Tag Archives: scotland

Feathercraft Java kayak review

In early 2016, Feathecraft dropped the Java/Gemini and Aironaut to stick with folding kayaks.
In 2017 Feathecraft closed for good.

javasectionIn 2007 I was looking to move on from my Sunny to something a bit longer and self-bailing. The two boats that appealed to me at the time were Aire’s hefty and wide Super Lynx and a Feathercraft Java (since then many new contenders have come on the scene). I decided to treat myself to the more expensive but lighter Java and picked one up from the clued-up FC dealer in Durango a few weeks after originally ordering it from a less reliable counterpart in NYC.
Set up is pretty straightforward: you slot in the keel- and skeg pole and then the side poles, velcro it all in place, attach the seat by seemingly too many straps, pump up the four sponsons and off you go. Realistically, 20 minutes is a good assembly time.
It’s a sleek-looking boat for an IK; still today nothing else comes close, but one of the biggest hassles are the inflation valves: basic turn-and-lock elbow valves seemingly off the end of a cheap Thermarest (or indeed an Alpacka where they work fine javahullto top up, not inflate). The thin plastic hose on the hand pump supplied pushes on, but when it’s hot or wet it twists off, or if you pump too hard it blows off and the air leaks out. As there’s no one-way valve, you have to screw it shut quick.
I thought for a while there was some component missing from the pump but no, this was it. I found holding the hose onto the valve with one hand while pumping the two-way pump with the other was an awkward but more effective way of inflating. Even if it’s bigger, give me a foot pump any day. Or regular one-way valves and a K-Pump.
At 28 inches (71cm) wide, it’s just 2 inches narrower than the Sunny but feels much narrower – chiefly because you sit high ON it, rather than in it. FC are right in describing the Java as an inflatable sit-on-top. As you can see in the pics, under my 95kg weight, the poles are more there to aid the hull profile than enable longitudinal rigidity. It’s 15 feet 4 inches (4.65m) long but you can’t get much into the last foot-and-a-half at each end; the usual problem with IKs.
I took it out for a scoot across the Vallecito reservoir in Colorado one evening with the two inner (floor) sponsons not too firm and was relieved to find it not too tippy. On the way back I struggled with the pump some more to firm up the inner sponsons and found it a bit less stable but still OK, and probably faster. And before I got caught out, I practiced getting back in off the water; as long as I crawled aboard without any sudden movements it could be done in calm flat water. But who ever falls out in calm water?

The retractable skeg is a great idea that’s only really possible on a bailer, but with the middle sponsons firmly pumped up the actuating string which comes up between them gets jammed. It’s best to manually make sure the skeg is fully down before setting off which partly negates the retractable feature. At least you know that if it snags on the river bed it will just pivot up (but then won’t come down again). A good fix to help the skeg pivot with the string lever would be to have the string passing through a short section of thick garden hose or plastic tube jammed between the sponsons so enabling it to slide freely. The slot through which the skeg passes is also the bailing hole, designed I am told, to suck water out of the boat with a venturi effect as it moves over still water (less effective in a current going with the boat). Can’t say I noticed water rising as I stopped, but it sounds plausible.

Paddling without the skeg was OK on flat water but with it deployed you can power on. The solid footrests, thigh straps and comfy seat (also inflatable) all help here. One problem with the footrests is the angle they sit on the poles forces your knees outwards into the paddle arc. I also wondered how secure they were, screwed down to merely butt against a protruding rivet in the pole. A flat rather than pointy end to the securing screw pin sitting against the 2mm-high rivet might be better and could easily be done. Anyway they never shifted during the easy paddling I did.
The Java has neat cargo nets: easy to use and secure. I’ve since bought a pair for my Sunny. Inflation valve design apart, workmanship is what you’d expect for over $2000 with good attention to detail. The ‘envelope’ or hull doesn’t really need to be sealed in any way as the four sponsons or bladders slot into their respective hull envelopes and, with the poles, make this pile of nylon and rubber into the only IK I know that looks close to a proper sea kayak.
Next day disaster struck. I left the boat drying on the roof of the car in the forest camp – black hull side up…  and went out very early to Silverton on the steam train. It had been a week of huge storms in the Rockies and camped in the forest I figured it would be OK in the shade and probable afternoon storm. But on the way back, when the bus driver mentioned it was a hot afternoon in Durango I thought “oh dear, I hope it hasn’t…”
It had. The thick black hull rubber had caught the sun nicely as it passed over the clearing and ruptured three of the sponsons. My lovely new boat, not one day out of the bag was a floppy mess. I yanked out a limp sponson (easily done) and found the rather light, flysheet-like ripstop nylon cover material split, and pinprick holes in the airtight polyurethane that the nylon was bonded to. That was the end of my Java paddling in CO. (A happy ending. I ordered a full set of sponsons from FC in Vancouver and when they discovered the boat was nearly new they generously offered to supply them free of charge. Good on you FC.)
Back home with new bladders, we went to Scotland and I tried out the re-bladdered Java alongside my old Gumotex Sunny. G-friend’s first impression was that I was too big for it – probably due to its SoT stance she had a point – and that also it was too fiddly to set-up for my keep-it-simple prefs. She had a point again, and although it’s amazingly light for what it was, it’s still pretty bulky. In Denver I’d spend hours packing it carefully for the flight back for fear of having the near yard-long hull poles damaged in transit. On my bathroom scales in the blue holdall ready to paddle it weighs 17kg (37.5lbs). The boat’s envelope alone (no seat or tubes) weighs 9kg (19.8lbs). In other words, about the same as my Sunny but two and a half feet longer.


On the lochs the long, thin Java slipped along, with a speed of 10kph (6.2 mph) flashing on the GPS for a second, though 4mph was a more sustainable speed (video above). Let me tell you that is a very good speed for an IK, comparable with the Incept K40 I bought a few years later. There are more useful speed stats on inlotusland’s blog about a lake near Vancouver in a blue Java. The initial high speeds were with a backwind but seem only a little better than my Grabner. Coming back next day he was down to 2.5mph so that must have been a stiff headwind.
The Java kayak didn’t really feel right to me: the old problem of too narrow and me sitting too high for my weight. An experienced hardsheller would probably not javabailerhave any issues. We went on to a freshwater loch, a little windier by now. I tried to visualise myself in a fairly normal one-metre swell out at sea. The rocks hadn’t really added an impression of stability (as they can do on other tippy IKs) and overall, with the height/width relationship (left) I didn’t feel confident anticipating less than calm conditions I wanted to be able to face.
Back at the chalet the biggest hassle of all: the Java takes hours to dry – maybe even days. But dry well it surely must, especially when rinsed after a sea paddle. Sure, I’d read about this in some reviews, but it now dawned on me that the problem was common to all sponson/bladder IKs (like all Aires). Some water will always get in the hull sleeves/envelopes holding the bladders as well as other crannies, and once there will always take a while to evaporate.
A spin in my basic Gumotex Sunny reminded me what a great boat it was – quick to set up, fast drying and good enough performance. If only it bailed. The Java got itself sold on ebay. Lesson: try before you buy and if it’s not possible (as it wasn’t for me in the UK, short of flying to Vancouver), be prepared to make a mistake.
Another Java review by a Brit sea angler here. That must have been two Javas in the UK! And there’s some Java chat on FoldingKayak.org. This guy in BC also had a Java then got a Gumo 410C. Looking at his pictures, I’m struck how ‘perched’ he looks while still being high in the water.
In 2011 I gave my sun-faded Sunny away and got myself an Incept K40 Tasman (see stats at the top of the page). The K40 was less fiddly than the Java to set up, though the time taken is about the same, but I still miss the ‘pump and go’ simplicity of the Sunny. That is why I then got myself a Grabner Amigo. But I sold that and got a Seawave, my best IK yet. I’ve had it 4 years. 

Packrafting on Inverpolly

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 lochanssend 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…
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 (left and above) 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 a heatwave in Scandinavia.
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 windered? 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 an inflatable bath and threatens to put the wind up their trout.
I neared the sluice (left from above, and right, 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 (pic, above left) 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 the current levels. Should the wall fail, that could be another matter.
It’s about 10 metre drop (right) into the steep-sided Loch Uidh which in turn leads to a gap (left). Here as expected the wind was funnelling but counteracted by a slight current running my way. This soon ended at another crumbling sluice that might have been runnable. 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 (right) without making a mess of myself. 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, though a fence line is shown); 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 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 paddling. 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 a couple of minutes of unexpected action, but there was that ominous noise and I knew it was time to hop out ahead of a series of stony drops (left). 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, puffinman? 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.


