Rannoch Moor’s colossal bleak landmark appeared even more forboding than usual as the train climbed north through Scotland. The ground was thick with snow, the sky grey-white and threatening. Burns and rivers were frozen solid and the motionless rivers snaked towards iced-over lochs round the base of black mountains marbled with white. The only movement, sound or sign of life were the magnificent stags, down from the ridges in search of fodder, that steamed and snorted in the bitter afternoon air.
Our excitement rose at the sight of such wilderness. But would the river -“our river”- be frozen solid too? We marvelled that this landscape could be just a few hours away from the urban landscape we had sleepily departed on the morning’s first train north. But we had also transformed. From boarding the train in London clutching skinny-cappucinos, croissants and the Guardian to a new mindset poring over map contours and trying to calculate how tough this weather would make things.
We heaved heavy packs onto eager shoulders and climbed down from the train into darkness. We started walking east. The plan was simple: walk from the west coast to the River Spey then inflate the packrafts we were carrying. We would then paddle downstream to the North Sea on the east coast of Scotland.
We filled our water bottles from a cold, bouncing stream -the west coast was not frozen- and pitched our tent in a gnarled wood on the shore of Loch Morar. To add to my excitement about what view we would be greeted with when morning came was the delicious luxury of camping in a brand new tent, a fabulous Mountain Equipment one that Andy unravelled with pride.
Mammoth gusts of wind raged against the tent throughout the night. Heavy rain battered us. I snuggled deeper into my still-dry sleeping bag and gave thanks that we were in this Mountain Equipment tent and not my usual rubbish one.
We were up at 6.30 and walking with head torches through the darkness. This far north it was dark by 4pm and not light again until 8am. The wind was far too strong to launch our little boats and cross the loch so we were forced to change our plans. A plan change at dawn on Day 1: this was not a good start! We set off to walk the length of the loch then cut up over the watershed and down towards Spean Bridge.
For the next couple of days we would be travelling cross country, trusting to sheep and deer tracks to assist our movement through the steep, heather-covered landscape.
Scrambling up and down slopes, pushing through thickets, crossing racing streams: progress was slow and our 25kg packs weighed us down. A splendid stag followed us for half a mile just 20 metres away. Around us everywhere was silence and for two days we did not see a human, a vehicle or even a light.
Unfortunately an old knee injury returned to haunt Andy. The heavy packs and the nightmare terrain were too much and he suffered badly but stoically for three days. This slowed our pace right down but I did not mind. The scenery was too spectacular to rush through, the sense of genuine adventure, glorious solitude, and wilderness right here in little old Britain was intoxicating. I felt uplifted, at peace, inspired and content in a way I rarely do out in the “real world”. I felt able to merely live in the present and to relish it. I was not fretting about talks or money or my bulging inbox or future ambitions.
We pitched camp at the head of the loch, at the confluence of two imperious glens, on a river bank beside a loch in the giant theatre formed by the two striking peaks that rose up above us. I didn’t know their names, I was sure they were not famous peaks, but they were very impressive.
It was Saturday night. My Saturday night was silent, especially once the gas stove was turned off and we could enjoy the brief loveliness of the never-quite-enough but gloriously hot boil-in-the- bag meal.
At dawn we emerged into star-strewn darkness and the outline of the mountains reflecting onto the calm black water of the loch.
More tough cross-country scrambling took us up and over a ridge and down to a rippling stream that we followed up away from the loch, up its narrowing glen topped with snowy covered crags. A buzzard circled and the sun gleamed gently on the summits. At this time of year it never gets high enough to actually rise above the ridges. We boiled water beside the stream and breakfasted on coffee, Mars bars and Peperami.
We slopped through a slow swamp and up to the source of the burn. Boulders dotted its course through sluicing channels of white water and deep, clear pools. Rain came in bursts and we were in a world of wet. But I was bursting with the joy of being outdoors and working hard in a beautiful wilderness.
At the source of the stream was a tiny lochan, iced over and tucked in the cleft of the tightly narrowing walls of the gorge. Dropping down from the watershed we tramped down the headwaters of the River Pean, from its soggy marsh beginning which turned quickly to a precocious 2-foot wide burn fringed with watercress. Soon it was 3-foot wide, 4, 5, 6 and I was beginning to itch for the boats. With every spidery tributary that joined the stream the water grew slightly deeper and the volume of flow increased. I crossed my fingers that we would be able to take to the water soon.
At last the water was deep enough. It was time to christen the packrafts! This was what I had really come up to Scotland to do and I was excited like a kid at Christmas as we squeezed into drysuits and inflated the boats. We wrapped our rucksacs in drysacks, lashed them to the front of the boats, and off we went. Wee! Woopee! Yeehah! Free motion!
