Incredible Journey Through the Scottish Wilderness by Canoe

James WerbCanoeing4 Comments

Canoe on the edge of Cam-Loch

The beginning of an amazing adventure.

Day one

I turned sharply to see what had hit the water with such force. An unmistakeable splash made us all stop the process of loading canoes and watch as Paul clambered out of the water where he’d been neck deep only seconds before.

He misjudged the depth of the water having taken one step too many from the shore. Cold and wet he stood on the bank and quickly swapped clothes to keep warm. We hadn’t even set off yet but it marked what was going to be a challenging trip for the next week.

Boats finally loaded and cars set up ready for the shuttle at the end, we headed off down onto Cam-Loch and our first camp site. Suilvan loomed in the distance. An imposing peak that rose from the craggy landscape and would feature on our trip for the next few days.

Unusually for Scotland the weather was perfect and I even found myself reaching for my sunglasses. We meandered slowly along the loch, stopping to take photos of the rugged but beautiful scenery.

Canoeing towards Suilven

Suilven looming in the distance as we set off down Loch-Cam.

At the end of the loch we stopped on a sandy beach to make our first camp. Canoes were hauled up out of the water and soon there has a buzz of activity as tents were pitched and gas stoves lit for dinner.

We’d stopped to collect firewood on the way down so that we could have a fire in the evening. Andy and Colin got it going and we all gathered round it as the sun soon made its descent behind the land.

Sunset over Loch-Cam in Scotland

A beautiful sunset on our first night in the Scottish wilderness.

As the sun set, the moon rose eerily. A large disk in the sky, partly obscured by the clouds and still bathed in the last dying embers of the sun’s light. The sky turned purple and reflected off the still loch water.

We chatted around the fire as the purple hues turned slowly to black. The temperature dropped quickly so we gathered closer to the warmth of the fire before heading off to our shelters one by one.

Day two

It had been a cold night and I regretted my decision to take a smaller sleeping mat. Also the second hand sleeping bag I’d brought with me had obviously lost more of its insulating properties than I’d thought. I’d gradually got fully dressed during the night, and I woke wearing my thick pile jacket.

Breakfast became a predicable routine as the week went along. I always prepared hot water in a flask the night before so I didn’t have to wait for a warm drink in the morning. I enjoyed my cup of tea and cereal from the comfort of my sleeping bag before starting to pack away.

Though it had been a dry night, the fly sheet was soaked with condensation. Looking around it was a common problem as we all left out tents up as long as possible to dry out. By 9 am we were all back on the water and heading down the loch where we’d come the previous evening. The wind was thankfully still calm and the sun was already starting to warm me up.

Our group canoeing down the loch

A lovely, calm morning as we approached the first portage of the trip.

At the end of the loch we headed into a narrow channel and watched helplessly as two deer struggled to find a gap in the fence that blocked their path from the loch shore.

Deer stuck behind a fence

I don’t know how they’d got there but they were struggling to get free.

We could hear rushing water in front of us and Matt our guide had told us it was important not to miss the eddy of calm water at the top of the falls. I didn’t need telling twice. Richard and I turned smoothly into the right hand shore, followed quickly by the remainder of the group.

We then set about unloading our packs from the canoes and embarked on our first portage of the trip. One by one we carried our packs first, over a small wooden footbridge that spanned above the 20 foot waterfall and then down the opposite shore to the loch below. Canoes came next using various methods of carrying and dragging. It was tiring work but over quickly.

Canoe portage around a waterfall

We portaged around the waterfall. You wouldn’t want to miss the eddy at the top.

The wind started to pick up as we headed off down Loch Veyatie. We stopped a few kilometres down the loch to pick up some firewood for the evening and have some lunch. The wind increased to around force three, gusting force five and became more difficult to make our way against it. It was made easier with two of us paddling but noticeably more difficult for those paddling solo.

Canoeing down Loch Veyatie

Portage finished, we could enjoy the paddle down Loch Veyatie.

