Many years ago we used to holiday year after year in rental cottages on the banks of Loch Sunart. If the weather is fair – and in May and late September it often is – it’s a great place for a family holiday.
One of my lasting memories is sitting on the terrace enjoying a beer in the late afternoon sun watching a solo canoe being paddled quietly across the mirror-calm loch.
It struck me then that a canoe would be a perfect way to explore the convoluted coastline of the loch, the numerous islands and skerries, and to do a spot of fishing for summer mackerel.
It still does.
Canoes and kayaks
I deliberately used the word canoe rather than kayak. They are often used interchangeably.
A canoe is usually used to mean an open boat, propelled by a single-bladed paddle. They are sometimes referred to as Canadian canoes in the UK. In contrast, a kayak is almost exclusively a closed boat, propelled by a double bladed paddle. Both are small, narrow and relatively lightweight.
Kayaks are faster, less affected by wind and waves and generally have a smaller load carrying capacity.
I’m in no rush these days and I want to be able to carry a tent, picnic basket, a Ghillie stove/kettle for a brew and all sorts of other stuff – portage trolley, cameras, fishing rod, a small sail, a nice bottle of Shiraz etc.
So I bought a canoe.
Specifically I bought an Apache Trek 4.5m canoe with oak trim. Many canoes are red or green. Mine is ivory. This was a deliberate choice as the inevitable scratches through the fiberglass gelcoat are less obvious. It can be used solo or, with the addition of a second seat, it can be paddled by two.
Are you sitting comfortably?
You can sit or kneel to paddle a canoe. I prefer to kneel, despite it being pretty brutal the first few trips on ageing knees and joints 1. When kneeling you actually have a lower centre of gravity, so making the canoe more stable. You’re also more in contact with the boat (essentially both knees and your backside), so you can make corrective movements more easily.
In addition – as you get more experienced – you can lean the boat to one side, so reducing the wetted surface and effectively making the boat shorter and more manageable 2.
The canoe was delivered with a kneeling seat. It looks like a normal seat (and can just about be used as such) except the front edge slopes down by ~25°. You sit on the edge of the seat, kneeling on a cushioned mat, with your feet tucked under the seat.
This works well except for my feet. After a few hours paddling ‘all points south’ from the knees are pretty stiff. Extricating my feet from under the kneeling seat in a hurry is inelegant, likely to cause cramp and a bit slow.
I don’t care how inelegant it looks, but I do want to be able to get out in a hurry if I need to.
For example, in a capsize.
Ride ’em cowboy!
This winter I’ve acquired a Stingray kneeling saddle. These offer all the advantages of a conventional kneeling seat 3, with none of the disadvantages.
I’ve yet to use it in the canoe, but it feels fine (but looks daft) sitting in front of the TV 😉
There are plenty of places to canoe in Ardnamurchan and Lochaber 4. However, since Loch Sunart is on my doorstep it’s the only place I’ve explored so far.
Access to the loch is restricted because of the rocky shoreline, the properties on the south side of the B8007 and very limited parking opportunities. However, access is possible from the following points (from east to west):
- Strontian – slipway available, free to use as far as I’m aware but a long way from the most attractive parts of the loch.
- Resipole – good access to the water in front of the campsite. Free for residents.
- Salen Jetty – free to use slipway for canoes and an excellent café with homemade cakes and other goodies. Highly recommended 🙂
- Picnic area ~1.5km west of Salen Jetty (Grid reference NM680631 or 56.702219N 5.7899301E) with parking and reasonable access to the shore.
- At high tide Glenborrodale bay (NM609610) or Camus Fearna bay (NM576619) are outside possibilities, though parking is problematic in both. At low tide you have a very long trek over mud and rocks. Not recommended.
Any further west than Ardslignish and the B8007 veers inland and shore access is not possible. However, by this point you are nearing the Sound of Mull and it’s a far less hospitable place to paddle.
Please do not park in passing places on the single track road.
