24-30 September 2014. The 4 days set aside for our trip down the Spey beginning on Friday 26th September seemed ample time to cover the 100km distance involved. Even so, a piece of extremely welcome news just before setting off for Kincraig got us all into exactly the right frame of mind.
Fiona's non paddling husband Grant had generously offered to shuttle all our drivers back to Loch Insh from Spey Bay. This would avoid us needing to leave one of our cars at the top of the river, then all the time needed to drive back up to Kincraig from Spey Bay at the end of the trip. Woo hoo! And, by the time the shuttle was complete, the non driving members of our group had already packed most of the boats and were ready to set off. Things were looking good, despite poor Andy realising that he had left his wellies at home. So, after finding a couple of Tesco bags aka Andy's new waterproof socks and a short warm up and practise session on moving water below the piers of Kincraig bridge, we began our journey.
Not everyone had either paddled the river before or paddled with their tandem partner, but we all got used to things pretty quickly. There was plenty of water for smooth travel and consequently not too many rocks showing. The eddies were friendly enough and seemed in a kind mood, letting us off with no more than a few wobbles here and there. We had good fun breaking in and out of the current with our heavy boats, all without incident and establishing the all important intra-boat communication style that always proves vital sooner or later. We passed Aviemore, followed soon enough by Boat of Garten.
Often suggested as a great first overnight stop, the cheerful but no frills campsite at Boat of Balliefurth was a stretch too far, even for what could easily turn out to be our shortest day on the river. We decided to look for a decent wild camp site somewhere sooner before losing too much light, so that we could work out our first tent pitching and cooking routine under the least amount of stress.
Out in front, George and Natalie spotted a likely looking bank on river right. We found this to be ideal with an easy landing and ample space for our several tents. After our gentle few hours introduction to the trip and a warm meal, we all settled down for the night. Natalie's savvy dog Jessica instantly made herself at home as a natural tent dog.
Next day, the early morning first stretch down to Broomhill we knew was renowned as the place where the Speyside steam railway runs close to the river. Unfortunately, our timing was just not quite right for a view of a train this time, although we did hear a distant whistle!
The antique wooden trestle bridge carrying the Nethy Bridge road over the river at Broomhill looked battered and frail as we streamed smoothly under. But apparently this bridge, built yonks ago in 1894, is regarded as "The finest wooden road bridge surviving in Scotland" and is locally revered. The Spey boasts 19 bridges between Loch Insh and Spey Bay, many of them with an equally impressive claim to fame and we hoped we would pass under them all with as little incident.
Still early and before too many fishermen had arrived we passed below the new (ish) road bridge outside Grantown. This heralds the beginning of the Grantown rapid, rated at Grade 2. After a suitable 'heads up' prompt, Andy and I set our course to steer through the long rock garden in front of us. Looking for a suitable eddy ahead, Andy had joined conversation with a merry looking bunch of gents shouting encouragement from the left bank. We duly arrived in suitable style at their feet and the reason for their effusive praise for our endeavours became clear. How much of the bottle of malt had already been consumed that morning was not obvious, however they seemed in good sorts and generous enough. We left as soon as the one offering us a dram had lifted himself back onto the bank after slipping into the water. With him going to such extremes, Andy had found it churlish to refuse such a kind offer and after he had imbibed appropriately, the rest of the rapid was completed effortlessly with a big smile and a warm contented glow on the cheeks.
The old church at Cromdale had a history panel telling us of the Battle of Cromdale in 1690, when over 400 perished on the haughs nearby after the pursuing army crossed the river here. The grassy bank, surely mown just for us, made a relaxing lunch stop in full sunshine. Warnings of shallows around the next bend proved unnecessary, as the water proved too low to cover the shallow rock ledges on river left and actually made our passage easier by defining our line more obviously.
