By now we were a full day behind our schedule. To catch up, we were going to have to cover a whole map in one day and attempt to reach the bright lights of Fort Augustus before dark. We’d need to paddle the lengths of both Loch Lochy and Loch Oich plus miles of canal to get there, but the idea of a pint and a proper cooked dinner was like a carrot dangling ahead.
Despite the tiredness, the aching shoulders and elbows, and blisters on blisters on our hands, we sprang from our tents because it wasn’t raining! Skies were almost clear and as we ate our breakfast (instant porridge with honey and raisins) and watched the sun rise.
It was a beautiful site, and despite our challenging itinerary, we took our time packing kit that was getting drier by the minute. All of a sudden, after 3 days of challenge and danger, the trip seemed more sensible. We could settle into it and enjoy the paddling, the company and just how beautiful Scotland can be.
First up was Loch Lochy. At 10 miles long, it was the second longest freshwater loch of the trip. As we rounded a bend in the canal, we entered the southern end of the loch and had the whole expanse of the loch in front of us. The road ran along the east (right) side of the loch and so we headed left.
All along this bank were forests of beautiful, deciduous British trees. Their leaves were beginning to turn a patchwork of golds, yellows and oranges.
Dippers teased and posed for us. They flew slightly ahead of us before standing, dipping and showing off with a quick dart along the loch’s bottom.
Everything looked better in the sunshine.
We stopped for coffee halfway along the lake. I took a great stove photo, but I realise I mustn’t overdo them, so instead, here is my boat in recline.
We were tearing through the water now with a strong wind at our backs, feeling great and covering plenty of distance. Before long we were through the next locks and back onto the canal.
The Caledonian canal was finished in 1822 and provided an alternative for boats up to 150ft to going around Cape Wrath. It proved a bit of a white elephant, because in the time it took to build the canal, ship-building had developed and going around Scotland was becoming safer and often quicker than using the canal.
The canal is like the canal we know in the midlands, but 4 times the width.
Now, it is maintained by British Waterways and they do a fantastic job. Facilities along the canal are kept perfectly. Each loch or swing bridge has a dedicated lock keeper. There are competitions between them for the best kept locks and from the evidence we saw, that competition is fiercely contested. The facilities are aimed at people in rented cruisers more than kayakers, but once you have a licence and the BW key, they are your’s to use.
For us, each of those 29 locks meant getting out of the water and hauling the fully laden boats along the tow-path before putting in again at specially constructed platforms at either end.
After Lochy came Oich. Prettier but less wild than its predecessor, it is only 6.5km long. For the first time on the trip we saw other people on the water. The rented cruisers were cruising by and a group of kids learning to paddle in open canoes were enjoying the sunshine.
Fort Augustus was a bit of a shock to the system. So far, Morrison’s cafe on a wet Tuesday morning had been as close as we had got to civilisation (and thinking about it, that is still quite a way off). So the relative hustle and bustle of the town took a little getting used to.
I didn’t like it. I preferred the wild camps. No traffic noise, pollution or street lighting.
But we were tired. Really tired. My shoulders and neck were stiff. They felt like lead – I could barely lift them over my head. My elbows were painful from the abuse they got as we deadlifted the boats out of the water at each lock. My knees complained every time we got out of the kayak. They brace the inside in an unnatural position to help with power transfer and steering.
My hands had layers of blisters. While they had had a drier day, they were still pruned.
My feet were dirty and damaged from days in sandal, water and stones.
And I was suffering the effects of being in wet underwear for days on end…
But a couple of pints of real ale and a huge steak pie later and some time to reflect on the fantastic day we had had meant Sweet FA didn’t bother me too much.
To walk off the food, we strolled down to the southern end of Loch Ness. We would be on this mighty body of water for the whole day tomorrow and some of the day after.
Standing next to it in the darkness, despite not being able to see further than an few hundred metres, one could sense the size of it. The stillness. The mountains either side. It felt grand, impressive, dangerous, mysterious.
I was looking forward to seeing it in daylight…
Read about day 5 here.