Kindly organised by Andrew Hoe, a group of us, consisting of four adults and two children (12&13), are just back from a fantastic few days completing the Great Glen Canoe Trail. The trail follows the Caledonian Canal for around 60 miles from Fort William to Inverness, taking in Loch Lochy, Lock Oich and Loch Ness. The natural beauty of Scotland combined with amazing weather and great company made for a perfect few days paddling. Due to good conditions and favourable winds we were able to complete the journey in three days.
1st June, Day 1:
Day one started with an early 5am alarm call, which was fine for me but James, the group teenager, needed a little encouragement to get going! Having packed the car the day before, things were fairly organised and we were on the road from around 5.45am. The plan was to meet at Neptune’s Staircase at midday with the aim of getting a good half days paddle under our belts before finding camp. The drive itself was pretty uneventful and traffic in the main was fine. As with every time I take the drive up to Scotland I was again disappointed with the mess that is left at pretty much every stopping place along the shores of Loch Lomond. Looking beyond the negative however, it is a stunning drive once past Glasgow which makes such a long journey so much nicer.
We arrived at Fort William just after midday and James and I quickly nipped into the Canal Office at Corpach to get a key for the facilities along the route. It’s £10 for the key which gives access to toilets and showers at some of the lock gates along the way. Quite a few of these facilities seemed to be closed or under repair but I was still happy to contribute the money towards upkeep that will ultimately make the trail accessible and cleaner for future users. It was then a couple of minutes’ drive to meet the rest of the group and unload. Again this was all pretty efficient as we had pre-planned where everything would go in the boat and in no time we had moved the cars to the lower car park where they were to be parked for the days we were away and by about 1.30pm we were off.
The first part of the paddle is a leisurely introduction to the journey ahead along a nice part of the canal where we saw no other water traffic, just a few walkers and bikers enjoying the afternoon sunshine along the towpath. A theme for the whole journey was the abundance of gorse along the canal banks and beyond, boasting its bright yellow flower and a scent familiar to us all from coastal walks back home in Cumbria. After an enjoyable couple of hours, we arrived at our first portage at the Gairlochy lock gate. This isn’t a long portage by any means but it was a learning curve for us all with regards to best positioning of trolleys and how much weight we need to remove from the boats etc. It took us a little while to get organised this first time but it better prepared us for the ones to come. Once back on the water we were now at the mouth of Loch Lochy and our first open water. The conditions were perfect with bright sunshine and a gentle breeze so we cut straight across to our first wild campsite at Clunes. This already put us ahead of the scheduled day one paddle but we were keen to take advantage of the weather and overall we covered around nine miles on day one, which we felt was good going. Getting to the campsite we could see that a guided group of paddlers had already pitched in the wooded area so we opted for an open area of grass which I suspect would normally be underwater if it hadn’t of been so dry of late. We quickly got to work setting up camp and cooking tea and we were soon fed, watered and organised for the night. Morale in the team was high with everything having gone to plan, assisted by such beautiful weather and so far only a few of the dreaded midges. The final event before bed was a small campfire which we placed below the normal water line and used drift wood collected from around the camp area. We had discussed fires before the trip and decided we would only light them if no chance of any spread, we would use established fire pits if they were there, otherwise we would use an off the ground fire pit that Andrew brought with him. It was a great evening with lots of banter, mainly at my expense for having not brought a camp chair and therefore enjoying the comforts of a washed up branch! The kids had fun sharpening sticks and toasting marshmallows for a sugary end to the day. All in all day one was a huge success!
2nd June, day 2:
As with most expeditions the first night’s sleep is often not the best as you adjust to the new sounds of the night and struggle with anticipation of the journey ahead. This was the case for most of us and we found we were all up, packed and ready to go by around 6.15am whilst also enjoying watching the sun rise from behind the fells across the water. The wind was stronger than forecast but we were all chomping at the bit to get going and work our way to the end of Loch Lochy.
Quickly after we set off it was apparent that the easy paddle of day one was firmly behind us and following the shore we were making very slow progress. Trevor soon suggested we get across the Loch and look for protection on the leeward side, which we all agreed was a good plan. Jamie and Andrew wisely decided to raft before heading further out and it wasn’t long before myself, James and Trevor joined them. I was personally very pleased with this as I had started to feel a little exposed with my son in the front of the boat and although he was loving the ups and downs of the waves, it was a relief to come together with the other boats. Once together, roped up in a diamond formation, we gained the required stability and with a team effort got ourselves to the far shore.
By chance rather than by design we landed on a nice little pebbled beach area and had a team meeting to discuss our next steps. After all of that work we hadn’t moved to a more sheltered area, we were actually facing the same conditions as where we’d started and therefore concluded that the wind must have been spreading as it was forced through the more narrow part of the loch further up. We debated lots of options including heading back to Gairlochy for the day but decided in the end to just sit it out for a while and see what the weather was going to do. While we waited we got another small fire on the go and Andrew showed the boys how to use a bow drill as well as fire steel. Some of us took a walk along the shore to see what was further along and have a little explore.
