Paddle power is a great way to enjoy a Highland voyage on river, loch and canal, Don Currie finds.
It’s shaping up to be another busy year on the Great Glen Canoe Trail, with growing awareness and improvements to facilities, such as no-scratch edgings on pontoons to reduce wear on canoes and kayaks. With plenty of paddling time left this summer, we decided to re-run this feature that appeared in the magazine last year.
Canoeing and kayaking tend not to be done in a straight line â€“ unless that line is the magnificent Great Glen Canoe Trail. Don Currie went to sample its many charms.
Paddling with a purpose â€“ those four words sum up the unique appeal of the Great Glen Canoe Trail, which connects Scotlandâ€™s west and east coasts through an ever-changing landscape filled with interest, both natural and man-made.
Itâ€™s a phrase that may seem a contradiction if your only experience of canoeing has been the occasional outing at a water sports centre. Surely those wobbly few hours spent splashing about randomly from Point A to, well, Point A again are the ultimate in purposeless, if quite pleasant, exercise?
And thatâ€™s where the trail scores highly, for me at least. Making a journey between the historic hubs of Fort William and Inverness in a structured way, via canal, river and loch, transforms a pastime into an adventure.
Following the route, whether by kayak or Canadian canoe, has been theoretically possible ever since the great engineer Thomas Telford built his Caledonian Canal in 1822. It linked Loch Linnhe in the west to the Beauly Firth in the east along the Great Glen, the vast geological fault that divides the Grampians from the northwest Highlands, and it made coast-to-coast navigation possible for the first time.
Few paddlers attempted it, though, until March last year, when the Canoe Trail opened, complete with a range of facilities to enhance the experience. There are pontoons to make entering and leaving the water easy. There are wild camping areas, complete with composting toilets and canoe racks. There are information panels and an excellent guidebook. There are plenty of paddler-friendly accommodation options, from bunkhouses to comfortable B&Bs. Now the word is spreading, with thousands of canoeists and kayakers using the canal each year.
And, crucially, there are a number of companies who will organise your trip, providing transport at either end as well as all the equipment you will need. Many parties like to do the 60-mile journey unaccompanied, but a qualified leader will go with you if you prefer.
As someone whose paddling experience has been confined to a few fair-weather sorties on Loch Insh and Loch Morlich in Speyside, I donâ€™t feel quite ready for the whole trail. So instead, Donald Macpherson, of Explore Highland, offers to take me for a one-day taster in a two-man Canadian canoe.
We meet in Fort Augustus, where I have just spent a very comfortable night at Stravaigers Bunkhouse, and drive south-west on the A82 through light but persistent rain to South Laggan, where the Caledonian Canal connects to the northern end of the splendidly named Loch Lochy.
Here we lift Donaldâ€™s beautiful oak-trimmed Wenonah Canoe from the roof of his van, don our buoyancy aids, lower the canoe into the water and set off, having stowed some spare clothing and lunch in waterproof sacks in the bottom.
â€œItâ€™s quite a strong wind today, force 4-5, but the first stretch weâ€™re doing is pretty sheltered,â€ he says as we make our way along a straight, tree-lined section known as Laggan Avenue, with me up front doing my best to provide some power and Donald paddling behind and controlling our direction. The sense of peace is lovely, the only sounds being the raindrops, the dipping paddles, our voices as we chat about the trail, and the flow of water from the occasional stream running vigorously into the canal along channels built by Telfordâ€™s workers and still in superb condition.
Donald was the project officer who played a leading role in establishing the trail and wrote the guidebook. Heâ€™s now a fount of knowledge on the canalâ€™s construction, history and wildlife, as well as on the practicalities of paddling on all parts of the trail.
He warns me to expect a change as we exit the canal under Laggan swing bridge and head out into the wide expanse of Loch Oich. Sure enough, the surface breaks up into waves a couple of feet high as a strong wind on our backs propels us forward. Our speed picks up and at times we are surfing on the wavetops â€“ an exhilarating feeling. We bear left to take a look at the large, rusting hulk of a long-abandoned pleasure boat then cross the loch, heading diagonally back into the wind to avoid being caught side-on by a wave, which could easily capsize us. This is where Donaldâ€™s expertise and knowledge of the route shows its worth.
We get out and stretch our legs at Leiterfearn, an informal campsite on the south-east bank of the loch. The woodland setting is magnificent, but we quickly feel the cold having stopped paddling, so we guzzle our sandwiches and carry on, admiring the ruins of Invergarry Castle, one-time seat of the Clan MacDonnell, among the trees to our left.
At the far end of Loch Oich we have a choice of route: the River Oich, which features a weir and a couple of rapids, or the parallel stretch of canal. Donald takes a look at the rain-swollen torrent flowing down the weir, ponders my relative inexperience and recommends the canal. Here I get my first taste of portaging, or carrying the canoe past locks, which is nowhere near as arduous as I expected, despite the canoe being heavier than the fibreglass kayaks I had paddled before.
As we head along the home stretch of my one-day Great Glen canoe sampler, the rain eases and some birds begin to appear. No rarities, just the odd pied wagtail, heron and Canada goose, but itâ€™s good to share the waterway with some other creatures on a day that’s clearly too damp for most. We even see a trio of very damp walkers doing their version of the trail: â€œI donâ€™t envy them with their heavy packs,â€ Donald remarks as we glide past.
He points out oddities along the way that I would never have noticed without him â€“ the spot, for instance, where a breach in the canal embankment was repaired by filling an old boat with stones and sinking it to block the gap.
As we approach Fort Augustus, focusing on thoughts of hot chocolate, I decide that our Canadian canoe is my ideal paddling craft. The upright sitting position, with legs crossed at the ankles and knees braced against the side of the canoe, is, for me, far more comfortable than a kayak, with its lower posture, legs stretched out in front and stomach muscles feeling the strain.
l feel fine as we stow the canoe in a canalside rack and head for the nearest cafÃ© â€“ no blisters, no aches and pains. My introduction has been well chosen by Donald, especially given the strong wind and rain. Had we done the Loch Ness section, where waves can be nine feet high and the experience is akin to sea paddling, I might have been put off paddling for life. As it is, I seem to have acquired a new hobby.