It was Tuesday morning and I woke up in my campervan to a foggy misty morning in my campsite at the foot of Ben Nevis. It was the second week of my adventures in Scotland and I was feeling the difference in my body between my normal office days and daily mountainous excursions that I’d had for the last 10 days.
By the time I persuaded myself to get up it was 10 and after stocking up on food for the coming trip I eventually found myself at the top of Neptune’s Staircase at lunchtime.
There was a group already setting up their Canadian canoes as I pulled in and their guides were intrigued by my rig, asking how far I was planning on paddling, when I said the whole way their eyebrows rose and I could almost see the thoughts bubble above their head saying “That’ll be…interesting!” although I did wish I had considered wellies instead of my little pink water shoes.
But I was there. I was committed. No backing out now.
I was quite a strange feeling paddling away from my van knowing I won’t be back for a few days, effectively abandoning it in an unfamiliar place.
About 20 minutes in in started raining, luckily I was already togged up in my wetsuit (overkill) and waterproofs (entirely necessary) and it was a canal stretch so the water was calm, making negotiating the scout group not too troublesome.
Happy despite the rain
My first lock didn’t go entirely to plan. The first pair were inexplicably open so I paddled through, hoping there would be a landing stage in the middle that could hop out at so I’d only have to portage the last bit, but unfortunately not, so I had to paddle back out and walk around.
This was my first attempt at portaging and was not my most graceful. As it was such a long way I wanted to do it in one, so I put all my baggage in the paddle board bag (which luckily has wheels) with the paddle sticking out of the top, and the paddleboard in the other hand waddling up the tow-path, having to stop every 15m or so because my hand hurt. 20kg of board is quite a lot on one tiny handle! For future locks it wasn’t quite so far so I tended to do 2 trips, except for when the lovely lock-keeper at Loch Lochy insisted on giving me a hand!
It wasn’t long into my paddle that I realised I had forgotten to bring the little map that I had been given when I picked up a key for the lock facilities. So at that lock, I thought I’d carry on, still feeling pretty fresh at 4.30 because I started so late. That was a mistake.
As I rounded the bend, heading east from Gairlochy lock, I discovered I had just set out on a loch. It wasn’t long before the exposure had let the wind pick up the water into little waves that made balancing extremely tricky and led me to resort to kneeling. I intended to follow the navigation buoys effectively through the middle of the loch, but not far into my voyage the topography to the west meant the wind began funnelling and it wasn’t long before I had been blown across to the east shore.
The waves seemed to be bigger the further down the lock I got and to keep direction I was paddling 3:1 on the right. I couldn’t fight the wind too much though of the waves would take the board side on and I really didn’t want to fall in on day 1.
Kneeling meant that all my balance and suspension was being done by my lower back so at the evening set in I was beginning to get back spasms and was in a lot of pain. I did find a couple of beaches that seemed to belong to hotels and in one instance wandered up to ask if there were any rooms because all I could dream about was a cosy bed, but I was out of luck.
Pretty sky, pain face
Meanwhile, there was a stunning sunset going on and I was torn between wanting the pain to stop and being so happy and grateful for being there at that moment to see it. I know it’s a view I could have gotten from a layby on the adjacent road, but feeling so isolated as the only person on an unpowered vessel in that whole loch just makes it feel magic.
That solitude also let me give myself permission to cry, yelp and moo (don’t know why) every time my back seized up and there were points where I tried to stretch it out but got a wave to the face, so had to reserve that mostly for beaches.
The moment I first caught sight of the next lock was joyous though as it signalled the return to canals and I got an amazing night’s sleep even in my horrible little coffin tent.
The next day was completely different. The canal passed through a woodland and had a scandanavian feel about it. By lunchtime the cloud had burn off and it was a lovely sunny day. At this point I wished I hadn’t got a wetsuit on as I was getting pretty toasty, but I hadn’t really bought any alternative clothes that I was willing to get wet- preferring to save my pjs for night time. On the plus side I didn’t get sunburnt either!
