Sunday, 1 July 2012

West Coast Stravaiging - A Packrafting Trek Through Scotland


A walk to work in light rain. Dirty coffee, spreadsheets and reports. The daily grind. An ordinary Thursday. At the end of the day I left in a hurry with a train to catch.

I got home, dumped my shirt, my tie, my shoes and my ID badge and collected instead a bulging sack, ready packed.


It was a good journey North. The West Highland Line is scenic, I had a table seat, good company, one bag of sandwiches and another bag of beer.

Six and a half hours after leaving Edinburgh, the train pulled in at Morar. By that point, the second to last stop, I was one of the few remaining passengers. My table companions (as varied a bunch as you ever find on trains) had already hopped off at their respective stops to go one to their respective beds for the night. Just short of 11.40PM I was on the platform at Morar considering a bivvy in the station waiting room (which was open!).

My sense of decorum prevailed and instead I went in search of a more suitable spot, tramping through the woods behind the station looking for a patch of ground flat enough to comfortably unroll my bivvy bag on. I slept very well. I had meant well by looking for somewhere away from the houses and by not kipping on the station platform. But good intentions or otherwise, I woke up in the morning to find myself a short stone throw from the back garden of a rather nice house. "I'll be one the way then" was my initial thought on that matter. "After a quick cup of tea" was my second. I brewed up while still laying in my bivvy and, unfortunately, the occupant of the house emerged. He watched me for what seemed like quite a long time. I waved. But he didn't wave back.

Wild camping is great. But in the setting of a village or a town, I think it is more often referred to as 'sleeping rough'.


It was good, therefore, to be on the move. I stuffed away my belongings, activated the tracking beacon on my Spot Unit and was gone.

I left Morar along the road that leads to the Loch. Loch Morar is, incidentally, the deepest inland body of water in the British Isles and very scenic indeed. My packraft stayed in my bag, though, as paddling against the current and against the gentle wind would have slowed my progress. I wanted to arrive at the shore of Loch Nevis as soon as possible in order to make the crossing to Knoydart in good time and make some progress into the hills that same day.

The road soon ended and I was extremely glad to be walking a path which skirts the loch.

The plan for this trip had been bubbling away in my mind for a couple of years by that point. I intended to get as far north as I could, and enjoy as much of the coastal scenery as I could. I had planned a route to its finest details but never for one moment believed that conditions would allow me to complete it as planned, without being forced to deviate due to weather making coastal paddling unwise. Perhaps a reason I was so certain that the weather would change my plans is that Knoydart was the first peninsula I planned to cross. During my only other backpack through that area (three years ago with a friend) we had seen the worst May weather I have ever experienced. On that trip it rained solidly throughout and every watercourse was in a spectacular spate. One camp pitch in particular, which had shown great promise on the map and in more clement weather is probably superb, will forever be known as 'The Bog of Despair'.


This trip though Knoydart couldn't have got off to a better start. By the time I had reached the narrows which separate Kylesmorar from Kylesknyodart the wind had died completely (as Loch Nevis is legendary for its wind this was a relief). It was around slack water and the tidal races through the narrows had not yet picked up pace. After launching I was quickly across, and proceeded down the loch with the flood on my side. Rather than hugging the edge of the loch, when it broadened I remained a couple of hundred meters from shore. One of the highlights of the trip came almost immediately as a pair of Porpoise surfaced not fifty feet from my boat. I saw them arc out of and back into the water several times as I sat with my paddle idle. It was fantastic. But they were soon gone. Porpoise are common in the area.

Another pair of inquisitive companions were also to join me. But they were not at all shy and stayed with me for most of my paddle down the loch. A pair of seals swam around me, surfacing and then vanishing again only to reappear on my other side. I was glad of their company. And with the sharp cone of Sgurr na Ciche rising above the head of the loch, the scene was quite dramatic.




At the head of the loch I disembarked and rolled my boat up tight for the climb through Knoydart's mountains. The loch has a very wild feel to it, more so than Loch Hourn on the North side of the peninsula (although both are equally spectacular).