 

Scottish Sea Kayak Trail Part 1 ~ Gigha to Skye

Gaël Auffret

Grabner H2 report  • Part 2, May 2011 • Part 3, May 2012

I was not actually used to camping in the rain. My personal survival mode turns on with the first rain drops. I started worrying about staying dry when I heard the rain drumming on my tent that first morning in real Scotland. When I had decided to do a paddling trip along the Scottish west coast I knew what to expect. I was prepared and had enough room in my tent to dress and pack critical items such as my sleeping bag in drybags. Removing the inner tent gave me even more space to have a comfortable breakfast. When I broke camp the only wet thing was the tent flysheet. Yet I still wondered how long I could cope with these conditions. I had spent this first rainy night in a campground near Luss, on Loch Lomond west shore. I had arrived there at dusk the day before, after a long drive from Paris. The beauty of the landscape made me forget the weather as I drove along Loch Fyne. Inveraray was packed with tourists despite the showers. The rain didn’t stop until I reached Tayinloan on the west coast of Kintyre. I thought I’d find the Oban tide table in the tiny shop but I was wrong. I had to return to Tarbert where I should have stopped earlier. There I found the Oban tide tables at the tourist office. I bought some midge repellent, bread and peanut butter.
It was still early afternoon and I had enough time to cross to Gigha and set camp at the Ardminish boathouse, but I had to solve the problem of where to leave my car. According to the SSKT guide book I could leave it on the ferry car park but I didn’t want to worry about it during the next 2 or 3 weeks. So I decided to go to the Point Sands campground and get permission to leave my car there. I pitched my tent on the grass just behind the beach and spent the rest of the day preparing next day’s navigation on maps.

First paddle strokes in Scottish waters
No rain this Sunday morning. I inflated my Grabner IK (inflatable kayak), sorted out my gear, packed it in the appropriate drybags and carried it all down the beach. It was low tide. The sea was calm but the low and dark clouds looked ominous. I was ready to push off at noon. Soon I was riding the small chop of Gigha sound, and I relished this moment that I had longed for for many years.
The 5km crossing to Gigha was the first leg of the trip. It was neap tide so the current in the sound was negligible. The paddling conditions were good so I could skip stopping at Ardminish Bay and paddle on towards the northern tip of Gigha. Thanks to the excellent visibility I could see the Gamnha Gigha rocks and light, and identify Rochanan Point in the distance. I took aim and paddled across the sound again and had a first encounter with seals on Gamnha Gigha. They are the same color as the rocks so I noticed them only when they started moving.
I landed on Rochanan Point after 4 hours at sea. I was hungry. A NW breeze took up while I was having lunch. The wind and the chop were manageable and I crossed Loch West Tarbert with reasonable effort. I went around Ardpatrick Point then to Rubha Cruitiridh across Loch Stornoway. This bay was a possible landing if the conditions worsened and prevented me getting round Kilberry Head. I stopped on a small beach to relax, have a snack and empty the boat of the water that had splashed in during the crossing. The wind kicked up again around Kilberry Head and the clapotis rocked my boat in all directions. The rodeo-like ride went on until I passed Port Ban.
Soon I landed in Miller’s Bay on a postcard-perfect sandy beach. Behind it I found a grassy spot occupied only by two sheep, half a dozen cows and many rabbits. I pitched my tent, gathered wood, cooked some noodles and watched the sunset. My first paddling day in Scotland was almost over. I had paddled 32 km (20 miles), overcome the head wind and ridden the clapotis.  I had faced the same conditions many times before, but for some reason I had thought it would be more difficult in Scotland. Of course I was wrong.

Through the Dorus Mor
I expected to meet the same conditions along the following sections of the route. But Kilberry Head was the last exposed stretch of coast before a safer area of inshore waters. I was now protected from offshore weather by the high paps of Jura. The conditions that usually make this place tricky are strong currents during spring tides and south westerly wind. Tides were neap so the current was negligible, and the wind was just a light northerly breeze. Fortunately for me the danger that the SSKT book warns against were non-existent and the crossing to Point Knap was like paddling on a pond.

Rubha na Cille
I stopped for a quick lunch near Rubha na Cille and indulged into a short nap before taking to water. The sea was flat now. The breeze died as I was ploughing my way towards Carsaig Bay. Paddling on this mirror-like water would have been boring save for the fantastic landscape I had around me. I had never met such incredible skies, nor such mountains towering above such a glistening sea.
I didn’t find a camping spot around Carsaig Bay but had enough time to pass the Dorus Mor with the end of the flow. The, dead calm conditions were ideal for this passage. From Ardnoe I took a course to Garbh Reisa, the island marking the entrance of the Dorus Mor. This passage is a dangerous race in spring tides. The instructions given by the SSKT book were to reach the entrance at slack water and go with a beginning tide. They were valid for spring tides, but it was neaps and my plan was to cross at mid-tide to take advantage of the fastest current and add more distance to today’s mileage. I was late and I started feeling some current only when I reached the north tip of Garbh Reisa. To the west appeared the gap between Jura and Scarba, the infamous Gulf Of Corryvreckan, where a deadly whirlpool forms in spring tides. I gently glided around Craignish Point then turned north, expecting some push from the remainder of the flow. I looked to the shore to assess my speed: I was stuck, even being pulled slightly backwards to Craignish by some invisible eddy. I was not sure of the right move to make, get closer to the shore or away from it and closer to Reisa Mhic Phaidean. I had read that currents might be surprising in this area so I took the first option. I followed the shore until I found a suitable landing and camping spot in Bagh Dail nan Ceann, where I arrived just as I began feeling sore arms.
After pitching my tent in the tall grass, I picked some wood for the stove. I found a rather big piece on the pebble beach and used my folding saw and Finnish knife to split it into kindling. I kept my Yak paddling suit on as a camp suit and it worked well, keeping me warm and dry without overheating while paddling or shivering while on the shore.

Inshore waters
I woke up to the song of rain and wind. No surprise; the forecast had announced moderate wind save for squalls from the West. I had company under the tent flysheet: slugs and frogs were having a morning meeting on my face.
The first effort of the day was to get out of my sleeping bag, the second was to put on my Yak trousers inside the tent. They were cold and clammy and making my feet break through the latex ankle seals was a chore. The rain stopped and as the sky cleared I enjoyed the view on distant islands to the west while sipping some hot coffee.
After an easy crossing to Luing via Shuna south tip, I paddled northwards hugging the shore of Luing to dodge the ebbing current in the sound. I stopped in Toberonochy where I could get some water from a gentleman who stopped some masonry work to fill my water bag. I went around Torsa in company of seals and rode a convenient eddy created by the current ebbing from Cuan sound that brought me to Seil. There I stopped to wait for the flow at the entrance of the sound of Seil.
I entered Clachan sound not long after low tide but there was enough water for my kayak to glide over the kelp. Soon I passed under the famous bridge over the Atlantic, then through a narrow and shallow canal, and eventually emerged among some islets just north of Puilladobhrain. There I met a group of kayakers from Oban.  Their leader came over to say hello. She even added that my kayak was nice. I was surprised as most hardshell sea kayakers usually find any IK ugly. We parted company and I headed to Kerrera taking a direct course to Rubha Seanach, Kerrera’s southeast tip. It was an open passage, out of the protection of any island. Mull was too far away to offer any significant shelter from the westerly breeze but it was manageable and I liked to feel the moves of the swell again after two days of lake-like conditions.
The impressive Gyllen castle came into view and soon I entered Port a’Chaisteil. There a confused clapotis was stirring the water, making shooting pictures difficult. It was no better in Port a’Chroinn, the beach on the southeastside of the Castle. I went out of the bay, turned left around Rubha Seanach and entered the relatively flat waters of Kerrera sound where I paddled downwind up to Little Horse Shoe Bay, looking for a suitable campsite.

