A growing curiosity about the Highland’s evocative waterways led to another pirate adventure affectionately known as ‘Pirates of the Canals IV’. Eight months earlier I spent time in this wonderful land, cycling the NC500 in the heart of winter, wild-camping solo, discovering the charm of these remote communities. I fell in love with the Highlands, its unfailingly welcoming people, history and culture prompting my curiosity for paddling the Caledonian Canal.
The Caledonian Canal connects the Scottish east coast with the west. It runs some sixty miles, but only one third of the entire length is man-made. Formed by four Lochs (lakes), twenty-nine locks, four aqueducts and ten bridges.
My passion for water and desire to create environmental impact, led to a promising collaboration with researchers from the Water@Leeds Network (University of Leeds.) A chance to conduct a scientific exploration on invasive species, an opportunity to contribute to research and engage the general public on our unique waterways and how to protect those.
Tuesday 20th August
After a 350 mile drive from West Yorkshire we reach Fort William, known as the outdoor capital of the UK, named after William of Orange who in 1654 ordered that it be built to control the Highland clans. Our pirate crew consists of my 11-year-old daughter (Little Lobster), the family dog (Shadow) and myself.
It is suggested we make our voyage west-east, to take advantage of the westerly winds and east-going currents.
We have blind belief in the effectiveness of our homemade vessel. Icarus was built with exploration in mind. A roomy vessel, capable of carrying heavy loads, a couple of humans and a pooch; if those are placed strategically. Strapped on wheels, we tow the canoe uphill across the eight staircase lock, known as Neptune's Staircase. Carrying our provisions including enough food to last the whole journey is a Herculean task. Turns out this is the longest staircase lock in Britain.
Day one is short, only ten kilometers of paddling. A gentle wind blows in our favour, Athina opens an umbrella and propels us forward. We set a new PB for our fastest time for the distance!
Mark and his crew from BBC Radio Scotland ‘Out of Doors’ programme, meet us at Gairlochy. Our water-based interview provides us with belly laughs. "I've been on a lot of canoes in my time but this is a lot lighter than one would expect. There's something about it, it has a friendly feel, this vessel wants to help you, it wants you to stay on water; I like it!" he says enthusiastically and we take Icarus for a little spin.
Mark stays in touch and updates his listeners regularly. Some come to greet us, admire the eco-friendly canoe and offer us a helping hand.
One of them is Michael. He tells us: "I really enjoyed your interview, especially the part where you said: If we can do this, so can anyone else" and helps port our vessel.
Another listener emails us: “Hiya, just found your site after listening to you folks on Radio Scotland, I haven’t used my canoe this year but you guys made me feel like getting it back on the water, which I really miss and love doing. Thank you. Best wishes on your trip to Scotland. Scott.”
These people remind us of the importance to create fresh opportunities for daily gratitude. Because as a society, our happiness is without doubt, connected to the happiness of others.
The following day we paddle across Loch Lochy, over nine miles long. Folklore tales claim a supernatural being called the River Horse emerges from the lake and assumes a horse's shape before feeding on the loch's bank sand. We didn’t have the pleasure of this encounter, instead we arrange to meet with Wildlife Photographer, David Whitaker and his wife Hazel.
Their living room window has a spectacular panoramic view, overlooking the loch. On a clear winters day one can see a snowy Ben Nevis in the background. During our conversation David grabs his binoculars, approaches the window and tells us about the bird he spotted. The walls exhibit some of his best art pieces, testament of his high quality work, patience and love for nature. A black-throated diver bird captivates me, something about its sleekness and perfectly oiled feathers. David understands the animal’s habits, sees their personalities and anticipates what they might do at a particular time of day or in a certain situation.
We say our goodbyes but first we are warned about the ticks. They can carry Lyme Disease or Borreliosis, a potentially serious bacterial disease and can easily attach to bare flesh. We are encouraged to check ourselves and pooch for ticks every night, especially our hairline, arm pits, between toes, behind the ears and knees.
There’s a yellow rain alert. The rain water inside Icarus slowly rises and moves rhythmically with the waves. A masterclass in paddling and bailing out water simultaneously. We reach the North side of Loch Lochy, at Laggan locks.
Athina still coughs and Pooch whines, she’s not quite herself. We are thankful for the portaging trolley lying around.
