After the Source to Sea on the Severn River our return to normal lives, showed us that there are a lot of things in life that aren’t really needed. Don’t get me wrong they are great to have around but you don’t really really need them to survive. What we all noticed was that we all enjoyed doing this sort of adventure. Getting out and exploring the world. It wasn’t long before we were planning again.
This time our Mac Coast to Mac Coast Scotland SUP Adventure 2015
The Great Glen canoe trail was to be our next journey. 29 man made locks, 4 natural lochs, 97kms or 60 miles from Banavie on the Southwest end of the Great Glen to Corpach on the Northeast point, Nr Inverness. The Great Glen canal trail passes through the Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour. The other third of the route was dug by hand. It took 19 years to construct the 29 locks, 4 aqueducts, 10 bridges, to dig and line the canal channel through the rest. Such a mammoth task to undertake by hand.
We had decided that we were going to paddle the route over 4 days on our SUP’s, once again camping each night but this time we were going to take everything we needed with us on the trip. Food, water accommodation etc. There were shoppes on the route so we could resupply as we went if we needed to. It wasn’t the plan to rely on them or commercial campsites as we went. We wanted a wilder camping expedition. There are more natural Trail blazer camping sites along the Great Glen Way that have eco facilities that you can use.
The obvious problem with this SUP adventure is sorting out vehicles at both ends or if you put vehicles at one end and then get public transport or a private hire to run you to the other end. There are companies that operate this service if you can’t sort something out for yourself. The Scottish Canal operations team like it if you sign in at the start of the trip and sign out at the end of it as well. This just helps them to know that everyone is safe and accounted for. They can also provide you with a key to canal facilities along the way, just in case you might be caught short.
The actual route in the right weather conditions is an easy paddle, but right conditions can be hard to find and you should choose them carefully. The wind is often a problem, during the day there will almost certainly be strong winds. The general wind direction is usually along the run of the Great Glen in either direction. So, it is possible to do it in both directions. But along the length of the Great Glen there is other geographical features that can affect the airflow and wind direction. So, it should not be taken for granted that the wind direction will be from the same direction the whole of your trip or that day.
Having done the route numerous times now and both ways I think I prefer the Inverness to Banavie option for a late afternoon start. You paddle out of Muirtown into the night. That way you can blast down Loch Ness in the dark and arrive in Banavie midday ish the next day and then get a bus back to Inverness.
I think there’s nothing better than being out on the water in the darkness of the night. The light nights sky silhouetting the dark mountains, distant cars lighting the shore road routes, just to remind you that the world is over there. The valley defines your destination in the darkness of a V in front of you pointing to where you need to head. All you have to do is paddle.
The Mac Coast to Mac Coast Scottish SUP Adventure was going to be the 4 of us from the Severn Rivers Source to Sea. But Tristan couldn’t make it so he was replaced by Katie his new Instructor in his SUP School in Bristol. The day had arrived and we were heading to Scotland. The final decision as to which way round we were going to do this had to be made. We looked at the weather and the wind directions for the next few days and it was decided that we were starting at Banavie as that would mean the wind would be behind us.
We camped in a nearby camping ground the night before, so we could get an early start. I had driven to Inverness to drop my van off at the end point so we had a vehicle at the end of the journey and then caught a bus to Fort William where the others picked me up. Everything was sorted for an early start the next morning, the weather was looking good for the trip.
We arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed the next morning, got out our boards and started pumping them up, sorting our kit, final pack, checked in to the Canal office got our key and we were off. The first section was flat, of course. But just round the corner is Neptune’s staircase, 8 lochs all on top of each other. This was a chance for the other to try out their kayak trolleys. They decided to remove their boards with their kit on them, put them on the wheels and pull them along the Canal sides when and where we needed to portage locks etc.
I was just going to put my little bag on my back and carry my bigger bag in one arm and my board under the other. The other members of the group where on Touring / Explorer boards while I was on the Red Paddle Co Elite 14. I was going lite, only taking what kit I needed, no extras, just what was needed and trolleys on my narrow board weren’t really going to work. Some times the trolleys where good, but at times they seemed to be more hassle than they were worth.
With Neptune’s staircase behind us it was back into the Canal, skirting the north hillside of the valley we were heading Northwest. You could see out across the valley to the mountains and back out to the sea, Ben Nevis was watching us as we headed on our way in the sunshine. Our aim for the day was to get to Loch Lochy to a wild camping spot that Dean had spied on a map during the planning of the trip. It was a lovely spot with a stony beach with its own little stream. Just a great place to camp and watch the sun set after a day of paddling.
