Sunday, 18 December 2011

Loch Shiel and Loch Morar - highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting loop

I had been kicking about a plan since early in the year to do a multi-day bikepacking trip in the summer, starting from near Acharacle on the West coast of Scotland. Various plans had been made, possibly a group trip involving boats at a few points, and a trip round the Ardnamuchan Peninsula. The group trip idea didn't come about, so I changed my plan to a solo trip involving the use of my newly acquired packraft.

The route i decided on started at Castle Tioram with a cycle to Loch Shiel, across and up the loch, then cycle the rest of the loch up to Glenfinnan. From there, I'd cycle up the glen, then take a left at the lodge up Coal-Ghleann and down Gleann Donn to Loch Beoraid, along the loch, then out and across past Meoble to Loch Morar. Across Loch Morar, then along the loch to Morar itself, down to Arasaig, then round past Glenuig, into Loch Moidart and back to the Castle.I reckoned three days would do it at a relaxed pace.

Day 1

It's funny how much pressure and expectation I felt as the planned day came closer. I had invested a lot of time and not an inconsiderable amount of money into preparing for the trip, not ending up doing it would be a big letdown. A few days before, I kept my eye on the weather. The main thing was the wind - too much of that makes cycling, camping, and most of all packrafting difficult, heavy going, dangerous, or plain impossible. The day before the trip was windy, and I took a look at Loch Shiel... 20 mph gusts and 2 foot waves were rolling down the loch, enough to make it a no-go if it was like that the next day.

The day of departure came. I looked out the window - rain! Well, at least there was hardly any wind. Everything was packed the night before, so just a quick shower, then breakfast, a midgy farewell to family, and I was off.

The first section felt great. I was rolling on roads and tracks alongside the River Shiel that I knew so well. It was raining, but only softly. The feeling of freedom and of expectation, as well as relief to be on my way, was something I hadn't felt so profoundly before.

Onto the A 861. Past 'Fergies', a hotel and bothy bar once run by accordion legend Fergie MacDonald, now by his daughter. No time for a friendly nip now, onwards on the single track main road, then off down to Dalelia, past a pier on the side of Loch Shiel, and onto a landrover track, chase some sheep across a field, and to my first 'transform' from land to water.

I unraveled the boat on the red rocky shore, and started inflating it. I had practiced the transform enough that it was now easy to me. Boat ready, I packed the bike and the two dry bags onto the bow. I could wax lyrical about how atmospheric this spot was, looking over to The Green Isle (Eilean Fhianain) to Ben Resipole blanketed in rolling cloud and low mist. But that's what photos are for.

Ready to cross to Eilean Fhianain

I took a short float over to the island. I had visited it once, but that was a long time ago. Most of the land is taken up with a burial ground and the ruins of St. Finan's Chapel. I walked up to it, and it was impossible not to feel the history of the place. The ancient graves, the small ruined chapel with it's alter, cross, and bell, the mist rolling amongst the trees in the mainland all about me.

St. Finan's Chapel alter, cross, and bell

I'm not a religious person, but I rang the bell and said some words to myself, asking for a safe trip. A shiver ran down my spine.

Down to the boat and out onto the loch again, I had at least a 3k paddle in front of me. The air was dead calm, not a breath, just gentle drizzle on and off.

Looking up Loch Shiel to Polloch
It was serene to just be floating by myself, paddling on flat calm water. The packraft isn't the most streamlined of small human powered watercraft, they seem to do about 3kph with a steady paddle. Like walking, you need to put one foot (paddle) in front of the other to make way, the boat quickly stops and spins round if you stop paddling. So it's 1, 2, keep going, but plenty of time to enjoy the view. I like keeping close the the shore where possible, seeing everything from this unique perspective is one of the joys of being in my wee boat

I didn't keep a track of the time much on my trip. I don't wear a watch, and my mobile phone was turned off in a waterproof bag deep in my rucksack - but when I got to the Pontoon at Polloch, I knew it had to be lunchtime! After a quick transform into landcraft, I got the oatcakes, cheese, and cup-a-soup out, and tucked in. 

Polloch Pontoon

 I did this a few times on this trip, and there is something great about sitting on a pier, jetty, or pontoon after a few hours paddling and cycling, and just relaxing, listening to the water against the pier. They will be the transition and transformation points most of the time on this trip, the flat and uncluttered surface making a great spot to eat, contemplate where I have come from, and where I am going to next.

Something happened on the pontoon that I had not seen before. You can see in the photo above that the water is flat calm. Well not long after the photo was taken, and for no visible reason, a swell suddenly got up. It was like someone had turned on a wave machine miles away. No announcement, no gradual change. If you look at the above photo, you can see a lighter area of water to the top. I looked at other photos I took there, and indeed it is the swell approaching. It made me appreciate I had a calm loch for my journey.

Leaving the pontoon, I had a 10k cycle along the logging road that runs up the South bank of Loch Shiel. I had done this road before, so I know what to expect - a compacted sand and pebble road rolling up and down all the way along the banks of the loch.

