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Northwest Scotland is about as ‘Alaska’ as it gets here in the British Isles and after years of going everywhere else, I’m beginning to realise what a wonderful area it is for adventuring – when it’s not lashing it down, that is. Thousand-metre peaks surround isolated inland lochs fed by a streams or ‘burns’, linked infrequently by walking trails. It’s an ideal place to experiment with the Packrafting Way.
This uncultivable land – either steep or saturated – is mostly owned by private estates who used to run fir plantations, but now tend to get grants to rehabilitate the land to attract tourism, including charging a small fortune to catch salmon or shoot deer and grouse.
One benefit is that bothies (basic refuges) used by the estate for their activities are open to all at other times and free. They can make a great place to escape the notorious midges which infest the highlands in summer. Just like Alaska then.
The West Highland Rail Line from Glasgow to Mallaig on the west coast is a great way of getting in and out of the area highlighted on the map at the top, with several isolated stations where you can pick up the twice-daily train. The fact that the 160-mile long WHL is also considered one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys makes the getting there as satisfying as packrafting back.
For me you can’t beat alighting at Rannoch station, one of the most isolated in Britain. All around is the sodden mush of Rannoch Moor feeding a string of lochs between Glencoe and the River Tay. I missed making the most of a good winter in Scotland this year, but after Christmas couldn’t resist nipping up on the train from to camp overnight in the snows above Rannoch.
For my first packrafting mini-adventure I planned a 130-km (80-mile) route from near Mallaig to follow the 12-mile long Loch Morar eastwards, initially along a track then on the water when the path ends and valley sides get too steep. Loch Morar is Scotland’s answer to Lake Baikal, at over 1000′, it’s the deepest lake in Britain, with it’s own legendary monster and a sinister WWII history of espionage straight out of The Thirty Nine Steps (which actually had it’s climax on Rannoch Moor). At the far end of the loch a burn leads up Glen Pean over a gnarly 15-km watershed to the adjacent Loch Arkaig.
Once over the pass on the watershed, it might be possible to hop into the east-flowing burn and paddle down to Loch Arkaig. On Google Earth it looks possible and will be a lot easier than trudging through the bogs. There’s a road along the north side of Loch Arkaig which may be easier if the loch doesn’t look too inviting. At the east end, after a dam a weir and some rapids, you reach Loch Lochy, a southern continuation of Loch Ness on the Great Glen, the distinctive fault line you can see slicing southwest through Scotland on the map above. Traditionally, northwest of that line is where the true wilds of Scotland are to be found. We like those.
At the south end of Loch Lochy the River Lochy parallels a canal for 8 miles down to Fort William alongside Ben Nevis. The river is paddleable I read, bar one easily avoided Class III. Fort William will be a chance to dry out, restock and eye up Stage 2.
It would be fun to climb over Ben Nevis and down the other side, but unlike many English or Welsh peaks, that’s not so easily done it seems. I’ve been warned off coming off the summit down the south side. That leaves the CMD arete I’ve heard of over the years as the only way eastwards. It’s the local answer to Striding Edge or Crib Goch – exposed ridges which, depending on the day, might not be the best place to be caught with a boat on your back.
Around the south side of Ben Nevis a track leads up Glen Nevis valley from where I can take off over the moors or the Mamores to squelch towards Blackwater reservoir. It’s notable that the popular West Highland Way walk doesn’t go this way. After paddling over Blackwater there’s a trudge over to Loch Laidon to raft up one more time and row my boat to the eastern end for the short walk to Rannoch station and the 12.42 to Glasgow.
Sounds easy when it’s all in your head, less so with mist at ground level and the next Low rolling in off the Atlantic. I’ve been watching the weather and it looks like six days of rain followed by a day of showers. So I’ll be satisfied to expend my time and effort on the western part of the route where there are a couple of bothies and less people, and then catch my train early at Fort William.
Packing for packrafting
It was quite a challenge managing all the gear into a portable format. Initially I was going to lash dry bags to a packframe, but that was just too bulky and uncomfortable. So I’ve settled on using a newish 60-litre rucksack which is much more comfortable – at least on the short walk to and from the bathroom scales. With several external pockets and lashing points, it’s more accessible and functional than a drybag too.
For packrafting you have to be ready for submersion, not just lashing rain, which complicates matters a bit. I managed to grab a huge 100-litre drybag off ebay to use on the water. Inside the pack, what’s important (principally clothing and sleeping bag) is inside additional dry bags or zip lock bags, and with this in mind I found a near-half-price Crewsaver dry suit too. Despite the 2kg weight penalty it’ll be reassuring to be in one of these when bobbing around in the middle of a 1000-foor-deep loch, or being swept towards some rapids, as well as something to wear if having to walk in heavy, cold rain. I’ll be able to wade through waist-deep rivers without a care.
With 4 days dried food and drink, the load came in at 20 kilos (44lbs). Basically, it’s a fairly reasonable solo camping load of 12 kilos plus 8kg of boat and boating gear. It all adds up. This is summertime in Scotland so any water I need will find me long before I need to look for it. Not sure I’ve ever walked with that much weight; such loads can bring on knee injuries or accidents, so I’ve converted the shaft of my 4-part Aqua Bound paddle into a staff for steep slopes and river crossings.
- Backpack 2kg
- Dry food & drink 3.5 days 3kg
- Camping, cooking, clothes, maps, camera, gps, etc 7kg
- Boat, paddle, pfd, dry bag 6kg
- Dry suit & gloves 2kg
- Total … 20kg