Ten minutes later we entered the waters of Loch Lochy and began our navigation of the north shore to head for our eventual target camp site at Glas dhoire. It took three hours paddling and the waters became more challenging with a bit more wind and waves and an understanding of why you need a spray deck if you want to stay relatively dry. Glas dhoire was just a small beach - making exiting the kayak much easier, and camping under the trees. There was a small shelter and compostable toilets (although they were locked and the key we had didn't access them!). The wind calmed again and soon enough the Loch was still, as we ate after Si prepared food and then Chris and Si eventually got a fire going. The bonus was because it was a mild, dry evening, the midges were nowhere to be seen.
Day one complete and we felt relatively unscathed as we bedded down for the night.
We were picked up in Inverness by Boots n Paddles - the excellent company we'd hired equipment from, to transport us to the start just outside Fort William at Banavie. Here we transferred our things into 30litre water proof bags and undertook what felt like a game of Tetris to get all our camping gear, clothing, food etc into the three Kayaks. An hour or so later, we were packed and launched ourselves into the Caledonian Canal - on a glorious sunny day with a snow capped Ben Nevis in full view overlooking us. Mastering getting into the kayak without it heading away from the launch was a challenge, as was fastening the spray deck securely without losing your oar! Si was the expert here on in - being a keen camper and kayaker. Chris and I had done very little kayaking before and neither of us are camping fans.
The first 10.5kms took us up the canal with Ben Nevis and the Grampian mountains overlooking us to the east - the scenery was stunning and we couldn't have had better weather - calm waters and clear skies. Chris and I were given tips on how to best kayak by Si. However, it seemed we failed to understand and whilst Si likely did 10.5kms, we probably did 15 as we veered left and right continuously and failed to get the routine that enabled a relatively straight line. We reached Gair Lochy in just over two hours, where we had our first portage point. Portage means getting out the kayak and then transporting it by land to the next launch point. This is because of the locks, which kayaks are not permitted to use.
Once out of the kayak (again, a mission on the first attempt!) - Si giving us more guidance on how to best exit; we fastened the portage wheels we had and proceeded to move two of the kayaks the 500 metres or so to our launch point. In the process wheels came off three times - it seems there were numerous lessons to be learnt! Lucas eventually returned to Si, who'd waited to transport his kayak as we only had two sets of wheels. The upside was it gave plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. Chris got the kettle on using the gas stove and we had lunch before relaunching ourselves.
Great Glen Paddle Challenge - Kayaking across Scotland
During the Gold Post Box cycle in 2014, one of our support team, Si Clarke, talked about wanting to canoe across Scotland on the Caledonian Canal from Fort William to Inverness - thus linking the Atlantic Ocean with the North Sea. (Si has said he muted the idea back in 2011 but I (Lucas) have no recollection!). Chris Britton and I were both interested in the idea, and a year later we found ourselves heading for Scotland and four days Kayaking across Scotland. Lucas would support his two nominated charities, Macmillan Cancer Support and St Luke's Hospice, whilst Chris was supporting Cancer Research UK and Si Children's Cancer & Leukaemia Group.
Chris and I met in Edinburgh a few days before and took a couple of days to enjoy Scotland - exploring Edinburgh and then the train journey to Inverness before a day in Inverness - a much nicer city than I recall from my last exploration in 1994! Si flew up and met us there and Tuesday night was spent getting food supplies and looking at the route on the maps. The trip would involve three nights camping and crossing three Loch's - Lochy, Oich and Ness. 60 miles doesn't seem too far over four days, but the prospect of kayaking it was very much an unknown as training had been about building up upper body strength. All previous challenges have been primarily about cardio, but this time the legs would be doing very little!
We'd underestimated the midges! At 4am I had got up for the loo and as I was stood in my boxers doing the deed was being swarmed by the things. On re-entry to the tent, Chris abandoned a similar plan and we blasted ourselves with inspect repellent! By morning, there had been light rain and the midges were about in force. Having a cup of tea whilst picking out suicidal midges, Si had already been for a stroll having been up much earlier. I then just grimaced as I took the tent down whilst being swarmed by the things and couldn't get off shore fast enough to be free of them! Chris seemed to have been attacked more so, with bites down around his ankles.
Loch Lochy was now calm as we made our way up the remainder of the Loch and back into the canal. Our first portage point was at Laggan - including a tea stop, before carrying on into Loch Oich - a much smaller Loch. On the north shore was a small shop with cafe and we treated ourselves to bacon & egg baps and more tea (anyone who knows Chris and I from cycle challenges will know we survive on tea!). We then carried on up the south shore of Loch Oich - Si busy enjoying the wildlife, spotting various birds and on the look out for otters and pine martins.