The logging road along Loch Shiel, looking toward Glenfinnan
Despite the somewhat soft and wet surface, I got to Glenfinnan in reasonable time. It was funny crossing through - I hadn't seen a soul all day, and now there were tourists and cars and trains and boats. Quite a metropolis! I carried on to the singletrack road up Glen Finnan, under the Viaduct - the bike poses for a picture.

Glenfinnan Viaduct, no pottering about

By now, it had decided to rain fairly heavily. Still, my windstopper trousers and jacket seemed to be bearing up. The single track private road up Glen Finnan to the lodge / Corryhully Bothy was really quite pleasant, no big hills, no cars, and a nice roll on tarmac. Once at the lodge, I turned left up it's access road, then it was straight on for me, off road.

I was immediately confronted with a wall of a climb... this was the quad bike stalker track I would be following for the next 2k. Off the bike, I pushed up the steep embankment, squelched through a wet boggy patch, turned a corner, then jumped on where the track leveled off, and started my assent up Coal-Ghleann. The rain really was lashing down now.

Although the quad track was reasonable, endless waterbars and cross-drains together with large rocks and a generally rough surface, combined with the added weight on my bike, made me walk more than I would have liked. I had a strange sense of isolation, after the bustle of Glenfinnan. I knew I was heading for an overnight camp miles from anyone, miles from any road, well off the beaten track.

A brooding and wet Coal-Ghleann

Pushing on up, I was starting to feel wet now. Wet, but certainly not cold. I run hot anyway, and a merino base layer over my jacket keeps me warm winter or summer. The Allt a' Chaol-ghlinne stream was full of water, enough rain had fallen to fill all the burns and streams in the area. The higher I got in the glen, the less of the path there was. I was walking more then cycling, until I found myself only walking. The quad track had turned into a rough walking track following the river.

At this point, I have to admit, I started to wonder what I was doing. I had been on the go for about 7 hours now, surely it was time to have one last splash in a puddle, then get home for a plate full of pasta and a nice cold beer? No, I knew I had another 4k of glen to walk through, then a solo camp at the head of Loch Beoraid. Wet and tired, and not a little lonely, I was now officially out of my comfort zone.

The trudging had got more boggy now, the path barely a hint. Still, the bike was not too hard to push about, I think having weight in the framebag really helped here - low and central. The path disappeared as I neared the top of the glen. On each side of the glen, burns cascaded down from above. I stopped and looked round. It seemed all about me was movement and noise, dramatic and timeless. I felt lucky to see the show.

Waterfall at the top of Coal-Ghleann

It was great to be at the top. despite there being no path, and just soggy ground, interspersed with marshy bits, and then some wetter bits that turned into streams. Out came the map (thank goodness it was waterproof!). I had to find my own way. I hadn't decided beforehand what side of Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn I was going to go down, and I needed to make a call as I didn't want to have to cross it in spate. From what I saw on the map, and what was in front of me, I decided the left hand side was the way.

Pressing on, and the walking was really heavy now. I was picking my way through ancient moss covered boulder fields, walking over them and trying not to stick my leg into a gap,  hauling the bike beside me, wheeling it over, leaning on it for support. You would think it would have been a real burden, but it felt ok. I am sure it slowed me down a lot compared to having just a rucksack, but I felt light on my feet, the bike was carrying the weight.

100 meters on, and I found myself looking down onto Loch Beoraid. It was wonderful to see it unfolding before me. Even with, or perhaps because of, the rain, it really felt like a hidden treasure, a sight only a few walkers, stalkers, and anglers get to see. No one gets to see this without putting in a fair amount of time and effort.

Looking down Gleann Donn to Loch Beoraid
 Now things got serious. The glen was steep, much steeper than on the way up, and with no path, I had to constantly consider my way. I thought about stopping for a cup of tea, but elected to bash on, afraid that stopping would see me reluctant to start again. More tough ground, boulders, and marsh. The glen gets steeper, and I decide to keep uphill of my bike, in case it gets snagged or tips over - I don't want to be underneath it and get pushed over myself. The sides of the glen are over 45 degrees now, and I have to cross a good few burns in full spate, filling up a roaring Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn below.

This is truly the point of no return, I have to get down this glen. I can feel my focus sharpening, I am in wild country, I am on my tod, and I have to use my own resources to get through it. I leave the bike and do a recce, decide on a route, go back and claim another 50 meters, before doing the same again. I'm in the trees now, but the glen is getting steeper still. The noise of the water is getting in top of me, I start wondering if I am going to get down from here at all. 

The next recce presents me with two choices - go high and try to cross a steep grassy slope with a vertical rock face to the upper side, and vertical drop to the other, or go straight down the glen where a 7 foot almost vertical slab of rock is the only way down. I decide on the latter. This really is hard going. I am soaked through, exhausted, but I know I have to keep traveling. I lower the bike down the slab, going onto my stomach and stretching down, holding the front wheel. The back wheel is still a couple of feet from the bottom, but I don't really have a choice. I let go, and the bike slides down and comes to a rest - no damage, thank goodness. I try to lower myself down gently, but end up sliding down the slab as well. I get to the bottom, with a scratched hand for my trouble.

