After deciding late last year to give the Great Glen Canoe Trail a go and getting some invaluable information from Emily and tips and advice from Barnet and Dan, Richard and I found ourselves standing at the far end of the Muirtown Basin in Inverness. We stood there looking out over the Clachnaharry Works Lock and Railway Bridge towards the North Sea. The sun was out, it was a clear day but the wind was blowing strong. Both of us were thinking that the next time we see this sight we would be making our final portage after completing our 65 mile canoe trip.
We turned round and climbed into the vehicle that was taking us, our equipment and the 17ft prospector canoe to Banavie, our starting point. After about an hour and forty five minutes’ drive we were standing on a pontoon with our backs towards Neptune’s Staircase. Barrels and dry bags packed into the canoe we both put our paddles into the Caledonian Canal and headed off.
This was it; this was what we had both imagined, peace and quiet and breath taking countryside on beautifully sheltered waters. Passing by Moy Swing Bridge, the only remaining original swing bridge from when the canal was built we paddled on towards Gailochy Locks. Reaching Gailochy was our first opportunity to practice our portaging. But first we had to negotiate a flotilla of small sail boats that were heading off into the lock. Portaging was slow and clumsy, mainly due to the fact that the low level pontoons had metal railing each side which made it very difficult to manoeuvre our 17ft canoe round.
As with all lock keepers, here at Gailochy he was chatty and happy to spend time telling us about this and that. His lock was immaculately kept and he was very proud of the fact. We decided to stop for a short break and had a bite to eat, a drink and some laughs with the crews of the sail boats. It was their tradition that on this week every year they would sail the Great Glen. Leaving the lock behind us Richard and I paddled our way onwards until we took a bend in the canal, ahead of us we could see Loch Lochy. At 15km long it is the second biggest exposed stretch of water in the Great Glen. We entered and paddled left where there were lots of little nooks and crannies for us to paddled pass. Landing the canoe beside a half-submerged antediluvian fishing boat we took a well-deserved break, sat on the shore and just admired the scenery.
Back in the canoe and the wind started to pick up and Loch Lochy started to get very choppy. We paddled our way forward keeping a look out for somewhere suitable to camp for the night. It was now about 4-30 and I think we were both becoming a little tired. It had been a long day so far. Coming upon the perfect place, we were about to land when a couple of people stepped forward to tell us there was only room for one tent, so we paddled on, Loch Lochy got choppier and the wind blew stronger. We knew there was a Trailblazer rest site up ahead but just couldn’t work out how far. We beached the canoe but it was impossible to put a tent anywhere. Richard took off on foot round a bend on the heavily pebbled shore. Had we pushed on too far into the Loch? Richard came back with the news we both wanted, the Trailblazer rest site at Glas-dhoire was round the next bend.
So we pushed the canoe back into the angry water of Loch Lochy with the wind trying to stop us, we were both relieved when we paddled round the shore to find the perfect spot. Jumping onto the beach we were immediately attacked by midges. Dan had advised us to take head nets and it was a good job Richard had picked a couple up a few days before we left. Getting the tent up and with a healthy fire burning the midges died off slightly. A pair of sea kayakers beached further down the beach a couple of hours later, but decided to keep themselves to themselves. A warm drink and a hot meal were followed by a good night’s sleep.
Packing up the canoe and making sure last night’s fire was properly out, we continued our paddle on Loch Lochy towards Kilfinnan Point. Once round the point we paddled past a fleet of hire cruisers until we saw in front of us Laggan Lock. After the 250m portage we noticed the Eagle, a fully licensed pub and restaurant based on an old Dutch barge moored just after the lock gates. We headed off into Laggon Avenue. A beautiful stretch of tree lined water. It really was quite stunning, trees overhanging the canal an array of amazing colours and a collection of small tunnels built into the side. The canal started to open out as we saw Laggen Swing Bridge ahead and this lead us perfectly into Loch Oich.
Loch Oich is the second smallest of the four Lochs in the Great Glen and it was shaping up to be a nice trip as we pulled over into a little harbour where there is a monument called the Well of The Seven Heads, erected to commemorate a gruesome battle between clans. Richard took this as an opportunity to pop up to a little shop that sits on the water’s edge to buy something with haggis in it. I stuck with my Snickers bar. The sun was struggling to get past the dark clouds that were threatening to rain on us and the wind continued to blow. Loch Oich turned out to be a lovely paddle and as we passed the weir on our left, which is the beginning of the River Oich we paddled underneath the Aberchalder swing bridge and into a pleasant 600m stretch of water that lead us up to Cullochy Lock.
