There's no feeling in the world like the sun's rays soaking through your tent and your top quilt. I routinely forget, the powerful effect its energy has as it leaches through, charging your soul. And, that morning on the sand dunes of Guinard bay was no different. Not even the snoring teen next to me can resist it for long. Stretching, he rubs his eyes, blinking at the sheer intensity of the light of flooding in. Siting, yawning, basking in the glow we move slowly yet with a determined edge. Once outside the glow is replaced by the salt air; just sensory indulgence being here, now.
Soon we're boiling water for breakfast porridge and dropping the tent. Hanging the down top quilts in the vague breeze to air them and keep their insulation. Once fed, we sit for a bit just enjoying the silence and the prospect of the new day.
By eight though, it's time to begin, adjusting packs we stride up the path and over the road. Tom's full of questions about the day ahead, he knows it's a long way before we will inflate the rafts again and that the wind direction may mean another hard few Kilometres of paddling. I dodge them finally offering, ”All in good time youth" then sensing theres more on the way, I add “For today, If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit. But whatever you do don't wobble" a borrowed abstraction; it works, he frowns and ponders. Silence. We just walk.
Before long we leave the road and passing along the track along the Guinard River, we’re met by a chap walking his chocolate Lab - the Laird I'll wager - exchanging pleasantries we keep walking, but he enquiries about our intentions, eyes focussed on the paddle blades on the sides of our packs. Suppressing my political evil twin, I answer politely but without apology, confirming our plan to head up to Loch na Sealga and from there to Shenevall. He seems satisfied with that, content that we won't be on the river, he bids us good day and we part company.
The track winds slowly up the glen easing round the small buttresses that meet the river, and along ox-bowed plains that will fill to capacity when the water requires. The odd deer gate requires our attention but thats all. Just walk.
A few kilometres later, I sense the sole of my right foot is warm and pinching, the spell is broken as it draws my mind endlessly away; I call a halt. Tom, still full of wonder, pulls out his camera and begins to snap away at various plants and flowers, meanwhile, I investigate. The inner sole of my Inov8s has cracked and it is pinching the soft skin below the ball of my foot. So far no harm done. But it needs a fix. A thin spread of seam sealer and some PVC tape (from the packraft first aid kit) sort the shoe. Dry socks and foot powder sort my sole. By now though Tom is growing impatient; I explain the need to fix these things as soon as they occur, preventing problems in the days ahead. He gives me that 'whatever Dad' look. Its OK, I suspect he, like me, will need to learn this one the hard way. Lets save that, all good, we move on.
A rumble stirs us; its from behind. We spin and spot the dust from the land rovers that are heading our way. The proliferation of tracks for shooting and fishing in the highlands is a subject of painful debate, whilst this isn't a new track the vehicles’ appearance immediately changes the vibe of the scene; it’s no longer wild, or remote. Rather than wobble we sit and let them pass. Watching as they slowly roll by. ’Tweed for the day' types in the back with the ever patient ghillies up front, "There's a few quid in their son" I suggest, whilst I offer a wide mouthed smile, touching the peak of my cap with feigned fealty. They smile, just, nod, and move along. The dust settles, we're alone again.
By the time we reach Loch na Sealga, it's nearly midday and the heat is building. We round the final corner and as expected the Landrovers are parked along the road. The drivers - plus-foured - are leaning over the bonnet, tweed hats off, smoking and wiping their foreheads in the sun. We exchange hellos and, without pausing we round onto the beach.
Looking across the pebble shore, half blinded by the reflection of sun off granite and water. Squinting, I notice there’s an old couple sat picnicking, by a large black rock, again tweed abounds. They see us but don’t acknowledge, sensing the intrusion we take a wide berth to maintain their space as far as we can and, once enough ground has passed, we pick our own spot, drop the bags and kick back.
