Scottish Canoe Routes

To the west of Loch Assynt, and north of Suilven and the wonderful Inverpolly wilderness, lies a small region which catches your eye on the map because it seemingly has as much water as land, a perfect place to explore by canoe. Our route started life as a vague idea to take a look at this promising area, but as we went along and became familiar with the lie of the land it evolved into a really logical water route and one of the best trips of its type that we have done. We couldn’t find much information about what to expect “beyond Assynt”, but this suited us really, because we all enjoy the excitement of the unknown. As it turned out, the route gave us not only miles of breathtakingly wild and beautiful canoeing, but also quite a work-out at the “ancillary techniques” by having to come up constantly with ways of coping with all sorts of challenges: fences, stream-gates, waterfalls and cascades, a pipe, native hostility and rodent attack.

Although only quite short, this trip gives interesting route-finding through a maze of lochs with innumerable bays and islands to explore. We recommend having a 1:25000 map in front of you to help find your way through the labyrinth of channels. Good campsites were sometimes obvious, but often well hidden. Spotting good camps is one of the really fun parts of a trip, as is making the best use of challenging tarp placements. At around 4pm each afternoon, the four of us started to scan the loch shores for sites that had some shelter, dry ground (or relatively dry - dry is too much to ask around here), places that wouldn’t collect water in case of a downpour, ground with secure pegging in case a storm came up, and sites that might not be so attractive to deer. Damp and bright green grassy areas with deer-sign are usually tick havens, places where it is good to have secure seals around your ankles, wrists and middle.

From a distance, the whole region looks rather barren and exposed, but we came across a surprising number of pockets of relatively large trees, which gave good shelter. Green areas on the map aren’t always like this; often a promising looking wood turns out to be a sloping, sparse area of stunted willows, with little potential as a camp. We are always in two minds about lighting fires, but because in the wooded places there seemed to be a lot of fallen timber, we felt able to indulge ourselves with a couple of little fires to relax by as the stars came out.

The main reason we didn’t immediately settle on the route from Inchnadamph to the sea was the mile-long portage through Gleannan Salach. But here, geography was to have a surprise for us. Going by the map, the glen could easily have been a nightmarish choked gorge with an un-navigable rocky torrent. However, the little stream, to our delight, turned out to be accommodating enough to enable us to walk the canoes almost the whole mile down to the next loch, thereby saving us from a potentially tedious portage. It was a bit of an eye-opener to discover just how small a stream gives a perfectly good thoroughfare for the canoes. Never again will we dismiss even the thinnest of blue lines on the map. Navigating this stream was a turning point because we now realised that it might not be so difficult after all to link the ten or so lochs that would lead us right across the region, right through to the crofting community of Clashnessie (Glen of the Waterfall) and the sea. As the route was downhill almost all the way, the gradients gentle and the streams apparently cooperative, this route probably would not be the portage fest we had earlier feared.

We had originally intended to cache a bicycle at the end of our route to get one of us back to the start, but with the change of plan, this would now not be waiting for us. We decided to let the problem of retrieving the Landrover look after itself. When the time came, our best attempt at a plan was to send our most suave and presentable member to knock on some doors and attempt to charm a ride back to Inchnadamph. Unfortunately, Graham was by now nursing an injured shoulder so the others had to go instead. Clashnessie turned out to be a place of contrasts: the wild, loch-strewn moor above the falls and the sandy bay and sea below; a place home to both the most, and the least helpful of people. We met “Little Miss Sunshine” behind the first door we knocked on. The encounter couldn’t have gone much worse; basically it was suggested that we go forth and multiply. The Landrover suddenly seemed a very long way away. Ian, the local postman, on the other hand couldn’t have been pleasanter, and gave Andrew a lift all the way back to Inchnadamph.

Throughout the trip it was easy to keep orientated by the sight of our constant companions Suilven, Canisp and Quinag. These leviathans, towering above the low, watery terrain, gave us the feeling of being on a journey through a landscape not of this time, somewhere that would pass for a different planet. This otherworldly feeling was intensified by the day-and-night bellowing of stags which, around here, had a particularly primitive and disturbing quality. It is a sound which, in the night when emanating from near the tents, was particularly difficult to imagine any animal of our experience making.

