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Thread: Going with the Flow

  1. #1

    Default Going with the Flow

    Canoeing in Scotland’s Far Northwest in October is always a gamble. The Autumn Storms are starting to drift in with increasing frequency and vigour. The days have shortened down to less than 12 hours, giving a sense of urgency to the business of finding a campsite and getting set up before night descends. It is the Dark Season.

    You can be lucky with the weather and have essentially a summer trip without the midges, but the chances get less as the days tick by. If the going gets rough there are still rewards to be had; there is a greater call on your ingenuity—making progress when you can, getting comfortable in snug little corners when you can’t. But the main reason for coming in autumn or winter, apart from escaping the worst of the insects, is to experience Nature in the raw.

    Pete’s Last Trip

    James was looking forward to having a break from city life. Needing a breather from the Coffeeshop Lifestyle of Surrey, he was seeking refreshment of a different kind, a wilderness adventure, and judging by the look of the troubled sky when we arrived at the Ledmore River, he was likely to find one. He hadn’t been on a canoe trip for around twenty years, but was no stranger to our Peterborough (Pete). As a boy he had helped to build it. He had clambered with me over the timber stacks at the sawmill, looking for those elusive pieces with just the right configuration of grain. Later, we had driven out to the local woods on an autumn day to fill the trailer with logs to fuel the steambox. James stoked the fire whilst I juggled ribs that were almost too hot to handle. And now here he was, embarking on Pete’s Last Trip — a final outing before a major overhaul to replace broken planking and a tired covering— the result of a quarter of a century of exploring some of Scotland’s wilder places, and refusing to underestimate the pedigree of wood and canvas. My canoe had given its all, but would soon be ready for a whole lot more.

    Pete's Last trip

    Through the Keyhole

    I had a feeling very close to gloom as we looked out over Cam Loch, not so much because it was wet and breezy, but because James’ trip was clearly not going to be the calm, sunlit idyll that he had been looking forward to. It would be a real shame if his rare chance of time off was spoilt, and he was put off canoe tripping for good. Not that rough conditions were totally unexpected because I have encountered so much poor weather here in the past. Today the sky was dismal, without the merest hint of promise, the clouds were down and it was raining. Suilven and Canisp, so uplifting on sunny days, were miserable grey giants slumped on the mist-shrouded moor. The prospect could be seen as epic if you were an enthusiast, but totally grim if you weren’t. And the weather was set to get worse if anything. It had been a gamble coming, but now it was this or nothing, a time to make the best of it. It was perhaps as well that we didn’t know then that our trip would be limited to six hard-won miles.

    As we opened the car doors, cold, wet drizzle slapped us in the face; perhaps we should have stopped off further south at Knapdale or Galloway, somewhere below the track of the weather fronts that had been slamming into the far northwest for several weeks. However, Cam Loch looked doable, so we made the decision to get on with it and started unpacking our gear. As always, things felt more positive once we were actually underway and committed to seeing it through, although this might have had more to do with now being safely insulated from the world, inside one-piece fleeces and drysuits.

    The Ledmore River twists this way and that as it nears open water, as if reluctant to finally yield to the loch and lose its identity. I had never seen so much water in it, a reminder that the long, dry Summer at home hadn’t reached this far north. We entered Cam Loch, clattering through the reed beds on the mouth bar, and out between the pretty little islands. Despite the drab conditions, these tree-clad isles were lit up by their autumn colours, lending a little cheer to the vast expanse of drizzle-grey moor.

    James fell into the rhythm of paddling as if he had never been away from it. He wasn’t holding back; I could sense his powerful pulling in the need to change my usual tandem steering routine. I had made him a new paddle for this trip; it was my favourite design for Scotland — a 148 Lochmaster, a one-piece with slightly over industry-standard shaft and blade-edge dimensions. The 10 lines per inch shaft would never let you down and I had customised the grip with a hole to take a tarp or windbreak line. This paddle was now ready and eager to be a faithful power source, mast, prop, bat and swatter. I had been making it just the previous week at the Derbyshire Woodland Festival; really it could have done with an extra week to let its oil coating properly cure — its first strokes were leaving little rainbows on the water.

