Mal Grey and friends make an amphibious crossing of Inverpolly, a multi-day canoe-based adventure under the shadow of Suilven.
It probably sounds strange, but some of my best canoeing adventures have included a rather high proportion of walking. Walking with canoes, and lots of gear, none of it exactly lightweight. Initially, this was probably due to the fact that this allowed me and my companions to reach lochs and lakes that were more remote and unspoilt; the Canadians often say that the first portage filters out most of the tourists, and that by the third one you are very much on your own. That, though, is in a land full of vast wilderness areas, not on a small island with a large population and just a few precious wild areas remaining. Can it still hold true in Scotland?
For the last half dozen Easters, a bunch of us have ventured to the North West Highlands with our canoes. We've enjoyed some fabulous adventures with what have become known as the Pirates, a core group of kids now aged 8 to 11. Around this parents and others like myself have done most of the hard work, but now the kids are old enough to play their part. This year, we invited a couple of old friends and their older teenaged kids too. Little did they know what we had planned for them.
At New Year, round the fire alongside a lovely Welsh river, a plan had been hatched, and a rough and ready, if slightly ludicrous line had been drawn on an OS map. This line crossed Inverpolly, in the Far North West, via 13 lochs from the road near Elphin, to the coast at Garvie Bay.
The problem was, there were lots of brown lines between the blue bits. So, on the face of it, it did look a tad ambitious. Easter arrived, and 12 of us gathered, after scattering cars at key points later on in the route. We wedged ourselves and a mountain of gear into seven open canoes. Now it must be said, we don't travel light for when going on trips like this with youngsters along, time spent in camp is more important in many ways than the actual journeying. So into these capable craft, a pile of tents, tarps, fire boxes, bags of wood, mountains of fresh food and a small bar's worth of red wine were piled, all wrapped into dry bags and barrels. And a guitar, of course.
As we paddled out onto our first open water, Cam Loch, Suilven's magnificent outline beckoned us onwards. We were heading for the far end of the loch, where a lovely beach would make an excellent camp spot. The weather was superb, blue skies and mild temperatures. All seemed good. Except for the wind.
Our planned route crossed Inverpolly via 13 lochs from the road near Elphin, to the coast at Garvie Bay. The problem was, there were lots of brown lines on the map between the blue bits...
Now wind is the enemy of the open canoeist, for though our craft are extremely capable, big waves are not a good idea. Not for the first time, as our laden canoes started bouncing around and the whitecaps forming on the wave crests, we had to choose the safe option. Where waves were crashing onto a headland round which we would have to pass, we hauled our boats out of the water, and carried them and all our kit a few hundred metres to a sheltered cove. It being quite late in the day, here we chose to camp. We knew already that it would mean portaging straight from there to our next water, Loch Veyatie, a kilometre or so to the south, as the forecast for the next day was even windier.
That night, in a rough camp spot, we ate the first of our rather excellent feasts, for fresh food is used all week, though later on the meat is dehydrated. As we ate and tested the wine reserves, we plotted our route. Straight over a hill from there to Veyatie. It would be tough, but this was what we were here for, to journey through these lands, not just to paddle on the lochs.
Next morning we started on the first of what would be three major portages, supplemented with a far higher number of short ones. After spotting a sheltered looking spot on Veyatie, we didn't even take the shortest and lowest line, for that led to exposed shores. Instead, we went on a diagonal, over the hill through tussock grass and heather, with the odd bog thrown in.
This sort of portaging is a funny thing. We have a stupid amount of gear, which is fine when its in a canoe with a capacity to carry several hundred kilos of gear. It is less fine when you have to carry all this over hills. Breaking down each portage into legs, we would carry bags to a dumping point, typically a visible point 3 or 400 metres away, then return and fetch the canoes.
It's hard to believe you can travel through wild lands for so long in this country, barely meeting another soul
These we dragged, which may annoy the purist who would carry it on their shoulders, but in this terrain it works well and avoids stumbling around in deep tussocks, in a strong wind, with a canoe on your head. With the size of our load, most of us would return again for a second set of bags. This means that the actual distance walked is basically five times the distance travelled, all of it across pathless terrain.
To most people, this just seems daft. To be fair, it probably is. It is, though, also fun! So ridiculous is the concept of lugging bags of logs and canoes over hills, that the only way to cope is to giggle slightly to yourself and go at it with much laughter and banter. The camaraderie which develops is wonderful. Here the idea of asking teenagers to lug bags about was rewarded not with strops, but with strong and eager legs, more than pulling their weight. It must be something in the Highland air. Six or seven legs brought us to the summit of the hill, where we flopped onto the ground and had a long lunch break. The guitar even came out.