Climbing away form the loch I passed, by no means for the last time, evidence of a time gone by for Scotland. These seemingly remote glens were not always silent and empty, to which the ruined cottages at Carnoch attest.


I made my way toward a coll beneath the first summit I was aiming for. My pack was quite heavy at that point as I was carrying eight days of food. And I was very cautious, stopping frequently due to concerns about a recurrence of the knee problem I had last year .

It was a pretty good campsite, and placed me well to head for some summits the next day. After pitching up and eating a hot meal I settled down in my bivvy with a book I had been saving for the evenings on this trip ('Walking the Yukon' by Chris Townsend). But I was tired and barely managed to turn the first page before happily passing out.


The next day (my birthday) began with a steep haul up the slopes of Sgurr Sgeith and along its crest to the subsidiary south top of Meall Buidhe . Here I dropped my pack and carried on to the main summit unencumbered. It was just a short walk with little by way of height loss and re-ascent. While waiting for a beacon to be sent by my Spot unit I was joined at the summit by a group of three carrying day packs. I took their photo as a group and they took mine.


Leaving the summit of Meall Bhuide behind I returned to retrieve my pack and descended the rough ridge to Beallach Ile Coirre. From here the route up Luinne Bheinn the route first passes over the minor peak of Meall Coire na Gaoithe'n Ear (aren't Gaelic hill names fantastic?). Luinne Bheinn has a rough and rocky crest with two summits. I passed over both the summits, the higher being to the North, and continued down the steep Northern aspect of the mountain.

It was a rough walk and without any water to drink I was extremely thirsty by the time I reached the Mam Barrisdale pass and a clear, cold stream. I drank my fill and rested before moving on.


It was getting late in the afternoon and I was concerned that I would have missed the last of the incoming tide by the time I made it to Loch Hourn (out of caution, my plan was to make crossings on the flood rather than the ebb. And if timing permitted, during the weaker flows of current which occur during towards the start of the finish of one tidal movement). It was my intention to cross over the Loch to the Glenelg peninsula and paddle around the coast where the Druim Fada ridge plummets straight into the sea. I hoped to camp close to the foot of Bheinn Sgritheall, which I intended to climb the next day.

Meandering down the good path that leads to Barrisdale Bay, I was at the shore of the loch 45 minutes before high tide was due and I quickly inflated my boat. The loch was as still as a mill pond. But I had barely got under way when a minor squall came in. It wasn't serious but the wind was against me and I returned to shore to wait it out. As suddenly as it had arrived the squall passed and when I again put my boat back on to the loch the water was almost perfectly flat.

packrafting_in_scotland

I crossed the calm water quickly. But paddling the north shore of the loch was not to be rushed and I enjoyed superb views of the hills I had climbed that day in addition to Ladhar Bheinn.


Rounding the headland into Arnisdale bay I spotted a place that looked good for a campsite, with some flattish grass set a little back from the shore and a stream flowing down to the sea. The site also had a good view of tomorrow's hill and I went ashore to erect my shelter.


Again, I had little energy left for much other than to feed myself and then slip into my bivvy and then into sleep. The first two days of the trip were quite tough as I was out of condition for the trip. It was not until a few days later that I really felt I was settling into my stride.


In the morning I was up early. I washed, fed, drank several cups of tea and then packed up before walking the short distance around the coast to the foot of Bheinn Sgritheall. The walk up to Beallach Arnasdale from sea level was steep, and I took my time. Leaving my pack at the top of the pass, beside a small lochan, I continued first over a subsidiary summit, and then up to the mountain's fine summit.

Although the views were good enough from the top, there was too much cloud to get the full impact that it would have otherwise yielded. I lingered a few minutes, in the hope of clearing skies, but then commenced the descent.



After retracing my steps along the narrow ridge line, I collected my pack and began to make my way down the pathless north side of the beallach. The going was rough and steep, and I took my time. I made camp in Glen More, near Glenmore river which I had hoped to packraft the next day. The water was clearly far too low, however, and so that plan was abandoned before I turned in for the night.


