A CROSSING OF SCOTLAND ON FOOT AND BY CANOE
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A good winter should begin with an ‘end of summer’ adventure, be it an hour, a day or a week. A celebration of the turn of the clocks with a momentary change in pace.
After a superb first season running a new venture, Kayak Summer Isles, it was time to stretch my legs. This year, with great excitement, I was being joined by my wonderful partner Jen. At the start of her biggest self-propelled adventure yet, she was doing an excited jig. “This is my expedition dance” she said. We should all have one, I agreed.
A route I’ve had my eye on for quite some time is Fort William to Perth, hiking by valley or peak across to Rannoch to pick up a canoe and paddle east to the coast. It is a truly classic Scottish adventure.
Our journey began with a shuttle of cars. Jen’s we left in Perth, my van we left in Rannoch with a canoe on the roof. Taking the 12pm train to Fort William, we arrived early afternoon and set off for Ben Nevis.
Loaded with winter gear and food for 5 days, we moved at a slow but steady pace up the ‘pony trail’ toward the summit. 22kg feeling every bit its weight on the long uphill. It was Jen’s first time with an expedition pack on, but she made swift progress at my side, fuelled on CLIF’s RAZZ gels, as we climbed together into the dark.
We summited at 7pm. Well after night had fallen. Taking a familiar two compass bearings, I led us across the final plateau. Rime ice and sastrugi crunched underfoot, the leftovers from an early winter flurry. Around the cairn and old ruins of the weather station, the air temperature was around -5ºC with wind chill approximately -25ºC. Not a place to linger long. The ice covered walls were certainly impressive to see.
Original plans had been to camp high and cross the famous CMD arête in the morning. However conditions weren’t that perfect, ‘icy but not enough for crampons’ on the rocks, not a good combination with the heavy pack nor a wise option to make. As always, it is better to play safe if the option presents itself. Retreating to the ‘half way lochan’ to camp, we set plans to traverse north around the mountains toward the pass through the Lairig Leachach.
As it turned out, the choice paid off. Over the next two days traversing below the Grey Corries on tranquil forest trails, we often looked up to the mountains shrouded in cloud. I remembered them from a past winter round of the Munros back in 2014, as spectacular as they were they were a slog without a view. Instead, we enjoyed glorious woodland adventures, picking mushrooms for dinner and identifying birds as they called or skipped along the path.
Reaching the Lairig, we headed to a little bothy which shares the valleys name. Perfect timing for our wettest night yet. A deluge of rain fell, but behind candle-lit windows and a roaring coal fire. Many thanks to those before us, whom had left two 25kg bags in their wake. The chance to stretch out, dry out and relax in those stone walls was as great a reward as any. A Happy Halloween spent in a house on the moors, what a perfect way to celebrate. By strange co-incidence, the last time I stayed here I wrote a ghost story about it, how fitting for October 31st.
The rain passed over night. We set off down the valley toward Loch Treig. A muddy trail wound past a gurgling stream. Behind us the mountains rose gloriously white and veiled in the wispy remnants of the passed storm. As we approached the loch, the trail narrowed through a small scenic gorge. It finally happened…..’Dum, dum dum dum dummmmmm’ Jen hummed, we made it four days before the first cliche Lord of the Rings reference. Spirits were high.
Ascending to Loch Corrour, we passed the famous ‘Trainspotting’ station, made famous by the film. Then slipped beyond the temptations of the Loch Ossian youth hostel, Scotland’s most remote YHA. We climbed instead into the sunset, making our camp in the old ruins of Old Corrour lodge. The ideal grassy site, nestled amongst a barren expanse, had fine views across the Rannoch Moors. We could see all the way to Glen Coe and the mighty triangular peak of the Buachaille.
A relaxed morning packing away took us on our final leg to the van, parked in the station below. We had planned a pit stop night in the comfort of the wooden clad walls of my ‘home on the road’ before embarking on the second leg of our adventure by canoe.
Yellow warnings of heavy rainfall and high winds meant an extra day in the van. With a optimistic outlook of sun ahead, it was an easy choice to enjoy a recovery day. I hoped that the rain might bring some flow into the rivers leading from the station to loch Rannoch as they were woefully low.
While the rivers didn’t rise, the rain surely came and went. An early start took Jen and I onto the water with the early rays of sun creeping through the clouds. A brisk breeze on our bow warmed fresh muscles into the rhythm of canoeing as we crossed the loch. Now on the sheltered shore we turned downwind. The push of the breeze sped us along the shores of Loch Rannoch with ease. As we went we could enjoy birdcalls from the gnarled pine woods at our side as we followed a Dipper fluttering from rock to rock ahead of us.
Portaging past a large weir, we arrived onto the uppermost stretch of the River Tummel. Reloaded, we pushed into the rivers flow and set off with delightful speed. As we passed through town, a large red deer stag looked up from the river bank as if giving a final farewell from the moors. From here, we were headed downstream
Quickly arriving into Dunalastair reservoir we were pushed on the increasingly strong breeze down the loch toward a narrow gorge. Often described as ‘little Canada’ the reservoir was a beautiful place to canoe, overgrown and wild in character.
