11 days, 435km, 13 blisters, 1 suspected 'Carpal tunnel syndrome' and no transport. It was going to be one hell of a trip.
I had been craving a new adventure., something totally different, maybe even a holiday. The past few winters had been occupied preparing for my Winter Mountaineering Climbing Instructor (WMCI/MIC) and now that was finished and so opportunities for this sort of trip had been few and far between. But I had one now...
Lockdown had seen us spend more time adventuring from home, but with limited range. This trip would extend on that. Paddling literally from our front doors, with no transport, down the Spey, around the Moray coastline to Inverness, and into the Great Glen System. From here, we would head past Fort William to Kinlochleven before a gruelling portage up to the Blackwater, where we would be able to drop down into the Rannoch system. Then we would portage to Loch Ericht, giving us access to the Truim, a tributary to the Spey, which would lead us right back home. A whole loop without transport. It looked simple on paper and sounded even more simple when George and I had a passing conversation in a car park. The idea was sound, and the execution would work itself out. We set a date for the start of March.
It was on. We had a date that would see us, tactically catch the snowmelt in the rivers and northerly winds on the GGW. From this point onwards, we never mentioned it again.
Winter arrived and I went to work in the mountains for, what seemed to be the windiest winter I can recall. About a week before our March date, I came close to texting George to say it was looking unlikely. Low pressure was driving rough conditions and after a solid winter, it just wasn’t looking on the cards. But the forecast changed. High pressure was coming in, maybe. I decided to give it a couple more days to be sure.
The weekend before the trip was another busy one. I had just successfully completed my WMCI assessment, I was working the weekend after on the mountain and had a long day on Sunday teaching climbing in the Northern Corries in the Cairngorms. I hadn't packed and I had two guided winter teams going out while I was planning to be away on the trip. Then there was general life admin, another set of mortgage papers I had to finalise and send back on time. It was going to be a long night. I started to get equipment organised just as I received a text message from Tracy, my sister, "Are you coming to the birthday dinner?" I had totally forgotten. Everything was put on hold until I got back. Back home around 8pm and I seriously thought about dropping George a message asking to leave on the following day, but I didn't want to let him down.
Rosie went to her bed with the all too familiar look of, 'why do you do this to yourself?'.
Luckily, years of expeditions and quick moves have given me the ability to speed pack when I have to and within a few hours, I was ready to go. Work admin and equipment were all sorted, and paperwork was sent. Just enough time for some rest, ready to get going for 6.30am.
It's not often I wake up and want to roll back over, but the past months of work, the assessment and a lack of time to organise my life was taking its toll. The duvet was tempting.
Final checks and time to start the expedition. I was planning to meet George at Broomhill bridge around 1pm, which would let both of us leave from our own houses, avoiding even using transport to get to a combined start point. I was keen to be on the water for 8, allowing me 5 hours from Newtonmore to Broomhill, a journey that would usually take the best part of a day or more. I trolleyed across the railway line, and field to the river, hugged Rosie and waved goodbye.
It had started. We had allocated 18 days. Hopefully, it would be enough..
With high water from the recent snow melt and southerly winds, I made great time down the river, sailing the flat sections. I met George just after 1 and said hello and then all too quickly goodbye to Jen, George’s wife. We decided to just keep paddling until twilight. We managed to meander our way down to Craigellachie. We caught up for a bit, ate dinner, had whisky, and hit the hay. We were both off the back of long stints of work and a decent night’s sleep was needed for both of us. I also realised in this time that my head torch batteries were flat and my spares were in the bag I had swapped out at the last minute, due to a dodgy zip.
One area we had to be a little cautious of the following day was getting on the sea as we had high winds forecast, dropping off around 12, we decided for a leisurely ‘on- the- water’ start for 8.30 which would hopefully see us arrive at Spey Bay in time for calmer conditions.. As we approached, I could hear the waves crashing at the bay. I started to have some mixed feelings, both excitement and apprehension about how we would get onto the sea without any issues and how far we had to go around the coastline. The sea isn't an area I have a huge amount of experience, I mentioned to George that I was happy to take his lead on any decisions as he has extensive knowledge from trips all across the world. We went for a cuppa, only to find the shop opened in 2 days time! We were too early in the season to even get a brew!
