The forecast was good and with time running out, such days cannot be ignored.
‘Let’s go and do Suilven‘ I said to the Mrs.
‘Better still, let’s take the bikes and the packraft, park the car at Inverkirkaig, cycle to the trail head, climb up the north side, down the south side, and paddle Fionn Loch into the River Kirkaig for the footpath back to the car to get the bikes.’
‘What was the last bit again?‘
It’s a hilly 6-mile ride from Inverkirkaig along the WMR and up to Glencanisp Lodge where the road ends. From that angle Suilven rises like a sperm whale’s head over the gorse and lochans. Maybe it was the sunshine, but Glen Canisp that day looked like something out of a Scottish Tourist Board advert, and was made all the more appreciable by the easy quadbike track we followed east. One time that would be great walk to follow the 14 miles all the way through to Cam Loch and the A835 near Ledmore.
Of course, as ever these days, I was eyeing up the pack-potential of the Abhainn na Clach Airigh river too; actually string of easy lochans and gorges (left), linked with flat or frothy river stages. That too would be a great run, more probably from the Ledmore end, and with a handy bothy at Suileag. Or cook up any combination you like; with boots and a paddle the possibilities here or anywhere in northwest Scotland are infinite.
There comes a point directly north of Suilven’s twin-peak saddle (right) where you have to leave the easy track and head south into the bogs and up. You can’t see a path up the side of Suilven, but it pretty much follows the creek running down from the saddle; an hour and a half’s slog from the quad track that’s as steep as any track can be, without using your arms. And yet, as long as you keep chipping away (left), it’s always quicker and easier than it looks. And it’s quite a thrill to approach the saddle and have the Loch Sionascaig vista erupt before you (below right) as you catch your breath.
G/f decided to rest here while I took on the last 130 metres up to the summit, about 20 minutes away. For some reason a ‘magnificently pointless’ dry stone wall straddles the summit ridge near here. A quick look on the web came up with no convincing reason to its origin, though it does extend downwards enough on each side to stop agile stock either leaving or getting to the summit. And on the actual top there’s certainly enough room to graze a few sheep as well as curiously closely cropped grass. We’d not seen a sheep all day so unless deer make the climb you do wonder what grazed the grass up here? More Suilven summit mysteries.
From anywhere up here we could see the way back; the put-in near last week’s camp and the 2-odd miles along Fionn Loch to the entrance of the River Kirkaig (left). These waters define the border between the counties of Ross & Cromarty and Sutherland. While I was planting the flag, G had been scanning the scene below with binoculars and had spotted the waterfalls on the River Kirkaig we very much did not want to get sucked into.
We set off back down the looser south side slope, don’t want to go on but it was another validation of the knee-sparing Packstaffing Way. Without it it’s hard to see how anyone would not stumble or slip a couple of times. Passing the spot I reached last week, strange barking sounds emerged from the heather. A grouse in distress? Turns out G with better eyesight had seen a couple of dashing deer right in front of me.
Down by Fionn Loch I wasn’t convinced two-up in the Yak was going to work or be safe. But we tried fitting in on the bank and in fact it was roomy enough with my legs out over the sides. So we put in and pushed off west across the loch (left) for the river, initially following the shore. Then as it became clear the 3-kilo boat-in-a-bag managed its 160kg (350lb) load fine, I set the engine for full ahead against what I perceived [incorrectly] was a slight current as well as a breeze. Amazingly (or perhaps not) I’ve never seen my packraft track so well with the near-perfect trim.
About 40 minutes later the entry point to the river loomed, with a mild rushing sound caused by the race of water flowing off the loch. We were a little edgy, knowing a deadly waterfall lay not far ahead. We let ourselves get swept in and as soon as I entered the river the boat handled differently, like a kayak in a backwind. It was the current of course wafting us onward. I went as far as I dared and stopped paddling for a moment – a louder rumbling of white water became evident. Two up, sluggish and with no BAs, we didn’t risk it and headed for the bankside footpath.
Rolling up and looking back, it seemed hard to believe we come up and over ‘Pillar Mountain’ as the Vikings had named the prominent maritime landmark of Suilven. By taking to the water we’d saved a bit of time over the path and rested the legs for the last hour’s trek back to the car and a short drive back to Glen Canisp Lodge to collect the bikes. All up, a great day out; 7 miles cycling, 2 paddling and a dozen on foot. And the Yak had proved itself as able handle the two of us for similar flat water transits.
Packrafting the River Kirkaig
The minor waterfall (left) we took out before might be rideable by the likes of Roman Dial and his intrepid chums, but the thundering 100-foot Falls of Kirkaig (see map, above left) would only appeal to gonzo hairboaters high on Red Bull and Go Pros. From there though, the river far below the track seemed packable to the brave, certainly at a point where the path drops down right alongside and the river where it broadens out, just under a mile or so from the road bridge. All grade II or less; even I could manage much of it. Beyond the bridge, it’s just half a mile to the sea at Loch Kirkaig, which would be satisfying to pull off, but even at the relatively high levels (now dropping), it gets pretty shallow in places and would not be a clean run. But don’t take my word for it. I read the river is listed in the SCA whitewater guide.