Our sleeping bags are placed on top of a ground sheet and the tarp is secured above our heads using nearby bushes. There’s only one bivvy bag between us so naturally Athina has this. A bivvy is a waterproof cover for a sleeping bag, it adds a bit of waterproof protection and helps keep a little warmer. Changing into dry pyjamas makes us feel humane again.
The wind blows loudly and unforgivingly. It makes a whizzing sound as it enters the narrow lock walls. Pooch rests at the bottom of my sleeping bag and I wonder how she breathes. Her snoring reassures me she’s alright.
During the night a warm and wet sensation across my lower back wakes me up. I can’t believe it! Shadow has weed on me. Too scared to leave the comforts of my sleeping bag in this torrential weather she decides to relief herself in there. To add insult to injury, she then makes her way to Athina’s dry and clean sleeping bag.
We awake by the tarp flapping violently. Gear gets packed fast and we wait at South Laggan locks for the weather to improve. Strong winds blow at twenty-five miles/hour; it is not safe to enter the water.
While we stand there, it's hard not to notice the sheer size of Laggan locks. Constructing the highest stretch of the canal at 32 meters (106 feet) above sea level would have been a major challenge. Robert Southey, the poet visited Laggan while work was underway in 1819. Looking down at the workmen he said: ‘In the proportion of ants to an ant hill’.
We consider plan B; A lift by a passing vessel? But none travel across Loch Lochy in this torrential weather. Will we sleep in the same exposed spot tonight? Little-Lobster’s cheeks are rosy and Pooch has her first tick removed.
‘You remind me of Dora the Explorer. I have an ornament at home that looks exactly like you; a little lady with a backpack and a pink jacket’ says Stephanie giggling. This stranger takes pity on us looking like drowned rats and offers us shelter. Her daughter Danny makes a fuss of Shadow. They put on a fire and we are able to dry out our kit and warm up properly. Their empathy and generosity is humbling.
We’re stuck- Every now and again, we step outside hoping to find that the wind has dropped. We walk a little further up and stand near the spot where presumably ‘The battle of the shirts’ took place in 1544. Some say it was so hot that day, the Highlanders took off their heavy plaids and fought in their shirts. Hard to believe as the weather takes a turn for the worse. We accept there will be no paddling and we spend the night with our new friends grateful for their hospitality. They share with us everything they have, with absolutely no expectation of anything in return. That’s all, a small miracle of trust.
The following morning there is a ‘window’ of good weather and we continue our journey- We paddle across Loch Oich and find a designated wild camping spot to spend the night. Lots of midges and a debilitating migraine without medication for it. Setting up camp, cooking and unpacking becomes increasingly hard. I put on my midge head-net and try to get on with the tasks in the fastest and quietest possible way. Little-lobster knows I’m not well. She asks no questions, simply offers to help with unpacking the sleeping bags, ground sheets and playing with pooch.
8,000 years ago, Loch Ness was glacier-filled. When the ice melted, the loch formed with a depth of almost 240m. It contains more freshwater than all the lochs and lakes in England and Wales put together. Some twenty three miles long by up to a mile long at its widest point and it never freezes.
But Loch Ness is renowned because of the alleged presence of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. Fort Augustus is the busy town that plays host to thousands of visitors each year. No sooner we arrive, we long to escape this loud tourist destination and strike out across unknown waters.
As night settles on the great loch, we are delighted with the discovery of a quiet bay. Little-Lobster helps start a fire and we lie underneath the stars listening to the soothing sound of water. Loch-Ness; mirror calm waters one moment, dark and foreboding the next. Virtually inaccessible to all but the most determined.
In the morning I wake up early to witness the miracle of a breathtaking sunrise. One has to be in Scotland and bathe in this perfect light to appreciate its magic. The silence of the morning is an uplifting experience. Choosing to look at what’s beautiful, puts me in a positive frame of mind despite waking up with slug trails on my sleeping bag.
We set off in the mist; it’s magical. We don’t have a compass to gauge our direction so we remain close to the coastline. People living near Loch Ness told an old wives tale to keep children away from the water and avoid accidents. They said, a beast lived in the water. When hungry it transformed into a horse, waited for a traveller to climb on its back then gallop into the loch and eat its victim.
Little-Lobster fishes out two paper boats floating peacefully across Loch Ness. It’s true, if we look for happiness, we can find signs of it everywhere.