In the morning I continued on my way down the glen, and around the headland which overlooks Kyle Rhea (the narrow strait which separates the Glen Elg Peninsula from the Isle of Skye). After an enjoyable walk through the fringes of mixed growth woodland I was soon at the shore of Loch Alsh. The weather was reasonable, and the tide incoming, so I inflated my boat and set off across the 2 kilometers of salt water to the north shore of the loch. Rather than packing my boat away on reaching the other side, I continued paddling along the shore before finally leaving the water to pick my way across the slimy sea weed covered rocks beneath the village of Balmacara. To have walked to the same spot from the point I launched my boat would have been around 40 kilometers.


packrafting_in_scotland

packrafting_in_scotland

I walked the single track road between Balmacara and the village of Plockton on the shore of Loch Carron. A long salt water crossing lay in store for the next day. I was a little apprehensive and hoping for good weather. After a night in a bunkhouse on the edge of Plockton I was up early, hoping to catch enough of the flooding tide to make the crossing before the ebb began. Despite my good intentions, by the time I launched my boat from the village quay (amid curious looks) I had very little of the incoming tide left. The sheltered water in the harbor was very calm and there was little wind, but as I approached the open water of Loch Carron the swell became more significant. I was unlikely to find a time to cross with lower swell, I reckoned, but it would be sensible to leave more time to make the crossing before the tide began to work against me.

packrafting_in_scotland

I rounded the point of Rubha Mor and paddled between the small islands that lie just offshore before pulling my boat up on to a grassy spit of land and brewing tea. Presently, the swell began to diminish and the weather improved further. I had found a very pleasant spot to wait for the turning of the tide (which was now high). I dosed a little, ate a little and drank a fairly substantial quantity of tea. A part of me was impatient to be on my way, and acutely aware that I had been moving more slowly than intended over the previous few days. But all in all it was an enjoyable morning, mostly spent looking out towards the Applecross peninsula and vaguely inspecting the maps I would follow over the next few days.

Eventually, low tide arrived. It was high tide when I had settled down and now the water around the point had drained away to leave an expanse of sloppy mud and slippery seaweed covered rock between me and the water's edge. I negotiated this obstacle course cautiously.

The weather was looking good as I paddled out from the shore, on a bearing towards Meall na' h-Aird (a hill on the point which separates the two sea lochs of Carron and Kishorn). By making for this land first and then crossing Loch Kishorn from there I would never be more than 1 kilometer from land (with no more than 2 kilometers of open salt water to paddle between shorelines, rather than the 3.5 that would have had to be crossed to head straight over on to Applecross, which was my initial plan). Not far from land, the clouds began to menace and the swell began to build around me. I turned around and headed to the nearest of the offshore islands (Eilean a' Chait), and on reaching its shoreline worked my way in to a small sheltered cove. After ten minutes rain was thrashing down, making a singing sound on the water all around me. I didn't get out of my boat, but just floated in the sheltered water as the rain hammered on my spray deck and on my hood. The waves outside the entrance to my haven developed white caps as I waited out the squall.

This might sound like an unpleasant experience. But, on the contrary, I felt quite cozy wrapped in my spray deck and waterproofs and harboured in the sheltered cove.


As the squall passed, blue sky again emerged overhead. I paddled out and across the water. I gave my arms no rest on the crossing and so was tired by the time I made it to the lee of the land on the other side. I rested in another small cove surrounded by cliffs and overhanging trees.


When I was rested, and with a flapjack consumed for energy, I paddled north and around the headland. 10 feet ahead of me an Otter slipped from a rock and disappeared with splash. Close to shore the water remained calm, but when I rounded the point between Kishorn Island and the mainland I was again exposed to the wind and the accompanying swell. Without the tide on my side I would have made no headway, but instead I crept forward. Despite the considerable effort of paddling, this was an exhilarating stretch of water and the coastline was beautiful.



