Are you insane?
How to get a Canoe from Attadale to Beauly in 48 Hours
I have only met Dave in passing once and I have never met Ollie but having heard about them and seen their paddling through the joys of the internet I knew I would be in for one hell of a canoe trip if I signed up for the adventure. I can confirm the rumors are true, the suffering was hard, the paddling was hard-earned, and the body is sore! Yet here I am sitting at home the day after finishing this suffer fest trying to recuperate my calorie deficit contemplating the next trip!
Only a few days before the trip began, I found myself with the opportunity to join Dave Janes Jr and Ollie Sandeman for a journey across Scotland with a plan to travel from Attadale on the edge of Loch Carron to the town of Beauly on the east side of Scotland not far from Inverness. Having heard of the paddling reputation these guys carried and knowing we would be crossing Scotland to paddle a section I’ve wanted to explore for some time now I knew I couldn’t say no. Not only that but with the challenge of a time constraint on the whole thing wanting to be done in 48 hours from Tuesday night finishing on Thursday night!
Day 1 – Ollie and Dave were coming up to enable Ollie to complete his advanced kayak coach award on the river Morriston on the Tuesday prior to the trip starting with the plan to head off that evening after a good feed at the chippy in Fort Augustus. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity for a few pre-portage warm-up laps at the river while Ollie smashed out a successful assessment! After filling ourselves with as many carbs and calories as possible we made the beautiful drive out to Attadale, arriving at the car-park at the bottom of the glen for around 7.30.
The evening was beautifully still with no sign of the feared midge and a pinkie dusk setting over the epic west coast. After some kit faff and some more shedding of weight as Dave stripped Ollie of as many luxury items as possible out of his bag, which he would later be grateful for, we finally set off from the cars at around 8.30 PM. The plan was to try and make the Bendronaig Lodge, a bothy deep in the Attadale Forest 12km from the start, and make camp here to give us the best chance of making the distance. Just as we were about to start towing our canoes up the track one of the locals from the estate drove in and asked what we were up to assuming we were going to camp or head onto Loch Carron. After a short explanation of where we were going and what we were doing the man’s eyes slowly widened and his face became more perplexed. Once he was assured we weren’t camping at the car-park he then proceeded to tell us about the miles of bog and where the track we planned to use ended this soon followed with the words “you’re F*cked lads”.
We wished we had filmed this beautiful moment and chuckled before beginning our steady plod up the track with canoes in tow. After an hour of plodding the track started to steepen into the distance. We couldn’t see the top and the mammoth task ahead of us suddenly dawned on us. We started up the hill with some sections so steep our feet would struggle to get grip enough to pull the canoes up. At this point, me and Ollie severely regrated our decision to only bring paddle bibs and boots leaving us with the only option to wear them during portages. This made for a delightful boil-in-a-bag effect towing laden canoes up a steep track as the sun finished setting on us. Many false summits later and time ticking on we still hadn’t reached the 6km mark.
By this point, it was around 11 pm and Ollie and Dave having barely slept the night before and all of us having been paddling most of the day decided we were not going to make both and needed to make camp ASAP. After half an hour more savage uphill towing in the dark, we found a flat…ish patch of ground where Ollie set up his tent and me and Dave climbed straight into our Canoes on the floor in Bivvie bags and passed out. The wind was cold and I was wet with sweat from towing, so slept in every bit of clothing I could wear while still managing to slide under my kneeling thwart and maintain blood circulation to my legs and feet. I decided I would use my canoe sail as a vague cover over the canoe just encase it rained which just about sat above my face as I lay in the canoe.
I fell asleep with a bit of excitement and a lot of dread of the now even more mammoth task that lay ahead of us tomorrow.
