Paddling can take you to some amazing places but when you combine canoeing & kayaking, and the versatility of modern inflatable kayaks & inflatable canoes, with other outdoor pursuits it can really open up a mind-boggling array of possibilities for outdoor adventuring. But hang on; don’t you need to be a big, burly, bearded bush-craft practicing explorer to be able to take a walk, and paddle, on the really wild side? Well no actually! Read on and discover that some basic knowledge, a go for it attitude, a thirst for adventure and an inflatable canoe can take you a very long way on a journey of discovery in the far north.
It all started with an innocent looking email popping in to the inbox. It simply said ‘An Invite to the Mountains?’ followed by the words ‘Fancy It?’ and a brief description of a pretty epic sounding itinerary for a few days of high adventure way up in Assynt, Inverpoly, in the far, far north of Scotland. The objectives of the trip were to use lochs and rivers (and a couple of harsh portages) to stitch together a majestic loop that would also take in climbing some of the regions classic mountains. To date all my paddling trips had been just that, paddling trips, but I’m not adverse to a plod up a hill, and something about the idea had me intrigued. After a bit of internal ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ I replied. I was in!The email in question was forwarded from a mate called Owen Jenkins. I knew OJ was a keen mountaineer with years of
The email in question was forwarded from a mate called Owen Jenkins. I knew OJ was a keen mountaineer with years of mountain experience. Many of those adventures had been shared with his mate Nick, the author of the enticing email. Nick also has an impressive mountain climbing C.V! The previous year whilst looking for a way to expand their adventures Nick & OJ had traversed Rannoch Moor using an inflatable canoe, combining the not unchallenging paddling with some climbing too. It had proved a wet, but exciting adventure; and they were fast becoming hooked by the joys of the paddle. Fast-forward a few months and a plan was beginning to hatch over evening ‘pub paddles’ on the River Nene. And so it was that the fateful email had been dispatched to a disparate group of Gentlemen all deemed to be up for a healthy dose of wet and wild outdoor adventure.
Invitation to Inflatable Adventure
The recipients came from various friends and family members and ranged from those with lots of experience of the hills to no paddling at all, to those who had never even been camping before! Once the cyber-dust had settled and the final tally made our team was to number fourteen in total. As I studied the plan it was obvious that when Nick and OJ said ‘adventure’ they spell it with a capital A, this was no gentle float and a wander up a grassy hillock, this was going to be long days and hard effort in a potentially hostile environment. It was an audacious plan, but could a mixed bag of outdoor, and paddling novices really pull it off? Our destination was way up in the North West corner of Scotland. We would leave our vehicles and launch in to four days of adventure as we paddled Cam Loch, Loch Veyatie Fionn Loch, Loch a’ Ghillie and Loch Sionascaig and Loch an Doire Dhuibh. Climbing Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh along the way and wild camping in the evenings. Given the number in the team the logistics of just getting everyone up there with all the appropriate equipment was no mean feat, but as I was to discover Nick & OJ’s preparation and planning is impressive, to say the least, so nothing was left to chance.
Kit & Caboodle
The sending of a provisional gear list saw a buying spree, in local and online outdoor and paddling shops, the likes of which the local outfitters had never seen. Indeed Nick began to receive ‘dark stares’ at the school gates, on the morning school run, from various ‘other halves’ of ‘team members’ as the instigator of the gear buying frenzy. We’d be paddling in pairs using a selection of inflatable canoes and kayaks. These certainly made sense for the type of trip we were undertaking, especially for the long portage out to the road at the end of the trip. The ability to carry plenty of gear, provide a stable, user-friendly paddling experience and the fact that they can be deflated and packed down to be carried on your back made them the keys that would unlock this epic adventure for us.
The Adventure Begins
After a long journey north the team rendezvoused in Ullapool before heading to the banks of a slow moving rivulet that would lead us out on to Cam Loch and the start of our ‘boots and boats’ adventure. We unloaded the vehicles under a clear blue sky with sunshine shimmering on us as dry bags were packed and boats inflated. As the shuttle drivers returned we grouped up for a pre-trip team photo before launching. Bear in mind that at this point many of the team had never actually met in person. We came from all walks of life and all had varying degrees of experience On some trips this could have the possibility for trouble and a recipe for disharmony, but it was testament to the shared ‘go for it’ and ‘one for all and all for one’ attitude of everyone involved that the sense of camaraderie, and feeling that we were a cohesive team was there right from the very first paddle stroke. I think this was because Nick and Owen had put a lot of effort in to the planning, so we all knew what we were about, had similar expectations and the shared goal of giving it our all and squeezing every last drop of adventure from the experience to come.
