This has been my view for much of the last few days- well, that and lots of stunning Highland scenery…
We are just back from our attempt at the Great Glen Canoe Trail.
Thanks so much to all of you who supported our trip via our Just giving page– we decided to use this trip to try to raise some money for Children of Peace, a charity who work with Palestinian and Israeli kids, bringing them together to foster greater understanding and friendship, and sponsoring some through higher education. (In case this is not obvious, the news of young people being routinely shot on the illegal borders between Israel and the beleaguered and embittered Palestinian people made this charity seem like the best recipient of our sponsorship.) We chose the somewhat arbitrary figure of £400 as our target, and thanks to some very kind and generous people, we made the target this morning.
The trip was not straight forward- read on if you want to know more!
We arrived at Fort William early Sunday afternoon, and tried to pick up a key for the toilets/showers/facilities from Corpach sea loch, having be assured the office was open all day. This is the Highlands though and there was no-one to be seen. Eventually we tracked down a canal worker who told us ‘all the keys are gone’, although then managed to find one for us anyway! We then took all our kit to the top of ‘Neptune’s Staircase’, the series of lochs that climb up out of the basin to the start of the canal proper. The sun was HOT the air still. A paddlers dream.
Day one was scheduled to be a short paddle of only 10K, although after a lovely journey through winding canal banks, with the occasional glimpse of the glorious Ben Nevis range, we decided to paddle further out into Loch Lochy (so good they named it twice) where we made camp.
As you will see, we were using camping hammocks- brilliant things, but they are essentially a compromise between comfort and warmth- given that the cold night air underneath you can be very unpleasant. There are various ways to combat this, but I certainly miss employed them the first night!
The next morning, after a porridge breakfast, we paddled off into a stunning flat calm loch- one of those stunning mornings when the opaque depths of the water hold hardly a ripple and it feels as though you are not floating but rather have been suspended. The spell was broken after an hour or so when I realised I was not wearing my glasses. There seemed no alternative but to return to our camping spot, with many apologies to my fellow paddler, who fortunately took the extra effort in good spirits, even when I found the things tucked up inside my stowed-away hammock, miraculously intact. It was that kind of day.
An extreme hot day. We scooped water straight from the loch to drink as it was cold and clear. Yes I know, there is always a risk, but this seemed one worth taking. We even swam later, when we stopped at the ‘Trail blazer rest’ site of Glas -dhoire (a lovely place to stop if you are planning a trip, with its camp spots in the trees and a composting loo.)
After a long pull through Loch Lochy, we arrived at South Lagan lock, which meant another portage. The first challenge was finding the spot canoes were supposed to disembark. There were no signs. Eventually someone shouted out of a window ‘Oi, not there, over there,‘ pointing to a muddy slip into what looked like someones garden. We had a pint of lovely beer each at the Eagle Barge inn, which is as it sounds, a food pub in barge moored just about the lock. We had earned it after all.
By the time we had set off towards Loch Oich, the wind was blowing against us again, which made passage into the Loch hard work. We had a vague plan to see if we could camp on the island in the Loch, but it proved rather overgrown, although very beautiful. Because we were scouting for a camp spot we took the left hand channel, which is not the navigable one normally, but it is quite lovely- a reeded area rich in dragon flies and fringed with flowers on the island.
Still, we were very glad to reach the trailblazer rest site at Leiterfearn as it had been a long hot day.
We found some good trees for the hammocks, and I made a rather better job of protecting them against the wind. Hammock hanging, we were finding, is as much art as science.
The next morning was misty at first – cold even, in great contrast with previous days. We were both feeling the aches and pains of our paddling efforts in the morning so we paddled into a stern headwind in silence, knowing it we faced a day of multiple portages.
As we paddled under the bridge at Aberchalder it seemed strange to see all the lines of cars, buses and campervans driving through the glen. Of course, I have made this journey myself many times, but today the people in the vehicles seemed like a different race. They were not like us.
At the first portage, past the lock at Cullochy, we met a very well equipped group of canoeists who were heading in the opposite direction. They passed the time of day, and also some rather dire warnings of the conditions up ahead on Loch Ness. Hmmm.
Talking of portages, I had bought a canoe trolley on Ebay for thirty-odd quid. It was clearly not up to the job of carrying both our canoe and our baggage, so we ended up having to first take the canoe then ferry everything else. You get what you pay for I suppose.
The next stretch of canal was our favourite. The sun was out now, and we paddled through a green world of trees and hanging branches, which Will said reminded him of pictures of Mangrove forests.
We lingered a little at the next lock (Kytra) and encountered two more parties of canoeists. The first were travelling in the opposite direction, and gave more (slightly smug it has to be said) warnings about conditions up ahead. The other party were a group who had set off around the same time as us and had now caught us up.
After a companionable paddle along the last stretch of canal, we arrived at the dreaded long portage down the line of locks into Fort Augustus. There was nothing for it but to get on with it. The huge effort seemed all the harder as it was taking place in the midst of milling holiday makers from all over the planet, who often seemed totally unaware of the need to make space for a heavy canoe and a sweating canoeist. They were not like us.