Lunch is a lazy affair, Tom is in no rush to start paddling, he can see the blue miles stretching out before us but cannot see the destination. He’s trying to keep his reticence hidden, but cannot resist asking “How far is it to the bothy Dad?”. “Its a fair way from here still.” I answer. Knowing that he will now be reflecting on the hard paddling we did yesterday, I offer him some respite; turning round I pull the sail from my pack and lay it next to me, he gets the hint. We both smile; he’s happy now. After a second cup of tea we pack up the food and begin to lay out the boats, the wind is building and although the peat bank at the back of the beach offers us some shelter we still have to weight the rafts with our packs to stop them from being blown about. I take another look down the loch, squinting to see the waves further down. I can see the bright dashes of white horses everywhere, for sure, regular now. With the northerly wind blowing clean down the loch and the steep sides acting as a funnel, I’m growing a little wary of the size of the fetch we will encounter as we head further along.
With the rafts ready and the sails stowed to hand, we slip into the water. The old couple have finished their lunch now and he is wading knee deep casting for the ‘ripple edge’, I can remember doing that for hours and hours in my youth. Creeping as far out as my wellies would dare to allow, trying with every inch of my soul to stretch my casting to place my fly on the water where the fish would be waiting. Waiting for the insects to be blown off the heather banks and onto the water; right on the ripple edge, where the wind first kisses the water and breaks the mirror calm. Fond days.
The old woman is still on the bank, drawing, I think, but, they’re getting smaller now and its harder to tell. We’re already about 3/4 of a kilometre from shore and getting further apart, Tom is ahead and fiddling with his sail. He’s itching to get it up, relax and let the wind do the work. He’s sailed a fair amount in a canoe, so he’s confident and knows how much fun it is. And he’s right, infectious giggles break out as you just slip along, listening to the fizz of the water in your wake. But these aren’t canoes; the soft, edgeless hull has very different characteristics. Correct trim is massively important here, if the bow dives into a wave top the raft will fold and one of us will be swimming. That would be a bad thing. So, before the sails go up we need to sort a few things out.
I call him over, no response. Louder now, nothing he’s still messing about with his sail bag, and again as loud as I can. He hears and looks, he begins to turn across the waves as I repeatedly pat the top of my head to signal him to come to me.
When we are within speaking distance, I call to him to explain, “I know Dad…” he interrupts, I raise my eyebrows and he stops, I continue, keeping it brief so as not to stifle things, recapping the key points: “Keep trimmed well to stern and keep the raft rigid by locking your legs in”. “Keep a close eye on our distance apart, no more than 50m, its hard to communicate in this wind so keep looking to the other”. We confirm hand signals and talk about capsize drills, shuffle back to alter the trim, Tom adjusts his pack and then we put stern painters out; a clean trailing grab line to offer a chance of staying with the boat if a capsize occurs.
With this done I explain to Tom, that he must not attach his sail to him or the raft, I demonstrate holding the base of the sail by firm pressure between my feet and the hull and show him how to reduce speed by spilling air over the top. Enough now, I can see his eyes glazing over, the rest we’ll do on the hoof. He’s being driven by the adventure: the majestic scenery, the sun, the wind, the water, the unknown. I can see it in his face, pure raw anticipation, he knows not what’s ahead, only that draw into the virgin experience.
Tom ‘pops’ his sail and clamps it with his toes. Leaning to stern he trails his paddle to act as a tiller and I see his face ‘light’ as he feels the raft lurch forward as the wind fills the orange disk in front of him. I quickly, copy and within seconds we are both clipping along, down the loch. I move the raft across the wind positioning myself upwind of him and off we go. The fetch is a good 25 cm by now although as I look at Toms boat he’s keeping a good trim and his bow is lifting, the wave tops breaking underneath. There’s no chine and its not possible to use and edge in these rafts so sailing across the wind is near impossible, I’m experimenting with the paddle but only manage to get about 20 degrees off and still maintain speed. Thankfully Tom has remembered my words and has checked back, noticing I’m getting behind he spills the air a little from the sail, reducing power and so slows until I catch up. We sail together now, I’m just to the Wes
t of him and checking the GPS I shout over “6 Km an hour!”, Tom looks back bemused “Well, its much faster than paddling.” I add, he nods and laughs. I can hear the wind and the fizz, the odd hollow slap as the bow breaks a wave top. Even with the breeze the sun is still hot, though rounding off to the west now, I notice that I’m squinting my right eye as I look ahead, trying to gauge our distance to the end of the loch.
