The Lakes School River Spey Canoe Expedition a caring, learning community

The Lakes School has a fabulous reputation for its commitment to adventurous activities. Here's an expedition report from Mr Robinson following a recent canoe trip on The River Spey during May 2016.

Life’s all about perspective and sometimes it’s good to view things from the bottom up. You certainly do that when you saunter down a river in a canoe with all of your essential belongings necessary for the proceeding 3 days and it’s amazing what you see!

The journey up to the northern Cairngorms is always going to be a drawn out affair especially so when your minibus is pulling a trailer loaded with canoes and the cabin itself is full to the brim with kit plus 10 willing students who have been persuaded enough to join you on what is described in the paddler’s guide book to classic rivers as, ‘a wonderful canoe touring journey on Scotland’s greatest river.'

We arrived at the campsite just outside Aviemore at about 7pm set up camp and we were then able to enjoy a pleasant evening camping amongst the strong aroma of the Caledonian pine trees whilst watching the sun set below the endless vistas of snow covered Cairngorm mountains in the distance.

The following morning was a belter, brilliant clear air and azure sky, both of which caused ice to form on the tents but this was soon gone as the sun’s strength poured through.

A short time later we rolled up alongside the watery conveyor that is the river Spey in Aviemore, unloaded the kit, practiced a few skills under the ever watchful tuition of Mr Tomes, loaded the canoes, had one final briefing and then we were off.

Almost immediately you began to relax as the gentile nature of the river envelops a sense of ease, at least to begin with, but there is another reaction that gets to you and I think it’s the environment as it unwittingly starts to take over your thoughts as you drift along. Perhaps it’s the sand martins diving all around you scooping up the abundant supply of mayfly’s or the pied flycatchers hopping along the riverbank or the occasional salmon flipping its tail in order to tantalise the fisherman.

There are a few technical sections along this stretch of the river which require some skill and all of the group were beginning to become proficient at negotiating small (grade 1) rapids. Stopping and regrouping after each one for a quick assessment until finally lunchtime arrived only to be told of by a grumpy river gillie that, ‘we shouldn’t be parked on the side of the river’.

Beautiful as it is, the river Spey is a salmon river and as such I was amazed by how much of its banks are manicured plus the addition of endless sheds, benches and shelters designed to comfort the fisherman. Unfortunately, this creates a conflict of interest between users of the river, it is our duty as canoeists to be quiet whilst deliberately steering wide of fisherman as a code of conduct, sadly some land owners do not reciprocate the code not even allowing you to rest on the riverbank for a short while.

What you don’t realise is the distance you cover as you meander and by the time we reached our overnight camp we had covered 28 kilometres. The campsite itself was a field with one toilet and a tap - sometimes beggars can’t be choosers. However, what you can do in Scotland, unlike The Lake District, is have a fire which becomes a great focal point for the evening. It was at this point that Mr Gallop joined us at the campsite with his camper van as he had been skiing during the day over in Glen Coe.

Day 2 began much more efficiently than the first day, the students become more slick at packing kit, and soon we were upon the rapids and this section of the river is known for its rapids and includes the infamous ‘washing machine’ (grade 2) and this of course meant the strong possibility of becoming at one with the river.

Sure enough, techniques learned the previous day would be tested to the maximum as the river flow increased coupled with a greater differential in gradient. At one point it became necessary to have the group progress one at a time through a particular section until finally we arrived at the ‘washing machine’. Here, Mr Tomes (in his own boat), Mr Magee and I (in a separate canoe) left the group behind with clear instructions, whom when signalled, would travel down the rapid armed with technique and commitment one pair at a time.

At the bottom the 3 of us spaced ourselves apart armed with throw lines in case of submersion. At this point Mr Gallop, who had been walking on mountains close by on this day, had now joined us to watch the students negotiate the rapid.

Joe Harrison and Ethan Rigby-Nelson the strongest paddlers went first, and, unfortunately for them, the river got the better of them and they were overpowered by the force of the water and in they went, eventually being thrown out at the bottom of the rapid, this was followed by a swift recovery of the 2 boys plus boat. My immediate thought was how were the others going to fare? However, faith is a powerful phenomenon and sure enough one by one each pair negotiated the rapid brilliantly and within half an hour further downstream the entire group of students were pulling their canoes out of the river and setting up camp on the bank. The distance covered for the day was 25 kilometres.

It seemed appropriate to end the river journey at this point and camp overnight, after first seeking permission from the estate owner. This was followed by the making of another great camp fire and countless tales about the intrepid ‘washing machine’. The following morning we packed up early morning and began the 7 hour journey back home not before Mr Magee spotted an otter on the river.

On reflection, I ask myself would we run this trip again? The answer of course is an emphatic yes and I would not change a thing. The students were great, the wild camping is always an earthly experience and the adults were a pleasure to be with.

It was also fantastic to see the hills and mountains from the bottom upwards particularly as I spend most of my mountain days with my viewing perspective top down.

Student members: Ethan Rigby-Nelson, Joe Harrison, Joe Keenan, Shay Lovett, William Smith, Jordan Mitchenson, Rosie Wainwright, Lauren Bateman, Jenny Wood, and Declan Turner

Author: Mr Robinson

Staff: Mr Magee, Mr Tomes and Mr Robinson.
Fancy paddling the Spey yourself? You can find this helpful book on Amazon.
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