Picture this, an over 50-year-old kayak, handcrafted, made of wood and canvas, taking on the biggest river in Scotland, River Tay. That’s the short description of The Green Kayak Challenge which I, Piotr, and Jane undertook in June 2017.
How it all started? In February, the same year, a resident has contacted me asking if I am interested in an old, very old boat. Silly question, if a kayak is involved, there is always a happy grin on my face. This was in Alyth, Perthshire (Scotland) where our base, Outdoor Explore is located. We just opened an old kirk (church), The Barony, as an outdoor hub for locals and visitors. A shared space with friends from Alyth Cycles offering outdoor information, serving as a bike and paddle shop, cafe, and has it’s own bouldering wall too! The owner of the kayak hoped this would make a great display model in such a vast space. He also told me few stories of him and his dad, who built it himself in town in the late 1950s, taking the kayak on local mini-adventures.
The boat was still covered in the original paint, green. Original paddles, outfitting, and seats. In really good condition for its age. After hearing how much happiness this kayak has brought in the past to its owners, it couldn’t just end up as a ‘museum piece’ I thought. I collected the boat, thanked the donor, and two days later phoned Jane. I asked if she was up for a mad challenge. Let’s try to paddle a very long distance in one day, about 85km. Let’s do it locally.
The River Tay, Perthshire. Let’s use the oldest boat I ever owned, very fragile and some big rapids will be upon us… Jane answered yes and the planning began. The challenge date was set for 21st June, allowing us the most daylight. We will start in Killin, the eastern edge of Loch Tay, and travel to Meikleour (famous for the biggest Beech hedge in the world). Why even bother? Speaking for myself, I was looking for another big challenge to try in Scotland. So many of us are looking for the best adventures somewhere far away.
I am based in Perthshire, with a close distance to so many epic places, often not discovered or very little known. Many people I know don’t even bother planning any big trips, as we often can’t see anything interesting within a day’s reach… For years now I follow not only modern trends in paddle sport; canoeing and kayaking, but my true hobby lies with the origins of these types of crafts. Several ‘ancient’, rare books lie on my shelves. I have lots of ‘museum-like’ items, but also I still build, use, and teach how to use these nearly forgotten craft skills.
Here comes how Jane got involved. Being a great willow weaving expert she showed me how to make a coracle a couple of years ago. Jane is also a great adventurer. A cyclist, runner, paddler, and climber. She just completed a tough self-sufficient cycle around the Outer Hebrides earlier on this year. Taking a water-related challenge lied perfectly within her plans for 2017.
How did it go? It was hard, much harder than I anticipated. We used this boat once before the challenge. A few days before, taking it out on Clunie Loch by Blairgowrie, to test its abilities and the waterproof condition of the original paint. Conditions were tough, with gusts of 40mph wind. We achieved about 3kmh average speed but the boat was looking quite stable and fairly dry.
The start of the Green Kayak Challenge, near Killin, Loch Tay, was at about 6 am. We were facing not only a very long journey but also headwind, eastern direction, which is quite rare to happen in Scotland. The forecast was also giving high chances of lightning storms and a yellow weather warning was issued in some parts of Scotland for rain by MetOffice. Spirits were high though.
We tackled Loch Tay in under 4 hours, arriving very happy to Kenmore, 50min faster than expected! This paid its toll, once on the river from there, we could travel faster but our energy levels were dropping quickly due to worsening weather at times. Between Kenmore and Logierait we will be facing the majority of the white water rapids on the River Tay, graded from 1 to 3 (in a 5 scale system). We ended up portaging just only a couple! The ‘Chinese Bridge’ was one of those, as the amount of debris risked the boat to be pierced at the first stretches of the river.
Next was the infamous ‘magnetic rock’ in Grandtully. Those who been there will understand why. So yes, some white water completed as well, epic! After that, we were still left with a long distance to go, over halfway, but the weather was calm at the time too. Better, plenty of wildlife ‘came to play’ along the way. Many spotted ospreys, kingfisher, deer, buzzards, and even a beaver swimming next to us in the middle of the day! Getting closer to a picturesque village of Dunkeld was our ‘wall’. This is a moment that many explorers, runners, adventurers are facing at some point. A place when you are running low on energy, motivation, body heat, etc. This is the moment of truth. If you make it through, not an easy task, but the finish line at least might be achievable.
For many this ‘wall’ could be unachievable at this time, due to personal or external factors. I have faced many times in the past expeditions and often didn’t cross it. Just life. Rain just started to be the worst of the day. Some thunder was already heard in the background and air temperature plummeted below 9 degrees Celsius. Hot chocolate, cookies, and coffee helped us at this moment. I thought we might be finishing here. Hiding from the elements, knackered we decided to give a go. The lightning stopped, this was our window of opportunity. From here, a rather easy section of a wide river took us through Caputh towards the end, Meikleour.
The adventure didn’t finish easily though. Just a few hundred meters away from another, much bigger than before, the lightning storm started. We hoped it will bypass. No, that was not the option, we were in the middle of it. A couple of times the lightning struck visibly at nearby fields. This was time to stop, duck, and hide. It was exhausting. We already paddled for 14 hours that day! Coldness and exhaustion caught us up. We had to dig deep into the bags for the last, ‘emergency only’ sets of clothes and food. We were weak psychologically there as well. The finish line was just behind the corner though… We waited a bit. With the last parts of the energy and peer motivation, we went down the river again. Arriving at the planned destination just before 9 pm.
I am still surprised we made it. Against all odds, 85 km and the boat lasted fine! The Green Kayak Challenge took us 14 hours and 32 min to be exact. Tired, scared at times, challenged to the limits in fitness level and psychological approach.
Now, writing it, feeling happy, I can’t wait to go kayaking again… Who are Jane and Piotr?
Jane, a positive buzzing energy person, tackling many outdoor challenges. Lots of cycling, climbing, and paddling is done in the past. She is running her own craft business, Special Branch Baskets daily.
Piotr is the founder of Outdoor Explore, offering guided tours and outdoor activities. Paddlesport coach, retained firefighter, DofE volunteer, ambassador for outdoor tourism in East of Scotland. Teaching kayaking for over 15 years now, in many countries, enjoying living and exploring in Perthshire.
What is next? The kayak is on display at our base, The Barony in Alyth (PH11 8AF) with more pictures and details of the story. There is also a trailer and a longer video documenting this epic mini adventure on film, created by Morrocco Media. You can watch the trailer here: