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Thread: Winter weather on the Spey

  1. #1

    Default Winter weather on the Spey

    Our autumn camping trip was a bit late this year. While winter doesn't officially start until 1 December, late November can definitely feel like it. Mike was unable to join us, so we were four; I was solo in my Argosy, Pete solo in his Esquif Prospecteur and Doug and Graham tandem in Graham's Mad River Legend. Doug and I had paddled the Spey just over 10 years previously, Pete had been flooded off after a day a couple of years ago and Graham was new to the river. The weather forecast did look challenging but we were keen to do the trip, the river level was good and we didn't expect to meet many fishermen. This blog is a bit light on photos as there were times when we were just too busy enjoying ourselves coping with the weather and the limited daylight.

    Pete remembered the Loch Insh Outdoor Centre from his previous trip and this proved to be a crucial find; we booked B&B in the bunkroom for the first night (82 for four, including a full cooked breakfast). As we arrived from our drive North, it was just going dark, and we didn't fancy another 3 hours plus shuttling a car down to the takeout at Spey Bay. Given the amount of gear we'd each brought, there was some doubt about whether we'd all fit in one vehicle anyway, so when we discovered that the Centre would fetch us back with a minibus and trailer for 135, it didn't take us long to decide. That left the evening free to enjoy their restaurant and bar, both good. The B&B was excellent value, but the flaw was that breakfast was only available between 9am and 10am - very odd for an outdoor centre, when daylight was 7am to 4pm, but we realised that most of the guests were not actually doing anything outdoor. We didn't want to miss a cooked breakfast, so after loading the boats we left them on the beach and went for breakfast, listening to the incredulous comments of the other guests "Somebody's going canoeing in this weather!" and keeping quiet.



    The hot food wasn't actually served until 9:35, but it was attacked with enthusiasm and by 9:40 we were struggling into drysuits. Pete, having a two-piece suit, was wearing the trousers already, so was on the water rapidly and waiting for the rest of us. We left the beach at 10:35 on Sunday, having arranged to be picked up at Spey Bay sometime on Tuesday, and agreed to keep in touch by text; the forecast snow might require some preparation by the driver.



    The river was in a calm mood to start with, and although cold, the day was sunny.



    and continued on with dramatic views and small (Grade 1) rapids.





    We reached Aviemore after an hour and a half. With only three and half hours left before we needed to be making camp, we had time for only a quick brew-stop on a shingle bank.

    The cliff with nest holes for sand martins

    The river was higher than our previous trip, but only flowing at a moderate pace. After passing Boat of Garten, the wind picked up from behind and pushed us along nicely, so we briefly considered whether we might reach the island below Cromdale before dark.



    As we approached Boat of Balliefurth, we concluded that having had no lunch and paddled for 4 hours with only half an hour break, it would be silly to pass up a known campsite at 3:30pm. We landed, quickly made a brew and phoned the owner to announce our arrival, then carried the gear up to the camping field and pitched tents. Ronnie the very helpful owner then appeared, having driven down from his house to save us the trouble of walking up. He showed us how to turn on the water supply, and asked that we turn it off when we left; the extra complications of winter camping. The field is quite basic but provided with the shell of a static caravan; with holes in the floor and some windows missing, it was nevertheless a welcome shelter for removing drysuits, cooking and socialising. There are no photos of the camp; as we arrived, all that mattered was a warm drink and putting tents up, then it was dark.
    Some rain and hail overnight led to a cloudy morning. At least it was easy to dry my flysheet by shaking the ice off. We were up at 7am and on the water by 9am, making the most of the light, and made good progress past Grantown.

    Passing under the second bridge at Grantown.