    Making the Lochmaster

    Many, perhaps most trips to Inverpolly exploit merely the southwest tip of Cam Loch as a convenient way to Loch Veyatie via the Fish Farm Portage. This somewhat trivialises what is actually a fine stretch of water in its own right, which is a shame. It is a lake of subtle delights and two distinct personalities. The Islands provide a scenic backdrop and good camping, whereas around the point to the west the character changes to wilderness, dominated by the peaks of Suilven and Canisp. It’s hard to take your eyes off them. Apart from a dramatic skyline, Cam Loch’s attractions include a rock formation shaped like a giant face, and a great camping place on a broad, flat terrace prized for its shelter from the west. Beneath this modest-looking sheet of water lies, unexpectedly, Scotland’s most studied lake bed, its sediments telling stories of the climate at the ending of the last Ice Age. Anglers lust after the brown trout that arc from its waters. For the traditionalist, there is a continuation canoe route from the far shore heading westwards, through a couple of lochans, eventually linking up with the top of the river leading down to Fionn Loch.

    One aim of our trip was to scope out a direct portage from the further reaches of Cam loch over to Loch Veyatie to give a clearer logic to incorporating this lake into a broader Inverpolly circuit. Most of the loch would then be included. Such a portage would also preserve the wilderness atmosphere of a trip; the freedom of the open moor as opposed to the rather scrappy, bulldozed-track-and-barbed-wire feel of the Fish Farm Portage. We’d spotted a potential route for the portage on the map which followed a natural weakness over the ridge separating Cam Loch from Loch Veyatie. There was even a lochan mid way to add interest, and the route started and ended, strikingly, at two almost identical features on the respective lochs — little keyhole-shaped coves. It became for us Keyhole Portage. This name evokes a Lewis Carroll-esque image of a secret way from one loch to the other “through the keyhole”, which somehow resonates with my mental picture of this as a magical landscape.

    A Change of Plan

    We were hoping to include climbing a mountain peak as part of our trip. We had set out with the idea of paddling to the terrace at the far end of Cam Loch, setting up camp and climbing Canisp, the White Mountain, the following day. This became less and less appealing the closer we got to the rain-drenched mountain whose summit was now lost in the mist. We discussed alternatives as we paddled close in along the southern shore in the rising wind. Perhaps the forecast was wrong. Maybe conditions would improve. Even though he had every encouragement to feel gloomy, James was taking things very well, and certainly an upbeat partner is a tremendous asset in conditions such as these. Three quarters of the way up the loch the unmistakeable keyhole cove and tree-lined valley came into view. The start of the portage was certainly easy to spot, which isn’t always the case. The cove looked very accommodating, sheltered, and with a stream running in making a perfect channel in which to dock. Compared with the bleak Canisp, it looked positively inviting. That was enough to sway it; we decided to pull in and go for the portage now, and maybe climb Suilven as our mountain later on, if the conditions allowed us to push deeper into Inverpolly. It doesn’t do to stick too rigidly to a plan, you need to go with the flow; ignoring what the conditions are trying to tell you is asking for trouble.

    Keyhole Cove — enthusiast’s weather

    A classic place to start a portage

    Over the years, you get to sample a wide range of different types of terrain for portaging; you become used to reading where, and where not, to tread on Scotland’s waterlogged hillsides with the weight of a “piece” on your back. Partway along the first leg of the carry, we encountered something new, a reddish mud. Was this firm, slippy or soft? With a heavy pack on his shoulders, James found out; it was bottomless, and he began slowly disappearing from view, necessitating a full emergency extraction procedure. I smiled inwardly at his inexperience. I guess it was kind of funny, but I didn’t laugh, which was just as well because on the second trip, this time with the canoe, I mistimed my step across and went in myself with similar consequences. James smiled outwardly.

