The 200-ish mile Cape Wrath Trail from Fort William to the top of Sutherland was cooked up in the early 90s by David Paterson, a photographer who’d just come off a job shooting the West Highland Way. Paterson wondered if you could extend the WHW through the North Western Highlands to the very tip of the British Isles in Sutherland. Over many visits he established a route and in 1996 produced a beautiful book: The Cape Wrath Trail: A New 200-mile Walking Route Through the North-West Scottish Highlands’, creating what he humbly ‘dared to call the Cape Wrath Trail’. Since then various other routes have evolved between the two points. There’s no set route, far less two helpful waymarks to rub together, but it would not be an exaggeration to describe the CWT as Britain’s toughest long-distance path. Though it’s tracklogged comprehensively on walkhighlands, follows passes and valleys, and tops out at just one 600-m summit, the terrain, weather, scarcity of resupply points or any other services in the North Western Highlands puts the CWT in a class of its own. On occasions, there is no path at all, but the advent of the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened the moors to all, offering an infinity of options or ‘variants’.
Originally Paterson’s route passed from Dundonnell through Ullapool, crossing the half-mile of Loch Broom from Altnaharrie on the Scoraig peninsula using a regular ferry. That ferry ceased operating in 2003 and the CWT now reroutes itself miles inland via Oykel Bridge. But as Cameron McNeish suggested in a rather hastily written ‘Foreward’ on a Cape Wrath Trail website:
‘…the route should follow a south to north line as close as possible; it should allow passage through the most scenic areas; it should try and avoid tarmac and paved roads or paths but instead follow existing footpaths and stalkers’ tracks whenever they were useful and it should avoid crossing mountain ranges and major rivers except where necessary.’
In 2013 Cicerone published The Cape Wrath Trail guidebook. They’d published an earlier version as ‘North to the Cape’ in 1999. The 2013 Cicerone author Iain Harper has a website on which he questions and then decides not to include his Coigach-Assynt route option for safety reasons. ‘… Not including an Assynt alternative in the guide was a difficult decision, but on balance I came down on the side of caution, however for the more adventurous walker it should definitely considered…’.
I’m not an especially adventurous walker and have yet to do the CWT, but knowing the Coigach-Assynt area, and from the walkhighlands reports I’ve read on the current route, Coigach-Assynt doesn’t seem much more dangerous or remote than many other rather hairy sections on the CWT. And furthermore, our variant stays closer to McNeish’s ‘south to north line [and takes a] passage through the most scenic areas’. The peaks of the Assynt are like nothing else in the Scottish highlands and it seems to me a shame that the original CWT route had fallen into disuse for want of a half-mile boat ride across Loch Broom.
That boat ride (or using a boat of your own) is the key to unlocking this Coigach-Assynt variant and on a pleasant summer’s morning it would be perfectly packraftable paddle from Altnaharrie jetty to Ullapool on the north side of the loch (David H did so in 2012 on his northwestern epic).
But after the six-mile walk up from the Badralloch turn-off near Dundonnell, arriving at Altnaharrie jetty on a rainy evening in early December 2013 with a spring tide in full ebb against a 20mph wind, paddling towards Ullapool’s harbour lights seemed less of a jolly jaunt. To cut a long story short, we had contacted the harbour master to see if he could help out with a lift. At least one other CWT walker has done this. He arranged for the night shift to come over and pick us up. [It’s worth noting the former Altnaharrie Inn gourmand’s restaurant alongside the small jetty in now a private residence].
After a cozy night and a lavish brekkie in the Ceilidh Inn, Robin and I set off set off for the 12-mile walk to Culnacraig. We didn’t quite make it and as it involves no actual paddling, you can read about it on Walkhighlands.
From the vicinity of Culnacraig our suggested variant takes a more direct line than the Cicerone suggestion shown in yellow (right). It crosses over to the narrows at Loch Lurgainn which are just about wadeable to a boatless walker with a stout stick, but which we paddled during a break in the December storms. You can read about that here.
Then a few months later Jon and I returned to Achiltibuie with our new Alpackas to pick up the variant from the foot of Stac and follow it through to Kylesku where it rejoins the regular CWT for the last lap to Cape Wrath. It can all be walked or waded but our route streamlined that by taking three paddles (right) and a shallow wade. You can read about that here.
At a verified 670g (23.6oz) including an added grab line, Supai Adventure Gear’sFlatwater Canyon II ($300) must be among the world’s lightest and most compact boats. Before a winter storm blew our plan off the map, the trip we’d lined up in northwest Scotland was ideal for the Flatwater: short crossings saving lengthy overland detours or risky deep wading, but no extended or exposed paddling.
Fabrication Examining the deflated raft, it became clear it was composed of just four pieces of flat material: the top and bottom ‘rings’ which define the hull shape, an inner hull wall joining the top to bottom, and the floor fixed under the completed ring. You could almost make one yourself.
