Scottish Canoe Routes
Here are some things to think about if you are new to canoe tripping in Scotland.
Safety. Paddling Scottish lochs and rivers comes complete with a fairly high degree of adventure. You owe it to yourself to build the appropriate degree of competence in reading weather and water conditions, and experience in handling wind, waves, cold water (a real killer), submerged rocks and where appropriate, tides. Emergency landings onto rocky shores can be challenging. You should know when to turn back or retreat from the water. Water conditions in Scotland are notoriously changeable and it is a common experience to see water going from calm to dangerous in a few minutes. It is usual to have a knowledge of first aid and to be able to formulate an appropriate plan for self-rescue if things go wrong. Many lochs are still outside areas of mobile phone coverage. The best advice is to gain experience progressively on smaller lochs before venturing out onto the big, remote stretches of water. Paddling on flat-calm water is, on its own, poor preparation for staying safe under wild conditions, and can give a misleading sense of one’s abilities. Paddling on lochs, rivers and the sea each require some different techniques and experience. Some easier trips especially suited to first-timers are listed. In addition to this, is a really good idea to study written and on-line accounts of trips that have gone wrong to back up your own experience with at least a theoretical knowledge of what can befall you, and what actions you might take.
Equipment. There are several inspirational books on canoeing techniques and equipment that will guide you in the choice of gear. You could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of paddlers who have not read and benefitted from Path of the Paddle and Song of the Paddle.
Conditions. Although you will sometimes paddle and camp unmolested amidst absolutely stunning scenery in the sparkling sunshine, heavy rain, midges and ticks are not unknown. Good wet weather technique with efficient drybags and containers is essential. Canoeing in Scotland between mid-October and mid-May is likely to be relatively midge-free but the weather may be colder, as will be the water early in the year (drysuits strongly recommended). Midge nets and deterrents are essential at other times; siting your camps in breezy places will reduce the onslaught. North American visitors have even rated midges above blackflies, deer flies and mosquitoes on the scale of insect torment. Clothing that seals around the ankles and middle will help to protect against ticks, but it is a good idea to make yourself familiar with the technique of tick removal and the symptoms of Lyme disease. Camping on sand will reduce your exposure to ticks. Canoe tripping in poor conditions can be tough going; a degree of physical fitness and an optimistic nature are assets.
Children. Some paddlers will only undertake the calmest of trips with kids; others are more cavalier and take their children out in quite rough conditions. It is worth bearing in mind that a child’s resistance to immersion in cold water will be considerably less than your own, and the notion that you will be able to gather up the little ones in a rough, windy loch after an upset and shepherd them to the shore is likely to be an illusion.
Access. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 transformed the access situation in Scotland and gives that incredible feeling of freedom to outdoor adventures that is drawing outdoor lovers from far and wide. These access rights have been granted in return for responsible behaviour as set out in the Access Code. The great majority of canoeists subscribe to a strictly “no trace” ethic of wild camping, but unfortunately not everyone else does, and there is mounting concern at the rising incidence of litter and damage at the more accessible and picturesque locations. It is not hard to see that there might be trouble ahead.
Water. Many people have drunk water from Scottish mountain streams (having checked upstream for polluting material) for years without ill effects. However, this, and especially drinking loch water, does carry the risk of picking up a parasite such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. The latter is known to be present in Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine, and is undoubtedly to be found elsewhere. The risk can be virtually eliminated by boiling water, or using one of the light and compact chemical, filtration or U.V. purification systems available.
Fishing. Most areas require a permit for freshwater fishing and have specific rules and practices to help protect the environment and fish stocks. For Loch Assynt and Inverpolly areas see here.
*Transfer of pathogens/invasive species. There is a risk of spread of fish pathogens and other unwanted organisms when portaging from one watershed to another. Washing/drying your canoe (and disinfecting where there is a serious risk) when moving between disconneced lochs is recommended. See here for more information.
Fires. Lighting fires is quite controversial. Sitting and cooking around a campfire is an essential element of the wild outdoors for many people. Others feel that fires can rob sensitive environments of ecologically important woody debris and scar the landscape. It is certainly true that a depressingly common sight is to come across old fire circles with burnt-out cans and bottles, and ugly cut ends of branches all around. Many types of firebox are available which reduce the amount of wood needed and can be used on flat stones to protect the ground underneath. There are lengthy discussions of the “ethics” of firelighting on forums such as Song of the Paddle which give a range of points of view that are useful in making up one’s own mind.