2015 Next Challenge Grant Winners Ben Smith and Judith Pope recently completed their paddle the length of the Caledonian Canal in Scotland. Here’s Jude’s account…
You can apply for – and donate to – the 2016 Next Challenge Grant here.
Paddling the Caledonian Canal in a Packraft Made for Two
by Judith Pope
In April 2016 Ben Smith and myself paddled from Fort William to Inverness in a packraft made for two, in a week off work. The route has been dubbed Scotland’s first Canoe Trail and is 60 miles long. The official Great Glen Canoe Trail website promotes it as a five day paddle, and it also doesn’t recommend doing this by inflatable boat. With good reason, more on that later.
What a display Scotland put on! Crystal clear waters, light winds, warm sunshine, amazing views of snow topped mountains and waterfalls, deer, swans, wagtails, owls, tiny birds skimming the water catching flies so close to the boat, friendly locals and lock keepers, pristine canal and canoe trail, the most amazing wild camping spots on the shore, by locks and in silent woods, and warm, warm pubs.
Of course she had her stroppy moments too. The tailwind that caught the boat and blew us round in circles, high winds and choppy waters, snow storms, sub-zero temperatures, four seasons in twenty minutes, and windchill that meant it was sometimes warmer to stand with our feet in the loch as we rested rather than stand on the shore.
Thankfully Ben and myself were sensible enough to know our limits.
We were amazingly fortunate with the weather and completed the trail in eight days – good going considering our speed. Our adventure could have been so different if the weather had been awful. And downright dangerous if we’d pushed ahead rigidly sticking to the promoted daily distances.
In the end we hiked for one day, and a small bit across the manicured lawns of a restored private castle another. We really loved the amazing flexibility of having a packraft that rolled up to the size of a sleeping bag and weighed not much versus a rigid canoe. If we’d had a rigid canoe we’d probably still be sitting on the shores of the first loch.
Another ace thing about packrafting over, say, cycling or walking this route is that on the days we finished paddling early in the day we still had full use of our legs, so were able to fit in some walking – waterfalls, lighthouses and off the beaten track wild camping.
But it wasn’t all go, go, go. We sat out for most of one day. In Fort Augustus. In a pub. Erm, two pubs. And a hostel. Awaiting better weather. The frost overnight was severe, but a 7am start beckoned to beat the winds that were due to pick up at lunchtime.
Boy was it worth it!
It’s fair to say that Loch Ness had been the big worry of the trip. It took up a lot of head space. Information to hand was saying to pick one shore and stick to it. So much debate about wind direction, studying OS maps to look at where in the steep banks we might be able to shelter from bad weather, call it a day or nip to the loo. It was a two-three day crossing for us. Ideally we wanted to follow the northern shore, then cross the loch (yes that deep bit in the middle) to follow the southern shore, giving us the most hospitable shores. But in the end we decided to go south all the way – to avoid the crossing. Until in the early hours of the morning when we saw that amazing water above, and watched the only other canoe we’d see all trip head straight down the middle… Stuff it we’d go with our preferred option. We’d got enough experience of telling when the wind was going to pick up (temperature helpfully plummeted a few minutes beforehand), we knew the stability of the boat, the speed we could paddle, the narrowest crossing point for the loch, and were not the only boat within sight on the water. So being risk aware we went for it. The crossing from north to south shores was the hardest bit of paddling we did all trip – in terms of going full power for what seemed like a very long time. The harder we paddled, the less time we were out of swimming distance of the shore. Distance = 1.5km, Speed = 2mph (yes we did a lot of mental maths on our trip!) meant that we needed only a small window of great weather to get across. All went well. Really well. We were a bit regretful that fretting over this one day had loomed over the first half of the trip so much. But I don’t think it was something to take on lightly given our choice of boat.
Another factor that came with Loch Ness that we failed to prepare for was civilisation, people and big boats. We’d prepared for the quiet and solitude. Not for the multitude of languages that drifted through the air, souvenir shops, and “drive on the left” signs. Bring on the vast loch that felt almost deserted even with huge trip boats and numerous hire boats going up and down – solitude once again!
Well it was wet and it was cold in parts (at one point I did do a spot of sunbathing though in my swimsuit, so it wasn’t all bad). But I was prepared!
My winter wetsuit did the job on the water, even if it hindered loo stops. My buoyancy aid may have been used as a seat and worn to keep me warm around camp.
And I learnt to ignore ice cold feet.
Once off the water it was a quick change into beautifully dry, soft, warm bamboo baselayers then layered on up. And we were also grateful for the select few canal facilities with underfloor heating. A little bit of comfort along the way.
And you know what? The trip was really good fun! Even at the time, not just in hindsight.
On the coach, on the way back south to England, we passed through amazing scenery: mountains, winding rivers, great cycle routes, fire roads disappearing over mountain passes and I could see Ben’s eyes glazing over as ideas began to form for the next challenge in Scotland…
Thank you to everyone for your support for this trip: The Next Challenge 2015 grant, generous donations of fantastic base layers from BAM bamboo clothing, great service on the hire of our Alpacka Explorer 42 packraft from Back Country Biking, plus those who helped make the Great Glen Canoe Trail great.
The 2016 Next Challenge Grant is now open for applications and donations. Read more here.