This canoe trip was an experience not to be forgotten. The ever-changing scenery always forcing you into the moment, we were met with different challenges around every bend. The Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit.
Our journey began with a long slog up the motorway from London, with a stop off in the Lake District. Any true wilderness adventure involves a pub and we were happy to find one that included free camping! Ed is strictly against paying for camping, but for me if it means buying a pint then oh well! Anyway it felt like torture drinking a couple of local ales…
Next day onwards towards Glasgow and then further north to Fort William where we had a few things to sort out. Ed had his own canoe (which he made, I cannot forget to mention that) whereas I had to rent one. A lovely canoe it was too, floatation devices and all!
Our time keeping meant we were rather late picking up the canoe and also doing our food shopping, so no canoeing on the first day it would seem. That night we set up a basic camp next to the top of loch shiel. Going through our gear well into the darkness. Sorting out drybags and getting everything ready it all started to feel like an adventure, but one of grand proportions.
The area where we pitched was so rough and hard under food that Ed had to bivy under his canoe. I had to use a heavy dry bag and my canoe to pitch a TentTipi. It was not an ideal situation but somehow it added to the whole atmosphere. From this point on we would have to make do and improvise with what we had in equipment and in skills.
Setting Off on The Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit
Tomorrow morning came; gear was put into the canoes and that magical first push off into the water. It was a perfectly still morning, the only ripples originating from our paddles. Laughing away we paddled under a bridge and into the start of Loch Shiel.
The adventure was starting and it felt amazing. The start of the Loch is very smelly as there are a lot of salmon farms in this area. Sadly this would be a theme that would creep into almost every aspect of the trip, the fact that human influence is never far away.
Not really Wilderness
Loch Shiel has some amazing views. It was an early start for us in the day and as we paddled further down the loch the sun suddenly spilt over the side of the surrounding hills filling the Loch with warmth. The sunlight reflecting off tiny droplets of water trapped on the vegetation that covers the hills. Moments in the Loch were very calm and had a true wilderness feel to them. Ed and I calmly floated by ancient looking rocks sticking out of the clearest water and then in the next moment a tour boat goes past with local facts on a loud speaker.
Another constant reminder of ones company was Ed’s near perpetual moaning about his lack of a seat in the canoe. Mine had a nice comfy one, and flotation devices or did I already mention that?
Much better to sit
The day was getting on and we were almost out of the main part of the Loch. We had to find a spot to camp before it was too dark and our aim was to set up camp and enjoy the evening. We pitched our TentTipis on the beach of a tiny island steeped in history. It was the site of old Finans Chapel.
Ticks, Oh good evening to you!
TentTipis were pitched and the lack of a sewn in ground sheet cursed. The view from the island was incredible and the colours in the evening sky speak for themselves. We sat round the campfire wondering if this was the best day ever. Our first night on the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit.
The next morning
Day two and waking up with the sky already blue and the sun beaming down were like visual caffeine. We got up, packed the TentTipis away. This time it took a little longer as now the material had absorbed a little water. Squeezing them into the dry bags was just achieved.
The beach was bordered by clear water and pebbles which was where we launched from, out towards Acharacle. Having paddled pretty much the entire length of Loch Shiel yesterday we were very excited about the water in front of us narrowing, but leaving the island we still had a long way to go until our next rest. The wind was against us somewhat this morning and is one of the reasons you should pack your canoe with weight evenly balanced throughout so as to prevent the front from being spun round in the wind.
We stopped off for a bit to visit the local bakery and boost our energy levels. While we were eating some warm baked goods our thoughts became focussed on the tides, as ahead of us lay the river step into Moidart. This was still a fair distance away and we wanted to run it before it became too treacherous. The step is a small section of rapids between River Shiel and Loch Moidart.
Under the River Shiel bridge towards Loch Moidart, the river becomes faster flowing. Is certainly a welcome change since all day long you are paddling under your own steam. When the river starts to help you out a bit more it’s a simple joy. Running some tiny rapids, the river becomes a little slower again before speeding up one last time before the step. Once you are committed there is no turning back, just steering the canoe in a good straight line and keep on paddling and you will make it. Ed and his vintage handmade canoe made the step too… This was one of the most enjoyable parts on the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit.
Eilean Tioram, The Dry Island was our home for the night. The ruined castle looming over us we set up our TentTipis just up from the beach. They have found worked pieces of steatite on that beach that point to the historical presence of Vikings. Steatite is commonly called soapstone and was used regularly for carving.
TentTipis were eventually pitched and a fire was ultimately made. There was not much dead wood on the island and neither of us was going to paddle anywhere to get some! The evening in the sea loch was filled with sounds. In sharp contrast of the almost silent inland water of the first night that surrounded our island. The salt water of the sea loch was filled with chatty birds, swimming seals and arguing bats. We finally worked out were using the castle for a home and with the large empty space on the inside acting as an amplifier to their chatter.
