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  • Writer's pictureThe Reluctant Achiever

Canoeing the Great Glen Trail — Part 1

Updated: Jul 27, 2023



Canoeing the Great Glen Trail - Caledonian Canal - Day 1



My definition of a Reluctant Achiever is someone who craves amazing adventures and unique experiences…



but has nagging doubts about their own ability to get there.



If you struggle with your health or any aspect of your well-being, it’s natural to feel defined by your circumstances.


You have to fight that survival instinct every step of the way… just to get out of the door.



You think ‘I’d love to do that, but…’


And then count off twenty reasons why doing it is a bad idea….


❌ I’m too big (or too small)

❌ I’m not fit enough… strong enough… brave enough… crazy enough

❌ I’d only be last or hold everyone else back

❌ I won’t be able to move for days afterwards


Or you imagine the worst…


❓What if I don’t even finish?

❓What if I’m an epic failure?

❓What if I look like an idiot?

❓What if people laugh at me?


But no matter how much your brain tries to trick you into quitting, or not trying in the first place, it’s never enough to truly scratch that itch.


The longing for adventure simply won’t go away.


And you’re left wondering, ‘what if…?’


Conquering My Fears


As a youngster, I’d hesitate even to try.


I’d stand at the back, or say I didn’t want to go.

Anything to avoid standing out by looking foolish.


But, as time moved on, I got fed up with missing out.


I began throwing myself into situations - still feeling the fear, but doing it anyway.


I didn’t learn to dive into a swimming pool until I was 40! Then only because I didn’t want my daughter’s fears to stop her, the way mine had stopped me.


Before long I’d sign up for stuff without so much as a second thought.


There’d be plenty of time for doubts later when I was already in over my head. Then I wouldn’t have the option of backing out.


I’ve found my fears much easier to deal with that way.


And doing that, I’ve gained confidence — I care less about what others think (most of the time).😉


So when my sis sent a link on Facebook about canoeing the Great Glen Trail – I said ‘yes’ without a moment’s hesitation.


And then thought, “what have I let myself in for?”


And so, to the Great Glen…


The Caledonian Canal - our first encounter with a ship!

One of the UK’s great canoeing adventures, the Great Glen Trail is an epic, 5-day, 60-mile paddling journey across Scotland.


Starting at Fort William, the trail travels canal, loch and river in a test of endurance that’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.


But, of course, we did it our way….


We were to meet our guide just outside Inverness early on Tuesday morning. Arriving the night before, we explored the delights of Inverness to get into the spirit of our adventure.


Heading into the town centre across Ness Islands I soon understood the importance of remembering to put on my Smidge. On just that short walk I’d already acquired about 10 midge bites!


We soon found ourselves in Gellions Bar. The oldest bar in Inverness delivered on all counts – fabulous beer, a welcoming atmosphere and music to make our souls sing and our feet dance, provided by the supremely talented Calum Jones.


Rolling home in the wee hours my left ankle locked up (that’s age for you). What should have been a 20-minute walk to the campsite took about an hour, crikey!


The next morning I was both groggy (from my too-late night) and apprehensive about my newly ‘dodgy’ ankle.

Feeling hopelessly disorganised and a bit disoriented we arrived late at the meet-up to be met by a cheery Kieran Johnson of Hire A Canoe.


The four of us, my sister Jill, her partner, Kev, my partner, Andy and me, meet two more of our group, Sam and Gaz from the Wirral. Much frantic packing of belongings and food into dry bags and barrels ensues. And we’re all wondering how on earth all this stuff is going to fit into the canoes and how many Jaffa Cakes does Gaz really need?


Much faffing later we jump into the bus for the 1.5-hour drive to Fort William.


And so it begins…


There’s nothing quite like driving the whole distance you’re going to be canoeing to make you feel a little overwhelmed….


Signpost for the Great Glen Way at Fort William

All is well as we arrive at Neptune’s Staircase. An impressive series of canal locks – the longest in Scotland – it was first constructed by Thomas Telford in the 1800s.


We’re all happy to hear that we are starting our trip above the Staircase.


Canoes are not permitted to travel through the Staircase, so paddlers arriving at the bottom have to ‘port’ their canoes to the top. That would have been a rude Tuesday morning wake-up!