Day 2 – After a cold night’s sleep we woke up around 6.30 am and the first thing you could see was the rest of the steep hill we had yet to trolley up “What a lovely morning view”. However, you could see the height we had gained the night before all the way down to Loch Carron. This was both very satisfying but also saddening as even after all that effort still being able to see where you had come from at the start was a little depressing to say the least. After a swift breakfast of coffee, mug shots, and a Galaxy chocolate bar for Dave we started off up the steep hill. Although it was hard work, we were pretty happy we hadn’t attempted to carry on the previous night. Eventually, we topped out and were rewarded with an epic view nearly all the way to the bothy and beyond to our next hill which we tried our best to ignore and enjoy the success of the morning. After a quick water stop and some more sugar, we carried on this time downhill to the bothy.
This came along with the steady disintegration of my trolley wheel. With no way of repair and at this point committed to the suffer fest we carried on with my tyre still hanging on all the way to the bothy. Here we decided on a proper stop with some more coffee, a hot meal, and the luxury of a real toilet! A quick look at the map showed us the extent of the next section which suggested the track would probably get worse and die out, but we knew a small bit of water would present us with a bit of paddling between the trolley fest this was becoming in the form of Loch Calavie.
With the engines filled up with noodles and porridge, we set off up the track from the bothy and just as we suspected, deteriorated in quality but nevertheless still existed. This did mean a lot larger boulders and rutted track sections. The by-product of this was numerous dry land capsizes and canoe rolls accompanied by the backing track of “F*cking trolley”, “AHHHHHHHHH” and you “M*ther F*cker”. At this point everyone had headphones in and heads down as the endless slog wore down on everyone somehow throughout my shredded slightly floppy tyre held on, I can only assume via some sort of canoe god or magic!
Finally, Loch Calavie came into sight. We regrouped shoved some food and more coffee down us and finally slid our boats onto the thankfully glass-flat loch surrounded by some epic mountain scenery. Finally, we had a moment to really appreciate where we were and what we were actually doing! For a beautiful 2km, we cruised across the loch then very quickly found ourselves back to the rutted, swear fest of dragging our boats up an ever-deteriorating track. The boulders, drains, and grassy tufts were relentless but after another 3 km we could finally see Loch Monar, which was a sign of hope and the potential end of this Trolleying hell! At this point, we had had enough of the track and decided dragging through the marsh and onto a small shallow river that led into Lochan Gobhlach would at least make a much-needed change from the trolley! With a surprisingly easy slide down the hillside through some soft marshland we slipped into the river and slid, heaved, and dragged our poor boats over the shallow rocks until finally it was deep enough to paddle! Yet again we were met with glass-like water to revel in for the 3km of paddling leading up to the transition to Loch Monar.
We knew the chance of paddling the river down into the Loch Monar was slim, but we couldn’t not look. Surprise surprise it was way too low. So back to the trolley fest if was. Fortunately downhill, but never the less a rutted 2km trolley drag down to Loch Monar. At this point, we had been on the go for around 11 hours and the time was 5 pm. We decided we would make for the end of Loch Monar and have dinner there. This time the canoe gods were not on our side as the direction of paddle was now East which unfortunately meant we were met with a 10km force 2/3 headwind paddle to reach the dam and the gateway to Strathfarrar. So, it was heads down and headphones in time again as everyone dug in. Still, the plus side was we could rest our legs from the relentless Trolleying and beast the top halves of our bodies.
The time passed with the wind coming and going until the loch started to narrow and we regrouped to chat and banter our way for the final few km up to the dam. Here we were welcomed by a steep boulder egress as a final challenge to earn our dinner. On the plus side after poking our heads over the top of the boulders, as we suspected we found a beautifully tarmacked road leading downhill for our next trolley into the glen, I’ve never been so happy to see tarmac!
After a brief stop to cook some food by the side of the dam I started to regret a little bit just how light I had packed as I settled down for my 2 packs of noodles for dinner. I knew this would not make up for the calories burnt so far that day. Now it was time for Ollie to reap the benefits of packing heavy as he pulled out a big stick of chorizo, cheese, and pesto to go with his pasta. He was extremely kind and donated some fried chorizo to my noodle dinner which I could not have been more grateful for. This was probably up there with the top noodle dishes ever! Dave having gone super light as well was tucking into squeezy cheese and sausage “aperitifs” before tucking into his repacked pot noodle dinner along with a dessert of a bag of M&Ms. After a good feed we decided on a camp spot about 2 or 3 km down the tarmac track at the top of Strathfarrar and the start of the river.