We kept close to each other and to the shoreline, making use of any small coves to get out of the wind. Once we finally made it to the end, we headed into another small river channel. The water levels were low and we struggled to pick a route down without dragging on the bottom. Matt’s 17 foot plus canoe showed more weakness here navigating the small rapids, than it had gliding effortlessly along the flat water.

We all made it down to our next camp spot only to find that we had been beaten to it by an army training group who looked like they were about to head up into the hills. After Matt chatted to them briefly it was decided that we should continue on a short way to another equally suitable spot.

Campsite overlooking Suilven

A beautiful spot overlooking Suilven.

As soon as we’d pitched our tents we were soon joined by unwelcome visitors. The Scottish midge. We all put on our head nets to get some respite from them crawling over any exposed skin. Though I didn’t seem to suffer much more than mild irritation from their bites, I found them increasingly maddening having to swot them from my face.

They just seemed to get everywhere. Up my nose, in my ears and mouth and anywhere else left exposed. Standing in the smoke from the fire seemed to get rid of them, the compromise being partial blindness and a runny nose.

Enjoying dinner over an open fire

Everyone had their own methods of cooking in the evening but it was generally a sociable affair.

The views were stunning and after all, that was one of the draws for being here. I’d seen photos of the highlands before but this was my first visit here. An incredible landscape, remote and untamed. I could imagine wolves roaming the hills and forests stalking their prey as they would once have done.

Maybe one day they will again. The deer population is quickly decimating the native woodland. I could hear the stags barking and braying during the night, having free roam with no natural predators other than man.

Sun setting over our campsite

The cinnamon rolls Val made were a real treat.

As we enjoyed another open fire, Valerie treated us all to freshly made cinnamon rolls cooked in Matt’s reflector oven. They were delicious and made a change from my weight saving freeze dried packet meals.

Day three

More prepared for a cold night, I’d gone to sleep in my coat and hat. It made a difference and hadn’t been such an uncomfortable night’s sleep. The morning was much colder, being shrouded in low cloud. A fine drizzle coursed through the air, just enough to put on my waterproof jacket.

We had a portage immediately from our camp site. A decision we’d made the night before faced with three options. Hopping from large pond, to large pond was voted as the winner and it did break up a longer carry. Matt set off first marking the path to the first pond with a number of paddles pressed into the ground.

Dragging a canoe over the heather

The dragging method worked fairly well over the heather.

Having done a small portage the previous day I was keen to get the number of trips down to just two. I carried most of my gear including the paddles on the first trip and then came back for my food pack and the canoe. Again, having Richard to share the job of carrying the canoe was a huge help. We made a good team and soon had all of our gear at the end of the portage.

It was great that everyone chipped in to help each other out. Often making more trips to gather gear for someone else or help those paddling solo to get their canoes over land to the next body of water.

Portaging a canoe

The ‘over-the-head’ method also worked well, especially going uphill.

The large pond (or small lake) took about five minutes to paddle across and soon we were repeating the process of unloading gear. We repeated this a couple more times before stopping for lunch. We had one more carry to do and it looked ominous. Looking down into the valley, there was no water visible. As we had lunch in the sun we prepared ourselves for the final portage of the day. Soon we would be back on a loch and paddling again.

Long portage

It was a long way down…

Luckily most of the portage was downhill, though it was a long slog past bogs, through streams and round rocks. After carrying the canoe over our heads as we’d done before we decided this time it looked easier to drag it downhill as it got steeper. Bags lined the landscape in various places as people had dropped them off part way. It took about an hour or so to get everything to the bottom and onto Loch Sionasgaig.

Lying in a canoe

Andy enjoying a well earned break.

As we paddled out into the loch, the portage had been worth it. A dramatic landscape, surrounded by tall, rocky peaks as a backdrop to the still, calm water. The sun was shimmering off the lake surface as we paddled slowly towards the largest island in the centre to make camp.

Camp set up on Loch Sionasgaig

A lovely island camp site in the middle of Loch Sionasgaig.

After pitching my tent and having enjoyed a quick wash I started making dinner in my tent vestibule. I soon had to retreat back into my tent to eat as the midges grew in number and made eating pretty uncomfortable.

