Canoeing the Great Glen Trail — Part 2
Updated: Jul 27
DAY 3 — Loch Oich and The River Oich
It’s early morning and we start to break camp. Everything is wet. We’d rigged a tarp and hung our stuff up but the humidity and overnight rain showers mean nothing has dried at all. Knowing that we’ll be wild camping for the next two nights we’re still glad for our evening in the warm dry pub.
Breaking camp is starting to fall into a routine, each of us picking up tasks as they need doing. That said we still have to port all our gear back across the lock and get the canoes over to the far end of the top pontoon for launching. It’s not the easiest way to wake up, but we’re soon packed and on our way.
Back in our individual canoes, we leave Loch Lochy behind us as we head out on the next section of the Caledonian Canal, towards Loch Oich.
The morning’s scenery is breathtaking. Almost silently, we glide through mirror-like still waters marvelling at the first smattering of autumn colours. The cry of an eagle is heard and overhead a flight of swallows swoops and dives.
All too soon the idyllic setting opens into a wider section, Loch Oich. There’s been talk of a breakfast stop and we’re all looking forward to a change from the food flask.
A Breakfast Stop
We spot a pontoon and head for our first stop of the day — The Well of the Seven Heads.
Here’s someone explaining what it’s all about The Well of the Seven Heads.
More important for us hungry travellers was the amazing little café where we refuelled with local breakfast delights such as the Magnificent 7!
Full and happy, we head back to the canoes. We spend the rest of the morning paddling through lovely Loch Oich.
At the end of Loch Oich, there’s a choice… to take the Caledonian Canal or the River Oich. Kieran, our guide, assesses the situation and decides we’re ok to take the river route, navigating class 2 rapids.
We’ve never paddled rapids before, and with canoes full of kit, we know it’s going to be a challenge.
First, we need to get across the weir.
Kieran heads across and waits for us on the other side of the drop.
We’re next, we take a line as best we can, and it works, we splash down in what I can only liken to the last big drop on a log flume. I’m at the front and a bow wave rears up and drenches me. Paddling our hearts out we’ve made it through and it feels amazing.
The rest of the group is quick to follow and, being in first position, we get to witness their enormous grins as they each fly down the rapids towards us.
But we’re not done yet
There’s another section still to complete.
The river is running fast, but we know we’re so lucky to have these great conditions. If the river is too high it can be treacherous to navigate, too low, and there’s no way through.
We enjoy being carried down the river — paddling has never felt so effortless.
There’s plenty of banter and the spirits of the team are high.
But we’re less gallant on the next set of rapids. We don’t get it quite right and end up hitting them sideways, we’re even going backwards at one point!
But we get there in one piece.
Not far to go now until we reach our camp for the evening, and it’s a good job. Sam and Gaz’s canoe is sitting dangerously low in the water.
We round a bend and pull up at a little grassy bank. There’s a wooden bench and plenty of space for all 5 canoes. The woodland clearing beyond is to be our camp for the night.
An Idyllic Camping Spot
It’s everything you’d imagine wild camping should be.
We set up tents and tarpaulins around a central area. A few of the gang set out to collect wood. Soon we have a nice little fire going. Kieran sets up a string of fairy lights from a battery and it’s perfect.
We’re out of camping gas — so we’re counting on cooking over the campfire. That said, we don’t have any sort of grill or support for our pans. That’s when Gaz comes to the rescue. He lends us his folding campfire grill and it’s perfect. In no time we have chilli bubbling away for tea.
We spend the rest of the night chatting. Chris emerges as being a bit of a comedian when he jokingly gives Kieran a hard time about the length of his safety briefings.
Throughout the evening Kieran periodically checks a marker he’s put at the water’s edge to measure the water level. Canoes are dragged further up the bank as the water rises a whopping 40 cm! We find out much later, from a local guide, that this is due to a release of the River Garry into the Oich.
Later, when the campfire stories are flowing, Gaz introduces us to another discovery – toasted marshmallows in a jaffa cake sandwich! Now, we understand the significance of all those jaffa cakes. Give it a try at your next campfire — they’re yummy!
We all agree that it’s been the best day so far.
Lulled by the sounds of the river we have an amazing night’s sleep.
DAY 4 — River Oich to Loch Ness
By 7:30 the camp is buzzing and everyone is busy packing, making brews, breakfast and lunch for the day.
We’ve managed to dry some socks and gloves by the fire, but mostly our kit is still wet. But we have to suck it up, we’ve got two days left to enjoy this trip of a lifetime. Packing up our temporary homes has become routine by now. We know what needs to be done and we just do it.
