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.
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.
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.