I’ve always rated rapids by my bodily functions. If I have an urge to pee, then it’s a Class I or II. Anything past that, then I feel something else coming on… and I question if I should paddle it.
Spey River’s Washing Machine was definitely beyond a Class II. It didn’t help that a couple of Scottish locals standing on shore warned me what was coming up around the corner. They yelled out “Hope ya got your soap handy…” and gave me thumbs up.
Paul, one of the leaders of the trip, went first and commanded that I follow his line. I thought it was a good plan, until he disappeared over the lip. Butterflies twirled in my belly and I did a low brace as I went over the ledge after him. The boat started to fill up with very cold river-water flushing down from the snow-capped mountains upstream. I did manage to run it successfully; which means I eddied in with a canoe half full of water, but still held upright.
That was the easiest run of the day. Next was a long series of far more technical runs. I kissed three rocks on the way down, and even French-kissed a fourth—meaning my bow hung up on the piece of granite way too long while I swung around and went down the remaining whitewater backwards.
In Canada, I’ve taught myself to survive such rapids with a series of draws and cross-draws. It’s different in Scotland’s Spey, however. The rapids are constant. The river drops 200 metres in the last couple of days heading to the North Sea. It’s fast and furious. Most of the time is spent crouched on your knees in the canoe, scouting way ahead of what channel to take and what obstacle to avoid. The only way to make it down without a mishap is to keep an angle to the current. I’m not talking about a downstream ferry. It’s a different manoeuvre. You gaze ahead and point the canoe on the degree of projection well before the approach. It works—and many times it saved me from flipping and taking a long and cold swim.
The Spey’s danger point isn’t being pinned on rocks. The waterway is way too old to have various debris blocking the way. Scotland is ancient and the rivers have been cleared of major rubble long ago. What’s treacherous is the cold water. Going for a swim isn’t pleasant. That’s why reading a river is so pivotal.
Have a look at my video series so far, paddling the main stream of Scotland’s Spey River. It’s epic!