Thursday, 30 August 2012

Coast to Coast - Taynuilt to Spey Bay


Occasionally the sun came out during the course of this 13 day trip. On the 10th and 12th day, the sun shone all day. But these moments were exceptions to a trend which was decidedly wet and grey.

Along with the weather, the 200 or so mile journey was characterised by my extremely slow pace. And by midges (hoards of them). It wasn't the fault of the midges or, really, the weather that I progressed slowly. I suppose it was just contentment with that pace and having no real need to hurry. I had also planned on climbing many peaks on my way across the country, and that would have taken the extra time and effort which in the end went unspent.


In retrospect, it is disappointing not to have reached any summits. But at the time it felt like no real sacrifice as, although it would not have made the ascents impossible or dangerous, the grotty weather would have impacted my enjoyment of the climbs, and made for little reward at the summits. And I was happy enough at the end of my fairly short days to hide from the midges, read my book ('From Heaven Lake' by Vikram Seth), and drop off to the sound of rain drumming on my shelter.


I'm not sure why, but I find paddling in the rain tremendously enjoyable. It's maybe the sound that heavy rain makes when it falls on water (a kind of ringing hiss). Or the fact that when it is falling from above as well as splashing up from below, you feel all the more completely surrounded by water and thus all the cozier in a relatively dry cockpit, wrapped up in waterproof clothing.


Whatever the reason, it is a good thing I enjoy paddling in the rain. I paddled around 85 km down two rivers and 20 km on 3 lochs during the course of the trip, mostly in the rain. The rivers Ba and Spey, and lochs Ba, Laidon and Ericht were the scenes of the paddling legs of the journey. And, or course, when I reached the end of the Spey it spat me out into the North Sea.

packrafting_in_scotland


I had some great campsites along the way, on islands, river banks and hillsides. And I spent one night in a bothy (Ruigh Aiteachain in Glen Feshie) where I shared the chat and the space around its small log burner with other visitors from Newcastle and London.

Wet weather always adds an extra layer of challenge to camping (getting in and out without soaking dry items and dry space) as does particular 'midgey-ness' (getting in or out without being bitten to death and without being followed inside by the nasty hoards).


I've noticed that, due to its reflective quality, water has the effect of intensifying the prevailing mood that comes from the weather. When I say that the prevailing mood comes from the weather, I mean largely from the sky and from the quality of light. Those patches of blue which shine through the clouds every now again you will see brighten the atmosphere all the more as they are reflected up from the water all around you. And when there is no colour in the sky but many shades of grey, the water reflects this too.


It is true the effect of wind is emphasised when on water, too. If you are on dry land the wind might buffet you and, if it is strong enough, it might knock you down. But it will do little to the surface of the ground you walk on other than bend the grass or the trees around you. When you are on the water, the same wind will change the very nature of the surface you're relying on. Paddling with the wind at your back can be great; it speeds your progress, and riding the inevitable swell it creates can be fun. But paddling into a headwind can be soul destroying. I was lucky enough to have the wind at my back for the majority of this trip, and only one day (on the river Spey) did I contend with a strong up-river wind, and on that day I just called it a short one and made a comfortable camp instead.



The trip began at Taynuilt on the shore of Loch Etive (a sea loch on West Coast). I had planned on starting at Oban, but a missed train delayed my start. Taynuilt was closer to the first round of hills I wanted to pass through and, anyway, the ground I missed out on by not starting at Oban did not seem particularly inspiring. From there I passed by the cluster of hills around Beinn Cruachan, though Glen Strae and down on to Rannoch Moor. I had an exciting trip across the waterways of Rannoch Moor last year, and thought it would make a great element of a coast to coast crossing of the country. At the eastern end of Loch Laidon I again took to the hills, again passing through rather than over them, and made my way down to the shore of Loch Ericht.

packrafting_in_scotland

The length of Loch Ericht was half paddled and half walked before I headed into the hills of Gaick Forrest and down into the beautiful Glen Feshie. From there, with the cloud extremely low and wind and rain whipping me, I passed over the high ground of Western Cairngorm Plateau and down to Loch Einich. Then a walk through the wonderful forest of Rothiemurchas finally brought me to the banks of the River Spey, which was to carry me the rest of the distance out to the East coast at Spey Bay.


