Phil Glover’s account of his solo trip down the Spey

Phil was an active member of Bolton Canoe Club for many years before he emigrated to North Island N.Z. We had many adventures together, but this one, I left to him to enjoy on his own. He’s still my best mate ! Kia Ora Bro’ – Foz

The Spey

Newtonmore to the sea

August 2001

I suppose the idea was sown many years ago after reading Alan Fox’s Run River Run.

Ignoring the section on ‘touring rivers’ as I am, was or inspired to be a white-water paddler (in a previous life), I thumbed through the book till I came to that magical phrase – Grade 2. There was no going back, the Spey it was. Though it’s more than nine years ago the trip and the lessons learned are still fresh-(ish) but fading.

After 2-3 years building my skill level up sampling Speyside malts, the trip was planned for Autumn 2001.

Newtonmore is a sleepy village just down the road from Kingussie ( Monarch of the Glen fame ). The campsite is a mile or so out of town, right next to the Spey with a cracking view of the Monadhliaths. Conveniently situated between the campsite and the town’s pubs is a transport café.

Sandy, the owner of the campsite and local blacksmith advised I pitched the tent next to the toilet block as a wind break and to be near the river. Sandy, as will be seen later, was a star is very supportive of kayakers.

A couple of days monitoring the river level at the first rapid under the railway bridge ( going down ) and local Guinness ( also going down ) I was ready for the off.

The campsite – Monadhliaths in the background

But first, the bunny.

Being a bit of a ‘Billy no-mates’, bunnies can be difficult. The plan was to take the car down to Spey Bay and cycle back to the campsite (70-80 miles) then paddle back down to the car – simple. From the O.S. map, the car park at the Tugnet Ice House visitor’s centre seemed ideal as it was at the side of the take-out at Spey Bay. A brief recce confirmed this.

Spey Bay – Tugnet Ice-House Car Park right of centre

After making sure that I had everything I needed for the trip downstream was left at the campsite, I drove down to Spey Bay the following morning with the bike in the car.

I rode a bike (with a nice gel-saddle) to work in Farnworth everyday. But afraid that it may go missing whilst kayaking down the river, I took an old undersized racer from my garage up to Scotland with me. The sort of bike you won’t cry too much if it went missing. Pity it didn’t have a front brake, pity it did have a Brooke’s saddle.

It was an uneventful trip down to Spey Bay on the same route that I planned to cycle back on. On arrival at Spey Bay I got the bike with essentials for the return trip and set off back to Newtonmore.

A long distance cyclist, with whom I work, gave me advice regarding hydration, etc. for the distance I was to cycle back (70-80 miles). Two litres of grapefruit juice diluted 1:2, was all I needed electrolyte-wise. Dried apricots were all that was needed food-wise, with the proviso that I chew them otherwise they will rehydrate in my gut and block it.

Clothing– I wore tracksters, a thermal long sleeved t-shirt topped by the trusty Buffalo mountain jacket. More on Buffalo tack later. Waterproofs seemed unnecessary as I expected to get wet and dry out as few times on the way back – I wasn’t to be disappointed. A chance to try the ‘wicking’ properties of the Buffalo kit

The first drenching came 30 minutes into the ride back up the B9104 after passing the World War 2 airbase at Dallarchy

Dallarchy was a base whose area covered the North Sea, including numerous sorties into the Norwegian fjords using Beaufighter bombers and nightfighter defence fighters.

There is a memorial at the entrance to the base to the service people who lost their lives during the course of the Second World War and in particularly to one operation over the North Sea which cost the lives of many planes and crew.

Dallarchy War Memorial

I was in good spirits after drying out by the time I’d reached the A96. A right turn past Ena Baxter’s soup factory (making tomato soup that day) with a brief look over the bridge down stream (two channels, river right deep giving a fast bouncy ride through, this would be my last bridge before the final leg to the sea) and then a left up the B9015 through to Rothes, left along the A94 till Charlestown of Aberlour, then right along the A95 until Grantown on Spey (the half way mark). The aim being to familiarise myself with as much of the river as possible whilst going back to the campsite.

Back on the left side of the river again after Charlestown, looking down to the river, I saw a ‘more than grade 2’ rapid – a big constriction leading to a drop, river left, with bouncy waves. Not the sort of thing to have a solo swim on and still keep your brew kit. Mental note for that one!

Canadian shooting the Charlestown rapid – (Edinburgh Kayak Club)

Eventually I reached the half-way mark on the bridge near Grantown-on-Spey, time to rehydrate. More than 30 miles in the bag. Things were looking good.

