I recently came back from my second canoeing expedition in the highlands of Scotland. The first trip was fantastic but felt too short so we vowed to come back again but do it for longer.
Fast forward a few years and with a deep yearning to reconnect with the wilderness we (me & Wes) set off from Shropshire on the Thursday morning with our two 16′ Canadian canoes and all our kit in Wes’ camper.
Our plan involved getting to Loch Arkaig where we’d meet up with Giles to start the trip proper on the Sunday lunchtime so we had plenty of time for the trip up north and our first stop was to be a famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery. However as we neared we decided we couldn’t wait to get off-grid so we pressed on as far north as we could. Around 9pm we crossed the hauntingly desolate Rannoch Moor and took the next left into a random Glen (this tunred out to be Glen Etive). We pulled over and as it was a mild night just slept outdoors in bags (Wes was in the van with door wide open).
The next morning was a bit colder but not wet and we got our first fix of utter wilderness.
Back into the van we went down through Glen Coe stopping briefly at Fort William for a couple of day’s food and then headed straight to Arkaig where we pulled up and within minutes had the boats off the van and were having a paddle.
One of Wes’ mates turned out to be touring on his motorbike nearby so him and Wes hooned up along the lake for a while whilst I faffed getting some stuff ready. With that done we locked the van and got on the Loch. It was great to be on the water a day early. So we just padded up the Loch until around 8pm where we camped on a beach.
Saturday saw us slowly paddle back to the van, pack up and head to Fort William where we bought loads of food before turning back and heading all the way to Loch Morar where we camped on its banks (after having a swift pint in Mallaig).
Now, the plan did have us starting at Arkaig, but we ditched that as the wind was westerly meaning we’d be doing 18kms on open water straight into the wind. No thanks.
So, plan changed, we’re now doing Morar to Arkaig with the wind behind us. The weather forecast suggested 4 days of sleet then it becoming more mild again.
Sunday was *cold*. I’d bivvied in my hammock under a tarp and it was sleety all night. Morning was just the same with it coming in squalls but, thankfully, some clear bits too. Wes headed to Fort William again to pick up Giles & leave his van there, leaving me to bag up all the food and get the boats ready.
Around 1pm we were ready to leave and quickly, thanks to the tailwind, we got to our crossing point by the islands.
This was to be my first solo open water crossing and I was a tad nervous with good reason. It’s around 1 mile wide and once out in the middle you’re facing strong wind & as it’s so open it’s like being on the sea, with waves wanting to come over the side and capsize you. Very daunting.
I had an absolute blast.
The North Westerly wind was such a help and as it pushed us along and over the Loch. Yes it got a bit choppy at times and the sleet was an arse but I’ve never felt so alive. When out in the middle it was totally awesome. Like, awe inspiring awesome, that one. Words really can’t describe how small one feels when sitting on 1000ft of water with 1/2 mile either side to the shore.
That done, we paddled until around 6pm and bivvied on a beach with a fire and some food.
Monday was our slacker day.
We paddled about 10 km to the end of Morar, it was a bit windy in places but nothing we couldn’t handle so we got to Oban bothy around 1pm. We had the place to ourselves and there was plenty firewood about so we got a fire on, as well as collecting & chopping more wood for the people after us.
Then we settled in for the afternoon with a few beers and soaked up the atmosphere of this amazing place.
Late to rise we took our time to pack up and then taking a bag each plus one boat we begin the portage over the pass into Arkaig.
Trial By Portage – Day 1
It’s about 3kms relatively steep uphill and then 5km downhill to Glen Pean bothy. According to the map there’s a river almost to the top and once over the peak within 1km is the source of the river Arkaig. We know its going to be hard work but there’s hope we can drag the boats in the river most of the way and only have to carry stuff now and again.
We have circa 100kgs of kit & boat, we’re a bit hungover (well I am anyway) and the weather is shit with lots of sleet coming in sideways.
It’ll be fine.
Mistake 1: we followed the river
Mistake 2: we didn’t scout ahead
Mistake 3: we took the lower resolution map
A river follows the shortest, that is to say, the steepest path. Had we the higher resolution map and done some scouting it would have been evident that we should have been carrying the kit almost immediately. So, instead of attempting to carry up across 3km of rocky and in places steep trail, we attempted to do the same thing on the steeper bit that also had water cascading through it.
Not much flow and steep incline meant we all got wet pretty quickly dragging the boat and bags upstream.