The next bridge at Advie is notorious as having the remains of old bridge pillars hazardously sited mid channel immediately upstream. Leading the group through, Andy and I ran a shade too close to the obstruction and ended up with a swamped boat for our complacency. Recovering quickly but being fully occupied, we did not see what happened to Fiona and Nick in the next boat down but I definitely heard what I later could only describe as a squawk. According to Nick, who had sensibly stayed in their boat as they steered directly into the hazard we ourselves had clipped, this happened as Fiona decide to pitch over the bow for a diving swim. Impressive. George and Natalie even more sensibly took a different line, whilst Jim and Alison followed in total control, exhibiting what would become their characteristically serene paddling style and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Another bridge to be amazed by swung into view, telling us we had reached Ballindalloch. This time a redundant railway bridge, made in Scotland from girders by Dundonian engineers. A Victorian masterpiece that looks like it will last forever. Lots of room on the bank in the field next to the river for our camp and toilets and water at the small (and occupied) Speyside Way camp site just above our field, at the old Cragganmore station. Incredibly, the old swingle arm freight weighbridge remains intact here, still in situ.
After no more than a few minor incidents so far, spirits were high as we approached the A'an confluence section on Day 3 with enthusiasm. It's Sunday, no fishermen to worry about and we can relax to that extent. We eddied out in a big pool upstream of the trib that would join us from river right, looked down the long bouncy rapid below us and worked out our plans of attack. Then into it without too much hesitation, slowing the pace as much as possible and thus navigating through with ease. We completed the following fast bend and break out manoeuvre in similarly good order and soon covered the short distance to the next accelerating, funnel shaped jet of water making up a Grade 2 wave train rapid, upstream of Blacksboat. A textbook performance and five gold stars for all crews. Did someone mention a washing machine?
The next Grade 2/3 section at Kockando was just tremendous fun and we had all day to enjoy it. Everyone completed this, usually the most challenging set of rapids of any trip, with flying colours. In the eddy at the bottom of the section we caught up with some fellow paddlers who seemed impressed with the achievements of our group so far. Well deserved praise I thought.
On to Aberlour in brilliant sunshine, passing the Carron distillery and under Carron Bridge, which suddenly and dramatically appears as you go round a sharpish bend.
Quite soon, Aberlour approached, marked by it's magnificent and ornate pedestrian suspension bridge, even though this only seems to exist to take you from Aberlour into someone's garden on the opposite bank. A short few km's quickly completed took us to yet another bridge. This time arguably the most photographed on the Spey, Thomas Telford's iron bridge masterpiece at Craigellachie, with it's castellated abutments and in it's sunny and glorious tree lined location. Ironbridge, Shropshire, eat your heart out for a setting like this.
We ended this classic canoe day at the ideal Speyside Way campsite, not accidentally chosen because of the mere 15 minutes it takes to walk to the Highlander Inn. Then a real good restaurant trip dinner, with drinky poos. This well known hostelry offers a great welcome to paddlers and has a list of over 300 whiskies to choose from. Andy is in his element. The waitress kindly asks for our drinks order and impressed with the wall to wall bottles of every whiskey known to man on display, Andy says " I'll have a whisky please". The waitress says "Of course sir. What would you like?" Andy asks: "What have you got?", the enormity of the question rendering the waitress immediately speechless. Cleverly, she leaves Andy a list, which just adds to his pleasure.
After 3 superb days, our final day on Monday continued bright and warm with great paddling conditions. Poor Alison had to return to work, missing out on the final leg, but thoughtfully providing a friend, Helen, to help Jim along. Unlike most rivers, the Spey continues to quicken in it's lower reaches. Fishermen were plentiful, and hazards like flood deposited trees, mid stream rocks and even old fences presented plenty of traps for the unwary. By now though, our group was ready for pretty much anything and coped with everything they met. They were now paddling like veterans. Gentle fumes of whiskey mash always on the air (Speyside is distillery central after all) the fun continued down past Boat o'Brig, with fast stretches through Fochabers and into Spey Bay itself. The impressive Spey Bay bow string (and of course disused) railway viaduct eventually appeared massively on the horizon. As we passed, a lone dog walker stopped to peer down.
We arrived at Tugnet in Spey Bay, still in the sunshine, weary after all our efforts yet with lots of smiles and a growing sense of achievement all round. Please ICC, can all canoe trips be like this?
ICC members on this trip were:
Nick Downing James
with special Day 4 guest Helen
More images in the image gallery.