Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Rannoch Moor rambles.

For years I've driven across Rannoch Moor on the way north and wondered what it would be like to explore the various areas of water that speckle it's vast bleak expanse. Over the festive period Graeme emailed me asking if I fancied doing some trips in the new year so we began corresponding about possible destinations. It turned out we both shared the desire to explore Rannoch Moor and Graeme had done a brief reconnaissance of the western side (taking in Lochan na h-achlaise and the western end of Loch Ba). We set a provisional  date and given that we would only have two days we decided to put in at Rannoch station at the eastern edge of the moor and explore Loch Laidon and possibly walk up to Loch Ba for a look if we had enough time. The forecast wasn't perfect, there was the possibility of some rain and stronger winds but we planned to meet up at Rannoch station on Saturday morning.
Rannoch station is very remote and awkward to get to (although it's not that far as the crow flies), the drive is long and tortuous so I left in plenty of time to meet Graeme. The roads were flooded in places and the various rivers I passed were all in spate. I arrived at Rannoch an hour earlier than our scheduled time but it was nice to have the luxury of time to get my canoe off the roof, carry it across the railway line level crossing (the gate was closed and locked) and onto the trolley. I then carried the rest of my kit across and spent a while considering whether to take all my sailing gear with me. The wind was quite strong when I arrived but seemed to be dropping so I decided to take my rig and leeboard but leave the rudder behind (meaning I'd have to steer with my paddle if I chose to sail). Graeme arrived bang on time and after a quick catch up he soon had his canoe ready to go as well.
The first part of our journey would involve a one kilometre trolley portage down a track to Loch Laidon. Fortunately the track is fairly flat and has a hard stony surface so it wasn't so bad. Soon we were at the edge of the loch sorting our canoes ready for the off.
As we started paddling southwest there was hardly any wind to contend with giving excellent paddling conditions but very quickly a light breeze picked up. I was keen to show Graeme what my Solway Dory Expedition  sailing rig could do so I landed at one of the  lovely red sandy beaches that border the loch. Graeme seemed surprised that I thought I'd be able to sail upwind effectively and watched on bemused as I assembled my rig and leeboard.
I set off tacking west into a steady wind while Graeme paddled on watching me curiously. 
Graeme is a strong paddler and was able to keep pace easily enough as he paddled directly upwind while I zig zagged tacking. It had been a good while since I'd sailed without a rudder and initially I was quite tentative, however I soon started to get into it, holding the mainsheet in one hand and ruddering with my paddle with the other. As we progressed further west the wind freshened and I reefed my sail while Graeme began to toil a little paddling hard into the wind. The scenery was beautiful in a bleak way with the forested shores of the eastern end of Loch Laidon giving way to open moorland further west all the while dotted with red sandy beaches. 
Gradually the wind increased up to a good Force 4 with white horses running down the loch. I reefed again and was shipping a fair bit of water over the side at times, Graeme was working really hard by this time so we landed on one of the beaches for a rest and to look at the map. There was an area a little further on with some islands and inlets that promised a bit of shelter so we pushed on. Now that I'd reefed my sail a second time I decided to try something different and instead of just ruddering with the paddle. I cleated off the mainsheet and paddled forward strokes on the windward side (the canoe is set up to turn into the wind so the paddle strokes work against this and add forward thrust as well). I've seen my friends Tom and Greg sailing this way in the past but never really tried it myself. To my surprise it was easy enough, didn't feel precarious (despite not being able to sheet out to spill wind in a gust) and allowed me to make great progress. Perhaps equally important the paddling kept me much warmer than I had been previously while sitting and passively ruddering with the paddle. 
The scenery in this part of Loch Laidon was really special and we explored the bays and in between the islands.
The islands provided the shelter that Graeme was craving and with the added propulsion of my paddle strokes we were able to make better progress.
Soon we reached the arm that branches off Loch Laidon to the west and set off to explore and see if we could find a likely camp spot. This spur was even more sheltered from the wind and although the daylight was starting to fade we decided to push on and try to reach its' end (noting a few potential campsites on the way). At one point I thought I'd reached the end of the loch and paddled up what I assumed was a tributary stream, only to find that the loch opened out again and continued further. It was great fun threading through these narrow channels. 
Soon we reached the end of the loch and turned round, typically when we were expecting some assistance from a tailwind it dropped off to nothing! We'd noted a likely campsite on the way so headed back to have a proper look at it.
The daylight was fading fast and we wanted to have time to get the tents up before it went completely dark.
 The place we had spied turned out to be fairly idyllic with a sandy beach each side of a small peninsula and an area of higher ground at the end providing shelter from the southwesterly wind.
There were a couple of dry spots for our tents so we busied ourselves setting up camp and changing into dry clothes. We rigged my tarp on the edge of the beach with it's back to the wind and used it as our communal living and cooking space. Just after we'd done this the rain started but we were well sheltered beneath the tarp. During the evening we ate and drank and chatted round the fire until we'd exhausted the supply of wood we'd brought with us (around midnight). 
My GPS track for Saturday is shown on this Google Earth image.
I knew it was quite late when I awoke on Sunday morning as it was already daylight. I hurried out of my tent worried that Graeme would have been up for hours only to find he too was only just up. The view that greeted us was quite special. 
The familiar mountains of Glencoe viewed from an unfamiliar perspective, while to the south the hills beyond our campsite on the southern shore of Loch Laidon.
We ate breakfast, discussed our options for the day and packed up camp as quickly as we could and were on the water by mid morning. We paddled back towards the main body of Loch Laidon with the intention of reaching the outflow of the Abhainn Ba and possibly walking across the moor to Loch Ba if we had time. 
It wasn't far and was easy going in the windless conditions. We could soon hear and then see the final rapid that marked the outflow of the Abhainn Ba into Loch Laidon.
We landed next to the river and discussed options. 
We reckoned we'd just about have time to walk the couple of kilometres across the moor to Loch Ba. We set off as the rain started and followed a line roughly parallel to the river. It was rough going with several peat hags to negotiate. 
After a bit of sweating and toiling and bog hopping we reached Loch Ba, above Graeme takes in the view. We turned round and followed the Abhainn Ba more closely on the return journey so that we could check out the potential for running it on a future trip.
When we arrived back at the canoes we decided to try rafting them together so that Graeme could join me in getting a free ride from the wind that had picked up. I've never tried this before but it was something that I've wondered about for a while. We opted for staggering the boats in a kind of half diamond fashion and after a quick trial with a tiny sail area we set off back along Loch Laidon. I stern ruddered and Graeme added paddle strokes on the other side. It was good fun and we hit about 5 mph on the GPS.
About two thirds of the distance back along the loch the wind dropped a little and Graeme decided he'd make better progress alone so we unrafted for the final stint. As we arrived back at the put in the last of the daylight was fading. The trolley portage along the track was a little harder on our tired bodies on the way back but we were fortunate to find the level crossing gates open so we could trolley the canoes right back to the car park.
It was a great weekend, good to catch up with Graeme again and an ambition at least partially fulfilled paddling on Loch Laidon. We both hope to do the full traverse from west to east in the future but even as a stand alone Loch Laidon has a lot to offer.
This is the GPS track for day two.
Thanks to Graeme for the photos of me, you can read his excellent account of our weekend here;