As the calendar flipped into June the crap May weather – worst for decades locals say – had finally broken, and northwestern Scotland sits under a High with cool, light winds and blue skies. After weeks of the opposite, it can all look a bit miraculous. The other day we climbed Ben Hope, Britain’s most northerly 3000-footer. It’s a short, steep climb, and coming back down I was sure pleased to lean on my packstaff (right).
Back home, paddling the southern edge of Enard Bay in an arc from Garvie Bay around to Achnahaird beach (left) was another easily realised sea packrafting outing. It’s also our favourite local half-day walk and with today’s strengthening northerly breeze, I ought to be able to sail down into Achnahaird, wade up the stream to the twin freshwater lochs, and carry on sailing nearly all the way back to Badentarbet. All up that would be about 18 kms of paddling and walking.
It’s a muddy kilometre’s walk from the road bridge down to Garvie beach which, unlike popular Achnahaird, is usually deserted. I did carry my old Grabner IK down on my head one time for a paddle to Lochinver, but a packraft in the pack is so much easier. This car-free and approach/portaging ease was part of the rationale in putting all my eggs in the TXL basket and flogging the Seawave.
Even before I reached the shore it was clearly a bit windier than the predicted 6mph, but as long as white capped waves held off (the easily spotted warning sign for inflatables) it should be OK. The chilly northerly coming off the sea was steady; less gusty (or so the forecasts suggested) so I was glad I grabbed the dry-suit last minute. As you can see from the Google image above, the rough shoreline and reefs can kick up some breakers, but if it all got a bit much I knew plenty of take-outs to join the Mrs who was doing the walk and taking photos from above.
Skeg effectiveness Anfibios mount the skeg sloping down on the hull’s short stern. Selfies I’ve taken on previous TXL paddles show the skeg halfway out of the water, unless the boat is very heavily loaded. The air floor lifts the boat higher still. This was not an issue in my rear-weighted Rebel 2K single seater where I pushed the back end down. On the level-trimmed and more buoyant TXL, the skeg is ill positioned or too small.
Fitting the skeg backwards puts more in the water, but sticking another mounting patch at the back of floor sheet like an IK (above right) is fully effective. People ask: would the lack of inflated skeg support be that bad without the firm backing of the air-floor or a rear paddler’s seat? No; and the long, low stock Anfibio skeg is just the right shape.
Mounting another skeg patch on the floor is a bit time consuming is what I ended up trying so I can keep the stock skeg. Today I’m trying a spare Gumotex skeg (right) whose slip-in mount system the Anfibio skeg copies, but which has a deeper profile putting more plastic in the water. It’s only less than half a hand’s worth, but is worth a go before fabricating a skeg extension or repositioning it.
Today I’m also trying my longer, smaller-bladed, 230-mm Camaro sea-kayaking paddle more suited to steady cruising into the wind than the over-sized, white-water Corryvreckan I’ve been using so far. Initially I can feel the paddle’s extra weight, but that’s soon forgotten which suggests the slimmer blades are just right. Progress is a bit sluggish into the northerly, but I’m getting the feeling it’s always like this with the bloaty TXL until the arms warm up.
I wonder if coming round the point and turning west into Camas a Bhothain (‘bothy bay’) may get a bit lively, but the TXL takes it all in it’s stride. It’s easy to spot where waves break over reefs and, sat low on the broad, 15-cm-thick seatbase, stability is never an issue and for a packraft, the TXL tracks well across the side wind and waves, perhaps helped by the Gumboat skeg and my masterful technique.
It’s only 4km beach to beach and soon I’m threading through the western Rubha Beag skerries and turning south with the wind for Achnahaird.
Out here in the open the waves are bigger with the odd white cap rolling past, but incredibly the boat feels fine. In a normal solo packraft I suspect I’d be a bit freaked out. The bigger boat makes you feel less vulnerable and the high sides keep the splash out and don’t seem that affected by ~10mph side winds (something I discovered on my first sea outing in Dorset).
I paddled out into Achnahaird Bay (or so I thought) to get a straight run for the beach, then flipped out the WindPaddle. Only things don’t go so well. Just like the other day when I blamed the front skeg, the TXL is weathercocking (back coming round, below). This time I blamed a too shallow skeg lifting out on wave crests at which point the wind pushes the untethered stern around – the boat pivoting around the sail’s ‘mast’ on the bow. I’ve had this before sailing a IK on Ningaloo Reef in northwest Australia (tall-sided Ik and too short a rudder for the winds). In the TXL my central ‘kayak’ rather than rearward ‘packraft’ seating position doesn’t help. The (loaded) Rebel 2K sailed fine in similar conditions; so did my unloaded Nomad S1 one time, as well as Barry’s loaded Nomad last year in Knoydart. With its skeg on, the MRS Nomad sailed well, with or without a load. Along with its pointy ends, I put that down to its fully submerged skeg.
Meanwhile in the TXL you can see my annoying zigzagging track on the left. Hoping to slice across the bay like a blue-fin tuna, it was all a bit frustrating, but I inched in the right direction quicker than it felt and was pretty sure weight distribution and skeg depth were the culprits. And in fact I saw later the GPS was logging a steady 6kph, it just wasn’t the steady linear progress I’ve had sailing other packrafts.
Once at Achnahaird I paddled as far as I could up the burn running alongside the beach, then hopped out and waded upstream – easier than carrying the boat in the wind.
Near the road junction it’s a 2-minute carry over to freshwater Loch Raa where I hoped the lower waves would give the skeg some traction. But it was the same zigzagging progress. Waves combined with a shallow skeg were not causing the weathercocking (as they had in the Bay). So the problem had to be weight distribution. I remembered a canoeing adage: “sit up front into a headwind; sit at the back downwind“. You are the flagpole from which the boat should trail downwind. After a short portage over into Loch Vatachan, I sat right at the back and progress did seem a bit straighter, as the GPS tracklogs below show. I was no faster: 6kph downwind and 5ph on the ‘off-wind’ zags, but there was less zigzagging.
By the time I reached the south end of Loch Vatachan to pack up, the wind was fairly brisk (left). Packraft sailing should be better than this but moving to the back of the boat to enable reliable tracking under sail is not so practical. The answer must be a bigger or repositioned skeg.
A couple of days later we went for a short paddle in a reasonable sailing wind. The stock skeg was on back to front (right) and with the Mrs’ added ballast I hoped it might bite under sail. Unfortunately it was the same story of the stern coming round even if the speeds were again OK. On a beach we went for a wander and found a nice bit of broken plastic fish crate. We’re gonna need a bigger skeg.
During the stop I took the TXL out for a spin sat in the back. Of course the bow was up in the air and yawing like a giraffe, but it was quite a revelation to have a spacious boat extending out in front of me like a kayak. My front seatbase made a spacious footrest and I could lean on the back like a normal sized packraft. Sat in the back, as a way of touring or bikerafting, a bike over the bow and baggage in the front would correct the trim a little. And with the 200 litres of dry storage capacity inside the TubeBags, you could probably move house with the TXL.
We paddled the last mile to Badentarbet with me in the back. Again this felt much more comfortable for me – it must be the ability to lean on the stern. Meanwhile the Mrs said she felt no more cramped than the back. Yes the trim was still off (left), but so it always was on my 2K and I got around in that with no problems. That’s the great thing with the TXL: there are all sorts of ways of using it.
