Sheep Wrangling and Sore Knees on the Spey

More people, more paddling, more often.

“It was shaping up to be a good couple of days. The weather was looking warm and dry and the levels on the River Spey were looking good after a wet winter and a couple of days of rain. The plan was to load up and drive north to Loch Insh, run the shuttle and hit the river.

Grant

Moose: “After my wet and windy experience in Cowal, I was somehow hooked on canoe expeditions. Somehow the hellish, exhausting and soaking wet experience had left me wanting more and when Grant told me he was off for a few days and wanted to paddle the Spey, I jumped at the chance. Since then I have paddled the river plenty of times, but back then I knew of it only as a classic multi day river trip. 

Ellie was less than thrilled when she found out I was coming; she had planned a getaway for her and Grant and now I was gatecrashing it. “It’s okay,” we said, “Dave is coming too.” This didn’t entirely help.”

Grant:  The issues started before we even left, mainly because Mr Dave McLeod is one of the biggest faffer I know. So after the faff we managed to hit the road, three hours later we pull up at the get on at Loch Insh. Ellie, Moose, Dave and I unload the boats and take them down to the waters edge before Dave and I hit the road again for another three hours to run the shuttle when we got back Ellie and Moose had vanished… all the kit was still there but two missing boaters… until “where the fuck have you two been? It’s freezing here!” Moose exclaims from under his boat.”

Moose: “We four stood at the side of Loch Insh, ready to go in the midday sun. Grant and Dave “nipped off” to run the shuttle, a distance we had all wholly underestimated. They returned three hours later, and Ellie and I were both asleep underneath our boats, propped up with half poles to protect us from the hammering rain that had started hours before.” 

Grant: “We hit the water and made use of the flow down to just outside Aviemore arriving with just enough light to spot the difference between the bank and the river. We pulled the boats up the bank and as Dave found some flat ground Moose and I hung up our hammocks, as it was this was Ellie’s first night in a hammock, and setting it up in the dark would only result in a uncomfortable night I hung hers as she put on the chilli she had pre made and filled with most of a tub of chilli flakes, before heading to bed.”

Moose: “When we finally got ourselves sorted and launched onto Loch Insh, it was starting to get dark; so much for an early start. The 10km we covered that night took us to just outside Aviemore, and it took all our self restraint not to go and get a pint in town. Instead we hung our hammocks and sat around the stove, as Ellie whipped up a chilli, into which she poured two thirds of a tub of chilli flakes. The two upshots to the excessive chilli flakes were that we certainly weren’t cold any longer, and with how hot it was and how many breaks we had to take, the rest of the night was given over to working our way through our dinner.” 

River Spey

“The downside was really experienced the following morning, when slightly damp and fresh air was a relief to us as we squatted, clinging to trees for moral support.

Moose

Grant: “The following morning was quite the delight… squatting in the woods reflecting on poor life choices, but on the bright side I wasn’t the only one! It really made me reflect on that age old saying “teamwork makes the dream work” I’m not entirely sure that’s what’s meant by it though…”

We sat and watched the steam rising off our buoyancy aids, set up high and finally drying from our rainy start the day before. Once the sun had risen and the dew under our feet dried out, we packed away and hopped in our boats, aiming to cover some distance after the stunted start the day before.”G: “We worked our way down the river though Aviemore making the most of the good flows and the tail wind. After a damp night the warm sunshine slowly warmed us and dried out our kit as we reached the long flat section that would take us to the brick built archways that supported the old railway at Tomachrochar, our final approach to the iconic bridge stations we rafted up for a floating lunch.

Morning coffee done right

Moose: “The small chutes which lead us around Aviemore gave way to a wider stretch of river, full of sweeping bends and some short sections of almost-rapids. It was a gentle start to the river, and we paddled constantly to cover the ground to the moving sections. We ate a moving lunch as we floated past the brick archways at Tomachrochar, the stanchions to an old railway bridge.  

At Grantown-on-Spey, you pass under an impressive bridge which heralds the start of the first real rapid. A long right hand sweep, followed by a sharp left hand bend under a bridge which has an exciting eddy line as you stop behind the stanchions. From here on, the rapids became more continuous, but didn’t increase in grade for some time. We meandered around islands and bends as we wound our way down toward Blacksboat, where the Washing Machine awaited.” 

After watching the delights of watching Moose attempt to wee out the back of his boat, we headed downstream to meet our new pal Chris.”