The descent down the other side should have been easier, but steep slopes and heavy boats meant many hands were needed to hold lines and work them down slowly. By the time we reached a small lochan, still two or three portage legs from the shore of Loch Veyatie, we were done in. We camped on a remarkably flat bit of ground that is clearly a bog in most years.
The following day was even windier, and all thoughts of paddling forgotten. We simply moved ourselves to a lovely shoreline spot, sheltered from the worst by a headland, and relaxed. A bit of planning went on, as we decided to forego the section of our route onto Fionn Loch, and take a short cut to Sionasgaig to make up some time. All we needed was a short weather window, where the winds were less than about 15mph, to make our way across and along Veyatie for a couple of miles to our next portage.
As is so often the case, the opportunity came early the next morning. A hasty breakfast and breakdown of camp saw us on the water quickly, for us. What a joy to be paddling again, past the magnificent mountains of Suilven and Cul Mor, and deep into the wild country far from road and path. Turning into the smaller Loch a' Mhadail, the wind found us again, making it hard work for the short crossing to the get out, but we were soon safely there. After a proper second breakfast, we contemplated the next long portage. This was a gently downhill valley, to the lonely ruins at Clais about a mile away. Just the four hours portaging then.
We spent a night at Clais, where once people lived, the various rooms of the shieling obvious. We re-roofed the tumble-down walls of the leeward room with a tarp and made it our living room and kitchen. The next morning, a quick scout ahead took us to the top of a small hill. All around us was a magnificent panorama of the magical hills of Inverpolly, standing tall as they do over the wild, loch-studded landscape through which we were travelling. This is the joy of this type of journey, you are moving through the landscape, learning its quiet corners, seeing places which are not on the obvious walking routes. Our view, though, told us that the eastern parts of Loch Sionasgaig were windy and bouncy, but to the west, the water was calm under the bright sunshine. Once more, a portage took us to those more-sheltered shores.
It was day five, and so far we had canoed for just 2½ hours. Now we would make up for it, with a stunning few hours paddling along the south eastern arm of Loch Sionasgaig, a special loch for nowhere do its shores reach a road. Ideally we would have explored more, but time and conditions made us push onwards. A short portage and a very windy crossing of Loch an Doire Dhuibh brought us to a magical spot beneath Cul Beag. A perfect little sheltered cove, with just enough flat spots for our tents on the fringes of a beautiful birch woodland, where bees gathered pollen and birds flittered and sang. Here we would rest for two nights, and spend a day living in this wonderful spot.
What a joy to be paddling past the magnificent mountains of Suilven and Cul Mor, deep into wild country far from road and path
That rest day was simply wonderful. In fact, days like that are what make the hard work so worthwhile. Whilst the kids paddled our canoes in sheltered waters, learning how to handle them, and an early Easter Egg hunt was held, the adults just relaxed. Some of us even swam, though this was somewhat brief due to the water temperature! Only teenager Matt ventured far, the energy of youth taking him rapidly to the summit of Cul Beag and back whilst the rest of us lazed about. A special time in a special place.
Between our wonderful camp at Doire Dhuibh, and the shores of Loch Lurgainn, lies a low ridge of moorland. At least, to walkers it would seem low. To people carrying canoes and lots of gear, it is 2km of rather challenging terrain. As far as we were aware, nobody had dragged canoes over this route, after all, why would they?
Under a hot sun, we took the task in hand, and set off. The first leg was pretty brutal, up steep slopes through the tangled woodlands to the open land above.
From there, another five or six legs took us to a little blue dot on the map, Lochan Fhionnlaidh. Here, where it seems doubtful that canoes have paddled before, I wanted a group shot of the canoes in a lochan on top of a hill. In the end, it was so shallow that the canoes were impossible to control, and were blown around all over the place so the photo never happened. Still, we paddled that lochan. Just beyond we met our first other people for nearly a whole week, a remarkable thought on our crowded isles. Then again, our route was somewhat unusual!
The descent was eased by the welcome discovery of a shallow grassy gully at a gentle angle, down which we could slide our canoes fully laden at just the right angle to retain control. Just an hour from the top, we reached the shores of Loch Lurgainn.
