Reflections on the Loch Awe Canoe Expedition - Easter 2016
As many of you will have seen from Mal and Marion’s blog this Easter’s canoe expedition was to Loch Awe, a quiet 25-mile-long freshwater loch in the southwest Highlands. The trip was for five days and entailed wild-camping on the shores of the loch for four nights as we attempted a circumnavigation of the water in our canoes. There were six intrepid adventurers who signed up for the expedition - Andy Mac’, Andy Johnson, Ian Tulloch, me (Andy Hoe) and Mal & Marion making a select group of just three tandem canoes this year.
Day one saw everyone in good spirits as we drove the five-and–a-half hours to our embarkation point on the south-east side of the loch. During the journey there was the time-honoured stop at the Green Welly services for lunch and a last minute panic-buying opportunity for those who had forgotten essential items. Everyone was keen to get going by the time we arrived at the loch so, despite the feisty wind, we got our kit strapped down quickly and started paddling. The first couple of hours of paddling were perhaps the toughest of the whole trip as we battled into the headwind and white-topped waves to make our way towards the very south-west tip of the loch.
Soon evening was approaching so we pulled in at a sheltered bay and made camp for the night. Tents and tarps were the order of the day with some innovative tarp shelters on display.
Soon there was an extra tarp erected to give us some shelter in a communal area, an upturned canoe to act as our “sofa” for the night and a warm fire with good food cooking on it and a tipple in our drinking cups. We enjoyed a clear view of the stars in the dark skies as we sat around the fire chatting and feeling ourselves starting to unwind and leave the worries of ordinary life behind us.
It was Ian’s first expedition with us and I think he appeared just a little bit startled for a second or two to see a bottle of red wine and, later on, scotch whiskey emerge from one of the storage barrels to be passed around! (Well, one of the main benefits of canoe-camping over backpacking is surely the extra “comforts” that can be carried!).
There was a laid back approach to setting-off time in the mornings which was just as well since one of us ( - no names need to be mentioned but let’s just call him “the startled one”) could still be heard snoring softly at 10:00am next morning!
Once up, things were soon packed away and a full day of paddling was underway. The amount of actual paddling on this trip was a little more than previous ones that I have been on and in total we estimated covering between forty and fifty miles over the course of the trip. However, there was still a relaxed approach to when we stopped and for how long, and decisions were open to debate and changed according to the wishes of the group which made for an inclusive atmosphere which was very pleasant.
What followed were three more days of paddling by day and sitting under the stars and cooking on a campfire by evening.
Much of the ground around the loch was soaked from a winter of persistent rain. Sometimes this made choosing a spot to put up a tent or tarp a matter of picking the best of a bad selection. It also made fire more difficult to achieve and this proved to be true on night two in particular. We had paddled all day and arrived happy but tired at a beach near a flat area that looked as good as we were likely to get for camping on. The trees were covered from root to branch in mosses and the ground was sodden, but we all found somewhere adequate to put up our night-time shelters. All the wood that was within walking distance also appeared to be thoroughly soaked, even that deadwood which was supported off the ground in the other trees. We foraged for the best firewood that we could find but the fire that night was small, smoky and cold, and wasn’t conducive to a good social atmosphere and staying up late so we turned in a bit early.
Learning from out mistake, the next day Ian and I kept a look out along the shore for good firewood during our journey and paddled in to collect it when we saw it. We bundled it up on top of our luggage and took it with us. This left our canoe looking a little disordered (like a skip according to some!) and earned us a ribbing with the names “skip-rats” and “scavengers” used liberally (and a little unkindly if you ask me!).
Anyway, it was all worth it because the next night we had a fire that was a triumph (even though I say so myself). We made an oblong fireplace with stones and used a parallel arrangement of the dry wood on top of it to make a long fire which allowed several people to cook on it at once and which could warm a whole row of people sat on an upturned canoe.
Not that we simply collected deadwood that day, rather we looked for the sort that had been dead and air-dried, off the wet ground, for about a year; the sort where the bark had fallen off naturally and the wood was light as a feather to pick up because all the heavy water content had long gone; the sort of wood that felt warm to the touch and broke with a nice crisp “snap”. The results of using this quality of firewood were stark. The fire was hot, so hot that you had to sit back from it, unlike the previous night where we had crowded closely to it and still felt cold. (Latent heat, that required to evaporate water from wet wood, can be a massive loss of heat to a fire). There was also almost no annoying smoke. All in all, I think the blazing fire helped the evening morale to be buoyant and we stayed up late talking and laughing around the fire again. We reflected on how we were talking to each other in a way that we don’t often do at home and speculated what role fire had played in the past in making early humans the cooperative, team-players that enabled them to become the dominant species they became. We also speculated what great plans from history had first been conceived by a group of like-minded people sitting around a camp fire like ours.
Next day, back to the realities (and blisters!) of a long paddle, we made further steady progress down the loch’s north-west side. Approaching, but not quite reaching the top end of the loch, we decided it was prudent to cross and start heading back down the other side in case the weather closed-in on our final full day of paddling and left us with too much to do into a strong headwind. We still found time to meander and to stop off at points of interest, a notable one of these being a visit to a small settlement called Dalavich.
At Dalavich we met a young woman running boat-trips for tourists who said that she was a MacPherson and that many people in the village were also MacPhersons, which gave us a great opportunity to repay some of the “skip-rat” comments by teasing our own MacPherson (Andy Mac’) about his ancestry and how several of the small children in the village did look remarkably like little versions of him! Dalavich also provided us our one piece of comfort and civility on the trip when we found a little café and in the warmth of a log-burning stove we enjoyed a café latte (and a large scone that didn’t go unnoticed Mal + Marion!).
Another interesting reverie from our paddling was taken on an island on which the remains of an old Scottish castle stood (Castle Findhorn). We explored it on foot and were able to climb up onto the battlements for some great views.
I was most intrigued by the dungeon - a hole in the ground which would have literally dropped its unlucky occupants into an underground cell. There was a rope at the top and I would have liked to have gone down to see it from the inside, but, truth-be-told, I was put off by the notice that said “Dungeon - not toilet” which damped my enthusiasm because of what I imagined I might find down there!
We had our lunch in the lee of the castle on a small beach and tried our hands at making fire using a bow-drill. None of us succeeded on this occasion, but then we only spent a couple of minutes each trying to do this. However, it did serve to remind us that fire-by-friction is both hard work and not to be taken for granted!
Several people wanted to camp overnight in the castle ruins but it didn’t really fit in with our plan to make good headway down the loch, so after a long-lunch stop, we set off again down the loch in our boats.
Our endeavour was rewarded because that day we made it right back to our starting point on the south-east side of the loch and we made our final camp next to “the mother-ship” (Mal and Marion’s van). We enjoyed a final night of sitting in front of another blazing fire, eating, talking and, for some, finishing off the odd alcoholic beverage! (No point using valuable petrol to take it home!)
Next day we woke to heavy rain and a stiff, cold wind. It would have been miserable paddling into this so we were all thankful that we had turned for home when we did. After breaking camp it was time for a quick drive to the renowned Green Welly for a full Scottish breakfast which felt fully deserved (and seemed to taste even better after our few days outside).
My over-riding memories of this trip: adventure, good canoeing, warm fires, beautiful scenery and, most of all, good company. Thanks guys. See you again next year?