Shivering in July: A packraft trip in the northwest

Another overdue write up; the year has been rich with trips out to new places but poor in time to get around to writing about them. This escapade took place back in July 2016, the summer of one of the warmest years on record, however I can still recall standing near the shore of Loch Nevis in the mid afternoon, wet through and dithering with cold numb fingers trying to zip up my waterproof to the top to keep further rain ingresses at bay.

David, David and I had been trying to arrange a packraft trip in the vicinity of Loch Morar for sometime, the stars finally aligned, childcare arranged, annual leave booked all topped off with a weather forecast of nothing but heavy rain and strong winds topped it off. I’d driven up north the night before, stopping off to spend a balmy night in a bivi bag shy of the summit of Pen Y Ghent (because it was there). The following evening we met and later arrived at Beasdale in darkness, I remember the sight of countless deer running straight into the road as we neared which made for some eventful swerving and braking, we spent the night pitched up a few hundred metres from the beach, a long day of travelling was duly rewarded with late night and plenty of beer. By morning the tide was out and the beach was peppered with lugworm casts, blue grey clouds hung heavy over Moidart to the south. Small beached jellyfish were scattered across the sand and looked like neon pink flowers perfectly encased in dew drops, waiting for the tide to take them back out. Three days later we would see them again, this time in hundreds, floating eerily under the surface near Inverie.morar2 morar1 We set out north over higher ground when the first rains came in, visibility was lost to the clouds though this lent a sense of grandeur to the landscape, the mountains were no higher than 600m but the scale was warped by the weather. We were passing over to the western shore of Loch Morar to spend a night on one of the islands though the strong gusts that had been forecast shifted our plans. Sporadic data signals meant last minute phone checks for the wind strength left us unsure, not wanting to literally throw caution to the wind we walked further west and tramped our way through a boggy meadow to avoid the risks of being blown to the middle of the deepest loch in the land. SONY DSCmorar3The winds had calmed by the time we put in, the weather was cool and wet, but this seems to matter less when you’re in a boat, being surrounded by water below and above is easier to take than walking in the rain and the change in pace was welcome. We explored the first smaller island Eilean Bàn, it was dense with bracken and impossible to camp on, the second island An t-Eilean Meadhoin narrowed in the middle and a small sandy beach just about accommodated three tarps. morar4morar5Rain fell throughout the night, unfortunately the jokes about the loch rising proved to be prophetic by morning, the dry sand we’d bedded down on was waterlogged and full of puddles by morning. With the weather set to continue we decided to leave Loch Morar and head further north to Loch Nevis where a bothy sits at the eastern shore. Choppy black waters rocked our packrafts as we made our way out from the island to the edge of the loch.

The day remained very wet, we passed over and down to the remote bay of Tarbet, Loch Nevis is a sea loch so subject to the tide, with a bit of planning we had managed to put in with the flood tide for our paddle to the far end of the loch. Paddling to the bothy over salt water in heavy rain was a remarkably tranquil experience, we passed through calm waters surrounded by mist covered mountains, perhaps the highlight was when a trio of porpoise breached the surface, three slick black shapes, dorsal fins appearing for a second at a time.

The bothy was full when we arrived, three very quiet and easy going people…..and a fourth person, so it goes, after eating in the comfort of the shelter we decided to sleep outside.

With little sign of the weather relenting we considered a walk over and out to Inverie the following day, the lure of a pub and hot meal sounded good enough to change the plan again, we set off early the following morning. The water was pouring constantly off the mountain sides and the streams were in full spate, a crossing of the swollen River Carnach on a rickety wooden bridge looked like a cut scene from Indiana Jones (albeit a wet British version, on reflection maybe it was more like a more exciting episode of Last of the Summer Wine). It made sense to unclip our packs as we crossed in case the bridge gave way to avoid being pulled down should it actually collapse. We walked uphill for an hour and gradually accepted that the streams were too dangerous to cross, in any other weather we could have stepped across but today they were violent and charging and there was no guarantee that heading further uphill would give any better opportunities. A group decision was made to retreat to Loch Nevis to paddle to Inverie. We neared the same rickety bridge, the swollen waters had risen dramatically in an hour and were inching towards the bridge from below.

The wind blowing in off the loch added quite a chill, which is how I found myself soaked through and shivering in mid July, unfortunately water had made its way through my impenetrable waterproof phone storage system (a zip lock sandwich bag in my pocket, I now have an aquapac) and soaked it through killing it for the rest of the trip.

All was not lost, salvation was found on the porch of an estate building on the shores of Loch Nevis, although there was sign stating that walkers should stick to the path, we appealed to some passing estate workers and asked if we could use the porch to boil up some water for tea before heading out into the rain. They didn’t seem to mind, the housekeeper appeared shortly after and offered to boil water from a kettle to save our wet hands from trying to light stoves. A few moments later the cook appeared, clearly a little bored from lack of company, he told us he’d worked all over the highlands for large estates and this by far was the wettest place he’d ever been. The cook told us that the forecast was to change for the better the following day, the rain was due to stop and bright sunshine was forecast, knowing there was an end to the rain brightened our moods though it was hard to imagine how the wind whipped loch could exist in any other state. With the promise of good weather we decided to return to Sourlies, to dry out, rest up and set out to Inverie with the ebb tide in the morning. The plan was bolstered by generous gifts of free wood to burn at the bothy and a few beers from the cook. A chance decision to use the porch had been most fortuitous. We paddled out back to the bothy, now empty and hung up a rainbow of soaked clothing, the fire was list and we pooled our food to eat large portions of curry with beer, wine and whisky. SONY DSCSONY DSCBy evening the rain had subsided and the tide was out, for the first time in several days we saw the sunshine. we enjoyed the novelty of being  outside without hoods up and layered up and walked into the loch which remained ankle deep for some distance. Smoke coming from the bothy chimney, full bellies and the promise of a brighter day made for a fine evening. SONY DSCWe woke early to catch the ebb tide, the skies were clear and before long the sun was creeping over the summits of Knoydart, we paddled through glassy waters calm as a mill pond and warmed by the sun. The conical summit of Sgùrr na Ciche reached to the sky behind us whilst the sea stretched out in front. SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCUpon arriving at Inverie we made for the pub, only to find it was closed, we shuddered at the thought of how things could have turned out if we had persevered the previous day, battling churning streams and swollen rivers only to arrive at a closed pub. Properly dried out, we ate at the cafe and caught the ferry the Mallaig; the short journey gave us views of the Skye and Rum Cullin and schools of dolphin playing in the bay. Mallaig was sun soaked and full of tourists, we found a pub and hatched a quick plan to catch a train to Beasdale before heading south to Glencoe for a further night out on Loch Rannoch.

Our boats loaded up with firewood, we set out on the waters of Rannoch Moor as the sun was going down, a short paddle before a fine island camp complete with good food, drink and a soporific beach fire, I fell asleep on the sand before the rain started to fall again. My air bed had suffered a small puncture which didn’t seem to fare well with the available repair kit, so a make shift bed of two lifejackets and a bundle of clothes made do. A broken nights sleep was broken further by a spectacular lightning storm which illuminated the small hours, the flashes were so bright that I had to pull my sleeping bag over my face to stop myself being dazzled. The storm made for a dramatic end to a very memorable trip, sure the weather could have been better, though the company couldn’t have been. SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC



4 thoughts on “Shivering in July: A packraft trip in the northwest

    1. Thanks so much, it wasn’t the easiest trip due to the deluge of rain, a great experience though with some unforgettable moments, sharing the water with jellyfish, seals and porpoise was a real treat.

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