A chain of lochs links this spot to the sea, beneath the towering walls of Coigach, and the bristling spine of Stac Pollaidh. Here, after resupplying from a cunningly placed car, after 10 hours on the go, we camped in the most wonderful spot I know, where a sandy beach offers views of some of the most iconic hills in the Highlands, and a little woodland gives shelter for tents and tarps. After our tough day, another rest day was spent just soaking up the atmosphere and preparing for our final day's challenge; to reach the sea.
That last day was surprisingly brutal. The weather played ball, but each leg, be it portage or paddle, was quite short, and with our energy reserves now low, and many of us nursing sprains or injuries, it felt as if we were constantly loading or unloading piles of gear. Our final portage, from Loch Bad a' Ghail to Loch Osgaig, was along the road, using trolleys picked up from the cars. A last loch paddle and the canoes were left by the roadside with our gear, and we trudged, knackered but proud, to the wild little Garvie Bay. We had actually done it. With canoes and gear, and kids, we'd crossed an amazing bit of country, living outdoors for over a week, and speaking to just three people on the seventh day. It's hard to believe you can travel through wild lands for so long in this country - I guess you just need to choose a ridiculous way of doing it.
Our open canoes are remarkably versatile craft that are light enough to carry, just about, but have the capacity for a couple of people and all the kit you could imagine. Apart from one solo boat, they're generally around 16-foot long craft. Efficient and lovely wooden paddles are supplemented with plastic rock bashers for the shallow bits. Obviously, everybody wears a buoyancy aid, and a few of us have undertaken safety courses. Swimlines on the canoes, and whistles in pockets are usually used.
Gear is carried in dry bags, or barrels. Having a system of bags within bags works well, and allows you to organise gear. Personally, I used large Ortleib drybags with rucksack straps, as they're tough but comfortable enough to carry, and pack into the canoe well. I can even get my travel guitar in the big one!
Camping kit and clothing is pretty much the same as you would use for hillwalking, though most of us go for a slightly larger tent because size and weight is less of an issue. Everything needs to be quick drying, of course. One tip; bring lots of socks, spare dry pairs.
Footwear wise, we seem to fall into two camps. Some of the others wear Muckboots for all the paddling and portaging, basically neoprene wellies that fit well. However, I prefer proper fabric walking boots for the walking stuff, I guess its my hillwalking background, and switch to a light pair of mesh Teva shoes for the canoeing parts. Sometimes your feet will get wet getting in and out, I wear neoprene socks for this reason.
Transporting the canoe
This is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to paddling. Boats go on roof racks, and can be quite hard work to lift up there. However there are various techniques to aid you, which you will find through the resources below. Ultimately, technique is more important than strength, and all but the heaviest canoes can be lifted and carried by moderately fit people.
Paddling canoes on open water is potentially a very dangerous thing. Unlike hillwalking, where a simple mistake might leave you with a broken ankle and a wait for help, if you fall out of a canoe, you have just minutes to rescue yourselves and it may be impossible to re-enter a canoe on your own in the sort of waves that would have put you in the drink in the first place. A group makes rescue easier, but it's still an experience you do not want to happen. For this reason, judgment of conditions is everything. You simply mustn't put yourselves in a position where such a spill is likely. Any wind above about 15mph can cause problems with waves, and as a rule of thumb, if there are whitecaps breaking on more than just a few of the waves, do not go out. However, one of the most dangerous things can be how quickly things can change, waves can get up in minutes, and a calm shore can take you out into water that is far choppier than it looks, so always have an escape plan. Too often, inexperienced folk get into trouble because they think it looks easy, just like in hillwalking. If in doubt, don't.
For open canoeing, the bible is Canoeing by Ray Goodwin (Pesda Press), who also publish Scottish Canoe Classics, a highlights type guidebook, as well as similar titles to other parts of the UK and abroad.
Online, the Song of the Paddle website is open canoeing's version of the UKHillwalking forum, and a very friendly place to get advice and read about places and trips. Its what turned me from a hillwalking ex-climber into a paddling and hillwalking ex-climber.
For places to paddle, Paddle Points is a Google Maps based resource where users can view or record thousands of places and routes.
About Mal Grey
Brought up close to the Peak District, Mal is a hillwalker at heart who, after dabbling in climbing in his younger years, and mountain biking to this day, found canoeing when he bought a modest inflatable canoe for his fortieth birthday. In the ten years or so since, Mal found a renewed love for wild camping, nature and adventure, and a community of paddling people that have helped bring something special to his life.
Mal has his own website, showcasing his photography, his writing and hopefully inspiring others through these, and through his blog, to get out there and have their own adventures, either further afield or close to home.