We’re ready to go in no time at all. Kieran reports that the river has dropped back to its original level. So we know the rapids are a go!
We take a lazy paddle down the fast-moving river. Only course correcting occasionally to keep from veering into the bank. We come to a bend in the river and Kieran instructs us to stop on the right-hand bank. We’re going to take a look at the next set of rapids on foot.
And it looks a bit like this:
It’s bigger (and scarier) than anything we did yesterday. Kieran explains the importance of picking our line and sticking to it. Maybe it’s fatigue or the early morning start, but I’m feeling overwhelmed.
❓ What if I mess up?
❓What happens then?
We’ve gotten away with it so far, but if I do something wrong it won’t just affect us, it will mess things up for the whole group!
Sam, seeing the signs, asks if I’m ok. That triggers the emotional floodgates to open and I’m instantly feeling a bit silly and exposed in front of the group.
I’m fine at coping until someone asks me if I’m fine. I explain this to Chris, and with his deadpan sense of humour he says, “Pull yourself together, Wend”. And that’s enough to get me laughing and back on an even keel.
We head back to the canoes, ready to attack the rapids.
As an expert, Kieran makes it look so easy.
We’re second, and, determined to get it right, we nail our line!
We can’t believe it. We execute it perfectly.
Or a mixture of the two?
I’m still not sure, but we are elated.🎉
The rest of the gang has various degrees of success. I’m sure I see Chris and Helen fly down backwards! But we all get through it and everyone is safe and happy.
What an adventure.
The river is moving at a pace now and we have the occasional set of smaller rapids to negotiate. But we take them in our stride.
We’re making up time and the going is easy.
As we approach Loch Ness there’s a bridge across the river.
Briefly, we become a tourist attraction. Cameras click and people wave to us. 👋
Rain starts to pour, and we’re chatting happily as we approach a second bridge.
It’s wooden and looks kind of ancient - it’s so cool.
Andy decides to take a photo. He’s scrambling to get his phone out of the barrel when we start to speed up.
There are 3 possible routes through the bridge…
❌ the left is completely blocked by foliage
✔️ the right is clear.
And the middle …. has a dead tree across the left side ☠️
We’re heading for the middle and I’m paddling frantically to avoid the tree.
But it’s not working!
We go under the tree and the canoe turns 180 degrees.
I’m facing the lefthand bridge support. It lists to the left.
We hit a wooden post that’s under the water…
And we capsize!😲
We’re underwater for a fraction of a second and then both bob up to the surface.
The canoe is wedged. It’s on its side, facing upriver.
Remembering our instructions, I get out of the water as quickly as possible.
I clamber up onto the bridge upright.
Andy stays in the water to wait for the gang to arrive.
Most of our belongings are still tied to the canoe, but our big food barrel was open and Andy’s phone was inside it. And I’m watching our food disappear downriver as Kieran arrives, closely followed by Sam and Gaz.
Forgetting that we’re the victims because, luckily, we’re both fine, we’re desperate to help with the rescue effort.
But I’m given a couple of small jobs to do… and Andy stays in the water to help with the heavy stuff.
I don’t know how much time passes, maybe ten minutes, maybe an hour. At points, it seems we’re not getting the canoe out.
The river is too strong and the boat is truly wedged — we worry the river will snap the boat in half!
But, bags and barrels are removed, and with sheer willpower, Keiran and Andy finally free the boat and it drifts down onto the Loch to be recaptured by Chris.
Andy swims and I ride on top of the mountain of bags in Keiron’s canoe to the nearby shore.
The rest of the gang has been busy collecting our belongings from Loch Ness. We lose a lot of food, but they’ve done an amazing job and we’ll have enough to see us through to the end.
Andy’s phone is gone for good. And, when I open the small barrel containing my phone and snacks, that’s half full of water too. No photos for the rest of the trip!
But we’re both fine if a little soggy.
The rest of the group is buoyed up by the rescue and there’s plenty of banter.
We quickly change — at least my emergency clothes are dry — and walk into Fort Augustus. The rest of the team explores the shops, but all we want is a plate of fish and chips. We stop at the first café we see. I’m happy to find a hand dryer to warm my freezing hands.
Day 4, Part 2 — Loch Ness
Refreshed and ready to go we head back to the beach.
Kieran decides to rope the canoes together in twos to pick up some speed and make up for the time we’ve lost on the rescue.
We’re with Jill and Kev.
After paddling on the river, being on the Loch is hard work.