However, the Brookes saddle had done its worst and the second half of the journey was spent mainly off the saddle.

Over the river to the river left bank following the A95 till it hit the A9 to Aviemore. Aviemore was a long time coming and a very welcome site. Scores of Hen & Stag night revellers had already turned out in the late afternoon, spilling into the streets on their way from pub to pub. Must admit, I could have murdered a pint.

About 15 miles to go and I was off the saddle completely. Time to take to the quiet back roads. A left onto the B9152 left all the traffic behind. It ran parallel with the A9 hugging the railway line till Kingussie. Passing through the main street saw me on a convenient cyclepath between Kingussie and Newtonmore. I was preoccupied with thoughts of a big mixed grill and Guinness in Newtonmore when ‘zing’, then another ‘zing’ and thud. I was being shot at from somewhere from the heather to my right. After a hundred yards or so fast cycling I could still hear the shots falling behind but not following me. No need to take it personally then.

A pleasant, but short night was spent in Newtonmore carbohydrate loading – eating curry and chips and drinking Guinness, standing up.

Sandy had already agreed to look after my bike for me. He really was a star. Apparently he gets a few solo kayakers starting from his campsite to go down the Spey. The fastest returned paddler was back within two days – the river was close to flooding the campsite at the time (about 5 -6 feet above present level).

The water levels for my trip were relatively low so I’d planned for 2 and a 1/2 days river trip.

A good night’s sleep was had and I was up at sparrow’s fart the next morning.

The weather was settled – for Scotland. It was a very calm morning.

No lasting after effects from the cycling so the haemorrhoid cushion and anusol were thrown back in the tent.

I’d already decided what to take with me and had had a practice pack of the Gattino before.

Small items I wouldn’t need immediately, in behind the full plate foot rest.
Things to be kept dry in the wet bag pushed far rear, split paddles pushed either side then the brew kit and stuff that could get wet. All kept in place by the buoyancy bag pushed in place then inflated. Trail food and water between my legs in the cockpit.

A hearty breakfast and I was ready for the off.

It was a bit of a beast to drag to the river. Double check on everything and then a seal launch down the short steep bank into the Spey. It was about 7:45am if I remember rightly.

I hit the bottom but bobbed up and braced downstream.

I could see a hundred yards downstream to the railway bridge and down the first rapid then the river took a sharp right. I wondered what was in store for me?

Crunch. The river had dropped overnight and I grounded under the railway bridge.

Out of the boat, push past and back in.

The river soon picked up and I was shooting down, river left to the first bend.

The Spey, the fastest river in the UK.

I shot round the bend to start the longest slog in sluggish water I’d ever paddled.

This continued for about 5 miles or so across the Insh marshes to Loch Insh

Right onto this road,

The water was about 15 feet deep, clear with the typical browny tannin stain.

I could see sunken trees on the river bed.

River Spey impersonating the Bridgewater canal

This stretch seemed to go on for ever. I knew Loch Insh was downstream somewhere, but the river meandered for a hundred yards or so before changing direction preventing me seeing Loch Insh. So this is what its like when the contour lines are far apart. Not the perfect start to the trip. It could only get better. I was just thankful that it was very peaceful, just the sounds of the river. The weather was kind and the scenery was stunning.

Eventually – Loch Insh.

Loch Insh – Near the outlet

From the map I knew the river’s exit point was far left. Far left I headed till I could see the bridge over the exiting river. The Loch was unsettled with waves washing over the spraydeck, which was a welcome relief from the upper stretches.

At last the exit to Loch Insh .

Under the bridge and the river picked up momentum. I laid back and chilled, fair flying down the river.

The Freshie entered the river from the right. The speed was deceptive I noticed the trees flying past. The river was only about three to four feet deep with no noticeable rapids but the speed was incredible.

I decided to take a rest but as soon as the boat turned sideways in the current I’d hit a boulder.

This is how the book described it; this is what I’d imagined it to be. The river had been playing with me before. No time to relax, just keep it pointing downstream, scull away from the rocks and enjoy the ride.

I passed another bridge (Aviemore) where the Druie enters the Spey. Now I realised why the commercial groups launch here and not Newtonmore. A group of Canadian canoes were launching. I paddled past but didn’t see them again.

Time for some trail food.

I peeled back the deck, had a good swally of water but couldn’t find the raisins I’d put in there. In their place were rabbit-like dropping floating about in the water at the bottom of the boat. Bugger, my deck leaks. Heh-ho. This river was good; the scenery fantastic, even the sun was out.