The midges hadn’t been to bad for the night, out on the point and there was a bit of airflow that kept them down. But by the time we were heading off, they were getting to that annoying point. Those that were ready set of and sat off shore on their boards while the others got sorted out and left shore. The light tail wind was ideal and our decision to start in Banavie was the correct one. But as the day warmed up so did the breeze relax. It was getting pretty hot by the time we got to Lock Laggan. It was decided that we would stop and have food at the café there, it’s a barge that’s been converted and they made pretty good food, so it would’ve been a pity not to have taken the opportunity.
The peacefulness of paddling on the canal after the open lake, with the trees, towpaths, bridges and boats, there was much more to enjoy and look at in the canal stretches and you felt protected by the environment. While you had the magnificent wide ranging Scottish mountains to gaze upon, you couldn’t help but feel a little venerable as you paddled on the open loch. You also had to be aware of where you were on the loch, what was the weather doing, were we in the right place if the weather should change, where would we head to if it did change, all those dynamic decisions that you have to make, they can’t be neglected just because you are enjoying yourself in the sun.
The hours ticked past and we were enjoying our paddling the pleasure boats passing us hadn’t seen the likes before. They had seen plenty of canoes and kayaks before as this was a regular paddle route for them. But they hadn’t seen people Stand Up Paddleboarding it before. We got caught by a Scottish Canals officer who was most intrigued and wanted to know all about it so that he could get it included in their newsletter and PR info so they could promote it to others as a stand up paddle boarding route.
Our target for the night was a camping site with an Eco toilet on the southern shore of Loch Oich. We wanted to be away from the road and civilization. The trail blazer site named Leiterfearn by an old building, all boarded up. General Wades Military road hugged the tree line and the base of the hill at this point, built by the English to qual the Jacobite rebellion of the early 1700’s. Camping here was on a grassy field, various campfire sites where others had camped before were available for us for our use. We set up our tents quickly and heading for the nearly by woods to find dry timber suitable for burning.
The midgets were thick as thieves that evening, I was so glad I had taken a good midge hat and net with me for the trip. I stayed in my dry suit till bed time and was really glad I had worn it that day. The fire warmed as well that night and the sunset ended the day and we all headed to our tents for a much earn sleep.
The next morning, we woke to a complete contrast. No Midges, it was damp foggy, you couldn’t see a thing, you could barely see 20ms. The first time it had been so damp, light rain or heavy mist, what ever it was it was wetting. As we had breakfast and packed up, it started to lift as we left the site.
It was dead quiet and calm paddling through the fog. We could see a good distance now as the fog started to lift. Instead of a the middle of the Loch routes that we had been taking, we now followed the southern shore so we could find the canal exit entrance point easier if the fog was to descend again. By the time we had arrived at the northern end of Loch Oich it was clear again. The sun was out and the valley setting was stunning. We had to pull over at the road bridge and wait for one of the bigger commercial boat tour cruise companies to go past us, before the bridge operator would allow us to continue.
We were all keen to get to Fort Augustus today and out on to Loch Ness. This was the big bit of the journey 37 kms, 23 miles of world renown water in the Great Glen, everyone has got to hold this place in awe, so far to the end that you can’t see the other end. Wide enough that you can see both sides, and feel safe. But that big but, if its good out there you are very lucky and if it is good, don’t count on it being like that all the time.
We were now on day 3, this was the day that the weather wasn’t so good, Stronger winds were forecast around midday from the North. When we got to Fort Augustus and looked out on to the lake from the protection of the canal entrance wall. We could see the wind created white capped waves rolling down the loch. It was lunch time so this looked a great time to take a lunch break.
Then wind was gusting and the waves weren’t letting up we thought we would be stuck there for the remained of the day as the forecast said it wasn’t going to be a good afternoon. But around 3pm things seemed to have settled a bit. We decided to get ready to leave and hug the northern shore as the waves were smaller here. The more we paddled the lighter the winds got; we weren’t more than a couple of kms into the Loch when the wind had completely died.
The localized wind was changing completely from a strong head wind to a light tail wind. The waves had flattened and the lake was calm again. We paddled out further from the shore as the wind was steady from behind. As we had left late in the afternoon there was no way we were going to make our planned campsite at Foyers, so we had changed our plans and we were now heading for a more achievable wild camping site at Knockie.
But the wind had a surprise for us yet. Once we had located our target on the far side of Loch Ness, we moved towards the middle more, with the tail wind pushing us gently moving across and along the loch was not an issue. But then all of a sudden, the water colour changed in front of us, the visual effect of the surface of the Loch in front of us changed. Dean who was paddling abreast of me asked if I knew what caused it. I replied its wind current or air flow on the water.
It’s Just like you can see wind gusts as they come across the lake towards you. The winds air pressure pushing on the water surface in front of you caused a distinct localized effect on the water’s surface. This different surface pattern or angle reflects light at a different angle to the rest of the water around it, this is how your eye can see and the brain can perceive the wind moving across the water towards you.
