I stood, blowing life into my hands, untying the boat off the roof had drawn what little heat they had retained from the journey here. What was wrong with me to be up so bloody early on such a cold day? The summer would probably have been the time for this trip, but summer had been and gone, and here I was at six o’clock, standing at the east end of Loch Venachar. I was aiming for the Trossachs Loop, a circuit which would see me paddle six lochs and a handful of rivers to connect them. It was going to be a long day, no doubt, and it was going to take a monumental effort to get it finished before it was dark again.
I double checked the van was locked, climbed into the borrowed touring boat I had pinched from Grant, popped my head torch on and started my watch; what’s the point in doing a big trip if Strava doesn’t keep track of how far you go
Cruising down the middle of Loch Venachar in the pitch black, as the sun slowly rose behind me was absolutely magical. The silence, and the solitude enhanced the sound of my paddle strokes and the plimple of water as it dripped off the blades and broke the perfect surface of the loch. Bats were still flying near the shore as I cruised the length of the loch, moving as speeds completely immeasurable in the dark, there were few reference points along the way that I could make out. I was warming up now, the feeling had returned to my hands and I was pedalling my legs to keep the blood flowing, and because someone once told me it made paddling more efficient.
The sunrise, when it finally forced its way through the horizon, shone over my shoulders and illuminated my way ahead. I had timed it perfectly and was at the bottom of the Blackwater. I hadn’t fancied an upstream, bushwhacking adventure in the dark. It took me much longer than I was proud of to find the bottom of the river. It had been quite wet and levels were up. A normally obvious outflow was now covering grass verges and flowing through adjacent woodland. I’m certain that the route I took to begin my ascent wasn’t actually the river, but was somewhere we had contemplated camping a few years before when we were on a trip here. That trip had endured similar rain to the previous few days, and our canoes had been filling up faster than we could bail them out. Our chosen campsite, further down the loch, had almost flooded, and paddling over this section I was retrospectively grateful that we had seen sense and moved further away. There’s few things I want to see coming into my tent in the early hours of the morning, and the Blackwater is definitely low on the agenda.
The high water was a blessing and a curse. On the upside, the usually low water, rocky river was deep enough to paddle the majority of the way. This meant, however, that the rapids which are usually relatively tame were flowing fast and I had to work had to make my way upstream. I was reluctant to get out of the boat, anyone who knows me understands my disdain for wet feet and I wasn’t going to change my ways just to get upstream. I had my paddle and I had half a canoe pole under the webbing on the front which would come in handy on shallower sections, or as a woeful emergency spare paddle if I needed it. There were a handful of trees down along the way, most of which I was able to skirt round, but one required a quick portage. Launching back into the river I was aware that as tame as it was, I was in a boat which was longer than the river was wide, and that if I didn’t get out into the flow and turned upstream I was at real risk of breaching and then becoming stuck against the tree I had just walked around. Who knew what lurked beneath those murky waters, or whether there was a clear passage underneath. I certainly didn’t want to find out, not least because it would have meant wet feet.
Emerging from the top of the Blackwater onto Loch Achray was a relief, the upstream was over for now and I was able to recuperate some energy as I gently meandered my way along the small loch. There was a gentle mist sitting on the calm surface here, in the area shaded by trees. I felt like a contestant on Stars in their Eyes as I broke through it, feeling the sun which had cleared the fog warm my back bring me to life. All too soon I had reached the end of the loch, a shame really as Loch Achray, small as it is, is one of the more pristine, beautiful lochs in the area and I am always struck by a sense of disappointment at how quickly it is over.
I threw off some layers and prepared for a portage. After much deliberation I had opted not to bring the trolley with me. The extra weight and drag on the water, to me, didn’t outweigh the benefits. This portage between Loch Achray and Vennachar was only short and then the trip later on was not on any discernible track that I could see, and a trolley, I decided, would be harder work than just carrying and dragging the boat, and the trolley would be a massive inconvenience in this respect. What I considered a short walk was, in fact, two kilometres of road. Two kilometres with a boat on your shoulder is hard work, and I had already covered a decent enough distance to get this far. It was tedious work, as all portages are, and it felt like much longer than it should have been before Loch Katrine came into view.
As I was making my way towards the water, a high vis warrior approached me. “Have you asked if you can launch here?” I hadn’t. “This is drinking water, you can’t just paddle on it.” I looked, bemusedly at the flocks of tourists starting to fill the area and the most-like-diesel powered boat which would ferry them around on their tour, and stared back at him in disbelief. I have heard many reasons for not letting people on the water, if he had told me that it was private property and I couldn’t launch there, I would have understood, but this seemed a bizarre reason to me, I was surely not going to pollute the area, and surely the water was filtered between here and the taps of Glasgow?
I dropped my boat and wandered over to the offices, hoping for a more sensible conversation. Here, they spoke some sense. “You should have rung ahead,” the said, in a tone similar to a teacher chastising a school boy caught doing something disgusting under the table, “we don’t like people launching here, they play chicken with the tour boats in the narrows.”