I am slowly working my way through a western variant of the Cape Wrath Trail, a hardcore, unofficial Long-distance path that runs some 200 miles between Fort William and Cape Wrath. More about the CWT here.
After scraping through the first part of the variant from Dundonnell in December 2013, I returned with paddlechum Jon to complete the remainder from Stac Polly mountain to Kylesku bridge where the regular route comes in from the east at Kylestrome. Following several humiliating episodes orchestrated by me in slackrafts, Jon finally saw the light and bought himself a red Alpacka Alpaca (the next size down from my Yak).
After kayaking around the Slate Islands near Oban I rode up to Achiltibuie on my very overloaded bike and met Jon at Di’s croft in Altandhu. We fixed up her electric bike, extended the goat shed then next day left a car at Stac car park (above) for our two-day paddle-walk to Kylesku. But things had already got off to a bad start: Jon had done his knee in on the previous day’s Etape Caledonia cycle race.
As a result progress was slow up the steep path onto Stac mountain and even slower once we left the path down the north side (above) for the trudge towards Sion’ loch. By this time Jon had recognised the value of using his hefty TNP paddle as a packstaff.
As the slope levelled off, ahead of us a deer fence cut through the scrub; we followed it until a stout corner post provided an easy hop to the other side. We were now heading directly for a bay with a small island to put in, but that was further than it looked, down small cliffs before dropping through an enchanting light birch woodland which the deer fence may have helped preserve.
While it was nice to come across the lost pocket of woodland, walking or boating, next time I think I’d take the Linneraineach path which starts a mile or so east of Stac. It leads all the way to the wadeable stream running into the loch (on the edge of the map, above) and is probably quicker and less effort. A walker would certainly be better off going that way instead of rising halfway up Stac and then down again, as we did. As it was, we were lucky that a recent dry spell had left a spongy crust on top of the saturated post-winter mire. On a few occasions that crust sheared away from the soggy underlay and sent me flying. Either way, this was packstaff terrain par excellence. Have I mentioned packstaffs yet?
On the small beach at ‘Island Bay’ we pumped up our supple new Alpackas and paddled out north across the loch towards Suilven mountain, passing between small islets and landing an hour later for lunch near ‘Shielding’ on the map. Initially the northwest breeze put us at the fetchy end of the loch and we took on the odd splash. But even with a wet bum, from any vantage point you care to choose, with its ring of peaks, the primeval Inverpolly basin (below) has got to be one of northwest Scotland’s most dramatic landscapes.
Over lunch I measured up Jon’s red Alpaca against my Yak but could hardly see a difference (it’s 3 inches shorter inside and out). But Jon was having trouble getting a full draw of the paddle with his bag across the bow (mine was below my knees). It’s possible these newer Alpackas have more of a wave-riding upturn at the bow which makes any bow-mounted bag slide backwards. That, plus a need to adapt to a gentler but more frequent ‘packrafting cadence’ saw Jon’s red Alpaca lag behind my Yak. Later we swapped paddles which made a small difference – we should have swapped boats too to see if man or boat was the culprit. My 2014 Yak has the slightly longer stern, but paddles much like my old one.
From Shielding we walked over the pass to Fionn Loch directly below the south wall of Suilven. As before, some canoeists were camped by the Uidh Fhearna river crossing (a deep wade for a walker; right), practising their moves and barely noticed us slipping into the water from a reedy lagoon. Once on the north side we found an oddly deep channel which led inland for a hundred metres saving some tussock and bog walking.
Rolling the boats up, I tried to persuade Jon that the seemingly vertical clamber up Suilven’s south face would be excellent knee therapy, but he wasn’t buying it. He had ten weeks to get into shape for a four-day trans-Pyrenean ride and didn’t want to risk it. So we set off north below the western prow of what the Norsemen called ‘the Pillar’ (below).
The 50k map doesn’t show a series of gradually ascending ups and downs over ridges running parallel to the mountain. With Jon’s paddle-supported hobbling it took an hour and a half to get to the high point where a view of our next challenge – Quinag (below) – revealed itself across a string of lochans.
Soon we caught a view of Suileag bothy far below but the terrain got gnarlier still, winding around lochans, small passes and down steep slopes. Somewhere here Jon chose to follow an indirect low route to spare his knee and somehow managed to sneak past me while I scanned from a high point for half an hour, trying to track him down. He was behind me all the time, kettle on and yellow paddle resting by the bothy’s doorway as a marker. I needlessly paddled over Loch an Alltain Duibh, assuming the river gully just upstream would be too awkward to cross. In fact Jon had found it an easy ankle wade.
In hindsight I’d say the path climbing up and down the saddle of Suilven to pick up the jeep track west to the bothy wouldn’t have been much slower than our route around the mountain’s western prow, let alone the added appeal of taking a quick detour from the saddle to Suilven’s western summit. Since we did this, the path on the north side of the mountain has been improved.
Suileag bothy is one of the tidiest I’ve seen, clean and basic with a fireplace and water from a nearby burn. It’s so much more agreeable to barge into any bothy and spread out like a normal person, than crawl around a tent like an invertebrate.
Next morning we followed the path north over a pass for two or three miles to the footbridge over the River Inver to Little Assynt; all up much quicker going. At the footbridge we carried on west then north, over another deer fence and ankle twisting tussocks to a beach beyond the sluice where Loch Assynt drained into the river.
Up ahead loomed the mass of Quinag mountain (above) and Jon and I debated the feasibility of tackling the Bealach a Chornaidh from the pathless west side. Leaving the Drumbeg path, a slope leads a kilometre and some 400m up to either a harmless scree bank or a lethal cliff. It was probably the former but too much for Jon’s gammy knee. We finished off our food under a gale-bent birch below Tumore and, as the wind was with us, decided to paddle Loch Assynt east to the road junction instead. The back way up Quinag pass would have to wait for another time.
On the water the southwest breeze wafted us helpfully down the loch, though the Alpaca was still notably slower despite my helpful demonstrations on how to paddle. I really ought make one of those instructional dvds, like Jane Fonda. Once ashore all that remained was a seven-mile road walk to Kylesku by which time the forecast wind and rain had caught up with us.
On the road walk I eyed up the terrain northwest of Quinag massif. It looks like the planned orange path shown on the map above would have been another convoluted cross-country struggle, even if it was a more direct line. Leave that to the crows and follow the regular path down from the pass east to the road (unshown on the map but it’s there). And that was the lesson learned on the land stages of this CWT variant. While there may now be a right to roam across the glens and bens of bonnie Scotland, who in their right mind would want to do that for any longer than necessary? Even wild animals develop paths; it’s less effort and happens to be quicker, even if it’s not a direct route.
Lured by the promise of a free meal at the hotel, Di drove up right on time and took us the last mile to Kylesku where a TV crew happened to be recording the retirement of the postmistress following no less than 61 years on the job.
So, my summary for this nearly completed CWT Assynt variant? For a boatless walker, once over Loch Broom and in Ullapool, the Postie Path is a dramatic way of getting to Achiltibuie where there’s a hostel, pub and shop. Over the hill it’s a major wade across the Narrows of Loch Lurgainn after which I’d recommend the Linneraineach path between Stac and Cul Beag to the stream before the long cross-country trek to a shorter wade across the Uidh Fhearna river at Fionn Loch. From here take yourself up and down Suilven’s saddle, then from the bothy take the track to Little Assynt footbridge. From here it’s a two-mile road walk to Tumore where you take the Drumbeg path before breaking off up to the Chornaidh pass and down to the road using the path to get you there. With a boat the Narrows can be paddled, so can Loch Sionasgaig, cutting out a long cross-country yomp. Another quickie over Fionn Loch, up and over or around Suilven and paddle the west end of Loch Assynt to Tumore from anywhere north of the sluice. Job done.