Realising the error we ditched the boat and dragged the bags to the top of the pass. We left it all at the side of the trail and trudged back down to the bothy. We’d done a lot of carrying over around 10kms (to and fro). It was really cold, we were really tired and soaked right through. I could barely walk by the time we got back at the bothy around 7pm. Fire sorted, clothes hung, food, bed by 10.
Trial By Portage – Day 2
The weather cleared
We were up at 6, ready to go by 8am. We’re not coming back to Oban again so we’re committed to taking the other 300kgs of kit and boat, plus what we left on the hill.
Words can’t really describe how special that early morning was. Spell binding? Whatever, it was really nice. We meditated on the pier. We were well fed and feeling as good as we could have hoped. We knew the way and it was a cloudy but mild day.
Portage like a boss. Boat’s on head, bags on back we nail it.
3pm: we’re at the top with everything.
5pm: one boat and some bags down over the pass & the last steep drop on to the plain before the river starts again
7pm: all down we’re pretty shot. Wes has carried both boats down from the top. dropping them down by rope at the the steepest part. Giles & I are on bags. It’s a very precarious and rocky trail with a you-will-definitely-break-bits-off-if-you-fall drop to one side. I don’t know how he did it and not break something. I don’t know how we all manged to not break anything. It was 5 trips top to bottom to get everything down.
10pm: one foor in front of the other, all reserves exhausted. Pitch dark. All kit and both boats at the second Lochan where the river widens. We make emergency shelter, get into dry clothes.
What day is it now?
Not sure but it’s just past daybreak.
Everything aches but we made it. We’re down and in one piece. How lucky we were that the weather was dry yesterday. The weather is clear, mild & still today. The Lochan is a perfect mirror.
We never have to carry two boats & ten bags over that pass ever again. Ever.
Alright! We’re at the bothy by 10am I think. It was mostly dragging the boats down the river and, bliss, a small bit of poling or paddling.
By unspoken agreement we take the rest of the day off.
We unpack then repack everything after we’ve dried it in the front the fire (there was of course no magic firewood fairy). We eat well, to bed early ready for an early start.
Today is Friday.
We have 5km of river and then 16km of Loch if we want to sleep in another bothy, else we’re bivvying. It’s a long way and unfortunately the wind is easterly and pretty strong, straight into our noses.
We’re in and out of the boats all morning. Dragging, poling, some very short portage over small a couple of drops until we hit Loch Arkaig around 1pm.
We’re all feeling pretty good and we make good time. The river was beautiful and spring was definitely in the air. The cuckoo, always there, more birds than I could possibly mention. An actual White Tailed Eagle – Wikipedia: “The white-tailed eagle is a very large bird” – circles above us. A couple of jet fighters screamed over on training flights.
We’ve made it, the hard work is over. Right?
So about that easterly wind.
5 hours straight paddling uphill into a strong wind. We stop every hour for tea & snack. We don’t talk much, the just focus on paddling. Putting one foot in front of the other as it were. The pain in your shoulders starts having layers. Certain spots become focal points, it’s an extreme form of meditation. Pain go away. Must. Paddle.
7:30pm or thereabouts we get to the bothy. There’s a stretch of river we have to drag the kit up and we chuck the gear into one room. We’re spent. There’s another room with a couple of fishermen in, there’s plenty of space. Relax.
Then their mates turn up. Make that 10-12 Glaswegian fishermen up for a bank holiday. Members of the “Ya Cunt Fishing Club”. Hard & edgy men, but generous and welcoming. We were plied with spirits and booze & it quite literally would have been rude not to partake (though I would have preferred) to curl up into a sleeping bag and slept.
They have brought tonnes of firewood, the fire is huge and warming. They think we’re mad for doing what we’ve done, but I don’t get fishing. At all. We all get the wilderness. It’s why we’re all here.
At some point we sleep.
Tired. I’d like a shower now please. I’ve been sleeping rough for 10 days. Plumbing & a bed would be nice. A burger. Yes I’d like a burger and to speak to my family who have no idea whether I’m OK or not.
We break camp and we part from the fishermen that are awake.
It’s about 3km to the end of the Loch but into the wind it feels like more. I solo the last km. It was knackering but it’s good practice for me. We stop for lunch then take the short river Arkaig to Loch Lochy where we can then hitch for Wes’ van.
River with flow is totally different to open water. Much harder and the rocks are fuckers, waiting to tip you over.
