My last trip to Loch Maree involved canoes, wind and rain. The time previous, boots wind and rain. So when I suggested to Tom that we did, what is now becoming 'the packraft classic' trip, it wasn't without some trepidation. Our last trip up to Loch Sunart had seen us 'wind bound' on an island for 24 hrs and the constant torrential rain had tested our spirits over the few days, despite a fantastic camp site and a well erected tarp.
Now Tom is a bit older, and having cut his teeth on numerous multi-day open boat trips since he was 6, I knew he had the 'metal' for a wilder trip, even with my weather track record.
So as we finished repacking for the second time, I’m quite relieved to see the synoptic chart anticipating one of those classic stable west coast highs that we're blessed with - always when I'm not there. Although, the forecast’s low 'confidence rating' plays to the pessimist in me; pac-lite rather than poncho...
This week was to be snatched after some intense negotiations at home, I was effectively abandoning my ever tolerant wife to prepare us for 4 weeks in Sweden. So we packed a second set of gear for that journey prior to leaving.
It's a long drive, from Betws to Kinlochewe. Especially when our family tradition stipulates that one cannot pass within 50 miles of Grantown Chippy without stopping for a white pudding supper. Add to that a teen that hasn't eaten since the morning and it left no choice. An hour and half detour and a very full belly later and we were crossing to the Black Isle.
From here it was only a spit to Kinlochewe and we soon pass through the village towards Slatterdale, which will be our departure point in the morning. The midges out in force, meant we didn't hang around after we threw up the tent, instead we sneak off to the coast for a cheeky pint and watch the sunset in clear skies. Had the weather curse been broken? It certainly seems so.
Waking with the dawn, we stripped down the tent packed it into the pick-up and quickly loaded the rafts. Loch Maree, never disappoints, the landscape can, in my opinion, only be described as majestic, I've blinked, in awed half-sleep at the might of Yosemite, the stark honesty of Zion and the geometric angularity of Monument, but that morning outclassed them all; Slioch's brutal ascent into blue contrasted by those ochre Torridon monoliths and, as one continues to whirl, the endless depth of open skies over Guinard bay. I can feel Toms enthusiasm echoing my passion; laughs, jokes and the silence through periods of explicit sensory indulgence. We pass energetically North of the islands, the sun-white reflections and shadows of decrepit pines cross our wake, as our paddles stride out.
Within the hour we're by the Ardlair jetty on the east shore, and not wanting to walk arrogantly into the grounds of the genteel lodge, we head north a while, until the map shows the road close to the shore, where we exit, deflate and fight out way up through the, no doubt, tick infested slopes. Negotiating deer fences with fortune found long abandoned gates. Still smiling, although, now hot and wet, we finally reach the track.
Deploying the ski poles, Tom accelerates away from me now, he's got youth in his legs, but in mine there's guile, I can afford him his indulgence. Breaking right after a few kilometres we round the shoulder of Ben Airigh Clach and decide to take 5 atop a large boulder with commanding sea views. A recap of the map reaffirms our thoughts, we’re well ahead of schedule and 45 minutes should see us reach the shores of Fionn Loch.
Dropping down now onto a well trod path, we cut south for a while and stare at the revealing panorama. The glen runs cleanly east-west, near vertical sides are sliced by the stripe-cascades and pinned back by the loch's reflections of the now leaden sky. The wind swirls and veers in this complex terrain; to much to establish its direction, the clouds, though, show the hand. Easterlies now, and building. The paddling will be harder than Loch Maree, I won't tell Tom yet.
We stop to discuss the route, rather than take the path, a surreptitious line threading finally to a shooting lodge, Tom is adamant that we go straight, over the drumlins that line this side of the lochs. I hint, as subtly as I can, that it may not be quite as easy as he thinks, but youth has over and we're soon striding thigh deep through heather and marran. I stop for a third time, heaving, gasping; the lesson I thought this would teach him has only served to remind me of his tirelessness. I watch Tom stride awkwardly but continually ahead, rocking over the 'babies heads' and increasing the distance between us all the time. "Next time", I reflect, "don't hint, insist."
