Knoydart a Canoe Adventure
Let us start by saying that true adventures rarely go to plan (and this one canoeing in Knoydart is no exception); and that is part of the adventure! It is how you adapt and overcome challenges which lets you have a true sense of adventure. If everything always went according to plan, we would never learn anything in this world.
One of the adventure expeditions we offer is the Knoydart canoe journey. It is one of the most extreme journeys you can do in Scotland. It is in some of the most stunning scenery, has some of the best coastlines and is truly remote.
When a pair of long-standing clients contacted us last year asking us to provide them with an adventure journey encompassing moving and flat water, and to make it as extreme and cool as we possibly could, we were excited. This was an opportunity to create a bespoke trip based on the Knoydart canoe journey – something out of the ordinary; and we knew the clients to be strong solo canoeists already. Work does not get much better than this!
We put together a plan different to any others we had done: there were two clients and three staff members – two who came along because they had time off and grabbed the chance to join this expedition for the sheer fun of it … that is how much our instructors love their job!
Using the lightest canoes and equipment to keep the journey as easy as we could, our plan looked liked this:
Day 1 – Start on Loch Morar, paddle and portage over the hills to Loch Nevis – then paddle to the far Eastern end of the Loch through the Knoydart Narrows
Day 2 – Portage the canoes over the hills and down into Loch Cuaich; paddle through Loch Cuaich
Day 3 – Paddle the rarely paddled Gearr Garry into Loch Garry, and then the lower Garry into Loch Oich
Day 4 – Paddle Loch Lochy
Day 5 – Continue up Loch Lochy to arrive in Fort William
The aim was ambitious, the distance incredible, the locations impeccable but … things often don’t quite go to plan on an expedition – and this was no exception: we had to adapt, change, overcome challenges, and in the end come up with quite a different route to the one we intended.
Having picked up our clients, Dave and Steve, from the airport in the evening, we returned to our centre in Newtonmore to sleep before an early start the next morning, when we drove west to leave a vehicle at the finishing point in Fort William before then continuing on to Loch Morar with a second vehicle and a canoe trailer. We reached Loch Morar in jig time … everything so far was going exactly to plan. We had been forecast a nice gentle southerly wind around about Beaufort Scale two – enough to keep the midgies away, but not to cause us any difficulties on the water … Perfect. We had planned to cross the Loch from the North to the South, and then paddle along the southerly shore which would give a wee bit of shelter and be even more remote. However, after a couple of minutes it became apparent that the weather forecast was wrong; it was not a southerly but an easterly wind, and more like a force four – certainly not a force two.
So – this weather was going to cause us some delays, but otherwise everyone was in good spirits and more than happy to continue even if it meant paddling into the dark. We paddled down the loch with two rafted canoe sets and one solo canoe – solo just in case of the need to rescue or help someone out. Crossing back over to the northern side after battling the winds, we got out ready for the portage at Swordlands pier.
There is a track, so we could use portage trolleys easily enough. But the track is tough going – not easy to wheel boats over. Jim helped the two clients setting up their portage trolleys while the other two staff members – Freddie and Pete (Pete’s first serious expedition since completing his Outdoor Instructor Training course) – started taking their canoes up with the intention of coming back down to help the others when they had done so. Everything so far was ok. The wind had dropped meaning a night-time paddle was going to be possible – the tide times would be with us and not too strong, so the portage was quite relaxed. Having helped out Dave and Steve, Jim strapped his canoe to his portage trolley and was ready to head off … And then – ten metres in the portage trolley snapped – the metal joining the wheel to the canoes had sheared … seriously, of all the times right now! However, with some rope and duct tape a sort of mediocre fix was in place after a few minutes … It would work … for now…
Somehow, we managed the portage and got to Tarbet Bay – by which time it was getting dark – but there was still some light left – so, after a bite to eat and a glug of water, we were off – headtorches on our heads ready for when we would have to turn them on. Paddling out of the bay and turning east to paddle through the Knoydart narrows, the light started to fade – but a full moon was above us, we had headtorches, flares, vhf radios, good weather and the tides were with us. Good group management was now crucial. Falling in the water at night – even with everything in your favour – is not something that would be welcomed. Paddling down the Loch, we were blethering away enjoying the moon above the silhouettes of the mountains which looked for all the world like giants reaching to the heavens. As we paddled, the water shone and glimmered around us – it wasn’t just reflections from the moon-light, it was fluorescent algae, and every paddle stroke created rainbows arcing across the water, running in every direction all the way down the loch. It was truly magical.