By now the hills are causing the wind to veer slightly across the loch and, with our speed and the distance we’ve come, the rafts are edging towards the eastern shore. I call to Tom and signal to him to copy me. I make an obvious movement of my paddle blade 20 degrees of stern and curl my arm and body around the other blade. My boat lurches to the side and I start to track west visibly moving away from Tom. I reach up with my free hand and pat the top off my head, signalling that he should follow. He copies perfectly, and with a few adjustments he’s soon making distance from the shore, we hold this course for around ten minutes and, then run down wind for a while. Repeating this manoeuvre a couple more times we make good progress, around 2/3 of the way along now and into the narrowest part of the valley, between the impenetrable ramparts of An Teallach and the colossal hump of Being Dearg More.
As I suspected the wind speed is increasing as the air is squeezed through the mountains and consequently the fetch has built significantly. A splash of cold water, confirms my thoughts as my bow breaks through a wave rather than over it. Pushing my weight even further back, makes little difference and so I have to reduce power. Both hands are full now, one with the paddle tiller one with the sail, he’s too far away to hear a shout, so I have to bend my head down to find the whistle on my BA. “Where’s it gone”, I mumble. Looking up I can see Tom still going full speed with waves breaking over his bow. He’s forgotten our conversation. He needs to slow down, I can see the creases appearing in his hull as the waves bend the boat slightly, if he catches a bigger wave, the raft will fold and he’ll be swimming. I bend my head further towards my shoulder where the whistle is clipped. My lips touch around the hard plastic and I blow hard, three sharp trills shoot out across the water. Tom turns and briefly letting the sail out to full I signal “STOP”, grabbing the sail back quickly I take off speed and head over to him. When I get there he’s dropped his a sail into his raft and is bobbing around in the waves. We link up briefly and I remind him about the hazard. He nods and smiles sheepishly. This isn’t a nice place to be static, water is regularly breaking over the back of the raft and I’ve already shipped quite a bit, my arse is soaked. Bailing a few scoops back into the loch we push apart and head off again. This time taking it easy and keeping closer together. The trick,Tom suggest, is to go at the same speed as waves. Keeping the water from sloshing over the heavy stern whilst stopping the bow diving into the crests. Not thinking too much about the theory, we try, it works and pragmatism wins.
Once the land opens out the wind eases off and we can see the shore line, the south eastern corner looks wild, I can see the waves crashing on to the boulders and although I know it will turn out to be a pain in the arse once were on land, I head over to the less manic north western corner.
Tom’s crept a ways ahead again, and I feel a pang of apprehension as I see he’s choosing to run the sail right into the bay. He won’t have much time to get the sail down and ready himself for a rough exit from the raft. “Tom, Tom, slow down, drop your sail, steady now!” I hear myself thinking aloud, urging caution. “No point” I reflect, he couldn’t hear if I did shout. Trust and standby by... By the time these thoughts have passed he’s out on the shore, perfect. A wave of relief, a wave of pride, a wave of cold water. Right over the stern, the cold irony hits my back it snaps me out of focus and I notice I’m now way too close to shore. Stuffing the sail down between my knees I spin and, only a little too late, stand up in the bracing water. Stumble, slip and slide, but I’m on the shore. Far from elegant but dry - ish.
Toms already carrying his raft up onto the grass and starting to strip it down. I’m stuck, the sun, wind and scenery have me glued inside my head. The dry haze in the air gives the landscape a sense of depth and scale which has me wheeling around on the cobbled beach. Beinn Dearg Mor looms resplendent in the stark light of the northern air. An Teallach, although hidden, affirms her presence; her ruddy colour dominates the vista, shrinking me back and down, forcing memories to rise of her fickle reputation.
