The Great Glen Canoe Trail

Some time ago I said to Owain, let’s canoe the Caledonia Canal.  ‘Don’t be stupid’ he replied…

However, the seed was sown and once we’d established it was do-able, O’s organisational (slightly OCD) skills had the trip planned with dates, logistics, food, kit.  Everything you can think of.  The man’s an adventure genius.

Friday 25th July saw us heading up the M6 motorway after work, in ridiculous traffic, in a car that was hotter than the sun.  Wearing jeans to dress down day at work had been a mistake so to the delight of several lorry drivers, I took them off and made the journey to Scotland in my pants.  We were off to a good start.

The plan for Friday was to drive to Loch Lomond, where we’d camp for the night before heading on to Fort William bright and early Saturday morning.  We arrived at our designated campsite, which was the stuff of nightmares.  Our nightmares anyway.  It was a beautifully maintained commercial campsite with lots of families, safe for the children to run around and make lots of noise, with lots of people relaxing outside their tents.  Far too civilised.  And noisy.  Urgh.

Anyways, we got the tent up in record time, enjoyed tinned beef curry and rice and then conked out.  Literally the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had in a tent.  I woke up in the same position I went to sleep in after a solid seven hours.  Lovely. 

Saturday started bright and early at 6am when we got cleared out and drove to Fort William.  Well, actually Banavie, just outside Fort William and where we were starting our Great Glen canoe trail from. We had a lovely chat to the lock keeper, dumped the canoe, and got back in the car to continue driving north to Inverness where we picked up our keys to the lock facilities and ditched the car.  I’ll be honest, it was a very strange feeling walking away from the car in a strange city, with no idea where we would be that night.  Strange, yet liberating…

After a brief battle with the world’s most disorganised bus conductor, we jumped on the CityLink bus which trundled down the picturesque A82 all the way back to Fort William, disgorging us about a two mile walk from Banavie, just as the rain started.  Luckily, we passed a handy petrol station with a Costa machine, so fortified by vanilla latte, we plodded through the puddles to arrive back at Banavie mid afternoon.

We quickly (not so quickly) got our stuff together, got the canoe packed, chucked it in the water and set off on our 96 kilometre adventure.  In the rain.

Within about three minutes we had our first argument about my lack of steering skills.  Quite a loud argument.  Apologies to anyone whose peace was disturbed by the irate couple in the boat, bouncing off the edges of the canal. 

We got over it fairly quickly, particularly once I made Owain sit in the front of the boat and try steering, where he quickly established it was pretty much impossible.  Proven right, I got over my tantrum and we continued on down the canal.  At this point we were pretty surprised with our surroundings.  We’d been expecting the Caledonian Canal to look like a canal, whereas this was wide and beautiful and actually weirdly similar to the River Severn but without a current.  We made the most of the calm waters, got into a race with some walkers (we won (they may not have been aware they were in a race)) and before we knew it, we’d passed our agreed campsite at Moy and found ourselves at our first lock, Gairlochy.  It was time for our first portgage…

It didn’t go smoothly.

Although we’d invested in a canoe trolley, we hadn’t actually practised using it when the canoe was full of stuff.  It ended badly with O crying on the floor in pain after ramming the canoe into his nuts, and me crying on the floor in laughter.  Sorry O, I really tried not to laugh but I just couldn’t help it. 

Some time later, we’d managed to drag the canoe 350 metres down the canal, past the lock and into the informal camping spot where the midges immediately swarmed us.  The tent was put up in record time, and we took shelter from the midges and the incessant rain.  It wasn’t the most pleasant of evenings. 

Our camp at Gairlochie

Things weren’t much more cheerful the next morning.  It was still raining.  The midges were still eating us alive.  We now had a wet tent to put away and 20km to paddle across Loch Lochy.  Within a very short time though, things picked up.  The rain clouds cleared, and we found a beautiful stony beach which we decided to stop and explore.  Taking advantage of the sunshine, we emptied our kit out across the beach, tent included, and set up a makeshift washing line in order to dry everything out.  It worked a treat, and we enjoyed a cup of coffee while the kit was drying.

Sitting on the beach, drying our kit out

Loch Lochy was my favorite loch, it’s just stunning.  You’d think you’d been dropped into Jurassic Park, tree covered mountains, low lying clouds over the tops of the hills, deserted beaches. It was amazing.  I kept my eyes peeled for the odd dinosaur, but no joy. 

Having a rest on another one of the deserted beaches

After an enjoyable day paddling and exploring more beaches we came towards the top of the loch where things suddenly got interesting. 

The view up Loch Lochy

The wind picked up, the waves grew and it became very difficult to keep the canoe in a straight line.  More shouting occured, and we agreed that we’d stop at the upcoming South Laggan lock since we’d heard there was a barge there called the Eagle Inn.  A pub in a boat?  Hell yes!  We were definitely stopping there for lunch and a pint.

What midges do to your face…

Except when we stopped there, it wasn’t mid afternoon as we thought.  It was nearly 5pm.  And the pub was closed.  The owners had gone away fishing. Joint meltdowns occured, and whilst turning the air blue around us, we agreed we were stopping for the night anyway.  The tent was pitched and our evening meal of pasta was eaten in a dour silence.  On my way to the loo to wash up the dishes from dinner (yes, I’m aware that sounds gross, and yes, it is a bit) though, something wonderful happened…  The boat pub was open!  Hurrah! I legged it back to the tent, grabbed Owain and we shot into that bar like we were being chased by angry bears.  Syrup sponge with custard and a couple of beers made everything okay again. 