A Glimpse of The Imminent Future
As we paddled across a mirror-flat surface of Cam Loch the Highlands were treating us to their very best, a clear blue sky, dusted with a few fluffy clouds and a warm sun. We’d chosen the time of year carefully, to hopefully, negate the worst of the potential weather and the effects of the dreaded Scottish midge. And it looked like it was paying off, big time. We paddled along stretching out muscles and revelling in a picturesque start to the trip. On the horizon we could see our destination for the morning the long ascent up to the top of Canisp and next to it the sharp inclines of the stacks of Suilven. The mountains here don’t sit in ranges, they’re island mountains, which means they stand-alone. And as they rise straight up from pretty much sea level it gives them a dominance and character that perhaps more loftier, but joined mountains don’t possess. As we approached the shingle beach where we were planning to land and change in to our hill gear I certainly felt pretty dominated by the view at least.
Boats were swapped for boots and we set off across marshy ground to begin our climb up Canisp. It was a fairly gentle start in reality and a great way to get everyone in to the swing of hill walking. The weather was holding and from the top we were treated to 360 panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness. It was immense, stretching out in all directions like a giant map. The sheer amount of water around us was amazing and the potential for exploration and adventure in this region is untold. We gazed again at the pinnacles of Suilven and over to the long narrow body of Loch Veyatie stretching off in to the distance, which we all knew we would be paddling the length of later in the day.
Blow by Blow
Once back down and in to the boats it was time for the first big section of paddling. We made our way back across Cam Loch, noting that it was a fair bit breezier than before our climb. As we approached a bend in the river a very definite roar could be heard. Time to take out. A fairly chunky looking drop lurked round the corner. A short, but tricky portage followed, but we were soon past and we set out on to Veyatie as the sun began to get lower. It was still warm, but the wind was starting to pick up and the going was fairly stiff. It was a long paddle and despite the breathtaking scenery a bit of a slog towards the end. Just as we began to really feel the bite of the cold we left the loch and paddled in to the section of river that connects it to neighbouring Fion Loch. As the river narrowed and twisted it threw up some small rapids that gave us all a shot of adrenaline to get us grinning again. We were soon dragging the boats out on to a marshy shore ready to set up camp in the imposing shadow of Suilven. This was real wild camping and finding a suitably flat and dry section was tough, but slowly each crew found a spot and a small circle of tents popped up. Time to refuel and the sound of pans boiling heating through the Wayfarer meals and packets of instant rice most had opted for. We were no exception and as my boating buddy Jim worked hard to get the nutritious, but somewhat gastronomically challenged meal ready I asked him if he fancied a little something extra to lift the repast. Jim was keen and wondered if it was Tabasco sauce? “Nope” I replied as I handed over two juicy and Rib Eye steaks that I’d pre-marinated and then frozen the day before we’d left. As they sizzled in the pan the smell was wafting around the camp making mouths water. After all we had a big day ahead and a Gent needs his comforts when adventuring in the wild. Got to love the ‘capacity’ of these inflatable canoes & kayaks!
A Day to Remember
The next morning the weather had certainly come in and Suilven’s monolithic, shark-like structure brooded over us with its distinctive profile hidden in a cloak of dark cloud. I’ve seen my fair share of mountains, the Alps, the Rockies, The Andes and the mighty Himalaya but the power of this lump of rock was certainly unnerving. It rears up from its base amongst wetland, lochans and loch, steadfast and ferocious in its solitude, standing haughty and alone from the surrounding mountains. Suilven stands looking out to sea with clouds and winds constantly sweeping in from the Atlantic adding to its unapproachable and foreboding nature.We set off on our approach working our way across the difficult terrain, ready for the battle to come. The ground noticeably steepened and the vast, unrelenting wilderness around us began to spread
We set off on our approach working our way across the difficult terrain, ready for the battle to come. The ground noticeably steepened and the vast, unrelenting wilderness around us began to spread out, until we regrouped below a rocky outcrop to take on some food, put on waterproofs, pack away poles and ready ourselves for the ascent. This was where it would get interesting. Up we went rock after rock, step after step steady as we went. It was steep now, not quite climbing but like a huge rock staircase, we snaked up the trail concentrating hard on the task at hand, climbing easily what, from below, had looked near impossible. It seemed like time had hardly passed at all when we topped out on the summit of the first pinnacle. There were nervous smiles all round and we walked across a strangely flat plateau. Why the nerves? Well this is where things would start to get really interesting, certainly for those of us who would usually shy away from dangling off rock. Traversing Suilven is basically a series of climbs and ascents until you finally reach the final domed end and the true summit. Nick and Owen were calm and control personified and it was decided that it was wise to rope up for a particularly exposed section that had to be negotiated to get back down and around the first pillar. The guidebook had described the scrambling involved as grade 2. Sounds pretty easy, and to be fair holding on to a rock as you stretch across a corner and gap to take hold of another while stepping a boot across at the same time isn’t really that physically hard, but as my knees knocked waiting for Nick & OJ to rig up the rope I couldn’t help but think that maybe the grade should take in to account the hundred odd feet between your bum and the rather rocky ground with nothing but fresh air in-between in to account! But this was a job that had to be done and everyone got it nailed, some of us rather more grim-lipped than others. The heart rate was certainly up a little on the other side and the following scrambles and ridge walk seemed a breeze by comparison. Then it was up again as we climbed the second pillar, this felt steeper that the first but we were in to a rhythm now and were soon over and enjoying the next bit of roped up, bum dangling descending, or not, before we made our way across the saddle and began our climb up to the final summit.As if by way of some reward for our efforts, the clouds had parted and we were awestruck at the views of the mountain’s back that we had just traversed and even more so by the truly breathtaking views of the sea of wilderness over which we were now stood. The sun
As if by way of some reward for our efforts, the clouds had parted and we were awestruck at the views of the mountain’s back that we had just traversed and even more so by the truly breathtaking views of the sea of wilderness over which we were now stood. The sun glimmered of the assortment of rivers lochs and lochans and we gazed out beyond the land to the Atlantic. A quick group shot and some time to just take it all in and we were off straight down the side of the saddle, slipping on loose rocks and scree, but losing height quickly.