    About a third of the way across the portage we reached a band of trees which formed the perfect spot for lunch. The birches broke up the wind to a fair extent, but we made ourselves completely comfortable with the additional shelter of the canoe as a wind break. James went off to investigate the remainder of the portage whilst I lit our stove. He eventually returned having sighted water. This was his first experience of an “off road” portage and he was rising to the occasion, although he did comment that Loch Veyatie was “a bit far”. He has yet to develop the pro portagers trick of never looking more than a few feet ahead so you don’t depress yourself.

    “Canoe tripping is a rough sport”

    Camp Tussock

    Loch Veyatie did not have its Welcome mat out when we reached the second keyhole cove at the end of the portage. The water was being whipped up by a stiff southwesterly with the tops of the waves blowing off to rejoin the rain in the air. Swollen waterfalls crashed down the hillside opposite. Although still quite early, we didn’t need any further inducement to start looking for somewhere to spend the night despite this clearly being, in terms of campsites, one of Inverpolly’s “Less Favoured Areas”. The best we could come up with was a fairly marginal 10 x 6 plot with a couple of tussocks in the sleeping zone, and some slight shelter afforded by a ridge. We were by now experiencing a full Force 17 gale. I should say that we use a rather specialised wind scale based on the number of pegs needed to hold the tent down. The basic number is eight. I backed up the guylines with the canoe’s two tracking lines looped over the top of the tent.

    Our tent has a spacious vestibule which makes a good cooking area under wild conditions. As we had come for 6 days, we had plenty of food to choose from. It was dark by 7pm, so we had tea by the light of our head torches. For afters, Susan had baked us a cake. It was designed with the canoe tripper in mind, being engineered to withstand the knocks and general rough handling it might receive in our packs. We called it the Safety Cake, not so much because it would be a lasting source of nutrition should we become marooned, but mainly because it could be a lifesaver in a variety of other situations. We could think of lots of uses. For example, it would be just the job if you were in a train crash and the little red hammer needed to break the glass on the emergency exit was missing. The only disadvantage with it was the extra buoyancy needed in the canoe.

    It was a wet and troubled night, although I love listening to wild wind and rain from the comfort of my sleeping bag, as long as I keep my mind off how I am going to extricate myself in the morning. The music of the wind was accompanied by an ensemble of waterfalls on percussion, and the occasional bellowing solo of a stag.

    Tussock’s Law dictates that any lumps under the groundsheet will be positioned to give maximum discomfort when trying to sleep. We had two major grassy protrusions. It was possible to get comfortable by contorting around them to some extent, but then we were forever waking with cramps or spasms. If we were forced to spend another night here, I would have to go down under the groundsheet with the bush saw and “see to” them. Justifiable herbicide.

    The sky doesn’t look promising

    Four Mile Island

    Not much had changed by next morning, so we were reluctant to surface from our sleeping bags, and there didn’t seem any reason to rush our breakfast of fried eggs and crumpets. Then we went to sleep again. I have never seen such unpredictable wind conditions. It would go from paddleable to raging in just a couple of minutes, but without the kind of regularity that you often see. To make matters worse, it was a cross-wind that would make any foray up or down the loch into a broadside nightmare.

    Sometime during the morning our wavering about what to do hardened into the decision to head back to the van rather than try to venture on towards Loch Sionascaig, with the possibility of getting even more stuck. Lulls in the wind came and went. We packed up and waited by the canoe. By the time we had left it long enough to believe that a particular lull would persist, the wind was up again. Finally there seemed to be a calmer interlude, and the sky was brightening. We pushed off.