Grant

Grant: “Chris was having a hell of a day, he was in the river just keeping his head up all tangled up in the trees. We boated over, as weI explained to Chris the plan I stroked his head as Dave jumped out, ran down and dropped a sling round his neck to pull him up the bank and back to safety… now this might sound harsh but Chris didn’t seem to care about what we were saying, or more importantly couldn’t, you see the issue is that Chris was a sheep. He seemed fine though after Dave had hauled him up the bank he scampered away to join the rest of his pals leaving only some of his sheep shit as thanks.”

Moose: “Just before we reached the formidable chute, however, one of the most memorable moments of my paddling career took place. We were rounding a long left hand bend, the water carrying us slowly past overhanging trees and a heavily eroded bank. We were allowing the water to carry us now, having a chilled chat about whatever nonsense was on our minds, when between some branches we caught a flash of white, of wool, of dismay. A sheep, not unusual on these banks, but this one had clearly fallen and was perched on a small spit of land just clear of the water. It was trying to climb the vertical bank and was in danger of floating downstream and being caught up in torrents and trees.

We pulled in to the side, three of us staying close to the newly dubbed Chris (we know sheep are female, don’t worry) while Dave, sheep wrangler extraordinaire snuck up from behind, ready to lasso Chris with his rescue tape. Despite the fact that Grant, Ellie and I were explaining all this to Chris, little of it seemed to sink in and there was a heightened level of fear as a tape hoisted the writhing sheep to safety. Without a word of thanks, Chris shot off to the safety of the flock. Dave wiped off some sheep shit and got back in his boat, good deed done for the day. 

I realise I have spent more time so far talking about a sheep than about the river, but it really is these weird and wonderful moments that stick in our memories, more than rapids ever will.”

One of the many crossing points on the river

Grant: “We return to the river and keep the banter going with a spot of story time. Rather than trying to remember what was in the guidebook I had made the decision to take the book with me. Meaning throughout the day I would share extracts with the team in my best BBC News voice.” 

Moose: “Grant read the description to us from the guidebook, as he had done at every bend so far. Storytime with Grant was becoming a regular feature of this trip and was useful in keeping tabs on how far we had come, but quite why he was doing his best impression of Tony Bilbow (see Means of Production) was completely beyond me.”

Soon we arrived at the famous Washing Machine rapid, arriving here meant we had covered what would normally be most folks camp for night three on most trips from Loch Insh, meaning we had more than made up for lost time. 

Grant

Grant: “Washing Machine is a big bouncy wave chain rapid that most canoeists run hard right in order to minimise the amount of water that you take on, unless you’re Dave. Moose Ellie and I sneaked down the right to ensure a nice line but Dave peeled out the Eddie and powered up smashed straight through the middle of the wave chain filling most of his boat with most of Spey, earning him the new name of Dave “down the middle” McLeod.” 

Moose: “We had made up for the lost time on day one and could always camp at Blacksboat, at the bottom of the Washing Machine. But the day was still young, and once Dave had emptied his boat from piling down the middle of the rapid (he earned the nickname “Down the Middle MacLeod” on this trip thanks to his lacklustre attempts to maneuver his boat to anywhere other than the wettest bit of the river) we decided we might as well keep going.” 

Cromdale Kirk

Grant: “Soon we arrived at Knockando one of the larger rapids of the river meaning Dave was bailing out again as we all hit the eddy at the get out for the classic section. Moose and I pulled out the map and worked out that it was only 35km to Spey Bay, compared to the 55km that we had already done that day alright as Down the Middle bailed out from Knockando we had a debated just smashing out the rest of the river in the few hours of daylight we had left. Until we decided to use the SCA toilets at the top of the steps. After walking up and down the 15 steps we all decided our knees were all ready for a rest and not another 35km.”

Moose: “We were well into the popular section of white water now, and a speedy flow was carrying us down interesting, sometimes intricate rapids towards Knockando. As interesting as these were, they didn’t live too long in the memory, my next memory really is hitting an eddy at the bottom of the main rapid of the river and having a chat with an older guy who was there for an after work paddle. “Where have you guys come down from?” he asked us. “Just north of Aviemore,” I replied wearily. He smiled, “no, today I mean,” he pushed. “Yeah, just north of Aviemore.” He looked back at me incredulously, it turns out we had covered just over 50km to get to Knockando, a feat usually taking two and a half days on commercial trips. 

