As I have almost finished unpacking and drying my kit I thought it a good time to tell you all about the amazing adventure I have just enjoyed. Me and a group of work colleagues left Lancashire on the long journey up to Fort William to the campsite we were staying for the first night of our adventure. We were armed with boats, kit and a very ominous looking weather forecast. When we arrived at camp we set up our tents and tarps and enjoyed an evening with proper toilets and showers and a game of American football on the field. Little did we know that we were about to embark on a journey of such magnitude.
The next morning we left camp and drove to the base of Loch Shiel near Glenfinnan and met our guide the ‘Canoe Guru’. The next hour and a half was spent preparing our boats and filling them with kit whilst waiting for the drivers to deliver the vehicles at the finish line. At this point the weather was looking good with a bit of sunshine and a gentle breeze. After the drivers return and a few introductions we set off on our long journey to the sea. The first hour of paddling was lovely, until the weather turned. Scotland showed us what we didn’t want to see, with gale force wind in our face along with rain that no hood could keep out! But with spirits high and muscles fresh we carried on through getting to know our tandem partners and after an afternoon of hard paddling we made it to camp one. A beautiful beach on the Loch side.
As we prepared our beds for the night (a mixture of hammocks, tents and tarps) the weather cleared slightly and the sun even poked through for a small time. But for the most part the evening involved hiding under shelter and working out whether our dry bags had kept our kit dry through the wet weather. We started a fire under the Gurus big group tarp and ate some lovely expedition food (pasta and salami for me) and then once again retreated to our shelters. From the comfort of my hammock I watched Skelly and Big G skimming stones in the rain and also redirect a stream around my tarp so I could have a moat! How kind of them! The nights sleep was a wet and windy one but my tarp did its job and kept the remainder of my dry kit out of the rain.
The morning brought more rain and wind and we knew straight away that we had a hard day ahead. From the moment we set off the wind and rain was against us and progress was slow. The wind was so strong that we formed rafts made up of two canoes to ease the paddling slightly. By mid morning my body started to feel the strain, along with everyone else’s and each paddle stroke became harder and harder. By lunchtime we had only made 4km of progress with no signs of the weather easing up. The lunch stop had to turn into an extended break, or more sheltering from the wind and waiting out the weather in the hope of improvement. We waited for over three hours but nothing changed. So as a team we kept each other going through the afternoon with only slight cracks in positivity showing (Mainly from me and my bad back). When our bodies had had enough of paddling head on into the wind for one one day we pulled up on another beautiful loch side beach. At this point we had barely completed half of the Loch and our journey to the sea Loch Moidart started to look more and more out of reach. Murmurs of turning back and sailing home began around camp as the team seemed almost defeated. The evening again was lovely with muscles resting and wet kit attempting to dry in the small gap in the weather. We had another great fire lit by AC and began to regain our strength with food and a good nights sleep.
In the morning a decision had to be made. Do we carry on through the weather and battle on to Loch Moidart or do we get to the beautiful burial ground around the corner and then sail back home. Of course, as I hope you know, we decided to carry on. Whether it was a vocal decision or not was irrelevant, I could feel it within the team, a raw determination to get to our finish line, this feeling inspired me and everyone else to continue. Soon after setting off we reached the amazing burial island in the middle of Loch Shiel. This boasts some amazing sights, old family graves some of which date back to premedieval times and incredible views up and down the incredible Loch Shiel. We had a goal for the rest of the day.
And that was to get to Loch Moidart. We knew that between us and our goal we had 7km of into the wind paddling in the morning and then the same distance again to get to our own private island on Loch Moidart. So we set to it, taking kilometre chunks out of the mornings paddling taking breaks in small bays out of the wind to recuperate between stretches. The distance ticked by and eventually through pain and gritted teeth the beautiful village of Acharacle came into sight. This is where we stopped for lunch. We visited the local cafe and ate bacon sandwiches and cheesecake fit for a king. After collapsing on the bank back near the boats for an hour letting our food go down and finding some last ditch strength from somewhere we continued on the last stretch of our journey. After 5km down the lovely River Shiel which connects the Loch to the sea we reached an obstacle. A large rapid which forms when the tide is out between the river and the sea. We all sat back nervously and watch the Guru navigate the rapid, the rapid spat him into the rocks on the right at the bottom and my heart sank, I didn’t want to run the rapid with a full boat and no energy. Luckily the Guru decided we should line the boats down instead. We spent the next half hour making sure we didnt lose our kit as the boats hurtled unmanned down the rapid but the lines we attached made sure they didn’t drift too far of course and out of our reach.
When everyone was down and ready to continue something truly amazing happened. The sun began to shine down on us, for the first time in four days of hard gruelling paddling Scotland showed us her true beauty. All of a sudden the last few kilometres seemed easy, like a huge weight had been lifted. The team huddled together and paddled in formation and it was this moment when I realised what we had achieved. We had made it! Through the wind and the rain over waves and across rough water we had come together as a team and found the strength to carry on.
The whole experience was beautifully rounded off by a perfect campsite on our own private island. With kit out to dry and food eaten the fire was lit. Drinks flowed and laughter filled the air, and we watched the sun go down over the most perfect scenery. The next day we made our way round to the vehicles and packed up ready to head home. With goodbyes and thanks to our Canoe Guru done we started the long drive home.
I learnt many things from this trip, some things about myself and my own personal determination but more importantly about the team around me. I learnt that it’s possible to take a group of mostly novice paddlers and stick them in a canoe with someone they don’t know very well and send them on an epic journey. And above all else they succeeded, not only in reaching the end. But they did it in style, with head held high and smiles on their faces. Every single one of you made it possible for me to continue and I can’t thank you enough for that! But a special thanks has to go to our Canoe Guru who guided us in a brilliant way and gave us the means to achieve. And to AC, who has worked tirelessly over the years to make these trips possible. I don’t know what I would do without you AC!
Until next time team, until next time…
The photos used in this post are courtesy of Wilderness Canoe and Kristina Wilson. I have permission to use these photos but they are not for public use and belong to the aforementioned parties.