There are a number of holiday cottages with direct frontage onto the loch and private slipways – if you rent one of these your parking and access problems are both solved 🙂
I am fortunate in that I can walk to the shore towing the canoe on a small purpose-built trolley.
The canoe can be floated off and on the trolley, so no lifting is required. A series of cam straps are used to secure the canoe. When tied down securely it is possible to negotiate some very rough tracks without major problems (though it’s very heavy to drag up a hill).
Islands in the stream
Canoeing is a great way to explore the loch. There are islands – defined (by me) for convenience as something never covered entirely by the tide – ranging in size from a football pitch up to ~240 hectares. The largest, Oronsay, is uninhabited and at low tide is connected to Morvern by a narrow isthmus uncovered at low tide. It should probably be considered a tied island. Carna, at 213 hectares, is the only inhabited island with two rental cottages 5.
Between the islands, all along the coastline and sometimes surprisingly far out into the loch, are dozens of skerries, or more correctly since this is Scotland, sgeirean 6. These rocks often have no vegetation other than seaweeds and are covered at the highest tide. At low tide they’re clearly visible.
At mid-tide, they might be there or they might not, making progress sometimes perilous in larger boats.
The tidal range in Loch Sunart is at most ~4 metres. Some channels are only passable above a certain height of tide. They can be there on the way out, but gone as you paddle back later in the day. It all adds to the fun of exploring.
Fully loaded the canoe probably has a draft of ~10cm. Consequently you can explore all sorts of rocky inlets and isolated sandy coves. Reversing out can be a necessity.
Almost all of the shoreline is rocky so there is little sediment in the water. Underwater visibility is exceptional. You can watch crabs scuttling between rocks, flatfish burying themselves in the sandy bottom of inlets and the flash of mackerel as they turn away into deeper water.
There are also plenty of aquatic mammals. Common seals are, er, common. Dolphins and porpoises are regularly seen … albeit usually a long way off in the deep channel (~120m) between Carna and the north shore. Whales rarely venture too far into the loch, but are regularly seen in the loch entrance and the Sound of Mull.
I rarely see otters when out canoeing. They are plentiful in the region but, on the sunny days I try and choose they’re probably snoozing between the rocks digesting a bellyfull of crustaceans.
Using binoculars from the canoe is straightforward. Using a camera, less so. Even on a calm day the boat has a tendency to move, either up and down on the imperceptible swell, or to get gently blown offline.
Practice should improve things.
Planned trips for the future include the area near Castle Tioram, Loch Moidart and the North and South Channels around Eilean Shona. Loch Shiel offers fantastic canoeing, as does Loch Morar further north. The area around Arisaig and Morar is a famous canoe and kayaking venue.
Closer to home, the stunning white beaches of Sanna are very tempting, but it’s an exposed shores so the weather would need to be good.
I missed the best of the mackerel in 2019 and intend to not make the same mistake this year.
Paddle faster, I hear banjos is a phrase from the 1972 John Boorman film Deliverance. If you know the film, you’ll be aware of the meaning. Loch Sunart and Morvern are remote, but there are no hillbillies lurking in the woods.
However, canoeing in the region is not without risks. The Admiralty chart highlights two regions of the loch (just east of Carna and the Laudale Narrows) where the tidal flow can reach 3 knots. If there’s ‘wind over tide’ these regions can be very rough and should be avoided. The tidal stream entering Loch Teacuis on either side of Carna can also be very strong. The north shore is intermittently populated but the southern (Morvern) shore is very remote. Note also that the phonebox at Glenborrodale has no actual telephone (!) and mobile reception is, at best, patchy unless you have ‘line of sight’ to the Mull transmitter above Tobermory.
Islands in the Stream was the first posthumous novel from Ernest Hemingway. It is a trilogy about a painter, Thomas Hudson, fishing off Bimini in the Bahamas, living on Cuba and hunting U-boats in the archipelago off the northern shore of Cuba. As you can see from the first picture in this post, Ardnamurchan can look at least as good as Bimini if the weather is fair 😉