Crossings – Kerrera to Kilchoan
I was thinking about today’s route while spreading a thick layer of peanut butter on a Breton pancake. I had water for at least another 2 days, food for another 2 weeks. I had OS maps covering the coast up to Lochalsh and the Skye bridge. I needed no additional equipment. In short needed nothng in Oban. So why bother? I decided to go around Kerrera clockwise instead. The west coast of Kerrera was rugged and beautiful. The view over the firth of Lorn to Mull and the distant Morvern hills was promising. There was no shipping traffic except some fisherman and a barge or two. The ferry traffic was concentrated in Mull sound, going to and from Oban on a route that passes between Lady’s Rock and Lismore. I stopped on a shingle beach in Slatrach bay. This place offered superb camping and I promised myself to return and spend some time here. During spring tides the crossing to Mull has to be accurately timed in order to avoid being dragged in the race that forms between Lady’s Rock and Duart Point. It was still neaps, the tide was ebbing and I would just need to compensate a slight southbound current. I took a course to Grass Point against a moderate headwind. The visibility was excellent until I reached the middle of the 6.5 km (4 mile) passage where I saw thick cloud rolling down the slopes of Mull to the head of the sound, progressively concealing the landscape. I watched Lady’s Rock lighthouse as it started fading in the haze, while Eilan Musdile lighthouse was already invisible. I was now facing the situation I feared so much, being caught far from the shore in the way of large ships with little or no visibility. I knew it was strongly advised to have a VHF radio ready in busy waters, but I didn’t think it could prevent a collision. I ought to be wearing a fluo jacket but I had forgotten it in my car. I had the one solution every sea kayaker has left to escape the danger zone: paddle faster. So I did until I reached some fishnet buoys which were a sure sign that I was out of the shipping lane. I reached Mull and hugged the rocky shore. The wind picked up and showers became stronger and more frequent. I paddled under the conspicuous crenellated tower which ornates Duart Point; a heavy shower prevented me to take a picture of this famous landmark. As I came closer to the tip of Duart and entered the Sound of Mull, I was hit by a strong northwest breeze which was funneled between Mull and Morvern. I struggled harder to make headway and reached the foot of Duart Castle. I managed to take a picture of it although I was tossed by the waves and carried away by the wind. I turned into Duart Bay and landed on the beach. I had lunch in the shelter of some bush. Then I huddled under my poncho and fell asleep, impervious to the showers lashing down around me.
Returning to the beach after a walk to the castle, I found that the wind had dropped and although it was already late in the afternoon I had time to paddle further to the west. The receding tide had left my kayak high on the sand and I had to perform the whole unload-carry-reload process before launching. I went against the now reasonable headwind and after crossing Craignure Bay I found a suitable campsite in a meadow close to Scallastle golf course. Two eagles hovering over the shingle beach and a group of deer strolling nearby were my only companions. I cooked my dinner behind a bush that protected me from the cold wind before showers pushed me in my tent to eat my noodles.
Next morning brought more showers and gusts. I crossed to the Morvern shore as a cargo ship was coming from the west. I thought I had plenty of time to hop from Glas Eileanan lighthouse to Eilean Rubha and Ridire skerry, but once in the middle of Sound I saw the ship features alarmingly growing fast so I sprinted out of the way.
I followed the beautiful Morvern shore and had my first encounter with otters. At first I was surprised by the sight of two long-tailed furry animals running on the kelp then jumping in the water. I stopped nearby hoping to spot more otters while having lunch, but none showed up. Despite the intermittent drizzle the place was lovely. Further up the Sound I landed in Lochaline near the ferry pier. For morale building I had a coffee and a scone at the small coffee shop.
Another 14 km further west I crossed again the Sound from Dun Ban to Rubh’an-t-Sean Chaisteil. I landed on a shingle beach next to a stream to check for a possible campsite. Up above the beach I found a flat grassy shelf at the bottom of the hills, a perfect spot obviously often used by other kayakers. Several cairns had been erected by previous visitors and pipes were arranged as benches around a fireplace and there was dry wood stored inside, of which I used only a few twigs.
The wind had backed to southeast during the night, bringing lukewarm but wet weather. Paddling through the Doirlion a’ Chailbhe narrow channel, I entered Tobermory under a low grey sky. Fading in the hazy drizzle the famous brightly painted houses lining its main-street appeared paler than usually seen on postcards. I landed near the harbour office. My paddling suit was dripping on the floor as I asked the weather forecast from the woman behind the counter, drawing disapproving gazes from the tourists. She produced a printout of the met office web page. I had no glasses and she lent me hers. She called me back as I started walking away still wearing them. The forecast confirmed light south to southeast winds all day, perfect for crossing the Sound then Loch Sunart mouth to Kilchoan, then skirting Ardnamurchan. The wind would carry me directly to Kilchoan but I had first to cross the shipping lane. Although there was less traffic than the day before, I thought the direct route was not safe, so I decided to cross the Sound from Calve Island to Auliston Point. On the way I checked the waves were not breaking on Big and Little Stirk, a clue that the sea would not be rough around Ardnamurchan. Three otters welcomed me at Auliston point. I went on across Loch Sunart to Maclean’s Nose, the wind and the waves pushing me gently to my destination and I landed on a skerry just outside Kilchoan.