Finally, we stood on the shores of the might Loch Ness, the largest inland water in the British isles. Our half way point.
The power of the wind coming off the Loch was a shock. Our weather forecast had told us to expect winds of between 8 and 10 MPH. It was actually gusting to over 40 MPH. In those conditions the surface starts to spray- you can see it here;
It might look pretty, but this is no place to be in an open canoe. To paddle out into water that 35 foot yachts would not willingly go would be madness. Even if you could make progress into these conditions you would do so at great risk; certainly you would be swamped by waves and be bailing as much as you paddled, and there is always the risk of capsize- which in a solo heavy loaded canoe is pretty much impossible to self-recover from. Along with our canoeing companions, we had no choice but to wait. And eat chips. The weather was strange. Sunshine, heat and mountains perhaps will produce odd weather.
If anything, conditions worsened, so we reviewed our choices. We could wait overnight to see if things improved. The weather forecast suggest a window of windlessness at 4AM, but given that it had been so inaccurate we had no way of knowing whether this was believable. It could also lead to us being stranded half way up. Those who had got through over the last few days were all heading in the opposite direction, and most of them had rafted up and come through under sail.
We considered asking Michaela to come and pick us up and take us up to Inverness, to let us have a go from the other end. The thing is though, it may still have been impassable. In the end, there was only one decision, we had to go back. Back up that blood line of locks and back to where we came from. Fortunately, some of the other stranded canoeists helped us get our stuff back up the hill. They were waiting a while longer so kindly volunteered to get us on our way. Still, we both were subdued and disappointed as we loaded up again to set off back over already travelled waters.
But, propelled by the strong wind, we dug in hard. The canal banks seemed to fly by and after two more portages we were back on Loch Oich, revelling in the wild conditions. We stopped for a rest at Well of the Seven Heads, wondering if a cafe might be open, but no luck so we set off again, back through the Mangrove forest and all the way down to South Lagan. The Eagle Barge was closed so we stopped to cook a tea of spicy rice. Still it was past 9.30PM when we set off into a darkening and challenging Loch Lochy, searching for a suitable camping spot.In the end however, we made it all the way back to the Trailblazer rest site at Glas-dhoire, bursting out the last of our energy as the darkness gathered, about 10.30 at night.
What an epic day it had been; on the go almost non stop from 7 AM, seven portages, disappointment followed by the exhilaration of fast sustained paddling in wild conditions, and about 30 K of waters covered. We slept well that night.
In the morning, the sun was shining, but the wind was blowing hard. We had shared our site with a group of kids from London who had paddled half way up the loch the day before- good for them because that must have been a tough effort. We described what awaited them and the leaders decided they would try to get further, but if not, would raft up the canoes, rig and A frame and let fly their spinnaker to give the kids a thrill. We fancied joining them, but we had mission of our own. We were heading home, and this meant tackling the loch.
Unless you have been in big waters in a canoe, you will not know what I am talking about. I kept my VHF radio close to my chest and fought to keep the canoe stern on to the waves as we were blown, bounced and pushed down towards Gairlochy. It was magnificent. What a contrast with our passage up the loch. You will understand the lack of photos- it was simply not possible to stop paddling. The bottom of the loch was the toughest- the wave reach was around 18 K, more than enough to raise waves of about a meter, which we actually ended up surfing. I knew were unlikely to be able to paddle broadside to conditions like this, so in order to keep the waves to the stern of the canoe, we had to leave the relative safety of the shores of the loch as we neared the wide section at the end. I think we both felt a combination of relief and anti-climax when we reached the more sheltered waters of the canal heading into Gairlochy.
The rest of the day was just hot paddling though the canal system. The last stretch seemed the longest of all. After days of over estimating the time taken to cover distance, the opposite happened and each twist in the canal we thought would be the last. We were tired because it had been another epic day.
We arrived back at Banavie with mixed emotions. We had failed in our crossing of Scotland, but we had succeeded in so many other ways.
I had the deep pleasure of a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my son, who is on the verge of adulthood, soon to be off on adventures on his own, perhaps far away. We had not even a cross word between us for the whole trip. How blessed am I?
We raised some money for a cause we believe in (assuming people do not ask for half of their donations back!)
We proved we could paddle long distances and still enjoy it. In fact, we may have got the bug. Already we are wondering about other long distance paddles- The Spey perhaps?
We also learned a lot. We need to re-equip the canoe, which is old and battered, but still has a good hull. It needs new thwarts, and hopefully a sailing rig. The hammocks need underblankets. We need to read the weather better. We definitely need to spend some money on a better trolley! We would take less clothes, and get more creative with our cooking.
We will share it with others too perhaps. Anyone fancy coming along next time?
(Oh- by the way, Will had his gopro attached to the bow of the canoe so if he ever gets around to editing the video I will post it later…)