Pushing on up to Kytra Lock it seem that we had become part of the flotilla of small sail boats that we had seen earlier. We tried our luck with passing through the lock with some of the sail boats, but the lock keeper was having none of it. No canoes allowed at any time. We portaged again. Once on the other side we hit the water the same time as the boats came out of the lock. To be honest I think the sailors were impressed with our ability to keep up with them and as it turned out, we reached Fort Augustus a good 45 minutes before them. Fort Augustus is a beast of a potage with six lock gates and a road bridge, over the road and a long haul, about another 250m down the side of the canal to the mouth of Loch Ness. However, reaching Fort Augustus late into the afternoon and being told by some, that now was not the time to give Loch Ness a go we headed for the nearest camp site, (no wild camping allowed here).
A hot shower later and we off to visit the Lock Inn, but first I went down to see the beginning of Loch Ness. Surprised is an understatement. You can look on Goggle maps, you can look on YouTube, you can read all the information, but until you see it in the flesh? I was awestruck; Richard however didn’t seem that phased. 37km long, up to 300m deep, containing more water than ALL the freshwater lakes in England and Wales put together, it lay before me and it looked angry. We were told that some canoeist had set off an hour earlier and had to turn back. It started to rain and a fish and chip supper had our name on it.
As we pushed off from the shore and started to cut across the bay that lay to our right, the enormity of what we were about to undertake became very clear. It was raining, the wind was strong and the water didn’t really seem to care that we were only in a canoe. Richard was the engine, paddling away as I struggled to keep us on a straight course. There were the small sail boats off to our left starting their days sailing. A few other boats, some quite large were cruising past, but at a safe distance. We paddled on as the rain got heavier and the wind blew stronger. The south shore is recommended as the most pleasant to paddle, but it soon became apparent that it is very exposed and there are very few places to land your canoe or to take shelter.
A rib full of tourists came tearing up the Loch not too far from us, but slowed as it came close, for this we were grateful. It stopped up ahead and we soon realised they were all looking towards the sky where a Golden Eagle was flying. It was a beautiful thing to see. We paddled past a collection of mountain goats clinging to the very steep sides of the shore. After a couple of hours we thought we would rest at the Knockie Trailblazer rest site. It was hard work but enjoyable, tiring but exciting. By far the choppiest water I have ever paddled. Where was the Knockie site? We had both studied the maps and books, could we have missed it? The Trailblazer sites are little clearings along the Lochs where you can pitch a tent, light a fire and for those without a trowel, the use of a compost toilet, but you have to have a good eye, for they can be well hidden. An age later and Richard spotted a canoe rack set back off the pebbled shore and completely camouflaged by trees and beached drift wood. We climbed out of the canoe, pulled it up onto the shore and I went to read the information post that all the sites have. It read welcome to Foyers. Foyers? We had overshot Knockie by 9km!
It was about 2-30 and we had paddled 16.5km Of Loch Ness already and in pretty bad conditions. We looked out over the Loch, raining, waves and winds that were picking up all the time. It didn’t take us long to make the decision to stay and make camp. You may think 2-30 is early to call it a day, but you’re not paddling the Grand Union or the Thames, there’s no easy get outs along the south shore of Loch Ness. You have to be completely sure that you can make the next accessible spot and also we were finding out very quickly that the weather changed as quickly as you could put a paddle into the water. You don’t realise just how much it’s taking out of you trying to keep a canoe under control when all the Loch wants to do is throw you on to the shore. So the tent went up and a fire was made and the wind blew stronger.
About an hour or so later a group of canoeist came close to the shore but passed and you think to yourself if they’re out there then why aren’t we. A few minutes later the same canoeist came walking politely into our camp. We made room round the fire for which they were grateful and they started to tell us how bad it was out there and how it was a good job they had stopped. We all swapped stories of wind, rain and water. Huddling round the fire that evening we all individually checked the weather and realised tomorrow was not going to be easy.
The weather dictated an early start. We had made plans to meet the other canoeist where they had left their canoes, a five minute paddle round the shore. The plan was we were all going to paddle together down to Dores, a distance of 17km. The wind and waves were our enemy as we launched the canoe into the Loch, a wave came crashing into the side of us, the canoe tipped precariously over on its side as Richard and I worked like demons to keep us from capsizing. We pushed out away from the shore and headed off to meet the others. They were nowhere near ready and waiting in open water or landing was not an option. They waved us on with shouts of catching us up, so we paddled forward as the weather started to get worse.