We set off in the remaining light with just enough time to spot a nice wide flat grass spot by the river to set up for the night. In the dark, you could see the deer’s eyes reflected in the light from the head torches. This gave me the fear not because of the deer but because deer mean one thing in Scotland the dreaded tic!
At this point, I did not care I just wanted to get to sleep and so we set up our bivvie, under the canoes this time, and went to sleep after praying I was not going to be riddled by the morning.
Day 3 – Before going to sleep we decided if we were going to make the 45-odd km mission to Beauly in time for the train at 6.09 pm we were going to have to get up early and get a shift on!
So up we were at 5.30 for sunrise and along with the alarm came what I had feared when I went to sleep. The tic army had decided on a dawn raid of my sleeping bag, my body was pretty much peppered with the sh*te bags! Mostly ones too small to even remove with the tic remover. After the obligatory check to see just how adventurous the little blighters had been, I could take some solace in the fact that the waistband of my boxers had halted them in their tracks, from what I could tell anyway.
Having only known Dave and Ollie for just over 24 hours I felt that a back door check might be a little too much to ask so decide that my overnight friends were going to have to come on the journey with me down the Farrar. Putting the fact that I was being feasted on to one side we kitted up and got on to the river, not knowing if or how long we would be able to actually paddle for! By pure luck, the compensation flow from the dam provides just enough water to meander down the river with the odd shuffle through some pleasant grade 1 / 2 rapids. These might only be pleasant due to circumstance, by that I mean the fact that we could get down these rapids and had dragged our boats for hours and hours to get there may have given us rose-tinted glasses! Still, the kilometers passed, but again the easterly winds soon made an appearance which as we reached some of the small lochans that make up part of the river become nearly too much.
On one final open loch, the force 4 headwind was almost unbearable, fortunately, we had all brought canoe poles and the edge of the loch has some shallow pebbled beaches. We managed to pole the final km of the loch and collapsed on the beach in the shelter from the wind taking a moment before we knew a mandatory portage was coming to get around the next dam! Ollie loaded us up with Tangfastics from his never-ending food supply bag which we decided we probably couldn’t poke fun at anymore!
At this point, we were about 12km and 4 hours into the day and we knew we had to keep moving if we were to make the train. Another night in the bag of tics was not going to happen! We cracked on with the portage fortunately the tarmac estate track sits close to the river most of the way, so we quickly hopped back on the trolley fest mission. At this point, we knew a gorge section was approaching and we didn’t know if this would even be padddleable, but after a 1km portage and what looked like a hill approaching we made the decision that we were going to drop in and paddle! The gamble paid off with what I would call full expedition canoe creeking.
Decisions and actions came quickly and easily with Me, Dave, and Ollie all interchanging leads, paddling as a team. Working quickly and efficiently become effortless in no time. After a few interesting drops and some tactical lining, we suddenly came across a pretty ominous-looking horizon line down an even more narrow gorge. After a quick look over the edge, I knew it had to be paddled and gave Ollie the nod who quickly ran for the camera. I knocked my way down the entry rapid to avoid the worst of the pin rocks and lined up for the drop suddenly remembering I had not attached my expedition bag or trolley! “No time to worry about that now”.
Fortunately, I stuck the drop but filled up to the gunwales and missed the exit slot below the drop Before getting sucked back into the swirling eddie beneath the drop and taking a cold swim Ollie grabbed the bow of my boat and fortunately, I managed to get out before losing all my kit. Ollie then said with a smile “Why did you have to go and paddle that now I’m going to have to paddle it”.
I set up the camera while Dave lined his boat.
