Secret Seven on the Trail

I have always enjoyed fundraising for Crohns and Colitis UK, a charity very close to my heart. I have lived with Crohn’s and associated complications for nearly 30 years. As have my sons, two of whom also suffer from this debilitating disease. I have raised money through charity runs, tough mudder challenges and a Skydive. When I had the opportunity to paddle the Caledonian Canal with the support of White Rose Canoe Club to raise funding for research I jumped at the chance.

The Caledonian Canal runs through the Great Glen in Scotland. A deep gorge caused by a fault line in the Earth’s crust. The trail runs from Fort William to the Moray Firth near Inverness. Only one third of its length is man made, the rest comprises of four Lochs. Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour. World renowned Engineer Thomas Telford undertook this huge structural fate of engineering. With the Canal completed in 1822.

Back to my own challenge, the logistics of arranging such a trip cannot be over emphasised. We had a number of planning meetings to go over the various options. Some paddlers wanted to do it over a weekend, others wanting to use this as a holiday and allocate a week. Some have paddled the Caledonian Canal in less than 24 hours. In all honesty the more people, the more difficult it seemed to become. Consider everyone’s paddling abilities, not just in relation to speed but also stamina and how far they could realistically paddle each day.

Another consideration are the overnight options and the logistics of shuttling. Do you camp each night or use motorhomes? You can shuttle most of the vehicles to the get out in Inverness, or shuttle daily. Thereby having a back up vehicle incase someone needs to pull out for medical reasons? (Which would probably be me!)

We eventually settled on a group of seven of us, three in Sea Kayaks, and two couples in Canoes. Our planning thereby picked up pace.

With a suitable weather window our aim was to paddle during the first week of October. This avoids the midge season, but still early Autumn. Hopefully pleasant enough weather before the nights became too cold. We were going to use motorhomes where possible but would need to rough camp some nights. We had another Caledonian Canal meeting to go through necessary kit. If we were cooking together, there was no point in us all taking pots and pans. So we had a collection between, covering our needs. Importantly, this therefore limits how much we need to carry in our boats.

Sorting the esssentials

So I prepared my kit. I am PEG fed due to my Crohn’s, so would be living off Fresenius liquid bottle feeds for the duration. I work out exactly how many I need to cover my basic nutritional needs and discussed this with my Consultant. Kit also needs to be as light as possible whilst ensuring it fits in your hatches.

I bought the lightest tent and camping kit I could find. A Terra Nova Equipment Laser Competition Tent weighing in at 970g and a Traveller 50 sleeping bag at just 650g. Compression sacks and drybags allowing kit to be compact and dry. With overnight essentials in one drybag, I only need to carry that one bag from my kayak to the campsite.

Getting used to putting my tent up on my own means I have some timed attempts on Harrogate Stray. Much to Marks amusement.

Mark watches me struggle trying to put my tent up for the first time as I prepare to go out sea kayaking on the Caledonian Canal

So, with amazing support I had prepared myself much as I could. Hoping I would complete the challenge before being admitted for planned surgery on my return.

It was time for the long drive up to Fort William and our starting point.

The Caledonian Canal

For Caledonian Canal purists, the ideal is to paddle salt to salt. Coast to coast, covering just over 60 miles. Something I was keen to do, however weather dictates the terms, so although Caroline and I did dip our toes in at the very start, our actually launch was to be slightly inland.

Caroline dip our toes in the West and East Coast as we paddle salt to salt on the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen

Still, I looked forward to the journey with eager anticipation of the Great Glen and Loch Ness ahead of me with the most amazing scenery.

The week started with unexpected weather warnings. With storms forecast to cross Scotland from West to East. This was going to impact our plans greatly, but we remain determined to get this Caledonian Canal trip underway. So guided by Dick Constable, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, our start would be Fort William. The plan was to shuttle along the way rather than to the end, giving a fallback of motorhomes for our overnight stops.

Fort William to Gairlochy

Day 1 started on a beautiful but cold morning, with ice on the kayaks. We had camped the previous night at Fort William with a stunning view of Ben Nevis in the distance. The weather was good but storms were on their way.