As I slogged it out over the final stretch of marshland I have to admit that my thoughts were possibly focussing on a brew and a sit down. But as the tents hove in to view I could see that there was already a bustle of activity as tents were packed and boats were loaded. No rest for the wicked, or the inflatable kayak adventurer it would seem. There were still a few hours of daylight left, so it was agreed that we’d get on down Fionn Loch and on to the river at its end, which would lead us to a fairly strenuous portage. We were rewarded with a rather lovely camping spot on the shores of Loch á Ghille. The brew, when it came, was well worth the wait and we settled down to cook diner. This was followed by some very mellow campsite chat with our cockles nicely warmed with a nip or two of Scotland’s finest as we watched the moon reflecting in the still waters of the loch. What a day!
Heads Down & Digging Deep
The following morning we were straight on to Loch á Ghille and across, before a short portage on to Loch Sionasgaig. As we launched on to this much bigger loch the wind was really starting to blow and the going was really tough, we tried to hop our way up, using some of the ‘wind eddies’ created by small islands in the loch to gain ground easily before setting our bow at a ferry angle to the largest Island in the loch, Eilean Moir. As we pulled in to a small inlet to moor up we could see the rest of the team battling the wind with rolling white horses occasionally breaking across their bows. Once everyone was landed it was time for a reviving brew. As we refreshed and marvelled at the rather splendid view back across to Suilven we noticed that the surface of the loch was changing. No longer was it seething with wind and rollers, it was becoming flat. With much relief we re-launched and continued our journey to the far end of the loch and up a small stony river until we eventually portaged over on to Lochan Gainmheich and then on to Loch an Doire Dhuibh. At the far end of the loch was a small sandy beach that we gratefully pulled the boats up on to. The exertions of the previous days exploits and the tough paddling conditions in the morning were beginning to take their toll.
A Fine Ending
The weather was now rather gloriously hot as we lugged the gear a short climb up from the loch to a grassy plateau to set up camp. The original plan had been to climb both Cul Mor and Cul Beag, but it was decided to head up just Cul Beag and call it a day. It was tough, un-rewarding ground. Loose and boggy but steep and we were all feeling the heat a little by the time we stopped on a rocky ledge before the push up to the higher mountain side. At this point some of us decided to call it a day and headed back down for a dip in the loch, shimmering invitingly far below us. Some opted to carry on up to the summit the straightforward way. Followed by standing on the summit in their pants in an effort to cool down. While one hardy group took the hard way and scared themselves a wee bit on a cheeky exposed scramble.A few hours later and we were once again together as a team and
A few hours later and we were once again together as a team and congrgated down at the beach to cook our final meal together. We also prepared a fire pit so we could end our trip in some style in this idyllic and tranquil spot. As the sun st slowly casting the sky in a pallette of stunning colours until it eventually resembled the flames slowly licking up from our fire it seemed a very special place to end a very special journey with some very special people. Much to our collective delight a plethora of alcoholic bevarges were beginning to appear in an equally varied selection of containers. The Baileys (in shot glasses no less) and the malt were very fine but the winner was the Sigg bottle full of toffee vodka, now that was a treat. As the moon shone and the fire ebbed away to embers we reflected on our adventure and raised a glass, or even two, to Nick & OJ for inspiring it.
The fine weather had certainly helped but, for me, what was really eye opening about this trip was how both the boats were absolutely key to bringing it all to life. It should of been no surprise really, as travel in wild places was pretty much why they evolved in the first place, but I think we sometimes forget just want functional and fun craft they are. By using the boats it allowed us to connect the dots on the big map of adventure. To see both sides of the wilderness coin. The other revelation was how much inflatable boats had enhanced and increased that potential with their rugged versatility and surprising performance. So having learnt all this will we be using our ‘inflatable’ keys to unlock another adventure… The dates already in the diary!