We’d planned a night paddle but the weather had other ideas. The clouds soon covered the sky as the sun set impressively in the distance.

Incredible sunset over a Scottish loch

A beautiful sunset over our island site.

Day four

The day started in a thick layer of cloud and I quickly put my waterproofs on, just to keep warm if nothing else. It turned out to be another dry day but it would be hours before we saw the sun break through the clouds.

We headed off together to explore the loch before setting off in the right direction. The wind picked up again as we made our way along the shore. Matt told us that this has always been one of the most remote areas of Scotland. Only three families had ever lived here compared to over eighty that had once settled on the previous loch. To be honest, I could see why. Though it was beautiful on a good day I could image that it would feel very inhospitable in the winter.

Canoeing on a cold loch

A colder start to the day.

We got to our first obstacle of the day at the end of the loch. A sluice gate followed by a very steep, narrow channel. The water picked up speed rapidly towards the crest, as it toppled fiercely down the rocks below. It was frothing and violent and would have to be lined with empty boats.

Lining canoes down rapids

It was good lining practice and Matt made it look easier than we did.

We carried our kit to the bottom and took it in turns to line our canoes down. Richard and I had very little experience of doing this at all, let alone coordinating our efforts. It was difficult to hear instructions being called over the noise of the raging water. We got the canoe to the bottom but not without picking up the prize for collecting the most water in the boat on the way down. Still, we’d made it without pinning or damaging it so that seemed like a small victory.

We’d all earned our lunch break and sat on a small rocky beach below. It wasn’t long before we were back on the water and at a small drop that required a quick bit of lining to get down. We’d no sooner dealt with this before we were at another narrow channel that required some care and attention. A much longer descent this time. Steep, rocky banks lined the narrow channel and trees along both edges made lining it difficult. This would have to be a team effort to make it down.

Lining a canoe down a small drop

This was an easier obstacle and quickly dealt with.

We unloaded our kit and after inspecting it Geoff and Val decided to portage the whole thing. Probably the easier option but it seemed a good opportunity to practice lining again. We all took up places along the bank to pass the lines from one to another. I clambered down to the water’s edge to catch the canoes before they hit the rocks below.

Matt’s canoe volunteered to go first. It got stuck on a rock part way down and took some time to get free. Being a fairly long canoe going through some tight bends and some of us quite inexperienced at this, made it all the more challenging. Having seen Matt’s canoe nearly swamp with water on more than one occasion, we’d all decided to empty our canoes before sending them down.

One at a time we got all of the canoes down the fast-flowing channel. Twice I lost the end of the rope in the water and had to wrestle it free from the rocks beneath the rushing water. This involved sliding slightly too close for comfort to the rapids while wedging my foot behind a small sapling.

I pulled the lines free each time and sent them on their way as Andy called for the rope. I let go and watched the canoe continue on its descent.

We eventually got canoes and gear to the bottom. The water was low from here so we’d have to get the canoes and gear down separately. I took to the water with the lightest bags on board while Richard carried his heavy pack along the shore line. The river was slow moving and shallow, lined with small rocks all the way down.

Colin and Andy decided to pole down which wasn’t without difficulty. The water was often too shallow to make any headway which meant getting out and wading.

As I was wearing wellies I decided it was easier to wade most of the way down. Hopping back into the canoe for no more than a couple of paddle strokes before running aground again.

Once at the end of the section I made my way back along the shore to pick up my bag. Unfortunately there was no easy way following the shore as two waterfalls blocked the route. This meant a longer portage. I heaved my canvas pack on my back once I’d made it round and headed back down towards the canoes.

A longer set of rapids

A longer set of rapid which were handled as a team effort.

There was one more set of rapids to line down, so I kept my pack on my back until I made it to the sandy beach at the bottom. This was a much easier set of rapids to line down with no obstructions on the bank. Again we sent a canoe down at a time and soon we had everything on the shore at the bottom.

