Sitting in the bar of the Caledonian Sleeper train with my then twelve year old son Louis, it is hard not to people watch, wondering where everyone is heading on this early summer, late night train to the Highlands. One father tells his teenage daughter off for wearing headphones, shouting “For goodness sake, you are meant to be on an adventure, stop being such an unfriendly disgrace”. Louis and I suppress a giggle, but my insides tighten just a little, aware that he too is on that puberty precipice, and who knows where that will take us.
For the moment, however, we are also on an adventure, just mother and son. Louis has always wanted to go wild camping and he loves the water, so this four day trip canoeing down Scotland’s Great Glen, ticked all the boxes. After a great night’s sleep, the scenery upstages people-watching as we wake up to wilderness, waterfalls and wind stripped mountain peaks. We are met at Fort William station by our two guides, Craig and Dave, as well as two other families who are joining us, the headphone wearing teen from the train not being one of them, I’m glad to note. The children range in age from twelve to seventeen, and we are all single parents for the weekend as well, making up a team of two Mums, one Dad and six kids.
The guides talk us through our itinerary, explaining the geography of the Great Glen, and the task which lies ahead. We start our journey just up the road at the top of Neptune’s Staircase, a collection of locks created by the Victorians to enable boats to, literally, climb the hills allowing them to cross country using the Caledonian Canal system to Inverness, thus avoiding a journey all around the treacherous tip of the country. We are to follow this route too, intermingling lochs with locks, all of which finally take us into Lough Ness. Now an official 95 km long Canoe Trail, we are only taking on about half of it, leaving the Lough Ness to Inverness stretch to the more experienced.
Our canoes are traditional Canadian style, with ample room for luggage, tents, and food supplies. It is only when we transfer our luggage and sleeping bags into watertight barrels and then into our allocated canoe, that I realise what a military style operation this actually is. However, I soon lose any sense of trepidation when the other Mum confesses to a stash of gin, tonic and even lemons in her barrel. Liking her style.
After a bit of paddling technique, we hit the water at last, the sun shining, waters glistening, and Ben Nevis taking on an almost custodial role behind us as we start our expedition. Louis and I are sharing a canoe and so far the paddling is smooth and effortless. We chat merrily and wave to passing cyclists and walkers on the Canal bank, where we moor to have our first picnic lunch.
One of my concerns was not having enough food to fill Louis’ ever-growing ‘hollow legs’, but judging from the first lunch of rolls, cheese, ham, salad and a crate of crisps, they aren’t going to limit the nosh. We complete our day of placid paddling on the Canal, easing in with a 10.5 km stretch to our first lock at Gairlochy. I can see that the ‘lock’ word is going to get confusing, what with lochs and locks, and now a loch ahead of the lock called Loch Lochy. And it is at Gairlochy that we realise this is no paddle in the park either. Naively, I thought we might just navigate the canoes through the locks, but no such luck. We have to unload all our cargo up to the top of the canal bank, pull up the canoes, transfer them up to our base camp on the other side of the lock, set up a shelter to protect all our stuff if the heavens decide to open, pitch tents, all while protecting ourselves from the evening onslaught of Scotland’s greatest enemy. The midge.
I feel stupid walking around with a midge net over my face, spraying myself at every available moment, but this soon becomes the norm for everyone. The midges only emerge at dusk, so we are not bothered by them out on the water. There is already a team spirit going on in Camp Caledonian, with everyone muscling up and mucking in. As we pitch camp, Craig and Dave get dinner on, all locally pre-prepared meals from Dows of Aberfeldy, tonight’s offering a mound of Spaghetti Bolognese. With a quick twilight dip in Loch Lochy and a G&T to toast our first sunset, we should have predicted this perfect calm before the storm.
Each day begins with a big packing up session, more of a battle for the teenagers than the adults, with rude awakenings tough on any hormonal human. But once we are on the water, we wake up to the blessings of nature which surround us, albeit a rougher, wilder space than yesterday’s mellow meanderings. We don suncream, remove fleeces to flex muscles, soon to put back every layer, plus more, as rain comes in over the Loch like a plague of locusts. We paddle on bravely, despite head winds, knowing that we have 15kms to go, on water which feels now feels more like open sea. This is serious work, and Louis gives it his all, steering at the back while I give welly at the front, all to cheers of encouragement from our ever supportive guides, who are professional and protective to the end.
We all get used to the rain and keep the heads down, but having paddled through waves and into the wind for most of the day, our instructors decide to pitch camp earlier than planned, on the shores of Lochy. Everything is wet but a quiet determination to complete this tough day falls over the group as we patiently unload our sodden cargo. But with tents up, a massive fire burning and steam rising off our wet clothes, the morale soon picks up as we tuck into wild venison sausages followed by traditional Cranachan, made with cream, raspberries, oats, honey and whisky. No swimming tonight, however, as we all hit our sleeping bags early, praying for the rain to stop.
In the movie, we would wake up to bright sunlight, but in reality we waken to drizzle and damp. It has rained all night, but the wind has subsided and Loch Lochy has turned to Lake Placid, with a light rain teasing the surface into bubbles. In comparison to yesterday, this already feels like the Med, and so we set off again with renewed optimism to our next lock at South Laggan, where we have our longest ‘portage’ session so far, carrying boats and barrels through two sets of locks. We pass a pub and a room full of dry towels and I’m not sure which one I crave the most at this stage, but our instructors drive us on, in an effort to make up for yesterday’s lost time, along the tranquil waters of what is known as Laggan Avenue, a stunning waterway lined with spruce, beech and oak.
As we stop for lunch, the lads say there is no time for hot drinks, and this is when I have my only run in. The minute we stop paddling the cold hits hard and I insist on tea all round, despite raised eyebrows from our hardcore guides. I win the battle, however, pointing out that this is not boot camp after all. Sore muscles and wet socks I can cope with, but I draw the line at blue lips. It does the trick, and gives us all a new lease of life for the last lap along the calmer waters of Loch Oich where we pitch camp for the last time. The kids take off on a dusk walk along the canal, now all great mates, while we ponder our achievements. There is no question we have all bonded as a group, relished the challenges, and totally fallen in love with this uncelebrated collection of waterways.
Finishing our last day’s paddling just outside Fort Augustus, where a series of six locks guide boats into Loch Ness, we load the canoes and gear onto a trailer, change back into land clothes and walk down to Ness’s shores. All of us sharing a great sense of pride at having taken on the baby lochs which lead into this mother, we gasp in awe at other canoeists who are taking on ‘the monster’ of all loughs. And back on the train that evening, where white sheets and a mattress suddenly feel ‘five star’, I ask Louis “How about doing Loch Ness for your sixteenth birthday?” But my ‘baby’ has fallen into a deep, well deserved slumber, allowing me to drift off into my own exhausted, exhilarated and totally loved up reverie.
For more info see www.wildernessscotland.com/family. Wilderness Scotland is a 5-star Activity Provider which provides an inspiring range of adventure holidays in the Scottish Highlands & Islands.Tel: +44 (0)131 625 6635
An edited version of this article was first published in Green Parent Magazine