Paddling the Caledonian canal (part 3).

If you want to start at part 1 click here.

I’m not known for waking up early but clearly our collective nervousness about tackling Loch Ness had affected me. My eyes opened and I realised that firstly my phone had run out of battery so the alarm I’d set for 7am wasn’t going to happen and secondly it was 5:45am and I was wide awake. Outside the window it was cold but still, favourable conditions so further sleep was shelved in favour or getting up and facing our fears. We walked down to the loch to be greeted by a mill pond and so reinflated the boat and started to load our gear.
lochnessmillpondAt this point a couple of guys appeared with a canoe who were also paddling the canal route. They said that the weather forecast was good up until about 1pm so they also had decided to head out early and try to get as far as possible before the weather deteriorated. We let them set off first and then followed them out onto the lake. We had discussed our plan for Loch Ness at length in the days leading up to this point and it had changed multiple times. The last iteration had been to follow the south shore and try to reach Foyers by the end of the day.

So following the other canoe we headed forwards, following the north shore. With the weather good it seemed sensible even though we knew we would have to cross the loch at some point. We made good speed due to a slight tailwind and calm conditions. After a couple of hours though for some reason I felt really cramped and my bottom and legs were starting to ache and really affect me. This was probably the low point of the trip for me personally and I’m not sure Judith appreciated me timing this with us traversing Loch Ness.
Despite knowing we needed to press on we took a short break on the shore and this let me get back into a good position both physically and mentally. The wind had risen slightly but not enough to worry us and at this point we crossed the loch from north shore to south. Loch Ness is only around a mile across but it seemed to take an age for us to cross but we persevered and attempt to put in long powerful strokes so we weren’t away from the shore for too long. Finally we reached the southern shore and continued north eastwards.

It then didn’t seem that long before we spotted the red canoe from that morning ahead of us. They had overshot the landing point/campsite at Foyers and so were paddling back to it. We landed shortly after them and realised that the ‘wild camping’ site was less than ideal. Essentially there was no flat ground to be found in the area that has been marked out for pitching your tent. Above that site though there is a camping and caravan site which Judith having looked over the fence described as ‘camping nirvana’. She wasn’t far off as it was big, flat and had very new facilities. As Judith is a member of the camping and caravan club we decided to pay the (quite reasonable) £11 cost and camp there for the night.FoyerswaterfallAs we waited to check into the site the weather started to worsen and turn. Clouds started to build over the mountains on the north shore of the loch and the wind started to increase. Our early start and maintaining a good speed had definitely paid off. The rest of the day was punctuated by showers rolling across the valley from the north and these became increasingly cold and full of snow as time went on. With an afternoon to fill we braved the weather to walk up through the woods above the campsite and see the waterfalls that Foyers is known for. Afterwards we sought the pub again for a good feed and a warm place to shelter until it was time to turn in for the night.

The following day was less of an early start as we caught up on sleep from the day before. The camp site owner informed us that the weather for today (day six of our trip) was good but it was going to be horrendous the day after. We packed up and headed onwards along the south shore of the loch. Our biggest landmark for the day was Urquhart castle on the north shore, which seemed to appear quite early on in the day but then it also seemed to take forever until we felt like we were passed it. From then on it started to feel like a slog as the landscape on the shore changed little and every headland we rounded presented yet another to paddle towards and pass.

Our initial plan had been to wild camp somewhere on the south shore that night but with the weather still good and the possibility of horrendous conditions the day after we kept moving slowly forwards until finally we could see the beach at Dores ahead of us. Reaching Dores for us meant we felt like we had paddled the bulk of Loch Ness and also provided a pub where we could warm up and once again get a good feed. We definitely blew the budget that night with a bowl of chips pre-meal snack followed by three courses in the pub restaurant. After dinner we hiked into the woods on Tor point ignoring the ‘no camping’ sign and once again fell asleep with tired limbs and full bellies.
torpointWe awoke to rain on the tent which eased and stopped eventually although the wind in the trees meant they were shedding water still as we packed up and prepared for day seven of our trip. The wind was higher than we would have liked and so instead of hiking back to the beach at Dores we headed north to shore around the other side of Tor point to see what conditions on the loch were like. The remaining portion of Loch Ness didn’t look inviting as the waves had white caps so we continued hiking north eastwards hoping that conditions would improve. Having taken a wrong turn we ended up hiking past Aldourie Castle which has been restored and is an expensive retreat. No one challenged us though and we found ourselves back on the loch shore across from Bona lighthouse. Our path on land was now blocked by overgrowth so with conditions on Loch Dafour looking better than those on Loch Ness we inflated the boat and got back on the water.

It didn’t take long to cross this small body of water and we even managed to time passing a tourist boat so we could shelter from it’s wake behind the small island in the lake. The weir at the top end didn’t pose any problems despite my irrational fear of the boat being sucked over it and before long we were back onto a canal section and reached the lock at Dochgarroch where we could camp for the night. It was another short day and to be honest there isn’t much at Dochgarroch so we took a wander to explore the local area and enjoyed the sunshine. The weather was definitely not horrendous. We cooked ourselves a good meal which included smash, that may sound impossible but actually smash is definitely on easy to cook camping foods list. One issue on this trip was that we carried my lightweight cooking set up which is definitely tailored for one person. With two of us it meant using the stove multiple times to produce enough food for a meal.

After a cold night the final day of our trip was upon us. The weather conditions were the best we had had all trip. Sunshine and finally a tailwind. It didn’t take long to paddle the final 5 miles to the Seaport marina at Inverness and so eight days after we had set off we reached the end. In total we had paddled approx 48 miles and hiked for about 16 miles. Over three years after having this crazy idea it was completed. Paddling the Caledonian canal was at times tough but on the whole genuinely great (and type 1) fun. The scenery is beautiful and moving at a slow pace makes you appreciate the peacefulness of your surroundings especially in the western portion.
finishingphotoI know I would have enjoyed this trip less on my own, so I have to say thanks to Judith for coming with me, being far more organised than I will ever be and being a great person with whom to share this adventure.

I also have to say thanks to Tim for the small grant we received from the Next Challenge; thanks to BAM bamboo clothing for giving us some socks, base layers and underpants which were comfortable and warm; and finally also thanks to Backcountry biking from whom we hired the packraft.

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