Chris and Sam, paired up in the other boats, are both fitness instructors and they move the other boat at speed. With no current to assist us, it’s not long before they’re far off in the distance.
Roping the two canoes together has created a swell between them that sends water across the bough. In the first half hour, my remaining clothes are soaked.
Continually paddling on one side quickly takes its toll and knowing we’re hardly making any headway is demoralising. But we keep going, we have no choice. We try making a sail from a small piece of tarp. It works for a while, but we’re still losing ground on the others. We go back to paddling. Heads down, dig in.
There’s no break, Kieran wants to get to camp. By now they’re all miles ahead, we can barely see them.
Hours later we find the other group stopped. The wild campsite we were due to stay on is no longer there - it’s been replaced by a Caravan Club site.
Kieran has gone to scout out another area. We groan, wondering how much further we’ll have to go.
We’re relieved to hear Kieran tell us he’s found a spot just around the corner — and thankfully it’s really not far. We are exhausted.
As always, the first job is to set up camp. We are doing this almost on auto-pilot by now. We’re in a forest glade behind the beach, it looks idyllic until we remember the tics. Both Gaz and Chris have had to have tics removed already!
Thankfully Kieran has already got a fire going - I’m freezing and now have no dry clothes at all. Kieran lends me an emergency dry poncho, and Jill donates leggings and a pair of dry socks. I’m so grateful to them both, now I don’t have to spend the evening soaking wet.
For the evening meal, I propose to cook an all-in.
We combine our remaining rations with Kieran, Jill and Kev’s and a big campfire cook-up ensues. We’ve got aubergine and sweet potato from Kieran, carrots and peppers from Jill and Kev, and our onions, chorizo, rice and lentils survived the capsize. So does my herb and spice box! Woop woop, fresh garlic, chillies and bay leaves from the garden… what more could you want?
The tasty feast lifts our spirits. Pots done, we chat late into the night enjoying the calm view across Loch Ness.
Our last night in the wild is peppered with funny stories, jaffa cake marshmallows and maybe a spot too much whisky.
DAY 5 — Loch Ness to Dores Inn
As Chris and Helen joined us late and their car is in Fort William. They have to leave us a day early and we’re sad to see them go. It was amazing to meet them both. To me, we already feel like a little family.
We say our goodbyes and get ready to head out on our last day of the trip. Kieran, Sam and Gaz canoe the pair around the headland so they can find the road.
Knowing we have a long day, Andy and I decide to get a head start. The gentle paddle down the righthand side of the Loch is a lovely way to start the day.
We chat and take our time.
As much as it’s great to be tied together with the others, I think it’s being in our individual canoes that I enjoy the most. We paddle for around an hour before stopping at a lovely little beach to wait for the rest to catch up.
Sam and Gaz have split up to bring a canoe back each. It must be hard work, but they enjoy the challenge.
Trollied is Reborn
When everyone gets to the beach, Kieran decides to get ‘Trollied’ back together. It’s windy so it makes sense.
But after the hour it takes to rig the boat, we get back on the Loch and the wind has dropped, so back to the paddles we go.
I’m at the back this time, trying my hand at steering with Andy. I quickly get the hang of using my paddle as a rudder. It’s so satisfying to dig in and watch the nose of our huge canoe turn exactly where I need it to go.
Sad we didn’t have time to visit Urquhart Castle on the left shore; we all decided it was a “sh** castle anyway” and instantly felt better.
We’re glad we had a break on the beach, cos that’s it, now we’re pushing hard to the end. It’s clear that everyone is so tired. Heads are down, folks are really digging deep just to keep going. The hours roll by and we start to feel like we’re getting nearer to the meadow above the Dores Inn. It was a tiny spot in the distance for so long, it was painful.
We skirt a fish farm and eventually spot the beach we’re heading for.
As we approach the beach there’s a welcoming committee of American tourists waiting to greet us. We are elated. We made it!
Someone offers to take our picture and we pose happily. Then it’s time to unpack and get the canoes out of the water - but first, we head to the Dores Inn to celebrate our achievement with a pint of Nessie’s Monster Mash, a Cairngorm Brewery special.
Canoes and bags stored and clothes changed, all that’s left is one last meal with our Trollied supergroup before we say our goodbyes and go our separate ways.
And that’s it - another first, reluctantly achieved. The Great Glen Canoe Trail. Wow, 5 days and roughly 60 miles of canoeing. Canal, Lochs, and river rapids. Wet feet and warm hearts - what an adventure. 🏆
The Reluctant Achiever is written by professional copywriter Wendy Ann Jones.