By Tim Stuart
Earlier in the month on finding myself in the unusual situation of facing a whole 4 days off without any social commitments or domestic chores pending, I was in need of a suitable venture to fill this valuable time. The forecast for the period was not overly inspiring for the west coast predicting light airs and drizzle pretty much for the whole period, ruling out any wind related pastimes.
My first thought was a 3 day river trip by open canoe down the Tweed one of the Scottish classics Unfortunately the recent unseasonal rainfall on the east coast had left the river in spate reading ‘huge ‘on the river gauge, so as this was going to be a solo expedition I decided to air on the side of caution and seek an alternative.
The previous season I had undertaken a very enjoyable solo Trans Scotland canoe trip using the Great Glen route, starting at Inverness in the east and finishing at Fort William in the west, a well known and well documented journey. During the planning stage I came across an alternative trip starting from the Clyde and finishing in the Forth by connecting a series of Lochs over the watershed eventually joining the river Teith at Callander and merging with the Forth at Stirling.
Due to the locality of the starting point the journey was worth investigation as a possible commercial proposition for the centre. For maybe DofE gold training, anyone who needs a good BCU 4 star qualifying trip, charity challenge or those just wanting a bloody good adventure.
On closer scrutiny I found that the Lochs Long, Lomond, Arklet, Katrine , Arkay and Venachar could be linked by a series of short portages (French Canadian for lugging your boat overland and more often than not uphill!) or in some cases small rivers/wee burns, this option been made more possible by the recent heavy rainfall.
My departure point was going to be Kip Marina as it provided a safe place to leave the van for a few days, I was finally ready to depart at 14.00 on the Monday afternoon 2 hours after my intended leaving time due to my capacity to pack my boat decide I’ve got too much gear unpack it then re pack usually with the same amount of kit. So it was with a heavily leaden Canoe i set out onto a grey and oily calm Clyde to head up to the entrance of Loch Long barely visible through the drizzle.
However not long had I been on the water when a breeze began to cut in and it was one of those rare occasions that it happened to be travelling in the same direction as myself, so i was able to rig my little sprit sail and have an easy start to the journey. A Canadian canoe full to the gunnels with camping kit and trolley wheel s sailing up the Clyde must have made an unusual sight judging by the curious and amused faces of the passengers on the passing Dunoon ferry?!
Loch Long lived up to its name, the wind fizzled out just after passing the submarine base, so I had to resume paddling but at least with a surprisingly favourable tide (I had generally experienced negligible current in these waters?) and brightening sky. I eventually found a suitable camping spot about one kilometre short of Arrochar at the head of the Loch and the site of my first portage.
The emerging evening Sun and still weather had brought out the dreaded midges, so a quick pot noodle and retreated to my tent with a small bottle of whiskey and audio book. I awoke the next morning to find the gear i had left outside my tent, in my hurry to escape the wee beasties, had been ransacked though nothing was missing or damaged.
Halfway through cooking breakfast, the culprit, I assume, a somewhat extrovert fox turned up to see what was on offer? having eaten his/her fill of my porridge he/she then made a few trips with slices of my bread back to the den to feed cubs ,I’m presuming as i wasn’t able to follow. When no more Mothers pride was offered it went off to hunt for crabs amongst the kelp, a skill it was very proficient at. Though I wouldn’t have put crustaceans high up on a fox’s menu?
This unusual distraction again made my departure later than I had intended so it was mid morning before I began the longest portage of the trip at approx 3km from Arrochar up to Tarbet on Loch Lomond though long the surface was good for the trolley wheels with the exception of one obstinate curb which the boat cleared but not the wheels hence a small traffic jam whilst I sorted things out! Also not to steep in comparison as to what was to come with even a downhill section towards the end.
Re-launched onto Loch Lomond by the cruise boats at Tarbet and made the short trip up the loch and across to the Inversnaid hotel on the east bank and then the portage from hell! 2km up a hill which feels like it should have Munroe status when dragging a 15ft canoe and carrying a bulging rucksack to Loch Arklet. After much panting, sweating and cursing I made it to the banks of loch, the watershed for my journey, without too much difficulty apart from the exertion and now annoyingly persistent drizzle.
Loch Arklet at only 4km long and very low on water, considering the amount that had fallen from the skies in previous days, felt more like a pond after the previous two lochs and I soon reached the far side. However getting my boat to the road for the portage down to loch Katrine proved more difficult. An arduous carry up a muddy beach and trudge through a bog was in order, made even
worse by the fact that I had not bothered to put my drysuit and wetboots back on after the previous portage thinking it would not be worth it for such a short trip before next portage and with little chance of capsize. 2 years as resident of Scotland I should know better!
