Cross-Scotland Kayak Adventure Part 3.

The rain that had begun as we arrived at our car park camp site the previous night continued into the grey halflight of the following morning. ‘Rain always sounds worse inside a tent’ I told myself as I lay awake, mentally preparing myself to unzip the door flap and start day 3. When I finally did, I was greeted by ‘fast wiper-setting’ rain. Bang went another theory.

We were back to the world in greyscale. Clouds were being blown down the loch at half the height of the mountains either side. You felt like you should stoop to keep your head out of them.
Wet wetsuits were the order of the day once more. The benefit of paddling in a wet suit is that once the rain has made its way past the ‘waterproof’ cag (cag being the trendy, kayaker’s name for a cagoule), the water will be held against your skin. It will then warm up and provide some insulation. This works OK while you keep moving and keep that layer of water warm.

We stuck close to the south-eastern shore and the busy A82. We were close enough to see the drivers passing by with their ‘rat race frowns’, oblivious to us and the presence of anything outside of their limited field of attention. On the water, and despite the rain, we were seeing otters, cerlew, dozens of noisy oystercatchers and many other species that my limited ornithology doesn’t run to.

Before long we were alongside the extended line of hotels and guesthouses that form the outskirts of Fort William. Despite the place not being a favourite of either of us, the idea of a cooked breakfast and a new pair of sandals for Steve (we’d had to gaffer tape his to his foot each morning after they failed on day one) was lifting our spirits. We paddled right into the harbour and beached outside of the town’s leisure centre – quite why a town with Ben Nevis, Loch Linnhe and a thousand other natural sporting arena needs such a facility I’m not sure.

By now we were back at maximum wetness, and as we tramped across the hideous, dual carriageway bypass to Morrison’s, the wind began to chill us. Morrison’s that day had many attractions. The Large Big Scottish Breakfast (it really did have two adjectives), coffee that didn’t require my pruned fingers to operate a stove to enjoy, somewhere to sit that was heated, but best of all… they had HAND-DRYERS.

We took turns visiting the gents to hold open the front of our (own) rolled down wetsuits and blow the beautiful warm, dry air over our underwear. First the front, then the back.
Then the front…

Men came into the toilets from time to time but quickly turned and fled when they were greeted with the site of a half-dressed wildman, standing in a puddle, grinning as he heated his groin.
My update on the (excellent) TrackMyTour app I was using to allow people to follow our progress catches the mood…

Morrison's Cafe
Several hours later, and after a squelch into Fort Bill for sandals, we were back at the boats. Since we’d left them, the tide had gone out and we faced a 200m drag through the sand, seaweed and broken glass to get to the water.
The tide going out had changed the next challenge we had to face too. The River Lochy flows out into the top end of Loch Linnhe. When the tide is in, the large areas of mud and sand banks are covered and the water is spread across a large area. With the tide out, the river if funnelled into fast-moving, narrow channels, separated by gravel banks. Out in the centre of the loch was ‘The Muncher’ as Steve christened it, an area of waves, currents and eddies that it was obvious that if you paddled (or were dragged) into, there would be very little chance of escape.
After half an hour of wandering backwards and forwards, dragging boats and trying to convince ourselves of the safety of each option, we decided we would head upriver a little and ferry-glide across. This involves pointing the boat up-river and paddling into the current, while at the same time moving sidewards across the river.
Time and tide wait for no man. It was time to go. Steve started 50m up-river from me and as I watched his progress, got caught in a whirlpool caused by the fast -flowing river re-joining having been channelled around a shingle bank. He flipped over as the flow caught him and he was dragged downstream. Again, he was out of his boat in no-time, testament to the training he had received with the coaches at PaddlePlus, but he was still moving quickly downstream and inexorably towards The Muncher.
I got to a bank in the middle of the flow and got out of my boat. It is important in these situations that rather than get myself into the same situation by rushing after him, to observe and if necessary, call for help. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was getting Munched too.
150m downstream, the water became shallow enough that Steve could get purchase on the on the bottom and stop his movement Muncherwards. Disoriented, he began to drag his boat back out into the flow and deeper water. I paddled out and guided him to another small island of stones. The tide by now was coming back in rapidly and it was obvious that this island would beck underwater again in 5 or 10 minutes.
We pumped out the boat, allowed our nerves to settle a bit before paddling out once more.
We had just 1km to go to get to the safety of the Corpach lock that separates the sea loch from the start of the Caledonian canal and calm water. The relief when we made it was immense.
Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle
We were cold and wet. Our confidence had taken another beating and for a moment we were questioning our sanity and the reasons we were doing this.
On the last occasion that we had been at such a low, we met the lady who guided us to the warmth and hospitality of the farmhouse. This time, our salvation came in the form of a gang of British Waterways employees who were gathered in the lock-keeper’s office. They had been gathered for their annual medical checks, coming from their various workplaces all along the canal. While their dental hygiene was pretty shocking, the joking and banter, an incident with superglue, as well as the coffee they produced for us was priceless. The professionalism of these guys, who while laughing and joking were still delivering the important safety information we’d need in the next 60 miles or so was fantastic. And the lift they gave to us and our boats to the top lock was ‘above and beyond’.
Someone seemed to be watching over us on this trip…

After the challenge of the next flight of locks at the fantastically named Neptune’s Staircase, 6 miles of steady paddling, on the perfectly flat, non-tidal canal, in improving weather further lifted our spirits.

Our target for the night was Gairlochy. The BW guys had told us of a shower and tumble dryer there as well as space to camp. We arrived just as darkness was falling and the rain stopping. It was our promised land. The shower heavenly. The lift (ho ho) that having dry underpants brings cannot be underestimated.

Read about day 4 here.

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