Paddling the Caledonian canal (part 2).

To start with part 1 click here.

Waking on the morning of our third day it was clear that there had been a change in the weather overnight. The swirling wind from the previous evening had risen and was blowing from a northerly direction across the loch towards us. This was causing white caps on the water away from the shore which for us was a very bad sign. A packraft is light, this is an advantage in getting from place to place when the boat isn’t inflated but it does put it at the mercy of the wind if it is over a certain strength. After a short discussion a decision was made, the wind was too strong and we would have wasted a lot of energy to reach the end of the loch for not much gain.

So we deflated the packraft packed up the kit and set off on foot. Plan B, and a clear advantage over a more traditional canoe. Although we were more at the mercy of the wind than a canoe we could if need be carry our boat over long distances fairly comfortably. The key word here is ‘fairly’ though. The Alpacka Explorer 42 packraft we used weighs 2.75kg. In addition we had two paddles, two bouyancy aids and the small matter of a tent, cooking gear, sleeping bags, food, fuel, water and spare clothes. Even with light and small gear it all adds up. After a few hours I realised that although it was physically demanding paddling was probably favourable to hiking.
windyflagWith the wind against us there was at this point no choice, we hiked to the end of the loch and stopped for an extended rest in the Eagle barge at Laggan Locks. The sandwiches were to be honest a bit disappointing but as it’s literally the only restaurant/pub for miles it doesn’t have much competition. Emerging from the barge to some weak sunshine but still a strong breeze we pressed on along the Great Glen Way which follows the canal here. At the top end of the next canal section we took a short detour to the shop at the ‘well of seven heads’ to pick up more supplies. In hindsight we probably carried too much food and therefore extra weight for the rest of the trip however naively I think we expected all of the route to be as remote as the first couple of days.
wellofsevenheadsAfter meeting a slightly crazy but very friendly lady called Sally who regaled us with tales of which of the surrounding mountains she had hiked up (all of them apparently). We stopped at the next ‘wild camping’ site on the south shore of Loch Oich. By this time the weather was starting to include some showers of hail, sleet, snow and rain. The wind had dropped a touch and again with hindsight we probably could have continued by boat for the rest of the day if we had pushed ourselves to get back on the water. Instead we put up the tent outer to shelter from the showers and again discussed our options. Originally this camping spot was our destination for the day but it was slightly exposed on a headland so pressing on was also appealing.
dandelionThe next informal camping site at Aberchalder however didn’t have any toilet facilities so the further site at Kytra locks became the target for the day. We hadn’t brought a spade so wild pooing was not on the agenda. Leaving the shores of Loch Oich behind and entering another canal section we just kept placing one foot in front of the other until we arrived at that destination. In total we only hiked 15 miles but with heavy packs it was incredibly exhausting. I now have new found understanding and respect for the journey that Leon McCarron and Tom Allen took along the Karun river in Iran. It was good to finally reach camp for the night although slightly annoying to find that the composting toilet was out of order!

All through our trip we were very conscious of the impact that the weather could have and so regularly checked the forecast to plan for the day ahead. As we headed further east it was apparent that the weather forecast could only give you so much information. Often we had to rely on our own observations of changes in temperature, what the winds were doing and clouds in the sky to make an informed choice on course of action. Weather forecasts are generally only given for certain towns or places. The weather in the mountains is variable and changes quickly so we had instances where we could see along the loch or canal that the forecast was correct for the town but 10 miles away we had completely different conditions. Generally a noticeable cooling in the temperature was followed by the winds picking up and a heavy shower.
lochnessKnowing that our biggest challenge lay ahead in attempting to paddle the length of Loch Ness the fourth day of our trip was mostly one of rest and recuperation. When we awoke the wind had dropped from the previous day and the sheltered water of the canal was suitable for us to continue in the boat. The forecast was for more wind and worse weather in the afternoon. With this in mind we paddled the short 2 mile stretch of canal to Fort Augustus, booked a room in a hostel and replenished our energy stores with a big pub lunch and a big pub tea. Fort Augustus was a bigger and busier town than we had expected and bustling with tourists. It was a bit of a shock after the remoteness and quiet of the canal further west but clearly had it’s benefit in terms of facilities.
The afternoon was punctuated by short heavy hail and rain showers and we tried to dodge these as we secured accommodation and yet more food supplies. In the evening the weather cleared and we wandered down to the launching point on the shore of Loch Ness to contemplate the task ahead. The weather forecast for the next day wasn’t great but an early start seemed the best plan in order to make some ground before having to shelter from the inclement conditions again. After a good feed it was time to get as much sleep as possible in the warmth and comfort of an actual bed.

The final part of our journey should be up on Thursday.

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