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Packrafting the great glen canoe trail

Great Glen Canoe Trail

In the last week of May 2019 a friend and I completed the Great Glen Canoe Trail in Scotland, our first ever long distance water adventure.

To read my blog about journey click here to go to day 1.

What is the Great Glen Canoe Trail?

The GGCT is an 80 km long coast-to-coast route in the Scottish Highlands. The route begins on the west coast at Fort William heading north eastwards through to Inverness and the North Sea. The route normally takes hard canoes between 3 and 5 days to complete, depending on fitness and weather conditions. In our pack-rafts, which are a little bit slower, it took us 6 fairly leisurely days to complete the journey. The route runs the length of the Great Glen and combines:

  • Sea lochs
  • The Caledonian Canal
  • Fresh-water lochs (including Loch Ness)
  • Optional river runs with grade 2 rapids.

Most people who choose to do the Great Gen Canoe Trail (GGCT) do so in an open top canoe, paddle board or sea kayak. Just to be different we decided to see if we can manage the whole route pack-rafting instead.

What’s this pack-rafting thing?

Mark in his inflatable pack raft

Pack-rafting is where you combine hiking and canoeing, carrying all of your gear with you as you go. Specialist lightweight inflatable canoes are used, usually weighing between 3 and 5 kgs.

The combined weight of the pack rafting equipment and normal hiking gear is usually around 20 to 25kg. Whilst significantly heavier than a normal hiking carry weight (9 to 14 kgs), it gives you the ability to move between different bodies of water easily, including over hilly and difficult terrain – something near impossible with standard canoes.

Pack rafting is generally slower than canoeing in open top canoes or sea kayak due to their less streamlined hulls, however in bad weather it gives the group the option of simply packing up gear and hiking a section instead of paddling. We also carry small popup sails that allow us to take advantage favourable wind conditions.

Equipment

First full kit test – 23kgs all in. Hopefully get it down to <20kgs…

With pack-rafting you have to take all the equipment required for both hiking and canoeing. Typical equipment includes:

  • Full normal hiking gear
  • Inflatable Canoe
  • Wetsuit / drysuit
  • Bouyancy aid
  • Paddle
  • Sail
  • Pump / Boat repair kit.

Our full kit list can be found here.

Preparations

All 8 of the 1:50 000 OS Maps printed out and ready for laminating!

Mark and I have pack-rafted previously, however a journey of this length presented a number of challenges.

The biggest challenge we face was coping with the unpredictable and volatile Highland weather, especially on Loch Ness and Loch Lochy. Due its sheer size Loch Ness often exhibits sea like conditions out on the water, gusting wind and high waves. With hard canoes this would mean choosing between braving the poor conditions or simply waiting out the bad weather. Fortunately in pack rafts we could simply choose to hike a section until the weather improved.

Pack-rafting with pop up canoe sails

When a tail wind was blowing we took advantage of our pop up sails. These little sails are excellent for pack rafting – low weight, small pack size, but highly effective in the right conditions. Throughout April we tested and improved our setups. In the video below I tested out the first rig using the sail and a couple spare guy lines to act as ties.

Food

The other big issue was the food to take on a 5 day adventure. Due to the extra weight of the pack-rafts we couldn’t take wet rations, so we had to focus on dehydrated rations to reduce weight. Here are the details of the dehydrated food that we will be brought with us. Of course we believe it is important to support the local economy wherever we go, so we also ate in pubs and cafes where possible!

Water

Me taking water from a stream ready for filtering

We took Sawyer Squeeze filters to filter water from streams running into the lochs

The Battle of Kinder Scout

Cover photo credit : Stuart McLaughlin

Kinder serves as more than just a convenient and picturesque first ascent for the Pennine Way, in fact it played a pivotal role in the formation of the Pennine Way itself.

Britain 1932: The county is still reeling from horrors of the great war and the great depression that followed – unemployment is high and poverty is rife, but underneath the surface improvements were slowly trickling through – a 6 day working week is now the norm and living standards were slowly rising, especially in the eastern areas of Manchester – one of the leading industrial centers of the world. Workers had more leisure time and disposable income, with many of the workers choosing to spend their free time enjoying the fresh air outside of the heavily polluted cities, rambling across the nearby hills and moorlands.

 I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wageslave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday

Ewan Maccoll, the manchester rambler

The hills however were owned by wealthy landowners for grouse hunting and they weren’t keen on ramblers invading their land. Large areas were fenced off, with ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ signs in abundance. When ramblers ignored the signs they were then often met be angry game keepers, some of them armed. Standoffs between ramblers and landowners became a regular occurrence and matters came to a head on the in April 1932 when a mass trespass on Kinder Scout was organised by ramblers. Upwards of 500 ramblers converged on the summit of Kinder where they met by an army of gamekeepers.

Ramblers meeting at Bowden Bridge Quarry at the start of the trespass. Source: View Ranger

Violent clashes followed as the ramblers tried to force their way through and by the end of the day 6 ramblers were arrested for violence against the gamekeepers. Lord Cavendish, the landowner and staunch opponent of the ramblers, lobbied hard for their prosecution and the ramblers were convicted and sentenced to up 6 months in prison.

The convictions caused a national outrage and there were more mass demonstrations, this time attracting upwards of ten thousand of protesters. The Kinder Scout incident, together with the long running media campaign that followed arguably led to the Nation Parks Act 1949 and eventually the 2000 CROW act, enshrining ramblers rights to roam into English law.

In 2002 on the 70th anniversary of Kinder Scout Trespass Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire and lord Cavendish’s grandson , traveled to the site to commemorate the events and issued an apology over his family’s part in the jailing of the ramblers.

“The great trespass was a very shaming event for my family. But from that great evil and those appalling sentences has come great good.”

Lord andrew cavendish,The Guardian, 2002

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