Part one: from planning to getting on the water
Getting started: Resources, contacts and ideas
During Lockdown 1.0 in Spring 2020, I wanted to set a goal, plan something to look forward to. I love Scotland, amazing scenery, a superb place for all our outdoor activities. Thinking kayaking, the Great Glen Canoe Trail, (GGCT) looked like a good challenge. (Have a look at: Blogs – where we’ve been and what we did – AC Canoe Adventures (home.blog) – making Plans. In between last Spring and this, we have made a good few trips in the kayaks and it has certainly helped with my techniques, skills, experience and confidence. I have a loooong way to go, but there is no doubt that trips round South, West and North Wales have provided some pretty fair challenges.
Last September (2020) we travelled to Scotland and on a non-paddling day we went for an explore around Fort William and started to consider the logistics of our trip.
The Great Glen Canoe (GGCT) trail is a wonderfully organised piece of Scottish hospitality which offers trailblazer campsites, showers, toilets, canoe storage racks, information points, special low pontoons and guides. Don’t worry, it remains unspoilt. The whole thing, though, is really set up to travel from Fort William so it is worth having a plan for starting at Inverness. We couldn’t find good places to leave the kayaks at Inverness for a Southerly trip, but it would be well worth talking to the lovely, helpful people in the Scottish Canals office. (Canal Office Inverness: 01463 725500).
There are also companies who provide guided trips.
Some key resources:
The GGCT bible is undoubtedly the one by Donald Macpherson published by Pesda Press: ‘The Great Glen Canoe Trail – A Complete Guide to Scotland’s First Formal Canoe Trail’. I’m just going to call it ‘The Book’. It is an excellent reference for not only completing the trail, but also for the background information that it contains.
UK Rivers Guidebook for forums and trip reports: Home – The UK Rivers Guidebook
Song of the Paddle Forum: Scottish paddling places – Page 3 – Song of the Paddle Forum
Facebook: there are loads of pages but these have always proved helpful and sensible:
Ordnance Survey maps : (We went for laminated 1:25000 and used them in a waterproof mapcase): OS Explorer 392, Ben Nevis; OS Explorer 400, Loch Lochy and Glen Roy; OS Explorer 416, Inverness, Loch Ness & Culloden.
So, with Lockdown 3.0 about to ease, the respective governments allowing us to travel, vaccinations half done, at last we felt the lightness of promised freedom and an opportunity to get away for a break. I run my own coaching business, so the weeks leading up to our holiday were pretty frantic; I was determined that this was going to be a real rest, away from any distractions.
And, it nearly all didn’t happen due to a rather dodgy x-ray result. You know those ‘bumps’ that hurt but then you think ‘ah well, it’ll settle down’? It didn’t, but I almost had a meltdown when the GP rang to tell me I may have a fracture in my elbow (that had happened 3 weeks ago and I’d been using it diligently as the Doc had said). Can I paddle the Great Glen? Will it make it worse? I don’t think the poor lady quite understood how much was at stake…. Eventually I was told I could paddle as long as it didn’t hurt. Phew!
(Post script from 8 weeks on and it is OK!)
Preparing and packing
I absolutely hate packing. I’m not sure why, probably the indecision over what to take. I either pack too much or not enough. You’d have thought that after decades of going away for work, holidays, camping, and just about anything else, that I’d have it sussed by now. But no. I blame the unpredictable British weather, (though I’m the same even going abroad). What I know though, is that I hate being cold. If my feet are cold then the rest will chill fast, if I’m wet or hungry then I’ll quickly start to get irritable and then good decision-making suffers. I’d be useless on these reality shows where they have to rough it with no sleep and no comforts at all, living on a diet of slop or jungle beasts.
I’m not a complete wimp though – multi-day trips in deep caves, diving, walking and trekking the high mountains means that I have experienced discomfort, cold, wet, altitude sickness and exhaustion. In the old days (!) we’d call it character-building, but listening to a recent podcast (Professor Mike Tipton on ‘The Life Scientific), he suggests that occasional discomfort is good for us, our bodies learn to cope.
