I dipped my toes into the water so to speak when I bought myself an inflatable kayak a few years ago. This seemed a fairly easy introduction to kayaking: relatively less expensive, no need for roof bars to transport the kayak and a good way of learning basic paddling skills. I’ve been quite content ‘messing about’ on the water and have really enjoyed using the kayak for more adventurous wild camping and munro-bagging trips such as to Knoydart and my recent overnight on an island in Loch Moidart.
But the more I’ve enjoyed kayaking, the more I’ve been aware of the limitations of inflatables. They don’t have the same stability as sleek, thin and solid kayaks and consequently, they’re certainly much harder work to paddle. (And as I’ve just discovered since returning from Loch Moidart, they can get punctured … but fortunately they do come with a puncture repair kit !).
So it seemed an obvious next step for me to try my hand at ‘proper’ sea kayaking, and what better way than to sign up for a course so I could get high quality instruction. This would allow me to find out if sea kayaking was ‘for me’.
Following some research I recently participated in a one-day sea kayak trip with Paddle Lochaber. This offered a good balance since it was not aimed at complete beginners but would still allow novices like me to gain more confidence and essential skills. I was looking for a course somewhere on the West coast and Paddle Lochaber fitted the bill perfectly. As it turned out I was the only person booked on the day trip that particular Tuesday and so I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to sea kayaking.
Mark McKerral runs Paddle Lochaber (often supported by associates) and is an excellent instructor and guide. He’s not only very well qualified by the British Canoe Union to lead kayak courses at a range of different levels (he’s currently the youngest person in Scotland to hold the coveted BCU 5 Star Sea Leader Award, the British Canoe Union’s highest proficiency award) but he’s knowledgeable about the areas he takes groups to, and this certainly adds significantly to the overall experience.
We set out from the meeting point at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, beside Loch Leven and just twenty minutes south of Fort William. In some ways I was a little disappointed not to be heading further afield to attractive areas such as the coast off Port Appin or Arisaig but Loch Leven proved more than adequate. It’s sheltered but allows you to get out into the rougher waters of Loch Linnhe just beyond the Ballachulish bridge to gain different skills and experiences. The scenery is also fantastic and there’s sufficient interest in the islands and fish farms. The big advantage in paddling in Loch Leven, of course, is that there’s no need to travel from Paddle Lochaber’s base – and that means more time on the water.
I made the classic mistake made by people who are used to inflatables by putting the same amount of effort that I would normally use into paddling a ‘proper’ (solid) kayak. Once Mark advised that it might be easier if I slowed down (!) I got the hang of pacing myself and began to concentrate on developing new skills.
Kayaking is really a great way of seeing wildlife you would normally drive past at great speed. We saw seals (keeping our distance of course), and cormorants drying their wings after a dip on this island in Loch Linnhe.
We stopped for lunch on a shingle beach at Kentallen, just to the west of the twin munro peaks of Beinn a Bheithir and Sgurr Dhonuill and beside the new Oban to Ballachulish cycle path. In spite of paddling into Loch Linnhe the water was calm given light winds. And the sun even came out during the afternoon.
Here’s Mark looking relaxed with a backdrop of Beinn a Bheithir and Sgurr Dhonuill, the peaks being just over 1000 metres (3300ft).
The distinctive and shapely peak of the Pap of Glencoe (742m or 2434ft) dominates Loch Leven and the entrance to Glencoe. A slightly more recent landmark is the Ballachulish bridge which carries the A82 between Glasgow and Fort William, which replaced the Ballachulish ferry in 1975. But the ferry – the MV Glenachulish – wasn’t scrapped but was relocated further north to ply the summer route between Glenelg and Kylerhea on Skye. The ferry has an interesting legacy in that it’s the last manually operated turntable ferry still in service in Scotland – you can read more about it following my trip on the ferry last year.
I can’t resist re-telling another interesting story told to me by Mark relating to the bridge. Way back in the 1600s when the McDonald Clan dominated Glencoe, and around the time of the famous massacre there in 1692, there lived a witch-like woman named Corrag. Now legend has it that Corrag prophesised that the whole of Glencoe would be flooded if Loch Leven was ever bridged. When the new Balluchulish bridge was being constructed in the early 1970s this story came to the attention of the engineers, who were ever so slightly wary that the prophecy may in fact come true. (And no, we’re not talking about small increases in sea levels owing to climate change; Corrag predicted that the whole of Glencoe would be flooded).
The engineers came up with an ingenious solution to try to avoid this catastrophe in that they never in fact completed the construction of the bridge. If you look very carefully on the eastern side of the bridge just above the concrete support at South Ballachulish you will see that one bolt is missing from the block of 24 bolts holding the bridge together. So the bridge isn’t quite finished … but it clearly passed the engineers final’ quality inspection, and both it and Glencoe survive to this day. (Thanks for the great story, Mark, and I hope I haven’t ruined your chances of telling it to all of your future clients !).
Anyway, back to the paddling … Mark took me past the fish farms in Loch Leven owned by Marine Harvest, which are really amazing up close. I forget how many thousands of fish are contained here (it’s a very, very big number) but the noise of the fish thrashing about and jumping out of the water is something else. Finally, we rounded the islands in Loch Leven which are historic burial grounds used by the McDonalds and other clans over the centuries. For this reason, Mark explained that he (and most others) regard the islands as ‘out of bounds’ and deserving of some kind of protected status to prevent people visiting them.
I really enjoyed this day. Not only did I get to have one-to-one tuition in sea kayaking from an expert but Mark’s knowledge of the local area really made this a special experience. If you ever get a chance to try sea kayaking amongst some of Scotland’s wonderful land and seascapes – for example, with Paddle Lochaber – I would highly recommend it.
While my 14 for 2014 is a series of personal challenges I’m using it to help raise funds for the Naomi House Children’s Hospice in Hampshire. Naomi House cared for the young daughter of a friend and ex-work colleague who died of an incurable brain tumour in January 2014. Please read this moving article about four year old Chiara and view the link to her fund raising site .
Naomi House clearly made a real difference to the last few months of Chiara’s life, and that of her family, and so this is why I want to use my 14 for 2014 to raise awareness and additional funds for the great work that they do. If you have enjoyed reading my blog and feel inspired in any way please consider giving a donation to this extremely worthwhile charity.