Last week Ben Gray and I joined Ray Goodwin for a canoe trip down the River Spey. Starting at Loch Insh, in the shadow of the Cairngorm mountains, we descended to the sea at Spey Bay over the course of three-and-a-half days. Along the way there was some great paddling and an opportunity to apply a few bushcraft skills.
They Spey is one of Ray’s favourite rivers and I had been meaning to join him on one of his guided trips for a number of years. Unfortunately, each year I had work commitments that prevented me from joining his group.
This year, having had a very busy year with Frontier Bushcraft and www.paulkirtley.co.uk, I set aside the time to make the trip and unwind a little. Ben, a regular canoeing buddy of mine and member of the Frontier Bushcraft team, was also able to make the trip.
In addition to Ben and myself, Ray had another four clients on the trip, so there were seven of us in total, which made for a nice group size. Ray also brought his dog, Dillie, so I suppose I should say there were eight of us!
On the morning of the first day on the water, we awoke to rain and a fairly chilly breeze. This set the tone for the next few days but we were thankful that the wind was largely at our backs once we left Loch Insh.
There had been a reasonable amount of rain before our arrival which provided water levels that were already good. As we descended the river, further rain meant that the river was still rising.
It certainly wasn’t warm either. The wind continued to be cold and when we did get a glimpse of the mountains, we could see they were dusted with snow down to about 800 metres.
The rain also meant we had some damp campsites. A fire in the evenings made a huge difference to our comfort. It warmed our bones and dried our clothing.
In torrential rain, being able to quickly select a good campsite and set up with efficient campcraft was important. In what was a very damp environment, good fire-lighting skills and material selection were also of key importance. Solid application of elementary bushcraft skills while undertaking real-world journeys such as this make the difference between a miserable experience and a comfortable, enjoyable time in the outdoors, despite the conditions.
After Grantown-on-Spey the river starts its final descent to the sea and begins to flow with real purpose. This, in addition to some significant tributaries adding further volume to the river, means there are some rapids that must be treated with respect. Ray guided us down the river with the consummate skill and judgement.
His experience and professionalism in these situations is always evident. This was a real journey in cold conditions with laden boats. No-one swam throughout the whole trip. Nor did we portage around or line through any sections.
On the final day we were treated to some warming sunshine as we made for our finish at Spey Bay. In the final few kilometers of the river, it flows unconstrained into an outwash plain where the river becomes braided. This is an unusual feature for a British river. Down amongst the shingles and small willows, you could almost have been transported to somewhere much more remote.
Just as I was becoming fully absorbed by this special environment, all of a sudden there was the smell of the sea on the air. Soon we passed under the deserted railway bridge near Garmouth and within a kilometer we could see the sea. Right there. Waves breaking in front of us.
This was the end of what had been a relatively short and relaxed but nonetheless full journey: We had travelled from loch to sea via stunning and varied landscapes. There had been exhilarating paddling and an opportunity to use some bushcraft skills to add to our comfort. I enjoyed travelling and camping with everyone in the group and I would like to extend particular thanks to Ray for his organisation and guiding.
If you’d like to undertake this trip on the River Spey, keep an eye on Ray’s website for future trips.
Below is an interactive map of the area that you can move around, zoom in and zoom out, switch terrain relief on/off or switch to satellite imagery with or without labels. The red map-pin marks the start point at Loch Insh. The River Spey flows north-east from there. Please feel free to have a play with the map!
You may also be interested to know that Ray Goodwin and Frontier Bushcraft are offering a trip on the French River, Ontario, Canada in September 2012. For more details see our French River expedition pages.
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