So muddied up to the knees and walking boots brim full with bog water I set off down the hill to loch Katrine. This time an easy portage the trolley wheels humming down the road to Stronachlachar pier home to the well-known steamship the Sir Walter Scott named after the writer who was inspired by this very picturesque stretch of water to write his famous poem the Lady of the Lake. Despite the fact it was cloaked in midges and rain by the time of my arrival I could still see the appeal, it’s a lovely Loch and only in recent years due to the wonderful Scottish access laws has the canoeist been allowed to paddle it. Though with greater environmental caution as it is used as a main water supply to Glasgow.
Probably for this reason access at my chosen starting point was not easy, but due to the high levels I was able to scrape on at stream entering just behind the pier wall. It was now early evening and I set out hoping to complete the majority of the 9km stretch and find a relatively dry campsite before night fall. As luck would have it after about 6km or so a headwind started to build now normally this would be unwelcome but as I was at this point somewhat wet and tired it gave a good excuse to call it a night and it also more importantly cleared the pesky midges which had been forcing me to wear a net until this point. The rain even lessened a touch as I pitched my damp camp on an exposed piece of beach which I hoped would be unappealing to air born pests?!
The next morning I was away early for once, and made my way in the now continuous rain down to the head of Archay water just the other side of the dam at the end of the Loch. My research had not told me much as regards this small river there seemed to be no reports of it ever been paddled before. Perhaps it was generally to low? The current level looked doable at the start so in the spirit of true exploration and the fact I didn’t fancy the portage down the A821;
I set off, canoe pole at the ready for the shallow sections.Bad Decision!! at about the halfway point after a bit of wading and lifting over trees I arrived at substantial set of falls certainly not run able in a fully laden canoe so was faced with either lining (abseiling!) my kit down them or rigging some form of pulley system to reach the bridal path somewhere above the small gorge, I went for the latter option.
Slightly later than anticipated I arrived at Loch Archay via the A821, having saved myself about .5km of the original 1.5km portage, but thankfully the last one!
The aforementioned Achray is only 2km long and is linked by Blackwater to Loch Venachar, the entrance to Blackwater takes a bit of spotting on the approach as it is heavily wooded and certainly lives up to its name. However once found the level and flows were good and a quick and pleasant trip was had down to Loch Venachar.
The 6km or so of Loch Venachar is uninspiring after its predecessors but dealt with quickly and I soon found myself at the start of Eas Gobhain a small river which was going to take me down to river Teith and then finally the union with the Forth at Stirling.
Available information from the guide books on the Eas Gobhain tells you the river is generally dry, today it wasn’t and didn’t look likely to be for the near future judging by the amount of precipitation falling at the time of my arrival. To small weirs at the beginning are mentioned and easily dealt with however I had found no mention of the sneaky grade 3 rapid that suddenly appears shortly after.
Having survived that little surprise, I arrived in Callander on a fast flowing river Teith in torrential rain without further incident. Ready for the fish supper I had promised myself and perhaps a small beverage?
Suitably refreshed and having sheltered from the worst of the rain, it was quite late in the evening when I set off down the Teith in search of a suitable campsite for my very wet tent. The river was in good condition and I soon passed the Torrie rapid which due to the levels was just a bouncy wave train that I nearly missed. By the time I reached the rivers only major hazard Deanston weir the rain had cleared and the sun was breaking through for the first time in two days. By this time it was getting quite and a dry-ish spot on which to camp was available but not wanting to be faced with running the drop first thing in the morning I decided to continue and try my luck the other side.
On inspection the weir looked run able on the left hand side at the current level though the flow appeared to be sweeping towards a fairly large stopper on the right, unfortunately I couldn’t see the chicken route down the fish steps from my vantage point on the bank but I rightly surmised that given the conditions it would probably be holding a fair amount of debris. The portage round looked long and arduous, so river left it was!
I was right to be concerned about being swept towards the stopper, I just caught the edge and broke through by the skin of my teeth and landed my now fully swamped boat on the bank just below the drop. I had described my camping gear as wet previously it was now really wet!
Luckily salvation from the sopping tent came just a little further down stream in the shape of a fisherman shelter offering a dry bench to bed down for the night and space to hang and dry my now very wet belongings. By the way of gratitude for this refuge I gave it a good sweep out and clean with the brush provided before setting out the next morning early in bright sunshine.
From here the trip down to Stirling was straightforward with just small rapids along the way and pleasant views of Doune Castle, the home of the Knights that say “nith” for Python aficionados (Holy Grail set) and the Wallace monument as I approached the confluence with the river Forth.
On meeting the Forth the river seems to meander forever around Stirling the banks getting increasingly more muddy as I progressed with less and less possibility of a decent egress point, but I had set myself the target of reaching saltwater before the journey could be ended after numerous tasting’s I achieved my goal Just a few miles upstream of the town.
Having cabled my trusty but (even more) battered prospector canoe to a handy tree and stashed the bulk of my kit underneath the muddy bank I set off to walk back in my now somewhat dishevelled state, to Stirling station in order to collect my van I had abandoned just under 3 days earlier on the banks of the Clyde the other side of the country.