A Wilderness Canoe Journey on Loch Shiel – April 2015
By Andrew Johnson
The expedition began early on a crisp morning in Carlisle where we were leaving from. After putting canoes on the trailer and packing paddles, poles, barrels and bags we were on our way and eager to start what we hoped would be a real wilderness experience.
After a long journey with the obligatory stop at the Green Welly services near Tyndrum we arrived at Glenfinnan at the head of Loch Shiel. We quickly unloaded and stowed our gear for the expedition in our respective canoes all the while considering trim and accessibility of our essentials.
We put in via the loch side grounds of the Glenfinnan House Hotel which has sat in its rolling lawns since 1755 and is framed by the Glenfinnan viaduct of Harry Potter fame. We pushed off and were soon gliding through the calm, clear waters of the vast loch with the reflections of the mountains disturbed only by the ripples caused by our paddle strokes. The “song of the paddle” was easily discernible as the noises of civilization quickly faded behind us.
After a few hours paddling in good conditions we landed at our campsite for the night, everyone quickly pitched their tents or tarps and we all settled down next to our first campsite to eat and talk and begin to immerse ourselves in the nature around us.
We woke up early the next morning looking forward to a full day of paddling ahead of us. After a couple hours of steady paddling I began to really get a feel for the canoe and paddling with my boat partner Macky. Early in the morning we saw one other canoe on the loch; otherwise we were all alone on the vast expanse of water. The whole group seemed to fall into a steady rhythm.
Mal had mentioned that a renowned naturalist, writer and Scottish wild cat expert called Mike Tompkies had lived alone in a small hut near to a place called Gaskan Wood we decided that we would paddle for Gaskan to visit the wood and also to see if the hut Tompkies had named “Wildernesse” still stood. After a good paddle into a building head wind we reached the shores of Gaskan Wood and pulled our boats up onto a sandy beach, stretched our legs and went for a short exploratory walk through the woodland.
After only ten minutes exploration we saw a tin roof glinting through the ancient boughs of moss and lichen encrusted trees. From a distance we saw a woman cutting down a shrub at the side of the structure which we assumed to be “Wildernesse” we cautiously approached not wishing to startle the lady, visitors did not seem like they could be a regular occurrence as Loch Shiel has only one road for the purposes of forestry work and this was on the other shore of the loch to which we paddled.
We needn’t have been so cautious as we were warmly greeted by the lady who was indeed the current resident of “Wildernesse” we talked for a while about the loch, Tompkies and what it was like to live in such a wild, beautiful but isolated place. She explained that the hut was without electricity so was lit by candlelight with the fridge being powered by gas. The luxury of a hot shower was also powered by gas.
We left the lady to her gardening. Me, Macky, Sara and Sandra took her recommendation to walk a little up the forested slope to see a series of crystal clear plunge pools carved out by the stream which ran down the slope behind “Wildernesse” on its way into the loch. The stream was picturesque and the plunge pools looked inviting in the heat of the afternoon.
I walked away from “Wildernesse” with a strong feeling that someday I should live in such a place, a feeling that Mal for one shared, though I think Marion was not convinced of the idea!
From Gaskan we turned around and began to paddle back the way we’d come, after a short crossing to a small island in the middle of the loch we headed towards our camp for the night. The paddling required concentration as the wind was building as the afternoon wore on creating a significant tail wind. All of the tandems had to stay focused in order to keep the boats tracking well with the waves striking our sterns square on.
After making good progress with the wind at our backs we made camp on a beautiful sheltered beach. We got the campfire going pulling the canoes up the beach to create some extra shelter from the increasing wind blowing down the loch. All settled into the camp routines of cooking, making drinks and reflecting on what had been a perfect days paddling.
We awoke in the morning to another beautiful morning, the surface of the water still and glassy, this was to change quite quickly with winds building close to what seemed to be the threshold of what was paddleable. It was a day that tested every individual’s skills and more importantly the ability of each tandem to communicate and paddle as a cohesive team. One of the best things about the canoe is that there is no-where to escape to, nobody to blame. One of a tandem cannot be allowed to lag behind or struggle, in such conditions team work is not a luxury but essential. On this day, in these conditions we paddled in a cluster of boats with everyone watching out for each other. We stuck close to the shore always aiming to keep an outcrop of land in front us reducing the risk of being blown out into the loch should we capsize.
At one particularly protruding headland we skirted round it one boat at a time immediately seeking refuge from the wind and waves in its lee. The wind was so strong Mal’s cap was blown off his head whilst he watched each tandem round the headland; it was never to be seen again. I learnt a lot about how to handle the open canoe in windy conditions and on later reflection a bit about team work whilst paddling.
As we continued to paddle I got used to what were still tricky conditions, me and Macky began to feel confident in our ability to control the canoe in such conditions and I felt that my ability to respond to how the boat would react to the varying strength and direction of waves and react accordingly improved.
Towards the end of the afternoon when we were thinking of where to camp we pulled up to a gravel beach at the same time as some of the only other people we’d seen on the water since leaving Glenfinnan, the other canoe. We spoke briefly to the two paddlers who it turned out were twins marking their 50th birthday with a canoe trip. After a couple of difficulties we all managed to put in from the shore of the beach into waves which seemed intent on pushing our canoes back up onto the beach like the driftwood which Andy H had been intently gathering for fire wood whilst we had a break and chatted to the birthday paddlers.
Tonight was to be our last and we aimed to find a spot which would allow us the opportunity to enjoy our last night in the wild whilst still leaving us a short paddle in the morning. We decided to camp on a beach near a fish farm which was currently not operating. Though this site seemed the least wild of our camps I was quickly reminded of the wild beauty around us as moments after pulling the boats up onto the beach we noticed an adult pair of Eagles soaring above us with three of their young. A truly majestic sight. Such are the rewards for those who travel quietly by canoe into the lesser populated parts of these Isles of ours.
All were quiet on our final morning. We had a short paddle ahead of us and in a reflective mood I was intent on enjoying every stroke of the paddle. Our boat moved easily through the still water, in no time we were metres away from the point we’d put in at a small gravel beach at the edge of the hotel’s lawn. As the hull of the canoe scraped on the gravelly bottom of the loch I felt sad that our expedition was over but enriched by what had been a special trip into a real wilderness with a special group of friends.