’re back in the canoe and paddling once again. However, my hat has sailed on down the river.
Some distance away the hat is rescued. All is well until our friends, in turn, now capsize. Once again the hat is sailing.
Further on we stop to meet old friends who now live locally. They inform us the temperature is a mere 12 degrees centigrade. We stand around, gratefully gulping the hot drinks and munching the chocolate biscuits they have laid out on a picnic bench. Between drinks, time is spent running and jumping on the spot – a futile attempt to get warm.
On this last day of paddling we had planned to meet the sea at Spey Bay on the Moray coast. The weather is still miserable. The wind is now blowing offshore. Conditions could not be much worse so we stop some yards short of our planned destination.
As we’re cold and very wet it’s an effort to get the canoes and other equipment stored safely aboard the trailer. When it’s done, we’re more than glad to feel the warmth of the Spey Bay Café. Once changed out of our sodden canoe clothes and supping hot soup the world appears much brighter. However, I envisage my hat bobbing along, somewhere out in the North Sea by now.
But we are all in agreement. Our leader, though he is also disappointed that the conditions prevented us from reaching the sea, has made the right decision. Better to be safe than sorry.
While we still sit around the table, one of the last of his many kind gestures on this memorable trip is to present each of us with a new hat – blue with a peak and the embroidered wording ‘Spirit of the Spey’.
Further information: photos by Dave Craig