The walk to Shenavall along the SW of the strath is wet, knee deep in bog and striding over tussocks. Tom isn’t complaining, he’s way ahead, eager to visit this legendary bothy. After hearing my tales of nights here, his anticipation is carrying him. When I arrive he’s sprawled out on the lawn, hands clasped as a pillow, sun specs on, shirt off. “Lizard”, I observe, walking past and into the building. Cool respite, the vague scent of mouse, mixed with old soot. Again, I’m momentarily back in time, I can hear the laughter and smell the whiskey. Fond days indeed. Outside a couple of chaps are airing their gear from the day’s travels, their kit is scattered around on the tables. I skulk upstairs and notice 3 ‘pit spaces’ laid out. I opt for the back room downstairs, it’s a little more mousy but, I’m a snorer so won’t be welcome up here.
Bag off, kit laid out, I’m back in the sun sat next to the lizard who is snoring gently, I nudge him, him growls quietly, then wakes. I warn him about the sun and he rolls over, kneels and sticks his shirt on. As the evening draws in the breeze drops and the midges appear, soon there’s no option. We head inside.
By now 2 more solo travellers have arrived and they’re preparing food, we sit back and wait, there’s never enough space in these places for everyone to cook up at once. I look around and am disappointed by the amount of litter and old food. Bothy users note, leaving food for others to use is only to encourage rats. Pack it out. We’re not your excuse to lighten your pack. I’ve space now in my food box and there will be more after tonight’s food. So I pick up what I can fit, it’s nowhere near enough but I hope the visible action will encourage the others to do the same.
After food, we sit and chat to a bike packer who’s doing the Cape Wrath, he’s curious to find paddlers here. We explain our route and show him the rafts, he’s keen to know more. He’s a Scots lad, so I give him the details of his nearest packraft specialist, he’s hardly going to travel to Wales to find out more about packrafting.
More importantly, we have a chance to get updated weather forecasts from a climber who arrives at dusk. He warns all that a large front is about to hit within the next 24 hours. High winds and heavy rain. “How windy exactly?” I inquire. “20 mean, gusting 45.” He confirms my fear, those wind speeds will see us stuck on the north shore of Loch Maree or face a massive detour on land. I warn Tom, Tom be prepared for a long day tomorrow, we need to beat the front.
Conversation dries as yawns stretch our faces, we say “Nos Dda” and hit the sack.
Dawn is a squalid affair - dreech. The rain gently washes the pane as we pack up, I notice Tom’s glances outside, I can tell he’s less motivated today. Constant verbal nudges interrupt his day dreaming and keep him on track. Only a little later than planned, we’re ready to depart. The mountains biker asks the best way to cross the strath, so we tell him to just follow our line. He’ll be leaving ten or so minutes after us so he should be able to pick out trail easily enough through the wet grass.
Exiting the bothy is a sprint through the midges, what seems like Scotland’s entire population of them is in the cloud outside the door. “The trick is not to stop,”, I tell Tom, but he already knows. He’s off, out the door and round the front, up the bank and onto the path where the wind offers some respite.
And sure enough we’re soon striding out over the same wet, boggy grass we came through yesterday. Crossing the burn and then picking up the main path we head clean for Larachantivore and then through to Gleann na Muice Beag. Rounding the corner into the corrie we pause to look back, no sign of the mountain biker and no sign of the weather lifting. Its hot, the pac-lite can’t cope and I can feel its wetting out. “The poncho would have been a better option”, I reflect. Tom’s off again, climbing steadily up past Loch Beinn Dearg and up the final pull to the Clach.
This is an old path, raised stone sides lift it out of the bog as it stretches across the moorland. The cobbled surface shows where the passage of feet have passed over its age, broken by the moorland grasses that have pushed aside the stones, softening the hard way.
It makes for fast progress, in what seems like no time we’re dropping down the Allt Bruthach and under the scree rubble of Sgurr na Loacainn. Tom stares up the gullies, “Wow! Look all those boulders, do you think they still fall down the gullies?” I glance below the path at the debris, “Ooh, I wouldn’t want to be here when they do” he says, stepping off ahead. We let Dubh Loch pass below us, round the corner by Carnmore and slip easily onto the water at the causeway. A fisherman passes over the stone path, asking us if we’re fishing. “No”, I reassure him “How about you? Had many?, “Aye, a few, nought worth keeping. Missed as many as I’ve landed,” He shrugs, smiles and goes on to explain that he’s visiting, he does so every year with a group of friends, there staying in the lodge at Ardlair. “Ah well good luck today” I proffer as we put blades in the water and begin to edge away, “We may yet see you later!”
