City life can have its ups and downs but often feels like the walls are caving in and the lust for adventure is bursting through the cracks. The fresh air of the wilderness is beckoning. That’s it- this calls for a canoe trip.
Living in Glasgow is quite handy for such escapism. The highlands are never far away from a large town or bustling city, yet at points you feel as if you are further away from anywhere or anyone. Something has to be said for alternate modes of transport and even though the Great Glen only takes a mere hour and a half by car, in a canoe it feels like a never ending adventure. Never mind how much horse power you’re equivalent to when you’ve got stunning Scottish scenery to keep the engines going.
The Great Glen way is located in the heart of the Scottish Highlands between Fort William and Inverness. Most famous for its walking trail it has also been a long time favorite for paddlers alike. Most people choose to start at the Fort William end at Banavie, just past the top of Neptune’s staircase, primarily to avoid the mammoth portage so early in to the journey. Tail wind is also more favorable in this direction, so paddling won’t be such a battle, unless you’re a nutter and that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re keen on starting and ending in salt water, starting at Corpach sea lock is also an option to get the most out of the Great Glen.
After getting our waterways license and picking up our hire canoe, we drop in at Banavie. Luckily for us, the guy we have hired the canoe from has his own section of pontoon at the bottom of his garden, which offers us a hassle free start, our muscles unaware of what they’re in for. Ron, the canoe guy comments on how modestly packed we are for a four day trip, having only one large hold-all and two dry bags to clip in to the middle of our trusty vessel. Cutting down on weight has been a biggie since the start.
Once we’re all organized and buoyancy aids are fastened tight, we head off. The morning sun is trying its hardest to burn through the clouds as we catch our bearings and build up some speed. The mighty view of Ben Nevis follows us along the first stretch of canal, speckles and patches of snow still clutching its north face. The arms are beginning to ache now. It might be a point to mention now that I have never paddled in a canoe before in my puff. Two kilometers down, ninety-four to go.
At the end of the canal we are met by Gairlochy Lock and our first canoe portage experience. We decide to get out at the left side of the lock as we are told that there is a portage trolley that we can use to put in at the other side of the lock. Aided with our magical British waterways key that will open anything, we pries the trolley from its hold. When I say trolley, I use this term very loosely. This isn’t one of those light top of the range aluminum posh trolleys, but simply four wheels and a couple of bits of wood nailed together with a string on either end to pull the canoe along. It looked pretty rough, but did the job.
After mastering our first canoe portage and feeling quite proud of ourselves, we enter our first Loch, Loch Lochy. This will hopefully prepare us for the monstrous body of water further ahead in to the journey, Loch Ness. The paddle of Loch Lochy starts off pretty smoothly until we enter into the middle-ish section of the Loch. The wind has picked up and what feels like high sea rollers, but probably looks like nothing from the roadside, is battering us about trying its hardest to bash us against the east loch wall of the A82. Now that the battle of Loch Lochy has ended, we are relieved to get an hour of calm, relaxing canal.
After an unstressful portage at Laggan lock and a meander along Laggan Avenue, we think it a good idea to stop for the day. A light rain is dusting over us as we come in to Loch Oich. We see a picnic area up ahead called Clunes, which looks perfect to set up camp one. After some boil-in-a-bag food and a bubbling cup of tea, we reflect on the successes of our first day. Seventeen kilometers down, eighty to go.
This morning is the start of establishing our daily routine. It’s drizzling slightly but that doesn’t stop us from digging into a Primula cheese filled roll and a cheeky cup of coffee before breaking down camp. Quickly, we pack up the soggy tent in the most un-orderly fashion whilst the three midges of the year attack our eyelids, where the skin so soft did not quite reach. We finally bundle ourselves into the canoe and leave the midges behind, thirsty for more blood.
Surprisingly, I’m not as sore as I thought I’d be. This is manageable. The drizzle has eased off now and we are heading for the only blue bit in the sky, way off in the distance. Loch Oich is much calmer than Loch Lochy was, giving us a nice relaxing paddle and the chance for a mid morning Tracker bar and a can of beer. We deserve this! We manage to paddle the length of Loch Oich in the matter of a couple of hours and follow the next heading towards Fort Augustus.
We pull up to the nearest empty spot between two ‘La Boat’ hire sailboats. I jump out of the canoe to scout where we have to portage to put back in. By now we’re pros at this portage business. It must have escaped my eyes when reading about Fort Augustus in the canoe trail guide when it came to its portage length. I quickly realized that this was to be our longest portage yet, with no trolley in sight. The air is filled with the smell of pub lunches and chip shops, and I’m finding it hard to resist. After hauling all our gear and canoe past six lock gates, a road bridge and gaggles of tourists, we pause for lunch before heading into Loch Ness.
We have only been paddling for a few minutes until a tourist raft guide stops and shouts over to us that Loch Ness is pretty rough a couple of miles out. With this advice we attempt to soldier on in the hope that keeping close to the shore won’t be as choppy. We get around the first corner and are welcomed by bouncing one meter high waves. Battling against the wind and current, it doesn’t take us long before deciding to turn back and stop at the campsite at the old pier further back towards Fort Augustus. With the north shore a bit thin on the ground for camping spots, this is probably a good idea.
