Wednesday, June 03, 2009

in/on the River Spey, the Highlands, Scotland

1. Speed, Bonnie Boat

I think this is as far as I can go, I tell Ed as we pull the kayak onto a strip of sand by the Boat of Garten bridge.
He knows I’ve made up my mind and his efforts to get at a different outcome are modest.
It’s so pretty on the river…
Yes, sure. Now, let’s haul the stuff up to the village. And we need food.
Do you know anything about this village?
Only that it has food.
Maybe you should scout it and I’ll stay with the gear.

We don’t have much, but it’s bulky: camping things, a change of clothing, two computers, a camera, paddles, life vests.

No. We need to find a place that will let us dry off. Let’s hope for a b&b.

We walk dispiritedly past clumps of wool (sheep have been here; sheep have been pretty much everywhere in the Scottish Highlands) in the direction of the handful of houses.

It had been a fine start. We loaded the kayak at Lake Insh and by 2 pm, we were on the water.

And I wasn’t too concerned. I can’t even recall how many times I asked about the force of the rapids and the strength of the river current. [I am a reasonably experienced kayaker (even if that experience came, for the most part, decades ago), but I have minimal training on rapids. And I don’t like them. Especially when I’m carrying gear and the weather is always verging on cold.] We were reassured: baby stuff. Level 3 at most (on a scale of 1 to 6, that would seem pretty tame).

And it’s true. The River Spey isn’t really a river of boulders and twisting, cascading rapids. It’s Scotland’s largest river and it’s known mainly for its incredible beauty (and for the malt whiskey distilleries on both sides, but I know little about whiskey so that part is lost on me. Sort of like tempting an infant with arugula).

But water levels shift and change and a calm ride can transform itself into a boulder-coaster ride very quickly when the water levels are low. And they’re very low right now throughout Scotland. Something about too little rain, though I can hardly believe it.

At the beginning, there was so much to enjoy!


But very quickly I realize that there would be no impulse photography. Rapids materialize again and again and when I hear them up ahead (there is always an audible roar) I hide my camera in a protective bag, just in case a big splash would send water flying over our kayak.

And still, in between, there is the occasional moment where I can exhale – admiring the lupines along the banks, the birds, herons, ducks…



...the lads jumping off the bridge for an afternoon dunk...



In these quiet stretches, I am happy. We paddle rhythmically, I pause to take a photo, to consider all that is around me.



But an hour into the trip, the river becomes tricky. We pause at the side and think about the right strategy for the rapid before us. And we plunge forward. Successfully. Ed loves rapids and he navigates them well.

I’m shouting back a “well done!” cheer, when our kayak strikes a large branch jutting out of the safe path between the boulders.

Neither of expected the sudden jolt and flip of the boat. I am submerged and thinking – damn! I’m under the boat and in the water.

We were sort of prepared for the worst. Bags were sealed and tied down. Ed’s shoes were tied down. But we were a trifle sloppy. My shoes were suddenly bouncing along with the current some distance from the boat. I am clinging to the paddle, Ed is clinging to the kayak, his paddle, and hunting for my shoes.

I cannot get my footing. The current is strong, the stones are covered with slippery growth. Definitely, my contributions to the rescue effort is minimal. All I can do is hold on to the paddle and get myself to shore.

I climb up the stones, leaving Ed to fight the current as he chases down first one shoe then the other. I stand on the stones feeling completely helpless and still a little confused. How did we wind up under the boat??

With a lot of strength, chutzpah and luck, Ed manages to rescue it all. We review the damage: Ed’s bags from home had kept my camera and the computers safely dry. Pretty much everything else is wet. (Take note, Lake Insh Water Sports Center: you need waterproof dry bags!)

In fact, I am not a little lucky: there isn’t any permanent loss. One banged up toe and a lot of wetness, but even though I’m cold, the sun is out from behind a cloud and I slowly stop shivering as I give in to its warm, calming rays. But I am shaken by the experience and when we get back into the kayak, I become obsessed with avoiding a repeat of the flip. As the boulders and rapids continue (in truth, never beyond level 3), I worry at each turn about navigating. Twice, I get out of the boat and walk as Ed works the river.

And that’s when I decide that one day of this has been perfect for me but I need to stop now. The joy has been shoved to the side as I have slipped into the constant worry mode. This, in spite of the incredible beauty of the land around us. From the middle of the river, even the ubiquitous sheep are still enchanting and for once innocuous – ticks don’t jump water, so far as I know.