The wind is on our backs, and once more we paddle off down Ffionn Loch, this time the north end. After half an hour we pause, spin and take in the vista, despite the fetch, pitching and yawing our rafts. We sit for a while, our route down the glen follows the obvious slash across the screes and Ruadh Stac Mor dominates the skyline to the south east. Although, the black mass of cloud that is looming behind Beinn Lair over what must be Torridon is of some concern, and send my mind back to the conversation we had in Shenevall last night. As if to reinforce the point a squall splashes through, pushing the rafts together and turning us around. Time to head on. An hour of rough water later and we’re rounding the point of the Rubha Dubh and into more sheltered water.
Sliding the boats up onto the pebble shore, we set about deflating them. Soon, with the boats stowed, we’re heading in land around the lochans and towards the path at Strathan More. A foolish detour through a bog and thigh deep grass reminds me of the miles in my legs, but by the time we climb the style over the deer fence and step on to the firm path surface, all the aches are forgotten. Climbing up steeply through the bellach the sky looms dark and the SW wind is building steadily. Head down, I stride out, “If we’re stranded on this side of Loch Maree we won’t find any shelter from that wind.” I remind Tom, “Best not get stranded then” I add, to lighten the tone. Still, point made, we crack on down towards the Loch.
An hour and a half later, we reach the shore and although still very windy, the sky is clear and the late afternoon sun is hot. The dark cloud mass has moved seaward; north west of us, and gore-tex off, clothes are drying magnificently. We sit on the shore awhile looking around, a bit confused by the rapid change in the weather and wondering if we made the right call to cut short the trip and get out a day early. "Too late?” I guess. The wind here is blowing from the south east and although a good force 4-5, we should be able to make sail up through the islands, and if we use them as cover on the larger expanses of water, we shouldn’t need to work too hard to get back to the car.
Tom’s ready first. Its amazing how quickly he can transition from land to water. The last 3 he has done have all been sub 5 mins. Way better than the clumsy efforts he made on Loch Sunart a few weeks earlier. To be honest, I’m struggling to keep up with him now - is that all good?
Once on the Loch we move off shore, keeping the wind on our port beam, we hold this course until we judge the wind gives us a straight run through the 2 large islands north of us. Once there, we flip out the sails and let out the paddle-tillers. There’s a lurch, a pull from the sail and a fizz from the stern. We’re soon clipping along. Despite the increasing wind, and the large fetch I’m less concerned about Tom than I was yesterday, looking at his boat I can see he’s trimmed hard to stern and is keeping his hull rigid with his legs. His raft is skipping over the tops of the waves rather than bashing through them. I relax and enjoy the trip.
Within an hour we are through the islands and entering the large bay upon whose northern edge Slattadale sits. Now in the lee of the islands and partly of a headland, the wind has lessened the fetch, yet is strong enough to keep our speed. Less than an hour later Tom is taking his sail down and begins to paddle into the bay, he stops to shout and point at the pick-up which is just coming into view. I persist with my sail until the trees and shoreline put pay to my efforts. Tom’s already on the shore, carrying his raft up to the grass. He’s waving his paddle around and then dropping his raft he runs up and down the length of the picnic area; midges! I laugh out loud and take the opportunity to roll down my trousers into my gore-tex socks, roll my sleeves down and pack up my sail fully. Hopefully minimising the exposure I’ll have to the blighters.
Once on the shore I throw Tom the keys, deflate the raft and roll it quickly. I push it into the pick-up back and join Tom in the cab. After a fit of laughter, we take turns to wash and change in the public toilets. Once back we notice the first drops of rain falling and the sky has blackened. The water beyond the bay is being churned up by white horses and the trees are bending their tops. As we roll out of the carpark, Tom asks the inevitable, “Will we make Grantown Chippy if we leave now, Dad?”, I smile, “We’d better!”.