Tag Archives: Aqua Bound Packstaff

Suilven packraft triathlon

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?
‘Paddle the loch up the River Kirkaig to the car and get the bikes.’
O K then‘.

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 (above) 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 you 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.
lochanssWe 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, although it’s not logged on ukrivers.

Suilven Packrafting ~ gear report

Impressions of some of the gear I used on the Suilven trip. There’s an older ‘Packrafting in Scotland’ gear page here.

Packstaff™
Made of the two shaft sections of my Aqua Bound paddle and now with a metal- tipped ‘nib’ riveted to a piece of old Lendal.
In the terrain I was tramping over, this is such a great walking aid. No need to expend energy balancing over tussocks and rocks with a pack on your back; take some of the strain off your legs and knees and just lean on the pole like a handrail, use it to probe a boggy patch that could be firm or knee deep; use it to vault over ditches, use it as a monopod to rest a camera on full zoom; use it as a tarp pole, tent peg – you name it, it will do it.
Mine happens to be well balanced, just the right thickness to grip securely (warm, too), and because you can easily slide your hand up and down as a sleep slope requires, it’s much more useful than a pair of trekking poles with a moulded cork handle. And when you get to the water it converts into a paddle!

I’m now using it for all our mountain walks around here, and most of the time it’s much more useful than a burden. Of course it’s nothing more than a shoulder-high stick which any self-respecting medieval pilgrim would have used along the way, but mark my words, some time soon a packstaff will be re-invented and become the new must-have trekking accessoire obligé

Kokatat Swift Dry Pants
I’ve been looking for an alternative to my full-on drysuit for less lethal packrafting (as opposed to sea kayaking), and the Swifts look like the lower half of the solution – the top half is yet to be pinned down, but will a regular walking cag will do.
I’ve only used them for half a day but I was not sweaty and they did not leak, but then I didn’t wade around up to my waist and was wearing the long SealSkinz over the top like riding boots. XL is my size which fits great, the waist is high and there’s a very handy thigh pocket – always useful on a packboat or open IK with no deck. I deliberately chose dry trousers with no sewn-in socks as my drysuit has those. With the Swifts in future I’ll just wear short Seal Skins and have no worries about the sewn-in socks getting holed by gravel. Time will tell how they wear and perform. They cost me around £100 from i-canoe in Ireland. Since then I glued on latex socks.

SealLine XL Mapcase
Never had a mapcase but now I find it very useful on the water for the obvious reasons. Ortlieb does a roll-top; SealLine uses a ziploc which as you can see on the left, works fine. The size means you can have a large map area or other info on view and so don’t need to open it unnecessarily, and there’s a ring in each corner for attachment. Again, time will tell how it wears.

Seal Skin long socks
I know, I look a bit of a knob wearing these in shorts. But the fact is these socks genuinely extend your wading ability while keeping your feet dry. The feet may get cold as you step into deep water and ‘feel’ wet, but that’s just foot sweat getting chilled – they soon warm up again. In the tent what to do with wet, muddy socks? Take them off and turn them inside out! No mess.
They’re like a pair of ‘Wellington socks’ or mini waders. As I left for Suilven I realised I should have grabbed my knee-high gaiters too, mainly to protect my woolly wellies from the brush. Sure enough, at the end of the trip there were bits of twig knotted into the woolly fabric, which was all roughed up and scuffed. Next time I’ll know; wearing gaiters may reduce the prat-effect too. They cost about £30. Quite a lot for a pair of socks and tbh, I expect them to leak eventually.

Watershed UDB
Watershed UDBHats off again to the UDB as a land and water submersible backpacking haul sack. No complaints, although I was only carrying 10-12 kilos. It just sits on your back like a coal sack and best of all you know it won’t take in any water and can act as a back-up buoyancy aid. More UDB here.

When I got back from this trip I was all set to give up on my Black Diamond Lighthouse (now called a HiLight) – a single-skinned tent using ‘Epic‘ ‘breathable’ fabric – I bet that’s now gone the way of Ventile from the 1970s. Reviews of the BD-L here – the lower rated ones reflect my feelings. It worked OK last year over two rainy nights, but as so often happens with Epic tents, it has its off nights which can mean a miserable experience: what you might put down to condensation (which is easily managed) is actually rain dripping off the top cross poles. If I’m to be doing more packboat touring in Scotland I’m going to need a waterproof tent. Using Todd Tex fabric, the famous Bibler Ahwahnee is exactly the same design as mine, but at double the price and double the weight (so what’s the point you wonder?). But it is actually waterproof.
I spent hours on the you-know-what researching possible alternatives. Although outside the stuff can go under the upturned raft, I do miss a porch as well as external clip- or sleeve poleage for easier pitching without opening the tent in a downpour. I considered a 1.1kg Tarptent Cloudburst 2, or a Macpac Macrolight. Luckily I didn’t get as far as Terra Nova or Hilleberg websites before I figured there’s nothing that wrong with my tent that a splash of Fabsil proofing over the vulnerable flat-to-the-rain roof section might not cure. Plus the fact that back at the house, while it was drying, pegged out in the garden, a gust of wind picked it up, blew it over our house, over the road, over the store and into the field behind before it caught on a wire fence. It survived all that without a scratch as far as I can see, so I’ll give it another chance. The steep sides can’t let rain in anyway, and it really is such a light and compact shelter that’s roomy for one and OK for two, it dries in a shake, stands without pegs (I never use guys), and has a nice big door. If the Fabsil doesn’t do the trick or makes the condensation much worse, I may have to give up on the BD for packboating in Scotland and go double-skin. I do like the idea of a tent that pitches fly first and can be used just fly, or just inner. There must be tents like that. Or maybe I should get a Nemo Morpho airtent to go with my airboats… More on tents here.