Monday, 2 February 2009

[TR] Caledonian Canal Revisited

The Great Glen, Scotland

In my continuing quest to find easy flat water adventures across the globe, I find myself retracing the paddle strokes of my very first expedition.
It’s been seven years since I last paddled the Caledonian Canal but it’s still my favourite multi-day trip in the whole of Britain. It involves paddling right across Scotland, an amazing 60 miles. Not only are you paddling from coast to coast but 24 of the miles are across the mystical and sometimes quite challenging Loch Ness.

I arrived in the village of Corpach, near Fort William in the late afternoon and headed straight down to the British waterways Office (follow the signs to the lock side), to pick up the free but essential canal licence. You can also get special canal lock loo and shower key here which by day two is an absolute luxury to use.
From there I headed up the steep road towards the row of lock gates called Neptune Staircase and followed the narrow lane till I reached a guest house called Rhiw
Goch. I chose this place especially for this article as it’s perfect for tranquillity seeking paddlers, like me. There are only 4 double/twin rooms and children aren’t allowed but what it does have is a fantastic view of the canal, Ben Nevis and all the surrounding mountains. If that wasn’t good enough, Ron the guy who runs it also has a fleet of Wenonah open boats available to hire. I guess the only downside is the portage to the canal. Just kidding, you just stroll through to the back garden, open the little wooden gate and there in front of you is the canal complete with launching pontoon. It just couldn’t get any easier.
So after an evening in the local pub and a scrumptious 3 course breakfast cooked by Ron’s wife, we made the long trek (about 3 meters) onto the pontoon. There we met a team of rowers from Oxford University who had hired boats from Ron, who where doing the same trip as us to raise money for the Cancer Research. We had not planned to be quite so focussed, with our boat full of wine and enough junk food to last a month, until a niggling feeling crept up on me. It must be the Oxford Cambridge thing that kicked in and it’s terrible to admit to, but I felt this passionate need to beat them. As I was trying to put these thoughts out of my head, Chris and Vicky, two friends from Wales joined us with their new red boat. New might not be the right word as it distinctly had a pointy out kink half way along the left side but Chris had picked it up for £50 which had to be the bargain of the year.
We loaded our boats and waved goodbye to Ron and his beautiful Springer Spaniel Sophie, when I realised that the Oxford lot had got a good half hour lead on us. I remember thinking, they had youth, rowing coaches and a passionate reason to finish the trip on their side but we had something they didn’t have. The pierce of resistance, the one thing that turns this particular trip from tough and challenging to something your gran could do on a Sunday afternoon. A set of canoe wheels and Sails!
So off we set on this first stretch of canal. Every so often we would catch a glimpse of the Oxford guy’s boats in the distance just as they rounded the next bend, which seemed to trigger the competitive natures in all of us. I’m guessing the Oxford guys were totally oblivious to our desire to overtake them and they’re probably sat reading this article now in total bewilderment. Even I feel slightly daft now remembering how important overtaking them was and the delight I felt when we caught up with them at Geirlocky, the first and most challenging portages of the trip.
We only caught up with them here as it’s quite an awkward get out, with a choice of a far too high pontoon or going through the disused lock gate and dragging the boats up the steep bank. I’ve always found the steep bank the easier option, especially as it cuts down on the walking when you reach the path. So with the help of our wheels, we were soon stood on the banks of Lock Lochy along side the Oxford Guy’s who were enjoying a little sit down after their wheel-less portage. They were a lovely bunch with hearts of gold but I still felt the need to pop my boat back on the water and head off before they had time to put their flasks away.
So here we were on Loch Lochy, 11 miles long, 500 feet deep and surrounded by thick forests stretching high into the mountains. The landscape around here has a tremendous North American Great Lakes feel about it. If you’re lucky enough you may even see one of the Ospreys who nest nearby, fishing in the loch itself.
All we saw during the day was a couple of buzzards and two little kids in kayaks, paddling way to well for their small sizes. Someone needs to tell them to make it look harder so people have respect for us intrepid explorers!
By late afternoon we were approaching the headland which separates Loch Lochy from Laggen Lock. Anywhere around here is good to camp, with choices of pebbly beaches, little wooded nooks and even golden sand if that’s to your liking. We choose a pebbly beach, with loads of driftwood to make building a fire less strenuous. The tents where soon up and the fire was blazing as we sat there waiting for it to go dark. I always find this time of day strange. I’m tired and want to go to bed but can’t because the sun’s still up. But then as soon as the sun does go down I feel wide awake again and stay up till the early hours talking complete nonsense and drinking way too much. This night was no exception. Chris got a bottle of whisky out, Al had the red wine and me being the classy chick I am, drank baileys out of a plastic water bottle. Vicky then emerged from her tent with a set of Boules!! Ok I’m not one for travelling ultra light on paddling trips but a set of Boules!! The weight issue aside, it did turn into a great game. I lost each game with great skill and efficiency and did even better at loosing playing Hattijack later in the evening. By midnight we were all huddled round the fire again, eating toasted marshmallows off pointy sticks the boys had expertly whittled for us.