    Unfortunately, we had been deceived; the lull happened to be the final one of the day and lasted for all of 10 mins before big waves started hitting us broadside. We had paddled 600 yards. An insignificant island, which we had hardly noticed in the distance, now became the thing of central importance in our watery world as we thankfully headed for the shelter it provided on its lee side. Once there, we sat in the canoe wondering what had hit us. The island was precisely four miles from our starting point. I looked it over more closely; it was very small and undulating, but covered with birches. It might not have fulfilled the classic advice from the early 1900s when choosing a place to camp to make sure that there is “sufficient lumber to make tables and chairs”, but there were enough trees to help shield us from the wind. There was just something about it that called me in to explore. Against all the odds I found a dryish, flat and springy area masquerading as a patch of bracken that was almost completely protected from the wind by a small bank. It seemed scarcely possible. I called James in and we immediately decided to set up camp. It was so much better than the last place, so apart from setting a new distance record for a day’s paddling, we had at least achieved something by moving. Our tarp was soon up in the trees, and we were joking about this and that as we set about our respective tasks in setting up camp. This was the real reason we had come. Quality time together.

    Safely set up on Four Mile Island

    Life in the raw

    Now we had an almost ridiculously comfortable and sheltered camp (“more comfortable than the camper”) where we could sit out the wind for as long as necessary, although hopefully it wouldn’t be as long as for a trapper on Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories, who was pinned down by a ferocious east wind for 63 days. In anticipation of being windbound, we had brought with us Inverpolly: The Board Game, so regardless of what the weather was doing we could continue to have all the fun of canoe tripping (probably more) inside our tent.

    Who needs water

    Canoe tripping is a rough sport that will eventually find any weakness in your gear. We broke yet another plastic Spork; it’s a good job we had brought a couple of spares. As they break we are replacing them with titanium ones. We carried our food in snap-top plastic boxes which worked fine at home, but now it was almost impossible to get the tops off as the temperature fell and the plastic stiffened. Then there is the problem of head torches turning themselves on in your pack and running down the batteries. I had brought a little innovation to eliminate the risk of this happening. It is a clip made from white PVC waste pipe that slips on over the “On” button protecting it from an accidental press. PVC pipe is one of life’s good things. If necessity is the mother of invention, then PVC pipe is like perhaps a cousin, or maybe an uncle. My GoPro mounts are made from it. I always carry a short piece which can be used to join two light poles for propping up the tarp. I have even been challenged to use it to construct a plumbing system for tents so that gentlemen are freed from the bothersome chore of getting up in the middle of the night.

    Our handy Spo and Ork set

    Falls and Phobias

    Although the wind persisted all night, the sky started to clear in the small hours. There was an unforgettable view of Suilven silhouetted against a heaven full of stars, seen through the dark, waving branches of our island’s birches. In the morning the wind was still strong and gusty, but at least now there was blue in the sky and it has stopped raining. Alternating bands of blue and cloud at least gave some predictability to the squalls. Surely there would be a lull long enough for us to complete the last couple of miles, although the rocky shore along the next section looked most unfriendly for an emergency landing. We were almost sorry to leave our haven, but at last a calmer interlude arrived and we were off. As it turned out, the next cloud-squall gained on us and we only just reached the river flowing out of Cam Loch Falls before conditions again became dangerous. The swollen river rushing out into the oncoming wind picked up some really nasty waves. This was the last calm spell for several hours.

    We portaged up the fishing hut side past the falls. Don’t take this hillside at face value; it looks blank but there is a path here although it is almost impossible to see unless you are on it. The falls themselves were like I’ve never seen them before. They were focussing into a few yards all the rain that had fallen over the 33-square-mile catchment area. Actually the water didn’t really fit into the gorge so was just shooting out into space. We heard these falls last night a mile away on our island. This seemed impressive at the time, but isn’t a big deal as falls go, seeing as how the Great Falls on the Nahanni can be heard at least 20 miles away. Apparently if you spent the night within a few miles of Grand Falls in Labrador, you could actually feel the vibrations through the ground.

    Grand Falls was one of those places where native peoples just wouldn’t go because of its malignant atmosphere. The outpouring of elemental force as a big river folds over into a chasm seems to warp the psychological landscape in the vicinity, making the place ripe for superstition and legend. The local Montagnais had a cautionary myth about Grand Falls; two girls in a canoe above the falls, preoccupied in play, floated past the point of no return. I share this primal fear. I’ve never liked putting in above the Cam Loch Falls, and especially not today with the river in spate. I felt the old dread of accelerating water, tugging me towards certain doom. This is one place where you certainly don't want to go with the flow.

