Spey River
Credit: Kevin Callan

Having stinging nettle stab me in my left buttock was, thankfully, the only misadventure I had on my first day paddling down northern Scotland’s Spey River.

I was ecstatic about the river journey; like a kid in a candy shop. It was a trip of a lifetime. Imagine travelling from Highland mountains, through Celtic countryside and ending in the expanse of the North Sea. It wasn’t just the scenic splendour, nor the random visit to various whisky distilleries for a wee dram. It was also the company I kept for the week. Joining me on the Spey were Ray Goodwin (head canoe coach of the U.K.), Paul Kirtley (bushcraft expert and owner of Frontier Bushcraft) and Justine Curgenven (renowned sea kayaker and filmmaker).

All are professional colleagues, but most importantly, they're incredible friends. They teased me about my Canadian accent, told stories of the legendary haggis monster and taught me what the term “bollocks” means. They also reminded me of what good soulmates I have.

We accessed the Spey at Loch Insh, putting in at Loch Insh Water Sports and Outdoor Activity Centre. The 100-kilometre route could probably be done easily in three days. Ray Goodwin even completed it in 11 hours once. However, five days gave us time to film, write, explore and take a taxi to some distilleries.

Spey RiverKevin Callan

Day one had us flushing out of the east end of Lock Insh and starting the Spey, navigating a few swifts and Class I rapids. The sun was out, which is rare for northern Scotland in the first part of November. It was late to be on the river. Coping with frosty mornings and a dusting of snow in the mountains was worth it, though, as the water levels were up, the leaves were coloured a crisp orange and since the salmon season was closed we didn’t have to dodge anglers casting from the banks.

It was a calm introduction to the river. The Spey ends up dropping 200 metres to the sea on the last couple of days. On day one, however, it’s a slow current that pushes you past the stunted Cairngorms and Monadhliath Mountains.

It gets dark early in November, making us camp in pure blackness, with headlights helping us gather wood and pitch tents. Paul cooked up an amazing curry, washed down with a fitting Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold whisky. The four of us fought the evening chill with full camp mugs, a warm fire and a few stories from our past misadventures. It was the perfect start of a perfect trip.

(…to be continued…)

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