BBetween the whirlpools of Campsie Linn on the River Tay in Perthshire and the village of Stanley, I tumble down white waterfalls into light-laden lakes. Then the river flows through winding, wide green corridors beside walls of beech and birch before I have to start paddling fast. My heart beating fast, I head for the jaws of the racing rapids, the waves rushing towards me, swirling me to their peaks.
I packraft the 187km long Tay, Scotland’s longest and mightiest river from source to sea, and this kind of excitement is normal for the course. The river, which holds more water than the Thames and Severn combined, begins its journey west near Loch Lomond, before gliding east through the Highlands to Dundee, where it empties into the North Sea. However, we will end our journey in Perth, 87 miles from the start, as this is where the river turns tidal.
Packrafting is a marginal sport, but it is rapidly gaining popularity. Small, lightweight inflatable boats fold into a backpack, allowing you to trek out into the wilderness to access remote bodies of water, and the inflatable boats are strong enough to negotiate the type of whitewater for which you usually need specialized craft. Although slower than kayaks, packrafts are easier to use, making a trip like this possible for beginners like me.
The expedition company I ride the river with also makes it easy: Secret Compass usually specializes in faraway places like Mongolia and Sudan – my last trip with them was in the mountains of North Korea. This trip is his first trip to the UK, initiated since Covid. Many adventure travel operators have had to drastically shift focus since the pandemic. I do it on a private tour with my family – my husband and my children Zac and Archie, aged 10 and 7 – but there are also group tours (although for these you have to be over 21) . It is undeniably a challenge: for us, not to mention our children. But I’m a firm believer that family vacations shouldn’t be limited to the usual lockers. Young people are capable of much more than we often realize.
Our guides are Sammy and Tom, and it is immediately apparent that the rivers are their great love. On the first night at the Muthu Ben Doran Hotel in Tyndrum, as I struggle to minimize my gear, Sammy points to his small, compact dry bag containing just over two pairs of pants. “We’re locals, notorious for being scummy,” he says. “Our dry clothes are like the crown jewels. They don’t come out often!
Tom and Sammy have led river trips around the world, and they regale us with stories of paddling through the rainforests of Gabon; sea kayaking in Kamchatka, watching Steller’s sea eagles; and trips to Nepal and Madagascar. Tom tells me he’s been a paddler since he was a kid, when his dad built him a canoe with his brothers.
Before heading to the river at the start of the trip, we climb Ben Lui at 1,130 meters to find the origin of the Tay, a small spring gushing from the summit under a cloud cap. It’s June, but there’s still snow on the rugged peaks, and we take in the views before following the white, choppy headwaters of the Tay up the mountainside. Our children frolic before us, excited for tomorrow’s adventure and carried along by Sammy’s brilliant sense of humor.
Early the next morning we are on the bank, blowing up our packrafts. Tom shows us how to inflate them – I fill a large bag with air by inflating it, then using a nozzle I squeeze the trapped air into the boat, until it’s hard as of stone. Our backpacks, which carry everything for the next six days of wild camping (freeze-dried expedition food, tents and sleeping bags), is strapped to the front in waterproof bags.
Once on the river, level with the water, we enter another elemental realm. Highland cattle keep watch on the banks and swallows rush by. “The last time we paddled this river we saw otters and beavers,” says Tom. “You have amazing wildlife encounters because they don’t hear you approaching.” Winding between the mountains, we sweep through their reflections reflected in the water, then cross two small lochs, passing the ruins of an ancient castle on Loch Dochart. “River travel means you’re not on the usual trail with everyone else and can end up in remote places,” says Tom. Indeed, that evening we stop by the river, steep some tea, share some whiskey (Sammy’s luxury item) and camp, hidden in a forest glade.
A few times during the ride we have to portage because the turbulent rapids are too fierce. Near the village of Killin we deflate the boats and walk the streets of gift shops and bridges crowded with photographers slamming the Falls of Dochart. I feel far away. Contrary to this tourist point of view, the packraft makes it possible to apprehend the river, to connect to it, to observe its changing character.
On the third day we cross the 15 mile long Loch Tay which is choppy like the sea. Mist hangs over the green rain forest, flickers of white light sparkle on the waves and we see rainbows and ospreys. Far out in the middle of this vast water, I feel small, like a pond skater, as isolated as I could be in the backcountry of Alaska or the fjords of Norway. It’s a tough paddle, and once we reach the opposite shore, I’m both jubilant and exhausted. Yet, with a little ingenuity, the crossing is easy – literally – for our children. Tom and Sammy tie their packrafts together with those of our boys for this leg of the journey to create a “mega raft”. Then they teach them how to create a makeshift sail from a paddle and a tarp, before the tailwind pushes them out on the water.
Back on the river we whistle along “wave trains” – long lines of undulating white water that roll along like roller coasters. We learn to pull in the whirlwinds to the side: circles of calm that dissolve fury. We camp high in the forest, overlooking the Tay. We bathe in the invigorating water and watch the oystercatchers fall asleep in the swoosh turbulent water.
The little things bring joy on a trip like this. I wake up amazed by the comfort of my thermal liner, enjoying the warm sun on my midge-bitten face (sometimes a head net is vital). Now that we’re there, the discussions about the kit we had before coming make sense: I see why a waterproof notepad is essential, a life jacket with a practical pocket preferable, that dry bags must be doubled.
The next day, feeling overconfident, I paddled ahead of the others, unprepared for some incoming rapids, and…capsized, much to Zac and Archie’s amusement. Luckily, I remember our safety briefing – lying on my back, feet first – and all is well.
Then we come to the most difficult section: the level three rapids of Grandtully. I follow Sammy to navigate the rocks, narrowly avoiding descending backwards as the river spins me around. (“You have to keep a blade active,” Sammy says later.) I lean forward for the final bath. Miraculously I get there. Our boys are watching on the bank for this section, as this part is not suitable for young people.
Each day we paddle for about eight hours, stopping at small pebble islands for snacks. One day, near Dunkeld, we leave our boats to cross Birnam Wood, of which Shakespeare spoke in Macbeth. Two ancient trees that would have been alive in the Bard’s time are still standing. Further away, fringes of foxgloves cast purple and pink across the sky, and flyfishers cast their lines like lassos. The Tay is one of Scotland’s most famous salmon rivers, although a tweed-clad gillie (an angling guide) we stop to chat tells us salmon fishing is under pressure: “We We’ll be lucky if there’s salmon left in Scotland in 10 years,” he says.
On the last day, we start to see signs of civilization again: houses, dog walkers on the trails and a golf course. Finally, I propel myself triumphantly under the Georgian arches of the Perth Bridge – we’ve arrived.
We climb the steps of the former Royal George Hotel, into reception rooms with Scottish carpeting and wood-panelled walls, where guests sip cream teas under chandeliers. We are all euphoric about our success. Yet, changing into waterproof pants and wet neoprene boots, I feel disoriented. I expected to savor the return to creature comforts, but later, as we celebrate at a nearby restaurant, I miss the campfire and the rhythm of river life.
secret compass From source to sea dispatch costs from £1,349 per person. The price includes packrafting and camping equipment, expedition food and guiding. His next group trip on the River Tay will be August 27-September 3; this too operates in private departures on demand