Fortunately, again, the deer fences have stiles and by the time we've stepped airily over the second we're only 100 meters from the water. Fionn Loch, beckons.
First things first, it's now gone midday and to begin paddling for several kilometres would be foolish; sustenance is next on the agenda.
Tom digs out his lunch bag and I grab the stove kit. We elected for the convenience of gas for lunch, as the wood stove can take that bit longer; we’re keeping that for evening meals. Before long the gas is roaring and the pan starts to rattle. Dividing the water between the 2 bags of part cooked and dehydrated pearl barley risotto, we quickly seal the tops and pop them in the Mylar envelopes and then into our coats. 5 mins later, we’re warm, and tucking into the meals. The second pan has boiled now and so we wash it down with tea, earl grey always on a trip, the bergamot adds that extra twist that my pallette seems to crave when outside.
In between swigs of tea, Tom has unpacked his raft and is busily making it ready, this is only the second transition we've made, and it's by no means rushed, I see he's already learned some of the lessons from earlier in the day; that encourages me immensely.
By the time we're on the water the wind has lifted significantly, fortunately, for a while at least, the headland we lunched upon will give us some protection from the significant fetch that we can see further out on the Loch. Erratic squalls engulf us, flicking spray off the paddle blades, 'white horses' are all around us; the sky darkens. Paddling now is hard work and Tom is falling behind. I position myself down wind of him and paddle into the stiffening breeze, matching its effect on my raft and so, holding position while he drops towards me. I see from his face that he's in discomfort, "cramp!" He mouths over the wind, I laugh; there's no quick fix for that here. I give him the bad news and we agree that we'll drop into the lee of the next headland and sort it out. I let him dictate our speed and position myself so the wind will blow me onto him should a problem occur; we carry on.
As promised, as soon as we're in the calmer waters we tuck in and let Tom adjust his seat dropping the backrest allows him another few inches so his legs can straighten and lock in. He seems happier. The next few kilometres are slog, simple head-down mind over matter. The only bonus is the fetch eases as we progress, and using the land forms and islands we gain some temporary respite. It's 3:30 pm when we enter the long bay at the end of the Loch, only three kilometres now and in much calmer water. We can now hold a conversation without shouting.
Leaving our northerly path, we turn east, into the last bay and within 15 minutes Tom notices that there's a definite flow. True to that, ahead of us a horizon line is beginning to form on the water at the end of the Loch.
We push ahead for a look. This is the Little Guinard river; the rapid soon shows itself, around 100m in length there's a definite fall littered with rocks. I hold at the head of the large black tongue that is lapping the water in front of me, and paddling backwards whilst scanning the water I'm soon pretty certain that there's a route through. A solid line, broken only by a large smooth pillow wave forming behind and spilling over a significant boulder. The walk round looks like a ball ache, and although Tom seems nervous, we agree to run the drop. I discuss the line, keeping it simple, three point of reference is plenty for some one who's apprehensive, and Tom certainly is. We close the chat by recapping hand signals and then I go. The water picks up speed as I glide along adjusting my line to skim the rocks either side of me, a hard turn left and I accelerate towards the boulder. I feel the bow lift and placing a last stroke in the dark water I feel the raft kick and a scrape on my arse before the bow drops into the flow, clearing the frothy mess below the rock. Maintaining speed, the remainder of the rapid involves a couple of tight turns and soon I'm in the eddy below, laughing out loud as I give Tom the thumbs up and pumping my fist in the air, reminding him to paddle hard to keep momentum.
Wide eyed, he edges his way into the flow and is soon being accelerated; I’m shouting and gesturing him to paddle hard, he sees this and digs his blades in with conviction. He negotiates the first drop easily and now speeds towards the boulder, I watch him intently, his line is good, “power, power now Tom”, I think out loud. He hits the pillow and flops over the top. Not stylish, but he doesn’t care, he’s giggling as he follows the channel through the rocks to join me.