Downstream of Loch Insh – Its faster than it looks – believe me.

I had planned to haul out and have a brew every so often. But I just pushed on anxious to make up some time taken from Newtonmore to Loch Insh.

As I paddled downstream I noticed a pattern to the Spey: straight for some time then splitting into two at a bend. The islands splitting the river were often quite large with under cut banks and pines growing on and falling off them.

Sod’s law was that the outside fastest channel was the one I couldn’t inspect for fallen trees so I had to opt for the haul out past some shallows before taking the inside shoot to link up with the faster, outside channel later.

This was the pattern for the day with numerous haul outs, but at least I could stretch my legs and empty the water and raisins from the boat.

Then I was into salmon country.

I remember coming down one particular piece of river. It was a steep rapid ending in a sharp left turn. There was a recirculating eddy on the left whilst the rest of the river bounced off an undercut cliff which was the right bank producing a sizable cushion wave.

Discretion being the better part of valour and the water being cold I wasn’t willing to take risks losing my camping tack. Besides, so far, the Spey was one of the very few rivers I hadn’t taken a swim on and I didn’t want to blot my copybook.

I was concentrating on getting close to the left eddy and only then noticed a woman fishing in the top of the rapid. “Are there many more of you?” she said. “No” I answered and if she slipped there wouldn’t be many more of her!

Safely round the bend I noticed the first of the fishers’ huts, river left. They were quite Spartan, no more than a bus shelter-type building with the back facing the prevailing wind. Cracking bivvy shelters (future note). These contrasted with the opulent ‘huts’ that were surrounded by four wheel drives further down the river.

Another fisherman.

I floated quietly downstream until he saw me then directed me to pass on the far side of the river. I sculled across then floated quietly down. The river had slowed up considerably. The campsite marked on the map should be near at Boat of Garten.

River right and a rotting sign hanging from a tree said “campsite”. According to the guide this must be it. I hauled out and made my way to the nearest house. This was only a holiday house whose occupants directed me to the ‘Big House’ about ½ a mile away. No problem unless you’re wearing wet suit boots on a stony road.

The sight of a wet-suited person on dry land knocking on the main door of the manor may have been too much as nobody answered. So I hobbled back to the Gattino.

It was about 6 or 7pm.

The first night’s bivvy was set up in a small field next to the river in the company of a dozen or so cows. The brew was on. I lay back still in my steaming wetsuit drinking a cup of coffee, looking at fish rising for flies. Even today the memories of the bivvies of this trip are more memorable than the river time. Very relaxing reflective moments. Maybe one of the reasons we do trips, alone or accompanied.

A hot meal of chicken supreme & rice (I can taste it now), housekeeping and off to bed. It was so good to stretch out.

First Night’s Bivvy

Have you ever had the feeling that somebody is watching you?

I awoke with that feeling, grab the torch and shone it out of the bivvy.

A lonely pair of eyes 10yds. away were peering at me.

The paddling was taking its toll, I just rolled over and went back to sleep.

What a brill nights sleep.

Breakfast on and boil some water for the day’s paddle.

Pack up and launch. The river was still slow here but picked up a bit under the next bridge. I was enjoying this. Pushing on I passed under the bridge near Grantown-on –Spey. This is where I had my first break cycling back up the river, where the Brookes saddle had done its damage but marked the approximate halfway mark in the trip.

The details of the river time are now fading with time, however I knew that there were some ‘interesting’ rapids several miles downstream near Knockando.

They were on me before I realised.

The banks had closed in. The river is quite restricted at this point. A cliff on river left. No inspection was possible.

First a couple of small drops than the river took a left turn. I couldn’t see round the bend. I edged closer but got caught in the current – too late. Round a bend, over a drop, hit the guard boulder, spun backwards in the eddy. I couldn’t believe it, still upright.

Latter part of Knockando Rapids – (Edinburgh Kayak Club)

Further down the banks closed in again. I was going to haul out river left for a brew but decided to carry on. Nobody fishing here but loads of fish leaping right next to the Gattino. All down the Spey from here to the sea there was more fish activity in the places where there weren’t any people fishing than where they where fishing.

There was a bit of a drop to the next bridge. River right, bouncy but through O.K.

I knew that I was getting close to the second night’s bivvy, but where was that constriction that I had seen near Charlestown on my cycle back to the campsite?

