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?
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.
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.
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
Exploring Whisky—and paddling—in Scotland
Standup paddling Scotland's Lochs