Life of Wwater
Water of Life

Mitch Bechard is nervous. Usually a gregarious, crowd-pleasing type with a wry smile and a witty Scottish quip for every occasion, the American ambassador for Glenfiddich whisky (it’s a real job) stands overlooking the cold, snow-melt waters of the River Findhorn and more specifically, a class II+ wave train with boulders interspersed. This will be the first time he’s paddled whitewater with a standup board. Bud-covered alder trees and mossy evergreens lean over the peat-colored water. The sun is shining as we scout the rapid but it could be a momentary phenomenon: the rain pelted us a half-hour earlier.

“If you don’t like the weather in Scotland wait five minutes,” Mitch says as we ponder a wall of gray slithering down the sharp V of the river valley. “We invented that saying.”

Mitch dreamt up this trip after he discovered SUP five years ago. He’d moved to California and gotten the bug. Since then, he’d been scheming a standup-safari in his home country. There’s water everywhere in Scotland: good waves, breathtaking lochs, howling winds, unbelievable scenery. But only now was he experiencing it. Myself, photographer Aaron Schmidt and videographer Jon Arman were on the lucky side of an invite to cover it. Mitch was down to do it all—downwind, surf, run whitewater and give us a sampling of the local culture—particularly the whisky, arguably his culture’s finest collective achievement.

Mitch smiles as he overlooks the rapid. It’s not the grin he sported the night before while handing me a dram of sacredly-good 19-year old Glenfiddich. Or the dram after that. And the pint.

This is the tentative smile of a man trying something completely new and a little frightening. His cousin-in-law and fixer for the trip, Terri Bryce, a spunky, athletic Scotswoman, has the same look. Terri’s only been paddling a year but has gone after it hard, racking miles on Scotland’s oceans, rivers, lakes and lochs. This stretch of water is a step up in difficulty. And she knows it.

By the time we’re suited up and in the water, it’s sleeting, dark and foreboding. I sit in an eddy upstream, shivering and nervous as our team bumps its way down the whitewater. It’s a jumble of limbs and booties emerging from the brown snowmelt. Terri takes a prolonged swim and looks shaken up.

Maybe we shouldn’t have had so much whisky last night?

  1. Mitch has a passion for whisky. It makes his job easy. Ask him what type of stills are used in a certain distillery in the Isle of Sky. Sit him down with a whisky connoisseur and watch him banter in a seemingly foreign language or at the very least a branch of science unique to the United Kingdom.
  2. And the science is no simple matter. Because it borders on the mystical. Take the term Usquebaugh or “Water of Life,” for example. That’s whisky in Gaelic. The name derives from Medieval Latin meaning term, aqua vitae (also water of life). Eventually, the Gaelic language, spoken in the Scottish Highlands, distilled it to uisce beatha, then usquebagh, usque and finally, the whisky (no E). The drink is deep rooted in the cultural. One that is both steeped in history and tradition as well as true merriment.
  3. To begin our dual education in whisky and paddling, Mitch, Terri and our driver Miles met us in the gray port city of Aberdeen. We drove over grassy hills teeming with sheep and gorse—a thorny yellow plant that paints the hills in golden splashes.
  1. Stone walls lined the fields into Speyside, a region renowned for having the greatest number of distilleries in all of Scotland. Our accommodations, the Craigellachie Hotel, overlooked the River Spey, our first paddling destination of the trip.
  2. The Spey is a mellow stretch of river lined with small, but well-kept fishing huts. The permits to fly fish for salmon there are exclusive, costing as much as 1,000 pounds a day for the privilege. This fact was drilled into our minds by two middle-age Scotswomen as Jon, Mitch and I closed down the Highlander, a subterranean stone pub later that night.
  3. “What kind of salmon do you fish for?” I asked.
  4. “Salmon, salmon,” the bigger one, wearing a silk shawl that covered the enormity of her upper body, scoffed, seemingly unaware that there are different types. “My family’s had a beat on this river for decades. We don’t like paddlers much. Scare away the fish.”
  5. They—despite their haughtiness and age—flirted from across the bar as their female taxi driver tried to get them to finish their drinks and get in the cab waiting outside. Jon laughed.
  1. “That’a quite the set of teeth you got there, California,” the smaller one said to him.
  2. They looked him over like a bear leaning over a waterfall in search of fish: hopeful and hungry, claws at the ready. We leaned in toward our drams.
  3. As the rounds continued, Mitch gave us a lesson on each. Jon and I were drinking our way through our jet-lag. Mitch had been in-country for a week, Terri wisely went to bed early as did Aaron, who’d literally fallen asleep in his Cullen Skink, a delicious fish soup dish, similar to clam chowder.
  4. As we wandered into the whisky bar conveniently located in the Craigellachie for a nightcap, Arman mistakenly questioned Mitch’s drinking ability.
  5. “Are you sure you can handle another round?” he asked.
  6. “Don’t poke the bear, man,” Mitch said, straight-faced.
  7. “Oh, sorry,” Jon stuttered. “I didn’t…” By then it was too late.
  8. Multiple inarguable rounds followed.