I wasn’t marked in Alan Fox’s guide but I know what I had seen. Must keep the Spey as a ‘no swim’ if I can help it. Then the river funnelled left. This must be it, get a bit closer to be sure but the speed of the Spey is deceptive. Just enough time to straighten up and brace. Half a dozen waves and a couple of slaps in the chest to waken me up and I was through.

A few miles downstream I hauled out for the night’s bivvy. According to the map I was just half a day’s paddle to Spey Bay.

As I cleared stones for a comfortable sandy base for my bivvy I took in the Scottish air. The sweet aroma from the local distillery was tempered by the unmistakable smell of sewage. I had hauled out just downstream from the local sewage outfall.

Tinned chunky chicken and mash was on the menu, but I could have eaten a scabby cat. Then disaster, I knocked my whiskey over (last seen in the photo-right on a boulder) then the plastic bag that had my in ‘smash’ burst. Even though I tried to retrieve the individual ‘smashettes’ there comes a time when you realise that the effort isn’t worth the reward. So off to bed.

The river at this point has scoured a deep channel for itself which afforded a nice sheltered position for a bivvy.

2nd bivvi – boulders excised – The tarp was laid from the upper bank over me

The channel was about 10-15 feet deep. A bit of privacy and a convenient support for the tarp. Because I was in the river ‘trough’ the condensation settled in later in the night. I had stuffed the wetsuit to the bottom of the sleeping bag to keep it warmish for the morning and hopefully dry the sweat out of it. The buffalo system worked well and also kept me dry from the condensation, although the outside of the sleeping bag was wet. A cracking night’s sleep again

I can recommend the pertex/fibrepile system (whatever the manufacturer) where weight isn’t a consideration. Both the buffalo clothing system I used for cycling and the sleeping bag worked faultlessly. Is there a price you can put on a good night’s sleep?

The morning showed no great change in the weather. As the catchment area of the Spey is huge, I had memorised a boulder and the water level around it when I hauled out the night before. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to bivvy next to the river after all however; the river was still dropping slightly. After a quick brekkie of coffee and trail food I was soon packed up and keen to get to Spey Bay.

The river continued as fast as ever. As I had travelled downstream I had noticed that, from the initial fisherman’s shelters higher upstream (which resembled little more than open bus-shelters, with their backs to the prevailing wind) the ‘huts’ downstream had transformed into opulent residencies surrounded by gardens and 4 wheel drives.

They were having a late morning as I paddled past.

And so to Fochabers.

Ena Baxter’s were making minestrone from the smell of it that day, but I was concentrating on what was to be my last bridge over the Spey. As I had cycled up I had looked over the parapets and chosen the river right channel. Deep, fast and bouncy. Maybe a chance of a swim. The smell of the soup was fantastic.

Under the bridge, through the rapid which wasn’t as bad as it looked from the bridge and past the undiscovered, but sought after, Ena Baxter’s outflow. Only four miles to go. The river changed its form noticeably from here. The river became a rock braided system. My challenge was to find the fastest and safest was to find my way down to Spey Bay.

There were a few frustrated fishermen to exchange pleasantries with. The river was like a puzzle now, I which channels to follow; left to right, flat or with drops. I couldn’t smell the sea air, the prevailing wind being south-west. Eventually I saw the car- Park. I had entertained the idea of paddling into the sea proper then returning to the car-park, but I was buggered. I hauled out; this was close enough to the sea for me. I unpacked my kit, drained the river water and the few remaining swollen raisins from the Gattino and got it onto the roof of the car. A quick change and I was looking forward to the mixed grill I had promised myself from the transport café.

The mixed grill and the Guinness didn’t touch the sides. A quick check in with Sandy to let him know I was O.K. and I was off to bed.

Spey Bay take out

The Spey

Would I do it again In the same circumstances, no. Been there done that, etc.

What would I do different A small group of Canadian canoes, taking longer, having longer breaks and a good craick

Double bag the raisins and smash.

What did I get out of it I got a sense of achievement

I learned a little bit more about myself

I have a shed full of memories that are special to me

Ena Baxter’s cooks different soup on different days

Was I lonely No, I was with the river. The bivvies were magical.

Buffalo system Get some

Gattino Perfect kayak this trip

Was I lucky Weather, water conditions, no swims.

Newtonmore campsite Try it. Give my best wishes to Sandy

OH, tell me, kind angels, why is it,

When hundreds of miles far away,

That often in dreams I revisit

The banks of the glorious Spey?

Phil

April 2011

(bugger, its nearly ten years ago)