Around the Ardnamurchan peninsula
There was a small celebration in Kilchoan. I could see it from the skerry where I was having a quick lunch. The forecast I had looked at in Tobermory’s harbour office announced a north wind tomorrow while confirming a southerly light breeze for today. Therefore the best time to go around Ardnamurchan was Right Now! From the map and the guide I knew that between Sron Bheag and Ardnamurchan lighthouse there would be no escape route for about 10km. That was at least two hours strung out below bleak cliffs from which waves bounced back creating an uncomfortable clapotis of mixed-up water. I hoped to encounter dolphins or even Minke whales as promised in the guide book, but the sea around Ardnamurchan was empty save for the usual birds although I did see the fin of a basking shark. Even though I had ideal conditions for this section, I was relieved when the tall figure of the lighthouse came into view.
Sandy Sanna Bay lived up to its description and I relished paddling among the scattered skerries and along its perfect beaches. I carried on past Sanna Point because I believed it would be more difficult tomorrow when it would be exposed to the forecasted northerly wind. However, I could not find a safe landing spot in the bay east of Sanna Point so I came to the Bay and landed on the smooth sand of a west facing beach protected by a barrier of skerries. It had been a long day on the water. I was tired but happy to have overcome this major headland so easily. The hard part was still to come.
Next morning the expected northerly was on and the sea was scattered with whitecaps. I launched in incredibly transparent water, glistening under the sun already high in the blue sky. The Small Isles were clearly visible to the north. Leaving the shelter of the last skerry I ploughed into the steep waves around Sanna Point then paddled a long 8-km stretch of beautiful though threatening jagged cliffs.  I could tackle the beam sea but the ride was pretty wet as some waves crashed over the port side of my kayak and took enough water to feel the cold around my ass.
I landed on the tiny beach in Fascadale Bay, timing the wave pattern to avoid being dumped in the sand. I needed a short rest before resuming my struggle to prevent the wind and the waves hurling me onto the rocks. I bailed the water from the Grabner, launched and went out punching through the chop, taking on as much or more water in the process. Some day I should rig a deck cover to this boat! As I paddled to Rubha Aird Druimnich headland a sudden and stinging hunger hit me. My paddling pace and my speed dropped alarmingly as the power in my arms and upper body vanished. I devoured a handfull of nuts and sultanas and all my sesame bars, sucked most of my water bottle and resumed paddling at a slower pace until I felt my strength back. Rubha Aird Druimnich seemed discouragingly far and I felt like I’d never reach it. But stroke after stroke it slowly loomed larger until I could see the cormorants drying their wings on its top. I rounded the point and enjoyed the wind and waves pushing me towards the conspicuous beach of Camas an Lighe where I noticed a narrow opening cutting into the rocky shore. I paddled through it and entered a pool which formed a perfect natural harbour, sheltered from all sides. Above the beach among the trees were an abandoned cottage and a decayed boat house. It was the beginning of the rising tide so I moored the kayak, took my day bag, found a convenient rock to sit on and had the lunch I’d been longing for for hours.
Castle Tioram in Loch Moidart is an impressive building. Except at high tide it is accessible from the mainland, so tourists were coming and going. Although there was a flat patch of grass providing an adequate campsite just near the little beach I decided to find another place to pitch my tent. I eventually landed on Riska island. There was a great camping spot but the ground was soaked. At least I could verify that the floor of my inner tent was watertight.
Next morning I was invited to have a coffee on board of a Polish sailboat. I had met Jeff, her skipper, on Tioram the day before. He had sailed single-handed from Gdansk. We had both been alone for a long time so we were both happy to have a civilized conversation with another person (after 2 days alone I start speaking aloud to myself). Time passed without my noticing until when looking over the rail I saw that the tide had reversed. I jumped in my kayak and pushed off. I paddled out of Loch Moidart through the south channel, for the eastern section of the north channel was dry. As I was rounding Shona’s southeast corner I went across two cruising Wayfarers heading into the Loch with the flow.
I stopped for lunch on a lovely beach facing south on Samalaman island, then carried on to Glenuig where I refilled my water bag at the inn. Instead of heading to the northeast I paddled east up to Eilean nan Gobhar at the mouth of Loch Ailort. My goal was the Iron Age fort supposedly crowning this rock but I did not see any. Then I set a course to Eilean a t-Snidhe and paddled towards the declining sun setting behind the Small Isles. The conspicuous Sgurr of Eigg provided a perfect landmark to aim for.
Soon after rounding the southwest corner of Rubh’Arisaig, I started looking for a campsite. I noticed two dinghies which had been hauled up the beach. I went closer and recognized the unmistakable features of the two Wayfarers I had met earlier near Loch Moidart. Four tents were pitched on the grass shelf above the beach. I assumed there would be room for a fifth one so I went ashore. I walked up to one of the larger tents where a group of eight people were having dinner. I said good evening and asked permission to share the place, which was joyously granted. Meanwhile a herd of cows came to inspect my boat. They soon invaded our camp until we drove them away by yelling and waving arms frantically.
The Scots invited me to join them around the bonfire they had lit on the beach. We swapped boating stories while sipping cider. They had caught only one mackerel which was being cooked on a flat stone put close to the fire. The kids were grilling marshmallows on sticks. As one boy was trimming his stick with the tiny saw blade of his little SAK, I handed him my Fiskars folding saw saying “you’d rather use a real saw”. Then his father produced a beautiful folding bucksaw out of a bag and said “THIS is a real saw!” Never underestimate the amount of gear a Wayfarer crew can carry. Those two families had sailed their Wayfarers from Glenuig to Eigg and Muck. They were just returning from these isles when I met them this morning. They used to stop on this beach every year. I heard that Dougal, one of the boys, was a piper. I told him I’d like to hear him. A moment later he was back with his bagpipe and played standing in this darkness so particular to places where the sun set in the sea. Huge and low black clouds invaded the sky to the west and we felt the rain drops and the wind started a song that meant it was time to go to bed.
I pushed off late in the morning after waiting for a southwest squall to calm down. The sea flattened and the sun broke through the clouds. I entered the Arisaig skerries at low tide and there was not enough water left to get to Luinga Mhor. I landed on the sand and had lunch under a sunny blue sky. My Wayfarers companions had told me there would be many kayakers in this area, but I only met one group of half a dozen French paddlers who was picnicking not far from me. I paddled up Loch nan Ceall with the rising tide. My timing was right so I could land just in front of the Spar store in Arisaig. I pulled the boat onto the seaweed and moored her to a rock. At the grocery I indulged in some candy bars and a pack of beer as a treat for my birthday, packed the supplies in my daybag and put to sea. I paddled two miles against the southwest wind and the tide before turning north. There was enough water to take the short cut passage between Eilan Ighe and the mainland. I hopped downwind from skerry to skerry along miles of white sand beaches until I reached the bay of Morar. The map didn’t show any convenient landing till Mallaig, so I turned back and went ashore at the tip of a headland located near the famous Camas an Daraich, landing on a tiny beach tucked between rocks and grassy dunes providing shelter from the southwest breeze.
The wind had veered to northwest again during the night and the temperature dropped significantly so I was shivering when I stopped in Mallaig. I expected this place to be bustling with tourists but I was alone on the slippery slipway in the southeast corner of the harbour. My initial plan was to leave the boat there and to walk to the Fishermen’s Mission for coffee and scones. Forget the coffee, I pushed off and vigorously resumed paddling in order to warm up, motivated by the beauty of the landscape offered by the Cuillin hills rising in the northwest and the Knoydart mountains across the mouth of Loch Nevis. There were no boats on the water, just a fisherman raising his lobster pots off the Knoydart shore. He kept me company to Doune, where I landed on the pebble beach one hour before low tide. The sun came back out and I spread my tent to dry on the boulders. Above the beach was an array of wooden bungalows so I went exploring. A chambermaid explained the place was a kind of hotel where the guests come by boat since there are no roads. She showed me to the kitchen where the cooks refilled my water bag. They were preparing scones, cakes and other good stuff. It was smelling so good but I was not offered anything except a shower. I felt slightly ashamed of my stinking, but only for a split second.
As I paddled past Airor I enjoyed a short spell of dead calm. To avoid overheating I took off my PFD and cag. It lasted all of 15 minutes before the wind picked up again from the north and I had to put it all back on. From Rubh’Ard Slisneach I took a course to Rubha’ a’Chaisteil on the north shore of Loch Hourne. The north headwind slowed me down so I had plenty of time to gaze at the beautiful Loch Hourne mountainous backdrop. I reached the opposite shore, paddled on to Sandaig and landed on the beach to take a picture of Gavin Maxwell’s cottage. I was mesmerized by this place. After a nautical exploration of the islands in company of ubiquitous seals, I landed and made camp on one of them.

Stuck in Sandaig
I was in the last phase of my breaking camp routine. All gear was packed and I just had to pull off some pegs and take down the flysheet of my tent. But suddenly the wind picked up in a series of gusts and showers. The sea to the northeast was all whitecaps and the temperature plummeted. I was expecting a spell of fine weather from the building of a high pressure shoulder on the area but this was evidence that a front had found his way around the high pressures. The resulting gradient just meant stronger wind blowing from where I wanted to go. So much for a triumphant arrival in Lochalsh today. I was stuck in Sandaig.
Bound to stay in my tent by the rain, I spent this forced day off reading, planning future navigation, making a list of supplies, but mostly dozing, stunned by the hammering of frequent downpours. I could not use any stove inside tent, so I ate cold meals of Mediterranean cereals, a kind of couscous that only requires some water on it. It’s ready after half an hour once the cereals have absorbed the water. I had also cheese, saucisson, bread, butter, dry fruits, neither requiring any heating nor cooking. Nevertheless I indulged in a big chocolate bar for morale building. Water was leaking in the tent because of two toggle straps sewn through the flysheet. I attached plastic bags with small rubber bands to the toggles so the water wicked inside the bags instead of splashing inside the tent.
Next day I woke up to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach at high tide. It was not as loud as the day before though. Staying in bed and enjoying some oatmeal in the warmth of my sleeping bag, I listened to the sounds of nature outside. There was other evidence of weather improvement: no rattling of the rain, and ess flexing of the tent under the pressure of the wind. I looked out and watched the sea and the sky for clues which would help to make a right go/no go decision. The wind was blowing from northwest, so it would be at least a one-hour struggle to Skye across the two-kilometre wide Sound of Sleat. I put to sea from the lee side of the islet, paddled to the last bit of protected water, took a breath, sucked a large gulp of water and rushed forward. I battered into a short and steep chop, the prow rising on the crest of the oncoming wave then falling heavily in the successive trough. After I’d crossed two thirds of the distance I reached the point where the mountains of Skye started providing shelter. The wind decreased and the sea gradually flattened as I came into the island’s lee. Close to the shore the water became like a pond barely rippled by gusts of air falling from the hills. I landed on a pebble beach, bailed my kayak and relaxed. Looking back to Sandaig islands in the distance, they seemed incredibly far.