    The wind, now fully astern, blasted us up Cam Loch, past the Islands and up, with some relief, back into the mouth of the Ledmore River. We could see the van waiting for us. It’s good to get out on an adventure, but its also good to return safely.

    We seemed to have packed a lot of action into a minimal distance. Not quite the outing we had anticipated, perhaps, but we both felt the trip had been worthwhile and at least we’d had enough of a fix of canoe tripping to keep us going for the time being. In its small way, finding the unexpected campsite on Four Mile Island was the making of the trip, but most of all we’d had a lot of fun.

    Consolation Peak

    What is the predictable result of curtailing a trip on account of the weather? You guessed; as we drove down towards Loch Maree intent on climbing a consolation peak, we became aware that the wind was dropping. At Loch Glascarnoch, where three days ago there had been impossible waves, now there was a faintly rippled surface. We swung into the familiar free campsite near the head of Loch Maree at dusk. James remembered it from years ago; abiding memory—“midges”. We were comfortable enough in the camper, but it was not Four Mile Island.

    Saturday dawned a beautiful, calm day, with a blue sky, almost cloudless. It was perfect for paddling; but also perfect for climbing our consolation mountain. We spent a sparkling day amidst the spectacular Beinn Eighe peaks. An enticing white quartzite path led us in its round about, winding way to the summit of Meall ‘a Ghiuthais, and the most spectacular view of a calm and inviting Loch Maree.

    I love the Inverpolly region. It may not often have a smile on its face, but it is shot through with possibilities. Truly a place where the canoe tripper’s imagination can run wild.

    Last edited by Moosehead; 21st-October-2018 at 03:55 PM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    Yalding, Kent


    Inspirational as always

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Fabulous. Maybe not quite as adventurous as some of your trips, but far more adventurous than most would attempt! Wonderful description, and it must have been very special to do it with James after a long gap.

    I particularly liked:

    The memories that it being "Pete's Last Trip" (for now at least) must bring to you.

    The logic that the "normal" portage from Cam Loch to Veyatie is just too ordinary to consider.

    Your own, peg based, version of the Beaufort Scale.

    Tussock's Law, which is all too familiar.

    The Safety Cake (let's hope Susan never reads this)

    Meall a Giblets (what we call it for some reason), at the top of what I think of as one of the most beautiful "nature trails" in the world.

    Finally, Inverpolly: The Board Game. I want one!!!! The Pirates need to play it.
    Paddler,blogger,camper,pyromaniac: Blog: Wilderness is a State of Mind

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2005
    Bangor, Co Down.


    Fantastic description of your trip. Really enjoyable read.
    Big Al.

    Only when the last tree has died
    and the last river been poisoned
    and the last fish been caught
    will we realise we cannot eat money.
    ~Cree Indian Proverb

  5. #5


    Elveys, Mal, Big Al, thanks for your kind comments.

    I am thinking of compiling the Inverpolly board game as a pdf for free download from my website, hopefully in time for Christmas. I may modify it slightly to make every other space a "windbound" square for realism.

    Sue did read the bit about her cake

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Peak District


    Wonderfully entertaining writing as always. Thank you Graham.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Dec 2005
    Nr Rochester in Kent


    Interesting and adventurous blog as ever. Shame about the weather. I hope Pete's next incarnation is as glorious as the current one.

    Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Nov 2005
    Lochwinnoch, Scotland


    Superb blogg as we have come to expect from you.

  9. #9


    A great read with a brilliant map to show the route.

    I'll second the request for the board game. And perhaps request the recipe for the cake.

    Sent from my SM-J330FN using Tapatalk

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Kettering Northamptonshire


    I feel rather guilty that I am one of those who used Cam Loch purely to access Veyatie.....especially now that I regard myself as a semi-pro portager! A great read as usual.
    A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope - Epictetus

  11. #11


    Schooner - I do know that the cake was from one of the recipes in this book:

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