After promising him I wouldn’t be guilty of any fowl play, he agreed I could launch, reminding me I should have run ahead. He gave me a timetable and told me to avoid the times when boats would be leaving and launching. After an initial distaste for me, he had come round and was remarkably genial for a man who had been so brash. “What’s your plan?” he asked. I explained where I was heading, and he shook his head “you can’t go there, the whole section behind the Black Isle is a no-go zone, there’s been landslides all in there and the geologists reckon the whole hill is about to come down, it’s been cordoned off.”
I agreed not to make the portage, although only half heartedly, and said I would go out for a paddle and just come back. In my mind, it couldn’t be that bad, surely. I would at least go and see for myself. After all, he hadn’t wanted me to paddle here at all, maybe this was another ploy?
I set off on the north side of Loch Katrine, without playing chicken with the tour boats. After the brief narrows, the loch opens up to a wide body of water, known for high winds given its altitude and openness. I stuck to the northern shore, following bays as I went. I fuelled myself with Soreen as I went, struggling to keep my breath as I stuck my mouth together with clumps of cloggy malt loaf. There was a slight headwind when I started and it was building steadily, the first white caps were appearing in the middle of the loch. Not to worry, I was rounding the final bend before the Black Isle. Either I would be cruising back with the wind, or portaging soon. It didn’t matter.
It turns out, the advice had not been an attempt to deter me. As the Black Isle came into sight I could make out at least ten scars on the hillside, all sizable landslides. There were many more down the glen I had hoped to portage up. I quickly made up my mind, the risk simply wasn’t worth it. This trip would always be here, and on a solo venture I couldn’t warrant such a danger. I scoured the map for other portage options. One sprang to mind, but it was almost three times as long, there was no way I was doing that without a trolley. I cursed myself for not bringing it, and resigned myself to turning around.
Now, the laws of nature dictate that things are never easy. Almost immediately after I turned tail, the force three headwind I had been battling swung and once again blew straight at me. Every turn I made, the wind swung with me. I had contemplated crossing and coming back down the south side, but by now the middle of the loch looked almost like the sea. I didn’t doubt my ability to cross it, and had I needed to I know I could have, but like the landslides, it felt like an unnecessary risk. I also knew there were plenty of bays on this side, and decided to stick to those instead.
I must have looked in an absolute state when I reappeared at the offices. I wolfed down some lunch and another Soreen, then set off once again on that dreaded portage. As I was here, I decided to check out a river I wasn’t sure about, the Achray Water which drains Loch Katrine into Loch Achray. I was aware of waterworks at the top, and had been told of waterfalls and weirs. I gave those a wide berth and, after about five hundred metres of road, dove off into the overgrowth to find the river.
It was laughably narrow. About five foot wide, a ditch more than a river, but it was flowing and should make my trip back much more straightforward. I climbed back into the boat and paddled a good fifty metres before I came unstuck. A narrow, twisting rapid which the boat simply did not fit down was in my way. Not to worry, I portaged quickly and climbed back in. Another ten metres and the same happened again. I gave up paddling, the act of getting in and out of the boat was becoming tiresome, and started to line my boat instead, walking it like a dog downstream. This lasted another hundred metres or so before the river was completely choked. Not only was this taking longer, it was using far more energy than the portage. It was obviously not a paddleable river, certainly not today in this boat, so once again I hoisted my boat onto my shoulder and headed back for the road.
My foot fell in a hole, I managed another three steps and again, I was up to my knee. It was dangerous walking here with my boat on my shoulder, I was liable to slip and break my leg if I wasn’t careful. I would have to drag it.
The next hour was one of the worst hours of my paddling life. I would walk ten metres ahead, up a hill, over brush and bog, through gaps in trees, then haul the boat after me and repeat the process again and again and again. It was only about six hundred metres to the trail, but I was drenched in sweat and thoroughly miserable. Anyone walking the trail would have thought they were going insane, hearing shouting and swearing and mumbling and groaning from the bushes next to them. I was in a foul temper when I finally reached Loch Achray again, and was inwardly grateful that no one else was there to see me acting so childish. In truth I was tired, hungry and resentful that the trip had been turned around. I felt like a failure, a fool.
I paddled silently and unthinkingly back across the loch and down the Blackwater, much easier now I was going the right way. The final ten kilometres across Loch Venachar seemed to drag on for the whole afternoon. The solitude and blissful relief of early morning, and watching the sunrise over this magical piece of the Trossachs seemed a lifetime ago. Now, I just wanted this to be over. The van couldn’t come soon enough.
Finally I was there. I had failed to complete the trip, but I had succeeded in one sense. I had certainly had a great day out on the water, a solo day of adventure. I had paddled, portaged and fought my way through sixty kilometres of travel. I was relieved to have finished, and by god did I need a shower and a beer.