As far as I can tell, there are few other places on the regular CWT path where a packraft is worth carrying (which is probably why the path goes that way and avoids the Assynt). Except of course to get across the Kyle of Durness sea loch after the walk’s finale at Cape Wrath, if the boatman is not around and you don’t fancy the detour to the head of the loch. The image left from a few years ago must be a very low tide, but as you can see it’s potentially just a swim of a few metres. Eight years later I finally got to paddle the Kyle (below).
I’ve already done a couple of great packrafting excursions around the charismatic mass of Suilven mountain (left, viewed from the east). Last year we did a ‘triathlon’ loop up one side and down the other using bikes, feet and two-up in the Yak; and before that I did an overnighter from Loch Sion to have a look around. That second link has an intro to the region you may like to read.
So you’d think I’d know the local pack-potential well, but looking yet again at the map, I clocked an interesting if lengthy day out, packrafting around Suilven. I could walk east out of Inverkirkaig past the Falls to Fionn Loch, then paddle several miles of continuous water south of the mountain to cross a headland and then another short loch. From there I’d turn back passing a couple more lochs to Lochinver back on the coast. That was around 23 miles, plus another 3 or 4 back to the motorbike at Inverkirkaig. An eleven hour day for sure so unusually, I packed a torch.
The day of least bad weather arrived (today’s grim weather, right): overcast and 12°C with winds building up to 25mph bringing showers and afternoon sunshine. It would have to do; the rest of the week was forecast as much worse and at least I’d have backwinds paddling out.
Should they become hard to handle I knew I could hop ashore – that’s the great thing about packrating. But I also knew that cross country hereabouts is usually a gnarly combination of boot-sucking mires, moss-clad boulders and ankle-snapping tussocks of clump grass. Unless you’re a ground slug or sport a rack of antlers, when off piste in the trackless wilds of the far northwest, you’re often better off in a boat.
Nine 15 and I was out of Inverkirkaig with two fat sandwiches, two bananas and a cup. The thickly wooded valley with it’s not quite paddle-worthy river rose up to the 60-foot Falls of Kirkaig, but with filming and whatnot, it wasn’t till 11am that I paddled onto Fionn Loch (left) under a ceiling of thick cloud on the verge of incontinence. The rounded west prow of Suilven loomed above, trailing its cone-like tail like the giant goldfish in the Singing Ringing Tree.
I was reversing the section we paddled last year on the triathlon, and at a narrow point passed some small standing waves indicating a current flowing back to the river. Hmm, strange I thought. Approaching the mile-long narrows which maps call Uidh Fhearna, it was a stage which I’d somehow got into my head flowed eastinto Loch Veyatie, based partly on this picture I took last year. Turning south round a reedy bend and fighting what I thought was just the headwind, I took another turn and, like some astonished Victorian explorer, found the water flowing west, right at me. Of course it does. At the other end Loch Veyatie, Cam Loch drops through a series of waterfalls, and if Fionn here did the same, where did Veyatie drain – down some tectonic plug hole? There would be no Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society for me this year.
Even with a backwind, there was no paddling up this Uidh (left), though I’ve read of hardcore canoeists poling it. So I unplugged the Yak and set off along the north bank to the far end where the Uidh opened out onto Loch Veyatie and lost its current. With no free ride to help outrun the afternoon’s predicted winds, my schedule slipped away. As the OS map shows initially, there’s a path as far as a stream a mile away. Who knows why, maybe that’s where folk fish, but of course the path itself becomes a mini river. I should have worn my long Seal Skin socks today, the short ones were already sodden but they still kept my feet warm. After fording the river I decided to continue cross country until it became too hard. That took less than 20 minutes by which time I’d already stumbled twice and, while negotiating one steep bank, actually feel a few feet into the loch! Luckily, no damage done so just up ahead I set my sites on a beach to deploy the raft. It was now 1pm and with that walk covered at around 1.5mph and getting slower; better to get on the water. But first, for amusement purposes I filmed myself from unrolling the Yak to paddling away. It took 8 minutes, something that you’ll see below is made a little less boring to watch by speeding up fifteen times.
An exposed hour’s paddle down Loch Veyatie ensued. I turned out of the cove into the wind, hurrying for the south shore to get into the southwesterly’s lee until the next narrow point where I’d cross back to the windier north side to line up for my take-out. As I passed across the mouth of the sand-spit inlet of Loch a Mhadail, gusts blasted out fetching up some whitecaps. It’s all in the mind of course, but I really don’t enjoy bobbing about alone, mid-loch and out of sight on a chilly September’s day without a drysuit or PFD. One good thing with the Animas backpack I was using for the first time was that like my UDB, it doubled as a reliable float bag. Although there was virtually nothing in it bar my lunch and a cag, that was the reason I sealed it full of air.
The overhead gloom and rising wind was eating up a lot of nervous energy, but that wind was also pushing me along at what turned out to be 3mph, more than double what I’d have managed staggering along the shore, and more direct too. Another reassuring surprise was spotting the buildings at Elphin on the A837 at the head of the Loch. I’d forgotten how close I’d be getting to the other end. Paddling with the wind past the south shore, cascades ran off Cul Mor and scraggy patches of original woodland clung to the foreshore. I counted them off on the map as markers to my take-out, and with a dash over to the north side, that came up just as it looked on Google Earth last night. What a great WYSIWYG navigation aid GE is. Let Google harvest all my dreary browsing data to throw back at me as targeted ads. It’s a price worth paying for their sat mapping services.
It was only when I crawled out of the boat and stood still that I realised how strong the wind really was, roaring over the hills and bating down the grass. Even though it was less than a mile’s walk to the other side of Creagan Mor headland, there was no chance of leaving the Yak inflated. Instinctively I headed for higher ground, scattering some deer far ahead, but my route soon led to a cliff so I dropped back into the bog and tussock valley that brought me to Cam Loch’s shore. Here I felt I could relax sufficiently to eat something. My cup was MIA, out on the loch somewhere, so I scooped up a drink by hand.
One more loch to cross; easily done no matter how windy it’s become. Somewhere on the north side the map promised a path that led 12 miles back to Lochinver. All I had to do was slot myself onto it and ride it out for as long as it took. Whitecaps rolled passed me as I neared the north shore of Loch Cam, but what had had an edge of dread on Veyatie just an hour or two ago was becoming familiar and a bit of a laugh as the promised sun stuck its nose out for a sniff at the day. After airing down I soon hooked up with the stony trail, but found I was wavering a little, probably through not eating or drinking enough. It was now 3pm; six hours on the go but I’d only actually walked some 4 miles up to that point, so the legs had plenty left in them and there was drinking water running down the paths.
On occasions I’ve harboured thoughts of cycling this path from Lochinver to the A road, but from the state of it at this end I’d not get 10 feet. It followed a hard, white rim of exposed stony rubble that’s visible on a sat image, but I suppose was better than the mush to either side. Light grey and crystalline, I’ve since read it’s Lewisian gneiss or quartzite which gives the appearance of snow to some of the Assynt’s mountains like Canisp or Foinaven (see long image below). This whole region is marked with monoliths, the most striking of course being the remnant sandstone outliers like Stac or Suilven which resisted their brush with the glacier’s claw as it passed through, exposing the ancient base of lighter coloured gneiss.