As the loch narrowed into what was once a river channel, we arrived upon our next big obstacle – the Tummel Dam. A short but strenuous portage lay between us and the road, time to unload and start pulling. By now it was late in the day, the light had grown golden through the autumn leaves in a warming glow. Jen who had paused to snack on a Clif Builder’s bar was smiling ear to ear; the rewards of hard portage already showing in her expression. There is no easy way to drag a canoe up a hill, simply teamwork and effort.
Like rivers above Loch Rannoch, the Tummel was also ‘scrapey’ low. Venturing down its rocky and difficult rapids would be a time consuming mission. To make more efficient use of time, we loaded the canoe onto our small trailer and started wheeling it down the narrow road following the valley.
With only half an hour of light left, we returned back to the river after a kilometre of gently pulling the canoe down the road. Progress had been easy and fun in the warm and dry evening air. Re-loaded we rounded a corner and lined down a last small rapid with some difficulty before finding camp on the river bank just as darkness fell.
‘Bing,’ my phone rang a rare chime. It was the AuroraUK app, signalling ‘code red,’ extreme activity over the UK. Tentatively, we opened the door of the tent and peered out. It was cloudy. But wait! Through a veil of mist, there were a few faint stars, and then as if a giant spotlight shone from the sky the unmistakable dance of the northern lights shimmered. Even behind the cloud the display was mesmerising. I’ve seen the aurora many times before, but none quite like this one.
The gentle metallic thuds of snubbed pole on rock rang through the silence of a misty morning as I guided us through the rapids toward Tummel Bridge. ‘Poling’ is the wonderful art of using a long (often metal) stick to control a canoe through shallow rapids. When moving downstream it is called ‘snubbing’. When possible we stowed aboard and paddled instead, splashing and whooping through trains of standing waves.
Herons fished on the riverbanks, sheep bleated in the fields beyond and the gentle gurgle of the river filled the air. It was as calm and relaxing as it was possible to be. An easy way to warm up our arms before the bigger rapids in Tummel bridge.
Carefully lining the canoe toward the bridge we hopped into an eddy above a short but intense rapid. Following instruction Jen drove her paddle into the flow, eddying us out into the waves. A quick bounce, a few purposeful strokes and we were through, soaked from the splashes and whooping in delight.
For our next and final rapid to Loch Tummel, which was bigger still, we unloaded the boat to save it from swamping on the waves. As Jen carried bags past, I hopped aboard and ran the rapid. My line wasn’t quite as intended and I arrived to see a smiling Jen with a thump as the bow cracked off a rock, thankfully no harm done.
Against the wind, it took several hours to cross Loch Tummel. Hugging the shore to make best use of whatever shelter the forests provided, we regularly paused to stretch our legs. We enjoyed the swings tied to the bows of the largest Birch trees.
As lunch approached we reached the sheltered narrows toward the Cluanie dam. The waters now mirrored the landscape double in wonderful gold, orange and reds. Each paddle cut the water with silence, leaving a ripple gently curling out into the unbroken surface behind us.
Portage number 3 was our last and longest. Again, the river below the dam was far too low to make worth paddling so two and a half kilometres towing along the road on a trailer was ahead of us.
A more technical descent from the road back to the Linn of Tummel waterfall brought us to camp. Here we set up the tarps, fired up our kelly kettle and cooked the wild chanterelle mushrooms on the fire, restoring energy with a Clif Builders bar for pudding after a large pasta dinner.
The next morning, Jen and I started early. Today was the ‘big’ day as with only one short dam to pass, we hoped to cover the majority of our milage toward the east coast.
A short paddle across Loch Faskally brought us to Pitlochry where we passed our final dam with a short trolley across. Back on the banks of the Tummel, we eddied out and set off into the meandering flow toward Ballinluig. The river was faster flowing with occasional wave trains to bounce through. On the banks, autumnal rusted leaves fluttered orange in the breeze and a few of the less fortunate trees lay felled by the local beaver.
After we floated under the busy A9 highway, we soon joined a large confluence to the River Tay, our final river to bring us all the way east.
Miles were passing by with ease, the currents swift yet smooth en route to the ocean. It gave Jen and I time to enjoy the mountainous surroundings, the beautiful wooded banks and birdlife. As braided channels narrowed from the wide valley into a deeper gorge we arrived at Dunkeld. A perfect chance to pause and explore the famous Cathedral on the shore and find lunch.
Back on the water, Jen and I enjoyed a brief sighting of two Kingfisher which flew along the banks, their bright blue plumage flashing wonderfully in the evening light. It was things like this that make me love canoeing, it is as much a quiet sport that co-exists with the native wildlife than an extreme endeavour.
As night fast approached we stopped for the day a little south of Murthly in what Jen “fondly” nicknamed ‘Spider camp’. A pleasant grassy bank on the edge of the woods the good views were shared with hundreds of harmless spindly harvestman spiders. 48km in a days paddle behind us we prepared for a short yet exciting day to finish, 12km through the Stanley rapids.
The Campsie Linn is the highest volume waterfall in Britain. Little more than a metre in height four waterfalls pour over a rocky bluff. With our loaded canoe we took the easier option to the western side of the banks.
Navigating through the broken weirs with excited splashes and whoops, Jen and I raced down to the car below Stanley mills. A wet and wild way to finish a fantastic journey. 9 days by foot and canoe to cross Scotland from west to east in an amazing adventure, fuelled by Clif and a desire to explore, we look forward to our next big trip.