What follows is an account from expedition leader John Purse, Professional Outdoor Instructor Course Manager at the College:
Whilst planning the route I decided that just doing one river in Scotland would be enough! So I looked at other options that gave us maximum paddling time and minimal logistic issues.
The River Spey seemed an obvious starting point as it’s the second longest and fastest-flowing river. It is important for salmon fishing and whisky production, and the river runs almost the whole width of the country before emptying into the North Sea. It is known to be one of the most beautiful rivers in Britain.
A bit of research later I discovered there was 120km of White Water River suitable for loaded canoes that could be completed in 4 – 5 days from Newtonmore to Spey Bay. The student group definitely wanted a 5 day expedition, so we agreed to paddle part of the river Tay on the way south to Perth if we had time.
The group started planning and soon decided that they wanted to do more of the Tay as it has some larger white water features. It was proposed to paddle Loch Tay from West to East some 24km and then continue downstream until the river got tidal at Perth some 78km. This is no small undertaking its average flow rate is 100 cubic meters of water per second that’s bigger than the Rivers Seven and Thames combined!
Several thoughts were running through my head the distance, camping, the weather and the logistics. But that is what planning in outdoor adventure and instructing is all about, so with plenty of discussion and relying on some previous experience we set about planning the route including both rivers and Loch Tay in 5 days
Departure day arrived and the minibus was full with seven canoes loaded on the trailer. The long drive of almost the entire length of the country started at 5pm and three instructors drove in shift patterns to arrive in the remote Newtonmore at 6am on Monday morning.
On our first day the sun rose on snow topped mountains and we were afloat and moving by 7am and making solid progress. The river levels were good and the flow was not too quick – ideal levels for tandem canoes full of five days’ worth of equipment.
As we travelled towards Loch Insh we battled through 8km of flat water but reached Kin Craig before lunch time with no incidents where some fun grade 1 rapids appeared and the group enjoyed moving faster without too much effort. We had our first capsize which woke them up and made them all concentrate on their boating!
We picked up the rest of the team at Aviemore where the wind began to build behind us giving some better grade 1 rapids to bounce down. The river then flattened again but we had enough wind to put up small sails and gain some extra speed.
We reached our planned overnight wild camp at 4pm but decided to keep moving as the weather was warm, the wind was blowing and the extra distance gained would make the whole trip much more achievable.
We eventually stopped just above Grantown on Spey and set up camp at 7pm. We had covered a large chunk on the river moral was high but we all needed some rest!
The sun rose the next morning and the excitement was tangible as some grade 2 sections of white water were just around the bend. We left the overnight stop and were surprised by the speed of the river as, without working, we were making 6kph.
I informed the group it was one boat at a time into the rapids just in case anyone needed a rescue. I paddled the obvious line with a bow man and we got quite swamped even trying to hit the dryer line to the side of the rapid. The section below was clear so I grabbed the camera as the group had plenty of room to self-rescue.
The group had one swim which was fun and exciting as they had not used a swim line to self-rescue with a loaded boat before. We continued down and through the great section at Knockando the rapids and scenery seemed larger with a distillery on the bank this was defiantly Scotland at its finest!
The river chilled after another big day, but as we were further down than expected we looked for another wild camp and finished the day in good spirits.
The final section down to Spey Bay surprised even me. With wild rapids and large beaches it could have been the Ardeche in southern France! We enjoyed a quick game of football on the beach and a rest after an unfortunate pin on a shingle rapid. River Spey completed in 2 and a it day off to the Tay we went.
A few of the group needed to rest so they stayed for an early night, but an adventurous few set off with the wind behind us. We had built an A frame and put up a sail to assist us along the 24km on Loch Tay.
As the sun dropped, so did the wind we knew we would have to paddle some of the Loch in the dark. The students found this exciting as they paddled in their rafted canoes. It was 10pm when we finally stopped after successful day, thanks to the commitment and team work of the group and the fantastic weather.
Then it was on to River Tay! The river was bigger and faster with some longer grade 2 rapids than the Spey, but also less consistent so we had to increase our paddling. We enjoyed some boat yoga and gunwale bopping to get us out of our seats then it was back to work with a lovely line down a grade 2.
The paddle towards Dunkeld was hard as the river had changed direction and now the prevailing wind was in our face and was increasing. I have never experienced such an open river into the wind and I was surprised that I could stop mid rapid by turning my canoe sideways to the wind!!
The next morning gave us the biggest white water yet. We had to push on as the wind was going to build again in the afternoon so we dug in and made it to Campsie Linn in time for lunch. This has one significant feature – whirly and swirly currents run along the side of the flow that can easily eat a canoe and the occupants. We left all the camping kit in the bus so boats were lighter and sat higher.
We took a line straight down the middle to avoid the confluence of flows. This is the highest volume water fall in Britain so we were ready in the rescue boat! Stanley Weir and Mill rapids made a great section of bouncy grade 2 rapids.
We made good time on the last 9km of the mammoth 240km in 56 hours of paddling between Monday morning and Friday evening. Thanks for a great trip ‘Outdoor Adventure students’ and instructors Jamie and Lucy – it will hard to beat that one!
Professional Outdoor Instructor Course Manager, Kingston Maurward College