(a very pregnant ewe)

And so I suggest that Ed continue the next day without me (it’s not possible to get him to stop now, not with only a fourth of the river trip – maybe some 20 miles -- behind us), and that I make my way to the mouth of the river on land, to meet up after several days at the Bay of Spey.

2. The People of Boat of Garten

We haul our gear up the banks of the Spey and down the road into town. I look around for someone to be out and about so that I can ask about rooms and food. A woman is working in her yard. I call out to her.

Meet Valerie McDonald Fairweather. Was it good fortune to find her in the garden? Oh, more than that. It spun the day around and made it brilliant. (And I use the term in the American way, because in Britain, everything is “brilliant,” – the right change, the proper direction, mail delivered to your hand, etc.)


Through our many conversations, I learn that she is an artist, married (Valerie - to a much younger man! Ed – is he number four or five? Valerie – you’re cheeky, aren't you! Actually number two, and number one was much older, I can’t seem to match with men my own age), learning Gaelic (Valerie – my grandfather spoke it), knows every trail in the National Park here (Valerie – I climbed that summit with Kevin on my sixtieth birthday), -- oh, and so much more.

She insists on hanging out our wet gear to dry, points us to a b&b in town and tells us to come back and give her a report on our progress.

(Valerie and Kevin's home, our gear)

We eat dinner at Anderson’s. I finally am brave enough to order Scottish lamb stew (sorry, all you sheep out there! I had to try it!) and it is quite wonderful.




Anderson’s is the new Scotland. We’ve seen a lot of that – a gradual move toward a new style of cooking, a new way with bed and breakfasts. Indeed, nearly every b&b we have stayed in is run by escapees from England (“quit the rat race in London,” or – “came here because I loved vacationing in Scotland when I was younger,” etc). I think the food, too, has benefited from the pressure from the outside world.

(For a comparison with the “old ways” see my next post – tomorrow!)

The next morning, we pick up our dried out gear at Valerie’s. (Valerie – I hung it up properly. Your husband just threw it on the line. Ed – husband? Valerie – oh, well, I didn’t get married immediately either! No reason to really. Ocean author, to herself – we’ll just let that one roll by.) We’re in her studio – shared with her husband, the guitar maker. We admire her art here and throughout her house.


I want one of her prints, but even at her reasonable prices, I can’t afford it. I promise to purchase something if at the end of the trip, if I have cash left over.

I send Ed off (Valerie, standing on her toes to peck his cheeky cheek – good bye, flower pot – I call people that, don’t know why…) on his boat journey, solo now. I watch from the bridge – the kayak is there still, on the beach, where we left it (on the far right of the photo).


I exhale. It’s a good decision not to continue (I am noting, too, that every day, the temperatures are dropping and a cloud cover has taken over the once blue skies), but somehow, I did not expect our time here to move in this direction. I go back to chat a little more with Valerie before my bus arrives. A friend, a comforting presence. Listening to her talk is like a long yoga stretch on the central nervous system: when all is done, I feel a million pounds lighter.

I wait at the stop for my bus back to Inverness (it is unfortunately the case that if you want to go up north to a point just thirty miles from where you are, you need to go back to a bus hub (eg Inverness) and start all over again). Someone is tapping me on my shoulder.

What are you doing here – she asks me?
I can’t place her. I am like that: put a person in a different context and I haven’t a clue who they are. (With a few exceptions. I always know who daughters are, for example.)
I’m Susanna. From the Boat Center, where you and Ed rented the kayak. Why aren’t you on it and where is Ed?
I explain. My turn now: and what are you doing here? I know she is from Spain, working in Scotland, but why is she here, in this tiny village of Boat of Graten?
I live here. I’m the single mum now and this is a very nice place to raise a child. And Britain in general is kind to single mums: we get a nanny allowance if we work after our year off. I could not work without it.


Ah yes. These stories make me cringe. No developed country is less hospitable to the working parent than the U.S.

We talk a while. You made friends with Valerie? Good. She’ll keep me posted of how you are doing in life.

I settle into the comfortable bus seat and make my way back to the gateway to the Highlands, where I catch another series of buses that, by evening, spit me out at the mouth of the River Spey in Garmouth.