Todays story comes from our good friend Stephen who runs Scottish Rock & Water based in Newtonmore. Stephen and his buddy Ben headed over to the Scottish Islands of Lewis and Harris for a canoe adventure which very few people have probably ever done.
Lewis and Harris, one of the islands that I had always wanted to visit but always seemed to be ‘too busy’ so when Ben got in touch about organising a canoe expedition it was time to get exploring. We put our heads together and decided that a trip from Tarbert ferry port to Calinais stones would be a real cracker. Ben had done the trip previously but was very unwell so hadn’t remembered/enjoyed the trip. So the ferry got booked, and the adventure begun… a proper, real committing canoe trip awaited, albeit, unknown to us at that time!
We caught the ferry from Uig to Tarbert as Ben was staying on Skye for a few weeks. On the ferry, we discussed the very windy forecast and decided to assess the conditions in the morning from the road down to Scalpay Bridge, so it was time for a few glasses of wine to catch up on some old times.
After some breakfast and a cup of tea, a few rocks of the van from the wind, it was time to go and check out the sea state. When driving over, the sea looked reasonable, but from experience looking from the lee side it always looks reasonable! I had on my cautious hat as it was forecast for westerly’s of 25mph gusting 36-39 (a tad windy in a bath tub.) We got a better look from the road on the way down to Scalpay, it looked big with lots of breaking white horses, but it was the bridge that concerned me the most, all the water and fetch had to get squeezed through that gap. Sure enough, the waves were dangerously big and not an ideal place to swim, a very long one at that, if it went wrong it was around 40km to the mainland!
Although the sea was big, we thought we could keep close to the shore on the south side, and we were keen to have a decent trip on the sea (the other get in would only leave us with a 5km paddle to the head of Loch Siophort). A logistical issue we had was no other vehicle to shuttle, it meant joining three buses together, and we wouldn’t be on the water until 2pm. We decided we would go for the longer trip and a later start, I mean surely someone would give us a lift with the trusty thumb!?
30min with the thumb and we were onto a winner, Neil, he even took me all the way to Scalpay bridge! Very much appreciated from the local 🙂 meaning we could get on the water for 12.30.
The wind was making the sea look serious, big waves breaking over the top of each other under the bridge. We waited for a lull and got on the water, going with the wind and to get around the headland before it blew up again, 15min with the strong westerly wind and we had nipped round the corner without any problems.
The sun was out, the colour of the sea was incredibly blue and we had some shelter from the wind, the trip was looking good. We knew that some of the inlets might be challenging with the westerly winds but we’d cross that bridge when we came to it, I mean it couldn’t be that bad, could it?
On approaching the first inlet we seen some big waves, being pushed out of the bay, as we got closer, it became apparent how challenging this would be. We were committed position, paddling back to the bridge would’ve been very tough going and a little dangerous if we swam, it looked like going into the inlet was the best option, and with a series of steep rocky outcrops, it meant that we couldn’t line/walk the boats up the side. We decided we would make progress through the lulls and keep to the side during the gusts; it was blowing force 5 gusting 7.
It took us 1h 20min to cover 2km, very slow progress, but it was progress and that kept morale high. Once into the head of the inlet, the wind was being funnelled down the glen like a hurricane was building! Loaded boats being blown around knocking me off my feet! It felt serious, what was the best course of action? Do we sit it out? The forecast was to get stronger the following day, also in winds like this with no shelter, it would’ve been a very long few days. Could we tie the boats up and walk out? Not a very inspiring option looking at the terrain we would need to cover… we opted to line for a short while, making sure not to let go of the boats with all our gear! A lull came, I looked at Ben, and said: “let’s make a dash for it!”. we manged to paddle around the corner before it stared to kick off again. Time was ticking on, and we knew that we would have a similar problem at the next inlet at Mariag. . We continued, making fast progress towards Mariag, the waves looked huge, even bigger than before. The map looked steeper on the headland; I started to wonder if we’d end up sleeping in the boats in the lee of the land we were on… we popped up and had a look, it was just as bad as we had thought. We decided to try and make progress as far as we could, at 19.30 we knew we were in for the long haul, but we decided that we would camp on the other side of the inlet if we could make it around to try and beat the weather for the following day. We lined, tracked, pulled, pushed, belly flopped, paddled and everything in between to make progress, conditions were really tough, the terrain was making progress slow and arduous. At the time I really wishes I had my canyoneers on my feet, it was coast-erring terrain we were on, and my ‘old shoes’ weren’t very appropriate. A few close calls with sliding over sea weed, feet getting caught in holes between the rocks under the water while being pulled by the boat or pushed by the waves and the wind.
The conditions were serious and we had caught the attention of what I initially thought was a rescue boat that appeared, asking us if we needed help, after a few thumbs up and some chat. The fishermen, who obliviously (and probably rightly so) thought we were a little bonkers, they left us to it. We were only 500mtrs from the end of the inlet, and we could cross to the other side once we got the pier. We spoke to the fishermen who were docking at the floating pier and it turned out they had a water tap just beside us! We thanked them for their help, filled our water bottles up and paddled around the corner to set up camp.