After reaching a safe bay to spend the night near Urquhart Castle, we cross the deepest part of Loch Ness, on what seems an endless stretch. We battle howling gales and treacherous coastline with no possibility of an exit. The continuous waves crash into us with such force they break Icarus’ yoke centreline. The well-fitted PeakUK life jackets are vital to our survival.
Loch Ness proves the most intense and adrenaline packed paddling we’ve done to date. Through these challenges I hope Athina develops a can-do attitude that will help her find solutions to even the biggest problems later on in life.
Only two miles later we land on a wee bay. A difficult pill to swallow. A second day held out of the water due to bad weather, but if there’s one thing we know is that water needs respect. By chance, a couple of canoes are stranded. They belong to a nice bunch of youngsters with their instructors from the Mixenden Activity Centre, from Yorkshire. They offer us a lift and invite us for a BBQ. We share food, adventure stories, laughter and plenty of survival tips.
As we make our way to our wild camping spot, more kind strangers emerge miraculously. Anne and Don put us up for the night and Shadow claims ownership of a comfy bed. Anne smiles and says: ‘Don’t worry, Shadow can sleep on the bed. Now, tell me, how many pillows would you like?’'
In the morning Don brings us hot drinks in bed. All these impeccably hospitable strangers are key to the success of this mother-daughter adventure. It’s how we know there is more good than bad in this world. Why we dare to dream and love exploring.
We continue our journey from the Clansman Harbour where we stopped abruptly. The final day of paddling is long but we complete the sixty miles of paddling with a smile.
Somewhere near the end, we meet with Sara, Tony and Jenny from Aecom and Scottish Canals. We make time to conduct an en-route research on Invasive Non-Native Species. They tell us about their New Zealand pigmyweed innovation challenge. ‘This is a research project on an invasive non-native plant found on the Caledonian canal. It threatens Biodiversity by out competing native plants. It can clog water bodies and spread rapidly. Its unusual physiology enables it to grow rapidly for up to twenty hours a day, without a dormant season.' says Tony. 'It forms a dense mat of vegetation to the detriment of native biodiversity and can cause severe oxygen depletion, threatening wildlife. Bio-security is critically important and that's why the Check-Clean-Dry campaign is so important.’ adds Sara.
Our original plan is to paddle back but we lost precious time stranded on land. Little-Lobster starts secondary school soon and I must return to work but we still have five days left of fun. We decide to explore the heart and soul of the Highlands by walking back to the start via the woodland trail. A new perspective on the nature spots we paddled, with stunning views of the vast waterways at 350 m altitude. With turtle homes on our backs, on average we walk sixteen miles daily, taking turns in carrying pooch. An endurance challenge but the gear means flexibility of walking distances and freedom of wild camping each night.
We discover the local history, an opportunity to see part of the Invergarry-Fort Augustus railway, that once served exceptionally sparsely inhabited areas. It opened in 1903 but passenger train operation ceased in 1933 and the line closed completely in 1946. Walking through the single tunnel is a passage through time.
Moy Bridge, is another splendid example. Scheduled ancient monument it's the only surviving original bridge over the Caledonian canal. Operated by hand, each half has to be swung separately. Once upon a time, the lock keeper had to open the South side of the bridge first, then row across the canal in a small boat to open the other side. The bridge was constructed without railings. White-painted iron railings were added in 1850 after the death of a contractor called Bean, who was thrown from his horse while crossing the canal.
While chatting to a new friend, Athina makes an alarming discovery. Our entire bag with toast bread is empty and a greedy crow next to it is finishing off the last slice. We laugh and accept that a noodle soup is our best option for dinner. We pitch our tent and not long after, the new friend is back, this time with a surprise box. A person who gives, for the sake of giving, asking nothing in return. In it there’s a pack of toast bread, bananas, a couple of sardine tins and grapes. I’m afraid we didn’t catch her name but this small gesture is larger that she will ever know, her example teaches Athina to always look at the best in people, places and things.
We are something new, because we lived. Every adventure, leads to a dozen new adventures. On our final night in the Highlands my Little-Lobster says: 'Mummy now we've paddled and walked the Great Glen Way, you should run and swim it. I'm too little to do all of this but don't worry, when you finish, we can cycle it together.'
There are thousands of things we want to see and do. Each mother-daughter adventure transforms us into who we’re meant to be.