Jon did not look well in the morning.

At half-past nine, awfully early after poking the bear—who looked unfairly spry and well groomed—the sun streamed out from behind the clouds as we entered hallowed grounds: the Glenfiddich Distillery. Stone buildings, a copper-lined pagoda (a symbol of distilleries across Scotland and the world) the moss growing on the walls, the flowers blooming in carefully maintained beds, all added to a church-like aura.

Our tour guide through the whisky-making process was Fergus Simpson. With salt and pepper hair and beard, he sported a gold earring and the ubiquitous kilt.

Much of what is done there has been done the same for a century and a half. Glenfiddich has been a family affair since 1887, when William Grant dreamt of running his own distillery. So he built this one by hand with a savings of 700 pounds. The company has expanded greatly since but is still family owned.

By law, Scotch whisky must be produced, bottled and aged for at least three years in country to be called Scotch. Glenfiddich takes it farther. They still have a cooperage (where they make the casks) on-site. The head cooper, Ian MacDonald has worked there for 45 years and can put together a cask in 7.5 minutes, using only metal hoops and reeds to hold them together. These casks are used three to four times before they’re chipped and repurposed for tasks like smoking salmon.

After our tour, we get to “walk the dog.” That’s what the Scots that worked in distilleries called it when they would drop a cylinder attached to a chain into a cask to get a little extra “compensation” for a hard day’s work. After a quick tasting (Jon gamely, but timidly, participated) and a meal we head toward the Findhorn for the first real whitewater of the trip, much more difficult than the Spey’s minor riffles.

After the initial shock and sting of the clear, brown water on that first rapid, the group starts flowing at river pace: that state in which all else melds together and away. Hangovers, jet lag, work stress, it all disappears as we paddle down the Findhorn, concentrating intensely in the harder rapids and then paddling slowly under the branches of trees in the colorful dampness of the Scottish valley.

Terri, Mitch and Jon gather confidence and by the end of the run are charging. We finish our run on a high, drive out of the trees of the valley and head for the pub.

Standup paddling Scotland's rivers. See more videos below.