A beautiful spot at South Laggan, with our tent in the background

Day three was an interesting one; it involved Loch Oich, a small but serene loch covered in rushes, as if you were floating through a field.  It also passed a hamlet called Well of The Seven Heads, where, as we realised we were on a serious calorie deficit on our current diet of porridge, noodles and pasta, we moored at the shop on the shore and bought out their entire stock of chocolate, cake and hot dog sausages. 

Day three also involved two stunning locks, Cullochy and Kytra, my first (and last) experience of a composting toilet and a hellish 750 metre portage through the beautiful but busy village of Fort Augustus, gateway to Loch Ness.

At Fort Augustus, looking ahead to the entrance to Loch Ness

You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to get out of the boat, empty the boat, get the boat onto the pontoon, get the boat onto the path, get the boat onto the trolley, transport the boat past the lock, go back and get the bags, transport the bags, get the boat onto the pontoon, reload the boat, drop the boat into the water and then get back in it.  You’ve probably got the message now, it’s a faff and a ballache – literally, for Owain. 😉

Anyways, after much faffing (and another chocolate stock up) we were back in the canoe and getting seriously excited about entering Loch Ness! We headed straight across the loch and made for the southern shore where there was no road access and a bloody big steep cliff down to the shore line.  We hugged the shore, and spent a lot of time telling each other how cool this was to be able to see parts of the loch you just can’t get to, unless you’re in a canoe.  We laughed smugly at all the people who had paid to go on cruises up and down the loch, who were missing out on all the sights we could see by being in a much smaller vessel.  

Loch Ness

We were even more smug when we found THE best camping spot in the world; a small pebbly beach with a shelf above it with a low hanging tree, just right for hanging a tarp over.  It was time for our first bivvi of the trip!  We spent all evening setting up our camp, using bracken for bedding, finding suitable branches to tie the tarp to, building a fire pit for our massive midge defense bonfire and then simply sitting there, feeling quite at peace with the world.  It was heavenly.  Going to sleep with a fire at your feet (not too close), the loch lapping several feet away, and seeing the stars through the trees above you is just magical. 

World’s best camp spot

We woke with the sunrise the next morning, and were greeted with a fisherman heading past in his motorised canoe, waving to us in our bracken bed.  Good thing he wasn’t five minutes later as we were both stood naked, ankle deep in the freezing waters, having a wash!

Paddling the length of Loch Ness really tested us both, physically and mentally, and the canoe.  The wind had picked up, it was raining again and the swell had grown to about three feet.  Waves frequently crashed over the side of the boat, and kept us busy bailing, whilst paddling hard and doing our best to remain on a straight course.  It was a tough day and we were keen to spend another night on Loch Ness, so we settled in for an early night in yet another amazing camping spot, this time in a dense wood above the shore, with a perfect tent sized clearing and a moss covered floor.  It was as if it were made for us!  Gathering stones from the shore, we built another fire pit and spent another happy evening looking at the stars. 

Warming my toes, looking out to Loch Ness

We both woke up feeling a bit strange; we knew it would be our last day of the canoe trail and whilst we were excited about our achievement, we’d both loved getting away from it all, spending time together and challenging ourselves.  The wild camping had been amazing and neither of us really wanted to head back to civilisation. 

However, it was one of our earliest mornings, neither of us wore a watch so during the entire trip we didn’t know what time it was.  A very liberating experience! We only realised how early we’d set off when some hours later we came to Dores at the end of Loch Ness and realised it wasn’t even 10am, as O hunted down tea and chocolate from the local pub.

Dores was beautiful, a lovely little village with a stunning beach and forest – and a cracking pub! We drank our tea on the shore and knew we’d broken the back of the trail.  We only had about 8km to go up the canal and we’d be back in Inverness.  I was so happy with what we’d done, at that point.  It was such an achievement, neither of us were paddlers, we were very inexperienced and we’d covered nearly 90 kilometeres in just over four days.  I was one happy bunny.

The tough times weren’t over yet though, the wind was gusting up Loch Ness at around 25mph and creating some big waves which were crashing on Dores beach.  We had to head straight out into the waves and had an hour of hard paddling to get around the headland before turning to go up the canal with the wind behind us.  We were shattered as we entered Loch Dochfour, the smallest of the four lochs which make up the Great Glen Way, along with 22 miles of the Caledonia Canal. 

After another small portage and sliding under a VERY low swing bridge, we were heading into the metropolis of Inverness.  Okay, maybe not a metropolis, but it was the busiest place we’d seen in a few days!

I actually felt very flat when we arrived at the canal office in Inverness.  I was gutted the trip was over, I hated the busy-ness and the industrialness of the area and all I wanted to do was go back to the mountains and the lochs.  I felt a little better after making use of the showers at the marina and getting into some clean dry clothes, and I felt even better once we’d decided to load the car and drive back to Dores and eat at that amazing pub we’d found.

It turns out the food there is exceptional, and when my dinner arrived across two plates, I knew it was something special.  People who know me well will know my favourite meal is steak, onion rings, chips and peppercorn sauce (I’m a simple person with simple tastes) and my gosh, was that steak good!

Oh yes, this was worth paddling 60 miles for!

We really enjoyed being in Dores, so much so that we decided to grab our kit from the car and walked down the beach we’d been sat on earlier that day, headed into the forest behind and finish our trip with another wild camp!

I’m going to leave it there since this blog is getting pretty long, and after we finished canoeing the Great Glen Way, we headed off on a whole new adventure… 

5 thoughts on “The Great Glen Canoe Trail

  1. Brilliant adventure we all dream of …few of us find the time, even fewer get the plan together and then the 1 in 10000 of us actually get of our backside and do it..good on you and thanks for sharing….

  2. Pingback: 2014 in Review | Laraine's World

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