Through Kyle Rhea
I landed near the village of Kylerhea and the tide was ebbing at full speed now. Ten minutes earlier it had stopped me near the Glenelg ferry landing. I had met the southerly current when rounding Dunan Ruadh but I had been able to paddle on thanks to eddies running northward near the shore. From my vantage point I watched the seething water rush along the opposite shore into Glenelg Bay.
I pushed off at slack water. I expected the flow to help me through the narrows but I reached Sgeir na Caillich before the current had built significantly. There I was greeted by a strong northwesterly breeze rocketing down Loch Alsh. After skirting Rubha Duibhe I gave up heading directly to Castle Moil and paddled close to the shore hoping there would be shelter in the lee of Loch na Beiste. The wind proved to be the same but the chop was much smaller, making the ride much more comfortable. I came along the rusty wreck of HMS Port Napier. There I met a tourist glass bottom boat, the Atlantis, the only other boat I could see on the water. I passed Castle Moil and crossed the mouth of Kyleakin harbour to the slipway. I paddled into the harbor and docked my kayak along a pontoon. The hostels along the pier were full so I found a berth in a backpackers. I returned to my kayak, paddled out of the harbour into Otter Pond and landed on the shingle beach in front of the hostel. I stored my boat in the hostel’s backyard, got out of my clammy kayak outfit, and went to the bathroom for a well deserved shower. Once neat and clean I went to Saucy Mary’s, the pub and lodge next door, with a fellow French traveller. We enjoyed a hearty dinner, some pints of local ale, good music and good company.
Early next morning I took a bus to Lochalsh. I had to wait till 10 o’clock in the supermarket because they can’t sell beer before that time. I left my bag of supplies to the cashier and went to the tourist store to buy some maps. I had reached Skye much sooner than planned despite headwinds. The forecast was promising a spell of fine weather thanks to the high pressure shoulder.  Should it last a week I might be able to make it to Ullapool. My initial plan was a finish in Skye, so I’d not taken OS maps to cover the area farther north than Lochalsh. Unfortunately I could only find one map, the one going up to Applecross.
I returned to Tescos, paid my supplies including a six-pack of McEwans and walked over the famous Skye bridge back to Kyleakin. The wind was still blowing from northwest and got even stronger in the afternoon. I didn’t want to stay there any longer, but I couldn’t head north in such conditions. So be it, I launched in Otter Pond and paddled downwind through Loch Alsh then Kyle Rhea. At the ferry landing I met a group of kayakers led by the other famous Gordon Brown. They clearly looked down on me, as all so called real sea kayakers do when they meet an IK-er. Nevertheless I engaged conversation with GB and he warmed up a bit when I told him I was from Brittany. I carried on along the rugged and beautiful Skye shore. The sky was blue, the whitecaps glistened in the sun on the choppy waters of the Sound of Sleat. I glided to the mouth of Loch na Dal. The view to Loch Hourne was extraordinary. The water was whipped by the gusts. I turned towards the head of the Loch instead of crossing to Duisdalemore. I found a lovely campsite by a stream and under the trees, well sheltered from the wind.

Last days
Twenty four hour later I was passing between the pillars of the elevated road leading to the Skye bridge. I scoured the Black Islands looking for a suitable campsite to no avail, as all islets were covered with impenetrable scrub. It was a tad too late to cross to the opposite shore so I carried on toward Plockton until I eventually noticed some inviting meadows above Port Cam near Drumbuie. I entered this tiny inlet and soon I saw a red sea kayak apparently suspended in the long grass of the meadow which sloped down to the beach. I took this as a positive sign and landed on the shingle beach. I checked the spot expecting to meet a party of fellow paddlers but only found a kayak trailer, which was still attached to a car casually parked by the farm track. Later I saw some people coming down the footpath in the dark. It turned out to be a girl and two guys. The girl said she had noticed some movement near her car from her house up on the hill, hence this visit. I explained what I was doing and asked if I could try one of the kayaks next morning. This request was not received with a great enthusiasm so we said good night and I was happy to be alone again under a fabulous starlit sky.
It had been a very cold night, the coldest so far, but I quickly warmed up in the sunshine, happy to have a great summer day ahead. I was about to push off when I saw the small troop of kayakers who visited me the night before come along the beach, already dressed for paddling including spray skirts. I waited for them. I engaged in conversation and was curious about their gear. The girl was obviously the leader of the group. She did not propose I paddle one of their kayaks as I had requested. She asked me about my plans for today. To her visible relief I told her I would go to Plockton. Her group would go to Crowlin Islands, in the opposite direction. In fact my plan was to cross to Applecross peninsula from An Dubh-aird, a headland not far to the east. So I did. While in the middle of the passage I briefly saw the back and the fin of a minke whale, too far to take a picture. I landed on the shingle beach at Uags and walked to the bothy to reconnoitre. I loved the place and decided to arrange for a night here on my way back. Then I crossed to Crowlin Islands and landed on Camas na h-Annait for lunch. What a perfect lunch spot it was!
I carried on to the north until I reached Applecross. It was low tide and a large expanse of the famously red sand was emerging from the receding water. The sun was projecting my shadow on the shallow bottom. I paddled out of the shallow bay and turned back to the south. A gentle breeze picked up forum the southwest, so I could expect a midgeless evening at camp.
I landed on the white coral beach at Ard Ban. The man who was renting the cottage nearby gave me permission to camp in the meadow and showed me a kind of well where I could draw some water. The opening to access the well was obstructed by a large flat stone to prevent sheep soiling the water. Nevertheless it was strongly recommended to boil this water for drinking. The sunset on Raasay was awesome.
The weather changed overnight. It was a dreary morning with ominous clouds hovering low and dark over the grey sea. I left Ard Ban and paddled first to Sgeir Bhuidhe, then to Eilean Beag, the smallest of the Crowlin islands. I made a counterclockwise circumnavigation of Eilean Meadhonach, thanks to the tide that had risen enough to let me pass through the narrow channel between the two main islands. I stopped on the big island and walked up to the old settlement. There is little left of it, crumbling cottages scattered throughout the fern, some of them already turned into stone heaps.
I crossed again Caolas Mor to Sgeir Shalash and went up to the pier at the head of Loch Toscaig. It was not an inviting place and I stopped on a small shingle beach nearby. There was no wind and the midges attacked me while I had lunch. It started raining. I tried to find shelter under the canopy of the trees behind the beach, but the midges proved to be more a nuisance than the drizzle. My poncho solved the problem of staying dry while having lunch in the rain.
I paddled the last 4 km to Uags. The bothy was visited by walkers hiking the trails running across the Applecross peninsula. It offered them a convenient shelter for a rest and a hot beverage before turning back. Just two of them stayed overnight with me.
Torrential rains fell during the night and I was happy to sleep under a solid roof. I woke up to at the loud sound of what I believed to be a howling wind but surprisingly there was none of the usual other noises like the cracks of the roof structure under the pressure of the wind. I looked through the window and saw that the trees were not moving. I went outside and found out that the din was caused by the rain-inflated stream that ran in front of the bothy steps.
I left Uags and paddled east along the coast. Many streams were running down the hills and pouring over the shingle beaches. The wind had veered to northwest and pushed me across towards Plockton. I stopped on the Eilean a’Chait skerry which supports a lighthouse no longer in use. The owner was there with a contractor assessing work to be done to repair the tiny lighthouse building. I had lunch on the beach running along Plockton’s main street, busy with tourists. The wind cleaned the sky, and I could have lunch in shorts under a dazzling sun.
I left Plockton with the ebbing tide. Some WNW breeze picked up and I stopped on the lee of An Dubh-aird to put on my cag. The wind died an hour later and it was dead calm when I passed through the Black Islands, disturbing the seals basking lazily on the rocks. I came around the north of Eilan Ban and let the current take me under the bridge into Otter’s Pond. I landed in front of the backpackers hostel. This was the end of my paddling along the SSKT for this year. All I had to do now was to return to my car in Tayinloan.

Back to Tayinloan
I had to arrange my stuff in a strict packing set up to be compatible with bus traveling. I had a very large dry-bag for the kayak, PFD, paddling suit, pump, bailer, sponge, leashes, painter, compass. The paddles were secured to the bag with a pair of bungees and the blades wrapped into the folded seat pad for protection. The Ortlieb Rackpack bag contained the remaining food for about one week and small items like stove, pots, first aid kit, etc. Those two bulkier and heavier bags would go in the hold of the bus, while I would keep in the cabin the lighter and smaller Ortlieb Explorer which contained tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, some spare clothes and some snacks for the day. I could only walk a short distance with the large pack on my back and one of the other bags in each hand. It would have been easier with a cart.
The bus left reasonably early from Kyleakin. The road run alongside Loch Alsh then Loch Duich past the famous Eilean Donan castle. I had forgotten I wanted to go there by kayak.