Having paddled the length of the loch, it was getting late. We had battled the wind at the start; but now, we were battling to keep our eyes open, and in the darkness we needed to find our exit point: a wee stream – which proved easier said than done. However, we kept going part way up the river and eventually found our stream – a water source feeding down into the river. We could not use the river itself, as it links to the sea and is saline in nature. It was now ten o clock … we had been journeying all day, so, feeling exhausted, we pitched our tents, grabbed some food and prepared to climb into our sleeping bags. But the day had not done playing games with us yet. After pitching tent, and getting out of the paddling gear, Jim discovered that one of his brand new shoes (less than a couple of weeks old) was missing … The only time his bag had been opened was on Tarbet beach – but the tide had now turned so paddling back was out of the question – besides, it would be long swept out to sea. That was the end of that shoe – never to be seen again … or so we thought …
Day two: we woke up reasonably early, threw some food in us, taught Dave and Steve how to pole, shunt and line the canoes, and started off up the river. The aim was to portage, pole, line and work our canoes 10.7km up and over to Loch Cuaich with nearly 400 metres of ascent. Not an easy task by any means but we were up for it. The true aim and nature of canoeing is to take you to areas you would not otherwise go – to explore and have fun.
Working our way up the river, we came to a funky little gorge; tight, technical and probably around grade four paddling … no way were we getting the boats up this – so portage around it was. Flat ground – a bit heathery, but flat so portage trolleys back on. This time Jim’s exploded – no fixing that … ok… canoe on the head, bag on the back, and walk – while the others used the trolleys. (Thank God for all the weightlifting back in the day!) Once again it was getting late and we were all growing tired although we were only a quarter of the way through at best … doing the math, this was going to take at least two days not one … but continually putting it to the group, they all wanted to keep going. Eventually though, we reached a point where it became apparent we were too tired and it simply was not going to be possible to go on anymore … time to turn around and come up with plan B. We chatted amongst the group, and agreed we would paddle back down the river to camp again at the bottom – coming up with an alternative plan for the next few days when we sat down later with some food.
Down we paddled – portaging the crazy tight technical grade four bit of the river – and worked our way back down this rarely paddled river. I have no figures, but canoe-wise I would be amazed if this river normally sees more than one canoe a year on it (it is certainly not in any guide books) … although I do know at least two people who have paddled it before so it does happen. Now, all of a sudden it had five in a day … it must have been feeling loved!
We pitched up tents, put up a tarp to shelter from the wind, had food, coffee and discussed what to do.
Plan B … We would paddle back out through the Knoydart narrows, and aim to work our way along the coast to reach the Old Forge Inn at Inverie – a stunning building steeped in history and well known in Scotland as Britain’s most remote pub. Not only that, it is rated as one of the top ten pubs in the world and the number one bar to drink at in the whole world! Now that is a lot to live up to …
Day three, then … we paddled back out – this time with the daylight and the tide in our favour. Reaching the Knoydart narrows, Jim suggested that we make lunch in Tarbet Bay so that he could see if there was any chance his shoe might still be there … a slim likelihood, but the group was happy to try – and it was only a kilometre out of the way, so why not? Upon reaching the Bay, Pete spotted something on a bench – a SHOE! Some kind soul had clearly spotted it and taken it away from the shoreline. Reunited at last!