The stream’s flow took hold of us and carried us merrily downstream. We wound round meanders, through dark black, sliding deep patches, over riffles of golden gravel and round rocky clusters where be bobbled and weaved and sometimes bounced off them and sometimes ran aground. Then we would have to get out of the raft and drag it downstream to deeper waters. But the rafts needed barely a foot of water to bear our weights and our packs. My confidence in their sturdiness and capability grew and grew. We crept close by deers, watched tiny dippers flitting past us. Andy and I grinned at each other and agreed that this beat walking any day.
Ahead of us loomed our first ever rapids. We held on to the river banks and discussed what to do.
“Shall we recce them?” I suggested.
“Recce-ing is for wimps!” declared Andy and launched himself into the white water. Grinning, I followed him down. The run was short but exhilarating, great for our confidence in the rafts and by far the highlight of the day.
As heavier rain settled in for the day, bouncing crowns all around us, two rivers merged and the land became flat. We drifted slowly, sinuously into Loch Arkaig to a loch. We deflated the boats, heaved our packs once more onto our backs, and returned to hiking.
Darkness fell, rain fell, spirits fell. We trudged on into the pale halo of our head torches. At last we had had enough. We pitched the tent on a scrap of flat ground and piled inside. It was soggy but a welcome shelter.
The rain eased just before dawn. Condensation dripped from the tent ceiling onto faces and damp sleeping bags. I always dread putting on wet socks and wet waterproofs so I decided to do it as fast and as soon as I could in order that the whole day would be on the “up” from that point on.
I was eager to get going again and relished the morning’s walk along the loch. The change, always impossible to notice until it is over, from grey-blue pre-dawn to all the morning colours and the proper start of the day. The loch still and mirrored. And then we see a human. We are returning to the world.
Sadly from Spean Bridge Andy could walk no further. 25kg packs and difficult terrain had not been kind to his knee. So we hitch-hiked forward 35 miles to the River Spey and the second phase of this microadventure.
A red van pulled over. Alex could take us all the way to Newtonmore. House music played on his tape deck. Climbing rope stopped the back door swinging open too far. Alex was a freelance climbing instructor. He was driving home after climbing a peak just for the heck of it. It is SO important for me to meet people like him now and then. Alex climbs, bikes and kayaks all year. He climbs frozen waterfalls. He earns just enough so that he can keep doing what he loves doing. He does hardcore stuff all the time, just for the hell of doing it. No websites, no Twitter bull, just doing stuff for the sake of the doing. I truly admire people like that and how they remind me to focus on the important stuff.
Dawn was pink behind white Cairngorm peaks as we inflated the boats on the bank of the Spey. Small icebergs floated by. I was excited about paddling. I was nervous about taking to the water in such cold weather. Temperatures had been as low as -22 in recent weeks. I thought about the ice lining the banks and how much I did not fancy dying trapped beneath it. I thought of capsizing in swirling rapids. I was conscious of how dangerous the next days could be as well as how fun and challenging and beautiful.
The river was black and cold as we began paddling. The slow parts of the current were frozen solid, adding to the sense of intrepidation and stepping into an alien landscape. My hands were painfully cold within minutes but they steadily settled to an acceptable level of cold. It was apparent that neither of us were wearing sufficient clothes and all day we teetered on the brink of falling seriously cold.
Mighty slabs of ice, pool table size and 10 inches thick, were jumbled on top of each other along the banks. Some were grey, off white and stuck through with sticks and pebbles, others shining and transparent. Overhanging tree branches dangled detritus a metre above the water level, a reminder of the recent high water levels. This river, like all rivers, was not to be trifled with.
Low clouds skimmed the sky. An even lower, wan white sun lit everything now and then with brief illusions of warmth. Bright sunlight, swooshing gentle rapids, icebergs floating by: could things ever be better?
But then, beneath the bridge where the A9 crossed the Spey, the whole river was backed up solid, jammed with a backlog of ice floes after weeks of cold weather. We got out and towed the boats for a few fields. It was all quite fun. And then we were back on the water.
But after only ten minutes more paddling the river was solid again. And it was solid for the rest of the day. But we did not know that at the time which was the biggest problem of all. Should we tow the boats behind us? Shold we deflate them and hike on? We were driven by hints and guesses. It was frustrating not knowing whether we were wasting our time as we hauled the rafts along a dyke that separated the frozen river from the expanses of frozen, foreboding marshes to our right. Were our dyke to peter out at any point we would be stranded in a frozen world of wetness, too solid to paddle, not solid enough to walk across. On one side a yellowy-grey frozen river, on the other a frozen marsh. Pairs of ducks flew overhead with anxious purpose, skeins of geese drifted across the wonderfully wintery sky. The world was frozen and cold and still.
