Spey Descent – Slow, Fast, Faster to Spey Bay

Following on from our previous ‘big’ river trip, last year on the River Tay, we had decided to plan a descent of the Spey as a longer follow-up and almost a year to the day, we were off again. This time it was the River Spey, putting in at Newtonmore with a final destination of Spey Bay on the Moray coast.

Wednesday night was a blur of driving and getting things in the right place for the start and end of our journey, this meant the drive north to Aviemore first and dropping boats and gear at the hostel before continuing on to drop a car at Spey Bay then the return drive to finally settle about midnight. We drove through a lot of heavy rain on the road up which didn’t bode well for the days ahead, but at some point this stopped and Aviemore and beyond seemed to be dry and a bit more pleasant.

With our shuttle already in place, we could have a relaxed start next day and after a quick breakfast, we loaded the car with boats and gear and headed for Newtonmore, inspecting the river from a bridge near Kingussie to get an idea of the river level and flow. All was good, so on we went to our put-in just west of Newtonmore rather than having to start further downstream which would have felt like a compromised trip.

Day 1 – 25.5 km in 5h 40m – Newtonmore to just short of Aviemore

Putting in at a nice, arched, stone bridge we were soon on our first rapid, me backwards unfortunately, but it was just a straightforward, fast ripple and we were on our way with no water taken on.

On the first straight section, three small deer could be seen crossing the river ahead of us, but by the time we caught up with their crossing, there was no sign of them in the undergrowth, something that was repeated two further times on our journey. Numerous buzzards, lots of dippers and jumping fish along the way reminded us we were somewhere with a lot of wildlife about.

From the outset we had quite warm weather on day 1, with sunshine and not much wind, but later on (about lunch onwards) things did grey up a bit and the breeze from the NE could be felt on the more open stretch of Loch Insh and by that time with the cooling effects and increased workload, we were both happy to get back on a faster stretch which would take us quickly to our camp (wherever that may be) somewhere close to Aviemore.

A perfect spot was found, away from houses and with ample trees for our hammocks to go up and a tarp too for shelter to sit, cook and warm ourselves beneath by the firebox. Owls in the trees over the river could be heard through the night, lovely!

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Day 2 – 36.5 km in 6h 45m – to an island close to Dalriach

Up to dryness again, which is always a nice start to the day and breakfast was a pleasant half hour or so watching the slight mist dissipate from above the river and the valley we were camped in.

Whilst launching, a dipper was busying itself on the river; above, on, in and under the water. A great site to see and a very pleasant few minutes watching a hardy wee bird going about its own breakfast. There were countless of these along our whole paddle and numerous ducks and heron too. Possibly red-breasted mergansers as well but no photo to look back on to confirm those.

Again we started off with blue skies but they grayed sooner than the previous day and generally it was a cooler and harder day out. The slower stretches of river were to be found on this portion so we probably were working harder too for less distance.

Despite the sluggish pace, looking back from time to time reassured ourselves forward progress was still being made as the hills behind Aviemore grew smaller. Low cloud on the Cairngorms meant we had a limited view of them and hard to picture which hill was which on our lunchtime stop which had us facing southwards over flat ground towards them. A kestrel was hovering over farmland by us on our way around this time, no doubt it could see us but, it was focused on more important tasks and showed no sign of being interrupted or concerned by our presence.

Coming to Grantown on Spey we were due to hit the first rapid of note and we were going to get out and scout out a path down it until we realised that the rapid was barely there at all, too little water perhaps and so we just drifted and scraped our way down and onwards, finally arriving at a nice island which we chose to camp on for novelty.

Our camp was set up in an okay spot after a few minutes of figuring out the best spots to hang our nests up for the night and our shelter too – rain was definitely looking to be on the cards so this was going to be important. After that a short walk lead us to evidence that this is a popular spot and an even better camp spot with easier landings lay just a couple of minutes walk away, complete with seating and a stone fire pit. Oh well, too late to move and we had it good anyway.

It did in fact rain but we remained dry and warm with the firebox doing well to heat us over the course of the evening. Again owls were to be heard throughout the evening, but a different kind from the previous night.

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Day 3 – 50.0 km in 7h – finishing just past Boat O’ Brig

Heavy rain had continued through the night but we both woke up dry in our hammocks and got on with breakfast. A quick pack and we were off, on what would be our biggest day by far. Pace was notably faster than the previous day and we ‘jogged’ along towards the confluence with the River Avon where the river swelled from the muddy torrent coming in from our right. This actually was an interesting site as we had paddled black, peaty water till that point, and from here on, it was a murky brown with a clear left-hand-stream black, right-hand-stream red from the join for a few hundred meters till the water was properly mixed up.

Rapids now were more numerous and on occasion bigger too resulting in a few spells of bailing out water taken on going through these. At the second of these (Knockando) we had a pleasant lunch stop before continuing on, again ticking of the miles. Soon rain, then heavy rain started and continued on to the point where we were bailing on occasion to empty out collected water from above.

We had a camp spot near Rothes in mind but with our pace, we were there too soon and with a prospect of a long night sitting in the rain (albeit beneath a tarp), we carried on – we were damp anyway by now – and finally stopped in a wooded spot beneath Boat O’ Brig. The closely planted trees we had ended up at, were a challenge for hammock pitching but we both had a nest constructed, two tarps up for shelter and dinner and heater on within an hour, bliss! Dry clothes and warm food are just so amazing after a spell of being cold and wet.

The rain soon stopped and stars could be seen through the gaps in the cloud and eventually the brightness of the rising moon could be seen casting a light through the woods – very ‘atmospheric’. These atmospheric views through the closest trees lead to a restless night for me in my hammock, but any dangers suggested by the thumps and other noises I could hear somewhere behind me were no match for the protection afforded me by pulling my sleeping bag over my face. Snoring from the other hammock suggested I was on my own with whatever was out these coming for us.

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Day 4 – 14.5 km in 1h 30m – last stretch to Spey Bay

An early start and we knew we only had a couple of hours or so to paddle if the flow rate continued to land us at Spey Bay. Any evidence of yesterday’s rain were nowhere to be seen and we launched under blue skies and a fading full moon across the river showing through breaks in the wisps of mist sitting above the hill there.

Alternating stretches of rapids, swiftly moving long stretches of wide river had us passing through Fochabers in about forty minutes and then beyond this a very different landscape, lots of gravelly islands to negotiate a path through to the final destination, shown by the approach of a sturdy old railway bridge (now disused). A change in wildlife too, heron replaced with sea birds and a lone seal at the end.

Wow! It was all over in a very short hour and a half of paddling and drifting along in the slick flow. We pulled up on a shingle beach behind a spit that we could hear was protecting us from big surf and sure enough walking to the top of this gave us views on to the sea, big rollers and something unexpected, the first water users we had seen since Loch Insh, surfers!

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Looking at the profile of the journey we took illustrates why our pace quickened as we went, but that’s not all the story of course, with each leg of the trip, more and more water joined the river, swelling its volume, from various tributaries but primarily the River Avon.

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