  1. "Do ya do standup comedy on those boards too?” Jon Beach, proprietor of Fiddler’s, an award-winning whisky bar in Drumnadrochit, near the shores of the world famous Loch Ness, asks. Beach laughs, his belly rattling under his tucked-in black polo. He looks like Kenny Powers of “Eastbound and Down”. But a trustworthy Powers and much more friendly. Powers would never give you a dram of fantastic whisky free of charge.
  2. It’s windy and cold on the loch, which is exactly what you want if you’re going to pull a downwinder in Loch Ness monster territory; but it doesn’t make it any easier to get started. We’re hunkered down in Fiddler’s for a traditional Scottish lunch. I order haggis, neaps and tatties (haggis with mashed turnip and potatoes) and a dram and pint, figuring it will warm the soul before hitting what is supposedly some of the coldest water in Scotland. Bottles of whisky line the walls, organized by the region of their origin from Islay to the Isle of Skye to the Lowlands. Each area does things differently but within the distillation traditions. Some use peat fires to dry their barley, adding a distinct smoky flavor to the whisky while others triple distill their spirits to make it smoother and lighter in character.
  1. Feeling full and warm, like I’m wearing a heavy knit sweater inside my stomach, we search for an appropriate place to get on the water.
  2. The sides of Loch Ness are steep, moist and tree-covered, the buds of spring just starting to show. Our trusty driver, Miles, had scoped a few potentials as we ate and takes us to what looked like a sheer drop off.
  3. Miles is a long-limbed Scotsman with a reddish beard, knowledgeable on Scottish history, charming in his demeanor and the best damn inflatable board pumper you’ve ever seen. He is our shepherd on our journey across Scotland, and even looks like one with his flannel shirts and driving cap. As we pull on wetsuits, drysuits (for the lucky ones) and gloves, Miles uses his long, lean frame to push air into our boards.
  4. Yes, we’re using inflatables to go downwinding. Not the ideal tool for the job, but it’s all we’ve got. The wind is blowing 20-plus knots on the water so we have to get out there on any craft we can. And while there are small pockets of enthusiasts around the country, SUP hasn’t seen the wellspring here it has stateside. You can’t find a shops brimming with shiny new equipment at every town on the water. We get inquisitive looks almost everywhere we go, especially when we cross the narrow curve on our way into Loch Ness in full battle garb.
  1. The water is frigid. We wear lifejackets and leashes as we don’t know what the regulations on the loch are, and more importantly, it’s so cold we’re afraid we’d get about 10 strokes before locking up if we separated from our boards.
  2. Again, our situation is new to Terri and Mitch, who’ve never downwind paddled before. Aside from the cold water, it’s a perfect venue for it: beautiful setting, hardly any other boats on the water and howling, consistent wind. The bumps aren’t big, but they’re lined up and groomed like I’ve never seen before. It’s so good that I have no problem getting glides on my rockered, whitewater-specific board. Mitch locks into a few glides on his inflatable, a feat for any first-time downwind paddler. His hoots even sound Scottish.
  3. Not only are the conditions amazing, but we’re using the ruins of Urquhart Castle as a heading, a fortification whose history dates back to Medieval times. It broods on a prominent point with a calm bay just inside of it. As we approach, the sun intermittently explodes from the clouds, sending beams of sunshine down onto the stony ruins and the tourists exploring them. Soon, the travelers are looking down on us, wondering where we came from, lifting their cameras to capture the standup paddlers who paddled with Nessie.

Barry Wallace, owner and mastermind of Wilderness SUP, and I stand in the crowded Bow Bar in Edinburgh, looking up at the selection of whiskies on offer. There is no shortage.“We probably shouldn’t stand here all day,” he says, as I continue to think about just which whisky to go with.

I pick a Hazelburn on his recommendation, as he had a bottle at home. It’s a good choice, slightly smoky but smooth, with a clean finish.

Barry is a dark-haired, dimpled man that is paddling his way to a SUP guiding career in his home country. He envisions overnight trips and whitewater runs. He seems a sharp businessman. Terri and her sisters first paddled with him.

“They just took off with it,” he says. “Terri’s probably paddled more of Scotland than I have by now.”

It’s likely true. Terri, one of three sisters, is more one of the guys than some of the guys we meet on our trip. You wouldn’t suppose that by her blonde hair, athleticism and charming smile. If I would have guessed I’d have said she was the youngest of a few brothers. But she’s rowdy, hilarious and boisterous. We posit that if she didn’t have to babysit us, that she’d drink us under the table, draw on our faces while we slept and then go for a night paddle. As it is, Terri doesn’t miss a session the entire trip, capitalizing on as much water time as possible while she’s away from her two sons and partner.

She’s planned our journey down to the minute, keeping our paddles in the water in between hearty meals, stone-built inns and winding, scenic drives to our next put-in. When we finally arrive in Edinburgh we’re exhausted but elated by the city, which is a fascinating combination of Medieval, Gothic and Georgian architecture. We’d paddled with Barry and his business partner Gerry (“Are Harry and Larry in the car?” Jon had asked when he met them, to quizzical looks) on the River Tay earlier that day, exploring more prime fishing real estate and challenging ourselves at Campsie Linn, a series of fun rapids with easy portage routes, allowing us to run them several times. Despite our weariness, there’s no way we can sleep with the old world charm beckoning outside.