The shore to my side was steep and rocky as I paddled up the loch. I could have exited the water, but would have a had a very difficult job to scramble up the steep, slippery sides. But progress was slow, and so when I came to an inlet with a slope down to water's edge, I took the opportunity and went ashore. Once packed I shouldered my sack and beat my way through dense ferns to the higher ground. I was soon resting some distance from the loch, and presently the wind began to calm itself as the clouds parted. A rainbow broke over Applecross. It would probably have taken the best part of two days to walk inland around the bay of Loch Carron to reach this point.



That evening I pitched my shelter low to the ground by the shore at the head of the Loch. Sunset over Applecross gave the sky a colour of fire and an atmosphere like something from one of Tolkein's tales.

By the time I was wrapped in my bivvy and quilt the wind was blowing hard and the rain had begun to beat down again. I barricaded my sanctum with makeshift draft excluders (gale excluders more like) and read myself to sleep with the feeling of extreme coziness that you can only feel when in a tent buffeted with wind and rain.


The next morning was bright, to start with, and I paddled through calm water along the shore and across the wide mouth of the river Kishorn to finally land on Applecross.

Applecross is thought to be the site of some of the earliest settlements in Scotland. I was looking forward to crossing the peninsula which is an area I had never previously visited.


I followed the track which leads up into Coire na Ba, and the full force of the wind hit me when I made it to the Beallach. I climbed on to a rocky bluff and looked back across Loch Kishorn. Rays of sun broke through the clouds to splash light on the my crossing from the previous day.


The light was poor and the strong winds made it difficult to hold the camera still. My pictures reflect these difficulties. Added to this was the rocky, ankle twisting ground which made for difficult walking. I progressed slowly. Clambering around slopes of Carn Dearg I was forced to strap my walking poles to my pack and proceed with hands free. Greasy, mossy boulders shifted uneasily around me. Here would not be a good place to be trapped by oneself and I was particularly reassured by the SOS capability the SPOT transmitter affords.






After crossing the Beallach nan Arr the going underfoot became easier, and I soon reached the summit of Beinn Bhan. From here I followed the ridge to the North-West and presently began to descend, eventually making camp a couple of miles from the shore of Loch Torridon.

In the morning, both tide and the wind were against me and so rather than paddle down the loch I chose to walk the distance to Torridon village which was to be my first and only resupply point on the trip.

At first I was forced to follow a tarmac road, which never makes for pleasant walking (although the views of the loch and the Torridonian sandstone peaks beyond were some compensation for this). Soon, though, a track branched off to the left, passing through a Scots Pine wood.






On arriving in the village of Torridon I found the hostel still closed (not to open until 5PM). The staff there had kindly agreed to receive my food parcel depite the fact that I did not intend to stay overnight. I had posted my supply package from Edinburgh, and it contained another 8 days worth of food. As I still had more than a days worth of food from my initial supply, my pack would be heavier than when I first set off from Morar. It had taken me 7 days to reach Torridon (which amounts to fairly slow progress, but who cares about speed?). I was struck by a change of heart and decided to spend a night in a bed, rather than make my way onward into the Torridon hills to camp.

While waiting for the Hostel to open, I dropped my bag at the back of the Hostel and headed down to the small store-come-tearoom. Coffee and cake would be a welcome treat! The store also sold biscuits and beer which I stocked up on in anticipation of a relaxed evening in the Hostel.

The next morning I lingered at the Hostel but after a long shower and an even longer breakfast I set off. It was raining heavily.


I walked along the lochside for a short distance before striking off up the path into Coire MhicNobaill. This lead me around the back of Liathach (one of Scotland's grandest ridges, pictured above). On a backpacking trip through Torridon a couple of years previously, a friend and I had found a fantastic spot to camp at Coire na Caime in the shadow of the ridge, and the next day scrambled up to the ridge and to the summit of Mullach an Rathain. I look forward to returning for a trip along the entire ridge.

From here my route took me in the direction of Beinne Eighe and up to the waterfalls that tumble down from Coirre Mhic Fhearchair (another great spot to camp). I cut across the side of the hill and down in to Glen Grudie, which eventually led me down to the shore of Loch Maree.