After a quick canoe trolley demo from Kieran, we load up and head off.


We’re still waiting on one team, so Kieran stays behind to wait for them.


The Caledonian Canal is gentle with us. It’s a steady way to ease into our 5 days on the water.


We’ve applied the brakes to our pace of life. It’s gone from 50 miles an hour to barely 2.


We pass Ben Nevis, shrouded in mist. We notice a path to our right – the Great Glen Way. We’re greeted with cheery smiles from walkers and cyclists alike. Each undertaking their own Great Glen adventure. We barely keep pace with hikers going the same way and it doesn’t matter a bit.


Falling into a rhythmic motion we exchange a few words, but mainly we’re taking in the breathtaking views of hills and mountains. Each bend in the canal offers a new delight.


Crossing the aqueduct over the River Loy we realise we’re getting hungry. We’re so absorbed in the wonder of it all that we haven’t noticed the absence of places to stop. Opting to eat lunch on the move, we travel easily once more. The sun even makes an appearance, much to our surprise.


Arriving at Gairlochy Lock


We paddle under the Moy Swing Bridge and on to our first overnight stop – Gairlochy. This hydraulic lock is as far as we go on the water. Now for some physical effort – a portage of our canoe and kit of some 650m from the bottom of Gairlochy lock to our campsite.


Unloading our kit onto the pontoon we drag the canoe out of the water and begin to rig the Legacy canoe trolley. The two groups in front of us are already having issues. The first group has already suffered a broken strap and the second is removing most of the weight from the canoe.



A sailing boat coming through Gairlochy lock

We only put a couple of bags in the canoe, but it’s still too heavy. The empty canoe is manoeuvrable for a short while. But forgetting to check its position, the canoe lurches to the right, and we too experience a broken strap.


Now we know why the first day’s paddling needed to be easy. Everyone is so tired by the time we drag the last bits of kit into camp we can barely think about the next steps.


But we have no choice, and it’s chaos.


Our bags were packed at home, they were re-arranged at the campsite, and then unpacked and packed into barrels and dry bags. Arriving at camp we have no idea where anything is!


The Scottish wind gusting across the edge of the lock we prayed it would stay dry whilst we fumbled around trying to find what we needed for the evening.


We laughed at ourselves knowing that by the time the trip ended, we’d know exactly where everything was.


Pitching of tents and shelters accomplished, there was the small matter of dinner to address. Of course, we’re all starving by this point.


We decide to join forces with Jill and Kev to make a meal for 4. But when it takes 20 mins just to boil a kettle on our tiny gas stove… we’re wondering what time dinner’s likely to arrive (if at all).


We’re making potato rosti and veg. It seems impossible until Andy makes a windbreak from his canoe seat. The pans finally start to warm up, but unfortunately so does his seat. He hasn’t noticed that one of the straps is touching the gas stove and has become nicely caramelised!


The gates at Gairlochy lock are the largest on the whole Caledonian Canal. They’re part of the flood defences that separate Loch Lochy from the canal system and the communities on the western shore.


The toilet and shower block are on the opposite side of the lock to the campsite. At dusk, and after dark, crossing the lock is an eerie experience – especially alone.


After dinner, I head up the Great Glen Way to take a peek at what tomorrow has to offer.


Rounding the bend I’m greeted by a small lighthouse and a stunning view across Loch Lochy opens up before me. Clambering down onto the pebble beach I take up residence for a short while thinking “ah, this is the life!”



The view across Loch Lochy

Later in the evening, the rest of the party finally arrive. By the time Chris and Helen (the new arrivals) have their tent in place, it’s pitch dark. Kieran is still ferrying stuff from the pontoon! But the gang is together now, and we bond instantly.


Kieran delivers his speech about what will be happening on Day 2 amid much banter. We spend the rest of the evening getting to know each other and sharing a beer or two. We finally break off and head for our cosy Vango Banshee Tent[1]. I’m so glad that we invested in some new sleeping mats and bags!


But,


In the middle of the night,


I’m woken by the feeling of something cold and wet hitting me on the cheek!


I jump up and search for whatever it was.


