Canoeing the Spey takes you through a range of habitats, starting at the foot of mountains, ending at the sea. Photo: Paul Kirtley
A River Spey canoe journey is something I do at least a couple of times each year, usually in the early autumn. Ray Goodwin and I jointly lead these Spey descent trips, which are offered through my company Frontier Bushcraft. Ray and I sometimes find ourselves being part of other trips on the river too, such as our recent journey with Kevin Callan and Justine Curgenven. More on this latter escapade will follow in future blogs.
For some people this repetition gives rise to the question “doesn’t it get boring doing the same river over and over again?”.
No, it doesn’t. For several reasons.
First, the Spey is a superb touring river, unique among British rivers in several respects. It’s over a 100km of river which is suited to running from end to end in open canoe, with the most difficult rapids being slightly technical grade 2. It’s not without interest for the white water fan though as it is quite steep, particularly after Grantown on Spey. Following this point on the river there are many sections where one rapid follows another follows another. Even after a canoeing trip in Canada which I often do in September, I always look forward to returning to the Spey. It’s such good quality, enjoyable paddling.
Second is the watershed and how this effects the river levels. Towards the top of the river are the Insh marshes which hold water something like a sponge, drip-feeding water into the upper parts of the river between Loch Insh and Aviemore, guaranteeing at least some water here. There are multiple tributaries flowing down from the Cairngorm mountains, the Feshie and the Druie between Loch Insh and Aviemore, then the Avon further down. With rainfall in the mountains, the latter in particular tends to flush lots of water down to the Avon confluence and into the Spey, bringing the river up quickly. Other tributaries from the west such as the Dulnain also add into the system. In short, the river is never the same twice, with varying levels of water in different sections of river each time, depending on where it is coming from and how much of it there is.
The Spey is a high quality touring river, ideal for open canoe, which is surrounded by rich and interesting habitats. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Third – most relevant to this article – is the scenery and what it holds. It’s fundamentally varied along the course of the river due to the fact you start in the shadow of the Cairngorm and Monadhliath mountains but end up at the sea. Over the length of the river you pass through different types of terrain with different substrates and varying levels of management through forestry, agriculture and fishing. This leads to a mosaic of habitats and species. The river is rich with fish and bird life, including sand martins and ospreys in the summer. The banks are home to mammals from roe deer to otters. There’s always something interesting for a nature watcher to see.
In particular, the autumn is a time of rapid change. This year when we arrived in late September a couple of days ahead of the first trip at the beginning of October, it was literally t-shirt weather. We were having a warm and, from a paddling perspective, worryingly dry late summer. Most of the trees were still green and even the birch showed little autumnal colour other than looking a little brown around the edges, presumably related to the dry conditions. There was enough water for paddling though. For both trips. And by the second week, some autumnal colour was beginning to show.
The majority of the photos in this Wild Wanderings photoblog were taken in the week beginning 10th October 2016, with a couple of the landscape shots being from the week beginning 3rd October 2016.
A common feature along most of the length of the river are Scots Pine, Pinus Sylvestris. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Another common species along the route of the river is common broom, Cytisus scoparius, also known as Scotch broom. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Seed pod of broom. Photo: Paul Kirtley
At our first lunch stop were some other plants with dark-coloured, furry seed pods… Photo: Paul Kirtley
Most of the plants in question were dried/dead but this stand still had green vegetative growth. I suspected a species of lupin and this helped confirm it. Photo: Paul Kirtley
On closer inspection, one specimen still had flowers. They confirmed, like the broom growing nearby, that this was in the Fabaceae (pea/legume) family and indeed the species Lupin perennis. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Where the course of the river has cut down into sandy soil, creating vertical sandy banks, there is evidence of colonies of sand martin, Riparia riparia, which nest here in the summer before flying south to over-winter in Africa. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Away from the sand banks and gravel beaches, the river between Loch Insh and Aviemore is often bounded by alder, birch, beech, willow as well as featuring a range of coniferous species, including European larch, Larix decidua. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Rowan, or mountain ash, Sorbus aucuparia is relatively common here, particularly in the upper reaches of the river. It was been a good year for berries. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Rowan has a pinnate compound leaf. Each leaflet is an elongated oval and has regular serrations around the margins. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Rowan bark is silvery-grey with a tinge of copper. It has horizontal lenticels. Like many trees here the bark’s true colour is somewhat obscured by lichen growth. Photo: Paul Kirtley
In much of the understorey near to the river, including some of the spots we camped, there is a good deal of bird cherry, Prunus padus, often creating a tangled mess like this. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Lichens seem to particularly like the long thin branches of bird cherry. If dry enough these lichen species make an OK fire-lighter. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Off the river and into woodland. I really enjoy this type of travel. I love paddling and I love camping in woodland. This journey combines the two perfectly. Here you can see alders and sycamores lining the margin between the river and this grassy camping spot. N.B. the woodpecker holes in the tree trunk on the right. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, does quite well in this locality but as in many places suffers from the tar spot fungal infection, caused by the fungus Rhytisma acerinum. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The racket-shaped leaf of common alder, Alnus glutinosa. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The woody cones of alder, the old female catkins, which remain in the tree for some time. Photo: Paul Kirtley
New male catkins ready to go, waiting for the spring. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Alders help fix nitrogen and stinging nettles like nitrogen rich soil. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Looking more closely at the ground plants showed a good diversity here, including violets… Photo: Paul Kirtley