I paddled the Spey from Aviemore to Charleston-of-Abelour during the short days of mid-December last year, camping and often paddling in snow. There was barely a soul to be seen on its banks at that time, and nobody at all using the river itself. This time was different. I saw two Canoe parties on different stretches of the river and was dodging fly-fishing parties left right and centre much of the time (I must have carefully passed around at least fifty anglers).


The Spey is rightly regarded as an easy river to paddle. But don't let your guard down completely if you are decide to run it. There are some good rapids. Particularly between the confluence of the River Avon and the knockando distillery, the river loses a lot of height and becomes quite boisterous. I was lucky that one of the days of great weather coincided with my approach to this section of the river and I thoroughly enjoyed being tossed around in the white water. The water level was significantly lower on this trip than my last last one and, perhaps contrary to expectation, the rapids were all the more challenging for it.


The river has banks naturally wooded with Scots Pine and other mixed growth for much of its length. Approaching Fochabers red sandstone cliffs rise up around it and then the river braids on the approaches its mouth. On this lower section, out of the corner of my eye, I caught something crashing on to the water. I scrambled for my camera as I realised it was an Osprey flapping on the surface and struggling to take flight again with a wriggling fish. An RAF officer I hitched a lift into Elgin with at the end of the trip told me that this sight is common to locals now, as Osprey last year began nesting in the woods around the lower Spey (which have now been adapted in some ways to suit their preferences). Common sight or not, it felt a privilege and was without doubt the highlight of the trip.


Presently I reached the East Coast, from where I had planned to walk the remaining distance into Elgin. But a road walk in the rain was unappealing and the trip was really at an end as soon as I hit salt water. So I stuck out my thumb and walked only as long as it took for a friendly car to stop and pick me up. He was on his way to Lossiemouth Air Base, but went out of his way to drop me in the centre of Elgin. I was soon on a train back to Edinburgh, a bath and a shave.

packrafting_in_scotland





28 comments:

  1. This was superb, thanks for posting. I've been fantasizing wistfully about a river/loch journey for years. Vicarious living is what the web is all about. Ta!

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    1. Thanks Jake! Vicarious living has its place, but you should still get out there and do it!

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  2. Sadly, unless I win the lottery, swimming is my only option. Which would actually be kinda cool... Hmmm *taps chin*

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    1. I'm not sure, but I think these guys do packraft rentals http://www.backcountrybiking.co.uk/

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  3. Looks like a nice diverse trip, and thumbs up for your attitude towards the weather - also a fan of paddling in the rain myself.

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    1. Thanks Joni.. No use fighting the weather

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  4. One day, one day I've got to have a go at Scotland. Thanks for sharing, David.

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    1. Good call. Look me up if you do!

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  5. Nice one David (again). Could you take a guess how what distance you walked vs rafted?

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    1. Thanks Colin. About 65 miles paddled and 135 on foot. The GPS recorded a distance total of around 193 miles but it calculates on the basis of straight line distances between points so understates by default.

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  6. another cracking adventure. Be good to meet up for a pint at some point, since we share a town now. DM me if you want. Dave L

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    1. Thanks for the comment Dave. Will do!

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  7. David - how many miles/day did you do on the river Spey? I'm going to paddled the length of it in Oct.

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    1. I paddled very few miles a day, about 16.25 average over 4 days (from Aviemore). But that pace is only because I had loads of time, and I was off the river very early each day. I think in Kayaks and Open Canoes it is often paddled in just two. Even with the lower hull speed of a packraft that would be doable (with Summer daylight hours) as the river has a good strong current. More of a push by October, but 3 days would still be easy - It is harder in the winter just because of the really short hours of daylight. Also, I've only ever paddled it from Aviemore but the source is something like 30 miles south west of there. I don't know what the current is like further up river or what the water level is like (by October I'd imagine the water level would be good). Newtonmore is a common start point. Next time I paddle it I'd like to try and start from Laggan Bridge. Enjoy your trip!