We watched the patterns on the waves crashing in. Some of the sets were pretty big. Certainly big enough to capsize our boats. But we saw a weakness to the left as we were looking out and decided to give it a go and, once on the sea, keep away from the shore.
Frustratingly, the winds were still strong and against us and the tide was also against us. We rafted up to try and make progress, but Lossiemouth didn't seem to get any closer, and I swear at one point a set of trees to our left stayed in the same position for a solid 20 minutes. We battled on and eventually made it to Lossiemouth with the thought of fish and chips spurring us on. It’s a good thing we didn’t think about seasonal opening times on the water or we might still be there, because once again we were let down. All the shops were closed and we settled on some Co-Op sandwiches as a poor alternative, but we did at least pick up some more headtorch batteries. We set off again in search of a camp somewhere around Sculptors Cave. The sea had settled and we had the most beautiful, memorable paddle around the coastline and past the lighthouse.
Darkness fell as we paddled towards our resting spot for the night. We paddled past the cave and decided to head into Clashach Cove. I could hear the waves crashing and remembered I needed to change my headtorch batteries! George went in first, giving me time to faff. He seemed to get in without any trouble, so in I went. By now the waves were fine and we were landing on sand. We had the best campsite, flat, with plenty of space. Again we ate, drank tea, had some whisky, and went to bed after deciding for an early start to make the best use of the winds.
The vibrating sound of my watch woke me the following morning. I lay listening to the sounds of the waves crashing onto the beach, and my first thought was, that from the sounds of it, we were going to have a challenge getting past the surf. I started my routine, as always, with the aim of staying in my sleeping bag for as long as possible with the cold temperatures. The evening before I had prefilled my pan with water as usual, so I only needed to light the stove, letting the water boil while I was eating my new favourite breakfast of pancakes with Cadburys Caramel spread! After enjoying the warmth for breakfast and tea, I would do the duties of getting dressed into a belay jacket and then get the rest of the kit put away. It was pretty easy with the dry weather,. although cold starts had meant that there was frost on the tents.
We wheeled our canoes down the pristine, torch-lit beach. I was in awe of the scene, the first morning light rising to the east, waves crashing onto the golden sandy beach. It started to sink in that we were actually on our adventure. Something I struggle with is being truly in the moment, I always seem to have so much going on. This particular moment had me craving for more of this, simplistic life. Sleep, eat, canoe, repeat, right? It was actually that simple, and we were loving it.
First to negotiate the surf. I timed my launch at the same time as the biggest waves of the morning, which dumped into the canoe as I broke through. A bit of bailing and we were on our way though, not really knowing where we would get to, but the forecast had some SE winds, which would be helpful. We managed to sail from Burghead to Findhorn with a crosswind, making good time. We stopped to top up our water and again were on our way along the golden sandy beaches past Nairn. We stopped for lunch and soaked up the warmth and rays of the sun for a few minutes. It was actually the first time we had sat down properly the whole trip and we decided to have 10 minutes of proper 'holiday time'. This became our running joke and part challenge of the trip. Could we fit a little holiday time into every day of this adventure?
After lunch, the winds picked up SSE enough that with some creative sailing, we could crosswind sail past Nairn to the beaches at the far end. We were making great time and it was only 4 o’clock. We chatted about pushing on but the tides weren't in our favor and the wind against the tide was making the waves look less than promising. We decided to enjoy the sunshine and get some rest. I took the liberty of opening a bottle of red, popping the cork with my toothbrush. At this point, I said to George, “I suppose we'll need to finish it!” His face said otherwise though and after a small glass, he went to bed. I decided against drinking it on my own, so decanted the majority into an empty platypus that I had in my bag (we'll come back to this later). Bed time, ready for another sunrise start!
After the morning routine, we were soon sailing swiftly towards Rosemarkie, taking an unwelcome but necessary detour around the Fort George danger area on the map. Annoyingly the wind speed increased as we were doubling back on ourselves to the lighthouse, making the hardest work of paddling into a headwind we had encountered so far. We beached, ate some homemade brownie, had a chat about the wind against tide, and decided to go for breakfast. It felt great to have some cooked food, especially in the abundance it was served and with plenty of tea! We picked up some supplies and went back for a look at the water. It was still windy, but looked manageable. The people taking pictures and filming on the shore thought we were mad, but off we went, ferry gliding to the relative shelter of the NW shore of the Moray Firth. Unsurprisingly it got quite windy, and again we rafted up to reach the shore.