The following morning we were up at 6.30am and were packed and ready to launch by 7.30am. For those of you with plenty of time and aching arm’s from paddling, there are some great Munroe’s to be bagged from here. From Glasdhoire NN254933, a pebbly beach with an old ruined cottage on, about a mile back from where we were camped, there’s a small path which joins onto the Great Glen Way Footpath. From here, with a good map you can go up the steep valley of Cam Bealach to the summit of the pass at 660m. From there you have a choice of two paths, one leading to Sron a’Choire Ghairbh and the other going to Meall na Teanga. These are both tough treks so if you’ve forgotten your walking boots, keep paddling.
Anyway for us, it was portage number two at Laggan Lock. This is a straight forward portage up a tiny incline with the luxury of real toilets and even a shower when you reach the other side. (TOP TIP: the shower rooms here are always really warm, so a great place to sit and thaw out after a night’s wild camp).
The next stretch of canal looks more like a beautiful river, with high trees either side and the only bit of sky visible is directly above. This then leads into the start of Loch Oich. This is a well sheltered and photogenic loch, which often has mystical puffs of mist floating just above the water.
Until now the weather had been really quite nice which was great for the others but I’d recently kitted myself out head to toe in new paddling gear and was desperate to try it out. So when it started to rain, I was quite happy. My new Artistic cag kept me dry and was comfy and my new negro pants worked well too. I even moved my junk food bag so I could kneel down in the boat to try the removable knee pads. I definitely made the right choice. I’d even brought my new helmet which I new I wouldn’t need but it did look good on the front on my boat.
As we reached the end of Loch Oich, I looked round to see Chris stood up in his boat reading a map and looking towards the river on our left. The River Oich is a great option if you feeling a little tired and need some white water action to motivate you. It saves about an hour padding time and is mainly grade 2 with a possible grade 3 depending on water levels. Me being the white water wimp I am, decided to continue along the canal and agreed to meet them in Fort Augustus for lunch. I have to admit I didn’t enjoy the next section of canal at all. Every now and again we’d get a glimpse of the others from over a weir and they were just sat there letting the river take them along. Al and I though, worried about how late we’d be getting to Fort Augustus where paddling like crazy. We’d taken a huge dry bag from their boat to give them some freeboard, forgetting that we still had another 3 portages to do. On the up side, I did get the chance to lend Vicky my new helmet so it has now seen its first and probably last lot of white water action.
For us though, the wind picked up and we were having to work our socks off. To make things worse we met an elderly couple leisurely walking the Great Glen Way footpath alongside the canal. We were paddling like crazy and we still struggled to keep up with them. We would just get in front of them (not that we were racing a pair of 80 year olds of course) when huge gusts of wind would hit us and leave us 20 meters behind them again and this went on for 4 very frustrating miles. The only thing that kept us from screaming was the thought of a huge bag of chips for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, this stretch of canal is lovely and if we hadn’t been rushing to meet the others and if those old codgers hadn’t looked quite so smug at the fact they were walking a lot faster than we could paddle, we would have enjoyed every minute of it.
Eventually we reached the lock gates of Fort Augustus. The pontoon on the left is the easier get out as you don’t have to struggle with a tiny metal bridge ramp. But the get out on the right has the advantage of passing a pub and a great little chippy, so obviously we took the hungry person option.
It was a heck of a struggle to get our ridiculously laden boat up the pontoon and over the ramp. I even tried to phone Chris who’d been chilling for the last hour on the banks of Loch Ness a few hundred yards away to lend a hand but his phone was switched off. We did eventually manage to get the boat onto the road. It was all well worth it as we parked the boat outside the Chippy and filled our faces with hot salty chips and cans of coke.
The Pub is virtually next door and I would have popped in if Chris had had his phone switched on but he didn’t so we made our way through the centre of the village over the swing bridge and down along side the loch gates and to the banks of Loch Ness. There waiting for us were Chris and Vicky and my newly baptised helmet. They were all slightly wet from the river trip but it sounded like they had a great time. They even saw deer on the banks of the river, which I was quite jealous about.
The first time I did this trip 7 years ago, I booked a B&B in the town here and split the trip up into 4 days but this time, time was at an essence so we needed to get going.