The road to Fort William run through the dramatic Glen Shiel, then along Loch Lochy’s stupendous countryside. From my elevated seat I had perfect sights on both sides of the road and I enjoyed every minute of the trip, although it was raining and the mountains were hidden in low clouds. Unexpectedly the bus to Oban was due to leave Fort William much earlier than I thought and I had no time to visit the outdoor gear shop nearby.
In Oban the sun came out while I was waiting for the coach to Lochgilphead. Late in the afternoon the third bus dropped me at the entrance of the road to Point Sand, just in front of the deserted village school. A young couple got off the bus with their baby girl. They had no more luggage than a wheeled suitcase, a duffel bag and a stroller. They said they were going to the Point Sand campground too, so I proposed to go get my car alone while they would wait for me to pick them up. But they declined and declared they could walk with me. So be it. I hid my heaviest bag behind the low wall enclosing the schoolyard and set off to Point Sand with my three companions. Rebecca, the camp owner, was glad to see me back alive and handed me my car keys. I went to my car, started up and headed home.

Grabner H2 report • Geo-tagged photos • Map • May 2011 stage
 

Sea kayaking on Loch Linnhe

A short slide show of an afternoon’s paddling we did a couple of years ago after the Spey. Jon in the Carolina found this route description in this book, winding in and out of a few islands and so never far from a shore which was fine by us. It’s hardly ‘out there’ but for us it was quite a step up, calculating the tides, wind, currents, UV refraction index and negotiating the swell that might have exceeded two feet at times – plus dealing with some dodgy rip on the way back that was there just where the route description said it would be.
After the castle, coming back in between Shuna island and the shore, the wind or tide or something was against me while Jon glided effortlessly forth in his hard plastic boat. That’s the good thing with an IK, you get a free work out!
All in all, a lovely October’s day on the Scottish west coast.


Winter packrafting in Scotland

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!

Nov 25:
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 cramponards, 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 hydro power 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.
whw-stagsIt 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 round 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 of 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 ice bound. Maybe my eyesight improved over Xmas.

Gear

  • 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.
  • whw-udbWatershed UDB drybag backpack was suprisingly 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.
  • fxg-FT2The 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 then limit. A great back up camera for watery places. I’m still using one in 2016.

Some more randomly ordered pics:

 

First time packrafting in Scotland

First time packrafting gear

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 fire place, 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 Aqua Bound paddle to make a pakstarfpackstaff. 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, I also submitted a report to ukrivers here, even if it is really a joke river by Scottish standards.

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 paddable 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 dry suit, 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 capuccho 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 push bike 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 tell tale 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 dry suit, 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. 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.

actual

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.
pakeastwalkIf 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).


 

Packrafting in Scotland – intro

For more recent packrafting in Scotland click ‘Scotland’ or ‘packrafting’ categories above or right.

Northwest Scotland is about as ‘Alaska’ as it gets here in the British Isles and after years of going everywhere else, I’m beginning to realise what a wonderful area it is for adventuring – when it’s not lashing it down, that is. Thousand-metre peaks surround isolated inland lochs fed by a streams or ‘burns’, linked infrequently by walking trails. It’s an ideal place to experiment with the Packrafting Way.
This uncultivable land – either steep or saturated – is mostly owned by private estates who used to run fir plantations, but now tend to get grants to rehabilitate the land to attract tourism, including charging a small fortune to catch salmon or shoot deer and grouse.
One benefit is that bothies (basic refuges) used by the estate for their activities are open to all at other times and free. They can make a great place to escape the notorious midges which infest the highlands in summer. Just like Alaska then.
The West Highland Rail Line from Glasgow to Mallaig on the west coast is a great way of getting in and out of the area highlighted on the map at the top, with several isolated stations where you can pick up the twice-daily train. The fact that the 160-mile long WHL is also considered one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys makes the getting there as satisfying as packrafting back.
rannochstn

For me you can’t beat alighting at Rannoch station, one of the most isolated in Britain. All around is the sodden mush of Rannoch Moor feeding a string of lochs between ranostnGlencoe and the River Tay. I missed making the most of a good winter in Scotland this year, but after Christmas couldn’t resist nipping up on the train from to camp overnight in the snows above Rannoch.
39For my first packrafting mini-adventure I planned a 130-km (80-mile) route from near  Mallaig to follow the 12-mile long Loch Morar eastwards, initially along a track then on the water when the path ends and valley sides get too steep. Loch Morar is Scotland’s answer to Lake Baikal, at over 1000′, it’s the deepest lake in Britain, with it’s own legendary monster and a sinister WWII history of espionage straight out of The Thirty Nine Steps (which actually had it’s climax on Rannoch Moor). At the far end of the loch a burn leads up Glen Pean over a gnarly 15-km watershed to the adjacent Loch Arkaig.
Once over the pass on the watershed, it might be possible to hop into the east-flowing burn and paddle down to Loch Arkaig. On Google Earth it looks possible and will be a lot easier than trudging through the bogs. There’s a road along the north side of Loch Arkaig  which may be easier if the loch doesn’t look too inviting. At the east end, after a dam a weir and some rapids, you reach Loch Lochy, a southern continuation of Loch Ness on the Great Glen, the distinctive fault line you can see slicing southwest through Scotland on the map above. Traditionally, northwest of that line is where the true wilds of Scotland are to be found. We like those.
At the south end of Loch Lochy the River Lochy parallels a canal for 8 miles down to Fort William alongside Ben Nevis. The river is paddleable I read, bar one easily avoided Class III. Fort William will be a chance to dry out, restock and eye up Stage 2.
It would be fun to climb over Ben Nevis and down the other side, but unlike many English or Welsh peaks, that’s not so easily done it seems. I’ve been warned off coming off the summit down the south side. That leaves the CMD arete I’ve heard of over the years as the only way  eastwards. It’s the local answer to Striding Edge or Crib Goch – exposed  ridges which, depending on the day, might not be the best place to be caught with a boat on your back.
Around the south side of Ben Nevis a track leads up Glen Nevis valley from where I can take off over the moors or the Mamores to squelch towards Blackwater reservoir. It’s notable that the popular West Highland Way walk doesn’t go this way. After paddling over Blackwater there’s a trudge over to Loch Laidon to raft up one more time and row my boat to the eastern end for the short walk to Rannoch station and the 12.42 to Glasgow.
Sounds easy when it’s all in your head, less so with mist at ground level and the next Low rolling in off the Atlantic. I’ve been watching the weather and it looks like six days of rain  followed by a day of showers. So I’ll be satisfied to expend my time and effort on the western part of the route where there are a couple of bothies and less people, and then catch my train early at Fort William.

Read trip report

Packing for packrafting
It was quite a challenge managing all the gear into a portable format. Initially I was going to lash dry bags to a packframe, but that was just too bulky and uncomfortable. So I’ve settled on using a newish 60-litre rucksack which is much more comfortable – at least on the short walk to and from the bathroom scales. With several external pockets and lashing points, it’s more accessible and functional than a drybag too.
For packrafting you have to be ready for submersion, not just lashing rain, which complicates matters a bit. I managed to grab a huge 100-litre drybag off ebay to use on the water. Inside the pack, what’s important (principally clothing and sleeping bag) is inside additional dry bags or zip lock bags, and with this in mind I found a near-half-price Crewsaver dry suit too. Despite the 2kg weight penalty it’ll be reassuring to be in one of these when bobbing around in the middle of a 1000-foor-deep loch, or being swept towards some rapids, as well as something to wear if having to walk in heavy, cold rain. I’ll be able to wade through waist-deep rivers without a care.
With 4 days dried food and drink, the load came in at 20 kilos (44lbs). Basically, it’s a fairly reasonable solo camping load of 12 kilos plus 8kg of boat and boating gear. It all adds up. This is summertime in Scotland so any water I need will find me long before I need to look for it. Not sure I’ve ever walked with that much weight; such loads can bring on knee injuries or accidents, so I’ve converted the shaft of my 4-part Aqua Bound paddle into a staff for steep slopes and river crossings.

  • Backpack 2kg
  • Dry food & drink 3.5 days 3kg
  • Camping, cooking, clothes, maps, camera, gps, etc 7kg
  • Boat, paddle, pfd, dry bag 6kg
  • Dry suit & gloves 2kg
  • Total … 20kg

Packrafting in Scotland ~ gear

This is the gear which worked for me (or not) on my first big trip to the Scottish highlands in summer. There’s plenty more chat about gear and tips on the Alpacka forum, among other places.