    Stopping for a brew at the island below Cromdale, we were glad we hadn't tried to reach it the previous night. While it was every big as good as matt_outandabout's blog promised, it would have been fully dark by the time we arrived.
    Continuing on, the rapids became bigger and more interesting, and the overall pace of the river increased. The infamous Washing Machine was an anticlimax; quite a substantial drop, but straight down the middle with nothing technical. We had considered the old station at Blacksboat as a possible camp site, but we were there by lunchtime. Although outside the salmon season, as we approached Knockando we wondered if we might see somebody fishing for other species, but we saw nobody else on the river at all in the whole trip; no anglers and no boats of any kind. Knockando rapids were substantial wave trains and required some thought before and some bailing afterwards. We began to think that a campsite was needed soon, but it needed to be somewhere we could text our pickup driver. The left bank just after Carron Bridge looked as if it might be flat on top; it was, and was also wooded, giving us shelter and trees to pitch a tarp (no convenient caravan here!).

    There was a track alongside the river, and a couple of cars slowed as they passed us but nobody stopped or challenged us; we were within our rights anyway. It was only in the morning that we realised it was the 'drive' to Laggan House, referred to in the online guide as being an area of conflict over access.
    The weather forecast was not good; strong northerly winds were expected. You can dress for cold, but no amount of clothing helps you paddle against the wind. We were away by 8:50, passing Laggan House



    The river rose 10cm overnight and was now moving fast. We moved quickly on, past Charlestown then some obviously prime fishing areas

    The river was wide, and the wind was now increasing from the North. Although the temperature was now about +2C, the windchill was significant.

    We stopped for a brew on a sharp bend about 3km above Boat o' Brig, then onwards to the Brig(s) themselves.

    as we passed the red conglomerate cliffs, the hail forced us to face upstream at times.

    The wind now became a serious problem. At times, we made no progress downstream, and steering was difficult. We were aware of the potential for tree strainers as we approached the viaduct, and had received advice not to go left at one point. It wasn't clear which point that was, and the channels we could see didn't resemble the map. However, making use of an eddy above a sharp bend to spy out the route, we made it safely to the viaduct. From our previous trip, we expected to pass under the side span, and have to dodge trees piled up on the bridge piers - but in front of us was the main arch, and no trees. Subsequent checks on aerial photos, and our GPS plot, showed that the channels have completely changed; in one place, our track took us completely outside the river bed on the OS map. See track on Google Earth (copyright Google)

    It only remained to fight the wind down to the takeout and hope there was a good breakout - we could see the surf at the river mouth and it wasn't open boat territory! We landed safety, and spent a frantic few minutes getting gear across to the car park, where out transport was waiting, without getting boats or gear blown away. The windchill was severe, and most of us suffered swollen hands for the next few days. Our driver was excellent, arriving ahead of time despite the snow and helping carry and load the boats.

    Plots below show our speed - the river gets significantly faster as it goes downstream (day 1 about 8kph, day 2 about 10kph and day 3 about 12kph) - and the levels during the trip. While we had sleet and hail, we didn't see much snow falling, but it was lying at Loch Insh and more fell while we were away; it was only the 200m drop in altitude over the length of the river that keep it away, and the wind at the finish was all we had feared it might be.



    This wasn't the most superficially 'pleasant' trip I've done, but it was a real adventure, with interesting water, all to ourselves, and a great team to enjoy it with.

  2. #2
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    Well done chaps, a great blog. But I must say that I felt cold just reading it!

  3. #3
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    That looks like a proper trip, in proper conditions. All the more satisfying I expect. Must do the Spey again.


    Good to see that Doug has his sheep trained well to keep his head warm...
    Covering as many malmiles as possible before being distracted by the pub!

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  4. #4
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    Good effort! Lovely to see the snow on the hills - and lower down! That’s seriously hard conditions you had on the last day.

    Mike

  5. #5

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    Aye the upper Spey is changing again moving further west south of the Garmouth viaduct.
    Taken on the commute home today


    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk

  6. #6

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    Thanks Malky. I'd be worried if I stayed at Ross House, just upstream and West of the viaduct, it was looking quite close to the channel.

  7. #7
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    After Chris’ account of our River Spey trip here’s my story.


    On our drive up north, the traffic warnings made me chuckle. “YELLOW WARNING OF ICE”, I could only think of yellow snow and its implications!


    Well, one bright sunny day we stood feeling the cold wind passing straight through us on the shore of Loch Insh. The spattering of snow was crisp underfoot and icy patches made life interesting. Chris skied one slope, badly, but survived except for his dignity! Pete was quickest to be ready and he waited impatiently out on Loch Insh.