George had mentioned his wrist being swollen, and it seemed to be swelling even more and causing concern. We had spoken over the past few days about the fact that the aim was just to have a good time, make some memories, and if we got back home without anyone picking us up then that would be a bonus.
We were both keen to get to Inverness as the winds were due to be swinging northerly at lunchtime the following day. Progress was slow and we were using every trad skill we had up our sleeves, poling both half and full, tracking, dragging, walking, rafting, anything to keep progress in our favour. Time was ebbing away and the reality of not getting to Inverness was looking more likely. We spoke about looking for somewhere to camp along the coast. But we kept making small progressions and George said he was keen to push on, I felt psyched, and energised by the fact that we may make the northerlies, it was a long day. 14 hours of paddling and we were against the wind for nearly 9 of those. But with the sun setting, we were at Muirtown basin. Tired and hungry but energised from having such a great day (George may well disagree with me about this particular day!)
As we put tents up, we saw the curtains twitch from the house across the canal. I've had my fair share of people not appreciating putting tents up in areas like this and it was a bit of a grey area as we were technically camping in front of someone's house. Inevitably the door opened and someone came across. I was just going to plead the ‘we'll be off early and we're tired, can we please camp here’ card, but what happened next was to become a theme of the people we met along our journey. The lady asked, in her soft, warm voice what we were up to and if she could help in any way. I was pleasantly surprised and we spoke for a while making each other smile. If only it was always like this. More food, a tipple of whisky, and again time for bed with a leisurely lie-in planned. We would be on for 6.30.
We trolleyed up past the locks and managed to squeeze in a bacon sandwich and coffee at The Jammy Piece. With our new lease of life, we made our way onto Loch Ness, feeling a breeze picking up we started whooping as the gusts grew stronger. We couldn't believe our luck. Surely we would cruise the 32km to Fort Augustus? We went straight down the middle of the loch to maximise the breeze. But we managed less than an hour of sailing before the wind died. We kept the sails up to catch any flurries and to try and at least help our steering, while also maximising our paddling cadence. Fort Augustus looked a long way away! We managed a few other sections of short sailing but really, we paddled 80% of the loch. It was getting dark and we were 6km away from Fort Augustus. We had a little admin faff, pulling out torches, layers, and food. It was going to be a late one. We chatted about where to camp. With George’s wrist becoming a concern, we decided to get some warm food and try and get to Kytra Lock, giving us a good start the following day. We paddled constantly for 14 hours with no real break, apart from the 15min to sit down eating pizza at Fort Augustus.
Bedtime was sweet. We kipped well but I was getting the feeling George was starting to dislike my early start recommendations each day! We were back on the water for first light, hoping to get as far along the Great Glen as possible. George’s wrist was becoming increasingly worrying as he couldn't perform certain tasks and generally only paddle on his non-dominant side. Despite this, we made decent progress to Gairlochy. We had a serious chat if it was sensible to continue past Fort William. I felt a little sad but it was mad to keep going, his wrist was looking quite swollen! A few hundred meters down the river George grabs my attention and says that there was definitely something up with his wrist now. We took it slow and steady, hoping that reducing the workload might reduce the swelling.
We figured that we could manage the river and camp at Fort William for some rest. This was the first time I seriously thought that the trip would be over, that we would have to call someone for a lift. We pulled over by UHI West Highland College, George went to the shop and I went for fish and chips. Eating warm food, and watching the sunset, I felt quite content. We were having a great time, making new memories, and laughing as much as you can expect when you’re working this hard. This was exactly our vison at the start of the trip and we were having a great time regardless. It was only a trip at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter if we had to call it off there...
To my surprise, George said he wanted to continue that night for a further 10km!
After some painkillers and a support bandage, he reckoned it was good to go. We made our way down the peaceful, quiet waters of Loch Lihhne to Blackrock, where we met Jen who was on her way back from her own trip. We agreed to have a proper lie in, I mentioned 8.30, George said 9!