First, our lovely boats needed a check over. Christopher did some neat sealing jobs and put some stickers on (including the freebies from the Coastguard to label the boats with our names: NB biro wont stand up to even fresh water, so put the stickers on the inside where they can stay dry and also be seen). Meanwhile the chicken kept an eye on proceedings!
So, packing….I made a list and I broke down the sections of our trip. What I need for paddling, what we need for camping, what can stay in the van, safety equipment (VHF radios, phones, solar charger, first aid kits etc).
Eating! In good D of E style I even planned menus and ingredients. Ever since caving days, we’ve had a rule: no pasta choice! (meaning no pre-packed commercial freeze-dried meals). Pasta is a great, lightweight and easy meal with plenty of carbs, but if you aren’t a pasta eater then it’s a bad idea. We keep it for emergencies and as we weren’t walking we could carry more. We planned for things like chilli (cold enough to keep the meat for a day), bacon sarnies, hot dogs and soup. Protein bars, snickers, apples and so on kept us going and the jet boil meant that brew stops were quick and easy.
As this was my first ever kayak camping trip I pretty much made do with paddling clothes (which take up so much room!), a complete dry set of warm clothes using a layering system, so that I could mix and match according to the weather, a waterproof and ensuring I had warm cosy socks to change into! Helmets are always a discussion topic and arguably I didn’t really need one on a trip like this, but a bump to the head at a crucial moment is not a good combination with falling into water. It could happen. Besides, as it happened it kept my head warm and dry!
Added to this had to be camping essentials (tent mats, sleeping bag stoves etc) and food. At least some of this could be shared between the two boats and in the end the only things which stayed on top of the decks were the chairs (!), C-Tug, spare paddles, maps and drinks. We found room behind the seats for the throwlines and as the journey progressed, it all got much easier to re-pack
Weather, packing and trimming the boats
In most respects we were fortunate with the weather. We only had one afternoon of rain and the low temperatures we’d seen in early Spring continued and meant that we were midge-free. (No small joy in Scotand!) What was less fortunate was the difference in weather from the forecast. Combine this with my lack of local knowledge, some rather blind optimism and some sub-optimal decision-making on my part and we actually faced a truly great challenge!
The Great Glen has a prevailing South-Westerly wind which means that most people complete the trip from Banavie to Inverness thus making best use of the tail wind and opportunities to sail. The forecast was for better weather at the end of our planned trip with light winds swinging from North-Easterlies at the very start to South or South-Westerlies. Given that all the blogs, guides, books and forums warn of the capricious nature of Loch Ness, we felt that travelling in the standard direction was probably the best way. As it turned out, the Northerly wind trend didn’t change and the light breezes expected were, let’s say, closer to force 3 or 4. I suspect that this is a facet of the way that the wind is funnelled down the glen, creating a relentless headwind.
Learning point number one: select your forecast wisely, make it easy to change to a plan B to work in the opposite direction and remember that wind speeds at town locations may well not reflect the winds out on the water.
A note on hull shapes: Paddling a laden boat feels quite different, and to start with it was just rather slow to manoeuvre: later in the trip I’d be glad of the stability! I’m happy with the rather flat hull of the Scorpio as it is a nice all-rounder for the gentle touring that I want to do and she isn’t trying to tip me in every time I lose energy or concentration. I dare say that a more v-shaped hull would have sliced through the water faster and more efficiently (especially in the conditions that we were to experience), but there is something to be said for comfort. I really noticed the difference in handling during my first paddle after the Great Glen: sitting higher out of the water, she felt as wobbly as she had when I first started kayaking! (With a paddle round The Summer Isles, though, it didn’t take long to get back to feeling more stable).
As a lifelong learner and a latecomer to kayaking, every new experience is hugely valuable and adds to my confidence. With hindsight, we would probably have started in Inverness, but on a positive note, I now know that I can manage a laden kayak in seriously bouncy waters of Loch Lochy and Loch Ness. I can also paddle into a headwind and that made for careful use of technique to avoid exhaustion.
In part two of the blog we get started on the water!