Early one morning, in the far corner of a wheatfield just outside Laggan, two gaudily-dressed hikers might have been spotted unpacking the contents of their backpacks.
A passing dog-walker or cyclist might well have wondered why, before shrugging and continuing on their way. But closer inspection would have revealed the strewn contents taking the form of little rubber boats. Ten minutes later, the hikers would seamlessly have transmogrified into paddlers, before skipping the fence with their pop-up watercraft, making a lurching entry into the swift-flowing River Spey, and vanishing off downstream.
Such was the manner of our maiden outing on these wonderfully anarchistic packrafts. Ferg and I rode out the speedy channel and were spat out into a calm, flat, silent waterway.
A couple of hours of paddling, getting to grips with the handling of the boats and a sustainable (if unstylish) paddling technique, yielded frustratingly slow progress. The slowdown from cycling to hiking had taken a bit of readjustment. Here amongst the high banks and flat pastures, water barely moving and with an annoying headwind present, I would have to repeat the adjustment yet again: I could barely imagine a slower way to travel without grinding to a halt completely. The distant peaks that lined the Spey Valley passed with excruciating slowness.
But the river proved a truly untravelled road, and it wasn’t long before I began to feel privileged in being part of this isolated slow-motion routine. Sitting on an elusive fence, half-way between the self-propelled engagement of cycling and the passive hypnosis of gazing from the window of a moving train, this little paddling tour proved a new beast entirely.
On day two, a dose of variety kicked us into shape; a loch appeared round the bend and we spent an arduous half-hour paddling hard through choppy waves, into the wind. As our liquid highway was sucked from the north end of the lake down a wide, shallow chute between narrowing peaks and wild, sumptuous and serene forest, the pace increased, and negotiations began between our thin, inflatable hulls and a growing number of mini rapids, submerged rocks, fallen trees and low-hanging branches. The river’s requirements swung to and fro between concentrated navigation and calm, sunlit drifting – an enviable combination of sensations; simple enjoyment at its very purest.
It was all too soon that the rail bridge sailed overhead and the incomprehensible hollering of a stag party in full swing announced the arrival of Aviemore’s first riverside pub, where we would take out, roll up our boats and- without a trace that a paddling expedition had just been completed – trudge away in search of the railway station and a well-earned portion of haggis and chips.
Packrafting might just have become my favourite summertime hobby…