First sunny spring day around here so we went out to try out the flip-out disc sail I made over the winter on my Llama and Steve’s Big Kahuna. Wind was forecast at about 8 mph but was gusty – a bloke in a dinghy sailboat said it was up to 15 mph. Folded and clipped on the packraft, the sail sits out of the way and can be opened and – more importantly – closed easily with a twist, as long as you have a clip of some sort to keep it closed (and that clip is attached to the sail so it does not spring off and sink to the bottom of the lake…).
Initial impressions were disappointing, I did not rip off across the reservoir like a hooked marlin out of a Roadrunner cartoon. But watching the vid back it’s clear the boat did noticably drift downwind across the reservoir with the sail aloft, often at speeds similar to paddling (about 3 mph). Problem with the sail on the Alpacka was the boat soon turned off the wind one way or the other, swinging left and right. The pointier Kahunayak was better, especially once Steve trailed his paddle like a skeg. Didn’t get to try that on the Llama as I was fiddling about with the string trying angle the sail so as to steer the boat into the wind. This worked quite well in correcting the direction as you can see in the vid, but staying in that position was a problem. Could this be due to ‘wind-spill’ off the flat disc sail which lacks dishing like a WindPaddle? Maybe. It will be interesting to try it on my ruddered Incept IK when it turns up, as well as the new-shape Alpacka which I am picking up next week. More testing to come this summer up in windier Scotland with my all-new packboating flotilla. Or just enjoy this 2014 video from Finland by JP. More here at leftbound.
I should have been off to France in early November to packboat down the Allier River, but the current job drags on. So despite the very short days, it struck me I ought to finish off my summer’s packrafting plan. On that occasion, I ran out of time at Fort William while realising my idea of traipsing merrily across the bogs of Rannoch Moor from loch to river was – as usual – over-ambitious. Being my first packing trip, I also learned a bit about what gear works for this sort of travel. End of November I’ll walk southeast for two days down from Fort William to west Rannoch along the West Highland Way, like any normal person. Then I’ll put-in near the road bridge at Loch Ba and paddle northeast for two slow days onto Loch Laidon for Rannoch station to train back home. Another perfect mini adventure!
Looks like the forecast is freezing and snowy, so I’m a little concerned that a weekend of sub-zero temperatures may be enough to thinly freeze the lochs by Monday when I reach Loch Ba, making it too thin to walk on but too hard to paddle across. (a couple of weeks later we indeed experienced a paddling-through-ice scenario on a local river. Wind is forecast at 18mph headwind, but not till Tuesday which on top of -2 ought to chill things down. But that’s the final day’s paddle to the station so it can be endured or walked.
On the way I’ll be trying out some new gear:
Full-length Seal Skin socks for bog-wading immunity.
Self-draining trail shoes (normal hiking shoes with a hole melted through the sides). My Keen Arroyo drainers were not up to loaded walking.
Watershed UDB drybag/backpack and W’shed Chattooga day bag.
A waterproof Panasonic FT2 camera that can just hang off the neck come rain or splash. No more scrabbling with a Peli box while watching out for camera-killing drips and the rocks ahead.
December 5 ~ All Pack and no Paddle
I ended up only packwalking for three days, reversing the West Highland Way (WHW) from Fort William to Bridge of Orchy. It was nice enough, especially the last day after a bit of snow to improve grip. The only other person I met was this guy who’d cycled the WHW from Glasgow (95 miles) in 2 and a bit days. Pretty good going as I soon found out it’s not all rideable or even easily walkable in icy conditions.
On the first day I misjudged what I needed to wear a couple of degrees below freezing and ended up overheated and worn out after a long climb out of Fort William. After 13 miles I descended to Kinlochleven, a former ally-smelting company town for which the Blackwater reservoir had been built a century ago. From above it looked like some sinister gulag hidden in a valley. With snow on the hills I thought the hostel here would have been packed out with climbers, but there were only 4 others in and close up Kinloch doesn’t look so bad. The smelting works have now been converted into an ice climbing centre, while I imagine plenty of excess hydropower still pours down the pipes to get fed off to Fort William.
Day 2 was a slog up along the pipeline towards the reservoir and then breaking off on the WHW path towards the walk’s 560-metre high point at the Giant’s Staircase before dropping to Glencoe. From the top the Blackwater reservoir looked grim but was clearly unfrozen which boded well for tomorrow when I hoped to paddle the nearby lochs to Rannoch station.
For the second time that day, I went flying on ice, ripping off my metal watch strap, tearing my trousers, and bashing my knee. The heavy pack amplified the impacts. Then later, walking on the flat towards the isolated Kingshouse Hotel at the head of Glencoe, I slipped again on and landed hard with the heel of my hand on a sharp rock which hurt a lot. With three similar falls on the previous day, after 9 miles I staggered into the hotel feeling pretty beaten up, but what a lovely cosy old place to spend the night! There was a fantastic view out of my room across to the pyramid peak of Buachaille Etive Mòr, while deer gathered below my window in the dusk.
