A canoe and hillwalking journey through the heart of the Inverpollaidh wilderness.
9 eager souls unstrapped canoes from a small Wilderness Scotlan bus crammed with gear. Stuffing barrels with gear and food, we stowed the whisky in our bows and set our paddles to water in one swift move to escape a growing swarm of midges.
Our route lay ahead; a long ribbon of glassy water. Mirrored in mercury the dominating Suilven ridge towered over the horizon ahead of our bows. Expectations were as high as our boats were laden low, we were heading into the wild in search of an adventure.
Acting as an assistant guide to our trip leader Kirk Watson I had joined to explore the empty wilderness of the Inverpollaidh mountains by the best means possible; Canoe.
By the time we had packed and set out it was already late in the afternoon. An evening stillness had descended across Loch Veyatie and our progress was slow. Sharing a canoe with Lee who had come all the way from Singapore to explore the highlands I followed the rhythm of her paddle. To our side 3 other teams drifted close by, Kirk rode solo to lead the way.
Reaching the end of the loch we dragged and navigated our way west along a shallow river and into Fionn Loch and set our camp on a small peninsula. Our hope was to escape the midges but as all wind disappeared we took refuge instead inside a large canvas teepee.
Kirk set about boiling water as I chopped the veg. Soon enough a hearty meal steamed on the plates and we sipped wine and discussed our attack plan on a summit in the morning. Outside Suilven had doubled in perfect reflection across the river.
A short canoe to cross the river brought us to a muddy trail weaving gently upward. Ahead the steep scar of a track lead our way onto the imposingly tall southern face of Suilven. Topping out water bottles in a trickling waterfall we began our ascent slowly and steadily to reach the ridge. Pausing regularly to look at the view we moved as a team to reach the top of the slope.
Now teetering on the narrow trail we worked as a team to haul ourselves to the very top of Suilven’s western summit where in true great British style we shook hands, laid out a table cloth and paused for a lengthy picnic.
Kirk set about flying his drone to catch some footage before we descended back the way we had journeyed up. With our minds set on a dinner of Spag-bol our return to camp was far faster than our climb. Pausing only to look deeper into the moorland wildlife, flowers and ‘man eating bogs’ we soon found ourselves gathered around a steaming kettle in the teepee.
Waking to a misty morning the swarms of midges grew as thick as the clouds around Suilven’s now hidden summit. We lingered little in our de-camp and were soon paddling west on the mirrored waters of Fionn Loch. Today was ‘Portage Day’ and the team prepared for the exertion ahead. ‘Portage’ we decided sounded far more glamorous than the reality of a muddy drag.
To warm up our legs we took a morning wander in the rain to take a look at Kirkaig falls. We decided it was probably wise to portage rather than canoe them.
Following Kirks lead we lead two journeys back and forth across the first headland. Laden with barrels and arms full of bags we moved slowly but efficiently across the first of two portages. Returning in teams to take the now empty canoes we were soon re-loading on a small loch to return for a short paddle.
Pausing in a welcome midge busting breeze we spread the table cloth upon the shore and enjoyed a sunbathed lunch with eager anticipation of a new loch to explore ahead.
Shorter than the last with less uphill our second portage went with relative ease. Filling a wellyboot or two in the deep bog we re-loaded on the shores of Loch Sionascaig. Ahead in the distance a humble island covered in trees beckoned for a sheltered camp. With a forecast of increasing winds Kirk decided it best to shelter in the forests just in case.
‘Horseshoe Island’ as dubbed by Kirk was a small rocky islet un-named on the map. Without his knowledge it would not seem the obvious choice however once under the canopy a pristine mossy camp was idyllic. As the group set their tents Kirk and I pitched the teepee and put the kettle on before leaping from the rocks to wash the mud off.
By night we washed down dinner with wine and whisky and smokey chocolate bananas cooked in tin-foil over an open fire.
Leaving Gemma and Karl on the island to forage for mushrooms, whittle spoons and enjoy a well earned rest Kirk and I lead the remaining 5 across the loch against the wind. The morning had started cold, wet and blustery but we had decided to tackle the infamous Stac Pollaidh scramble; a route to which we were both familiar and knew would be impressive in the mist.
A long demotivating tramp though the bogs was rewarded with seldom glimpses of sunshine and a few lonely stags on the horizon. By mid-day we had reached the ridge and layering up were ready to tackle the best part of the day. With the excitement ahead the mood lifted where the cloud did not.
Keeping close we helped each other tackle each tricky step around the exposed ridge. Swallowed by the mist the pinnacles of ancient wind-sculpted sandstone drifted in and out in eery silence all around us. Grippy and re-assuring to cling to the rock was welcome to those who tempted clambering past.
In the spirit of the Great British Bake-Off we made sure to spread out a mighty feast on one of the summits of Stac Pollaidh. With a selection of cheeses, salmon and crab pate and some cucumber we lingered to munch our lunch before descending back to the loch and away from the cold.
Our third day in Loch Sionascaig was a windier day. Opting to enjoy a morning coaching session rather than a longer journey we tucked into a sheltered inlet on our islands northern side. Kirk taught us expertly in stroke technique, prys and draws. Feeling more confident to push into the wind with our newfound skills we set out on a short journey to find an old sheiling.
Returning to shelter inside the tents for lunch we arrived soaked to the core, the rain had grown heavy and drove hard into the canvas on the wind, a promise of sunshine in the afternoon seemed a long one.
Sure enough the rain cleared and the wind died soon after. With re-found energy and drier clothes a short expedition to a nearby island in search of hedgehog mushrooms was rewarded with some spectacular rainbows.
Our final morning started in the darkness. Kirk and I de-set our tents and brewed coffee before the sun rose. We needed to escape our island before the wind grew too strong and trapped us ashore. A final round of coffee and porridge quickly followed by a swift de-camp saw us take to the canoes for once last time. It was 8.30am.
Hugging the shelter of the islands we used what we had learnt from Kirk the day before to navigate ourselves to the mainland and follow our way toward the shelter of Boat Bay. To our delight the winds were less than forecast and conditions proved amicable to make steady passage. We arrived to our final short portage far earlier than expected with delight but also a slight sadness to be reaching the end of our adventure.
As we pulled ourselves over the brow of the hill we approached the road and civilisation feeling refreshed and reset from a week in the wilderness.