No fabricdetails on SAG’s website, but the Packraft Store states: ’75 denier polyester with single, innerside urethane coating’. This whole denier thing can be a bit misleading, the raft fabric looks and feels similar in thickness to my MSR Dromlite water bags (right) made from 200 denier, PU-coated Cordura (nylon?), but the Flatwater polyester has what looks like a reassuring ripstop weave (visible below left). And as we know from our studies in IK hull fabrics, polyester stretches less than nylon and so is more suited to inflatable boat applications than compact water storage. Where the seams overlap on the outside edge they’ve included seven reinforced tabs (above left) to use as attachment points (a weak point on my non-ripstop Dromlites, even with an eyelet). The floor is made of the same weight fabric and shows what look like ‘spot welds’ along the inch-wide seam (middle).
That’s it, apart from a big threaded inflation port onto which screws a white cap fitted with a 18-inch hose topped with a blue twist-lock valve (left). You blow the boat up by mouth (took me about 45 breaths) then top up to operating pressure with the twist lock, like on an Alpacka. But unlike a pre-Boston Alpacka, the long hose means you’re able to further top-up from the water where inflatable boats initially sag as they cool. Plus you could potentially manage a slow leak the same way.
The hull form tapers and narrows towards the bow to resemble a blunt wedge, similar to old Sevylor Trail Boat (right). Like all packrafts and even slackrafts, the added buoyancy (tube diameter) in the stern counteracts the mass of the paddler’s weight. There’s no seat and a new boat comes with a repair kit with full repair instructions on the SAG website.
Some of my measurements (checked several times and now confirmed by the Packrafting Store) vary greatly from those still posted on the SAG website many years later in 2020 and which had their Canyon over 10% bigger, inside and out. Even if they’re factoring in ‘paddler squidge’ making more room inside by pushing on the hull, that won’t make the boat seven inches longer.
As for buoyancy, SAG originally quoted ‘250lb’ (now a more realistic 200lb or 90kg). Robin briefly paddled the raft with his pack which we thought added up to about 100kg. That felt like the limit once a light breeze came up the valley, and required gentle paddling to avoid too much cyclic bobbing and possible swamping.
With the weight; the Store states 633g, SAG quote 24oz (680g). As mentioned, with a grab line and traces of dirt, our boat comes in at 670g on the IK&P calibrated kitchen scales (left). I won’t quibble over 40 grams; to be able to paddle across a loch in a boat weighing less than my trousers is quite something.
On the water The air was calm but temperatures were close to freezing as we set off to cross the eastern narrows on Loch Lurgainn below Stac Pollaidh mountain. We’d originally planned to come over in the other direction from the Culnacraig shore, but the storm which went on to wreak havoc across Britain nixed that plan (story here). So today we were just taking a 10-mile day trip with a short paddle, from Stac car park southwest back to Altandu.
‘Fragile and small’ had been Robin’s first impressions after Sven from the Packraft Store in Germany sent us the raft to evaluate. Robin had recently upgraded to a couple of Gumotex Twist IKs so may not have been impressed by the Supai’s thin fabric. I had more faith in that, but as for the size, I too anticipated that SAG had cut it a bit fine with the Flatwater II, even if it lived up to their motto: ‘where every ounce counts’.
Down on the loch shore, even with a helpful breeze to fill my Yak’s bag, inflation time for both boats was actually the same, although by the end of it Robin was staggering around a bit. As Tim Evans found on his trip, other inflator bags can be adapted to avoid passing out.
Now, laid alongside my Alpacka Yak (same width but 66cm or over two feet longer), to me the Flatwater’s proportions rather too closely resembled a slackraft I skinned from a Sevylor pool toy a year or two back. I knew that with my weight of about 100kg in gear, I’d be pushing this boat’s limit. Without a drysuit I didn’t want to risk it.
It took some prodding to get packrafting newb Robin (80kg + clothes) in the Supai and I’m not sure I blame him. A sudden move could see the stern dip down and douse the butt. After fitting his closed cell mat to keep warm and protect the thin floor, he set off for a quick spin and soon realised there wasn’t so much to worry about. Paddling gingerly with his home-made paddle (a broom stick, two sawn-down buckets and zip ties) he did a few loops while learning to control the annoying yawing you get with short packrafts and slackrafts, as well as managing the less welcome bobbing which might amplify into a back-end pour over. Yawing keeps the speed down which may be just as well. Start paddling too fast and the bow will rise with a corresponding drop at the stern when slowing down, again risking a pour over in wavy conditions.