By lunchtime we'd reached the northern end of Loch Oich and headed back into the canal, once we'd managed to bypass the weir! (Chris seemed to be heading towards it at one point!) Chris and I still had failed to master the straight line and Si had queried if I was obedient at school as I seemed to ignore his guidance! It was more I was getting frustrated with my inability to go in a straight line and how much more energy I was no double using as a result. We reached the next lock at Cullochy and, once we'd portaged the kayaks (this time we were carrying them as the wheels were more effort than it was worth for the 200metres we had to travel) we stopped for lunch. At this point, some minks crossed the lock walkway - giving Si some great wildlife to watch and we had fantastic views in both directions as the weather was, once again, glorious.
Left: Si & Chris portage a kayak at Cullochy Loch
Right: Chris boarding his kayak on Loch
Si, Chris & Lucas loading Kayak’s at the starting point
Foyer's was a lovely spot for lunch and a much needed break. It was then back onto the water as we passed through the halfway point of the Loch and its widest section. At much the same time the wind picked up and the calmness we'd enjoyed developed into much choppier waters into a headwind (which had been a backwind the previous three hours). We had targeted a picnic spot approx an hour and a half up the shore which would be opposite Urquhart Castle. However, with the waves battering and wind making it harder work, we pulled into the first place we could find suitable after an hour and a half's paddling. The challenge had now become much more of a challenge and waves, which in a boat wouldn't be noticeable, made for a bigger challenge in a kayak. Conscious of the expected weather the next day, we headed back into the Loch and powered on. Ironically, it seemed I was better at maintaining a straight line in choppier waters than in the calm!
The section from here to Kytra lock was like being in Canada as we headed down a tree lined section - which was very tranquil. As we travelled at walking pace, it gave you time to admire the scenery. On arrival at Kytra, another portage point, we decided to stop for the day, just shy of the halfway point and in a lovely quiet setting by the lock. An hour later, with the tents up and dinner on the go, the rain began and it seemed we'd made a wise choice. The downside was the midges joined us in force and Chris couldn't get a fire going as the rain got heavier. The only way to minimise their annoyance was to keep moving (or hide in the tents). So we went for walks along the banks of the canal in both directions - getting a chance to enjoy the quiet. After two hours or so of walking, we had a final drink - consumed whilst walking round in circles, before we gave up and headed into our tents.
Two or so hours on we finally went ashore again just south of Dores, having powered our way up the shoreline against the waves and slightly calmer wind. Fatigue was beginning to show and Si's determination to get us as far north as possible was challenged by a tired and irritated Lucas! However, the logical thing was to clear Loch Ness that day and avoid any possible limits on day 4. Encouraged by a cup of tea and food, we headed back onto the water - which had now subsided somewhat. We cut across to the northern end where it narrowed to head towards the northern end and Loch Dochfour. The only challenge now we'd covered the entire length of Loch Ness in one day was to find somewhere to camp. We eventually found a patch of land near Dochgarroch - where Lucas nearly fell into the water as he slipped on a rock exiting his kayak and found the kayak heading away from him.
Once we'd all got ashore and set up camp we realised just what we'd achieved over 12 hours having paddled nearly half the entire Great Glen route - around 25 miles in total and the entire length of Loch Ness in a day. The bonus was we had a near midge free spot as we had noodles and mackerel for tea. Our only concern was if we'd be woken by anglers early the next morning as we'd set camp in a salmon fishing point!
The view down the canal after Laggan lock
Right: Having dinner in the Rain with midges!
Below: Cullochy Lock in operation
Above - Si & Chris carry Si’s kayk onto the beach at Glas dhoire
Left - Chris & Si making fire!
Right - Si enjoy’s the fire
Below - Having tea at Glas dhoire
The rain had ceased and midge numbers subsided when we got up - the sun was back out too. We launched ourselves earlier as the day would take us onto Loch Ness and the forecast for the final day was poor, so we had the challenge of covering as much of Loch Ness as possible. We quickly reached Fort Augustus, where there were 5 locks to portage past. The wheels were necessary and still the was a long portage route. It was our last chance for a while to stock up on any supplies and it was an hour and a half before we were ready to launch into Loch Ness. In the meantime, whilst our kayaks were on the waterside pending launch, a group of tourists swarmed my kayak to take pictures of the Loch Ness monster mascot I had attached to it!
Loch Ness was looking daunting yet glorious - as still as a millpond in bright sunshine. The deepest, longest and second largest lake in the UK lay before us. It was 23 miles to the northern limits. We headed out and towards the south/east shore to then follow it northbound. We took advantage of the stillness and made great progress up the Loch to reach Foyers in three hours. However, Lucas was suffering by this stage - ironically it was his right leg causing the problem! This was because it was sat in a float position and, after a long period like this, causing a pain in the hamstring/groin linked to a mild sciatic issue. Paddling wise we were all going strong, Si's arms having stopped aching as they had after day one and Chris managing a slightly swollen wrist. (This he considered the least of his issues having been bitten extensively by midges!)
Lucas & Chris on the Canal shortly after the start
Si & Chris getting ready to launch
Above - Chris & Si after the start, Below - looking back at Ben Nevis in the distance
Lucas portaging his kayak along Fort Augutus Locks
Above - The calm canal first thing
Below: View over Fort Augutus lock’s looking north east