Canoe & Kayak: Caledonian Canal Great Glen Canoe Trail Loch Lochy Loch Ness Loch Oich
It’s three am and there are waves slapping loudly against the pebble beach about twenty feet from my ear. It was flat calm when I wriggled into my soggy sleeping bag last night, so the wind must have freshened and shifted to the south west.
‘Getting off that beach is going to be interesting’ I thought as I drifted back to sleep.
Midges, gales and a race against time
Three days before, Jonny and I had launched our nineteen foot open canoe into the Caledonian Canal at Banavie, just outside Fort William. We were heading out on ‘One of the UKs great adventures, requiring skill, strength, determination and, above all, wisdom on the water’ – the Great Glen Canoe Trail. Sixty miles of paddling would take us from Fort William on the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea at Inverness.
We had allowed five days for the trip, but work commitments delayed us by two days and we were launching our boat in driving rain and a gale force wind at six in the evening hoping to get to Gairlochy and set up camp before it got dark. It was only ten kilometres so we made it – no bother.
Everything was wet by the time we tore into the roast chicken we’d bought in Morrison’s before leaving Fort William. But between the rain and the midges it was not an idyllic night.
British Waterways, who maintain the canal, will rent you a key to the showers and toilets available at some of the locks. We had one, and the facilities at Gairlochy were great, so we were in better shape the following morning when we left the canal and paddled into the vastness of Loch Lochy.
Locks and lochs
If the Great Glen Trail were just canals it would be a little tedious but en route there are three big lochs (and many more locks) which can present all kinds of challenges depending on the weather. Loch Lochy is ten miles long, and Loch Oich about five. Loch Ness is so long the end is over the horizon, a robust twenty-three miles from end to end.
My son Jonny is a strong paddler and so am I. Our boat is twenty years old and home-built, but it is a fast one and we were knocking off a kilometre every ten minutes. Stopping for a brew every ninety minutes or so we made the top of Loch Lochy by one o’clock.
I think the section from here to the head of Loch Oich is the prettiest bit of the trail. There are some great places to wild camp by the Loch, and beautiful scenery all the way. We were on a roll though, and didn’t hang about – arriving in Fort Augustus by six o’clock that evening. We had moved quickly, but still found time to look ‘round and relish the experience.
Lock Ness is the Monster
Early next morning we slipped the boat into an utterly still Loch Ness paddling towards the southern and more remote shore before turning north east to head up the lake. The wind freshened and from the north and this made for some bouncy paddling when the fetch was long enough to make big waves. Added to this, occasional squalls brought rain, stronger wind and even bigger waves. Throw in the wash from passing pleasure craft and you have conditions which, while not exactly dangerous, required constant attention!
Someone asked me if we had seen the Lock Ness Monster. Truly, setting out in a single open canoe on a body of water that large you realise that – leaving prehistoric creatures to one side – Loch Ness is the Monster. It is a place for people who know what they are doing.
On the way we stopped and brewed up on some lovely beaches – and just felt blessed to be there on a day that grew increasingly warm and sunny. The whole traverse took us nine hours and we beached at Dores – a couple of kilometres from the end – by six o’clock that evening. There are lovely wild camp possibilities here and we put up our tent near the water and headed for the pub and a plate fo fish and chips. Not authentic wild-camping I know but we’d earned it!
The wind veered in the night, and getting off that beach was interesting but not really difficult. When we rounded Tor Point that freshening south-westerly blew us down the rest of the Loch and into Inverness and journey’s end at the Tomnahurich swing bridge. Sixty miles from sea to shining sea in just over two days of paddling – nice!
The Scottish Canoe Association’s comprehensive guide to the trip is fantastic, authoritative and free.
The Great Glen Canoe Trail guide map has good info on canal facilities, nice maps and pretty pictures.
The official canoe trail site is also useful
 Quoted from The Great Glen Canoe Trail guide map