Backpack – TNF Terra 60
I bought this last year for Coast to Coast when my packframe and dry bag idea proved dumb, and then realised it’s the first new backpack I’d bought since the 1970s – a Karrimor Annapurna I recall. They’ve got a lot better since then and although parts of the Terra’s shell seem as thin as tights, it has all the features you want: adjustable strap height, shoulder pull and chest straps, fat padding, attaching loops and buckles for lashing on the boat wrapped in the pfd, and a lower access zip to save tipping it all out. The back ‘verti-cool’ panel is of course bogus, you’re going to sweat carrying this thing, but even at 2.3kg I couldn’t have expected better from the Terra for what it carried.
This year the colour has of course changed and the size has gone up to 65 litres or more. Mine cost around £70 in a sale, but for what I used it for it was only just big enough. PFD, boat, paddles and dry suit all had to go on the outside.
In late 2011 I bought myself a 65+10-litre Berghaus C71 (right). It had many of the handy features of the Terra: what they call wand (mesh) pockets where the paddle blades can slot and sit under the side compression straps, an elastic on the back to stuff the rolled up packraft under, as well as a pair of straps along the bottom to take a rolled-up drysuit and to stop the mounted packraft slipping down. Well that’s the way I visualised it while staring at the internet. Oh, and like the Terra last year, it was reduced drastically from £140 to 80 quid. More news in Gear when I’ve got something to say about it. 

Shoes – Keen Arroyo II
After years with Tevas, a few months ago I figured I’d try something that held the foot securely with more than Velcro and which had a better sole. The Arroyos turned up at half price – about what they’re worth – and have been OK for what they are. For some reason the sides carry the boast ‘waterproof’, but so what if it pours in and out of the holes?
I like the wide fit very much, the quick synching lace system is… quick; if you need more security you just tie a knot or convert to regular laces. My only complaint is that I doubt they’ll last long, especially tramping cross-country under a load, though to be fair they weren’t built for that and anyway, what gear does last these days?
Problem is, your shoes and socks will be soaked at the end of the day. Sure I had a spare pair of wool socks, but put those in the wet shoes and they get wet too. What is needed are knee-high Seal Skinz and around the bothy a light pair of ‘hut slippers’ or even just slip-ons to stop bare wool socks or Seal Skins wearing through. Some sort of roll up, unlined, no sole, Moccasin slip-on. Something like the hut socks on the top right, in fact.
When the Arroyos fall apart I have an OK pair of Karrimor trail shoes. They claim to be Goretex which is actually a pain for quicker drying, but I can tell you now I spent a lot of time last year looking for wide, non-Goretex trail shoes (for an annual desert camel trek that I lead) and gave up. As the Karrimor’s were cheap (and I have Meindls for proper walks), I think I’ll convert them to quick-draining river and trail duties by poking holes through each side, just above the sole. In Seal Skinz my feet will be dry anyway and the holes will mean I’m not walking around with an unnecessarily heavy shoes full of water. There’s more on that and packrafting shoes here.

Dry suit – Crewsaver Hyperdry Pro
I sold my nice yellow Kokatat Tropos Semi Dry suit the day before I decided to buy a packraft. That was a pretty good suit on the Spey one autumn, and the Crewsaver Hyperdry pro I picked up for £180 (rrp £300) looks as good, if not a bit better. It fits me great and like the Kokatat, has integral rubber feet – an essential feature IMO – as well as braces.
First thing I did was get it sent direct to a repairers to get a relief zip installed (£50-70). With a stiff back zip it can be hard enough to put on and take off; when tired you could wet yourself before that can be accomplished. Male or female (using a SheWee), you won’t regret a relief zip in your dry suit.
I knew if before I went, but what this suit also needs are some exterior draining pockets on the arms and legs for GPS, cameras and so on. It has a tiny key pocket on the left upper arm; can’t see much use for that. My Yak pfd has no useful exterior pockets and on my Kokatat pfd they’re a bit too small to be jamming in a camera while lining up quick for a rapid.
I found it a bit sweaty across Loch Morar, when I wore full-length under clothes and was paddling a bit too energetically. Next time, a couple of days later just in shorts and T-shirt on the Lochy it was just right, but they say far from a shore or bank in cold seasons some sort of thick underfleece is essential once you fall in, otherwise you get hypothermic almost as fast as without a suit. I’ve since given the Crewsaver a few immersion tests by wearing it for an hour or two in the water, practising rolls with a mate in a SinK. No leakage at all which may be to be expected but is still pretty amazing.
Packrafts and IKs are a bit different to SinKs in that a drysuit is handy against splash, even if you’re not falling in. And with the legs exposed and lacking a deck a quick draining pocket on the thigh, for a GPS for example, would be handy. If I get round to this I think I’ll get some velcro sewn onto the thigh front and the left forearm, so that any pocket construction is less critical. For the moment I’ve made an arm/leg strap-on pocket out of a spare Aqua Pack, some glue and a bit of the ballistic nylon left over from the floor. And I’ve now got a waterproof camera.

Paddle as Packstaff
My 4-piece Aqua Bound Manta Ray is OK as far as rigidity goes, but of course is very handy for travelling. I knew I’d need something like trekking poles with the heavy loads and terrain I’d be crossing, but of course didn’t want to take trekking poles just for that. In the end an old Lendal paddle sacrificed itself to make a 6-inch ‘nib’ to slot into the end of the Manta’s shaft, making a shoulder-high staff. While using it for what turned out to be a 3-day walk in winter, the fibreglass nib wore down, so needs some kind of metal over-nib.
sulpackstafferAs mentioned in the text, this proved to be a great aid on the gnarly crossing to Loch Arkaig and all the better for not having a trekking pole’s handle or loop. It’s just the right thickness all along of course, so you can vary your hand height, probe the ground, rely less on balance (so saving energy), use it to vault over ditches and streams and lean on it hard as you step around an outcrop above a mire. Plus you can lean on it when drinking by hand from a stream with a pack still on – very handy. I couldn’t see a £90 Leki pole taking such weight, let alone the cheapies I use which fell out of a cereal packet. Cross country in Scotland with a load, you need a packstaff or something similar.

Camera – GoPro mini camera
Short version, as these are well-known to kayakers and hair-boaters. They use two buttons but the menu is easy to learn. I set mine on SD (‘1’) but ran out of card in 2 days, long before the battery went flat. Looking at all the mounts which came with it, I settled on the headband which did most things for me. For back shots in the boat it tucked under the pack lines. With the cam on your head (make sure it’s not set too high), after recording in very still conditions you can hear the blood moving in your brain on playback; weird!
The 5mp stills are not as good as my heavier and bulkier LumixTZ6 (12mp), but for a fixed-focus, wide-angle, the video, even at SD, is OK. The only flaw is that it tends to underexpose (too dark) and the audio dies inside the waterproof housing when it’s not on your head. On your head your skull is a kind of amplifier when you talk, but you won’t hear what other people say. I may have the exposure set wrong but I’m sure it’s on auto. I expected this duff audio and removed it mostly when on dry land to do talking, or lately have got into taking and using the better Lumix for talking when not in rough water – but that means 2 cameras. If you’re talking to the Go Pro in the housing, get close or shout.
The best thing is the GoPro is so light and has a good series of mounts there’s plenty of scope to shoot good action creatively. But for £300 it’s too much for what it is and after a year or two I sold it. Check out this videos. Instead I use my waterproof Panasonic Lumix FT2 as a day camera and for paddling: better stills, better video exposure, easier to use, better sound and sells for a fraction of the price used. The GoPro is everywhere these days and lately improved, but to me is over-rated for the price.

Tent – Black Diamond Lighthouse
blackdiamondlighthouseI see packrafters talking about rigging their boats as shelters or setting up a simple tarp with string and using the paddles as tent poles. The way I see it, either you can sleep out in the open on your part-deflated raft or you need a tent for shelter from rain, insects or wind. In Scotland you need a tent for all three.
I don’t begrudge the 1.5kg of tent, poles and 4 pegs of my BD lighthouse. It uses a single skin of ‘breathable’ Epic fabric which in my experience breathes better some nights than others. Unless it’s freezing (and I’ve had minus 6°C inside) I very rarely sleep with all the flaps zipped up, but condensation seems to have a mind of its own, whether it rains overnight or not. No complaints about waterproofing (that failed later despite halfdomereproofing so I sold it). Like a packraft itself, it’s so small and light you don’t think twice about taking it and using it. They make it anymore as the fabric wasn’t fireproof (legal) in some US states. I bought it in Colorado in 2007 for about £200 – in the UK it was nearly double at the time. I since replaced with  conventional REI Half Dome (left) that can be pitched inner- or outer only. More on packboating tents here.

