Paddling a great distance on man-powered over the famed Scottish lochs, wildcamping on the shores and above all: spending five days in the outdoors with the Highlands as the setting. The 95 kilometer long canoe trail starting in Fort William towards Inverness seemed like the definition of an ultimate adventure in Scotland.
This had been the part of our London2Edinburgh trip I was looking forward to the most. Nevertheless, I had to reassure Linsay the last few days a lot that we were able to manage this adventure. After having hiked the West Highland Way, a solo canoeing trip of 95 kilometers over the well-known Scottish lochs seemed like a perfect next challenge. It would be something else than our recreative kayaking tours.
Great Glen Canoe Trail
The Great Glen is a region in Scotland that has – with Ben Nevis, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle on the shores of it – some of Scotland’s most impressive sightings well-hidden in the Highlands. Nowadays, the Great Glen is mostly explored on foot, by bike or by boat, or in our case by canoe or kayak. With lochs such as Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and the famed Loch Ness being located in a straight line, the construction of the Caledonian Canal, connecting the lochs and providing a shortcut for boats that need travel from the North Sea towards the Atlantic Ocean, seemed like a logical step. It’s only since the beginning of this century that this waterway is being used by recreationists and paddlers and has claimed its title of the very first official canoe trail.
“Do you have experience in paddling?”, we were asked by John, the man who would rent us a canoe. We nodded, despite knowing that if we told him we never used a canoe before, he would oblige us to take an expensive guide with us. “And did you paddle the Caledonian Canal before?”, he continued. “No, it’s our first time.”, we told him honestly. “But we’ve been kayaking in Belgium before.”, covering up the fact that this was our sole experience with paddling. The Great Glen Canoe trail may partly exist of easy sections of canal, most of the time you spend on different Scottish lochs, all of them classified as ‘open water’. It makes the experience similar to paddling on the sea or ocean. Dangerous currents and waves included, giving the adventure a slightly challenging aspect.
We are dropped at the Neptune’s Staircase, not the real start of the trail, but the most-used one, because of the numerous locks in the first few kilometers requiring portages. We load in our canoe with our full gear. Two backpacks, our tent, a spare paddle, a trolley and two barrels containing our sleeping bags and a five-day supply of food. Secretly we were hoping that the group of kayakers who had joined our shuttle would get started before we needed to. A matter of not displaying our lack of experience and abilities, you know? Unfortunately, without an alternative option and against our wishes, we untangle the rope that secure dus to the pontoon and push us off with the aid of our paddles.
Five days. That was the number of days we had estimated to reach Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands laying 100 kilometers up north, succesfully. A timeframe that seemed quite doable despite the real possibility of Scottish weather keeping us at shore and the fact we were unable to estimate what the conditions on a lake with the size of Loch Ness would mean to us. With some looking-for-the-right-paddle-rhythm-zigzag route over the canal, we reached Gairlochy, a first lock that marked the beginning of Loch Lochy. During our journey we would pass several locks. It meant a whole routine of mooring a pontoon, unloading the canoe, getting the canoe out of the water and placing it on a trolley, crossing some distance on foot before getting the canoe back in the water en reload our gear before attaching it. A whole series of chores taking lots of time and causing problems for inexperienced paddlers. Against all odds, we were pretty good at it.
“Always stay close to the shore and never cross any of the lochs.” It was a tip we’d often read on the internet and we had heard repeatedly by our canoe rental. At the first loch, Loch Oichy, it meant a huge detour resulting in us forgetting these words of wisdom. Our bad choice to paddle in a straight line across the inlet, meant a fight against strong currents and waves that nearly flipped us over. The fatigue caused by our efforts and the bad weather heading our way forced us back to solid ground where we decided to pitch our tent.
Up to this day, footage – allbeit blurry – of ‘Nessie’ still emerges the surface. The myth of a creature living in the Loch Ness is without doubt the most important reason why this long-stretched lake attracts tourists from all over the world. Still, Nessie is not the reason why every paddler sees Loch Ness as a real challenge. A flipping canoe caused by a long green tail giving us a push just isn’t a realistic scenario. A capsizing canoe caused by a huge wave is. After two days of paddling and crossing two lochs, we arrived in Fort Augustus. Two lochs that don’t even get close to the size and surface of the most famous Scottish loch. Crossing Loch Ness means paddling 37 kilometers on a turbulent surface. “Waves that reach up to two meters.”, John had told us. “Not bad if you’re canoe only emerges half a meter from the water level. Fortunately, the weather forecast didn’t look that bad. With a barrel filled with pasta and bottles of soda, we paddled a steady pace on the lengthy lake. In contrast to the previous lochs, we’re accompanied by lots of smaller boats going on a day cruise, causing small waves hitting us in the flank.
Aside the southern shore of Loch Ness, there aren’t a lot of trailblazer rests. The few spots we encountered, we used to stretch our legs. Where we would spend the night, we had planned in advance: Foyers Trailblazers Rest, a spot where wildcamping is allowed and there are a number of facilities. A compost toilet, some great spots to pitch a tent, a firepit and even a canoe rack. These kind of trailblazers can be found all along the Great Glen Canoe trail, on the shores of the different lochs you need to cross. When you register for the trail online in advance, you get the option to buy a key that gives you access to all kind of facilities along the trail. Toilets, but even a few hot showers that would make you forget you’re spending time in the outdoors. Even though the wildcamping spots are a bit more basic, with a spot to pitch your tent, a firepit and a compost toilet, you don’t need to master any survival skills. It is recommended, however, to look for a spot in the later afternoon, since there is a limit of tents. It would allow you to search for a different location in case the spots are filled. Since we’re here paddling early in the season, we didn’t face this problem. Even better, we were the only ones pitching our tent here which made the outdoor feeling even more lively.
From the moment we passed Urquhart Castle, our look was aiming at the narrowing of Loch Ness at the end of the lake. Not much further we would see the Bona Lighthouse, a lighthouse marking the official end of Loch Ness. “My arms are as heavy as lead.”, Linsay puffs while shaking her arms. She was right. Four days of paddling, including the strenuous effort of crossing Loch Ness started to take their toll. The wind hadn’t been in our back, had made it even harder. Still, I was surprised that, despite our lack of paddling experience, fatigue only stroke us at day four. With only 8 kilometers left on day five, our canoe journey was almost over. Four days ago, we started off in Banavie on what we had expected to be one of our greatest adventures in the UK. An adventure requiring skill, strength, perseverance and – above all – common sense. Did the Great Glen Canoe trail live up to our expectations? It sure did! We can even claim to have become better paddlers. Paddling the Scottish lochs has been energy-intensive and yes, on day five we were yearning for the end. But hey, it has been something different than a recreative kayaking tour.