I’ve kept missing the interesting ranger-led talks at Knockan Crag, just south of Elphin, he site of the Moine Thrust which literally turned geology on its head a century ago.
A sunny and a warm day, so although I was still feeling a bit groggy following a cold, it was high time to enact a mini-packplan: head out to Inverpolly and string together some of the lochans on the west side.
I’d nipped out there a few days earlier to check the lie of the land and try out some used Jungle boots, and although the maps warned of sluices, it all looked doable from the hillsides above. And judging from the terrain I crossed to get there, it would be a whole lot easier to paddle than to walk. At the end of this paddle my shins were all scrapped bloody by dry heather stalks and other brush. Some sort of plain canvas gaiters are needed to walk across this stuff, even in long trousers. More gear… sigh.
The Mrs had nipped off to Handa Island with the car, but it suited me fine to cycle out to the lochans by the fish farm on the WMR to Lochinver. I stashed the bike behind an old shed in the woods and walked on up the road.
Loch Call‘ where I’d chosen to put in isn’t visible from the WMR which explains why I overshot it a bit, but a splash in the loch to cool down followed by paddling to the north end lined me up for the path down to Boat Bay. It’s one of only two paths I know of to access the lochans. But why were my arms so weak? it was only a cold for goodness sake! I decided to scoff all my sandwiches in the hope it was food I was needing.
Paddling out of Boat Bay the wind was firmly at my back and I sped along at an effortless 3mph+, and noted no ‘weathercocking’ (back end swing-round) as you can get with a kayak without a rudder or skeg. A packraft is a whole different thing of course, with all the weight in the back. If anything, going into the wind sees the lighter front come round if you stop paddling briefly. That same 10-15mph wind that pushed me along would probably be in my face when I turned the corner into Loch Sionascaig (above) and headed southwest, and sure enough it was, but not enough to spoil my day. The sandwiches were kicking in by now and I shovelled my way towards the first sluice, surrounded by the three mountains of Stac Polly, Cul Mor and of course Suilven, which give this paddling location it’s unique character. How wonderful it is to be out here in the wilds, fanned by a warm breeze and for once not being chocked from all angles in faux-breathable, latex-trimmed wet wear. This could almost be France or Scandinavia in a heatwave.
First one, then a couple more fishermen cropped up, standing alone on the banks, dipping their rods and exuding the usual unfriendly vibes. How did they even get there, I wondered? Not looking intrepid enough to have tramped over the hills, they must have paid their dues and been dropped off by the Inverpolly Estate’s boat from Boat Bay. Then a bloke comes round the corner paddling a yellow inflatable bath and threatens to put the wind up their trout.
I neared the sluice (above: from above; left, from the south) at the southwest corner of Loch Sionascaig. On my Suilven overnighter a few weeks back, I’d noticed something white hereabouts while on the way back to Boat Bay from the north side of Sionascaig. Turns out they were just big white bags of rocks left over from shoring up the crumbling sluice wall. Most of the water pours though holes in the wall but even then, considering the size of Loch Sionascaig, there’s no danger here of getting sucked into anything nasty at normal levels. Should the wall fail, that could be another matter.
It’s about a 10-metre drop (above) into the steep-sided Loch Uidh which leads to a gap. Here as expected, the wind was funnelling but was counteracted by a slight current running my way. This soon ended at another crumbling sluice that might have been runnable (below). I came right up and had a good look but decided the raft was too wide to make it down the chute and one-foot drop without me making a mess of myself, and I had to get out soon after. So I walked round and down alongside a series of torrents to the last paddle, Loch Na Dall. This happens to be linked by a short car track to the WMR (not on the map); a good take out if you’re in a canoe.
Although I’ve read of canoeists paddling the slim lochs below Suilven, portaging over to Loch Sionascaig and hoping to follow the Polly all the way to the sea at Polly Bay, what follows from Loch Na Dall isn’t really worth the portage, even if you’ve had a great time up on the main loch. It’s an ankle-twisting haul on a bumpy paddle all the way down to the fish farm, and the one kilometre downstream section after the road bridge at the fish farm (sluices and strainers) to the sea may well raise frowns from them or the Estate. But perhaps in winter, with the higher water levels you’d need for a clean run, no one’s bothered. Anyway it pays to remember: this is enlightened Scotland, outdoor access is a legal right, though always best combined with common sense. I’ve spent the last couple of months enjoying this freedom up here so it’s worth spelling it out: The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 “You can exercise these rights, provided you do so responsibly, over most land and inland water in Scotland, including mountains, moorland, woods and forests, grassland, margins of fields in which crops are growing, paths and tracks, rivers and lochs, the coast and most parks and open spaces. Access rights can be exercised at any time of the day or night.”
Back to the packrafting. The south end of Na Dall was asprout with grassy reeds which created a briefly exotic paddling sensation. At it’s end the river dropped down into the valley, but there was no tell-tale roaring and the contours on the map suggested it didn’t drop immediately. So after peering from the intake, I dived in with blades churning, only to get hung up on a rock at the first drop. Free from that and on the move, the underside of the plucky Yak whined periodically as it slid over successive obstructions; another high-centred hang up, another clumsy, butt-pivoting, paddle-bashing extraction, gaining nul points for style. That led to a breather in a pool and then another frothing drop, the camera by now sagged from the jolting. It had turned out to be a couple of minutes of unexpected action, but up ahead there was that ominous noise and I knew it was time to hop out ahead of a series of stony drops (below). I rolled up the Yak and tramped back down to the valley and the bike shed.
Riding back over the hill to Osgaig Loch at a quarter of the speed I came down it earlier that day, there’s a hoot from behind. ‘What!?’ I snapped, eyes stinging with sweat. Another hoot ‘WHAT!?’ Ah, pardon me, it’s the g-friend back from Puffin World while I’m puffing away in two-one, as red as a puffin’s beak and as sweaty as a sauna full of guillemots.
‘Want a lift, puffinboy? You look a bit hot‘.
I was actually anticipating the freewheeling rush down to Osgaig Loch where I’d had half a mind to try rafting the bike over to the other side. Never tried lashing my bike to the bow of my packraft before – it seems an awkward thing to strap down securely, but others have managed fine so it needs trying out once. Something for another day. We hooked the bike up and drove home.
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 Inverkirkaigalong 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.
Anyone who’s climbed up the fin-like ridge of Stac Polly will see a wild, lochan- and bog-speckled vista spreading north across the Assynt. Just a couple of miles away are the peaks of Cul Mor and Suilven (main hill, left), relics of a glacier that ground down the land between them as it inched towards what’s now the sea.
The OS map shows this area as a Nation Nature Reserve, but it actually lost this designation a few years ago. And although it looks wild – so wild there’s no grazing, nor inhabited dwellings – this 100 square-miles of barely-fenced bog, rock and water is unusually accessible, bordered by quiet roads to the south and west, the A835 to the east, but not much to the north apart from the path passing below the north slope of Suilven. So seeing as this region of Coigach/Assynt has so few packable rivers, these lochans are a great place for short-range packraft exploration following some of the routes suggested on the graphic, right. It’s not just me that thinks so, the local sea kayak outfitter as well as a couple of intrepid canoeists have been coming here over the years. For them the inter-lochan portages require some commitment. But not in a packraft!
