Tag Archives: river kirkaig

Suilven packrafting

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Not much time for paddling at the moment, but with a staggering three days of cloud-free skies while the south had its traditional wet bank holiday, we had to down tools and go and do something. How about another walk over Suilven and paddle back – was last time three years ago already? The motorbike was left at Inverkirkaig, so this time it was just a paddle-and-boot  ‘biathlon’.

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With the car parked near Glencanisp Lodge, it’s about a 2-hour walk along the estate track to the turn-off leading up to Suilven saddle. On the way we pass Suileag bothy where Jon and I overnighted in May, tackling an Assynt variant on the Cape Wrath Trail.

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It’s only a mile and a quarter from the estate track to the saddle, but with the 430-metre rise, it takes up to an hour. The washed-out last few feet onto the 600-metre-high saddle are on all fours. Above at the back, Quinaig, one of the best of the Assynt mountain walks. No packraft required.

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At the breezy saddle it’s quite busy – well, ten people or so – so we decide to lounge around and not visit the 731-m summit, nice grassy spot though it is. Far down below on Fionn Loch, we think we can see three canoes heading upstream towards the canoe camp alongside the rapids (more or less the middle of the picture, above). But they’re moving so slowly, for while I thought I was mistaken. Soon we’d realise why they were creeping along at about one foot a second.

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We set off down the exceedingly steep south side of the mountain.

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Here I get my first chance to appreciate the canoe-handle T-piece I’ve added to the end of my packstaff. It makes a much better support when inching down steep slopes, and the long packstaff can reach down a foot below your boots. Anyone would think I was going on about packstaffs again.

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Coming off Suilven, the gradient begins to ease.

By Fionn lochside a strong easterly is blowing and the packraft fills up almost by itself, even if the boat is on the verge of taking off. This looks a lot more than the 15-mph forecast. The wind will blow us downstream, but it looks rather gnarly out there, and we’re only at the ‘top’ of the fetch. It’s about a mile and a half along the loch to the river inlet and will get choppier downwind.

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Visiting baboons might enjoy a view of my butt patch – glued on with Bostik 1782 and (appropriately) lined with gorilla-tape. Even though the 2014 Alpackas have a bit more back-end buoyancy (as we were about to find to our cost), for the weightier and lazier paddler, a butt patch offers useful protection in the shallows.

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Did I say it’s very windy? And to make matters worse I’m rather careless about the weight distribution, forgetting how we did it last time in much calmer conditions. With the packs in the middle of the boat and the Mrs’ legs tucked in, instead of reaching back, the bow was noticeably low.

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Once out midstream, the bow started swamping in the chop which was a little alarming. The restful 1.5-mile downwind paddle to the river inlet is abandoned. I tell the Mrs to lean towards me, and I paddle across-wind for the other bank. The odd wave splashes over the side.

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We could have tried again with the packs on my back, but were a bit unnerved. As it is, two-up the boat was a little hard to handle in the wind, and we have no pfds. So the Mrs takes to the bank – a long detour around a lagoon – while I tip out the boat then allow the wind to whip me along the loch, pulling over to wait once every few minutes.

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I’m not sure I want to engage with the wind funnel at the ‘narrows’ of Fionn Loch, as by now the whitecaps and chop are getting it on. Plus I’ve lost track of the Mrs. So I pull over and stagger over the bogs to see where she is.

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Reunited, we’re effectively on the south side of the Kirkaig river, so are still going to have to paddle across to get to the north side for the regular path back to the car park. I recall the river entrance nearby is in another bay which will be out of the easterly fetch. With better thought out trim, that crossing should be less risky.

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I know from previous experience that trying to carry an inflated packraft even five minutes to the bay in this sort of wind will be like trying to wrestling a pterodactyl. So out with the plug and under my arm it goes. That’s the great thing with packrafts: they’re as easy to paddle in as they are to walk with, though there’s probably a more elegant way of saying that.

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This rotting transom is all that remains of the last boat that came this way.

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Another quick air up…

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…and we set off across the small bay…

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…for a small beach by the river entrance (above my right boot). Two up with the wind, I don’t want to get involved with the swift current flowing through the inlet towards bone-crunching waterfalls.

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Back ashore I roll up the Yakpacka…

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…and we set off for the 3.5-mile walk back to the bike at Inverkirkaig. And even here on the path the wind nearly knocks we over a couple of times. It was only an 11.5-mile day (10 for me on foot + 1.5 paddle), but by the time we get back to the bike we are pooped. Luckily, this year we have a lovely house to go back to.

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Packrafting around Suilven mountain

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.

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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 east into 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.

Suilven packraft triathlon

The forecast was good and with time running out, such days cannot be ignored.
Let’s go and do Suilven‘ I said to the Mrs.
Better still, let’s take the bikes and the packraft, park the car at Inverkirkaig, cycle to the trail head, climb up the north side, down the south side, and paddle Fionn Loch into the River Kirkaig for the footpath back to the car to get the bikes.’

What was the last bit again?

It’s a hilly 6-mile ride from Inverkirkaig along the WMR and up to Glencanisp Lodge where the road ends. From that angle Suilven rises like a sperm whale’s head over the gorse and lochans. Maybe it was the sunshine, but Glen Canisp that day looked like something out of a Scottish Tourist Board advert, and was made all the more appreciable by the easy quadbike track we followed east. One time that would be great walk to follow the 14 miles all the way through to Cam Loch and the A835 near Ledmore.

Of course, as ever these days, I was eyeing up the pack-potential of the Abhainn na Clach Airigh river too; actually string of easy lochans and gorges (left), linked with flat or frothy river stages. That too would be a great run, more probably from the Ledmore end, and with a handy bothy at Suileag. Or cook up any combination you like; with boots and a paddle the possibilities here or anywhere in northwest Scotland are infinite.

There comes a point directly north of Suilven’s twin-peak saddle (right) where you have to leave the easy track and head south into the bogs and up. You can’t see a path up the side of Suilven, but it pretty much follows the creek running down from the saddle; an hour and a half’s slog from the quad track that’s as steep as any track can be, without using your arms. And yet, as long as you keep chipping away (left), it’s always quicker and easier than it looks. And it’s quite a thrill to approach the saddle and have the Loch Sionascaig vista erupt before you (below right) as you catch your breath.


G/f decided to rest here while I took on the last 130 metres up to the summit, about 20 minutes away. For some reason a ‘magnificently pointless’ dry stone wall straddles the summit ridge near here. A quick look on the web came up with no convincing reason to its origin, though it does extend downwards enough on each side to stop agile stock either leaving or getting to the summit. And on the actual top there’s certainly enough room to graze a few sheep as well as curiously closely cropped grass. We’d not seen a sheep all day so unless deer make the climb you do wonder what grazed the grass up here? More Suilven summit mysteries.

From anywhere up here we could see the way back; the put-in near last week’s camp and the 2-odd miles along Fionn Loch to the entrance of the River Kirkaig (left). These waters define the border between the counties of Ross & Cromarty and Sutherland. While I was planting the flag, G had been scanning the scene below with binoculars and had spotted the waterfalls on the River Kirkaig we very much did not want to get sucked into.

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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.