THE RIVER SPEY: From Source to Sea*

At Wild Wolf the Leaders are just as active as the Explorers. Every winter a group of us travel to a distant corner of the British Isles to undertake a challenging expedition, partly to develop and hone our own skills, but mostly just because we enjoy being outside, walking, canoeing and wild camping. This year we spent five days paddling open canoes the length of the River Spey in Scotland from where it starts high in the Cairngorm mountains, up north to the coast where it empties into the North Sea. It was not always an easy ride, but it was a very worthwhile experience.

The trip began with a wild camp and day trip on the River Oich which forms part of the Great Glen. This was the first time that many members of the group had been back in a canoe in quite some time and this “Hudson Bay Start” was a good reminder of white water for some of the group’s less experienced paddlers, and it also gave them a chance to practise packing and organising their equipment into their canoes. The Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada used giant canoes, paddled by up to 10 men, to transport furs around Canada, paddling routes many weeks in length. So that they could be sure that nothing crucial had been overlooked, the Hudson Bay canoes would stop and make camp a short distance from town before embarking on their journey the next day. Our expedition was never going to be quite as tough as those that the voyageurs from the 18th Century endured, but it was in this spirit that we decided that it would be a good idea to have a little practice beforehand.

We finished this practice journey on the River Oich in the pouring rain at Fort Augustus, and although everyone was feeling daunted at the prospect of five more days of canoeing and wild camping in the inclement weather, moods improved when we left the wetness of Western Scotland behind and set up camp on the banks of the Spey’s upper reaches in the Cairngorms.

The next morning we packed up everything we had and began our expedition. The River Spey is unusual in that it speeds up as it gets closer to the sea due to the land generally steepening right until the coast, so although some members of the group were disappointed that it started slow it was set to pick up. Indeed, as we set up the tents after our first day grumblings were heard around camp about the lack of serious white water and the slog through the reed beds into Loch Insh. Things couldn’t be more different on following days, however, because we picked up speed as soon as we left Loch Insh behind. The river levels were on the high side which gave us a fantastic ride and opportunities to get bored were very limited. Everyone enjoyed negotiating the rapids and bouncing down the wave trains. We were brought back down to earth one day when we saw an unfortunate sheep drowned in the river, caught by its horns in some branches, which was a morbid reminder of the danger of the ever-present strainers on the river banks.

A highlight of the trip for everyone was The Washing Machine, a large rapid which we paddled on day 3, and Knockando, which is a long series of enjoyable rapids around a large set of bends in the river which we paddled first thing on day 4. Endless riffles and small rapids kept us entertained on the final day all the way down to Spey Bay, right up until we shot out of the river into the gentle surf of the Bay itself. Paddling into the salt water – if only for a few moments – was the icing on the cake and the perfect way to finish the expedition.

To keep things moving smoothly we had agreed a daily routine where we ate breakfast, struck camp, agreed the route for the day, loaded the boats and set off by 10am in our three paddling groups. Sunrise this far north didn’t occur until 9am, so headtorches were needed in the mornings as well!

We always met up for lunch and confirmed where we would be wild camping that evening before making the most of the remaining daylight hours to cover the distance to camp. We had agreed before leaving London that there was to be absolutely no canoeing after dark and we normally arrived at our destination by 3pm each day, which gave us an hour of daylight to set up camp – Scottish winters mean daylight hours really are pretty limited! Upon reaching camp the first thing to do was to empty the boats and pull them well up from the water. Tents followed shortly after and stoves were lit, and despite it being cold there was normally a drying wind and clothing and equipment could be hung up on washing lines to air.

We were wild camping every night, which meant that we set up camp on a remote section of the river bank, or on an island in the middle of the river. There were obviously no toilets, so primitive arrangements had to be made for that, and we carried all our water with us. Although these conditions might seem like an unnecessary hardship to the inexperienced camper, the isolation and remoteness meant that we could enjoy the largely unspoilt river environment, and the absence of light pollution meant that stargazing was a possibility – and we could even see the Milky Way at times. Most of all, however, it was just very fulfilling to have completed the expedition in its entirety completely under our own steam.

Explorer Scout Leader

*nearly. Travelling along the Spey from where it first rises at Loch Spey right up in the highlands would be a crazy undertaking (and a walk for a lot of it!), so we began our journey at Lochain Uvie which is the highest section of river you can feasibly paddle all year round.

Check out the video below to experience our trip for yourself!


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