You can make up a route to suit yourself here; climb every mountain, ford every stream, visit every island. I chose a pretty easy overnighter and got dropped off by the road at Linneraineach below Cul Beag. There’s nothing at Linner’ bar a footpath which leads north to Loch an Doire Dhuibh (right viewed from Cul Mor).
My packplan was to paddle across Doire into the small adjacent loch, follow the channel into the main Loch Sionascaig, pay a visit to Eilean Mor, the biggest island hereabouts (and one of hundreds of Eilean Mors – or ‘big island’ in Scotland). From there I’d paddle among smaller isles towards the northeast shore of Sionascaig and walk past the ruin of Shieling over the saddle to the short river that links Fionn Loch to Loch Veyatie. With a paddle over to the south side of Suilven mountain, I’d find a dry spot to camp and take it from there. Suilven is only 731m or 2398 feet high, but it does have a strong draw on the imaginations of hillwalkers in far northwest Scotland, as do many of the Assynt’s peaks.
I think much of it stems from its Ayers Rock- or Matterhorn-like separation from its surroundings; a distinctive mountain shape, like the much more accessible Stac to the south. Add the lochans below and the open sea just a mile or two away, and mountain summits around here add up to something special. The picture right is taken from Ben Mor Coigach (743m) looking north over to Stac, Suilven and the distant peak of Quinaig. That’s another thing – the mountains have nice names around here with, you’d like to think, a touch of the Norse about them. This is after all Sutherland, or ‘the South Land’ in the mind of a Danish bloke in a horned helmet, circa 900AD. If you like hills there’s a panorama of some Sutherland mountains below, taken from the tip of the Coigach peninsula looking northeast.
Back to the boating; this was my first proper run in my Yak and as I pulled smoothly away from the shore of Loch Doire (left) it struck me how cool it is to trek over the hills with a pack of only 10-12 kilos, inflate your mini boat and set out across a body of water with your kit slung over the bow. In fact I’m convinced a frontal load makes packrafts faster as, despite the wind drag, the weight reduces the left-to-right yawing.
Very soon I was surprised to see the GPS reading a steady and sustainable 3mph (4.8kph, 2.6 knots) on the calm, windless loch. “What’ll it do?” I wondered, as you do. About 4.1mph, as you ask, but only for a few seconds, unless there’s a Great White on your tail. I’m sure that was more than I ever registered in my old-shape Llama, and I dare say more than I could average walking along the surrounding terrain which was mostly pathless. When I got back a speed graph (right) extracted from the GPS spelled it out: tramping across the pathless hilly bogs – about 2.3mph; on the water, out of the wind – 3mph; on the water into the wind – 2.4mph but with some effort.
The channel that led west to Loch Sion (below Stac Polly, right) looked promising on the map, but even with the current high water levels following the deluge that was May, it soon got too shallow over the couple of metres drop to the next loch, and with a wince-inducing scrape the Yak hung up on a rock, requiring a short portage (left). That done, moving out onto Loch Sion a breeze was now in my face as I edged along the shore. Past Eilean Dubh I squeezed through another inter-island lead and out into the main loch, heading for Eilean Mor island. Even with the mild buffeting, it struck me how safe I felt alone in my raft; safer than I often feel initially in my Incept kayak at sea in similarly tame conditions. I think not being at sea had much to do with it, with no kind of wave or ill wind that could blow the Alpacka out to the wrong side of Greenland.
Eilean Mor is a natural focal point in Sion loch – what can it be like, an island set deep within in a wilderness? Many paddlers are fascinated by these tiny wooden islands on Scottish lochs, I assume like me, because they think it must be a UNESCO-like example of a hyper-pristine natural habitat beyond the reach of prolonged human intrusion.
On the southern tip I can tell you there’s certainly a spacious, grassy camping spot (and now, a finely-built cairn), but as I half fell out of my boat and staggered ashore (left), the latest shower passed by as I beat my way inland towards the Eilean’s summit, through a forest choked with ferns, birch, hazel and their fallen, decaying predecessors. As I bushwhacked upwards, an owl not 10 feet to my left flew off noiselessly, and in places the ferns hummed with a flouorescent green glow (above).
At the summit, about 100 feet above the loch I looked over to the entrance to Boat Bay, a mile or so to the west (above left). To the north Suilven was a dark, uninviting rampart while to the south I imagined the walkers who daily take the short trek up Stac Polly (right) looking down on the progress of the little yellow boat far below and thinking, heck that looks fun!
I set off northeast, passing other inviting but unnamed isles (left and right), around Rubha Sionascaig with its alluring isthmus and up to Creag Sionascaig. Arriving at the shore, new shoots of grass poked through the blackened peat, scorched by the bushfires of early May which have been well and truly doused by the series of lashing gales which followed. I rolled up and headed up a creek line towards a saddle, passing a ruined croft which, as in so many remote locales in northwest Scotland, makes you wonder what on earth the people lived off up here?
Squelching over a novel mixture of burned peat crust spongebog mush (left), at the pass I looked down and saw half a dozen tents and a couple of canoes (right, barely visible) pitched at a meander in the river at a point where it was quite probably fordable. I’m sure the water there was running eastwards from Fionn into Loch Veyatie [it doesn’t], but if that’s the case then Fionn Loch is unusual in that it drains both ways, east and also west via the River Kirkaig to Lochinver and the sea. A geographical oddity? who knows [I do now; it isn’t]. I walked directly to Fionn, deployed the Yak and paddled across the channel (left). A short walk out of sight of the campers found a flat shoreline where I pitched beneath the looming mass of Suilven.
At times I’d wondered whether there even was a path up the south side of Suilven mountain (left) – I’m sure I’d read it somewhere. Then, during a short spell of sunshine a steep path became briefly illuminated; straight up alongside a scree slope, then off at an angle to the saddle-ridge between the two peaks. But now it was raining steadily, I was pretty damp and not in the mood for a hefty slog across contours pressed together up like the teeth of a comb, but I feared once I got in the tent I’d probably slob out. So after a light feed, I set out, packstaff in hand, to locate the path up the hill and once on it, followed it till 8pm. If nothing else, it was a good way to warm up and dry off.
It would be nice to report a stirring vista some 400 metres below the summit of Suilven, but a leaden gloom pressed down on the sodden land. I’d called the Mrs – tomorrow would bring more rain, but the winds would return too first thing in the morning. Back in the tent and soon after sunset, the rain arrived early and lasted most of the night. It was all a bit much for my single-skin tent which, though amazingly light and compact, is not rated as waterproof. The drips soon came through the fabric of the flat roof as I dozed, soaking my legs and chilling me. Half-awake, I lay my cag over the drip zone, after which the night passed well enough and I woke reasonably dry. The next day was not one for shorts; today I was going to try out my new Kokatat Swift Dry Pants (see Suilven Gear). I’d half a mind to catch the twice-daily bus at 11.15 from the junction (see green graphic, top of the page) and estimated it would take 4 hours to get there, so breakfast at 6am was cereal in warmed up loch water. It wasn’t raining yet which meant it would be shortly, so I packed up quick and scooted back over Fionn Loch, taking a different route back southwest, past Na Tri Lochan to an inlet on Loch Sion (see satellite image bottom of the page). It was a longer land stage, but would put me into a better position to dodge the predicted southwesterlies while paddling back west towards Boat Bay. I’ve been reading a lot of sea kayaking literature lately and the lessons were paying off.