I think we tried to be a little too adventurous with the cooking that night as the roast vegetables turned out a little weird as well as sand in the pasta, thanks Ed.
Day three and we are seasoned paddlers. Proficient in all forms of canoeing and navigation. With all distractions gone we can focus on our goal to reach Loch Ailort. Another aspect now absent from the trip is any form of respect for each other. Our conversations nothing more than childish bickering. Perhaps it was the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit making us mad?
The sheltered waters of Loch Moidart lead us unhindered towards the North Channel, the channel out to the sea! Low tide meant we had to line the canoe a little but it gave us a chance to have a good look at the local bushcraft opportunities, which was a seafood lovers dream. The problem with filter feeders so close to human activity… well without getting too blunt we decided to leave the mussels for another day. We pressed on with Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit.
Canoeing out into the Sea
We had one final stop before we paddled out into the sea on the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit, another point of no return. As if the waves were too high the coast was too harsh to land on and we would be faced with a very interesting position. We were full of anticipation for a battle. What we got was perfectly calm with huge jellyfish floating around our canoes. However you can detect a difference out on the sea the canoe feels a lot more insignificant to the water.
The current also tugs at the bottom of the craft. This may be obvious to most readers, but for us it was our first time out on the sea in a canoe and hopefully not the last. At this point we were only part way out and a fair way to go so it could still go all horribly wrong. It is always fun on the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit.
Paddling in really large open water or in this case the sea is rather disheartening, as it appears you do not get anywhere at all even though you are paddling non stop. After much paddling and sweating we started to see the water narrow again as the start of Loch Ailort came into view. The sea section of the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit was one of the most memorable parts.
Taking a rest on a sandy beach next to a lovely “NO CAMPING!” sign. I wondered where we could camp for the night. However it was only a short while after that we found an amazing island, our third island of the trip. Sandy beach, bare rocks and a small woodland for fire wood.
The TentTipis at this point were really damp from the night below Castle Tioram on the second night, so pitching them on the sand was a nightmare waiting to happen. I was shocked to see how much of a pain wet sand is! The TentTipis were covered in it; zips were full of grains too. Yet somehow they managed to still perform, some interior cleaning helped however.
Corned beef was on the menu for dinner and this was had with the last of the whisky. It was our last night on the trail and needed some celebration; tomorrow would be paddling up towards Loch Eilt. We had almost completed the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit now.
Our campfire was left to burn down to embers and we decided to call it a night. Safe from ticks on the sand we thought we were protected, but what are these hopping things all over the beach? The whole beach and now inside the TentTipis were these little hopping shrimp like things. There’s nothing like being really tired and returning to your tent and finding a load of beach hoppers making little hopping sounds on your groundsheet. Sleep well…
Next day on the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe circuit the first issue was packing up the now extra heavy and damp as well as sand covered TentTipis… It was a lot of fun I can assure you. Next issue was carrying the canoes down to the low tide mark, which was now all the way down past the beach and over the rocks.
It wasn’t long before we were paddling; a group of deer watched us float past as we made our way slowly towards Loch Eilt. Before we could reach her waters lay another set of challenges. We had to find the entrance to the River Ailort and this was a bit tricky in low tide. Once we had reached the end of the Loch we paddled the shallow waters and finally spotted the river entrance, which signalled the start of first taste of uphill paddling… As you can imagine it did not last long before we were out the canoe lining up the river. It is great fun to battle the river, you are going the opposite way to the flow and not even nature, and gravity can stop you…
It takes it out of you however so we stopped for a break just after the river goes underneath the road bridge. Carrying on part walking, part pulling and part slipping over until we reached the weir. Waist deep in water, grinning like idiots pulling a canoe over a raging weir, great fun but we got some dodgy looks from some local friendly fishermen. We had almost completed the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit.
“Don’t disturb the pools!”
Moving upwards again, bodies tired we set our gaze on a nasty waterfall with steep banks either side. Time at this point was not on our side and sadly this would be the end of our trip. To portage around would take too long and with no clear return to the river from our point of view it would potentially mean another portage further down too. After walking up the river some way it was with heavy hearts we turned back and pulled our canoes back to just past the weir we had crossed an hour ago.
Whilst Ed went to collect the car I stayed by the equipment with some spicy ramen noodles as company. In the car journey back music playing as the light disappeared from the countryside we both agreed that a longer journey style trip is something everyone should do. It’s so memorable and more of a challenge. Above all you find out both how much you know already and how much you still have to learn. I cannot recommend the Loch Shiel Moidart Canoe Circuit enough.