It was sunny, and the snow capped peak of Slioch made a fine sight across the loch.

packrafting_in_scotland



I made camp as the sun was dropping toward the horizon. It had been a good day but the recurring niggle on this trip was to be passing by so many stupendous peaks without climbing to their summits. If only there was more time.


In the morning the next day I was slow to get moving. There was little incentive to hurry, so I drank several cups of tea and ate a healthy breakfast.

As I was sat by the loch, thirty feet form the shore a pair of Black Throated Divers surfaced! I watched them until they disappeared beneath the surface and kept watching the water for a while afterwards. The must be able to travel a long distance underwater because that was the last I saw of them.


When I finally got moving it was along the loch side in the direction of the coast. After a mile or so I started to head up hill, on to Beallach nan Sac which crosses over the hills between Meall Mheinnidh and Beinn Lair. I was then on another familiar path, down to Fionn Loch and Loch Dubh. A causeway is all that separates these two lochs and after crossing this I was again climbing uphill, beneath crags and beside the waterfalls of the Allt Bruthach an Eassain. The hills of A' Mhaigdhean and Ruadh Stac Mor were to my right and I could see a pair of walkers part way up the path that leads to there higher slopes.



It was sunny and after an enjoyable crossing of high ground I descended steeply in to Gleann Muice, which brought the awesome ridge of An Teallach into view. Beneath An Teallach is a great little Bothy called Shenavall. In a previous year I spent two days in front of the fire at Shenavall, waiting for the weather to clear sufficiently to make crossing the ridge possible. The weather didn't clear, instead pounding the roof of the little cottage with rain almost constantly, and I only made it to the mountain's Eastern Munro summit (Sail Liath). But there are worse places to be than beside the fire at Shenavall, with a plentiful supply of driftwood from the loch!



After fording the Allt Strath na Sealga Shenavall came into view. Today, however, I sailed straight past it, only stopping for a quick brew and chocolate bar beside a burn which originates on the slopes of An Teallach and provides the water supply for the bothy.

I wanted to make a good deal more progress that day before settling down to camp. The main reason was that I wanted to catch the flooding tide the next day for the crossing of Loch Broom into Coigach.

As I wandered along, the hazy outline of the Fannichs (an alluring group of hills to the south) was to my right. Crossing Torridon had felt like a very distinct stage of the trip, perhaps because it is more familiar to me than most of the rest of the ground I had covered. But as I again began to drop down towards the coast, the presence of sheep was a signal that the stage was almost over. I found a comfortable camp spot, from which the snowy camps of the the An Teallach summits were still visible.



The following morning saw more sunshine and at first the breeze was only very gentle. I descended to the road that follows the coast. After leaving this behind me, I climbed a track through farm land that would lead around the head of Little Loch Broom and over a small peninsula that separates it from the shore of Loch Broom.

The crossing was good, with a view of snowy mountains to my right and open sea to the left. Something about paddling into the harbour was exciting me, too. The prospect of a pub meal and a pint overlooking the water, perhaps? The breeze on the coast was not as light as it had been in the hills and once away from the shore I was paddling choppy water. My main about this crossing, given that it was little more than a kilometer in distance, was that the Calmac Ferry departs from Ullapool Harbour bound for the Outer Hebrides. I would not like to be vying for paddle space with a monster like that, nor to be caught in its wake.

On landing I made a bee-line for the renowned sea food pub, The Seaforth. A pint was soon in front of me, and this was soon followed by a large plate of fresh battered fish and chunky chips.


When I managed to tear myself away from that comfortable spot, I walked out of town on the road which heads north along the coast and then through Strath Canaird. Walking on a road is never much fun. And although the scenery around me was some compensation for this, soon I decided I would rather take my chances on swampy, low ground and cut the a couple of miles of road walking out of the trip. This was a mistake! The ground was every bit as horrific as it had looked to be. And although I would have left the main road behind after half an hour had I continued along it to my intended camp spot I spent almost two hours battling through bog to reach the same point.


Thus, I arrived tired and frustrated at the point I had been aiming for and made camp a short distance from Loch Lurgainn. This feeling soon dissipated as I relaxed with a cup of tea, and the silhouetted view of Stac Pollaidh to the West.