The line we could see was right across the loch from one side to the other. We were feeling the gentle breeze behind us starting to pick up speed, clearly something was about to happen. But what we weren’t sure, our now increasing gentle wind direction started pulling to the left and then it started to make sense. The gentle wind that we had been paddling along in on Loch Ness since leaving fort Augustus was now making a sudden turn to the right as the valley behind Invermoriston opened out to allow that airflow to move to the left, it was being forced to turn left by the dark line creating air mass that was now screaming down from the skyline above from our right, across and on down the Loch towards Inverness.
We had entered the airflow right about where its downward flow hit the Lochs surface. The water was still flat and under the winds pressure. The wind was so strong that it was hard to return your paddle to take the next stroke, Dean who was on my right and Rob who was behind him both turned and paddled directly into the wind and headed for the shore to their right. I turned the nose of my board a bit more into and slightly across the wind to use the winds air flow off my body as a sail and ferry glided my board as if sailing to reach the shore.
When I reached the sure, I turned around to check the rest of the group, Dean and Rob were nearly safely at the shore. But Katie was still in the middle of the loch battling against the wind by paddling backwards as the nose of her board was pointing with the wind. I looked at Dean and Rob they looked at me. Clearly some one had to go out to Katie. It made more sense that I did it as I was in the best position on the loch and the wind flow to do it.
So I once again ferry glided, my board out to Katie’s location came along side, spun her board around, then keeping her on the windward side so she was being blown against my board, got her to hold her paddle across my board and hers in front of my feet and crouch down, kneeling on to the paddle with her body weight and for her to hang on to my and her deck bags with her hands. There was no time to stop in the middle of the loch and come up with a lengthy rope lashing option you see in the training manuals.
Once again, I pointed the boards towards the southern shore and where I had been previously. Dean and Rob were back on there boards and were heading along the shoreline towards our likely landing point. We all got to shore safely and very relieved to find that our intended campsite at Knockie was just along the shore line a bit.
Loch Ness and the wilderness in general is an amazing place, but you can often get drawn in by it. I know it as the euphoria effect. Where you are so amazed by your surrounding that you aren’t concentrating on the effects of the environment and your bodies condition. This is when environmental effects can have the most harm on you and your group. You can and will have to make some split-second decisions as what to do. Everyone will make different decisions and these are based on your previous experiences. If you have had a lot of outdoor experience then you might just make a better decision than someone else.
As a qualified leader and instructor, you need to be able to paddle above and beyond the level of the remit that you are paddling with your group or friends in. Its no good for you to be the same level. As when something goes wrong then you are the one that needs to act. Your the one with the qualification and a legal obligation to ensure the groups safety .
We camped here for the night so glad we didn’t have to go much further that day. No midges that night, well maybe a few. Just up from the shore line was the Trail blazer campsite, at the time it was pretty uneven as they were upgrading it. We decided to stay a bit closer to the water’s edge. Our campsite wasn’t much flatter, but at least we weren’t going to be and get covered in mud and dirt.
The next morning was our fourth day and the plan was to finish today. Being held up the day before for a couple of hours meant we had a bit more to do today. But that was ok. The weather was looking pretty much the same again Sunny blue sky and little wind to start with, but that lite tail wind would be back later in the day to help us along a bit. After an early start we made good progress and crossed the Loch to the northern side and continued along that shoreline to the imposing Urquhart Castle perched on a point on the edge of the Loch.
I had always wanted to see the castle and now I was here. Paddling down Loch Ness and the Great Glen and then sitting at the shore line and eating lunch was cool. We still had a way to go and the days wind was starting to pick up. Being on the northern shore meant that the waves were going to be bigger on this side, but we were here to see the castle and that was the price we would have to pay.
After our break we were back on the water again while the wind was behind us pushing us along the wave action was slowing us down. The loads on the boards and levels of paddle experience was stretching the group out. But that is the dynamics of a group. While on this trip, I had been harboring thoughts of doing it non-stop. I had mentioned it to the other but they thought I was nutz.
Loch Ness was finally completed and it was time to enter the Canal and Loch Dochfour and the home stretch down to Muirtown Canal basin. After the exposed wilderness of Loch Ness, the raw wilderness gave way to country estates and houses on farm land around Loch Dochfour. It broke us in gentle for our arrival in to the canal and the plethora of barges and boats that line the canal sides as we approached Muirtown Basin. With a couple of more locks to paddle around to get down in to the basin itself and we would be there. Well not quite.
We unloaded the kit into my van and then paddled our empty boards down to the sea loch at Corpach. It was really windy now and I think we were all glad that we weren’t on Loch Ness at that point in time.
I look back now on that 4 days to cross Scotland, I have done it much quicker, but the 4 days trip and overnight camping is much more fun and the most rewarding.
The following clip is from the Mac Coast to Mac Coast Scotland SUP Adventure 2015