All the lining had taken its toll on our timings and we were starting to lose light. We made the decision to stay put rather than carry on into the night. We walked around to find any dry, flat areas we could to pitch a tent. Our camp for the evening was very scattered and we all hurried to get our cooking done and dry out.

Darkness fell as I was cooking my pasta. Something which I’d been looking forward to since lunch. I was craving a burger but chicken and mushroom pasta would have to do. I tried my best to dry my wet clothes out but with not enough daylight left I climbed into my sleeping bag for the evening.

Day five

I didn’t sleep too badly that night. I’d managed to wedge my body between two large mounds of grass which was surprisingly comfortable. It had been relaxing to drift to sleep listening to the fast-flowing rapids nearby.

We paddled the short distance to the end of the loch and down another narrow outflow. As the water increased in speed and the rocks increased in number we decided to line our way down. Something we were now starting to get the hang of.

The group soon split up as people worked alone or in pairs to make slow progress down the river, sometimes helping each other as we crossed paths.

A very shallow river to canoe down

The river got too shallow to paddle and had to be lined and waded.

Some portaged early, others like Richard and I lined what we could before setting the canoe on the bank. Though we were rapidly improving in skill, the water carried on testing us at every turn. Often we’d have to wade knee deep into rapids, slipping on wet rocks and plunging into muddy holes on the bank.

Every so often I felt a cold grip on my foot as the water lapped over my boots. We slid, pulled and wrestled the canoe down the rapids and got ourselves into some precarious places in order to free it from various rocks.

Back on the portage we lifted the canoe over our heads. Me at the front with the gunnel resting on my right shoulder. Fortunately it was all downhill and we met up with everyone else at the bottom of the steepest section for lunch.

Sitting in our canoes for lunch

A quick lunch but we still had a little way further to go.

Though the water was calmer here and slower moving, it was often too shallow to paddle, which meant more wading. We paddled down a couple of more exciting chutes, closely following the line that Matt was taking. Val and Geoff got it slightly wrong on one and ended up in the water. Something I was fairly close to doing myself.

The routine of lining, wading and occasionally paddling went on for some time until the water eventually deepened significantly enough to start paddling again. A car went past on a nearby road and we started to travel past a fish farm. Then a few houses appeared near the shore. The first signs of civilisation for a few days.

Canoeing to the sea

The first signs of civilisation for a few days.

We hauled the canoes over a small and rather inconveniently placed bridge and carried on a little way further before pulling into the shore. I could hear an unmistakeable sound. The sea.

The waves hurled themselves ashore while we pondered our next move. After some discussion Matt decided it was best to stay put and make camp here rather than risk swamping our canoes in the surf. We’d hope for calmer weather in the morning to make our way out to sea and around the coastline.

Looking out over the sea

On looking at the state of the sea it seemed waiting until the morning was a safer bet.

It was only early afternoon but I had the feeling we were all happy to be climbing out of our wet clothes and emptying the water from our boats. The evening went quickly, boiling water for meals and drinks and drying out wet gear.

The campfire was soon lit and Matt came up with the game of sticking limpets to your forehead. Andy and I obviously didn’t possess the necessary qualities the limpets were looking for, but one was surprisingly taken with Geoff, being the only one the limpet liked enough to stay clinging on to.

Campfire under a tarp

The tarp made an effective windbreak so we could stay warm while cooking.

The sea was ever present over the small ridge that separated it from our campsite. That was our route from here so I hoped for the best in the morning.

Day six

When I woke there seemed a real sense of urgency in the camp. This was because the tide was rising and the wind was still fairly low, making a beach launch possible. We were on the water earlier than normal. Gear was lashed into the canoes on the beach to aid with buoyancy should we get swamped trying to break through the surf. Lined up along the beach, we each took it in turns to launch into the icy sea water.

Richard and I dashed into the sea and climbed in. We paddled as hard as we could to break through the surf and into the ocean swell. We all regrouped and made our way along the coast for about five kilometres. The wind was blowing and the waves varied in pace, direction and size making it difficult to keep a straight course.