While we were on our lunch stop, the wind had picked up to a good force four again – so we paddled our way back across Loch Nevis to the northerly side where the wind would be behind us; we didn’t need to paddle at all – perfect! Pete had the crazy aim that he wanted to be the first person to use his paddle as a pole, standing up the whole way from Knoydart to Malaig – having been advised against it he still seemed adamant to do it. Why not? If he fell in he would get wet … his choice. But somehow he did not fall in – the whole way from Knoydart – all day – standing – even in the wind – all the way to Inverie.
As we rounded the headland coming into Inverie, we finally had some phone signal. We thought we may as well try and ring the Old Forge and book a table for dinner … as well as a few pints. No answer… Google quickly revealed why: they were shut for two weeks of renovation starting from the day before … Seriously? … Right … Subsection B of Plan B! We went and picked fresh mussels in the bay, collecting a good bagful of them: massive, beautiful, wild mussels – truly stunning. All was not lost, we were going to have our fresh seafood regardless. Pitching up tent after poling and lining our way up the river a little way to find a fresh water source, we threw a tarp up to keep the wind off, and then set down to cooking, and a good game of cards (you have to bring some luxuries on canoe adventures, of course). Checking the weather, it was forecast to be stunning the next day – not just good but beautiful: no wind, glorious sunshine … WOW!
The mussels were soon ready to eat, but we couldn’t cook many at a time due to small stoves and jetboils. Batch one was ready – we opened them up and … they were full of pearls, not just one or two, but full of pearls … small enough – the biggest perhaps being the size of a small pea – but they were everywhere … It didn’t make the mussels easy to eat, but it was cool – kind of magical – nonetheless.
The next day, we paddled across the loch and round some of the most stunning coastline towards Mallaig, then down to Loch Morar. To help us on our way, the waves were washing in perfectly: large enough to surf our way towards the mouth of the river … an awesome way to quickly travel into the bay. Pete had managed his crazy idea of stand up pole paddling his way to Mallaig and now promptly sat back down before paddling down to Morar and surfing in to the beach. Here we shunted our way up the river slightly, before being able to get out along the beach side. There were plenty of seals bobbing their way up and down following the canoes, probably wondering what on earth was going on as they were used to seeing fishing boats instead. Once we landed, Jim and Freddie then decided they would run back to grab the bus and trailer while the others got the boats up the beach. They could do the running as they were probably the quickest.
We were unsure as to how the next day would pan out: we had different rivers we could paddle to finish up the trip enjoyably, but the weather forecasts were mixed so we didn’t know which would be best – we decided to travel back through Fort William and up to the Eagle Barge Inn, where we would shower, grab a beer and eat a good home-cooked meal. Amazing! The next day, we could decide on which river to paddle depending on the weather.
Food and beer really doesn’t taste much better than at the Eagle Barge Inn. We are reasonably regular clients there, as on all our Great Glen Way trips we also make sure to stop by. The owners are brilliant; and if you like chilies they create a recipe that is literally the hottest in the world. It is insane, stronger than tear gas, and you need to sign a death waiver to even try it … serious stuff and not for the faint of heart or those who do not have triple layered iron stomachs!
The Final Day
The final day dawned after a good night’s sleep on a full stomach. Overnight, it had rained but not too much, meaning the best option was to head back down the road a little way to the middle Spean – a nice grade two section of river – with one grade three drop, which is normally portaged in canoes, due to the nature of it having a tendency to destroy the back end of bigger boats. We were one person down today, as Steve’s knees were bothering him … He decided that a café would be a smarter decision, so we left him at the the Spean Bridge Mill (good coffee and pretty good scones as well), while we went to the get-in and proceeded to paddle down the river to join him at the café. En route, we looked at all sorts of different skills and found a funky little wave to have fun surfing in. All in all, it was an enjoyable chilled-out way to finish an adventurous (and much-adapted!) trip.
So our adventure came to its end. We returned to the centre in Newtonmore, put the kit away, cleaned up and then drove to the airport to drop off Steve and Dave for their flight home. They intend to bring a DofE group up to Scotland later in the year; we hope they can: we’d love to catch up over a coffee and plan another adventure.