Eventually Loch Insh opened up before us. It too was frozen. We conceded defeat, packed up the rafts and walked round the loch. Our hopes now were pinned on the river as it left the loch.
The loch’s outflow lifted our spirits: a broad steady flow of water coming from beneath the iced-still loch surface. We were back in the game!
Eventually the ice was behind us. But it was still bitterly cold. We were both underdressed, a risk in a drysuit when you have to guess what to wear and cannot change it all day other than to don or doff a wooly hat. I put my gloved hands inside plastic bags and that helped ease the agony of burning cold.
The highlight of the rafting stage was a morning of rapids. The best ones were sluicing down past the malty aroma of the Knockando distillery, whose straw coloured single malt sits beside me as I type these words today.
Rivers change their mood and their image as they move. On the penultimate afternoon the river became beautiful and majestic. Wealthy fishing homes and increasingly smart fishing huts lined the banks. And as the afternoon faded I suddenly became very, very cold in the bright, slicing afternoon sunshine as we pulled ashore to camp. Perhaps I was tired, perhaps a little ill, but I became alarmed at my condition until the tent had been flung up and I was in my sleeping bag gulping down hot drinks. The tent and everything inside dripped with a week of condensation and wet Scottish weather. Just two metres from our soggy camp was a carpeted, heated fishing hut of sleek dark wood. Alas its door and every window were locked tight. All night I felt wet and cold and sleep came only in bursts of frustrating zany psychedelic nonsense. Cold drips fell on my face and I enjoyed the rescue of the morning alarm.
We had worried that the final day, paddling down an estuary, could be slow, hard work and dull. On the contrary the Spey races eagerly towards its end. The sky was dark grey and misty. But a swooshing river quells all moaning and we swept along quickly. We watched a tree slide down the bank into the river followed by a roar of rocks and dirt. An otter struggled to haul a flapping salmon from the water. Diving cormorants and circling seagulls were clues that the end was approaching.
Scenes of carnage in the river spoke of a winter of extreme weather. Whole trees were jammed in the river after being swept so far downstream. We had to be alert and paddle hard and astutely.
We were just a few miles from the end of our river now and I felt so happy. And then we paddled past seals who plopped into their pool and raised their curious heads to check on our curious crafts passing by. And up ahead we heard then saw the crashing waves of the North Sea. We hauled the boats out of the water for the last time in a still sea pool onto a smooth shingle beach.
Grey sky, circling gulls, muddy brown crashing waves, a couple of seals waiting for the salmon to come in on the tide. A birdwatcher watched us through his binoculars. I fingered a smooth round pebble and slipped it into my pocket to carry home as a reminder of a genuinely tough, exciting, challenging adventure. An adventure just a few hours away from home and little more than a week in duration. We packed the boats up, heaved our packs onto our backs once more and walked off to catch a bus home.
This microadventure was a little training trip for a much larger packrafting expedition later this year.
This was a microadventure that I documented through microblogging (Twitter).
- Colossal bleak landscape of frozen rivers and snorting stags.
- Weather too bad to cross loch morar. Spending whole day trekking round it through heather.
- Have not seen a person, vehicle or light in 2 days. Remote scotland is special
- Hauled heavy packs up and over watershed then took to packrafts to descend next river
- Clothes wet, tent wet, sleeping bag wet. Thank god for boil in the bag chicken tikka! Ha!
- Crossing highland passes by foot, rafting down the other side, camping by lochs… I could not be happier
- Boats out and on to river spey tmrw. Hope it is not too iced over.
- Epic morning’s paddle. Huge slabs of ice line the river and the stream between is black and swift
- Tough afternoon. River spey frozen solid so we had to drag rafts x-country for hours
- Perfect end to cold, hard day- remote scottish pub with huge fire and a couple of earned pints before heading for the tent
- Long day’s paddle down spey. Had to wear plastic bags over gloves as hands freezing
- Camping in an unlocked fishing hut on banks of spey. Luxury!
- Man it’s cold in this hut! Roll on dawn so we can get moving again…
- Frustrating- woke in our hut to strong winds- no paddling today. Going to kick heels in grantown. Grrr
- Day making 0 miles of progress is so frustrating. need to reach east coast of scotland by sat. Totally at mercy of wind…
- Fantastic day on river. Lots of rapids and lots of miles covered. Should reach sea tomorrow
- Freezing hands and feet at day end. Put tent up fast, into sleeping bag, stove on and life rosy once again…
- Watched an otter dragging a salmon to the river bank
- Beautiful finish to our trek. Swooping down estuary past seals down to the rolling sea. The end!