We set out in winter, and ended in spring. From Invercauld bridge to Kincardine O Neil, three days on the Dee. Three days of fires, purple birch and old green oak, old growth forest and snow covered hills, then fishing huts, farms and fences. Some standing waves and some big water, a speedy thaw and a sense of caution.
It was late when we arrived, late and cold. We dossed down in the open wood shelter that holds the public toilet in the car park. En suite! Dawn creeps in at this time of year, the light stays low. No big announcements in the Glen, just slowly pulling up the exposure slider, pale blue colour temperature barely warms at all. We pack up and move out before there's too much movement from the posh house.
The first day is boney. We walk to the waters edge, take our time making ready. The water is not so technical but for me navigating strainers is too quick and too detailed for comfort. I realise how much my nerve was shaken by my last encounter in the water. My borrowed kayak paddle is feathered and means complicated back paddling. I'm making heavy going of it, not turning fast enough, not being bold enough. It takes me most of the first day to find my flow again.
Late by the fire on the gravel bar in the evening, it begins to rain gently. By the following morning, there is no snow on the hills, and no ice on the bank. Where has it all gone? It's in the river. It's in the river, with us.
The second day is pushy. The river is swollen. We paddle through shallows and into the flow, pulling out to scout where the water crashes round corners. Sometimes the volume flattens the detail out and it is easier, sometimes there are standing waves big enough to snap and to crush. This is all new(s) to me.
Spat out fast on the other side of the biggest wave train, I'm laughing uncontrollably in the face of the force. In packrafts you are close to the water. David looks worried. Taking a swim here would be hazardous to our health. We move on to Braemar, keep scouting, keep checking in with the river, and each other. Soup and tea in town, but by then the rush is abating.
We pitch early where a birch wood meets an old forestry plantation. Camped in the lee of the trees, we make fire and dry out our gear, and whilst the winds make white noise in the branches above our heads, the river drops by 2 foot overnight.
The third day flows. It is warm, too warm for December. The river is still large and fast but less angry. We put in for 3 kms, then drag the boats up a rise and pop out on the straight-line and pretty Deeside Way, now strapping the boats on our backs, top heavy tortoises, amphibians. We waddle past casual wealth, new oil and old royal, mock baronial campery in bricks and mortar. A moth eaten white stag's head dumped near the paint pots, an old Daimler rusting in the keeper's shed...the cut of Deeside's jib is relaxed Naples tailored tweed. We're not trespassing, but it feels like it, even in Scotland. We're on foot to the falls, because it's where David came unstuck before.
After the bridge and after lunch, we put in again, and paddle through the afternoon light, sun playing on the trees. Easy going stretches between small narrows, as the banksides become less forested and more agricultural. The churning ferocity of yesterday is gone. David found a monster fish beached on the bank, I found two traffic cones beached on a beach. Geese flew overhead, and seemed to be confused as to which season and what direction. Chat, plans. The last trip of the year for both of us.
Paddling into that late afternoon sun felt like the afterburn of the year, a little like a mirage, a dream. Like my paddle blades on water, I'm reflecting back - on my luck to have shelter, and warmth, friendship and meaningful work, my good fortune to be able to draw inspiration and learning from gentle and sometimes not so gentle adventures in nature.
These pictures from my non waterproof camera don't show the more mischievous water on day two, but David Hine has a trip report and a video too....