We had a good time on this trip. The weather was fairly kind to us, and the route followed an appealing natural line. If ever there is need of a water trade route between Inchnadamph and Clashnessie, this will be the one. Throughout our journey, we frequently saw submerged grass showing the present high level of the water. The route would be more difficult with less water, but the owners of the croft by The Falls in Clashnessie said this level was about typical for this time of year.

So as not to spoil the adventure for others who may wish to come this way, we don’t want to describe the route in too much detail, but simply give some general impressions from our journal.

Extracts from the journal

“Loch Assynt is in friendly mood. There is an appreciable headwind but the waves are not really picking up. The sky although streaked with blue overhead is ominously dark to the west. The first shower hits us about 11.40 am by which time we are about three quarters of the way along the loch. The rain flattens out the water and makes a gentle, musical sound, a cross between a hissing and a tinkling. The shower is short-lived; fifteen minutes later the rain stops and there are again blue streaks all the way to the western horizon. The weather seems to have settled into a sunshine and showers routine; no nasty surprises appear to be coming our way, at least not for the next few hours. Our two canoes, a Peterborough and a Nova Craft Bob Special, converge on a tiny beach just past the road bridge which separates us from Loch Leitir Easaidh and out come the stoves for a hot drink, and lunch.”

“We are separated from Loch Leitir Easaidh by the twin pipes of the road bridge, today close to being completely submerged by the high water level. There is just sufficient headroom for Andrew and Andy’s canoe to go through, but we have to portage the Peterborough across the road. The subterranean adventure is ultimately to no avail however because “Team NovaCraft” is immediately confronted by a deer fence on the other side and has to haul their canoe out, and around.”

“The portage routes are sometimes hard to read. We head for the firmest ground, with as few tussocks and other obstacles as possible, aiming for low points on the horizon, hoping that when we get there the next sheet of water will be spread out in front of us. This goes spectacularly wrong at one point when Team Peterborough find themselves on a shelf 50ft. above the loch they were heading for. Fighting our natural instincts to go prepared for every eventuality, likely or unlikely, we have been working to get portages down to two journeys; the boat in one and sacs in the other. Even so, the sacs are quite heavy and most of our time during a carry is spent deciding which stuff to leave at home next time (with the exception of Mike who seems to have light packing down to a fine art). Labouring up a steep portage gives a noticeably different perspective on the heavy items in your pack. The first real portage, beyond Loch Leitir Easaidh, is quite tough to start, not the gentle warmer-upper we might have hoped for. Some months of soft living have taken their toll on the fitness gained last time.”

“It is getting quite late in the day and there is no immediate prospect of a good camping place. The loch shores look sloping and boggy. We start to accept that we are going to have to ditch at least one of our campsite criteria: (1) level, (2) dry, (3) sheltered. But our newest recruit, Andy, who seems to have intuition about these things, investigates an area of gorse (which he tells us likes dry conditions) and happens across a place better than we could ever have hoped, a hidden flattish area sheltered from the stiff breeze by the bushes. Down below bush level, it is a different world. The tents and tarp (the Pavilion) go up, paths between them are established and everywhere is buzzing with the excitement of getting the meals ready at long last. Just one mistake is made; Graham forgets to check his pitch and has to spend the night curled around a rock he didn’t notice was there under the groundsheet.”

“We are kept entertained by the sheer variety of fences that we have to negotiate. The lines on our map, which puzzled us at first, turned out to be low, ancient walls which are easy to cross and actually help us navigate and often provide reasonable portage routes along their sides. The fences, however, require a range of different techniques, sometimes over, sometimes under via a little swing flap, and sometimes there is sufficient slack in the wire to squeeze through.”

“Walking the canoes down the little streams as well as being much easier than a carry, is also much more interesting because you have to read the water, and use all the usual whitewater signs - in miniature - to navigate the best route through. The stream beds here are quite good for walking, the rocks not too big, or too slippery. We find that when following streams down into lochs there is often a point that it is well to recognise, the point where you reach loch level and the stream bed changes from hard and rocky to soft and silty. One step too far and you can find yourself up to your knees in mud. The canoes really came into their own today, being lifted, carried, floated and paddled.”