He had decided that his not dry trousers, lack of spare clothes, and the fact that he was selling the boat he was using made the drop not worth the risk at this point! Unfortunately, his boat decided it didn’t want to behave and promptly flipped off the drop and dumped his kit in the swirling eddie beneath. After some clever poking, it came out relatively easy and we picked up the pieces. Ollie then sent the drop also filled to the gunwales and almost made the exit move but came very close to a pin. Luckily Ollie being the nimble, lanky bugger he is managed to quickly hop out and save the situation before it escalated.
With some new scratches to the boats and chuckling away we cracked on down the river with some absolutely stunning mini gorges and some surprisingly fun low, tight and technical grade 2/3 rapids to read and run along the way! This was making up for the suffer fest of trolley and headwind! Paddling with two other very capable paddlers just made everything flow quick and effortlessly until we reached another horizon line, this time we decided it was too risky. A fish ladder-style set of drops led to a pool swiftly followed by a very chossy looking rapid and a steep-sided gorge with limited escape options. With time of the essence, we quickly lifted boats up and out the gorge and lowered them back in below the choss fest using a tree as an anchor to lower the boats down on a line. With some careful down-climbing and swift action we were back on the water in no time headed for the confluence with the river glass!
Finally, at around 1pm the confluence came in to sight and a brief opportunity for lunch. The Farrar with 2 portages and 25km had taken us the grand total of 6 and a bit hours! I could have stopped for hours in the sun for lunch as we ate pretty much everything we had left and then onto Ollie’s spare food! Unfortunately, as we approached the coast the headwinds got worse and the glass was pretty much pancake flat with an unnoticeable flow. Setting of for lunch was tough but we knew we had to get it done. With 19km left to paddle and the headwind still around force 4 we battled on with the next stop point being the Aigas gorge!
After several hours of swearing, sore knees, and getting blown backward on the river we reached the gorge which not only was beautiful but brought some much welcome shelter from the wind. We kept moving but enjoyed for a moment the sensation of feeling like a paddle stroke actually took you forward! As we headed out the gorge the next Dam came into sight which was a massive one! We hopped out and had a look at how we could portage this beast, but it looked like a small busy sketchy road would be our only option with no sight of where we could actually drop in next. At the top of the dam was a small layby and a beautiful sunny grass patch. We looked at each other and I think collectively realised we were not going to make Beauly in time. As we stood looking at each other Dave quickly piped up “lads I’ve got an idea”.
As I’d learned on the trip this doesn’t always mean good news is coming. However, this time I was all ears, as we looked at the map we were only a 5 km walk from Beauly or 2 portages and 8km paddle due to the meandering of the river! Dave’s idea was we were pretty much at Beauly and me and him would hike down to get the train on time. The time was around 4.30 and the paddle option would take us longer than we had so it took little time decide on leaving Ollie with the boats in the sun and setting off to Beauly by foot. Unfortunately for Ollie, this meant a 5-hour wait in the middle of nowhere while we went to retrieve the cars in Attadale.
Luckily for me and Dave a nice couple who had just been walking up Strathfarrar picked us up about 10 mins into our walk and dropped us in Beauly right by the shops. This meant we had time to load up on some much need food and can of coke while sitting the sun! Feeling bad for Ollie on his own we decided to send him a picture to let him know we were getting on just fine! The reply we got from Ollie I won’t type out!
Eventually, we headed for the train station, and we hopped on for the 2 hours train ride back through the mountains to the start. Me and Dave chatted away staring out the windows and looking at lochs and rivers already discussing previous canoe trips and concocting new suffer fests! Before we knew it the train pulled up on the stop-by request-only station at Attadale. Here you must make sure you are at the front of the train as the station platform is only big enough for one carriage of the train! We hoped off in time to drive back in the setting sun to rescue Ollie from his solitary canoe guarding and just as night fell, we got back to the boats loaded up, and made the journey home from a trip that truly defines type 2 fun!
[Credit: All photos by Liam Green & and Ollie Sandeman]