I had my hood pulled low to avoid the chilling wind and occasionally Richard would end up with a face full of salty water as a stray wave broke over the bow.

I felt quite exposed going around the coast. It was cold, overcast and windy so we kept in a tight formation. It was still hard to ignore the beauty of the place. Windswept trees and heather lay atop the imposing cliff face as we rounded the headland.

Landing our canoe on the beach

Landing was a delicate operation to get right.

Then came the landing. This too required timing and preparation. Too slow and you’d end up surfing a wave which could tip you sideways and out of the boat. One canoe went in at a time to keep it controlled. After seeing two successful landing we headed in next. We caught a wave as we reached the shore but made it on to the shingle beach without capsizing.

The wind continued to howl. It seemed like a desolate place and not somewhere you’d want to be unprepared. The coastline looked unforgiving, spray beating against the cliff faces that lined each end of the beach.

We hauled our canoes and packs about 50 metres to the small body of water on the other side. Then a brief paddle through some tall reeds before repeating the process of unloading the boats. This time a longer portage followed, starting with a steep climb from the shore, then a trek through bog, tall grass and heather. A familiar landscape but hard on the body when carrying heavy gear and canoes.

We followed the sound of the river which ran parallel to our route, past a bridge and across a small road to the water on the other side. Packs down, we went back for the canoe.

This wasn’t easy work and we’d often stop to regain our breath, have a swig of a drink or a quick snack before pressing on. A few of the group were finding it noticeably difficult physically but everyone kept going and working together to get everything across.

Andy rigged a tarp over my canoe so that we could all shelter from the wind. We knew it was going to be a long day as we had to make up for only making 3 kilometres the day before.

After sheltering and eating an early lunch we packed up and pressed on along the length of Loch Osgaig. We reached a small river running into the loch which we had to make our way upstream. Easier said than done it turned out.

We kept the canoe loaded at first, not wanting to do too much carrying if we could help it but we’d gone barely 50 metres before it became too rocky and shallow to continue without putting some serious scrapes in the hull. We set our two largest packs on the bank and carried on wading upstream.

It was hard going and Richard was suffering with his feet. The footwear he’d been wearing had thin soles so his feet had taken a beating over the last few days walking over sharp stones and rocks. We were sometimes knee or even waist deep in the current at times. I could feel the cold water filling my boots again.

We reached a large rapid which we wouldn’t be able to track up so we opted to get out and go back for our packs. I walked up past the canoe and set the pack further upstream near where Val and Geoff had left theirs before opting for the easier and probably more sensible option of portaging along the road.

There was still no end in sight. We went back for the canoe and dragged it along the heather next to the river. It wasn’t without its difficulties either. I often found myself knee deep in mud after falling through a gap in the ground.

I went to get my pack again, determined to find the end of the portage. It was a long way still and all uphill. Every crest I summited, promised to show the end but I could just see the river cutting endlessly through the hillside. Eventually I made it to the end and stopped to have a snack before retracing my steps for the other bags.

Once all the packs were at the edge of the loch I walked back to get the canoe. Each time I walked back it seemed further than I remembered. I started hauling the canoe by myself and Richard was still a way behind me. It was slow going, sometimes only gaining a few inches at a time on the steepest sections.

Colin came back to help as he’d finished portaging everything to the end. He helped push the canoe while I pulled before Richard joined us and took over from Colin. Before too long it was at the loch. We’d finally done it.

Arthur, however, still hadn’t started moving his canoe as he was still getting his bags to the end. We had to get going or else we’d run out of light. I went back down the hill, along with Matt, Colin and Andy to go and get Arthur’s canoe. We hauled it up on to the road and made rope slings to carry it on our shoulders. Arthur caught us up as we were walking along the road and a kind lady pulled over and turned her van around to let us put it on the roof. She carried on down the road with Arthur and his canoe while we made our way back to ours. We were soon reunited with the others and back on the water again.

Canoes lined up on a beach

Our final camp site after a very long day.