It snowed overnight and leaving Kingshouse Hotel, after a few miles I was expecting to get a view east over to Loch Ba from a high point cairn on the WHW, to establish whether it was worth schleping cross country to get to the water. The previous night had been forecast at -10°C and at the viewpoint all to the east was just a snowy tundra, with a small, snow-covered frozen loch south of Loch Ba for sure. Was Loch Ba frozen too? I couldn’t see from there nor from any other point further on the WHW, despite scooting without a pack up a hill for a better recce. Only back home when I zoomed in on the photos could I see a thin blue line of the bigger Loch Laidon which was clearly unfrozen. So I probably could have managed it after all.
It has to be said it was a lovely sunny day on the trail with only me, the stags, and some scurrying tracks, so with days short, I was happy to stick with what I knew and plod on to Bridge of Orchy station, rather than paddle to Rannoch station (the next one up) as planned.
So, a 40-mile walk in the snow with a heavy load. Nothing new there. What I should have done is taken the path from Kingshouse east to Rannoch, passing north of the lochs, but that would have missed out Loch Ba and the easy and shallow chute between the two lochs (though that may well have been frozen).
If nothing else it proved that you can set off for a walk with a camping load including a packraft as an option. If the walking is more pleasant or the packrafting not worthwhile, the modest extra weight is no drama. It would have been nice to go for a paddle but it’ll all be there next time and on the way to the station at Bridge of Orchy I was sizing up the Orchy River which drains from the moor to enter Loch Awe which I’d never heard of but whose north end is right on the Oban rail branch line. Sounds like a couple of nasty waterfalls need the be walked around on the Orchy soon after the bridge, but in tame water that’s too low for any hardshell it could be another little adventure with packboat and paddle. With roads, rails, and trails, the more you look at a map of Scotland, the more packable stuff is out there.
A week back home and the temperatures have jumped, even in Scotland, so the papers have to write about something else. Today, December 10th, the webcam at Kingshouse is the standard miserable Scottish highland vista. We’re going back in a month to walk back from Orchy to the hotel and from there to Rannoch station. Bring on some more Siberian winds.
I was back in the area a month or so later in mid-January 2011 – still snowy but less thick cover. This time I could clearly see the path off the WHW leading down to the road bridge being repaired, the rushing torrent of the river Ba leading to the loch, and even the isles on the loch, not totally icebound. Maybe my eyesight improved over Xmas.
Seal Skin socks – very good while they last. Warm but not sweaty considering they’re initially waterproof. The knee-length ones ought to make great waders.
Self-draining Karrimor trail shoes. No real wading to test them, but certainly better to walk in with a heavy load than the thin-soled Arroyos, even if proper tight lacing (which could be adapted onto the Arroyos) had a lot to do with it. I may adapt a decent pair of decent trail shoes from Meindl or whatever with a better sole, if some turn up half price. It would be nice to get some plain, non Gore-tex trail shoes for packboating but I don’t think they exist these days.
Watershed UDB drybag backpack was surprisingly good when you consider the 16kg load I carried just on shoulder straps with another smaller yellow Watershed over the front. Part of the tolerable comfort I feel was that the UBD’s relatively rough fabric grips across the back like weak velcro and so spreads the load. The packstaff paddle shaft saved a few tumbles and so means the 4-part Aquabound paddle is well suited when trail walking and paddling.
The Panasonic FT2 never got to be splash tested either but was otherwise easy to use (once you know Pana interface) and took some great shots and video. It does lack the full 25mm width of my normal Lumix TZ6 and I wonder if on full zoom the relatively tiny lens is on the limit. A great back up camera for watery places. I’m still using one in 2016.
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 (left), 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 roadless community on the Knoydart peninsula. The paddle up Loch Morar and easy portage 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 and tracked well enough.
At one point the sun came out and soon after the white speck of what must be 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 there, 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 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. It proved to be one of my best ideas on this trip, useful as a probe (boggy-looking ground was often actually firm, and vice versa) and a balancing- or weight-bearing aid. Climbing or descent, it helps take the load off the knees 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 (right) for 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’ shoes. Today I decided to try out my Seal Skinz socks which had sat in a drawer for years. Even though once wet, wool socks keep warm, the waterproof but breathable 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 in fact, the waterproofing or rather far fetched membrane element of Seal Skinz socks 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 enough 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 below, 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 on this stage, 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, 9 kilometres’ walk and 4 hours from Oban.
Glen Pean The plan here had been to track along the Pean river on foot and put-in as soon as it became reliably paddleable, hoping that that would lead smoothly to 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. If you’re walking your load, following 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 I’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 in the river before it led into a boulder-chocked stage. 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 for 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 as I’d read on a forum. 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 adventure 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 and ended with one 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 shoes for boating which gave little more support than a pair of Tevas. I should be wearing boots for hiking a 20-kilo load on rough ground. They did the job but the insides of my Keen 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 I knew that 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 some kind of 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 out 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. Where’s a pushbike when you need it!
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 WW3 rapid which the Scottish canoe guide warned of, but didn’t locate. A look on Google Earth had pinned down the probable location which I put in my GPS where the river took a hard left with a telltale smudge of white. I set off down the Lochy, knowing I’d be having 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 12 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 line 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 priorities of the stomach. In between I paid my respects to the outdoor gear shops in search of bargains but merely confirmed the depressing truth: other than a couple more dried meals and some 2-for-1 mini karabiners, there was nothing I needed. So the trip was not to end at Rannoch station but instead on Rannoch moor. 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, right), 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).