A stunning view of Ben Nevis with a blue sky and clouds lingering around the summit as we prepare for our Great Glen trip

With massive weather restrictions near the coast we launched a Neptune’s Staircase. Built by Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822, Neptune’s Staircase consists of eight locks. Situated at Banavie, they cover a rise of 64 feet.

Neptunes staircase at the start of the Caledonian Canal near Fort William

The weather was stunning, a beautiful blue sky enriching the rustic colours of the autumnal leaves. The men shuttled vehicles to our planned finish for the day, so we waited for them to return. This in itself takes up time on a morning, so it can often be later than planned by the time you launch. Take this into consideration when planning your own Caledonian Canal journey.

With a lunch stop at the first lock it was a slow and steady day. With timings ruled by camping spots and on coming storms. Too far and we would not have a suitable overnight camp. So with that in mind and a discussion over lunch we paddled 6.08 miles to Gairlochy on Day 1. My maximum speed was 7.4mph.

2 open canoes and 3 sea kayaks resting in the water on our first lunch stop. Secret seven on the trail on Day 1 of the Caledonian Canal trip

We had hoped to cover Loch Lochy, but with such a late start on the water, this would result in a late finish. It had also been a long drive up from Leeds so personally I was feeling pretty tired. We therefore returned to our first nights camping spot at nearby Fort William. It felt like I had taken a step backwards, though the right decision at the time based on our circumstances. Such a stunning day, giving us the opportunity to get to know each others paddling speeds.

Gairlochy to Aberchalder

Day 2 started with us paddling up from Gairlochy onto Loch Lochy. The River Spean to the left of the Caledonian Canal ran very high and angry. Running from Loch Laggan, it then joins the River Lochy, resulting in a thunderous and very fast flowing section until it feeds into Loch Lochy. This is the third deepest Loch at 70 metres with a length of 9.94 miles. The Loch is quite narrow, giving the impression that you are paddling a Norwegian Fford. Continuing from Loch Lochy we paddled through Laggan Avenue. A stunning stretch of water lined by tall trees in the most glorious autumn colours.

Laggan Avenue. The of trees in all their beautiful rich Autumnal colours as I paddled down the Great Glen out sea kayaking

A beautiful waterfall on the right gave the only break in the avenue of trees. With the russet, gold and brown trees, my boat blended into the surroundings. It really was a beautiful section to paddle.

The waterfall near Laggan Locks before the River Spean merges as I sit in the Sea Kayak as I continue on the Great Glen

Laggan Locks gave us a good opportunity for a lunch stop. The portages are tiring. I had hugely under estimated how it delays progress having to portage round all the locks on this trip. You need a key when you start the Caledonian Canal. This allows you to use the toilets at the locks you travel through. It’s also good to have decent trolley wheels. There are so many portages on this trip and they do take up time and energy.

Loch Oich lay ahead. At 9 miles long and surrounded by beautiful mountains, we were more exposed to the elements. We hit torrential rain and strong winds, making this a tough paddle. The Loch is fed by the River Garry from the west and flows out into the River Oich at its northern end.

Wind and rain on Loch Oich with the 2 canoes sailing in front of me. Secret seven on the trail on the smallest Loch on the Caledonian Canal

One element you don’t always consider when arranging group camping trips, is that you always paddle at the pace of your slowest paddler. Those in the group have been paddling far longer than I could ever dream of. Though my boat was certainly the quickest and with 2 Canoes in our group, the pace had to be steady. To be honest I was enjoying the paddle and the views so much, I would have been happy at any speed. We had gone as a group and for me we should remain that way. The Tahe Marine was a lovely boat, though not a comfort fit. I could’ve done with some more weight in the hatches to sit her lower in the water. Though she was certainly fast and beautiful to paddle.

We ended Day 2 with a stop over at Aberchalder at the northern end of Loch Oich, having completed another 16.11 miles with my maximum speed at 6.7mph. The weather had turned by now and with regular up dates on the next storm front coming from Mark at home, we had to think about the following days distance carefully.

Aberchalder to Fort Augustus

Aberchalder is a lovely area, with public toilets and a small room and laundry at a nearby Lock Keepers Cottage. The men went off to shuttle the vehicles back, giving me time to stretch my legs, call home and have a brew. The Lock Keeper allowed us to keep our boats at the back of a beautiful old house at the side of the Caledonian Canal, which saved time and we camped at a nearby clearing overnight.