I even crossed a bunch of lochs but with little wind and glorious sunshine I was absolutely fine following the edge of the navigation channel, finding any time I left it it was really rather shallow, as I found my fins or paddle sometimes catching the bottom or weeds. I als came across many more pleasure boaters, who all smiled and waved. Some of them even slowed down to avoid giving me too much wake to deal with. If I could do this exact day again I absolutely would. On arrival at Fort Augustus, I found a rack to leave my paddleboard on and crossed my fingers it would still be there the next day (it was next to the bins!) and set off on the reasonably long walk to find the nearest commercial campsite (there isn’t one provided at the locks here because it’s right in the middle of town) and had a nice warm shower before heading back to the locks to get a drink and a burger. I had not brought cooking equipment to save weight, but it seems that my diet of peanut butter sandwiches, kitkats and hoola hoops hadn’t quite hit the spot.
Leaving Fort Augustus the following morning the weather again wasn’t great. There were lots of foreign tourists there so doing my two trips to get my stuff and board from the top to the bottom of the locks took a reasonable length of time. The lock-keepers though were really friendly and suggested that I stuck to the north side of Loch-Ness because it was the side with the road on in case I needed an escape plan; the downside however was that there was no where to camp to break the loch into stages.
I was finally on my OS map so I had a bit more of an idea of what to expect now and knew I had to pass 2 boat houses on the other side. But it was like a repeat of day 1 and by 11am I was in tears and stopping regularly at any suitable beaches to stretch. Eventually I spotted a boat house just before 2 and I despaired that I had only just found the first one when I had so far to go, that I must have only covered the first 3rd of the loch and there was no way I was going to make it to the end in one day, but I kept paddling. The road was much higher than the water level and hauling my board up that hill to hail a bus was not a viable option.
As I started getting alongside the boat-house I came round a corner and found a castle! I was elated! This meant that the boat house I had been looking at this whole time was the second one, maybe I could make it? I instantly burst into tears with relief, but it wasn’t long until I was close enough to the castle to realise that it was open to the public and there were a lot of people up there looking out at me! I had to pull it together and stop sobbing and put on a smile, because adventures are always fun right?! I landed at the castle’s beach and checked the map. The campsite was quite a long way uphill and having dragged my kit around the previous evening I knew I wanted to avoid too much land distance if I possibly could, so I vowed to keep paddling. Y back was awful while kneeling on the board but as soon as I was on dry land any pain completely disappeared, so it felt like stopping now was just making excuses. After all, I did have a wedding in cardiff to get back for on Saturday night and it was currently 3pm on Thursday.
So me and Nessy got into a rhythm and stopped trying to fight each other. 2:1 paddling and trying to use the waves to push me in the right direction, but also controlling my direction enough to not get blown out into the middle. As the sun started to set the wind calmed down as I got to the mouth of the loch and breathed a sigh of relief. I could finally stand up again to give my back a rest. Here the waterway runs through private gardens and there are some large ship wrecks so it was very peaceful now that I was a little further from the road that I had been all day.
It was pretty much dusk when I pulled into the loch campsite and this was quite a busy one with a group that were just finishing their 5 day kayak paddle and a flotilla of little sailing boats, but I found a little spot and after a shower to warm back up I went straight to sleep.
The final morning was once again glorious sunshine and canals, I set off just before the sailing boats but they didn’t have enough wind to sail so were being towed by a dingy. As they slowly overtook me we had a nice little chat about what we had each been up to. Later on they had to wait for the A9 swing bridge to open for them so I managed to catch them up and they were at the top of the Muirton lochs when I got to the end too and with the kayakers gave me a little round of applause when I arrived which felt really nice. They were also quite surprised when I pulled the plug on my board because they hadn’t realised it was inflatable.
And so I began packing my things away and started the hike to Inverness bus station (via the lock-keeper’s hut to return the facilities key) to catch the bus back to Fort William.
At the Finish
Having arrived at 10.30, I had completed my paddle in 3 days, but it only took 2 hours on the bus. At first I felt a bit rubbish that it had taken me so long in comparison, but looking back I realise that it’s a memory and associated set of sensations and emotions that you just can’t have on a bus.
I learnt that I am capable of so much more than my body thinks I am
I learnt that a pretty sunset can make most pain go away
I learnt that I can.