Thankfully after an hour or so and as the sun rose further above the hills to the South, the wind dropped enough for us to feel comfortable enough to continue. Still feeling a little unnerved by the crossing we decided to stay rafted for this leg of the journey. We followed the southern shore along and soon after spotted that the tour group from last night’s campsite had followed suit and crossed the loch also. At no point over the following few hours on Loch Lochy did it become a bit of a race with them or did Trevor claim victory in overall canoeing expertise for his suggestion to cross the loch, which the tour guide then followed! Total humility was shown at all times.. well, sometimes anyway.
After another hour or so we spotted a lovely little beach area with its own private waterfall and paddling pool so we decided to stop and have a coffee break and take stock of the morning so far. The conditions by now were greatly improved, the wind had dropped and the sun was out. As we had been making good progress we again decided to stay rafted and would to the end of the loch. The first half of the paddle along the loch was peaceful again with higher up banks covered in gorse and bluebells, the quiet only interrupted by three flybys by what we think was a Eurofighter, although none of us are experts. It was very impressive to see the planes at such low level passing close by. The second half of the loch is still lovely but the main road from Fort William runs close to the shore and the noise of traffic was ever present. With the exception of a quick stop where we saw a burger van in a layby (which turned out to be closed) we pressed on and reached the end of the loch for our second portage at South Laggan by around 1.30pm. As this was going to be a lunch break we decided to carry the boats up rather that use trolleys as we could place them by the tow path while we ate. This was a lovely area to sit and eat, although some shade from the sun would have been appreciated. It is also one of the points with a drinking water tap and facilities for those with a key. Between the boat hire area and the path for the Great Glen Way, this was the most built up area that we had experienced so far but it was by no means busy.
Fed and watered, energy levels had recovered and we started back out along the stretch of canal that runs from Loch Lochy to Loch Oich. Back on the canal there was no need to raft so we were, to the relief of my arms, back to paddling individually. The paddle to Loch Oich was very clam and enjoyable with some waterway traffic as boats, I assume, headed back from a morning on Loch Ness to their moorings at various places along the canal. After what seemed like a very short paddle, the canal opened up to Loch Oich, which is much smaller than Loch Lochy but busier with various craft, including other canoeists. We only had one short stop on Loch Oich where we again found a nice beach, this time with a rope swing to occupy the boys while we had a drink and snack and quickly checked the map for the route ahead.
Once at the far end of the loch we stopped very briefly while Andrew collected some drift wood from the shore to use as firewood at the nights campsite. Coming off the loch at the start of the canal is where you have the option to divert from the canal and follow the river Oich which runs more or less parallel. Our planned route was however the canal and we therefore stuck to it. As the route progresses you can sense a slow move from wilderness to busier, more inhabited areas and this was the case as moved along this section of canal crossing under road bridges and coming across more waterway traffic. With only one quick portage, where unfortunately Andrew’s borrowed camera took a swim (sorry Claire!), we swiftly moved along this section of canal to our targeted campsite at Kytra lock, arriving at around 18.30pm.
This is a beautiful little spot with a small wooded camping area. Although only really big enough for few tents, we squeezed ourselves in, alongside a chap who was on his way to John O’Groats having set off walking from Lands’ End. After a quick chat with him about his journey we got on with the camp set up process and were soon sat next to our pitched tents taking in some much needed calories. This had been a long day after such an early start and we had covered an estimated 18 miles so it was a quieter evening in general followed by an early night as we all hid from the ever increasing numbers of midges!
3rd June, day 3:
After the hard work of the day before we all slept much more soundly and had a more leisurely start to the day. The only rush to get moving was to get away from the now more than irritating swarms of midges that were in full attack formation! Long sleeve tops and head nets donned we roped the boats over to the other side of the canal to where we had camped and set about the short portage to the other side of the lock gate. Once moving along the water we escaped the midges and looked forward to the promise of a café and facilities at Fort Augustus, the start of Loch Ness.
The paddle to Fort Augustus was relatively short and pleasant as the sun was shining. Coming around a corner in the canal to see the houses and eventually the first of the lock gates was a welcome sight as I think we were all excited to be getting on to Loch Ness and the prospect of some sailing. Once out of the water the size of the portage becomes obvious and it’s by far the longest of the trip, including having to cross a sometimes busy main road. This took a little while but it wasn’t too long before we had tied up on the floating docks opposite two Navy patrol boats, which we assumed were training boats as a few young sailors were practicing tying knots to a railing on the side of one of the boats. Boats reorganised and facilities used we took the short walk back into town where we enjoyed coffee, sausage sandwiches and ice cream sat outside a small café. Some of the group also took the opportunity to buy some gifts for folks back home as well as getting some more water from the local garage as there oddly didn’t seem to be a drinking water tap at this stop. Bellies full we got back to the boats and paddled just around the corner to a beach area where we rafted and Andrew and Jamie set to constructing the sail. This got the attention of quite a few of the tourists and I think we now have our place in their holiday albums!
