Sadly my pics area bit ropey; camera was set on 640px…
We last did the Spey from Aviemore to the sea in 2007 when I still had the Sunny. This time round Michael was in Steve’s old, 19-foot Pouch double, Steve was in his Feathercraft Big Kahuna and I was in the Grabner. Levels were low again, if nor lower, it was the last week in the fishing season but at least the weather was looking good.
The first day is just 12 miles and not so interesting, with the best views behind you. With the hour-long assembly of the Pouch completed and the van stashed at Spey Bay, we set off about lunchtime.
Strong backwinds made my skeg-less Amigo hard to handle and I found myself expending a lot of energy trying to stop the back end coming round. Or perhaps I was yet to learn the knack with the Amigo, having paddled it on the sea with a skeg all summer. After a few hours we arrived at the Boat of Balliefurth bankside camp field and paid our three quid. Dinner was a freeze dried mash up from stuff I’d had lying around for months, made easier to prepare and eat with Steve’s half-hoop Eureka annex tarp.
Next morning was another sunny, late-September day and we were relived to pass the point where one of the Kleppers got disemboweled last time by a submerged, mid-river fence post. On this occasion the boat-killing spike was visible a few inches out of the water.
We’d thought about doing the river a week later, when the fishing season was over, but timing put us here now, with the fisherfolk getting their last casts in before closedown. The tension between rod and paddle is an old story in England, but up here is exacerbated by the fact that the tweed and wader-clad anglers are paying – who knows? – hundreds of pounds a day for the privilege of fishing the famous Spey. With that cost comes the use of the many ‘day huts’ we saw on the finely manicured banks, as well as optional instruction from a ghilie. And then three kayaks blunder right through the spot where you’re prize salmon is lurking, like it’s a right of way or something.
We did our best to paddle round the back of the many anglers – some ignored us, some grumbled and a few lone ones appreciated it or were able to wave or indicate where they’d prefer you go. Struggling behind one bunch wading in the shallows, Steve got pushed across the current and flipped harmlessly while they just smirked and carried on casting.
Once free myself, I shot off downstream chasing what some said was Steve’s paddle, but within a mile another fisherman said he’d not seen it float past. I walked back wondering how we’d get out of this one, but soon came across Pouch and Kahunaman paddling along. Seems the paddle had got submerged right by the boat, so all was well bar a lost pair of shades. Luckily that morning Steve had fitted his FC ‘sea sock’ – a body bag attached to the cockpit rim which stops the whole boat getting flooded if it flips. It was about that time so once back at my boat we spread out for an early lunch, letting out dew-soaked tents dry as some canoers from last night’s camp passed by.
Aberlour was our destination that evening. We’d managed it last time, even with the ripped Klepper, but it seemed we were even further behind today. As we paddled on, the shallows and rapids piled up and the folding boats were getting a bashing, while I took on a couple of inches of water bouncing through the wave trains. Occasionally, if we misjudged the route we had to wade (left).
The famous and actually straightforward Washing Machine rapid was only running a half-load that day, but nevertheless succeeded in giving the inside of my Grabner a full rinse which took a few minutes to pump out. More white-water followed, and still I have to say the Grabner didn’t seem to handle well, requiring vigorous paddle yanking to avoid rocks or get in the right spot. Even in the pools, it still took some concentration to track straight before pulling back repetitive bow draws or momentum-losing stern rudders to keep the nose downriver. I’m sure the very similar shaped Sunny wasn’t so bad.
Barely a mile went by without passing a fisherman. One grumbled that we should whistle as we came through, but that seemed like it would raise more antagonism, though passing them on the opposite bank may have been right on their target area. Trout were jumping for sure, but we never saw anyone actually catch anything. I’m not sure fly fishing is about that.
After a while riding the bouncy wave trains lost its shine in the face of the after-pumping required, though the swamping was certainly less bad than the Sunny which was best drained by pulling over and standing the boat on end. The canoers we were leapfrogging were getting knocked about and hung up in some rapids too. Shallow rapid followed shallow rapid while we had the feeling that the ghilies, aware of where boats were late in the day, patrolled the banks to make sure we wouldn’t camp on their land.
The easy white water had kept us occupied so that round dusk the old Victorian foot bridge of Aderlour came into view. We camped on the bank right there, a long day of around 26 miles in about hours. The great thing with camping by the bridge is that toilets, the Mash Tun pub and a Co-op are all just a few minutes walk away.
Restocked next morning and off by 9am, it was a 20-miler to the North Sea, during which time the riverside scenery got a little more interesting, the rapids kept you guessing and so did the fishermen. With no other dramas the breakers of Spey Bay rocked up at around 4pm but, just like last time, no one had the energy to go out and mount the surf.
The old wooden-framed Pouch slipped through unscathed yet again and 70-year old Michael had handled the ungainly barge very well, helped by a rudder. The decks of Steve’s lower Kahuna were often swamped in the rapids but towards the end the Feathercraft sustained a bent alloy member (only $30) plus a small rip in the hull. The Amigo was of course immune to the knocks and easy to hop out of, but I’m again wondering about fitting an articulated skeg high on the stern. A bit like a fixed rudder that pivots up harmlessly as it scraps the river bed, and with a retractable and locking line (again, like a rudder) to pull it up out of the way when you don’t want the back pushed round in a sweeping current. I have an idea and it would be easy to fit.
It’s fun to paddle the 60-odd miles from Aviemore to the sea, but next time on the Spey I’d miss out day one, hope for higher water levels and do it out of the fishing season. It would also be fun to do the sporty Day 2 in the packraft with a skirt.
They say the Spey is one of the best canoe paddles in the UK but that just shows how few good, long rivers there are here and why sea kayaking, or short-range hair boating are much more popular.
The stony shore of Spey Bay is a bleak place the paddle, but the van was intact and there was a welcome cafe for a sit-down snack before piling the van up to the roof with our packboats and heading south.