It was overcast in the morning as I struck camp and packed away my things. I walked a short distance around the loch before locating the stalker's path which cuts across wild land between Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh to the shore of Loch Sionascaig. Sionascaig is studded with birch covered islands and I paddled out to explore the shoreline of the largest of these (Eilean Mor) before making my way to a sandy beach on the North shore.


There were no more paths on my my route for the day, and I trod the uneven ground over one rise after another to reach the shore of Fionn Loch which I crossed quickly.

The view back to the south from a rise above Fionn Loch framed beasutifully the shapely hills of Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh.


The going underfoot got no easier. But I was happy to be away from the paths and with the rocky stack which is Sulliven's highest summit on my right I slogged North. Suilven takes its name from an old Norse word meaning 'pillar'. The picture below shows well enough why this name is appropriate.


It was still early when I reached Suileag Bothy, where I planned to spend the night. So early, in fact, that I was tempted to keep going and instead find a spot to camp beside Loch Assynt. But a look inside the old building changed my mind, and it would be the first (and only) night in a bothy during the trip.


Suileag is a nice Bothy and has two rooms, each with its own fireplace. With there being no trees anyway even remotely nearby, however, these served me nothing other than an ornamental prupose. Somebody at sometime has obviously become frustrated by this lack of available fuel; two floorboards had been torn up from the corner of the room (presumably to be burned). In my view, you would have to be hypothermic and close to death for this to be forgiveable.

There would have been no cause for a fire on the evening of my stay, anyway. I sat outside with my dinner and a view of Suilven glowing in the late afternoon sun, before signing the bothy book and retiring to my bed raised wooden sleeping platform to read myself to sleep.


Passing through Assynt was splendid, but it felt a bit of a sin not to be climbing any of its mountains. Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Canisp and, of course, Suilven, would make a fine backpack. I am confident I will be back in the non too distant future to put this plan into action.


In the morning the weather was superb. A night in a bothy always makes for a straightforward start to the morning, and I was on my way early.

Quinaig, approaching on the horizon to the North, is another beautiful hill, and the view from the south as I made my way towards it revealed the length of its ridge line.


packrafting_in_scotland

A path runs between Suilag Bothy and Loch Assynt, so it was a very easy, undulating walk down to the shore. I inflated my boat and set off on to the glassy water. The water was so still partly because the day's breeze had not yet built up but also because at the Western end of the loch a dog leg of water is relatively sheltered compared to the rest of its expanse.

I paddled the two kilometers of this dog leg of water with the marvelous view of Quinaig up ahead. This was among the most relaxed and peaceful stretches of water I have ever paddled, and I enjoyed it immensely.


Upon rounding a point, and changing direction to the east, the water became less calm. The outflow of Loch Assynt is to the West (behind me) and so I was paddling against the current. The current itself was not particularly strong, but as the breeze picked up and approached the status of 'wind' the paddling became more strenuous.


It was hot and I removed the tee-shirt I was wearing under my PFD. I paddled a further six kilometers against the breeze (which was at least refreshing) and the current before landing on the north shore of the loch beside Ardbreck Castle. The castle, which dates from the 15th Century, was a strong hold of the Clan Macloed.



A famous stop off for travelers heading north in this part of Scotland is the Inchnadamph Hotel, which lies at the head of the loch. It was out of my way, but I was enticed to investigate it. I found it closed, but a group of Red Deer watering themselves in the River Traligill was enough to make the detour worthwhile.


It was a sweltering walk which I then undertook around the lower slopes of Glas Bheinn and past Loch na Gainmhich, with the crests of Ben Stack, Arkle and Foinaven on the horizon. My aim was to reach the coast again at Loch Glencoul and make the crossing that day, in order to camp in the area of Glendhu Forest.



This meant following a short stretch of road once the path around Glas Bheinn had petered out. When I came across a sign post advertising bar meals at the Kylesku Hotel, just two miles away, my plans changed. Even though it was only a couple of days since I had been served food in Ullapool, a hot meal would be most welcome.

