Canoeing and Childish Wonder on Scotland’s Tay River

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Tiptoeing over mud puddles and dancing between trickling streams, we’re fighting to keep our feet dry while portaging gear down to the River Tay. The mid-September showers have subsided, for the moment, and we use the break to load paddles, drybags, throwbags and a small dog, named Gigha, into whitewater canoes. But this is Scotland, so the impending drizzles, mist and fog only add to the ambiance of a day paddling on the longest river in this water-rich country.

When my foot slips into the river, submerging fully as I push the canoe away from the shore, I can finally surrender to the rain and stop fighting the losing battle to stay dry. The moment socks become saturated and soles are soiled, is when a paddling trip—be it a day outing or a month-long adventure—really begins. It’s the moment when your adult worries wash away, and you can enjoy the simplicity, excitement and exploration of paddling a canoe on a new river. It’s when you start to feel like a kid again.

Wet socks and wet smiles is an appropriate way to start a rainy week of paddling and adventuring in Scotland. Even with the constant drizzle, the weather was too warm for drysuits, and yet, too chilly for sandals making it perfect neoprene-sock-and-river-shoe paddling conditions. We put on the River Lyon under an old railway bridge, just 300 meters before it joins the River Tay, about 10 kilometers west of the town of Aberfeldy. Popping up hoods, we set off for an afternoon of moving water and mild rapids, a paradise for those wanting to hone basic whitewater canoe skills, read water and practice general river navigation. Or in our case, for kayakers testing the waters of single-bladed propulsion.

With a backdrop of highland hills, we catch eddies, pushing the limits of balance and teamwork, creating exciting challenges for each other around every corner. The River Tay (Tatha in Scottish Gaelic) starts in the west of the country, flowing from Loch Tay in Killin, east across the Highlands before joining the salty tidal waters at the Firth of Tay on the North Sea, south of the city of Dundee. The Tay is unique in both its length, 188 km (120 miles), and the number of major tributaries that feed into it, including the Earn, Lyon, Isla, Tummel and Almond rivers, flowing water which irrigates countless scotch distilleries along the way. As we float through the dark water, we watch herons, sparrows and ducks hunting and our minds drift to lunch. And like a gang of kids, when hunger strikes, we obey!

We pull boats onto the shore and toss dry bags from boats before we tackle the tarp, a small area of reprieve from the drizzle. I wander off to explore a tributary lined with dripping willow trees and darting birds, returning to a spread of lunch like that from a fairy tale—hot tea, sandwiches and cookies. We shake our hands dry and dig in; food always tastes better outside. The rolling fields across the river add to the mystical mood, and we spot rabbits and sheep grazing side by side.

Our week in Scotland promises some faster and more gradient-driven excitement, too. We will try the rapids and drops of the iconic Etive River as it winds through the green hills, fed by seemingly endless torrents, tributaries and trickles. Perhaps a little park and huck at Falls of Falloch and some exploration by sea kayak around castle Stalker, or an afternoon of stand up paddling through the reeds around the ruins of Castle Kilchurn. Like children, we will play as we go, stopping along the road for whatever opportunities present itself…like some spontaneous tidal surfing and fresh fish and chips in the seaside town of Oban.

Warmed, hydrated and refueled, energy levels spike and we follow each other into side channels for impromptu exploration. The massive beech and maple trees overhead create a tunnel of green and we take advantage of the slow pace to keep an eye out for any of the critters that call the Tay home, like otters, salmon, lampreys, kingfishers and even the recently reintroduced Eurasian beaver. Slow-motion exploration gives way to chatter and jokes, and we drift under old stone bridges listening to our Scottish friends tell us snippets of history and local lore.

Our take out is hidden amongst the foliage and we each catch a micro eddy before wrangling our canoes up the river right bank, just a few hundred meters outside Aberfeldy proper. Although we have only seen a small segment of the remarkable River Tay, our child-like curiosity has us wondering what a multiday trip through the country would show us. Maybe the Great Glen Canoe Trail, a 60-kilometer trip transecting the country from Fort William to Inverness, will be our next trip to Scotland!

After shedding our wet gear (piled in bins in the van like good kids), we transition back into adults…and head straight to the pub for pie, pints and, of course, a nip of scotch made with water from the River Tay!