In February 2013, Lindsey and I spent a morning kayaking on Loch Tay, and enjoyed the experience so much that in June of that year we enrolled in a three day sea Kayaking course in Applecross. Two very different experiences – Loch Tay was calm, and kayaking on it was a lot easier than in the sea.
To expand our knowledge further, and for a bit of an adventure, we decided this summer to canoe down the Spey, with the help of Dave Craig from Spirit of the Spey. We went on his “At One With Nature” course, a 60 – 70 mile canoeing expedition, camping out and eating alfresco, and were joined by my sister, two people from Holland, and a chap from Edinburgh.
Although the weather, after a glorious summer of sunshine, turned bad two days before we set off (thanks to hurricane Bertha reaching the UK), and the river was very much in spate and we were wet a lot of the time, the trip was an experience Lindsey and I would not have missed for the world.
It was quite intense on several levels. You’re immediately immersed in a new group situation with several people you’ve not met before, but everyone is ‘up for the trip’. Then there’s issues about selecting the right kit – Spirit of the Spey provide all of the canoe and camping equipment you need, and you’re given a large dry bag for personal effects and a smaller dry bag for things you may need during the day, but as you’re going to be away for several days you wonder whether you’ve got everything that you need. Then there are all of the new experiences – walking around with waterproofs, buoyancy aids, knee pads, a paddle, a helmet, and getting to grips with the canoes and the various paddle strokes.
You might think that there can’t be a great deal to canoeing – you just paddle – but you’d be wrong. If you cast off from the bank into a river in spate and mix up your pry with a draw (as I did the very first time), it can cause problems.
Then there’s all the interesting information about the Spey, the Spey valley, and the goings on at various parts of the river, that Dave tells you about. I reckon we learnt a great deal about the Spey, the estates, the distilleries, the old railway line, fishing, wildlife, the people who live beside the river and so on.
The River Spey was several feet higher than normal when we set off. This can be both good and bad. It’s good in that most rocks are submerged, but it means that the water flows much faster at certain points, that trees are likely to be half submerged, and that calm parts of the river seem to turn into raging torrents with surprisingly big ‘waves’.
For safety reasons, eddies are important. At a couple of points in the trip the river was so much in flood that there were no eddies for considerable distances, and if someone had fallen in, they might have been dragged downstream a long way with no chance of reaching the bank. So, we avoided these stretches.
This was the first put-in spot at Laggan Bridge. Not easy, as the canoes had to be manhandled down some steep steps beside the bridge.
The weather on the first day was grim! Very wet and quite cold. For lunch we landed and huddled beneath a tarp. Fortunately, the weather improved a bit on subsequent days, although it seemed to rain a lot of the time until the fifth day (Friday).
We were three to a canoe on the first day, so that there was one person with a bit of experience in each of them, with Dave, the guide, in a third canoe.
Then disaster struck! A couple of hundred metres before we were due to finish, just over from Raliabeag, the canoe carrying my sister and the two from Holland was forced into the trees on the south side of the river, their canoe capsized and all three of them fell into the water.
Lindsey, Nick and I were near the north bank and quickly grounded our canoe. We looked over and there was the Dutchman (Guus) holding on to the grab rope floating in mid stream, followed by my obviously scared sister, Penny, who had not canoed before, and upstream we could just make out Guus’s son, who had grabbed a branch and was hanging on to the south bank.
So, you have the guide who was in front, further downstream, plus two people being carried rapidly down the fast flowing river, and Nick took off along the north bank to see if he could help. You can’t see anything down the river because everything is obscured by trees, so it’s just Lindsey and you. And here is a question for you. You walk upstream until you’re closer to the lad in the water, but there’s so much noise from the river and so many trees on both banks and half submerged by water that you can’t hear anything. He’s looking scared. He can’t seem to get out of the water.
What do you indicate that he should do, by sign language? There’s a right answer and a wrong answer. I got it wrong.