We paddled out along Loch Bad a’ Ghaill and made a short carry over a rocky ledge. We had two more short portages before making it to the final loch of our trip, Loch Lurgainn. It was almost dark at this point and I was thankful to be pulling up on a beach. The small woodland that lay behind it would be our camp for the night.

I fetched my head torch quickly as the last light all but faded and put up my tent for the last time. It was nearly 7.30 pm and I was starving. I ate anything I could get my hands on while I was waiting for my main meal to cook. I finally climbed into my sleeping bag at 10.30 pm and drifted quickly off to sleep.

Day seven

Our final day on the water and a short day at that. We headed off down the loch together. It was pretty calm and it was good to know there was only the portage back to the cars to do. We all glided slowly along the length of the loch, taking photos along the way and enjoying the morning paddle. It didn’t take long before we were back at the cars which had been left there at the start of the trip. One more carry up a hill with packs and canoes. We changed out of our wet clothes and loaded everything back onto the cars.

Our last day in Scotland

Our last paddle.

Our trip through the wilds of Scotland had come to an end. It was tough in places but always spectacularly beautiful.

The final portage back to the cars

The final portage back to the cars and the end of an amazing journey.

It had been a real adventure with a great group of people. I learned a lot on the trip having had the chance to practice a lot of skills that aren’t required on a quick paddle up the local canal. It had all been worth it and even half way along a difficult portage I never loved the trip any less. A simply incredible journey.

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Photos from the trip!

You can view all of the photos from this trip on my Flickr page.

James is a passionate paddler, hiker and backpacker as well as a professional marketer and amateur photographer. He has made numerous journeys to wilderness areas across North America and Europe from the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska to the Scottish Highlands.

4 Comments on “Incredible Journey Through the Scottish Wilderness by Canoe”

  1. Vivid take on this experience from a relative newcomer to paddling your own.canoe. Something I’ve never done, but wandering about the UK in a very amateur sense, over earlier decades, I have begun to realise that many people take up these adventures, looking for a fresh outlook. I know I’ve been bitten by similar needs to discover my self, by doing something out the usual routine and occasionally beyond home. Once or twice or very occasionally in the past. So hats off to all the participants, who must surely have discovered far more about themselves than if they’d stayed within their comfort zones. I know from my few ventures at long intervals that’s what ads spice to life. Matt’s mother.

    1. Hi Enid, thanks for taking the time to read my article and comment. There is certainly a big sense of accomplishment that comes from taking on a challenging journey. During the trip it was very interesting to see how everyone dealt with certain situations in different ways but all working together to accomplish the same goal. A fantastic adventure, and of course it was great having someone with Matt’s experience to push people perhaps beyond their usual comfort zones but still ensure it was enjoyable and safe for all.

  2. Hi there,
    Fantastic blog and a stunning adventure, hope to see you back soon!
    I have an ulterior motive for commenting I’m afraid… You see, the very wilderness you enjoyed so much is in imminent danger from the inexorable march of massive industrial wind turbines. Just a few miles to the northeast of Elphin, plans are almost complete to erect twenty giant turbines, almost as tall as the Forth Road Bridge. And if they get the go-ahead, that opens the door for three more sites, each bigger than the last!
    This is awful. We (the objectors) are really struggling to have our voices heard and anything you can do to help is greatly appreciated. We have a Facebook page, Save Assynt Scenery and are trying to spread the word on how you can object as far and as quickly as possible. Time is definitely not on our side, November the 9th appears to be the current deadline for objections. Please visit the Facebook page to find out what you can do an please spread the word.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Stewart, thanks for your feedback on the blog. While I think that moving towards more sustainable forms of generating power is absolutely vital I do agree that wind turbines do tend to look pretty awful on the landscape. I was quite surprised on visiting Scotland just how many wind farms you have especially further south. Unfortunately as we are so populated, there’s always going to be compromises between land uses but I do think it’s a shame when a beautiful vista is spoilt by any man-made features. I wish you all the best for your campaigning, it’s a really beautiful area and a shame to lose the feeling of wilderness that exists in many parts there.

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