Let me tell you, walking over the pathless mire following a night of rain is merely a necessary means to get to the next bit of fun paddling. My knee-high Seal Skin ‘Wellington socks’ were working fine – last night my feet had been bone dry – but it’s a tiring, rhythmless slog over this crap; any sheep trails are merely conduits for more running water and mud. Again, the star of the Gear Show has to be my packstaff; it makes walking on uneven ground, descents and climbs so much more secure, especially with a load.
I reached the inlet bang on time which took me by surprise. Was this some un-noted lochan, no it was Sion – I’d not read the inlet’s shape on the map closely enough. Once back on the water, initially my leeward paddling ploy worked well. Then I turned a corner and suddenly the wind was onto me and the bow was bouncing on the waves (left) as I hacked past the shore at barely 1mph. For a while I thought I’d have to give up and take to the shore but again, as sea kayaking lore states, wind is often exacerbated round a point or headland, even on a lochan. Near normal speeds resumed, in fact just a fraction under the still-and-calm 3mph cruising of yesterday, but at a heavy cost to the arms and shoulders. I couldn’t have done this all day but luckily, I didn’t have to so I got stuck in. Again I was surprised how safe I felt out here, alone and ill-dressed and where stopping to fiddle with the cameras pushed me back nearly as fast as I paddled forward.
Finally I entered the mouth of Boat Bay, back onto known ground. The end was in sight. Last September I couldn’t even paddle the Sunny out of this bay in a stiff easterly. Now I dug my way onwards to the tiny beach inlet which was notably smaller than last year. I rolled it all up and hiked up to the nearby road. Within a couple of miles g-friend’s hatchback popped over the hill and I was home and dry for lunchtime – a 15-mile, 24-hour mini packboating adventure completed, with lots more ideas for future exploring of the lochans below Suilven mountain.
Below: almost the entire route seen from Cul Mor summit, looking southwest and west. Stac and Summer Isles in the distance.
While dodging stray sheep and oncoming traffic along the ‘Wee Mad Road‘** that leads off the peninsula to the outside world, I often throw a pack-hopeful glance over to a creek called the Abhainn Osgaig. It runs for a kilometre or two down from Loch Bad a Ghaill to Loch Osgaig, which in turn drains into the sea at Enard Bay. Most of the time what you can see from the road looks a bit boney, but the other day, following a week of gales and squalls, it was full enough to catch the eye. Driving back from a recce for another packrafting plan, I squelched over the bogs for a closer look, as most of it appeared hidden in a gorge. Sure enough, from some nasty-sounding sluices at the west end of Loch Bad, the river drops briefly into a narrow gorge you can’t even walk along. Viewed from the bottom end it was running hard enough to put me off. If I was thrown in I suppose I might surprise myself with some quick moves and get through without dumping, but I don’t fancy any white water that looks like it needs head protection. It’s a bit frustrating to be such a ninny; a creekboater wouldn’t shake a cag at this one, but I can just see myself flailing around like a squid in a blender, bouncing out of control from rock to rock.
Below the gorge (2nd and 3rd pics, left) it spreads right out so even I could acquit myself; if anything it looks like I’d need to step out in the shallows once in a while. Back in the car and driving on slowly, I spotted at least one more waterfall I’d not want to drop in on uninvited, but there’s plenty of room to walk round that one so it would be fun to bike out there one time, tramp upstream from Osgaig loch for a good sticky beak, and put back in for the 10-15-minute ride back down. Although I’m always on the look-out, there aren’t many packworthy rivers close by, so while the Osgaig runs deep enough to float my boat – and at a time when it’s too windy to do any other boating of substance – that is this week’s mission in the Yak. Right now it’s pelting down again and the sea is heaving. I’ve just heard the Shipping Forecast out in the Atlantic (Rockall, Malin, etc) is F11, just below a hurricane so the prospects for rain and high water are good.
A few days later I got fed up waiting for a break in the weather – it’s the worst May for 37 years they say, and most of the time too windy for solo sea kayaking in my Incept. So we schleped up to the Osgaig between downpours, and I took a bit of a run at the lower half just below the uninviting waterfall.
I miss the fun sensation of scooting down a river in a packraft, but I wasn’t really getting any this day. Even in what passes for spate round here, the Osgaig is just too shallow and I winced as the poor Yak scraped over the boulders while being relieved I got Alpacka to spec it with a butt patch. Bouncing off, or hanging up on rocks lined me up all wrong at times, but in an Alpacka one firm pull lines you back up. Fact is, there was no rhythm or flow and I felt like someone with a flash new toy desperate to find somewhere to play with it. It wasn’t even worth running the remainder of the river down to the loch.
Day-boating like this is not really my thing anyway. I’m more into pack-rafting and have a great one- or two-nighter lined up round the back when the cabin fever hits the red zone. Of course no one comes to Scotland for a sun tan,, but at least I have the Ardeche Gorge to look forward to in late July. No two ways about it, that will be a great run. See this: same river a year later.
Here’s my gallery of a run down the Spey river we did one September in 2007; three days from Aviemore to the sea – about 85 kms or 53 miles, camping two nights. Me in my Sunny and a new dry suit, Steve in a Pouch tandem folding battleship, Dave in a Klepper folder and Jon in a red kayak made of rigid, hard plastic called a Carolina; quite robust and fast it was, but a bit heavy and not something he could transport easily on a bus. It remains to be seen if these ‘hard shells’ will catch on. The Spey is a famous Scottish canoe run; it’s also famed for salmon fishing and its malt whiskey distilleries. Although the river is said to be open all year to paddlers (see the online guide below for details), when an estate is charging an overseas tourist hundreds of pounds a day to fish off their banks, they don’t want you getting too close and upsetting the client’s concentration. As far as we knew we were there on the last weekend of the salmon season and only once got waved away from a bank of anglers.
That year the river was a bit shallow in places, though none of us quite needed to get out and walk. Even then my Sunny filled on a couple of occasions, despite some piffling rapids, so a dry suit was a good call. Jon was the only one to fall out which just goes to show what lethal boats these SinKs can be – that thing is less than 26 inches wide! It is of course very satisfying to follow a river down to the sea, watch it change and paddle right into to the waves (oddly the tides only reach in a few hundred metres at Spey Bay). Whatever boat you’re in it’s a great run with easy white water, and easy side access. Anything rated for a canoe is fine in an IK. ForDave unfortunately it all ended on the morning of Day 2 when his Klepper snagged on an embedded metal stake (an old fence post?) and ripped a foot-long hole in his hull. Kleput!
There’s a road close to the Spey all the way and he managed to get a lift back to his car and was there that night to drive us to the campsite in Aberlour, 2.5kms from the river. I do recall a very nice meal in the pub that night, in a bar with scores on malts lined up on the back shelf. Dave was also able to pick us up from Spey Bay where there’s a formica-era cafe. The nearest station is Elgin, about 13 miles away. You could packraft the Spey too; it would be fast enough and if you combine it with the Loch Morar stage I packrafted last summer down to Gairlochy, after a 40-mile transit up the A86 to Newtonmore (20 miles upstream from Aviemore) you’ve completed a ~150-mile Scottish coast-to-coast run; Atlantic to the North Sea. I know of a couple of packrafters who have done most of it, including these two guys in the freezing winter of 2009-10. Along with many other reports, there’s a detailed online guide here. Harveys make a waterproof map of the Speyside Way walk which of course follows the river closely.