I wasn’t looking forward to the night ahead as it was going to be a long night with the wind, we went round the corner to try to find the best spot we could. It was 21.30 and we were tired, hungry and dehydrated. After only 5min of searching, we found a perfect pitching site! Flat, bowling green style grass, and very sheltered! What a real find, so tents up food on and we sat out through the squalls of rain drinking wine and eating proper food!
With only a few strong gusts waking us up, we slept remarkably well, so after food and watered; it was time to get onto the water. We didn’t have any signal to get an updated forecast, and the winds were meant to be considerably stronger today. Off up Loch Seaforth, we headed, topping up water at a waterfall en route. As we filled our water bottles we seen the striking flight of a golden eagle, we took the time to watch this amazing spectacle of nature, effortlessly soaring through the strong winds.
As we headed up the loch, I saw what looked like a cloud of smoke billowing off the top of an island. As we got closer I knew it was across from our next inlet; the ‘smoke’ was indeed an upside down waterfall! I knew that the last leg up the inlet was going to be a real challenge, and indeed it was! We used every trick we had up our sleeves, and eventually made it, after an hour of slogging, lining, tracking, poling, paddling and a few swear words along the way… definitely type 2 fun!
After some lunch and a well-earned rest, we started the next part of our adventure, the portage to Loch Langabhat; a 4km delightful drag up the hill with 170mtr of ascent, with a canoe and kit.the track, didn’t look that good so I was a little apprehensive about how long this would take. We had also borrowed some (brand new) portage trolleys from a friend at Lochgoilhead which I was keen to try and keep in good order… Off we went ropes around our waists, and the long slog began. We made good progress with only one broken trolley that the axle bent and started to rub through the central frame, a straighten out and some milk carton wrapped around, and we were off again. It felt good to be looking down the other side of the hill towards our camp. The track became a lot rougher with the trolleys getting tracked into ruts and canoes toppling into ditches; this pain proceeded nearly all the way to the bottom, I did laugh out loud at one point, when Ben’s boat took a real topple as he stood and watched it helplessly!
We arrived at the river around 5 pm, hungry but keen to get to camp. Unfortunately, the herd of highland cows occupied what looked like a great spot; we proceeded to try and get down the river that flows into Loch Langabhat. We came across a great little place that seemed to be sheltering from the wind. Tents up and the vegetable curry was quickly in the pan. Just as we started to cook the rain and wind picked up to a stormy level with some gusts flattening our tents! We took refuge in Ben’s bigger tent, trying to keep the stove with its alarmingly large flames outside the tent, while we struggled to keep our sanity, a huge gust of wind blew down the glen, BANG! TEAR! I rushed out Ben’s tent to discover my canoe had been blown up, across the camp and straight through my tent! It was chucking it down with rain, and I had a massive hole in my tent…. great! I moved my waterproof bags to the hole a straightened out the poles to make do. It was a good excuse for a new tent.
With the storm brought a lot of water and the river was rising fast, and we thought we would need to move camp, we set a marker watched anxiously as the river kept rising, it didn’t have a huge catchment area, and the worst had passed, so we waited it out, we came to around half an inch from moving camp!
Waking up after what was a remarkably comfortable sleep once the storm blew through, we hoped for some tail wind. Packed up after food and tea, and made our way down the remaining section of the river. As we approached the loch I felt the wind in our faces; it was going to be a long paddle out o the conditions stayed like this all day. We snug between the eddies making good progress in contrast to the other days. Before we knew it we were at the point where the loch turns east, with the northerly winds, we decided to raft set up my solo sail and raft the boats together which helped us sail across the wind and make the fastest progress we had in the past three days! It was all over too soon, and as we headed north again, the wind was in our faces. Ben started to get a little annoyed with me saying ‘I think it’s calming down’ which instantly seemed to blow the wind harder into our already wind swept faces.
We pushed on with the thought of getting finished today and getting some food at a pub. We arrived at the river; I had some concerns as it dropped considerable distance, for the amount of distance we had to cover to get to the sea. It turns out there are a lot of croins/weirs with a lot of clean drops which turned out to be good fun and interest was kept all the way to the bridge before the sea. I turned around and seen Ben drifting towards a rock which looked innocent enough, bang, water in and boat pinned! Luckily it was across two rocks which stopped it bending, we came up with a plan and felt pretty smug with ourselves that we managed to get it off without any damage. We sorted the kit and dropped into the sea. The end was in sight over to Callanish, just as I was thinking this, I had the most amazing experience, I saw an otter, around 5mtrs away, playing with its dinner. It felt special to see this creature in its natural habitat so naturally, although it didn’t last for long, it spotted me and popped under the water. It was time to get the last section of the sea under our belt.
We were feeling tired and had to stop to top up some food, even though the van was tantalisingly close, it was the right thing to do, morale and laughter back in check we made the last dash to the van. It felt great to cross this beautiful Island, it felt like a proper adventure, where proper decisions had to be made at the right times and of course with a good friend. A real memory imprinted into the bank, forever, that will be speaking about in the pubs for years to come ‘remember that time in Lewis’
Stephen owns Scottish Rock & Water, which he has run since 2015. He spends his time split between paddlesports and mountaineering. You can find out more about Stephen and Scottish Rock & Water at https://www.scottishrockandwater.com/