We were on our way again for 9, making our way towards Kinlochleven. We had the tide against us again for the majority of the day, but we were making progress. I had it in my head that we would camp at Kinloch Leven and then probably bail. With the weather/winds going against us for too long and the constant strain on George's wrist, progressing past here looked unlikely. I wasn't really sure how he was managing at all, as it looked pretty swollen from where I was. We poled and tracked our way up the lower reaches of the Leven, before trolleying into the village in the hope of warm food. After checking all of the local takeaways the Co-op provided sandwiches once again!
As we ate and drank our tea and coffee from the Ice Factor, George piped up and asked if I'd be up for doing the portage that night!?
I said I was well keen, but how about his wrist? We had agreed to take a full day off to rest and now here he was, pushing on. To say I was impressed would be an under statement.
He said that so long as he was pulling, it was essentially a break for his wrist and it would be fine. I’m still not sure on his logic, but he was keen, so we loaded up and set off for the long, rough portage to the Blackwater.
At times we doubled to one boat, other times solo with all the gear in the boat, and on the steepest sections, we dropped the kit, did the boats, and then did a separate run for the kit. On the uphill, an old, well-looked-after Land rover stopped, the passenger side window rolled down to show an elderly lady, who asked if we were heading to Perth in the boats as this was what most people would be doing if heading up the West Highland Way with a canoe! I explained the trip and she and her husband said we could access the water pipes, which were smooth and of little gradient, to access the blackwater for the last 6km. As we arrived near her house, the lady, Mary, asked if we would like a cuppa! ‘YES!’ we said, we just have a few bags to pick up and will be back in 15min. It made us happy again to find people who were so accommodating and helpful along our journey.
Our rest seemed to pass all too quickly and we were on our way again, hoping to get to the Blackwater that evening. We were making great progress along the concrete paved pipes. At about 4km, George's trolley was giving him grief, we inspected and found that the stabilizer leg had become detached. We decided that we should find this as it was going to be needed if we were going to continue the trip. George went back to look and I started to set up camp, finding water and sorting a brew. It was late, about 9 pm, and time to rest. George returned later than expected, but successful. He found the leg just past Mary's house,! An extra 7km of walking! We settled in for the night with the prospect of being on the move before the sun came up. We didn't know at this point just how much effort was going to be exerted over the course of the next 12 hours.
We rose, ate, and went through our normal morning routines. We had everything packed and still on the trollies so an easy morning to get the day started. As we made progress we were constantly met by a new road that crossed the concrete slabs we were trolleying on, a bit of a nuisance and they kept coming. It was slowing progress to a crawl. As I was dragging up the last section towards the dam, I lifted my head and thought, ‘those lines on the mountain look awfully familiar.’ It was the Buachaille, a mountain I have worked on for the past 6 years. It made me smile. I continued with the last of the uphill before navigating down to the water’s edge. The sun was rising, and it was time for a sit down and a cup of tea. 15 minutes of actual holiday time.
We finished our brew, changed into our paddling kit and were on our way. I was happy that we had made it this far, I knew that we would at least get to Loch Rannoch now, and that felt like an achievement in itself.
The sun was shining, but there was very little wind, again. I was a little baffled as to why certain patterns were being expressed on the waters top. Some slight ripples and some very calm areas. We soon found out that there was a small layer of frozen water, which as well as the patterns, made it quite difficult to paddle through. We tried to be smart and follow the leader’s line to save any energy we could, a bit like the front skier in a touring group breaking trail. We stopped for a quick bite and even got the stove on for warm food. Our bodies had been burning calories at a rate of knots. We were eating constantly and feeling hungry earlier each day. It was only 9 o'clock and we were tucking into meatballs, cheese, and Parma ham with smoked paprika chutney. Anything went, as long as it settled the constant rumbling in our bellies.
Over the course of the trip I had always been quite optimistic about where we may get to, what time we may get there. George was the realist, we laughed about this each day. Generally this had worked out most times, but my optimism was to be crushed by George’s realism on this occasion. The river that ran west into Blackwater, spanned 5km and only had 3 contour lines. My optimism was that we could do 2 km per hour to try and get to the last portage to the Rannoch. I mean, it only went up 30 metres?