It was a bank holiday weekend in Scotland and the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig was packed out, but only one person got off the train at Morar station. There was nothing here other than a few houses, a B&B and a lovely sandy beach facing the isles of Rhum and Eigg. The waters of Loch Morar spill out onto those sands and meander down to the sea. Me, I was heading the other way, inland alongside the loch’s 20-km long north shore on a back road that turned into a track and finally a narrow path rising above the waters.
I was of course taking a very keen interest in the state of those waters. As must be normal around here, the wind off the North Atlantic was blowing up the loch with me, but not enough to make hauling the 20-kilo backpack on soft rafting shoes any easier. It looked like a downpour had recently smothered the area; transient waterfalls were running down the valley sides and occasional squalls rushed up the glen. By the time I got past Swordlands Lodge – a WWII-era spy training base for the predecessors of MI5 – all I wanted was a flat patch of dry land to pitch. I’d got further than I thought, covering about 14kms in 4 hours and was now just 7kms direct from the bothy (refuge) at the far end of the loch. The wind had calmed, but the bothy could wait till the morning. I spread out on a narrow jetty, inflated the boat and went for a walk over to Tarbert Bay, a few houses on the tidal Loch Nevis where a ferry drops in from Mallaig every other day on a circuit serving the otherwise inaccessible community on the Knoydart peninsula. The paddle up Loch Morar and short portage over to Loch Nevis to follow the coast back to Mallaig was a popular day trip for sea kayakers.
Never mind about that. The thought of my first real, fully loaded packrafting paddle alone on the 1000-foot deep Loch Morar was a little unnerving. Even fresh water inland lochs like this are prone to sudden storms that have drowned ill-prepared canoeists. How would my boat handle in a swell with a 12-kilo pack strapped to its bow? When the time came next morning I found I just went through the motions, knowing that I’d done my best to get it right. Sealed inside a dry suit, I pushed off and tried to keep a respectful distance from the steep shore, as the bay I’d sheltered in overnight opened out into the winds. Out there, funnelled in by the 1000-foot ridges, whitecaps furled the foot-high swell, but despite my dry mouth and hyperactive paddling, there was really nothing much to worry about other than worrying too much. With an open deck and the wind to my back, the loaded raft sat on the water as reassuringly as a wet mattress.
At one point the sun came out and soon after the white speck of Oban bothy came into view at the base of the narrow, cloud-filled valley which would lead me over to the next loch. Coming back to shore I felt a small sense of achievement; I’d managed seven whole kilometres across a windy loch carrying all my needs. With the wind and hard paddling, it had taken only one and a half hours, much faster than following the shore on foot, but that was enough adventure for one day. Though it would put me behind schedule, I decided to spend the rest of the day in the bothy, drying out the tent soaked by overnight rain and my dry suit soaked by over-anxious paddling.
On the map only intermittent paths lead to Oban bothy which seems rarely visited and as you can see from the video, is pretty basic but a very welcome shelter set in a brilliant location. Across the loch abandoned crofts reminded me that that this part of Scotland was not always the wilderness we like to think, but a land abandoned two centuries ago when poverty and inland expulsions to enable sheep rearing forced the inhabitants to the coasts, cities or overseas. Amazingly, in the next bothy the logbook showed a recent visit by some Canadians whose forbears had abandoned Glen Pean in 1793. With the gear drying on the line I went for a walk up the valley to confirm just how mushy the track would be. Later that evening I scooted off in the empty raft across the loch just because I could.
Over the pass Next day was going to be a short-haul, just 8km by GPS up the valley and down the other side to another bothy in Glen Pean. I’d rather taken to bothy life. Though these places are basic and grubby, with no facilities other than a fireplace, some bed bases, left-over food and rubbish, the simple presence of space, shelter and mouse-eaten furniture is so much better than sodden tent camping.
While a packraft does open out your mobility options, especially in the Scottish Highlands, it does increase a typical 12kg camping payload by 50% once you add in a dry suit. Carrying that sort of load over the boggy, hummock-ridden terrain, where the high summer grass and reeds obscure knee-deep ditches and peat channels is probably more dangerous than bobbing around in the middle of a windy loch. To this end I’d adapted a sawn-off piece of paddle shaft to slot on the end on my AquaBound paddle to make a packstaff – something I’m still using over a decade later. It proved to be one of my best ideas on this trip, useful as a probe boggy-looking ground that was often actually firm (and vice versa) and a balancing- or weight-bearing aid. Climbing or descending, it helps take the load off the kknees and saved a lot of the energy expended in avoiding or trying to hop over peaty trenches which could suck you in down to your knees. I’ve been using the pack staff for packrafting and Scottish hill walks ever since. This attempt at dancing around the mire while hauling 25% of my body weight was partly what had worn me out on the walk in from Morar station, not helped by trying to keep my feet dry in my quick-draining ‘canyoneering’ Keen water shoes. Today I decided to try out my Seal Skinz socks which had ssat in a drawer for years. Even though once wet, wool socks keep warm, the waterproof but bbreathable Skinz were as good and should mean less chance of trench foot. All I need for next time is a wade-proof, knee-high pair, though I soon learned the waterproofing or membrane in the Seal Skinz doesn’t last. With an improved packing set up, I set off for the pass, no longer skirting the puddles and putting my weight onto the packstaff when needed. Taking it slow, I felt much safer with the staff as I plodded steadily up to the watershed. Here, still surrounded by boggy the steep valley sides, a faint sheep trail descended steeply to a water-logged valley where it disappeared altogether. Even with a staff and wet-proof feet, the valley still took some negotiating, inching around outcrops while leaning on the firmly planted staff which would have pretzeled a Leki walking pole. In the end, it was simpler to follow the stony river bed. Presently I came upon Lochan Sagairt as marked on the map, unreached by paths from either side and jammed in among dense contours in a gorge. Either side would be a tiring climb with the load I carried and so here was a perfect evocation of the Packrafter’s Choice: to expend effort but possibly save time by keeping on land – or to deploy the raft and scoot across the lochan effortlessly and maybe even catch a bit of a ride off the stream on the far side. (If you’ve watched the vid, it’s here that the film and my photos end – my 8-gig SD card filled up). It took just 12 minutes from stopping to paddling out through the reeds onto the lochan. (Here’s another version.) Following the stream gave me up to a kilometre of paddling distance, but soon that became too shallow and worse still, up ahead seemed to drop through a small gorge. Very keen to play it safe, I rolled up the boat and took to what was now a quad bike track which brought me through a jungle of ferns to the deserted bothy in Glen Pean, nine kilometres walk and four hours from Oban.
Glen Pean The plan here had been to track the Pean river on foot and put-in as soon as it became paddleable, hoping that that would lead smoothly into Loch Arkaig, the next big body of water. I had my doubts it would be as simple as that, and after lunch set off, first up to an interesting-looking waterfall on the far side of the valley, and then back down into the valley to recce the river downstream. This exposed one of the flaws of packrafting in this sort of wild terrain. Walking the water courses in the valley bottoms, you’re in the worst, waterlogged terrain, fit only for birds and slugs trapped in a squelching morass of saturated peat and spongy moss. Up here the meandering Pean river flipped between deep, Guinness-coloured pools and clear, shingly shallows. No big problem in an unloaded raft as I’d found in France where we’d spent the last few months, but with a load you ground out sooner, meaning getting out and pulling or even unpacking and carrying; not an efficient use of energy. I tramped downstream around the deepest mire where the forest plantation met the river, and up ahead noticed an ominous dip in the tree line between two knolls. Deadly, Alpacka-shredding rapids!