There are clubs in Edinburgh, but we don’t go to them. Barry leads us to the classic Scottish establishments, like the Bow Bar, where grey-haired locals talk in heavy, whisky soaked accents. At The Royal Oak, a man in the corner with a ducktail of thinning brown hair, a red face and an old corduroy jacket erupts spontaneously into song with no accompaniment.

We take pictures. They’re as interested in us as we are of them. The night evolves into song, street-wandering and a search for food.

And again, in the morning, we must paddle.

  1. The water of life cleanses all. An afternoon dram can wash away the previous night’s sins, much like baptism in brusque Scottish water. There are waves in Dunbar and Josh, co-owner of Coast to Coast surf schools takes us to them for penance.
  2. I hop out for a quick session at a crumbly, slow beachbreak. The waves are small but fun and it feels great to paddle surf again after exploring inland waterways for five days.
  3. Josh is a local’s local. He understands the tides here like a driver knows curves in the road. And he has a habit of driving those curves from spot to spot in a dilapidated, but well-loved van, while wearing a tattered wetsuit. Clearly the habitual behavior of a surfer.
  4. “We have to be quick,” he says as we drive along in our hooded wetsuits. “The tides, the winds, the swell, it all changes fast here, so you have to be there almost before it gets good to catch it.”
  5. We’re headed to such a spot now. When we arrive, the wind is offshore, it’s chest-high, clean and fun. We don’t even have to change into our wetsuits, just grab our boards and go. We’re the only ones out.
  1. “In California, this would be sooo crowded,” Jon says after he paddles back out after tagging yet another wave on his backhand. His California smile shines through from under the neoprene.
  2. When the tide shuts the spot down, we head to a slab around the corner that can handle a little more water. We surf until we’re Scottish popsicles, then head to a coffee shop with a wood-fire pizza truck parked outside. We get two each and tuck in. We wash it down with hot tea. No whisky here. We’re thankful for that.
  3. Mitch cannot stay with us. He has to go run a tasting of 50-year-old Glenfiddich in San Francisco. We stand amidst the forest downriver from Killiecrankie, the site of a famous battle of the same name in 1689 in which clans of Scottish Highlanders were forced to retreat in the face of a fast-moving Jacobite line. They ran through these very woods and jumped into the River Garry to escape the onslaught. This is where we will paddle this evening.
  4. “You know, I think this is the healthiest trip I’ve been on in Scotland,” Mitch says.
  1. He doesn’t want to leave. Spring is coming and the deciduous trees are sprouting blossoms ready to explode in celebration of the sun. We walk onto the Garry Bridge, the first bungee jump site in Scotland, some 150 feet above the inky brown water of the river.
  2. “Ah, man, I wish I could stay,” Mitch says as he shuffles his feet along. “I’m gutted.”
  3. There’s not a breath of wind on the water. The narrow gorge is choked with a plethora of greens that threaten to close in over the river. It’s a gorgeous scene.
  4. Mitch is a pro, however, and soon plops down in his rental car and drives away. He has plans to return home and paddle with Terri in a few months’ time.
  5. Mitch may have left, but his teachings and our studious consumption have given our tongues the skills to discern hints of honey, dried fruits, peat and sherry. We’re no experts but our journey as connoisseurs of Scotch whisky is well underway.
  6. Terri and I slide our boards onto River Garry and quietly drift above the calm water of life.
  7. *Special thanks to Terri Bryce at Destination Management Scotland (DMSCOTLAND.COM)

Terri Bryce, wind blown and loving it.

Whisky encyclopedia, standup comedian, river runner, spiritual advisor and all-around boss, Mitch Bechard, not taking himself seriously.

SUP magazine scores some surf on our trip to Scotland

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Standup paddling Scotland's Lochs