After paddling ferociously back on ourselves against the wind and current, we turn into a natural harbor past the old railway pier. Here, steam trains during the railway glory days brought tourists up from Glasgow to the paddle steamers on the Loch. Now, where the station once stood lays a bed and breakfast, holiday cabins and canoe camping friendly facilities (with toilets showers and a microwave!). Around the pier past Cherry Island, is a landing spot for us to pull our canoe on the bank. We trudge up to the house past the free grazing horses and speak to Jenny, the lovely owner of the B+B and get sorted with a bit of grass for the night for £7.50 each to pitch on. Although we’ve ended the day quite early, this will give us a chance to relax fully before attempting to paddle Loch Ness tomorrow. Let’s hope the wind dies down a bit! Forty seven kilometers down, forty nine to go.
During the night the tent and all other soggy belongings got a much needed airing-out. The sun is beaming down on to us this morning, forcing us to break out the sun cream. Too late, but nose is already beaming red. After a quick breakfast, we pack up and attempt ‘take 2’ of Loch Ness. It is much calmer today and the first couple of miles are glassy and flat-calm. The ripples on the Loch surface glisten, giving the effect of crushed black velvet. After a couple of miles it gets a bit choppier, but nothing the action man and I can’t handle.
For several hours of trying to catch up on what we lost on day two, we’re quickly running on empty- it’s time for lunch. Unfortunately for us, the north shore of the Loch is quite steep with mostly sheer walls, threatening rocks and rubble left from when the roads were being built. After seeing a small fishing boat come out from around the next corner, we spot a nice landing area just past Allt Sigh Youth Hostel. Like a couple of bandit pirates, we paddle like mad and steal their land, for a much needed pot of freeze dried pasta.
Feeling more human we take on Loch Ness once more. The wind has started to pick up a little as the closer we get to Urquhart castle. As the day wears on more and more pleasure boats loaded with curious tourists pass us, each one giving us a roller coaster ride on the breaks of its turbulence.
We’re approaching Urquhart castle with hopes of camping at Drumnadrochit. I had heard that this isn’t the most canoe friendly place in the world and soon we were to be proved right. We slowly pass the castle ruins, with each corner of its turrets filled to the brim with tourists peering down on us like we were animals in a zoo.
After a little detour into mouth of Drumnadrochit bay, we quickly discover that all the Great Glen canoe trail guides were right. With nowhere obvious to pull out and camp, we decide to push on and hope that a green patch with our names on it awaits us around the next corner.
Like the same time previous day, the wind has picked up to the roar that held us back yesterday. I’m constantly referring to the map, looking for possibilities of a flat bit for out bed for the night. Since Drumnadrochit we have noticed stones along the shoreline marked in consecutive numbers- starting from 89 and going down. After pulling up and scouting a few places with no such luck, we come across a gem of a camping spot, nicely sandwiched between stones marked 15 and 16. We’re a just a few kilometers past the Clansman hotel and only 3 kilometers away from Loch end. Nearly the whole length of Loch Ness conquered in one day, phew!
Action man battles the waves on the shore line to pull in at stone 15. Although the only place to pitch a tent is covered in pebbles, we managed to flatten it out enough so we can’t feel them through a mat. This camping area is great. We a totally sheltered by the threatening wind, place nicely next to a gently flowing stream. Time to get the fire started!
After dinner we bed down at 9pm with to sound of a trickling stream flowing past and the crashing waves of the loch bashing against the rocks.
Feeling quite triumphant from our longest paddle yet, today is going to be a relaxing ending to our journey. I’m feeling sad that it’s coming to an end so I’m stalling packing away the tent, almost deliberately. The waves are still a little fierce, but we know it will calm down the closer we get to Lochend.
We’ve reached the end of Loch Ness. I look behind and gaze upon the vastness of what we’ve just achieved. For my first ever canoe trip I am officially addicted and already thinking of conquering more water.
We gently paddle through the village of Dores feeling quite glad we’ll be floating along a canal once more. Only Loch Dochfour separates us from the River Ness and the last stretch of our trip.
Finally, we meet our final portage at Dochgarroch Lock. Compared to our last haul at Fort Augustus, we are glad this is not as long. The closer we get to Inverness, the more I don’t want the journey to end. Ninety- six km down, five to go.
Earlier than anticipated, we arrive at the top locks at Muirtown. As we’re not obsessed with paddling in to saltwater, we have now come to an end to our journey. Here there are no pontoons to easily pull out of, so instead we haul the canoe up three or four feet of ladder on to the path next to the lock side. We have some spare food left over, so once more we crack out the pocket rocket. We find a spot next to the Lord of the Glens cruise boat office, smelling like campfire and hard work while we wait for our shuttle back to Fort William. Ninety-six km down, a hell of a long drive back to Glasgow to go.
Caledonian Activity Breaks
Rhiw Goch, Banavie Ft. William
Tel: 01397 772373
£25 per day hire
Old Pier House
Fort Augustus- (OS grid: NH3809)
Tel: 01320 366418
£7.50 pp per night