A perfectly walkable track led through the forest to the head of Loch Arklaig and a group of houses known as Stathan. I looked closely at the 1:50k map and sure enough, where a path came down the valley to bridge the river and join the forest track to Strathan, two 25-metre contours crossed the river within a quarter kilometre. To confirm that paddling the Pean may be more effort than it was worth, at 6pm I set off along the forest track to that bridge and suss out the river. An hour later I looked down on a two-metre drop before it led into a boulder-chocked funnel. My hunch had been right, though of course, terrified as I am of being swept unwittingly into a mini Niagara, I’d have surely heard the waterfall and done something about it.
Back at the bothy, I was satisfied with my recce. The upper Pean was navigable with a little effort for about 4kms from the bothy to the bridge, but at the bridge you’d need to pack up and haul up a messy track into the forest and walk on down to Strathan, or stagger along the banks until the river cleared up. (I’ve since returned and paddled the Pean from that bridge down to Loch Arkaig).
Loch Arkaig to Gairlochy Next morning I stood on a bridge in Strathan, a few buildings of the Glendessary estate at the west end of Loch Arkaig. Below me the Glendessary river rushed towards the Pean in a tumble of white water, while the Pean river itself wound placidly into Loch Arkaig. Like Morar, Loch Arkaig ran for 19kms end to end, a long paddle that might take most of the day and certainly most of the day’s energy. A back wind was rushing along, maybe only a little worse than on Morar; here would be a good place to experiment using an umbrella as a sail. A narrow road also trailed the loch’s north bank and having lost a bit of time hanging out in the bothies, I thought I’d try and hitch a lift towards the Great Glen and Loch Lochy where the Lochy River lead south to Fort William. If I could get there tonight I’d have caught up with a chance to carry on to Rannoch as planned. Plodding along the road eyeing up the loch, I passed a bunch of young canoeists on a course and figured if I couldn’t get a ride I’d be better off getting on the water and riding the swell down to the east end. Before that decision became necessary, a car squeezing past saw my thumb his mirror and half an hour later dropped me at the loch’s east end. Rich worked for the local Outward Bounds kids camps and spent his spare time adventuring himself on the islands and highlands. He told of some canoeists last winter who’d portaged the way I’d come yesterday. One ended up breaking her leg somewhere near Lochan Sagairt and getting helicoptered out (in fact I found the thread on that event here and there’s a video here). Portaging a canoe from Loch Morar? Have these people not heard of packrafts?! Either way, I was sure glad I didn’t have to trudge down that long, lochside road; I’m sure whitecaps or not, eventually I’d have taken to the water. It brought up another flaw in my gear: I was wearing Keen Arroyos which gave little more support. Luffing a 20-kilo load over rough ground, I should be wearing boots for hiking. They did the job but the insides of my Arroyos were being ground to a pulp and my feet were beginning to suffer. Rich dropped me off somewhere near Clunes, a shopless wooded hamlet surrounded by retirement homes. I was back in tourist lands on the Great Glen Way footpath. Possibly as a result of yesterday’s efforts, I suddenly became ravenous and tore into my food bag to boil up a mug of soup and some stew-in-a-bag paste while the wind howled through the trees. The freeze-dried food I’d been eating was pretty tasty and very easy to prepare, but for once, I wasn’t eating enough. Twenty kilometres away, Fort William would see to that.
All that remained to see was whether Lochy loch was paddleable in all this wind. Sure enough, the west bank was sat in a wind shadow. With a swell running at a couple of inches, this was a loch I could do business with. No need for the drysuit, just zip on the skirt to keep the insides try. How nice it was to paddle on a calm loch. Back in phone range, I called the g-friend to fill her in on my triumphant achievement. A lighthouse marked the top lock on the canal: right for the canal and Gairlochy, left for a weir which led down to the river. Camping by the lock on trimmed grass was free, and many recreational boaters were berthing for the night. Fort William and a seafood basket with salad, chips and a cappuccino would have to wait. I pitched the tent, de-aired the raft, and went to suss out the state of the Lochy River from the towpath. Between the trees and the wild raspberry bushes I spotted some fly fishermen by a couple of sporty rapids and found a good place to put-in tomorrow just past the lock. I was getting a bit desperate for proper food, but Gairlochy had nothing except all-you-can-eat wild raspberries. The nearest resto was up towards Spean Bridge, more than my blistering feet could manage.
River Lochy to Fort William: Riding the Wavy Trains I was fairly sure I had the measure of the River Lochy, a canoeable river that led down to Fort William and tidal waters, interrupted only by one Grade 3 rapid which the Scottish canoe guide warned of but didn’t locate. A look on Google Earth had pinned down the probable location where the river took a hard left with a telltale smudge of white. I put it in my GPS. I set off down the Lochy, knowing I’d be having a lunch of real food off a plate, not out of a bag. It was great to be riding the wavy trains again, with nothing above WW1 as long as you chose the right chute. At one point I hit 14.5kph (9mph) according to the Garmin and safe in my drysuit, what control I had steered me from tedious shallows or boat-flipping boulders. The grade-three waypoint was right on the money, where some young boys where being tutored in the art of fly fishing by a ghillie (river gamekeeper) dressed in full regalia, including a deer-stalker hat and a crimson face. Inspecting the rapid, I’d have been curious to see how even a proper kayaker could manage to fly down the chute and stay upright where it ramped up to the left to flip you right, straight onto the rock. UK Rivers rates the Lochy quite lowly and barely mentions this rapid, but then goes on to add that a poacher and no less than a dozen commandos have drowned here over the years. The mossy, muddy portage was another job for the packstaff, and now a little braver, I took the hardest lines through the remains of the rapids and presently rocked up at the rail bridge at Inverlochy, a suburb of Fort William.
Loch Ossian It was Wednesday lunchtime and my train out of Rannoch was due in 48 hours. If I was to make it I’d have to move on that afternoon, but after checking into a hostel I was dizzy with hunger. The afternoon would have to be spent answering the call of the stomach. In between I paid my respects to the outdoor gear shops in search of bargains, but merely confirmed the daunting truth: other than a couple more dried meals and some 2-for-1 mini karabiners, there was nothing I needed. The next day the train dropped me off at lonely Corrour station, a mile away from the lovely wind-powered SYHA hostel alongside Loch Ossian. All that remained was to spend the afternoon paddling down with the wind to the Corrour estate lodge at the far end of the loch and walking back along the shore to satiate another ravenous appetite.
I now have an idea about packrafting in Scotland: what sort of routes are optimal and what gear works best. The recce around Glen Pean made me realise that no matter how up for it you might be, hiking cross-country across bogs and tussocks as I’d planned to do from Glen Nevis over to Blackwater and from there to Loch Laidon, would have been a hiding to nowhere while hauling a heavy pack. If I’d had the time I’d have followed the West Highland Way out of Fort William to Kinlochleven and on to the Kings House hotel in Glencoe (40kms – two days). From there an eastbound moor path passes close to Loch Laidon (we did it years later, below); either can be taken to reach Rannoch station.
Speeds The raft can be pretty quick on a loch, paddling hard with a backwind, even with a load, and so some sort of sail would reduce the effort and so give more range. I never expected to try and paddle the full length of Morar or Arkaig (19+ kms). Loch Ossian (6kms long) was surprisingly slow as at one point I headed across the width of the loch with a stiff sidewind to see how the unloaded boat handled (pretty flappy but probably more secure than an IK).