Which they did just near the end after a quick portage. All or gear was strapped in so didn’t float away. Wes, ever the professional, jumps into action, rescuing then emptying mine & Giles’ boat but bruised his hands badly during. With a slightly damaged boat we’re all a bit wet but thankful to paddle around the corner to Loch Lochy. Job done.
Wes hitches a lift fpr a fisherman to go get his van a few miles away, we get the gear sorted. It’s not far and he’s back soon, so after putting on *clean and dry clothes* we quickly get the boats on the van and drive the 50 miles to Morar, collecting Giles’ car on the way. Mallaig is 2 miles down the road, we spend Saturday night here.
A B&B near the pub has 2 rooms, Wes has the van. Beer, Food, Shower, Facetime call with family, Bed.
Sunday. We depart Mallaig early and also part ways with Giles. Wes’ hands are badly brusied but there’s movement and they are getting progressively better.
We saunter home. Stopping every hour or so for tea. We get back to Shropshire about 10pm.
Here endeth the slideshow. More geeky stuff below.
Before leaving, our basic plan was to head back to the North West Highlands, Lochaber & The Knoydart. Starting at Loch Arkaig we’d *paddle the length of Arkaig (18km) take the boats up the river and stay in Glen Pean bothy. Then carrying all our gear – 3 boats and about 10 bags – over the pass and down to Loch Morar where there is also Oban bothy. After that it was to be half of Loch Morar – the UK’s deepest freshwater body – carry our gear (portage) again over to Loch Nevis which is a sea Loch. Waiting for the tide we’d then paddle into Loch Nevis and Sourlies bothy for a supper of Mussels we harvested off the rocks. Retracing our steps at high tide we’d go back down Loch Nevis and around the corner to Inverie and THE PUB which is the UK’s most remote mainland location (you can only get there by boat). The last day would be a scary crossing a small bit of the sea and then we’d be back in civilization, Malliag.
That was the plan, what we ended up doing was Morar to Arkaig as the wind was blowing the opposite direction.
We had six & a half days, Sunday lunchtime though to Saturday night with the Sunday reserved for travelling home.
The map of our original plan
*Psst: one doesn’t row a canoe, one paddles.
We knew we’d be carrying everything we needed to survive for a week so between the three of us we had:
- 2x 16′ Canadian canoes & 5 paddles
- 1 set of wheels
- life jacket each (these days called Personal Flotation Devices or PFDs apparently)
- tarp & bivvy bag plus 4 season sleeping bag & rollmat each (no tents)
- single change of clothing and extra socks
- full set of waterproofs
- wellies & walking boots
- Crocs for camp wear
- headtorch (essential) & spare torch
- 2x compact gas stoves & a Trangia
- Some shared cooking & washing up gear
- A plate, fork bowl, cup & water bottle
- A hatchet, pruning saw and a couple of bushcraft knives
- 50m of floating rope
- loads of Paracord
- about 15 carabiners
- Food. Mostly dried, pasta & the like, and lots of tortillas, pitta bread, cheese, bars, nuts. Enough for one hot meal a day (evening), sarnies for luch, bars for snacks and cereal/dried milk for breakfast
- a small amount of booze enough for the first few days as well as some heavy tins for the first few meals which we’d drink & eat to reduce weight for the portage (though we of course we would carry all waste with us)
- trowel and some loo roll
- basic toiletries
- 1 rucksack & day sack each
- 1 waterproof barrel for the food
- 4 more rucksacks for shared kit
- umpteen dry bags to put the kit in before packing the bags
- and some other bits
In my personal kit I took, among other things:
- DD hammock
- Solarmonkey Adventurer waterproof battery pack & charger. This was pretty good. It charged my phone about 3 times and Giles’ once. It got quite wet as I left it open in the boat to top up the internal battery’s charge (when I could remember) in the boat so it got regularly splashed
- iPhone 6 with sim card removed – I didn’t want even the chance of an internet connection – for photos & an ’emergency’ Nokia 6310i (though it turned out there was no signal for the entire trip)
- 2 hip flasks of single malt
- Sealskinz waterproof socks (which did work & kept by feet dry even after wellies flooded)
- Sealskinz gloves, made from wetsuit material so allow water in but keep hands warm
- Merino base layers x2
- Many light fleeces, enough for 3 layers, plus 2 spare
- Decent softshell outer
- Down bodywarmer (also acts as pillow)
- Gloves, hats, my Merino ‘Buff’ cycling scarf
- 2x Craghopper ‘Stefan’ trousers. Absolutely the best trousers ever. Waterproof (actually waterproof), robust and breathable