Cross-Scotland Canoe Part 2: Kinlochleven to Perth

After four gruelling days of paddling and portaging across the Scottish highlands from Mallaig to Fort William, Matt and I took a day’s rest, recovered the car via a train ride over the Harry Potter viaduct and reflected on our experiences. Despite completing the crossing in good time, some lessons had clearly been learned. Most notably, the weight of our packs had severely affected our travels during the portage phases of the journey. The trip up to the watershed from Loch Nevis had been a tough experience, heightened by the need to cover every kilometre three times. The answer was obvious: carry less kit!

We considered every item of equipment and stripped away all unused and unnecessary items. It was a sobering experience to see the excess material pile up before our eyes, as we lightened our packs for the next planned section of the trip: the classic cross-Scotland route from Kinlochleven to Perth via Rannoch Moor. We were determined to move more freely on this next adventure, especially given the brutal reputation of the high ground across which we would travel.

Weather and time constraints caused us to skip the coastal section from Fort William; we therefore drove to Kinlochleven, from where our journey would begin again. With the canoe balanced on its trolley and our packs inside the boat, we began the steep ascent up the forest track that leads to the Blackwater Reservoir. After an hour of intense effort we had gained almost 300 metres of altitude and were rewarded with a panoramic view over Kinlochleven. The cool cloudy weather was ideal for travel, our progress towards the reservoir now hastened by the smooth concrete surface of the track, over which the canoe trolley sped. The contrast with Loch Nevis was spectacular.

Arriving at the dam wall by late morning, we were reassured to see a good water level in the reservoir. A moderate westerly wind blew over the lake surface and we hustled to complete the transition to paddle power. With the sail hoisted, we flew east towards the head of lake, fifteen kilometres despatched in a couple of relatively effortless hours. The shoreline closed in towards the head of the lake as we slalomed through a maze of islands in search of the tiny river that feeds the Blackwater Reservoir at its upstream end. Finally beaching the canoe, we stepped ashore into a gloriously wild and remote place. At three hundred metres altitude, with the Mamore mountains to the north and the peaks of Glencoe to the south, our escape lay across almost eight kilometres of moorland to Rannoch Station.

It felt that the real challenge was about to begin; Rannoch Moor has a severe reputation among expedition canoeists for its distance, terrain underfoot and exposure. We scouted the first section and concluded that the Blackwater river was deep enough to permit lining-up. We hauled across a few meanders, dragged up the frequent rocky steps and paddled wherever possible. Our portage packs remained in the canoe for much of the time and as the hours passed, we made steady uphill progress towards Lochan a’ Chlaidheimh, where we would cross the watershed and commence the descent to Rannoch Station. The visibility remained clear, with spectacular views across the high, remote moorland. The train track became visible to the north and suddenly we were within sight of the lochan. From the route’s high point, we marvelled at the relative ease with which we had covered the ground. Conditions had been great; enough water in the river, relatively dry underfoot and good visibility. We also felt the benefit of lighter portage packs, which permitted us to to move all our equipment without resorting to multiple journeys.

We continued towards Rannoch Station, benefiting from a small stream that just floated our canoe downhill. As numerous boulder chokes forced us back onto the moor, we set up a husky tow and plodded steadily towards the now-visible collection of buildings that form Britain’s most remote railway station. At last, early evening saw us at our destination, a little less than nine hours after departing Kinlochleven. We were tired, hungry, muddy – and delighted. We had crossed Rannoch Moor in fine style and could now look forward to the long system of lochs and rivers that descend to Perth and the east coast. After a civilised dinner in the empty station visitor centre, we turned in for the night, as the sun disappeared over the silent moor.

By 7am were were en route once more, navigating Loch Laidon, the Garbh Ghaoir river and Loch Eigheach until the dam wall at the head of the Gaur forced us ashore. Tarmac and trolley combined perfectly as we hummed downstream to the more navigable sections of the Gaur, and eventually the head of Loch Rannoch. Under clear blue skies and with a strengthening westerly wind, we hoisted sail once more and began an exciting downwind sail, surfing white horses as we ate up the distance to Kinloch Rannoch. Powering along at almost 10 km/h, we covered 18 km of open water in style. Over a café americano, we plotted our options and concluded that Pitlochry might lie within reach that day. Afloat again, we followed the upper river Tummel down to Dunalastair Loch, the narrow rocky forested hillsides funnelling our helpful breeze ever stronger. Portaging once more, we trolleyed down to Tummel Bridge and our final large loch crossing, 15 kilometres of Loch Tummel. Again, we enjoyed fantastic sailing conditions and by early evening found ourselves ashore once more on the minor road past the white water Tummel below the Clunie dam. A final flat water paddle took us to Pitlochry, where we arrived thirteen hours after our departure from Rannoch Station. With 58km of loch, river and portage under our hull, we were elated with our progress and wasted no time checking into the Pitlochry Backpackers. This excellent establishment was the perfect end to an amazing day of memorable open canoeing.