Sleeping bag – Mountain Equipment Sleep Walker U/L
Sometimes I look at this thing and think surely the Polar Loft fill has collapsed over the years when I compare it to my recently re-fluffed Yeti down bag which just makes you want to get in and hibernate. But at just under a kilo, it’s an ideal summer bag that works fine with a tent and a good sleeping mat plus a hat if necessary. It can feel sweaty and doesn’t feel half as nice as a down bag, but for watery activities with a risk of getting wet, synthetic does the job. If it’s too warm it zips right out into a blanket. It’s good to have a cheap bag for rough trips and save the down Yeti for when it’s needed.
They don’t make it anymore – or they probably do but it’s got a different colour and name. It cost me about £50 in a sale in 2005. Since replaced with a lovely down Marmot Arroyo Long.

Sleeping mat/raft floor – Thermarest ultralight
I slept on one of these for years before I moved up to an Exped Syn Air DLX after a period of back pain. Now the ¾ length Thermarest (118cm x 50cm, 535 grams) doubles up as a handy floor for the raft, something light to sit on and an OK overnight pad when lengthened with a pfd. I suppose the current version is the ProLite which is as wide and thick, but full length and 100 grams lighter. Since replaced with an Exped UL.

Dry bags
I got some imperfect Seal Line Baja bags years ago in Seattle that still have several more years left in them. On the Scotland trip I realised they also make a handy bucket (left) to save trips to the stream or lake.
The giant Mil-com bag (right) cost just £15 off ebay and make a great dry bag for my backpack. Alpacka advise that a simple, light inner dry bag will do inside the pack – let your pack take the hits. To me it seems obvious an exterior bag that keeps the whole pack dry up to a point is the way to go. It also makes a good sitting mat or door mat to the tent. The closure has no stiffener so isn’t as secure at a Seal Line or others, but it keeps the splash off and slows ingress if you capsize.
I’ve found a Decathlon compressor bag seals better than the fancy Exped ones I also have, most obviously because the smooth plastic rolling portion seals better than nylon fabric. The idea of a purge valve at the other end is definitely the way to go. Stuff the bag in there, roll it up and clip shut then sit on it to purge the air and plug the plug. A great space saver that’ll keep a bag dry underwater too, I’d hope. It only costs a tenner.

Cooking
A mate put me onto Tatonka 500ml mug. With graduated lines inside showing the volume, it works fine as a cooking pot and drinking mug. One thing I’d do for next time is make an aluminium windshield to wrap around the mug and hang from the handles down over the burner. Speeds up cooking and so saves gas.
They’re a bit hard to find in the UK. Amazon sell them for £12, though they’re listed as €10 from Tatonka.com.

No-name butane burner
It’s like the MSR Pocket Rocket but at £14, it was half the price and better still comes with a piezo igniter so no lighter needed (though I carry one just in case). A great little cooking gadget.

Pack & Go meals
The last time I ate a freeze-dried meal was some awful stuff by Raven about 30 years ago. Never again, and since then I convinced myself that this sort of stuff was just more overpriced camping gimmickry; you can buy the same or better in Tescos.
But I’m not sure I’ve ever walked alone for over three nights between re-supply points until this trip. I saw a good review of Pack & Go meals and bought a few day menus. Breakfast is ready brek with raisins, plus an oatmeal bar, rehydration powder (left at home, used lighter/litre Zero tablets instead, below right), a chocolate drink, an evening meal and a pudding. All up £10 and less than a kilo per day, but as you’ll have read, I got pretty hungry by day three as no lunch is included. For that I had cuppa soups and tea.
In Fort William I bought a similar Mountain something meal, tasty salmon and potato but I realised what makes the P&Gs so user-friendly: you pull apart the base to make it stable, rip off the top, open out and pour in the given amount. This is often stated as too much and does not match the three suggested boiling water level lines marked inside – use those not that stated quantity. Then you zip it up, put on the water for the desert (variations on choc or custard or rice pud and fruit) and 6 minutes later dinner’s ready while pudding warms up.
As you’d expect, some meals taste better or are more satisfying than others. Boil-in-a-bag options may be tastier, but are twice as heavy and will use several minutes of gas for boiling. With plenty of water around, stew-in-a-bag saves gas and means no washing up.
I wouldn’t want to live off this stuff for days and days and I found the daily quantities not quite adequate for what I was doing. However, preparing for another Scottish packrafting trip in late November (when I imagine I’ll need more fuel to keep warm), I now see they offer two sizes: 125g at ~400 calories, and 180g with around 700 calories for ‘big eaters’. That’ll be me then.

Gear summary: what worked well in Scotland

  • Pakstaff – a great idea
  • Mini carabiners, great for lashing and attaching
  • TNF backpack (comfort, not capacity)
  • Mil-com dry bag (failing a submersion)
  • GoPro camera, all things considered
  • Garmin 76 CSX with OpenStreet mapping
  • No name Goretex light cag
  • And of course, the Alpackerai!

and what didn’t

  • Keen Arroyo II shoes
  • Sock/hut shoe strategy

What I could have left

  • Gloves
  • Head torch (as usual)
  • Water bladder (water everywhere)

What I should have taken

  • Ally wind shield for stove
  • Lid for the cup
  • Hut shoes or slippers for when day shoes and socks are soaked
  • A lighter that doesn’t fall apart
  • Another SD card
  • A brolly to try out as a sail. More on sailing here

Alpacka 2010 Denali Llama review

Getting the right size Alpacka is important as you’re supposed to fit in snuggly front to back to aid control in white water. At my height (6′ 1″) the Llama is just right, with a little optional padding behind the seat to get my feet pushing firmly against the bow. With my set up my Llama weighs in at just over 3 kilos and has nearly as much payload (~15kg) as well as a similar if not better white water ability as my Gumotex Sunny IK. (The boat pictured above is a Solar, not a Sunny).
The Llama is 180cm x 97cm. Alpacka don’t give payloads but I’ve paddled it with the g-friend adding up to 150kg total. Depending on what you’re paddling I’d say 115kg is about optimal as me (95kg) plus 20kg of clothing and camping kit and boat.
Out of the bag (into which it’ll never fit again…) first impressions are the toughness of the material and the quality of construction. Tube diametre varies so the various-sized panels are stitched, glued and taped together to give the slightly narrowing bow, with a kicked-up front and a bulkier stern to take your weight. Rolled up (right, with the blue air bag tucked in) after sucking all the air out via the mouth valve, it’s about the size of a bulky two-man tent.
Inflation relies an ingenious super light ripstop bag which screws into the boat’s dump valve at the back. Scoop up some air, twist the top of the bag shut and then squeeze it in with your chest and knees, filling the boat. It sounds clumsy but works very well and takes about 10 squeezes to nearly fill the boat. Once done, unscrew the air bag and screw in the cap quick. You then top it off by mouth via an elbow valve with another 10 lungfuls. Once you get on the water the air inside the hull cools and pressure drops so you’ll need to give 2-3 more puffs to firm it up; easier to do out of the boat.
The inflatable seat is light and basic, almost flimsy compared with the rest of the boat, but absorbs the blows from submerged rocks (though mine burst a leak early on). It’s actually very comfortable and the ‘toilet seat’ design means you’re not sitting in pooled water. One annoyance is that the backrest always flops down when you’re trying to re-enter and get set up fast before the next rapid. It needs holding back which I’ve easily done with an elastic.
As it stands I am very pleased with my Llama’s colour, features, weight, comfort and performance. You can tell a lot of thought has gone into refining an old design without forgetting that simplicity means less weight, less stuff and easier repairs in the field. Durability of such a light craft is my main worry, but the proof will be in using it more. They say they’re tougher than they look, but obviously you want to treat it with care.
I suspect long-term ownership and hard use of an Alpacka may mean occasional field repairs, but a little TLC and maintenance is the way it should be to get full use out of quality gear, rather than wearing it out and throwing it away.
When it’s all over deflating takes a minute and drying is as fast as a full-coat Gumo IK. You can then wrap it up around your paddle, swing it over your shoulder and head home.