    The planned 9am breakfast, which was later than we wanted was further delayed by slow service. It gave us a good belly full to tackle the day ahead, so, was worth the wait.


    Graham and I considered, “was it wise to go canoeing and away from the warmth of the accommodation at the Loch Insh Centre?”





    We plucked up the courage or was it just foolhardyness to follow our two friends onto the water?





    The sunshine was warming as we headed into the river.











    The flow was with us and the wind on our backs, the river was calm for most of our first day. The later than planned start, instilled an urgency in us. We had a long way to go and limited days and daylight to complete it.





    We stopped for an early lunch on a shingle island.





    Paddling on, we passed places that were vaguely familiar from my previous trip down the Spey. I was sure the water was lower this time. I remained unsure but quite positive???





    Sand martin nesting holes. The occupants long gone to warmer climes!





    An unusual jet vapour trail passing through a clear blue sky. Where were they going?







    We did see the smoke and steam from the local Strathspey Railway, somewhere about Tullochgorum, give or take a few miles.





    An uneventful paddle and dusk came, we camped at Boat of Balliefurth. The chilling wind made us seek shelter for us and our tents.We used a derelict caravan for our changing room, cooking area and social chat area. I think I was first to bed at about 8pm. I certainly had a cosy night.


    Greeted by a dull day, overcast with little light even after sunrise! Monday morning, we were up at 7am and on the water by 9am.





    A bleak looking house by the river. Brr!


    On our way again, we travelled at good speed with a fast river under our hulls. We canoed many bouncy rapids with no problems. Graham was taught break-outs and break-ins, as we sped down stream. A few wobbles from not committing to the edge but we stayed in the boat.





    Speybridge


    The Washing Machine passed without trouble but we didn’t let Graham know about it until after we’d done it. He had heard about the rapid and that some find it difficult. We did have to bail some water out after it, we had already done some bailing on earlier rapids, so, that gave no clues.








    By lunchtime under the bridge at Blacksboat, I realised we were travelling quite fast. On my first Spey trip this was the second night camp.


    Knockando rapid was a very lively and quite a long rapid. More effort on our back paddling meant less water to bail out when we got to calmer waters.


    Being bow paddler in an open canoe and having to guide and tutor, gave me no time for photos of the rapids. Graham and I had fun through them though.





    Please excuse the misty lens.


    Lots of islands in the river gave us choices and faster water to tackle.





    The locals are trying to discover who owns this bridge? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotlan...tland-41941126


    Along the way, the smell from Dalmunach Distillery at Carron, wafted across the river, it was delicious and almost intoxicating.


    Evening drawing in and soon after Carron Bridge, we were looking for somewhere to camp.


    A mature wooded area seemed to have flat ground but a steep bank to climb. Not the best landing spot either.


    The ground was damp and soft and our tents huddled into a cosy little spot. No caravan tonight, so, up with the tarp. A few cars slowed as they passed, probably to check us out. They were heading for Laggan House about a kilometre east along the track.


    Kelly kettle soon boiled some water for a brew and we chatted about our day. The exciting rapids and tales of daring do.


    We ate a leisurely, varied dinner. Chris using up some freeze dried meals, I can’t remember what Pete and Graham ate. I had pasta in spicy tomato sauce with sardines.


    The rain spat at us throughout the evening, the tarp kept us dry while we chatted and discussed the next day. Weather checks from Graham, distance covered and remaining by Chris. Finally the whisky came out for a night time tot.


    Tuesday, our last day on the River Spey, some thought it had risen overnight, I didn’t think so.





    On the water before 9am and off we went.


    More bouncy water but calmer now than further upstream. The river valley is beginning to widen and a few bends after Rothes, there are signs ahead of the sea. No, you can’t see it but the lack of hills ahead give up their clues.








    Is this the manic grin of a man on the edge? Of what?


    At Fochabers, no hills ahead and that brightness that only comes from the coast, meant we had just over 7km to go.





    A stand of Giant Hogweed, gone to seed and not dangerous at this stage.