Aberchalder and the lock keepers cottage where the secret seven stay overnight

Day 3 dawned with worsening weather as we sat at the side of the canal with high winds and rain pelting us, staying on land in the morning while branches flowed past us on the water. Our plans for the day had to be tactical. We needed to move from where we were. We were needing better facilities if we were to be stuck for a while. So with a look at the maps and a discussion between us we launched in the afternoon for a short paddle to Fort Augustus. This would give us a decent campsite, a drying room, electric to charge phones and pubs!!!

Fort Augustus was lovely, one of those places that just has a nice vibe. Acquiring it’s name from a fort built in 1775 after the Jacobite uprising, there are now few remains of the fort. These are hidden in the grounds of the beautiful Abbey at the south end of the village. This Benedictine Abbey was populated by Monks from early in the 19th century where they enjoyed a self sustained life until 1998 when the building was eventually converted into apartments.

The Benedictine Abbey at Fort Augustus standing on the banks of Loch Ness. Secret seven on the trail

We managed to get a camping pitch at the nearby Lochness Highland Resort. The facilities here are great. The showers are spacious and warm and there’s a good drying room. It’s only a short walk into the main village which nestles around the impressive five locks. Built between 1816 and 1820 by Simpson and Cargill, the locks drop the water level of the canal 40 feet from the Kytra Reach to Loch Ness.

A view of the 5 locks at Fort Augustus in Scotland

Fort Augustus is popular for visitors passing through and with both Urquhart Castle and Eilean Donan Castle around an hours drive away, it provides a great stop over.

The last of the bad weather passed us that night and I stood watching the angry flow from the River Oich into Loch Ness. With so much rain over the past few days the levels were high and the water thundered underneath the bridge into the Loch.

A view from the bridge as the River Oich flows out into Loch Ness and the largest of the Loch on the Caledonian Canal

After a bit of tourist shopping to buy a T shirt and the obligatory Caledonian Canal fridge magnet, I joined the group for a meal and drinks in the pub while our kit drip dried back at base. We had added another 5.32 miles to our distance with my maximum speed that day at just 6.5mph.

Fort Augustus to Foyers

Day 4 started with calmer weather, thank goodness, we had certainly seen our fair share of storms over the week. So it was time to head out on to Loch Ness, the bit I have been waiting for. Nessy here I come!

The sign at the start of Loch Ness welcoming you to Fort Augustus as we start to paddle the longest Loch in the Great Glen

Loch Ness is around 23 miles long and 230 metres deep. With a surface area of 22 square miles, it’s volume is larger than all the lakes in England and Wales put together.

The first thing I felt when paddling out on to the Loch was the sheer size of it. It felt different to the other Lochs. It felt intimidating, it felt huge. Such a great expanse with surprisingly little shelter at the shore. You don’t appreciate the shore on paddles like this until you are out there. There was no get out and very little shelter. The shoreline is banked by huge trees making it very difficult to camp or even stop for lunch. We had taken the decision to paddle on the quieter southern shore of the Loch as this gave us a targeted stopover at Foyers and a good campsite about half way down the Loch.

A view of me in the sea kayak on Loch Ness with the mountains behind me as I continue out sea kayaking

The Sea Kayaks were in their element in this landscape, with the waters reacting to the winds in the same way you would expect on a sea paddle. It was difficult going for the canoes. They used their sails as and when the conditions allowed them and I have to say that’s one of the things that has stayed with me from this trip. How Lilly and Vicky knelt for hours facing into the wind holding their respective sails is something I have huge respect for. Their boats continuously pelted with the wind, waves and rain. This Loch was unforgiving.

Whenever you cleared one headland there was another way out there on the horizon, as far as your eye could see. We were hit by a nasty squally wind slicing around our boats and making it difficult for some of the paddlers. So with the nod from Dick, we all grouped up under some trees for a breather until it settled.

We managed to find a small area that would allow us a lunch break, and there really was not very much choice. I began to realise why some campers bring tarps and a hammock. There was no flat ground anywhere to allow you to pitch a tent, so if your intention is to camp on the shore, your only option is to rig a hammock from the trees and amongst the dense undergrowth.

