By Calum Rogerson
For most people in the UK, they are unlikely to know much about, or indeed heard of the Inverpolly National Nature Reserve in the north west of Scotland. It’s about as remote as you can get in the UK and really can be considered as one of the last true wildernesses on our shores. That’s what makes it such an awesome place to explore by canoe!
So, why should you go paddling there?
Ok, it takes a long time to get there from just about anywhere south of Inverness. It does have the odd midge or two during the summer months sniffing out tasty human prey and it occasionally gets a bit breezy, but that’s all part of the fun!
“Travel as light as possible, yet don’t leave anything behind that could really spoil your trip.”
For those of you interested in what lies beneath our feet, the rocks you’ll find in the Inverpolly area, and indeed that run up the north west coast of Scotland, are about as old as it gets, in geological terms. These rocks provide the foundation for a stunning landscape, which is so different to what you see anywhere else in the country. Indeed, the North West Highlands has Geopark status, endorsed by UNESCO as an area with a high quality of geological heritage (http://www.nwhgeopark.com).
As you approach the reserve, the landscape becomes more barren; only after a while does it dawn on you that you haven’t see many trees recently. You’ll see plenty in the way of water, with lochs and lochans stretching off into the distance as you drive up the A835 towards Elphin. Even in the height of summer this area will remain relatively quiet and should you decide to take your canoe with you, the chances are that you won’t come across another living soul out in the wilderness. This really is an adventure waiting to happen.
Where should you paddle?
There’s one particular route I wanted to tell you about that provides an opportunity to get well off the beaten track with your canoe, although I should add, not without a bit of hard work. This trip is also tempting because it offers the chance to don your walking boots and rucksacks for a bit of uphill exploration. One such diversion from your canoe journey might be to climb the iconic Suilven, which rises from the barren landscape like nothing else you’ve seen.
“It’s extremely important that you carry out all your rubbish and leave campsites as you found them.
Think ‘leave no trace.’”
Allow yourself three
or four days for this trip, and starting at the tiny village of Elphin, make your way from the road, down the track to Loch Veyatie. Unless you’re lucky and the gate is open, this will involve a 500-600m portage to the water, so take your trolley!
In terms of paddling, the distances you’ll encounter aren’t huge, but what they lack in size, they certainly make up for in interest. Paddling west along Loch Veyatie you have Cul Mor to your left and Suilven will gradually come into view as you approach Fionn Loch. It’s only around 11km to the far end of Fionn Loch, where the River Kirkaig starts its tumbling descent to the coast about 5km away.
Once you reach Fionn Loch you have the ideal opportunity to pitch your tent in the shadow of Suilven, and if daylight permits you could even nip up for a glorious west coast sunset that evening. Alternatively, you could nip up the next morning after porridge and coffee, to take in the awesome views that await you across to Canisp and Quinag in the north.
At this point you have a choice: return the way you came to Elphin, or with a bit of hard work get out and pull your boat!
From Fionn Loch you paddle for a short distance on River Arkaig, landing again soon and making your way over land to Loch Sionascaig. However, if you have time to spare you can take a wander down to see the Falls or Kirkaig, but probably best to avoid them in your canoe!
You may need to empty some of the contents out of your canoe, depending on how many home comforts you take along with you. You’ll have a portage of around 600-700m over to the next lochan before jumping in your boat again. After a short paddle you have a similar length of portage before reaching Loch Sionsacaig. This can understandably be tiring, so do think carefully about what equipment you take along with you on this trip. You need enough to be self-sufficient, as you won’t find any convenience stores out there, but you do have to lug it all everywhere you go.
Loch Sionsacaig now awaits you, with islands to explore, wildlife to watch and mountains to climb if your legs are willing. You could easily spend another day here taking in all that is on offer and camp for another night.
For this particular journey, the end point isn’t far away, but the more adventurous amongst you could exit the loch via Loch na Dail (at the north-west corner) and wheel your boat down the minor road to Loch Bad a Ghaill. From here you can paddle back towards the A835 at Drumrunie, although to reach there would involve a 3.5km portage along the minor road.
“You won’t find much in the way of firewood to burn so don’t plan on having campfires. If you take your own wood, use a firepan to protect the ground.”
However, for our trip we’ll exit Sionascaig via Boat Bay in the north, across to Loch Buine Moire and out at the roadside, where you will hopefully be reunited with a car that you remembered to leave there! The logistics of this journey do involve a bit of inconvenience if you’re running shuttles yourself, but it’s totally feasible if you have sufficient roof bar space and take the time to plan it. Alternatively, pre-arrange a shuttle service to collect you and your equipment and take you back to your vehicle at Elphin.
This really is an awesome experience, made all the richer by the sense of achievement you’ll get having completed it. You’ll be tired, midge-bitten, badly in need of a shower and looking forward to a cup of tea with some fresh home baking. However, you will have ventured where only a tiny proportion of the population could claim to have been. This trip certainly isn’t for everyone, yet it’s not so difficult that it should be automatically added to the ‘out of my league’ list of canoe journeys. With careful planning, a bit of determination and perhaps a bit of advice from those in the know, this really could be a trip to remember for all the right reasons.
“Take your time to enjoy the experience.”