It’s pitch dark and I find nothing. “Well, that’s the weirdest dream I’ve ever had”, I think, and promptly drop back off to sleep.


I wake and search around trying to find the bag for my sleeping bag and I come across….


A FROG!


Aha, so I wasn’t going crazy after all 🐸, phew!



DAY 2 — Gairlochy Lock to Laggan Locks


It’s an early start this morning. Being older and wiser we find a sheltered spot to heat water for breakfast.


The clouds are dark, and our tents are still wet from the night’s rain. The old entrance to the pontoon is blocked. So Kieran launches the canoes down the slope from the campsite.


He rafts the 5 canoes together, much to the interest of the other campers.


Telescopic poles and a large tarpaulin are rigged as a make-shift sail, and, once all gear is packed up we work together to get everything stowed in our new craft. We name our super-canoe ‘Trollied’ in honour of the struggles of the previous day.


Kieran and Andy take the helm, Chris and Sam are responsible for the sail, and Helen, Kev, Jill and myself are paddlers.


Gaz bravely takes the seat right at the front of the canoe. He’s our eyes when the sail is lifted. Our team mascot, Little Nessie, sits with him.



Gaz, Sam, Chris, Kev and Helen at the front of Trollied


We navigate the short section of canal before Loch Lochy and settle in for a day’s sailing.


But….


There’s no wind.


This sailing lark isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be.


With 7 people and enough luggage and food to keep us all going for 5 days, we’re pretty hefty. We need a stiff breeze to pull us along.


With the tarpaulin attached to their paddles, Chris and Sam experiment with where to place the paddles. Helen hangs on tight to the strap that acts as a halyard, holding the top of our sail in place. As we move out into the centre of the Loch, the wind inflates the sail and we begin to gain some speed.


Andy checks how fast we’re going — 2 mph! We’re not going to be breaking any records, that’s for sure.


But the day continues in good humour, we paddle and sail intermittently. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether we’re moving or not. And, when I try to explain that by saying “it all looks the same” I’m greeted with much hilarity. Kieran tells me not to get a job as a tour guide. “Yep, come to Scotland, it all looks the same 🤣– maybe not the best advert ever.



Kieran demonstrating the technique for catching the wind in the sail

As the wind lessens we rely more on the paddles.


We’re glad to know we’ve not far to go but we need a break. We beach Trollied on the right side of the Loch just before it narrows to a bend.


We take a break and feel much better — only until we realise how hard it’s going to be to get back in the water.


The wind and current are blowing directly onto the shore and we have a royal battle to get Trollied moving again.


Thankfully there’s less than a mile to go until we find our camp for the night.


The bad news is there’s another portage to tackle. 😢


The good news is, there’s a pub at the end of this one.🍻


We beach Trollied on a dodgy-looking shore full of debris. It takes a good hour to get everything onto the other side of the Laggan Locks at South Laggan.


With the promise of a pint and a cooked meal, we work together like a well-oiled machine (well, almost).


Unpacking the gear, we realise the JD Honey we’ve decanted into an orange juice bottle has exploded inside one of the dry bags. To say we’re learning as we go is an underestimation at best.


We are shattered, and there’s the small matter of getting tents up for the night. But once that’s done we head to the floating pub, The Eagle Barge Inn.

Run by Will, Victoria and their whippet Penny, The Eagle gives us a lovely warm welcome. We’re treated to easy drinking, local ale (my favourite was the blonde) and home-cooked food. Exactly what we need to raise our spirits.



A view of the The Eagle Barge Inn at Laggan Locks across the canal - there's another barge in the foreground


We share a big red sofa with guests travelling on the local puffer steamboat - VIC32. It’s a joy to compare travelling notes with them. Eventually, they say their goodbyes and we settle into a game of Cards Against Humanity.


Heading to bed tired and happy, trying to forget some of the more graphic images conjured up by the crazy game, we wonder what the next leg of our journey will have to offer...



Check out Part 2 of the blog for rapids, wild camping and an unexpected dip...






The Reluctant Achiever is written by professional copywriter Wendy Ann Jones.

You can find out more about Wendy by visiting her website: wendyannjones.com or her LinkedIn profile.

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