    A bigger river near the sea.





    The squalls start.

    The sky ahead had strange straight
    vertical patches, little did we know what they were.


    The weather was chilly and the wind was against us occasional showers did not deter us.


    The river channels soon became confusing, they bore no resemblance to map or memory. Even though we attempted to keep right the flow had other ideas. The channels did not match the map at all. A sharp narrow right bend, fortunately, with a big eddy before it, had strainers to the left requiring a fast forward ferry glide to avoid.


    The viaduct ahead with trapped trees on my previous visit with the main flow left of the main arch, was a potential hazard. Now the channel was under the main arch and fairly easy to negotiate. Apart from what the weather gods had thrown at us.


    A strong squally north wind near gale force at times, hit us hard. Made even worse as the strange vertical patches arrived, hail, stinging our faces as we paddled as strongly as we could against it.


    We gathered in an eddy near the finish and Chris spied ahead to find the landing eddy. It was a mere 30m ahead.





    The end.


    We landed and scrambled up the shingle bank dragging our gear out. The wind was howling and very cold with sleet, rain and hail. As we took the weight out of the canoes, Chris’ boat start to be blown away and soon followed by Graham’s. A moments panic but all was saved.

    Loch Insh offers a reasonable shuttle service and we were due to be picked up at 2pm.



    Our taxi was awaiting. The canoes were tethered to a fence to keep them captive while we carried bags and barrels to the minibus. The cold was serious now and my hands hurt.


    Our driver, Kim, helped load gear and boats despite the horrible weather. We thank her very much for services above and beyond the call of duty.


    All loaded and flopped into our seats in the warmth of the minibus. We chatted our way back to Loch Insh.


    I booked us all in for another night and breakfast, no restaurant this time. Later when all settled we went out to find dinner. The first location was a pub, found on the internet. It turned out to be a gastro-pub, selling little food at extortionate prices. I asked about portion sizes on account of us all being starving and in need of lots of calories. The tiny portions were confirmed and we left.


    Find a chippy in Aviemore was our next quest only after Tesco to buy beer for later. The till operator advised us and across the road was a chippy.


    Smiffy’s Fish, chips and mushy peas filled a hole, for a fraction of the pub charges for a mere mouthful. Stomachs saved by Smiffy’s. Although Chris and Graham declared, they could manage another plateful!


    Back to the centre for beer and chat about the Spey and what next. A log fire to keep us warm, beer and whisky to sip, with tales of past trips and future plans. A relaxing warm evening.


    Breakfast at 8am and heading home soon after. That was the end of a challenging winter trip down the Spey.

    Doug
    Last edited by dougoutcanoe; 7th-December-2017 at 11:15 PM.
    When there's trouble on shore, there's peace on the wave,
    Afloat in the White Canoe.
    Alan Sullivan


  8. #8
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    Nice to hear your description too Doug. Now, tell us about that hat...
    Covering as many malmiles as possible before being distracted by the pub!

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  9. #9
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    My Shaun hat was an impulse purchase, some would say, "love at first sight". It amuses many and keeps my noggin warm.

    Some comment that it is just a head band with my hair sticking out! The cheek of some folk.

    Shaun has made many appearances on cold weather trips.

    Shaun is very handy if I wear him back to front, he can see what ever is sneaking up behind me.

    Hand made by Mad Hats of Wigan, several years ago.

    Doug
    When there's trouble on shore, there's peace on the wave,
    Afloat in the White Canoe.
    Alan Sullivan


  10. #10
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    Some comment that it is just a head band with my hair sticking out!
    I wouldn't have that problem...





    I quite like it. Then again Shaun is a true hero.
    Covering as many malmiles as possible before being distracted by the pub!

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mal Grey View Post
    I wouldn't have that problem...





    I quite like it. Then again Shaun is a true hero.
    I still have some to show.

    Shaun stays with me through thick and thin.

    Doug
    When there's trouble on shore, there's peace on the wave,
    Afloat in the White Canoe.
    Alan Sullivan


  12. #12
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    Nice to have a different view of the same trip. Some good photos. Thanks.

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