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What’s your ‘best day ever’?: Kayaker Sal Montgomery reveals hers as she launches Perth-based RSGS talk series

From jungle expeditions to life on the Covid-19 wards, adventure kayaker Sal Montgomery is no stranger to resilience. Michael Alexander speaks to her as she launches a Perth-based RSGS talk series.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world, adventure kayaker Sal Montgomery regularly embarked upon white water kayaking expeditions to some of the planet’s most remote unexplored places.

She worked with one of TV’s best-known wildlife presenters Steve Backshall.

Not only did she lead his white water expeditions on unexplored rivers, she’d help document the excitement of the adventures and record the local wildlife.

A subtle environmental message was often “tucked in” to the documentaries about the fragility of these incredible places and the damage being caused by human activity.

“That was kind of my life,” Sal tells The Courier, adding that in 2019 she was living and hiking in the jungles of Ecuador doing personal training.

Impact of Covid-19

But after coming back to the UK, everything changed in March 2020 when Covid-19 struck.

Sal, who is a qualified physiotherapist, went from living in the jungle to working in a busy stressed out city centre hospital during a global health pandemic.

“It was quite a transition!” she says.

Sal Montgomery

Sal admits the couple of years she worked back in the NHS were “pretty rough going” at times.

She reckons the resilience she developed while dealing with potentially life and death situations on expeditions stood her in good stead to stay calm in a busy hospital environment.

It was the thought of adventure after the pandemic that got her through it, she admits.

But with foreign travel ruled out during restrictions, she also realised there was plenty adventure to be had closer to home.

Re-discovering local adventure

“I reconnected with my homeland again and got a bit more creative,” she says.

“I hadn’t ever done a bike trip before. I’d only really commuted to work on my bike.

“So I thought I’m going to try something new. So I cycled from Orkney to the Isles of Scilly. That included water biking across the two sea crossings.

“We were making a bit of a documentary about various organisations across the UK that were taking the initiative.

“Trying to do something a bit different for the climate crisis – interviewing people about what they are doing and why.”

One of the positives to come out of the pandemic was a “new appreciation of life and adventure” around us.

Before Covid-19, Sal says she was “always chasing the best day ever”.

But what the pandemic made her realise was the need to “actually live the best day ever” by taking in and noticing what’s going on around her.

Canada trip

It was with this in mind that she started planning a road trip around Canada nicknamed – you guessed it – ‘Best Day Ever’!

At a time when no one knew when they’d be able to do international travel again, her team talked, planned, and poured over maps, river guides and Google satellite imagery at home.

Now, having recently returned from what became a five-week Canadian adventure, the expedition will form the basis of a talk she is giving when she tours with the Perth-based Royal Scottish Geographical Society in February and March 2023.

Sal Montgomery. Picture by Stu Watson

“Essentially it was a big road trip following the rivers,” says Sal, adding that the talk is not just aimed at kayakers, but aims to inspire everyone to adopt a positive mind set and make every day the ‘best day ever’, however mundane.

“We set up camp in a different place every night: paddling the rivers in that area, searching out new rivers and then the next day moving on.

“We drove over the border from America, headed straight to Alberta, went to big rivers and waterfalls there, went to the Chilko River, the Fraser River, did a six day expedition then came back down and started to paddle various parts of British Columbia, finishing on the south west coast.

“It was a big year for snow so there was a massive snow pack then essentially a heatwave the whole time I was there, so the rivers were really in flood, which to start with I was quite apprehensive about.

“We’d had those couple of years of not really being able to challenge my kayaking very much because we couldn’t travel and there wasn’t a lot of water around in the UK.

“But actually it was incredible and amazing and ran some of the best white water I’ve ever ran and some of the biggest waterfalls I’ve ever done.

“We met some really great people as well. Because we publicised we were going to do this road trip, paddlers from local areas came and joined us, which was really nice.”

Saving Steve Backshall

Journeying into the unknown will always carry an element of risk and experience counts for a lot.

Sal is always aware that if something goes wrong, especially in remote places, no one is going to come and help you.

Team members have to rely on each other and be conscious that every decision could make a massive impact.

It’s a mind set that proved invaluable when, on her first trip with Steve Backshall in July 2019, Sal made national headlines when she rescued the adventurer on a river in Bhutan.

She was only meant to be there as a “bit of a helper”, but she ended up leading the expedition and probably saved his life.

“Steve had a very close call,” she says.

“He was caught in a hydraulic. We call it a hole. It’s like a small waterfall which has water circulating at the bottom, and it wants to pull you back in and pull you underwater.

“It was in a really difficult spot as it was really caved out on the left.

“It was really hard to get back up to him because of the rapids.

“But luckily I managed to paddle back up part of the rapid, scramble onto some boulders and get a rope over to him.”

Sal says the river that day was fine for paddling.

But with the team having paddled for several hours, energy levels were getting low and mentally people were starting to “switch off a little bit”.