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    2. David,

      Thanks for the info. I will be mountain biking in from Roy Bridge to
      Loch Spey. Good thing about having my bike with me is that I can jump
      ahead if I do not make good time. I need to do about 22 miles a day
      to make my train at Kieth. According to the Spey fishery people, Oct
      usually have the greatest flow. It is my first real trip testing out
      my Denali Llama so i'm very much looking forward to the trip - weather
      in October aside. Thanks again for the info, and I have enjoyed
      reading about your trips. You have had your trailstar for a couple of
      years now - what are your thoughts on it?

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    3. No probs. Watch out for the rapids - they start immediately after the confluence of the River Avon and The Spey. Immediately after where the Avon joins are the biggest. They are straight forward but with a bike on board you might be a bit tippy? I don't know, I've never tried bikerafting.

      I like the Trailstar. It is rock solid in wind and has loads of space. You can easy fit your bike and boat in there are still have plenty of space to sleep. I used it a lot with just a bivvy bag which is good, but the midges and ticks are a problem. I prefer to use it with the inner I got from Oookworks.

      Have a great trip!

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  8. Hi David. Great trip and one I would like to do myself. Im coming to packrafting from Canoeing, and lightweight backpacking. What is the packraft you have in that photo?
    And what kind of weight were you carrying? Would love to see your kit list.
    Tom.

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    1. Hi Tom. The packraft is an Alpacka Raft Yukon Yak. I don't know exactly what kind of weight I carry on a trip like that (as little as possible, obviously!). I think that without food I'm probably at about 10.5/11 kilos without food Food is about 800 grams a day for 3000 calories (don't need that many cals/day for a weekender but start to get worn down after a week or so with less). It makes for a heavy pack by comparison with what I carry when I'm backpacking without the boat. But still tolerable to carry over the mountains. I can see where I could save more weight on gear but it would cost a lot and I'm happy with where I am for now. I might type a kit list up and post it sometime.

      I hope you enjoy your boating! http://www.packrafting-store.de/ is the best European supplier but mine came direct from https://www.alpackaraft.com in the States

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  9. David superb use of rivers, lochs and mountain terrain to make that route. I like that as a line to follow across Scotland.

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  10. With such trip you inspire many people David, both experienced and those new to packrafting. A pity the weather was not so great when you were in the mountains, but I agree with packrafting in the rain. It has something magic, at least when it doesn't make you cold. A great adventure you must have had!

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  11. I really loved your piece in Sidetracked - well done!

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    1. Thanks Alastair. Give me a shout if you fancy a boating trip. I've plenty of ideas left for Scotland!

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  12. Great trip David. Do you have any video from the rivers. Pity you couldn't climb any summits... but then again, it's Scotland!

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    1. Thanks Willem. No, I don't have a video camera of any kind. Looking forward to seeing some of yours from the Trans-Scandinavia trip, though!

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  13. I'm hoping to come (from Canada) to backback in Scotland for 1-2 weeks during the upcoming December break. I'm trying to find a trip with elevation changes and views like what you had, but most of the trail maps I'm finding online are for light long-distance walking trails. Any suggestions on a good spot to check for trip planning, or even a good hike?

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    1. Hi djerome

      I tend to just get maps together and make my own routes rather than look for trails and so on. The UK mapping agency has a good website with digital mapping:

      http://www.getamap.ordnancesurveyleisure.co.uk/

      Another good website with a lot of day route descriptions is:

      http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/

      The area of Torridon and Fisherfield is a really great area for backpacking. If you check a map you will see lots of paths to cross through the area by.

      Hope you enjoy your trip. Not much daylight in December!
      Dave

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Grid North by David Hine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.