A late morning departure from Pitlochry the next day saw us swiftly down the lower river Tummel, slaloming between anglers to the river Tay confluence. With a water release from the Clunie dam, our speed through the class I-II rapids was swift and easy. Onto the fast-flowing Tay, we continued to enjoy a series of simple rapids down to our early afternoon lunch break in Dunkeld.

The afternoon bought harder work and a renewed sense of tiredness, as the lower reaches of the Tay eased to a seemingly-endless series of gentle meanders. To our outrage a headwind materialised, forcing us to dig deep yet again. At last the rocky barrier of Campsie Linn appeared, the signal of the start to a few kilometres of class II+ rapids, down through Stanley Weir and on towards Perth. Shipping water in a couple of the larger wave trains, we whooped our way downstream, enjoying the final challenge of this grand cross-Scotland adventure. At last, after several more kilometres of flat water, the town of Perth appeared. Our arrival at the tidal limit marked the end of the journey, 140 kilometres after leaving Kinlochleven. As the early evening rain fell from the sky, we trudged wearily but happily towards our campsite, relieved that soon we would be spared any further paddling or portaging. 250 km after leaving Mallaig eight days earlier, it was time to go home.

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Cross-Scotland Canoe Part 1: Mallaig to Fort William

Struggling under my portage pack’s tiresome weight, I climbed the final twenty metres to the top of the dam wall at the west end of Loch Quoich, deep in Scotland’s northwest highland wilderness. After two days of lining, dragging and carrying, we could finally look forward to covering the next fifteen kilometres by sail and paddle power. I reached the crest, excited to see the landscape unfold – and gazed in horror at the sight that greeted me. The view to the east revealed no expanse of water upon which to float; rather, a hellish valley of sand and mud that stretched for kilometres, an appalling portage and a serious blow to our prospects. I looked back at Matt, whose position did not yet afford him the advantage of my perspective.

‘How’s the view?’ he shouted. ‘Is the loch still there?’
I said nothing and waited him for to make his own discovery.

Several months earlier we had planned an adventurous canoe journey in Scotland. Our ideas grew and developed, finally settling on a grand traverse of the Scottish highlands from Mallaig in the west to Perth in the east, via some of the wild north’s most dramatic and remote landscapes. Our planned route covered 250 kilometres of sea lochs, freshwater lochs, river systems – and portages. We took our inspiration from Andy Hall’s and Ray Goodwin’s 1991 crossing via this route, hoping to complete the distance in similar style.

On the first of July we paddled out of Mallaig harbour, at the end of ‘the road to the isles’ on Scotland’s north west coast. With Skye’s dramatic mountain skyline behind us, we entered the huge expanse of Loch Nevis and paddled the flooding tide towards Camusrory. To the north the mountains of Knoydart were shrouded in mist and, as the west wind strengthened, a steady rain began to fall. It felt a suitably committing start to our adventure.

We arrived at the head of Loch Nevis at local high water, to maximise the paddleable distance up the river Carnach and to delay the moment when we would step from our canoe. From here, we began to transport ourselves and our equipment across the watershed into the river Garry system to the east. We knew this would involve a portage of ten kilometres and a height gain of 250 metres; we were uncertain, however, of the demands that the terrain ahead would place upon us. We were soon to find out.

Two kilometres of lining upstream ended with an increased river gradient, its rocky bed forcing us onto the marshy valley floor. It was quickly apparent that the terrain and our equipment weight would prevent uphill travel in one push; we were forced to carry portage packs to a suitable cache, before retracing our steps to rejoin the canoe and reunite it with our equipment. The whole process could then begin again. The wind and rain intensified, as a frontal system laid its soggy isobars across the bleak Knoydart mountains. Drenched to our base layers, the only way to remain warm was to maintain a constant physical activity. This at least was no problem, notwithstanding our protesting bodies.

By early evening we arrived at a distinct bend in the river Carnach, next to the swollen stream beneath a towering rocky crag. As the wind whipped through the narrow valley, we hustled to prepare food and set up camp, racing the onset of hypothermia. Our spirits had been lifted by a chance late afternoon encounter with a couple of Knoydart locals, whose enthusiasm at our crazy adventure had given us a much-needed boost as our energy levels had threatened to flag. But right now, we needed sleep. Shivering in my sleeping bag, after nine hours of constant effort, I hoped for good progress the next day.

