It’s been 6 years since I rediscovered my passion for the outdoors. It happened on the way up Ben Lomond one sunny September day. It was my first mountain in over 15 years. As I stopped to take in the view I got an enormous rush; it sparked a fire in my belly, a passion I hadn’t felt for many years was back and back to stay.
Since then adventuring has become a huge part of my life and to celebrate I’m completing 6 big adventures in 2021, supported by Vango.
The first was an exciting 3 day 2 night 100KM canoe expedition down the river Spey, camping on the tiny islands in the middle of the river.
Here’s my story.
Nervous, but excited, sums up how I was feeling the night before. We took a walk down to the river every few hours to check - until now it had been in spate which means a higher water level and a higher risk of hitting rocks and trees that might normally be visible (and avoidable). A few dry days meant the river was a little lower and we were good to go.
The morning sun streaming through the window woke us – it was go time! We set off from Loch Insh at Kincraig, packing the canoe with massive dry bags holding all our belongings, tied together and to the canoe in case of capsize. There’s something really special about the first time you push off from land, the sound of your paddle against the water, a million things running through your head about the adventure, wondering what the next days will bring.
I’m pretty new to the Canoe and as a result the first half hour of our paddle is usually spent with me asking Ollie (the Cap and super experienced paddler) loads of questions. My enthusiasm always gets a laugh or 2, but I always come away from each paddle far more knowledgeable and ready for the next.
The first day was a lot of fun. We were super lucky with the weather and with the wildlife! With a light wind behind us we hit rapids with excitement and paddled the pools with ease. I clipped a little 5ltr Vango dry bag to the front of my canoe to hold my phone & loads of snacks. I was paddling constantly and it was important to keep eating and drinking water.
After 5 hours on the water we decided to find an island to sleep for the night. Our island couldn’t have been any bigger than 50m in length. It was amazing! Surrounded by trees we set up camp and I got to try out my new Vango tent. It’s a 2 person tent with little ‘porch’ space on each side which is ideal for keeping your bolongings dry without taking up any tent space. We also had a tarp which we put up. The great thing about this is it creates extra space to sit under if it’s raining and folds away to nothing.
Once everything was organised we kicked back and relaxed, reflecting on our day on the water and planning for day 2. The sun was setting through the trees. We fired up the Vango stove up off the ground and cooked a steak dinner, on our own island. We felt like kings.
Day 2 through the graveyard to the washing machine
The next day we woke to more sunshine. We felt pretty lucky as the forecast had said rain. I closed my eyes and sipped my coffee before packing up, taking a few minutes to enjoy the calm. Day 2 was going to be a big one!
We packed everything up, making sure we left no trace and pushed off from the island, hearing the familiar sound of the paddle hitting the water. 2 rapids were on my mind for today. ‘The grave yard’ and ‘the washing machine’. Pretty descriptive names, right? Before the graveyard we stopped for lunch and a break, lying in the sunshine eating sandwiches and planning out our strategy.
The graveyard section of the river lasts a while with big stones sticking out the water like headstones, through rapids. The water is fast and so we had to think and act fast. It was my job to look ahead and shout when I saw a rock so we knew which way to paddle. The high water level made it more dangerous so we had to work well as a team. Constantly communicating, shouting directions, paddling hard.
We made it through! What a rush.
The washing machine is definitely the highest and fastest rapid I’ve experienced. Long before we approached it I could hear it. It was fast and loud and high. My heart rate quickened. The plan was to approach it in the centre so we were lined up, then I had to jump on my knees to get my centre of gravity lower and hold on as Ollie navigated the boat safely to the other side.
I kept thinking about what I need to do if we capsize. Grab the rope if I can… float on my back with my hands across my body, legs facing downstream. Check! A few minutes later we were safe.
After all the excitement it was time to stop, set up camp and refuel. We stopped at another little island. It was so small and the river was rushing either side. Another incredible spot! We set up the tent and the tarp and talked about our day over a hot meal, warming ourselves beside the fire. The noise of the rushing river sent me straight to sleep.
Day 3 Are we moving?
We woke up to a strong head wind and I knew it was going to be a tough last day! This was the final stretch of the river and the furthest paddle of the 3 days. For the most we were pretty sheltered from the wind. We could see the tree tops sway and whistle above the steep banks as we meandered along.
You can see why the Spey is world famous for fishing – it’s absolutely beautiful!
We stopped for lunch and decided to make hot soup. The weather was cold and the river rapids splashing over us were cold. We fired up the Vango stove and enjoyed the break in the weather.
The final stretch was when the weather gods came down hard on us. There was a constant head wind. It was really hard going and we were making very slow progress. The last 5 miles were brutal - the only word I can think of to describe it. A storm was coming in straight off the ocean and hitting us full pelt. ‘paddle hard’ shouted Ollie through the 30mph squalls. I was cold and wet and tired but determined. Head down, I paddled hard.
The wind was so strong at one point we were paddling downstream but the boat wasn’t moving. We pushed to the side of the river and held on for a few minutes waiting for the weather to ease. Then we were on our way again.
We did it! I couldn’t have felt more proud. We had a hug to mark the end of the adventure and started packing things up. As soon as got home we cracked open a beer. Looking worse for wear we instantly started reminiscing and laughing about everything that happened.
Over the years I’ll tell this tale and no doubt the waves will be higher and the weather will sound worse. Our canoe expedition was complete and the first of my big 6 with Vango.
I can’t wait for the next!
If you are interested in finding out more about the River Spey, David Craig spiritofthespey.co.uk is an authority on and has great passion for the River Spey, with 40+ years’ experience of paddling on and caring for this wonderful river, he has also been the Scottish Canoe Association ~ River Spey Adviser since 1981 and his website is a great source of inspiration.
The River Spey Canoe Guide, written by Nancy Chambers includes a description of the route down the River Spey from source to sea as well as a variety of practical information required.