“On this loch, unlike previous ones, we are spoilt for choice for fine camping places. One is on a high, level terrace amidst a few trees with an incredible view down over the water. It is a bit breezy however, and although the best choice for the midge season, now in October we choose a lower, more sheltered site. Next morning, the loch reflects an unreal dawn, radiating from somewhere far beyond Quinag. The sight has us reaching for our cameras, for otherwise no one at home would believe us.”

“At the end of the portage we come across Andrew and Andy sitting on a perfect dry heathery terrace, sheltered from the breeze by a low bank. The sun comes out and we have lunch in luxury. We are beset with dragonflies sunning themselves on our packs.”

“The lochs continue, one after the other. The headwind, although relatively easy to paddle against, is persistent and it is good to set up a windbreak when we stop for a drink, or to check where we are. Doing the route the other way would take advantage of this prevailing wind, but this would be little comfort when lining up all those streams rather than shooting down them.”

“Graham has been reading “The Voyageur’s Highway” and is struck by a passage, from 1775 and describing the land west of Lake Superior, that could equally well describe us today.... ‘It is an elevated tract of country, not inclining in any direction, and diversified on its surface with small hills. By the twelfth, we arrived where the streams were large enough to float the canoes, with their loads, though the men walked in the water, pushing them along’.”

“Team NovaCraft had an “encounter” with a large submerged rock in the centre of a wide, innocuous-looking channel. In the calm water, the rock was not giving any of the tell-tale disturbance of the surface that can give them away when there is a chop. The team acted as a pilot boat when Team Peterborough came through.”

“Whilst scouting separately for camps, we hear a blast on the whistle from across the loch and see Andrew standing on a level bank sheltered by some trees, on a terrace nestled beneath a craggy hillside. They have found a good spot. We skim back over the water, now intensely blue under the clearing sky, past a small island and pull into a fine little inlet, alongside their canoe. The camp has everything; a flat spot with ample room for our four tents and tarp, shelter, an abundance of trees for firewood and an exposed little knoll up in the breeze, with sufficient wind for the fire to catch easily. A clear, dry evening at last. We have a more leisurely time of it tonight because we are not threatened by rain and so chat for a long while about old exploits and future adventures, and spot a few stars until the call of the sleeping bags becomes just too strong.”

“We decide to explore a large arm of a loch reached through a narrow passage. It is a little off our route, but looks interesting. Once through the channel, the water opens out into a large circular bay and almost as soon as we paddle onwards, the inlet begins to blend into the background of crags and bracken, and from across the water is quite invisible. It is with a slight feeling of alarm that we circle the shore, hoping our way out will re-appear. We notice a strange optical illusion when paddling on the small, tree-less lochs. It is very hard to judge the scale. You could fix on a distant shore and settle into an imagined half- hour paddle, only to round a point and come across the other canoe apparently huge, and massively out of proportion, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.”

“Graham was disturbed in the night by something gnawing at his food waste bag. Thumping on the tent wall only discouraged the critter for a couple of minutes at most. Eventually, he was forced to get up and hang the bag out of reach. This had not happened before, but significantly now occurred after Graham had concocted a new meal, Thai noodles, something clearly more palatable than his usual fayre.”

“Our final camp seemingly clings to a slope where the heather looks in danger of sliding off the rocky hillock and into the water. We were forced here by the wind, and the lateness of the hour. We have the usual group debate: whether to stay or continue in the hope of finding somewhere better. We decide to stay. As so often happens, when you finally decide on a site and really look, it becomes far more friendly. The heather gives comfy bed-springs under the tents and the low spur, once we are settled down, provides adequate shelter. As it happens, the wind drops anyway and the sun comes out and we cook our meals in wild luxury.”

“Our traditional Fondue Night is extended on this trip to include a chocolate fondue for afters. We have shortbread, dried apple and cobnuts from Andy’s allotment to dip into the chocolate in our fondue “set” powered by tealights. Fondue forks are cut from the birches that surround our camp. A fitting end to a great trip.”