Setting off onto Loch Ness, the wind was blowing against us so no sail to start off with, just hard graft. We had decided to move to the southern shore straight away as it would eventually open up to more camping spots as we progressed further up the Loch. We then made some headway up the loch before stopping at a little beach that had two waterfalls tucked away behind; it would have made a great swimming location if we’d had the time. Getting back in the boats the wind had turned so we decided to make a go of the sail but it turned out not to be consistent enough to keep the sail filled and it was also a cross wind so we were spending a lot of time zig zagging slowly from one side of the loch to the other but not really making much progress. Therefore, after a short lunch break on the Northern shore, we were back to paddling to try and get some more distance behind us as at this stage we had only gone a few miles in more than a few hours.
After a few more hours of reasonably steady paddling we had made our way along to Foyers, where, all a little exhausted, we contemplated camping for the night. We landed near the river inlet to the loch and did a quick recce but decided it wasn’t for us as we were back to the mess left by ‘dirty campers’ and we didn’t really want to be so close to others. Therefore, we got back in the boats and started to work our way along close to shore in search of a better camp site. At around the same time as moving off from Foyers, the wind all of a sudden started to build and was going our way! Evening was drawing in and we were all a little tired and hungry but the increase in adrenaline and morale from the speed we were maintaining led to us agreeing to push through while the opportunity was there. With the exception of a quick pole adjustment and securing with some tape, we were speeding up the loch and Foyers soon became a dot on the horizon behind us. We covered an estimated ten miles under sail in a short period of time but as the wind strengthened further and the boys started to tire and get hungry, we collapsed the sail and landed at a picnic spot a mile or so short of Dores at the loch end (at about 8pm). It wasn’t a perfect spot as there were some noisy people around and it was close to the road but needs must and we were soon off the water and set up for camping for our final night. It was at this campsite where the midges decided it was time to really play and by late evening it was pretty unbearable so another early night to avoid them and to get some much needed sleep. I drifted off that night to a combination of the music from some nearby campers and certain team members snoring.. I still haven’t decided which I preferred less!
4th June, day 4:
The feeling of being close to the end and the sound of passing cars got us all up at a reasonable 6am where we started quickly packing up. Last night’s midges had decided to stick around so we were quickly back on the water. Between us we had a combination of so called repellents but none seemed to really work! Knowing we only had a few miles to go, we took our time and followed the shore line to the canal entrance where we passed a few other groups of canoeists packing up and like us, getting ready to cross the finish line. We had decided during preparation that we wouldn’t paddle right into Inverness but would stop at Docgarrogh as it’s more accessible for collection and none of us felt the desire to head into Inverness itself. Docgarrogh is a lovely stop where you would have to portage if you were going further. It has great facilities along with café and gift shop. It is a launch for day trip boats onto Loch Ness so at times was quite busy. As we were a day early we contacted the company we were using to collect us and return us with boats to the start and they were more than willing to help. They are called Highland Yaks and we would highly recommend them. Had they not been able to help we would have just passed the day away on the canal side and camped near the lock where there is a designated camping area.
A couple of hours after arriving at Docgarroch our transport arrived and within another hour and a half or so we were back at our cars (around 3pm). In anticipation of being exhausted and not knowing exactly what time we would finish the paddle, we had a hotel booked in Fort William for the night to get some well-earned sleep before the long drive home. So, a quick five minute drive down the road we checked into our hotel, cleaned up and headed out for a meal and a few drinks before another early night in a nice comfy bed and some welcome TV time for the boys. The next morning was now a late start at 7am for breakfast and a pretty uneventful drive home, a day earlier than planned.
Collectively reflecting on the trip there is very little we would have changed. Some of us would perhaps have taken a few less items in our kit (Edit by Jamie: one of us, Charlie, will definitely be taking more, namely a backpacking chair that the rest of the group had) but had the weather been different our view of that might change. Our opinion that weather forecasts aren’t always to be trusted was reinforced and we learnt some good lessons of the effect local topography has on localised wind. Overall though I think we could have taken things slightly slower and absorbed our surroundings a little more, perhaps using up the full four days we had allowed for the trip. It’s easy sometimes to be a little too focussed on the destination that you don’t always fully appreciate the journey!
Thanks again to Andrew for organising such a great trip and to Trevor, Jamie and Andrew for their guidance, humour and great company. Also to James and Xander who, at 13 and 12 respectively, did an amazing job throughout the trip.
Thanks to Charlie for the amazing write up. Watch this space for the next open canoe trip. Ideas are already being discussed.