The Kylesku Hotel is a great little place with generous portions of food served. I chatted to people in the bar over several drinks and as the light began to fade sought out a spot to camp beneath the impressive bridge that spans the sea lochs.


It was with a fine view of Quinaig at my back and the sun on my face that I crossed the bridge in the morning. After a short walk, I was able to leave the road behind and turn on to a track that runs along the north shore of the loch. Seals were basking on rocks in the peaceful bay.


Eventually breaking away from the loch side I climbed upwards, parallel to Maldie Burn, and shortly this led me to Loch an Leathiad Buiain. A few tenacious scraps of snow still clung to the higher slopes of Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhugaill, to the North East, and a gathering of mist in its coirres was also refusing to dissipate. But the sky was as clear as I have ever seen, with no cloud visible in any direction. Despite the early hour, the day was already becoming hot.


It was under this clear blue sky that I crossed over Beallach nam Fiann, and the hills which yesterday still seemed distant loomed larger with every step. That is one of the simple things I enjoy about backpacking; to see hills in the distance, then to reach them and look back at the land you crossed to get there. Self powered travel is immensely satisfying in that regard.


My route then took me down from the high ground once again and soon I was walking through the Forest of Achfary. The shade of the trees was welcome (but that is not a complaint about the weather!). Many fallen trees had blocked sections of the path but I scrambled around or over them.


Once I had cleared the trees, I stopped for a brew and some chocolate beside the still blue water of Loch Stack. The energy would be needed as I was anticipating a tough climb up Beallach Horn to the coll between Meall Horn and Foinaven. Not that in ordinary circumstances the walk would be difficult. But the sun was now high in the sky there was no available shade. I stopped beside several crystal clear streams to gulp down water. But I must sweated an almost equal amount by the time I reached the top of the Beallach!


I could finally see open sea beyond the North coast and a halfhearted layer of thin cloud made a haze over the water. Again, I felt I was committing a kind of sin by just passing through these hills without gaining any of their summits. But that was the nature of this trip; if it was available, I could happily have spent several months between the start and the finish and would have been able to explore in far greater detail.



After a short rest at the top of the pass, I was again heading downward. The rocky landscape all around was quite fascinating. A pair of lochs (Lochan Ulbha and An Dubh Loch), one feeding the other from above, will make an excellent camp at sometime in the future. The view to the North East was of the most northerly Munro, Ben Hope, which was also almost completely free of snow but for a light fringe around its crest.


I descended the head of Strath Dionard amidst smashed rock and beneath pale crags. Once down beside the loch the going became boggy and I picked my way around the shore looking for a suitable place to camp. The spot I found turned out to be the finest camp I made during the whole trip; a well drained patch of ground beneath an impressive crag (Creag Urbhard), with a clear waterall raining vertically down in to a crystal clear burn flowing into the loch. The water, originating on the high slopes of Foinaven, was delicious. And before even putting my tent up I must have drunk two litres of it!


It was the last camp of the trip, as it turned out. And so I was lucky to have such a great spot. In the shade, after such a hot day, the air soon became chill. I was tired but not inclined to go early to my bed. I spent the evening outside my shelter, first watching deer on the shore across the loch and then watching the stars become distinct as the light faded and went out. It was utterly silent, but for the gentle tinkling of the burn.



There was a thick mist hanging low around all the crags and over the water of the loch when I first emerged in the morning. It was an hour before I was fed, watered and had my gear packed away. But by this time most of the mist had dissipated, although it remained cloudy and the wind began to pick up as I made my way around the loch to its outflow into the River Dionard.

I had been looking forward to the River Dionard as it seemed like it would provide a wonderful paddle beneath the crags of Cranstackie to the East and Foinaven to the West. The Strath has a remote feeling to it, although a landrover track meanders up it from the road allowing the estate to deposit Anglers (Many of whom will pay up to £1000 for a day of fishing on the river, which yields mighty Sea Trout and also Salmon). I was slightly concerned about the prospect of angry Ghillies, or there angry clients, if I happened around a bend and found myself disrupting an expensive fishing excursion. But I had been more concerned, over the preceding couple of days, about what level of water I would find in the river, and whether it would be at all possible to paddle.

