It was when I was stuck on a rock, slowly tipping from side to side with racuous water spinning by that I realised I may not be cut out for canoeing. In slight panic, myself and canoe buddy Fiona (of Fiona Outdoors – her blog name synonymous with a person ‘at one’ with the natural world) pushed and shoved our way off the rock, attempting to free ourselves from the Lady Spey’s grip that seemed hopeful of pulling us under. After what seemed like an eternity, we skiffed back, righted the canoe and continued swooshing down the river. I was, it would seem, in desperate need of whisky to calm my nerves.
This dramatic (for me, at least) incident occurred during day two of a paddle down the River Spey with Dave Craig from Spirit of the Spey. The two day adventure took us 25 miles to the sea at Speybay, with stops at beautiful hotels and the Balvenie Distillery, where paddling companion and Balvenie UK brand ambassador Andrew Forrester provided a distillery tour. Dave has recently combined the outdoor trip with visits to whisky distilleries – a natural match for an area booming with whisky output from places like Aberlour, Cragganmore, Macallan and Balvenie.
Up until this point, I had been loving the trip. Dave is the most experienced guide for trips on the River Spey, having done more than 140 descents down the river and acting as a Scottish Canoe Association River Spey adviser for more than 30 years. Throughout the trips, he shows an enormous love and passion for the river, founded in solid knowledge (everything from the type of bird flying overhead to where the next rock will crop up). He is utterly enthusiastic and extremely kind, even when you’re not at your best.
I had been looking forward to the trip for months and couldn’t wait to get onto the water. So, it was a surprise when I found myself, well, floundering.
The trip had begun two days before at Dave and partner Jude’s lovely B&B called The Beeches – a comfy, cosy home where tea and homemade cakes are always available in the guest area. That first evening, our group of canoeists (Andrew, Fiona, Dave and Nicola, from the Whisky Boys) came together for a wonderful meal and a full tasting of the Balvenie, during which I finally tried the stunning 30-year old, a rich, American oak 49.2% whisky. Opting to not feel worse for wear the next morning I left the others to continue dramming and got some shut eye.
The next morning, I awoke to a rather beautiful but unpleasant scene – snow, snow and more snow. Miss Whisky was going canoeing in the snow. Now, being from Canada originally, I don’t mind either snow, or canoeing. But even we Canucks don’t attempt this!
Seven layers of Michelin-man style clothing later, I was curled up in the back of the car en route in the snow to the River Spey, repeating to myself: “I can’t believe I’m going canoeing in the snow.”
But, by the time we reached the launch point and got on our way, the sun was shining. Snow sparkled off the banks and the Lady Spey was kind to us as we drifted downstream, narrowly avoiding rocks and splish-splashing through choppy rapids. When we arrived at our stop-off point for the day, seven miles downstream at the towering Telford Bridge, my arms were aching but canoe buddy Fiona and I had our strokes sorted and were tandeming it up like nobody’s business.
After hauling the canoes and equipment up onto the river bank and dropping our stuff at the cavernous, old rambling hotel, the Craigellachie, it was off to the Balvenie for a guided tour with Andrew himself.
And can I just say: after hours of paddling (especially for someone whose only regular exercise routine involves walking downstairs to buy a pint of milk) a dram of whisky goes a long way to soothing those aching limbs.
We started the tour off in the cooperage, taking in the workroom where the barrels are tested and turned ship-shape and shiny for refilling. Moving on, we explored the snowy grounds where some of the barley is grown for the whisky and then into the first warehouse where the barley is steeped in spring water for two days.
Downstairs in the warehouse sits the malting floor – one of the only ones still used in the whisky world. Here, piles and piles of silky golden barley is allowed to begin the germination process. It’s all hand-turned in a back-breaking manual method before heading off to peat kilns to be air dried and very (VERY) lightly smoked.
Heading over to the mash rooms, we checked out the mash tuns (where water is added to the grist (or milled barley)) and the wort tubs, which were spitting and frothing their way through the fermentation process.
“It’s like a giant student party with loads of alcohol and sex and it keeps reproducing,” quipped Andrew of the fermentation stage.
After taking in the alluring copper stills, we headed over to the “behind the scenes” Warehouse 24, in which is kept some of the most precious Balvenie malts available. We were lucky enough to bottle our own to take home – I chose the 15-yo refill bourbon cask, which sits proudly in its box for a special occasion.
As a newbie to the distillery tour world, this one was absolutely fantastic. Being able to see the fields on which the barley grows, right through to the warehouse where the final whisky is stored, was a privilege and I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Grantown-on-Spey anytime soon.
That evening, over drams in the incredible malt bar at the Craigellachie hotel – which features nearly 700 whiskies – and a tasty meal of smoked salmon and fresh tuna nicoise salad, we reflected on the long day, amazed at how much we had fit in.
The next day I woke up with a slight issue – my voice was gone. I was ill. And, I don’t mean “man-flu” ill – I mean, properly, ill. Aching limbs, aching throat, exhaustion – all had decided to claim my body from me and leave me with but a squeak to communicate.
By the time I’d wrapped up in all my layers, I was still freezing – in that state, the last thing I wanted to do was get on an icy river with the potential of falling in. But, get in the canoe I did, attempting to keep positive for at least the beginning part. As the cold soaked in (literally), however, and the river fought back, I floundered. Power had sucked out of my arms and every stroke seemed a huge effort with almost no effect. I’m afraid to say that Miss Whisky got rather stroppy. By the time the rock perched us on edge and threatened to pitch us into the dark waves, I’d nearly given up.
Soon after, we found refuge on a bank and set up an incredible spread of sarnies, cheese, fruit and biscuits. The only thing that could catch my eye, however, was the Pot Noodles and whisky.
This has now become what I term “The Superman Cure”.
A cup of steaming noodles and a few drams of SMWS and Balvenie whisky later, and I was filled with a resurgence of energy – even if I did still sound like a mouse.
I am now, proud to say, I did not give up despite coming near to it. Another two hours of paddling later and we arrived at the sea – none of having tipped ourselves into the river! It was a success all around and as we found the last reserves of strength to lug the heavy canoes up the banks of Speybay to our awaiting transport, I looked out onto the waterway and said my thanks to Lady Spey for keeping me canoebound. A dram was had all around!
Thank you to Dave Craig for the fantastic journey and for putting up with Miss Whisky when she was ill. And to Dr Andrew Forrester for leading a great tour of The Balvenie. For more details on the canoe journeys, visit: www.spiritofthespey.co.uk. To book in for a tour of The Balvenie, visit: www.thebalvenie.com