Arriving at the end of the loch, we were perplexed as to where the river actually came in. There was very little water and my optimism was quickly crushed. It took us more than 4 hours to get to Lochan Chlaidheimh, a proper slog of dragging, unloading, loading, dragging, tracking, poling, dragging, and then more dragging. It felt like we would be lucky to even make it to Loch Eigheach in the Rannoch system. A sigh of relief came when I hadn't seen George for a solid 15min, the water ahead must be deep enough to paddle!
The drag down to Rannoch was also tougher than I expected. It was downhill on the map for the majority, but it was so undulating that progress was slow, even on the steeper sections. We dragged, lifted, and dragged plenty more until we could see the river. It looked like we could line 100 metres but given how the rest of the day had been, that 100 metres felt like a free ride. George asked if we could camp there and said that a day off was needed the following day. I hadn't heard that definitive note in his voice before. I asked if we could get to the road to save any dragging. We could just get trolleying and out of any of the boggy ground. We had a mutual agreement. About another 45min of effort, but to have a day off and allow us to get straight into a trolley along the road. The sun had set on another long day after getting up at 5 am yet again. We ate. We didn't talk too much and once we were finished, went straight to bed.
It felt strange to wake at the early hours and roll back over, but I enjoyed that we didn't need to get up early again. I awoke again around 8 and started to wake up slowly. I could feel the sun through the tent, warm and comforting. I didn't need to change straight into my belay jacket and manage my time. I ate my pancakes and caramel spread. I thought I would be getting sick of the same breakfast for the past 9 mornings but I was still enjoying it. I was actually more worried about how little I had left! I was ready to relax and enjoy our first day off.
I heard George getting organised outside, I shouted 'Morning George!' and we had a catch up for a bit. He looked ready for action. I looked at him and he smiled, we both started laughing and he said the inevitable; "Do you fancy doing the trolleying today? We could try and get to Ericht Bridge" I replied "Well psyched!, Let's do it!". This was the moment I knew that George just kept going, he was one of those people who just needed food and some rest, and if his limbs would allow he would just keep going. I was really impressed, particularly as his wrist wasn't in great shape. We had a lazy start and got on the go for 10.30 am. It was 11km to the Bridge of Ericht, it felt like a breeze compared to the portaging over the past few days. Covering 4km/h made us smile. We were hoping to get onto the river Guar, but with force 9 headwinds awaiting us on the loch we decided to keep on trolleying. Arriving at the bridge, we had the same look on our faces, I knew what George was thinking before he even said it "Shall we just go all the way to the dam?" I smiled and agreed. It would be nice to have the last portage in the bag.
Bad weather was coming in and we wanted to get up to the dam before the rain started. We were also taking a day off the following day. With force 9/10 winds forecast at a height of 450mtrs and with Loch Ericht having an infamous reputation with the wind, we were set on waiting for the following days when the winds were more manageable. The track for portaging was the best 'off road' track we had come across, mainly tarmac and not very steep. We were glad of it as our trollies and my feet were taking a real beating. We still managed to make great progress and covered 17km on our day off!
As the sky was turning darker, moisture starting to fall it was great timing to find a nice campsite just before the dam. A quick water run to let us rest in the tents for the next 36 hours and we were set up. It was a windy night, with our tents bending over, touching our faces, the anxiety of poles breaking and one of us having to ask the other if we could get into their tent.
We awoke early, with lighter winds than we were expecting. We ate and spoke about the rough night, hinting about the light winds. We spoke about having a look at the loch and potentially making a call on whether to commit. We knew all too well the lure of the small waves and little winds on what we could see and knew it would be harsher on the loch itself. We had a detailed discussion, accepting that it may get winder. Like really windy but from what we could see and assess it looked manageable. Sails were put up and we were whooping as we made great progress down in around force 5 winds. It felt nice to have a solid wind behind us, we would be at Dalwhinne in no time.
I felt the sail catch some serious wind, I started to surf a wave and go from around 7km to above 10km in a few seconds, I knew, deep down that the forecasted winds were coming. I released the sail. Had a look around and could see the deep squalls coming down the loch. I turned around and George’s rope had managed to cross over his chest and he was tacking across the water towards me. It started to feel very serious!
