Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Great Glen, part 1

It was meant to be a ski holiday. The flights were booked, but nothing else paid for. Then, on Saturday night came a text saying “no snow”. Sure enough, most lifts were closed and the alpine weather looked grim. A quick change of plan was needed.
CWW junior(2) wanted an adventure, preferably in sea kayaks. Unfortunately the forecast was for force 5 to 6, gusting to 8, for most of the country. A round trip, therefore, was unappealing.
From somewhere came a suggestion for the Great Glen paddle route. A quick unpacking and repacking ensued.
There was minimal time for research, but a quick search on the internet found us the Snowgoose Bunkhouse, quite literally at the last lock on the Fort William end of the Caledonian Canal. With gear elegantly packed in black bin bags we drove there in torrential rain.
The bunkhouse was excellent. They had no qualms about letting CWW jnr hang about for the morning while I embarked on the mammoth shuttle. It's the best part of a 2 hour bus journey back from Inverness, so between driving there, walking to the bus station and returning, I was away for a long time. On the return, the bus dropped me at the Mallaig road end. This is about 2 miles from the hostel- a long walk in typical Fort William weather. By the time I was back, my dry gear was thoroughly wet.
In the meantime CWW jnr had registered us as canal users. British Waterways, who run the canal, are very paddler friendly. They are happy for folk to camp on the tended grass beside locks, and for a small fee they give a key to the toilets along the way (these sometimes have showers and even washing machines).
We weren't underway until twenty to three in the afternoon. Already soaked, we had all of 15 minutes of paddling before the first major obstacle, Neptune's staircase. This is the name of the flight of locks rising from Corpach.

Neither of us had realised just how hard portaging was going to be. At each set of locks there are pontoons- essential because of the sharply rising canal banks. The pontoons, however, can be quite high, sometimes nearly shoulder height. Lifting a loaded boat on to these is hard enough, but it's often then necessary to lift it to shoulder height to get round the fences on the gangways and up to the towpath. Once there it is onto the trolley for a one at a time haul up the locks. Our trolley had a dodgy wheel, which increased the effort considerably.

At Neptune's staircase there is also a railway and a main road to cross, the former by an unsignalled crossing at a bend on the line!
Fortunately, CWW jnr had a couple of slings and karabiners in his BA. These helped a lot, but the climb up the locks was still hard going. There were 2 pubs and an ice cream shop on the way, but I was told to man up, this was an expedition.
There then followed some gentle flat paddling with a bit of wind assistance. This was definitely easier than playing at being a husky. An hour or so of paddling took us to the locks at the entrance to Loch Lochy. By the time we had negotiated these, with great effort again, it was after six o'clock. There was a pleasant, sheltered looking campsite which looked very attractive to me, but more mutterings about nancy boys were heard, so we had to go on.
When paddling downwind, the start of any loch is always very calm. As the “fetch” builds up, however, the waves get bigger. Loch Lochy demonstrated this perfectly. Two hours later, in gathering darkness, we were struggling with short steep waves up to head height. The benefit of wind assistance was lost because of the effort of constant stern ruddering and bracing. At twenty past eight, just as pitch darkness fell, we pulled into the pontoon at the north end.

The campsite at Laggan Locks is very exposed. This, combined with my 25 year old tent and gale driven torrential rain made for a bad night. Little sleep and a soaked sleeping bag were the consequence. Lingering in heated toilets made for a slow start to the day. The weather was a bit less windy, however, and we made good time up to Loch Oich, which is a pretty place. We stopped for a while at the Well of the Seven Heads, and explored a wrecked boat, which had been abandoned complete with food in the kitchen and duvets on the beds.

At this point there was quite a lot of traffic- mostly hired cabin cruisers, but also some bigger, more serious looking boats. The swing bridge at the north end gave us a lot of amusement as one of the cruisers failed miserably to deal with the wind. The bridge had opened for them, but the operator gave up in disgust and closed it before they managed to get through. They only caught us up hours later.

Loch Oich is the highest point of the trip, and it is possible to descend to Fort Augustus via the river, rather than the canal. Flowing water seemed very attractive to me, but again I was told that we were here to suffer, and it had to be the canal. More carthorse work followed on various locks. Fort Augustus would have been a welcome sight were in not for another monstrous bit of boat hauling. I finally persuaded junior to relent and let me into a cafe for a while. I think this was only because his camera battery needed recharging.

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