Having established he wasn’t going to sink with all hands, I lowered Robin’s 10-kg pack onto his legs then hopped into my Yak. The pack’s added frontal weight should minimise the Supai’s yawing – at least that’s the effect on my Yak. But it’s well known that first time in a new packraft, especially a short one like the Flatwater, paddling efficiently is an acquired knack. Our extra chilly scenario (not helped by his experimental B&Q paddle) meant that Robin couldn’t really relax or bomb around in the Supai. (I tried his B&Q but soon sent it back as it brought in unwanted splash all over my boat). A gust rolled up the valley, rippling the loch’s surface, adding further to the feeling of anxiety in the Supai. From my PoV it looked like the stern was more than half sunk at times – and half sunk on a round tube makes pour-overs all the easier. I skimmed over to the other side and got out to get some long shots and was reminded yet again what a great boat my Yak is. No worries about getting in clumsily, sudden winds or carrying Robin’s pack. Sat here a day earlier when a gale was ripping through at an average of 35mph and gusting to twice that, it may have been a different story, but my long-bodied, yaw-suppressing, high-sided, tough hulled Yak inspires confidence, even without the spray skirt.
The price you pay is weight and bulk. Ready to paddle, at 3.1kg with seats, heel pad, pack attach and lead,plus other straps and some mini krabs, my boat is 4.5 times heavier than the Supai as tested, and even more bulky when you add in the blow bag, skirt and repair kit: the red bag shown right.
Robin slowly waddled over to the south edge of the loch and got out with care before pulling the plug and rolling it up. As on any inflatable, the floor is vulnerable and we discussed ways of getting round this. One problem is the Supai’s floor glues to the hull ring above the lowest points in the hull tubes which means the undersides of the hull are actually lower than the floor (until you sit in it on the water). Using a thicker floor panel won’t eliminate all possible wear. Robin is a versatile home-fabricator (as his B&Q paddle proves) and we decided the least invasive way of protecting the entire underside – hull and floor – would be to string a sheet of whatever you like from the peripheral half-inch hull seam (the seven reinforced tabs not being quite enough to do the job). No messy, irreversible, crease-inducing gluing required, just a line of holes along the seam plus a drawstring. Pre-emptive protection is something I’ve done to my Alpackas’ ballistic nylon floor and although it won’t look too neat, a floor sheet would enhance the less robust Supai’s undercarriage, despite a weight penalty.
Our conclusion He may have got used to it over time, but the Supai felt too skimpy for 80-kilo Robin. Ill-dressed on the day and over-fed in general, I didn’t even try to get in. Build quality is great and the fabric I could live with; it’s much better than slackraft PVC and the extra care needed in handling is well worth the weight saving over an Alpacka. Factoring in experience, company (support), weather conditions and operator weight, the Supai felt right on the limit. Initially you’re reluctant to paddle normally for fear of swamping which could turn exponential. Alongside a Yak it’s a pretty slow too, although I don’t think that’s a flaw. My Yak is slower than my IK which in turn is slower than … As long as it makes progress, a boat is as fast as it is.
Alpacka’s Scout might be a fairer comparison with the Flatwater II. According to Alpacka stats it weighs 1450g, is 4.5cm narrower, 2cm shorter inside and 26cm longer overall, while costing at least $200 more in the US. That still puts the Supai well in the ballpark on weight and cost.Anfibio’s Alpha XC is another which I’ve actually tried. Although it looks to have been designed for the canyon lands of southwest USA, for the lighter paddler the Supai could a great packraft for less predictable Scottish conditions involving short, flatwater crossings. The negligible weight really opens out the options and means you don’t have to get too fanatical about the rest of your gear which can translate into greater comfort.
I knew this even before I saw the boat, but what I’d love to see is a Flatwater XXL more closely matching my Yak’s (or my) size. I’d happily trade the extra 8cm of width the Supai has at the hips for fatter and higher tubes all round, plus another 10cm added to interior length. It’s hard to think that would add up to much more than a kilo overall, but would reward the portlier or overnight-equipped paddler with a more versatile boat able to deal with dodgier conditions. Let’s hope this is part of Supai’s game plan. * SAG later released the Matkat. Not exactly what I was thinking but we tried that too.
Photos also by Tim Evans who writes:
I got interested in packable boats as I love both walking and being on the water. My first major trip was in an Alpacka Yak from Whistler to Vancouver. I hiked for 2 days, paddled the Cheakamus River for a day (with some easy whitewater), then paddled 24 miles of ocean inlet back to Vancouver. This trip was only possible because of the packraft. Then I bought a Supai and did 35km through a lake system north of Vancouver that included a number of portages. I saw a pair with a canoe which they pushed on a trolley through the portages with 200lbs of gear. It took them hours to go a few km. I did the 4-day trip with 16lbs of gear including food, just to see if it could be done (it can). I could have jogged through the portages with my little boat tucked under my arm. The Supai was a light as it gets, but SLOW for any sort of distance.