Waves were building fast, the fetch gaining more energy. The steep sides of the loch, its remoteness, and the thought of a swim if you were separated from your boat were starting to make me feel a little anxious. It was the type of situation when there aren't too many options. You've just got to be totally focused and manage your mind and body and minimise the chances of a bad outcome. We were starting to separate, I had to concentrate on my stern rudder as the waves were starting to break into the back of my boat. The loch in front was getting narrower and, I knew the waves would get bigger. In the distance, I could see an eddy from a shingle bank. George was in front and I was hoping he would stop as around 2km further down the loch I could see the waves breaking heavily into the steep rocky banks. If the waves looked that big from here then they must be big!
We pulled over, chatted, and got a forecast. We both mentioned we wouldn't want to be in any stronger winds, but the winds were due to drop around 2pm. As we were putting our tents up, I heard some dogs and eventually a chap asking what we were up to. Instinctively I said, "Sorry, we're not planning to camp. Just sit out the wind" but the landowner was in keeping with the rest of the people we had encountered the whole trip. "Guys, feel free to use the shed to rest and can I get you guys anything!?" It had been such a great trip in so many ways but the people we had met had made it even more special.
We rested for 3 hours, checking the water every now and then to see if the forecast was accurate. We agreed that it seemed to be the case and packed up. We put our sails up and away we went. Less than 5 minutes in and I knew that the winds weren't finished. We managed to pull over the get the sails down before they broke or sent us into the water. We decided to keep going though. I was apprehensive, mainly from looking at the size of the breaking waves and we were looking down onto the top of the waves. At times I could only just see the top of George’s head. The waves were noticeably bigger than before, but again, we had no option. We reckoned afterward that it reached force 9 at times. It felt serious and was the most nervous I had felt all trip, perhaps ever in a canoe. After 30 minutes of riding the waves and keeping a 3D view on the water with random, huge waves breaking behind us, I was glad to get onto calmer waters. We laughed and bantered about it but we were both relieved to have it behind us. We sailed up to Dalwhinne in the hope to catch some warm food. As had often been the case, luck wasn’t on our side, so it was another boil in the bag and an early night.
I had found the red wine that we opened but hadn't drunk and had carted over all of the portages, I joked we should have it as the last supper, but upon tasting, it was more ready for a fish supper than the last supper. I tipped the vinegary contents away and chuckled.
It was the highest camp of the trip and the morning was damp and cold after the overnight snow. After a snow melt cuppa, we decided to treat ourselves to a warm breakfast at the café. It felt strange, being in company after so much time in isolation. The people in the car park must've had some laughs with their trucks parked up and our canoes parked beside them. We made our way past the highest distillery in Scotland, Dalwhinnie, hoping to get a free ride on the river and a cruise home. Generally, the river is too low but with the overnight rain/snow and rise in temps we were optimistic. The river had enough water, just. We were glad, after working hard over the past 10 days to get what felt like a free section in terms of the journey. A little pushing here and there but we were more than happy to be working with the water for once.
We knew that we had one more section that required time, patience, and the chance of something going a little pete-tong. The Truim Gorge. I had spent around 100 days working in the gorge previously so knew it well but had never approached it from above. We stopped when we saw the bridge and went for a look. After a quick chat we decided to paddle the first two rapids to save time and get into the gorge proper. It would be a portage after this for the next two rapids, both of which are Grd 4. With some quick planning and execution, we managed to get through the gorge in around an hour. The rest of the river was interesting. A little more water would have made it more fun but we weren't too fussy with what we had, more than happy.
I looked up, saw Creag Dubh, and knew we must be close to the confluence with the Spey. The meters passed under the boat and before long, there she was, the last stretch of the Trium. We stopped in the eddy, smiled at each other and held our paddles above our head in celebration and had an awkward hug (as best you can when you’re floating in separate boats). It was in the bag, we had done it! After all the times that we had thought that may be the last day or that if we got to a certain point that would still be a great trip, we had actually made it back to the Spey. Although at this point we hadn't actually finished, for me it was only another 6 km of easy paddling to where I had started. For George another 50km. But all easy, familiar water. We were home.