Once sat with my flask and a Fresenius bottle to replenish my energy levels, I could admire the view. The colours of the trees, the silence, the feeling that I was doing something I had always wanted to do.

A shot of Loch Ness as we stop for lunch. Beautiful trees in the foreground with the Loch behind us

We had planned our overnight stopover at a good campsite at Foyers, about halfway down the Loch. This gave us electric, food, a drying room and a good launching point for the next day. The campsite has excellent amenities with drying rooms, washing lines, a small shop and a café.

It was nice to stretch my legs and a small beach gave me a perfect viewing spot to watch 2 Eurofighters training up and down the Loch. They had flown over us for the last hour of today’s paddle, twisting and climbing before returning back low over our heads. The sound echoed throughout the valley. I managed to catch them on video, though this unfortunately doesn’t load on to this blog. So a still shot allows you a quick glimpse.

The small beach at Foyers watching a Eurofighter pass low over the Loch. we are now half way down Loch Ness in the Great Glen

I had paddled 10.71 miles on Day 4 with my maximum speed 6.9mph. Hopefully just one more day to go.

With a planning meeting that evening and another check on the weather, we soon realised we had to finish the next day. Another nasty storm was heading straight for us. We had already been badly affected by the weather in relation to our distance and timings. If we didn’t finish this the next day there was a possibility we would have to pull out, which at such a late stage was not something any of us wanted to do.

Foyers to Inverness

So Day 5 dawned with a calm and brief weather window, but it was going to be a longer day. For the Sea Kayaks the distance was fine but for the couples in the Canoes this was a big ask. We set off from Foyers, knowing we now had a big push to the end. Staying the along the south shoreline and hugging the sides of the Loch, we cut across and followed Bona Narrows, a section passing the lighthouse and onto Loch Dochfour, the last Loch on the canal. Caroline and I paddled around the remains of an old wreck as we approached Dochgarroch Locks and weir.

The old shipwreck sleeping in the water as you leave the Loch behind you near the end of the Caledonian Canal

This continues onto the River Ness and the last section of the Canal as it flows out to the Moray Firth. We were now only 4 miles from Inverness.

With the end in sight, we passed the official markers that signalled the end of the Great Glen and our final get out at Clachnaharry Lock.

The sign as you reach the end of the Caledonian Canal signalling how far you have travelled through the Great Glen

We had covered 19.66 miles on Day 5 with my maximum speed at 8.3mph.

As I sat in a cake shop with Caroline, Vicky and Lilly, waiting for the men to finish the last shuttle, we chatted about the trip, our expectations, our favourite bits and how tough the weather and conditions had been.

Once back with all the vehicles we spent time packing everything up and loading all the boats for the final time on what had been an amazing journey. Tired from a long day we enjoyed a stopover in the local pub carpark at the Dores Inn. A warm meal and a few glasses of wine flowed, as we shared our thoughts of the past few days. It was going to be a long drive home the following morning.

For me, I had experienced a journey in so many ways. Challenging myself physically and mentally, forever conscious that medical treatment awaited me once I got home. I had enjoyed the amazing beauty of the Great Glen, the Lochs, the history of its magnificent engineering and the stunning historical landmarks that line its path. Over a £1,000 had been raised for Crohn’s & Colitis UK in completing the paddle. The generosity of friends who sponsored who sponsored me is something I shall not forget. I had learned the compromises you have to make with a group when it comes to logistics, paddling speed and expectations.

My cumulative paddling distance was 61.74 miles. Completing the Caledonian Canal in an actual activity time of just under 22 hours, though the weather had dictated this to be spread over the 5 days. My maximum speed had been 8.3mph.

I was very tired, though my shoulders and arms were fine with no sign of injury. I felt thankful for the opportunity I’d been given. Recreational therapy at its best.

And I hadn’t seen a Monster

The great outdoors and my loving family are my medicine and therapy. As I continue to fight Crohn's Disease; Auto Immune Disease; Pulmonary Fibrosis; Arthritis. I hope you enjoy reading my blog on the trials and tribulations of enjoying the rest of my life on and off the water.

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