The Happy Camper: Whisky and Rapids in Scotland

Kevin Callan talks about one of his favourite trips of all time—a dreamscape of quality whisky and amazing canoeing in Scotland.

I’m not the Dean Martin of the canoe world—but I do like my whisky. Single-malt Scotch sipped from a stainless steel mug while sitting around a campfire is an absolute dreamscape for me. That’s why I had to pinch myself several times after I was invited to paddle on Scotland’s Spey River and make pit stops at a few Spey-side distilleries along the way. 

I was ecstatic about the river journey; like a kid in a candy shop. It was a trip of a lifetime: travelling from Highland mountains, through Celtic countryside and ending in the North Sea—with planned visits for a wee dram. You can’t get any better than that.

The company I kept for the week was part of the dream—Ray Goodwin (head canoe coach for the U.K.), Paul Kirtley (bushcraft expert and owner of Frontier Bushcraft) and Justine Curvengen (renowned sea kayaker and filmmaker). They teased me about my Canadian accent, told stories of the legendary haggis monster who lurks the woods and taught me what the terms bollocks and yak’n your bobby mean. They also reminded me of what good soul mates I have. 

The first couple of days had us flushing east out of Loch Insh and down the upper Spey. It’s a calm introduction to the river; a slow current that pushes you past the stunted Cairngorm and Monadhliath Mountains. It is also the land of Dalwhinnie and Glenlivet Scotch—both of which we sampled. 

The middle stretch turns up a bit, with rapids dubbed “Washing Machine” and “Knockando.” There’s a whisky named after Knockando, so I drank some of it after I successfully ran the rapids. That’s what you do to celebrate in Scotland. I also joined a sampling tour to hit a few more of the 50 distilleries lining the river and surrounding countryside.

The last stretch saw us paddling into Gale Force 7 winds while running crazy rapids towards the North Sea. One moment we were being flushed down to a treacherous sea and the next we were being blown back up the strong current. It was a wild ride, close to what my body could endure. My arms ached from pushing the canoe blade into the water. I knew there wasn’t much left in me when we approached the sea. When a seal popped its head out of the river directly beside my canoe I couldn’t have cared less and kept paddling forward rather than reaching for my camera.

It was a tough job, but someone has to do it. Actually, everyone should do it—paddle in a foreign country, a place where you’re out of your element. I didn’t know what dead wood to cut for the campfire, how to identify most of the animals running along the riverbank, how to dress properly for the weather, how to understand the strong local accent or that I’d drink tea rather than coffee. I was unfamiliar with the landscape I was paddling through—and it felt fantastic! There’s nothing better than feeling overwhelmed in a strange landscape, learning as you go and expanding your horizons. 

Was Scotland’s Spey River true wilderness, like we have in Canada? Absolutely not. But I knew that going in. I came for the history and culture of the landscape, the people and the whisky. It all went down so smoothly that I can’t wait to go back.