Winter Canoe

Loch Insh & Feshie Hills in winter

It was one of those lost days between Christmas and New Year when we should have been travelling home from family in Yorkshire but had been forced, like most of the country, to stay home. The house was awash with decorations, dishes, dust, dog-hair, leftovers, chocolate wrappers, dribbled candles, pine needles, new books, old newspapers, drifts of ribbon, cards and all the other detritus of the washed-up festive season. With no-one allowed to visit and no plan for Hogmanay, comfortable mess was tipping into squalor. The weather forecast had prophesied an overcast day and I was girding my loins for an intrepid expedition to Raid the Cleaning Cupboard, Restore the Lost Hoover and Rescue the Rarely-spotted Toilet Duck from extinction.

By a stroke of exceptional good fortune and – I maintain – divine intervention, I was spared this fate. The sun came out. With it, a winter wonderland of snow, frost and sparkle began to woo me from beyond the grubby windows.

Who was I, dear reader, to ignore such a celestial summons? The scales of domestic duties fell from my eyes and with the evangelical fervour of the new convert, I immediately set out to save another. Marvellously, my friend and neighbour down the street, Shula, proved as easily redeemed as I, and within half an hour we had forsaken our former lives and were rooting around in her garage for the vestments of our new calling. Life vests, neoprene gloves, paddles. We were heading for a boat.

Sister Shula

Canoeing is not something I’d ever contemplated in the middle of winter before. A previous four-day expedition down the Spey in early April had been so blighted by cold and rain that we’d turned heel and scurried home to warm fire, food and beds on the first night. (Whatever Damascus Road experiences I may succumb to, they rarely rob me of my creature comforts.) The only reason paddling seemed like a good idea this winter day was because it was brilliantly clear and windless and because we’d never gotten around to bringing our canoe home from the lochside at the end of summer. And because it was something I’d never contemplated before.

Even the walk to the loch was captivating, the trees bowed with snow like a worshipful multitude, the sun shafting through the branches and sparkling off every crystal. On the shore, two fishermen sat perfectly still by their rods under frosted birch trees. There was a soft crackling as the warming sun melted the ice in the branches and it fell on us in bright flakes. The loch was a mirror to the trees on the island opposite, the white hills, the sky.

Island of frosted trees on Loch Insh in winter
Man kneeling on paddle board on Loch Insh in winter

We pushed out and drifted far down to the southern end. When I say ‘drifted’, I mean mainly me, gasping at the scenery and taking photos, while Shula steered and paddled. Another good reason for waylaying her is because she has canoe qualifications and is eminently sensible. Even under my influence.

In the shallows, fragile panels of ice hung in the rushes inches above the water, showing its height at freezing. Loch Insh is simply a swelling of the River Spey and like the rest of the river in this wide strath, is prone to flooding and dramatic shifts in level. In fact, the Gaelic name for our area is Badenoch, which means ‘the drowned lands’. South of the loch, the Spey snakes in wide loops across the Insh Marshes, an area once drained and tamed for arable farming, but now returning to nature. Rich in birdlife and flora, it is one of the most significant areas of wetland in Europe and managed by the RSPB.

At the far end of the loch, black cormorants dried their ragged feathers on a half-drowned log as goldeneyes beat across the water, their wings whistling. Our boat slipped quietly into the mouth of the river, past the alders and willows as far as a curving sandy beach where the swans nest, before we made the long, lazy (for me) return. The mute swans are always here, their radiance echoing the snowy hills and the old white church above the loch. They share these waters year round with the ducks and gulls, joined in summer by dozens of breeders, like the osprey, and in winter by northern guests, like whooper swans.

Somewhere in the middle of this splendour, Shula multiplied the miracles by pulling out a flask of Rooibos tea and a plastic tub of home-made gingerbread biscuits. I shall have to lead her astray more often. We floated in the centre of that hushed winter arena, the blue tent flung wide above us, white hills circling, the loch a stage set for a pageant in which we played only the tiniest part.

Dragging the boat back up the pebbly shore and crunching home across the snow, I could barely remember my past life as a domestic mortal. And though I would return to the old dispensation, still littered with the artefacts of a normal life, it would not matter anymore. For my home, like my head, would be brimming with visions of a greater world and ringing with its call.

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
e.e. cummings

To join Shula on a canoe expedition with the Alltnacriche outdoor centre (in the summer!) click here.

To read my Christmas Eve piece in the Guardian Country Diary click here.

To listen to my New Year’s Day short story on BBC Radio 4 click here.

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3 thoughts on “Winter Canoe

  1. What a fantastic afternoon it was – so delighted you ‘dragged’ me away from my chores! x

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