I needn't have worried about the Ghillies, as I saw nobody in the Strath that day. And initially my concerns over the water level also seemed unfounded. I put into the river after it was joined by two burns from the left. It was OK to start with, and I enjoyed the paddling. But all too often, the river either widened (in which case the level meant I was forced to float the boat through shallows while I walked along beside) or became so boulder strewn that there was no way through in such low water. In high water, this would be a great paddle. But after a couple of miles I decided to abandon the river and returned to the track.



The track made for swift walking down the strath once my boat was stowed away. It seemed that I was pretty much at the end of my trip. Presently, the track lead away from the river and eventually reached the narrow road that runs the final miles down to Durness. Immediately as I got to the road, I regretted not continuing down along the edge of the river (have I mentioned I am no fan of road walking?). But it at least made for rapid progress and a pub meal at the end of the day would be attainable. And this was no highway, anyway! There were more sheep in the middle of the road than cars!

At first it began to rain gently. And then it began to rain more and more convincingly. Twice well meaning drivers stopped and offered me lifts. I was not tempted to betray the spirit of the trip, however, and it was under my own power that I approached first the Kyle and then the village of Durness.

I went down to the beach even before stopping into the pub. Beyond the waves breaking on the shore, the water seemed remarkably calm. I stayed a while, sitting on a rock and watching the water. Although I was still a long way from home, with an empty stomach and no bed for the night, it was a fantastic way to finish the journey.







16 comments:

  1. Stunning. Exactly the sort of trip I want a Packraft for.

    I've camped on the Bealach Horn and watched a fantastic sunset, before climbing over Foinaven he following morning on the way to the next nights camp in Sandwood Bay. I can think of few finer trips.

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    1. Thanks Colin, I've never been to Sandwood Bay but it is on my 'to go' list.

      I just clicked into your blog. So that's given me some reading matter to be getting on with! Awesome fat bike! I don't have a bike myself and not likely to scratch the pennies together for one in the at all near future but maybe one day.
      Cheers
      Dave

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  2. Fantastic report of an equally fantastic trip! Thanks for taking the time to write this out David.

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    1. Thanks Joery. Still keep flicking back to the Greenland posts occasionally. Plenty of potential for a packraft wander out there, no? I'm a tiny bit afraid of Polar Bears, though...

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  3. I really enjoyed following this on socialhiking and the report and photos are fantastic too.
    Thanks!

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    1. Thanks Paul! I enjoyed it too!

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  4. Words completely fail me David, that was simply one of the very best Scottish trips I've read about. A brilliant route, photos, story and some amazing hills, paddles and camps. This has provided a huge dose of inspiration for a trip I am planning in the Far North (sans raft sadly). There is something wonderful about the idea of heading north until there is no more land to walk on. Thanks for putting this together.

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    1. Thanks Nick. My point and press camera work isn't up to all that much but there are some really beautiful areas up there, aren't there? I imagine your trip will include many summits?

      If you have got or end up getting a raft, maybe we should go and float on something sometime!

      Chers
      Dave

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  5. What a brilliant trip. Packraft made it work. Cant say thanks enough thanks for sharing this David.

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    1. Thanks Martin! Really loved the route and I'll no doubt be back that way sometime

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  6. Amazing, thanks for sharing

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  7. Absolutely brilliant. I really enjoyed that. I could almost smell the air. I've long wanted to return to Scotland and this has really stoked that desire. Beautiful landscapes, and a great route. As I was reading I was hoping you'd post a map, so I was very happy to find one at the end!

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    1. Funny, that sounds like the same desire to return as I'm feeling for Lapland! I'm stuck with maps for the time being...

      Thanks

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  8. Like everyone says, brilliant report on a fantastic trip Dave.
    Thanks for getting out there and showing us what can be done with packrafts in the northwest.

    Chris S

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    1. Thanks Chris. There's more untapped potential up there. It's finding the time, rather than the possibilities, which is the problem!

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Grid North by David Hine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.