We woke to an improvement in conditions; the rain had eased, leaving low grey clouds clinging to the streaming hillsides. Squelching up the faint track above our campsite, we soon reached a boggy plateau enclosed by surrounding mountains. Ditching our packs at the next sharp bend in the river, we returned for the canoe, buoyed by the prospect of a new day ahead and the excitement of moving through unfamiliar terrain. Since leaving Loch Nevis we had encountered few walkers, the remoteness of our situation more evident as we climbed towards the watershed.

The route became more challenging as we climbed towards the tiny Lochan nam Breac, hidden beneath Sgurr na Ciche’s towering northern flanks. Lining the canoe was more difficult as the steepening stream bed became choked with boulders; the portage trail, slick with mud and running water, hid treacherous holes beneath its long grass. We dragged and carried the boat onwards.

Finally we crested the high point of our crossing and began the descent to Loch Quoich, still hidden behind its final grassy barrier. As the sun made a brief appearance, we ate a much-needed lunch and felt our sprits rise as we contemplated an evening arrival in the river Garry system. Only one more hour and we could look forward to paddling and sailing in relatively effortless comfort…

…and so, as Matt arrived at the viewpoint and gazed across the waterless desert where Loch Quoich had once existed, a horrified silence descended on us. Absorbing our new reality, we dejectedly deployed the canoe trolley and trundled slowly along the rough track that parallels the loch on its north side. After a couple of kilometres of painfully slow progress, a ribbon of water appeared to offer escape onto the main loch. We lowered the boat down a steep grassy slope to within ten metres of the water’s edge. At last, we could continue our journey in less grim circumstances; our flagging spirits rose once more.

Scouting the put-in, I stepped closer to the water’s edge, leaving the shingle shoreline and walking out onto a sand bank. After three steps, I plunged through the thin surface layer and found myself thigh-deep in oozing, clinging mud. Matt raced across and dragged me free, as Loch Quioch threatened to claim my wellies. Attempts to skim the canoe across the treacherous surface failed; only twenty feet from the water, we were entirely unable to transport ourselves across this final hurdle. A sense of despondency now gripped us; the prospect of hauling our kit up and out of this mess was too appalling to consider. We scouted further along the shoreline and found a potential put-in where the steeper rocky shoreline permitted a more secure launch. A new concern, however, now raised its head; we were uncertain that there was sufficient water in the connecting channel to allow to an escape from this trap. Envisioning benightment on an ocean of mud, and after yet another hour of exhausted portaging, we anxiously launched and finally dragged, shoved and waded our way into open water. Feeling like arctic explorers finally escaping the grip of enveloping sea ice, we at last felt deep water under the hull. We set sail and paddled the remaining fifteen kilometres to the end the loch. Camped against the dam wall two hours later, we celebrated our escape from Loch Quioch.

Day three, in comparison, was a breeze – despite the headwind that kept us honest all the way to the Great Glen. With little water in the upper river Garry, we lined, hauled and waded downstream. Progress with our loaded canoe was quicker than overland portages and we appreciated the absorbing tasks of choosing lines, leapfrogging and rope management. After a couple of hours the river volume increased, with a series of rapids down to Loch Garry. Some we ran, a couple we lined – and one, despite my confidence, we should have walked. Swamped and sinking, we wallowed to the river bank as our trolley wheels threatened to float free from the boat. Emptying out, we continued on our way, revelling in the the river’s speed as we finally enjoyed a free ride downstream. An upwind paddle the length of Loch Garry preceded a trolley portage down to the Great Glen, where the inviting welcome of the Invergarry Hotel proved irresistible. A couple of pints and a gourmet burger later, we wobbled down to the Loch Oich shoreline, from where we sailed the NE breeze down to Laggan Locks at the entrance to Loch Lochy. This campsite on the banks of the Caledonian Canal felt a far cry from the wild grandeur of Knoydart. But with a Fort William finish line now in our sights, we enjoyed the relaxed surroundings – confident that success was now in our grasp.

Waking on day four to calm sunny conditions, we launched into the mirror-like waters of Loch Lochy and paddled purposefully down the centre of this dramatic cleft in the Scottish highlands, as a light breeze gradually filled in behind us. Six hours after our launch we tethered our canoe to the egress pontoon at Neptune’s Staircase, lay down on the dock and fell asleep. Our crossing of the Knoydart mountains, our grand canoe adventure from Mallaig to Fort William, was complete.