A remarkably (for October) lush and young-looking specimen of meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The delicate symmetry of the leaves of herb robert, Geranium robertianum. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Common sorrel, Rumex acetosella, has featured in a few Wild Wanderings blogs. It really is common! Photo: Paul Kirtley
The ubiquitous (and tasty) wood sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, was also present near our camp. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Onwards down river, away from the mountains and into the flat section before Grantown on Spey. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Sunshine picking out the golden leaf colours of a line of aspen on the seasonal turn, Populus tremula. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The light bark of the aspen stands out in the sunshine. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Water mint, Mentha aquatica, near to where we landed for our second camp. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Somewhat more room to spread out in these woods. One of my favourite camping spots. Photo: Paul Kirtley
A range of tree species, including bird cherry again. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Bird cherry, Prunus padus, leaves – past their best but giving some colour to the understorey. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The attractively glossy berries of bird cherry, Prunus padus, are high in cyanogenic glycosides and cannot be eaten raw. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Autumn is a good time to look at the seed-heads of members of the carrot family, Apiaceae. The seeds are often one of the clearest ways of identifying the species. Here we have the seeds of sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata, Photo: Paul Kirtley
Another sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata, plant nearby still had some greenery on it. The leaves often have light/white patches on the upper surface. Another key ID feature is when crushed, they smell of aniseed. Photo: Paul Kirtley
A closer look at some of those light patches…. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Nearby was another member of the carrot family, this time ground elder, Aegopodium podagraria. Photo: Paul Kirtley
On the same site was the shrub which is the previous plants common namesake – common elder, Sambucus nigra. You can see the similarity in the leaves here. Photo: Paul Kirtley
At this time there were still a few elderberries around too, which was a bonus. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Yet more aspen, Populus tremula, in this area. Here you can see more leaf detail as well as the lovely autumn colours coming through. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Aspen – autumn gold. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Back to ground plants… here we have some hedge woundwort, Stachys sylvatica, with its dead-nettle seed head clearly visible. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Looking closely at the leaves you can see the similarity with stinging nettle as well as how hirsute these leaves are. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Breaking the leaf releases a very distinctive smell – aromatic but with a mouldy/fusty element to it. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The aggressive spines of common gorse, Ulex europaeus, near to our lunchtime landing spot below Knockando rapids. Photo: Paul Kirtley
This misty morning is the tell tale sign of a cold night before. These colder nights noticeably accelerated the shift to more autumnal conditions and changes in the trees and plants around us. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Literally day-by-day the bracken was turning from green to yellow to brown. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Once properly dead and dry, bracken fronds make a good tinder/fine kindling. Photo: Paul Kirtley
From Grantown on Spey onwards, the river steepens and there are many grade 1 and grade 2 rapids to enjoy as the river descends 200m down to sea level. All of this is surrounded by great scenery and lovely trees. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Past the last road bridge at Fochabers, the river is unconstrained by any form of river defences or bank reinforcement. Here the river is allowed to do what it wants and flows out over an outwash plain, which is unique in the UK. Here it is largely shallower than what is immediately before. As a result trees and other spate debris such as trees is deposited. This is the view of our final lunch stop of the trip. Photo: Paul Kirtley
In this lower section there are a range of invasive species which enjoy a riverine environment, including Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum (not pictured but see link at end of article for more ID info) and Japanese knotweed, Fallopia japonica (pictured). Photo: Paul Kirtley
The erect racemes of Japanese knotweed flowers. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Another invasive species which enjoys riparian habitats is Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, which was growing next to the Japansese knotweed on the Spey. These are two species which many people confuse but are easy to tell apart once you have seen them both. Himalayan balsam has featured in previous Wild Wanderings. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Because the Spey is so steep there is no estuary. Indeed the tidal section only extends a several hundred metres inland. The get out at Spey Bay is only just short of the crashing surf of the sea. Here there are familiar shrubs such as gorse and broom as well as other common species of plant. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Red clover, Trifolium pratense, at Spey Bay. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, a powerful medicinal herb, this member of the daisy family, Asteraceae, is present right until the end of the river. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Another member of the daisy family is Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara. Here the usual green of the upper surface of the leaves is giving way to an autumnal yellow. Photo: Paul Kirtley
The underside of the coltsfoot leaf, however, still possesses its distinctive white colouration and moleskin texture. Photo: Paul Kirtley
What Are These Wild Wanderings Blogs Anyway?
Wild Wanderings is a series of photoblogs of elements of nature which, having caught my eye while out and about, I want to share with you, the reader. These observations are typically related to tree and plant identification, animal tracks and sign and other aspects of natural history which pertain to bushcraft and survival skills.
These blogs do not usually contain much written explanation other than concise photo captions. This is intentional, as writing long descriptions, including background facts or a large amount of context, whether it be historical or contemporary, slows down the sharing of these images with you.
The above photos were taken with the diminutive yet powerful Leica D-Lux (Type 109).
Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog
Bark & Buds: How to Easily Identify 12 Common European Deciduous Trees in Winter
How To Identify Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum
Wild Wanderings 5 – Seasonal Shift
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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft
, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.