Today I was the engine up front and Richard had the job of keeping us from being dashed against the rocks or being sucked into the middle of the Loch. We knew we had to move away from the shore, but how far. Hug the shore for safety that is what all the books and experts said. The rain poured as the winds blew appallingly hard upon us. Waves were throwing us everywhere as we battled down Loch Ness. Richard started to read the waves perfectly and was steering us with skill down the Loch, but every now and again a wave just picked us up and threw us towards the rocks. A monumental effort was needed by the pair of us to paddle and at one point we were literally seconds away from being smashed to pieces. Hailstones hammered down as the wind just got stronger and stronger. The waves, like stampeding horses were lifting us and dropping us at will.
My paddle slipped from my grip, I gripped tighter and lunged down, my paddle hit nothing, I looked down to see we were surfing a wave which must have been over a metre high. It was pouring with rain and the inside of the canoe was awash with rain and Loch water. My paddle slipped from my hand and I tried to speak but I couldn’t string a sentence together. My paddle slipped again as my head fell forward and I snapped it back up. I realised what was happening and by coincidence the rain stopped, the waves calmed and the sun burst through. I needed sugar and I needed it quick. We knew we had only minutes, five at the most before the weather turned again, we could actually see it racing towards us. Two snickers and an energy sachet brought me back to life and five minutes later we off on our rollercoaster ride again.
We pushed on towards Dores, or I should say the wind pushed us on towards Dores. Approaching the off shore fish farm we took the decision to cut between it and the shore. Decisions, decisions. We knew that if we landed at Dores our days paddling would be over, we also knew that by trying to cut across the Loch in these conditions and heading round Tor Point our canoe would probably be turned over. A fish keeper called to us, it was hard to hear above the noise of the wind and rain. We were to stay away from the shore, (which we had been trying to do all day anyway) and paddle over whatever lay ahead. There they were, two very large black pipes lying across our path, we paddled hard and to our relief the canoe skimmed over the top. Off to our right the life boat came speeding up the Loch from behind the Tor; it saw us, stopped and stayed at a safe distance, as Richard and I beached the canoe Richard flew from the back and pulled us ashore before we got swamped by crashing waves. The life boat took off. I also think it wanted to make sure we didn’t attempt to go round the Tor.
It must have been blowing 28-30 miles an hour. Standing on the shore with the waves crashing at our feet and the wind howling round us, I realised just exactly what it was I was looking at. I was staring straight at the Monster. At that moment in time it became perfectly clear to me that Loch Ness IS the monster. Maybe he wasn’t fully awake, but he certainly wasn’t sleeping. We were standing on the edge of a Loch but it was as if we were looking out to sea. From amongst the waves we saw the other canoeist, then they disappeared amongst the waves, they looked fragile and insignificant. They landed on the beach and one of their canoes was immediately engulfed with water, soaking the paddlers as a local lady approached us and told us she had never known the Loch to be so wild this time of year.
Our wild camping spot lay beyond the beach at least a 600m hike up a muddy, uneven puddle infested track and on into the woods. I was so glad we hadn’t forgotten the wheels. Tents up and a fire built, we sat with the other canoeist praying that our tent would withstand the beating it was receiving by the ever increasing wind.
Once back on the water we paddled off towards Lochend and the disused Bona Lighthouse. This point marks the end of Loch Ness and the beginning of Loch Dochfour, the smallest of the four Lochs. Portaging at Dochgarroch Lock we found ourselves part of large group of Scandinavian sea kayakers. Here we took a bit of time to sit on the grass and soak up the sun, which had decided to show its face, it was glorious. Peaceful. Back on the water and the scenery noticeably changes from the steep sided banks of the Lochs to flat agricultural land. We had about 5km to go. The amount of people walking, jogging and cycling told us we were now entering the urban fringe. Once again it started to pour down.
Passing the Inverness rowing club we continue on into a sweeping left hand bend and in front of us was the Tomnahurich Swing Bridge. To get under this you have to sit on the bottom of your canoe and you still feel you may not make under. We paddled on to Muirtown Locks and another 500m portage. Across a busy road finds us on the wrong side of the water, so we have to cross the bridge through a gate and onto the Scout Hut pontoon. After 500m more canal we find ourselves at the Clachnaharry Sea Loch in the Muirtown Basin. After racking our canoe and packing up our gear we stood for a moment looking out towards the North Sea. The sun was out, it was a clear day and the wind was blowing strong.