The glen starts to level out now, with grassy banks among the open wood. There are still burns rushing down the sides that I have to cross. At a fairly deep and large one, I put the bike in downstream - bikes are quite streamlined for this use, the spokes presenting no resistance to the rushing water. My tired legs on the other hand are grateful for the support, this water is moving fast, and the last thing I want is to loose my footing and fall into the fast cold water.

The grassy banks give way to unsurprising marsh, the ground almost flat now. This is more slow and heavy going, I really don't have any energy left, but there is nowhere to camp here. I'm at the flat marshy area in the center of the picture below. I have really had enough by this point, when the idea strikes me - time to float! It makes sense, I feel trapped and need to free myself up out of this waterlogged ground. I walk to a small tree by the side of the river, and go into transform mode.

Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn flowing into Loch Beoraid
I start to feel the midges. The midge lotion goes on, and I carry on with inflating the packraft, and securing the load. I am trying to be careful and safe here, I don't want to loose my cargo - the tent especially. I slide into the boat and push into the river. Marvelous... what a fine sensation. After being on my feet for hours, I am floating, getting carried to the loch with little effort, sitting down! This is the true packraft advantage - walk, ride, float.. What was impossible and impassable, becomes easy, pleasurable, practical. Water is just a different kind of path.
I get spat out into the loch. Daylight is fading - it is past 9pm by now, and it really is time to find somewhere to camp. I consider the small island in the loch, but it is quite far (about 4k), and it would be dark by the time I got there. I don't even know if it would be habitable. Scanning the nearby banks, I see a sandy beach tucked into the head of the loch. Sand! Not marsh, or bog, or river, or rock, but soft, well-draining sand. I head straight for it, I can camp right there! Landing, I pull the boat out the water. I look at the sandy shore... well I could camp there, but I hate getting sand everywhere. I wander up a bit, the ground is rough and I cross the faint wisp of the barely used path that goes along the loch. Up a bit more, and there is a raised hillock. I climb up it. It's somewhat flattish. No more procrastination, decision made, I am camping here. I get all the gear in a few trips, deflate the raft, and put the tent up on top of it, and fall inside.

I'm in total autopilot now. All my clothes come off, and I dry myself with my camping towel - it was a good call bringing that. I put on my dry boxers, t-shirt, socks, and woolly hat. Luxury! ok, food. I get out the stove pan, water. Dump some water in, and let it boil, put in my pre-measured ration of pasta, then close the lid and dive into the tent again. Mat inflated and sleeping quilt unpacked, I get inside. I have never felt so warm and comfortable, I was so thankful for all the amazing camping equipment available nowadays, I was carrying it all on my handlebars, tent, quilt, mat - they all pack so small and light.

Now I have my head down, I am exhausted. My eyes close, I relax. I'm not really hungry, but I know I should eat so I have energy for tomorrow. I slip in and out of consciousness in my warn cocoon. I open my eyes - the pasta! Not sure how long I was 'out' for, but I have burnt my food. Ok that's not good. I empty it out and put another portion in. Concentrate this time. Make food. Eat food. I force myself to do this. No enjoyment, but I know it is doing me good. Finished, now I feel really drowsy, now drifting off, now sleep...

(to be continued, next installment 24th December 2011)


  1. Great story and a magic light in the photos.

  2. That looks great! Congratulations, it looks like a really fun trip.

  3. Gorgeous photos there, excellent what you made from the scenery despite the rubbish looking weather!

  4. A cracking trip, makes me want to try a bit of packrafting myself.

    Re the sudden swell you saw on the pontoon - the more time you spend on the water the more you will realise that this is by no means unusual. I think a lot of people underestimate the risks involved in loch paddling and wrote a piece about it a couple of years ago.

  5. Thanks for the encouraging comments everyone!

    Gavin - thanks for the interesting link, I do have a respect for the water and my safety. I could have handled the particular swell ok in the packraft (they are quite stable) but it would have made it harder going. I also have a PFT and a personal location beacon just in case. Particularly with solo paddles miles from anywhere, things can go wrong very quickly.

    I spent a considerable amount of time practicing with my packraft, a lot of it with the local kayak club, including capsize recovery practice in the swimming pool and outside in the lagoon (with dummy loads), running rivers up to grade 4, and some sea surfing with up to 4 foot waves. Also did some sea practice with old bike as 'dummy' load in less swell, maybe 2 feet.

  6. Enjoyed reading and thinking of something similar myself now. Wondered what bags you use for packing the gear on your bike... what's the front handler bag and frame brand?

    1. Hey Helen, sorry I missed your post! 5 years later... the front bag was a large drybag, I can't remember the make. This was held on with an Epic Designs (now Revelate Designs) handlebar harness. The rear was I think a Lomo fairly heavy duty drybag on an Old Man Mountain rack.

      These days, I'd try to carry less, and use lighter bags, especially for things that don't need to be kept dry! I'd look for some kind of strong net bag I think.