So off we went, over the choppy water where the River Ness meets Loch Ness and onward past Cherry Tree Island. There is a red buoy on Loch Ness which is soul destroying as you can paddle for what feels like hours without it getting any closer. It even crossed our minds that it may be a little red boat sailing away from us but eventually after what felt like an eternity we reached it and decided to have a well deserved break. By 4pm it was time to get going again and time to start looking for a camp site for the evening. The official caravan site on Loch Ness no longer accepts tents, which is a shame as there’s a bar and easy access to the beach from there but there are plenty of wild camps to choose from so on we went. The wind picked up considerably and was totally against us which made this bit quite a challenge but extremely enjoyable as the boys decided to race each other as our canoes ploughed through the waves. After about half an hour of full on racing and both Al and Chris totally exhausted but refusing to give in, we thankfully reached a large pebbly beach perfect for camping. We were only about 7 miles from Fort Augustus but the wind was so strong that if we’d carried on paddling we would have ended up going backwards. So we set up camp and made shelters from our boats for cooking and a big camp fire to dry our socks.
Meanwhile I had to get the mozzie spray out even this late in the year. The smell coming from the drying socks should have been more than sufficient to keep them away but these were tenacious little gits who’d missed the lesson were they’re told to die out by September!
We sat around the fire and ate our tea and for once we all had an early night. The following morning we were up by 7am. Chris and Al were paying for their racing antics the day before and could hardly lift their paddles from aching muscles. Luckily when we set off the wind was blowing, in our direction this time, so we rafted up, put both our sails up and laid back. At first we were gently sailing along but before long the wind had picked up to a force 6-7 and we were tearing down the loch with incredible speed. We literally only got a fleeting glimpse of the impressive Urquhart castle on our left as we zoomed by.
I guess I should say here that Loch Ness is a perfect flat water adventure until you experience Loch Ness on a windy day. The waves here can regularly reach four to five foot and if I’d had children with me in the boat I wouldn’t have been out on the water for sure. For all its beauty and mystique Loch Ness can be a dangerous place in bad weather even for experienced paddlers.
But saying that, surfing on huge waves with ferry wakes hitting you from all sides going faster than you’ve ever been in a canoe before is one heck of an adrenalin rush. The boats took in loads of water but still using the improvised cut up plastic bottle bailer I made the first time I did this trip, it was all in control. We travelled 17 miles in 3 hours which was pretty impressive. Only downside was our trip finished way too quickly. It wasn’t even lunch time when we reached Dochgarroch lock and the end of our trip. You can carry on along the canal to Inverness and then on to the sea from here but it’s not the most pleasant of stretches. There are barges and boats moored continuously either side of the canal and the water is very dirty and smelly. So whilst the scenery was still beautiful we dragged our boats up onto the pontoon and wheeled them the 100 yards around the corner to the café. The plan was for the boys to catch the Great Glen bus back to Fort William and we’d wait in the café with the boats and kit parked outside in the car park. We did this 7 years ago and the café owner was lovely and really made us feel welcome. This time however, the new owner wasn’t so paddler friendly. We made the mistake of asking the name of the café instead of calling it a restaurant which didn’t go down too well. Then we discovered it was 2 hours for the next bus. We did the decent thing and all brought a meal as we waited for the next bus which when it did turn up was full! Apparently, you need to pre book seats on these buses now, which we didn’t know about. So then we had a decision whether to wait another two hours for another bus or to phone a taxi. I first phoned Ron the outfitter who offered to come and pick the kit and boats up for £80 but didn’t have space to take the four of us back. I thought that was a bit expensive as we would still have to find or own way back to the cars so we ended up phoning a taxi. £65 and an hour later the boys were in Fort William picking up the cars. Two hours later and 5 hours in the café for Vicky and I, we eventually set off home. Shuttles have to be the hardest thing about tripping so when I returned home I made some enquires and found a fantastic taxi company who will pick you and the boats and all the kit up from the canal side and drive you all the way back to the start for £75 There’s also room for 6 people inside too. So split 6 ways it’s an absolute bargain and no waiting in a café for 5 hours! I do have to say the café owner did warm to us after a few hours. I think the fact we spent a fortune on meals, cups of coffee and cake helped.
So as a summery: This is one of those trips like the Wye and the Spey that every paddler has to do at least once in their lifetime. There’s the fantastic paddler friendly Guest House, to start the trip, canoe hire, easy put ins, simple navigation and now a straightforward solution to shuttles for the way home. Its all so easy.
P.S. The Oxford Guy’s successfully completed the trip without the aid of sails and wheels and raised an amazing £2,500 for Cancer Research. Well done guys.

British Waterways Canal Office (key & Licence) Tel : 01463 725500
Rhiw Goch Guest House and Canoe Hire Tel: 01397 772373
Website: Email:
Pub at the start: The Locky. Haggis Neeps & Tatties only £6.50
Shuttle Taxi: or call Nigel on 01862 842260
More info on the area, bus time tables etc.

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