We hopped out on the bank to use the toilet, and the toll of kneeling had us creaking up the stairs like we were ancient and decrepit. It had been a long day, no doubt, but we had covered over half of the river. Grant and I worked out we had around 35km left, and had been through most of the major rapids.

“What about if we just keep going?” we suggested to Ellie and Dave, who gave us mutinous looks at our suggestion. “Or find somewhere to camp, I guess,” we conceded.” 

Moose

Grant: “So we got back on the go looking out for a campsite, only a few kms from the Knockando rapids we pulled up on an island in the middle of the river. We soon realised that this campsite was great. Plenty of trees for us to hang our hammocks from, flat space for ‘Down the Middle’s’ tent. It was perfect.”

Moose : “A little further downstream we found the perfect spot; a small island between two chutes of rocky rapids, with enough trees and open space to be the ideal campsite for the night. We hung up our kit and, now out of our boats, realised how long the day had really been. Grant and I were still convinced, outwardly, that we should have carried on, but I think both quietly grateful that the others had disagreed with us.” 

Hammock set up

Grant: “The next day I was glad we stopped, as I fell out of my hammock with legs that were struggling to hold me. I was pretty happy to be able to walk around and loosen up before getting back in the boat. If we had paddled all the way to the end I imagine that my legs would have stopped working somewhere on the A9 on the drive home… probably not ideal.” 

Moose: “The next day we were sold on the decision to stop. Besides a shooting pain as I knelt in my boat, I would have been disappointed to miss out on this paddling in daylight. As the river drops past Charlestown of Aberlour, it begins to take on a more open, meandering feel once again.  

Grant: “The other benefit of stopping was that we got to paddle to lower starches of the Spey in daylight. The area is fantastic, with stunning scenery and according to the rest of the guys, full of otters. I don’t believe it though. Over the couple of days on the river Ellie claimed to have seen a number of otters and Moose was chuffed to see his first one. I still think it’s a conspiracy.”

Moose: “Somewhere along the way, I saw my first ever otter, although I can’t remember where. It popped its head up in the middle of a rapid, then disappeared back under the surface. Grant didn’t see it, though, and doesn’t believe the animals exist in the river. With a lack of empirical evidence, who can really blame him?”

There are still rapids this low down, one of which nearly saw Dave in the water and not even because of his straight down the middle approach.”

Moose

Grant: “To keep the trip fun as we approached the final grade two of the river, as announced by my top quality BBC News voice, Moose decided to try to change Down the Middle’s attitude to boating and tailed him down the rapid. As they approached Moose chased down Dave also using the middle line, although Moose arrived at the bottom completely dry unlike Dave. 

Some would comment here about the size difference between Dave and Moose but this would be very unfair to Dave. Moose decided that rather than follow Dave down he would mount him. #notlikethat. As Dave dropped down the rapid thinking the small hole to be a wave, his boat dropped into the hole at the same time Moose put in a power stroke driving him straight over the top of Dave’s boat sinking Dave even further. He was not happy. Moose was pissing his pants with laughter. As was I. Not long after we arrived back at Spey Bay, Dave and I jumped in the vans and ran the 3hr shuttle.”   

Moose: “We were approaching a rapid and, as usual when out with friends, we were dicking about. As we headed into the final wave of a long train, just past Fochabers, I went to nudge the back of Dave’s boat with the front of mine, just enough to give him a small wobble as he went through the wave. Unfortunately I had mistaken a small hole for a normal wave, and as Dave’s boat dropped into the trough, my bow rode up across his rear, and we went through the wave like a makeshift Jenga set. Being so high up, I took on absolutely no water at all and can highly recommend this approach, but Dave was a different matter. It was all he could do to stay afloat as he headed into shore to empty, the sandpipers poking their heads out from the red cliffs above him wondering what on earth he was swearing at. 

The final few kilometres down to Spey Bay really feel like you’re getting into the sea properly. Once you pass the bridge at Garmouth the river is basically an estuary, but there are a number of options to follow here and they are full of overhanging trees and corners which take you unawares. 

We had paddled another large day, 35km to the finish, and it felt like a slightly underwhelming end when Ellie and I were left once again, huddled under our boats for three hours while Grant and Dave disappeared to shuttle the vans. At least we had the excitement of tying the trailer to distract us.”

Sunset on the Spey

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