“We were quite tired,” she recalls, “so it was quite difficult to get everyone pumped up again.

“I think by that point Steve was pretty burnt out, and where he needed that crucial strong paddling to get him over and away, he just wasn’t strong enough and it pulled him back in.

“It wasn’t nice at all.

Steve Backshall

“From that moment on, we took things a little more cautiously. We managed our energy levels better, set up safety wherever we could.

“Since then Steve very kindly invited me into their family and ever since then he’s still shown appreciation for it.

“I kind of feel like part of their family now which is pretty lovely,” she says, adding that she later went on a second expedition with Steve to Kamchatka, Eastern Russia, where the world’s biggest population of brown bears live.

‘Adventurous and energetic’

Sal is speaking to The Courier from her parents’ home in Nottingham where she grew up – and she reveals that she has “always been quite adventurous and a bit energetic”.

Sal Montgomery. Picture by Daniel Stewart

“My mum will tell you that even as a baby I was constantly climbing out of my crib,” laughs Sal.

“I was an absolute nightmare!

“I got chucked out of the Girl Guides because I was a bit too adventurous.

“There was always this adventurous energetic part of me wanting to get out.

“But because where we live isn’t a particular adventurous outdoorsy kind of place, and my family – although amazing – aren’t adventurous or into sport or anything outdoorsy, I didn’t know you could get it out if that makes sense.

Sal Montgomery. Picture by Karen Wyer

“I didn’t know you could go kayaking, I didn’t know you could go climbing. To me sport was playing football or going to the gym.

“I did all of the sports that were on offer, but that wasn’t really enough – there was something missing. I remember feeling quite frustrated but not really knowing why.”

‘Chucked out of Guides’

After being “chucked out” of the Girl Guides, Sal joined the Scouts.

For one week per year on Scout summer camps she was in her element doing assault courses, swimming in lakes, kayaking, canoeing, raft building and playing games.

She particularly enjoyed kayaking. She’d be the “first one on the water and last one off”.

Sal Montgomery. Picture by Jack Grace

But the now official Scout Adventurer never knew she could kayak as an adult until several years later.

Taking a year out before studying physiotherapy at university, she was working in a bar when staff, who were members of the local university canoe club, invited her along.

“Kayaking became the story of my life really,” she says.

Paddling at weekends, she started working at Nottingham’s white water course during the holidays which meant she could get unlimited use of the course.

When she finished university, that’s when kayaking took over her life.

After graduating, she went to Uganda and paddled the Nile.

Sal Montgomery. Picture by Jack Grace

She carried on working as a physio to get crucial early junior rotations and experience under her belt.

Then a couple of years later she went to Nepal.

“I was meant to be with friends for a couple of weeks, but as time got closer my friends all pulled out,” she recalls.

“I’d been looking forward to this for a year or two, so I decided to still go.

“I ended up extending my trip to six weeks.

“That’s when I really got into expedition kayaking.

“Until then I’d never been on an expedition. I’d never slept out of the equipment in my kayak, I’d never slept on beaches along the river and things.

“I came back and said ‘right I don’t want to work in hospitals anymore – I want to do adventures, explore and be on expeditions’.

“That’s where things took the most dramatic change of direction.”

‘Feeling natural’

Sal says people often think she’s a “bit mad” living the simple life of an expedition when all supplies have to be carried with her.

At just 5’2”, kit can increase the weight of her kayak from 25kg to 35kg.

But while the days can be long, hard and mentally fatiguing, it “just feels natural” for her to be living that way.

Something she has been working on a bit more the last couple of years is what she’s nicknamed ‘purposeful adventure’.

The aim is to make sure all her expeditions have a purpose to them rather than just fuelling her own ego and enjoyment.

“For some reason, when I’m there, I feel in my place,” she says, adding that her parents, who are very supportive, looked after her when a nasty accident required her to have shoulder reconstruction a few years ago.

“I find normal life quite confusing. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be doing.

“I find it very difficult at times. Whereas when I’m on expeditions, I know my purpose, I know my role, I know what I need to do that day, and it comes to me naturally.

“To me it just feels like the right place.

“There are so many different parts to it.

“So many positive things. Part of it is the incredible places you get to go to.

“But also a big part for me is the team as well.

“All day every day you are going through extreme emotion with each other – the highs, the lows, the stresses, the excitement, the celebrations – you are going through it all together.

Sal Montgomery with team colleagues

“It sounds really cheesy but within a couple of days you really do feel like family and you are just on this incredible adventure with this close knit team.

“For me it just feels natural.”

How to get tickets

Sal Montgomery’s RSGS talks take place from February 27 to March 2 in Dumfries, Galashiels, Ayr and Helensburgh and from March 6 to 9 in  Aberdeen, Dundee, Dunfermline, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Tickets for 96 RSGS Inspiring People talks across Scotland, taking place between September 2022 and March 2023, are now available to purchase through

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