We’re now sat in a large pool with another rapid ahead, I tell Tom to sit fast and I head off for a look. Equally long, this section has less fall - more of a rock garden than a rapid. The line looks less distinct and whilst not particularly dangerous, significantly harder. I ponder wether, there will be enough depth for me to take the heavily laden raft through without damage. “Only one way to be sure.” I mutter. Shouting to Tom “You portage, river left. I’ll run it.” I watch him head into the bank, a hint of relief on his face.
The line seems to be best on the left, although there’s only the narrowest gap at 2/3 of the way down, unless its deep there I wont be able to make the turn into the channel. I can feel the stern scraping as I descend, not good. And, right enough, my fears are confirmed the raft is grounding as I enter the small eddy above the gap. I consider the turn, but, fearing damage to my raft, which I may add here is not built for WW, I hop out and head up the bank. Portaging the last 300m and joining Tom in the pool below.
As we head down the lochan, Tom hisses a forced whisper, “Eagle Dad, look.”, “Yeah son, Seagull, sure” I mock him. “No Dad, seriously, EAGLE.” this time he points as he speaks, and sure enough, the Sea Eagle swings past, circles to the north and lands on one of the many large boulders silhouetted on the skyline, only 200m away. He’s got sharp eyes, and has seen a few in the past. His first, unforgettably on Loch Kishorn, where, canoeing to Plockton for the day, we were blessed with the company of the Sea Eagle for around 30 mins. Circling a mere 20-ish meters above us and taking the occasional perch in the trees on shore, never more than a stones throw away, we watched it intently, the boat veering through our distraction. Again now, we stare, in awe of this winged water denizen, fatigue lost in the moment and time a mere whisper whilst it graces our view. Taking a last brief stop on another rock, it suddenly lifts, turns and slips over the horizon. Left silent, we stare on, and, when no respite from our anticipation appears, we start to paddle. “Good spot lad!”, I offer; although its pleasing to see his face glowing; he knows.
It’s past 5 now as we pack up the rafts, the track to Gruinard Bay is long, but mainly down hill, the sun has reappeared and even at this hour I can feel it burning my neck, I roll up my collar. We press on. The sea views entice us onwards, a golden beach with warm sand, our reward waiting.
Another, albeit, brief glimpse of the Eagle, has us stop and stare, but its distant this time and we’re tired, its hold on us fades more quickly than before. Once we reach the road we pause, dropping our bags and Tom checks his map. He spots a campsite with a pub nearby, “Only over there”, he gestures eagerly, I suggest that its further when your not a crow, and point out that its in the opposite direction and will add 6 km to our journey tomorrow. Reassuring him of the quality of our wild site, I reflect on my subtlety earlier in the day. “No, decision made, we turn right to the beach, 4 km away, so 4km less tomorrow.”, I see a flash of disappointment, when your 16 a chance of an illicit pint is a big deal, but he pushes it down and strides off without protest.
A steep pull up is followed by a descent into Guinard Bay itself, the beach appears and we pause laughing and smiling as we soak up the view. Tom scoots ahead and finds a spot for the tent, he’s quickly allocating me jobs and we set to our chores. Firewood, collected, we create a mound and place the fireproof mat down before the wood stove is placed on top. Tom is pumping the purifier and soon the water is on for our tea. We set to erecting the tent. Tom comments on the paper like feel of the silnylon, he’s equally impressed when I point out that its under 1.2 Kg even with the mylar groundsheet and extra pegs. Once the ski poles are in and adjusted, it soon up and our mats and top blankets laid out.
We retire to sit, backs to the stone wall and feed the wood stove, the pan boils and we’re soon pouring the water into our meals; homemade dehydrated Moroccan lamb (soya) tagine, followed by cacoa chocolate granola with custard, swilled down with plenty of tea. We chat, snooze, laugh and banter each other, recounting the high parts of the 40+ Km we've travelled today. “Good times”, an understatement, memories to hold and cherish. Watching the sun bloody the horizon, we quiet and inside we ponder those greater questions. The last ebb, and then total silence. I feel my self nodding off, we stash the gear and weight the rafts above the high-water mark. Ablutions, and, then in half stupor we slide into a golden sleep.