As usual, I had kept my plans fluid until the forecast firmed up, but in the week before my booked annual leave, the forecast was looking good for the north-east Highlands. So, for the third year in the last four, my autumn trip with canoe and camera was to be to Glen Affric. This area has a reputation as one of the most beautiful glens in the Highlands, and it has captivated me since my first visit.
It was early October. Light winds were forecast for most of the week, with very little rain – perfect for photography afloat. I hoped to spend at least three of my four days on the water, but my first-choice craft, the outlander, was out of action with a nasty gash in the gel coat that had exposed some of the glass matting of the hull. The cronje was the obvious second choice, even though it is really a tandem canoe. But as it is a fast, stable open water hull, it would be better suited to photographic day trips on the lochs than my shorter river boats.
I based myself at the campsite in Cannich. Their camping pods are a little slice of luxury for a trip later in the year. With a heater and electric power, they are ideal for long dark evenings, and let me keep my camera kit dry and all the batteries charged.
The long drive north passed slowly. The purgatorial A9 mobile traffic jam was ever-present, so it was with some relief that I set out for Loch Affric the following morning. Conditions were as I hoped – calm and clear. Early morning mist sat in patches in the upper glen, though it was forecast to clear through the day.
The short portage along the track lead me through a corridor of colour, until I was able to drop down to the water. I like to get on the water just above the rapids. There was a fair flow and water levels were higher than on my last trip, but two hundred metres or so from the carpark there was a launch point down a short bank from the road. Cameras, paddles and painters were quickly stowed, and supplies for the day in the toolbox that makes a very handy wannigan placed forward to help trim the boat correctly.
Not far below me, the rapids of the Garbh-Uisge started, raising a little drift of haze over the water. Ahead though was the prospect of mirror-calm water leading me towards Affric Lodge.
This stretch along the tail of the loch as it narrows down to form the Garbh-Uisge is delightful. I took some time to pause and enjoy the small details along the way.
On the north bank the early autumn birches and bracken blazed gold and amber in the sunlight.
The private bridge by the lodge came into view, heralding the start of the loch proper. I was sat in sunshine, but there was still a roll of mist in the upper glen. Only my movement disturbed the surface, so I stopped briefly to restore the pristine reflections I was paddling through and enjoyed the moment.
Sedges in the shallows caught my eye, and I played with compositions of the stems and their reflections, before being drawn onward by the promise of the wider views beyond the bridge.
I was greeted again by white horses as I passed through the shallows under the bridge.
Every time I come here, they materialise from the woods to watch me go by, and somehow, they bring a touch of magic with them. I think of them as the Glen Affric Unicorns, as seems fitting in a fairy tale landscape of mountain, forest and water. This year though they had a darker companion, who seemed more watchful, wary of a new presence.
Heading west up Glen Affric, the mist started to clear over the distant Kintail mountains. With no wind at all to ruffle the surface, only my wash chasing ahead of me moved the reflections.
Angled light shafted through the cloud bringing vivid colour to the hillsides.
A stream chattered into the loch, the only sound around me.
I sat still in the boat again to soak in my surroundings, the view west an invitation into a Highland heartland.
From the head of the loch, the glen leads onward towards the Kintail mountains. The tree cover stops quite abruptly, leaving the hills clothed in the khaki and ochre of early autumn.
Sliding close into the south bank, I was drawn to explore a small cove by a bright birch stood by the water’s edge. Dark green heather and scots pine behind it on the slope lead to a good camping spot on a bluff, with soft turf for ground dwellers and good-sized trees for those preferring to dangle. I’m increasingly of the latter persuasion, having had a few overnight tests of my hammock now. But that would be for another trip – this week’s journeys were to be single days on the water.
The earlier overcast had cleared, and cloud shadows now drifted slowly across the landscape. Their cotton wool counterparts were reflected perfectly in the mirror-smooth loch.
I turned the boat through a full circle to enjoy the views eastward and northward too.
The symmetry surrounding me was almost unsettling, so perfectly were the mountains and sky repeated under my hull. To the south side, the low sun backlit the wooded hillside. Every leaf glowed with vivid colour.
The head of the loch was now to hand. On previous visits the water levels had been too low to allow me to explore the very far corners, but today there was enough water to let me dip a paddle over the sand. I decided on a whim to head up the channel into Loch na Camaig, a small reeded enclosure just separate from the open loch. The channel was well hidden, tucked under a small rock bluff.
The colours were so strong and the reflections so sharp that it took me several long minutes to traverse the two hundred metres of shore along the north bank.
Finally putting my camera down and picking up the paddle I nosed my way into a new arena.
Rippled sand showed through the shallow water of this secretive place, dotted with redds and sedge.
My curiosity satisfied, I re-entered the main loch, making landfall on the beach by the private bothy.
This is only a couple of years old, freshly build on my last visit here, but has already softened into the landscape. By a quite up-market pontoon, sporting stainless steel mooring posts, there is a fire pit and benches, which I availed myself of for a leg-stretch and lunch. Bread, cheese and an apple, tea from a flask – taken here after immersing myself in this landscape it was a heavenly feast. Taste and smell are the most evocative of our senses, and the well of memories I dip into with flask-flavoured tea keeps getting deeper.
Wandering the sand spit my eye was caught by the delicacy of the grasses, so I took out the camera again, isolating them against the far bank to increase their presence.
Relaxed and replete after lunch, I relaunched the boat. Conditions remained still, the loch a mirror. But I wanted to explore smaller landscapes now, having had my fill of ‘big view’ shots heading west. I hugged the southern shore on my return leg, looking for detail to delight the eye.
By a larger bay on the south bank, a fallen scots pine has been slowly dying over the period of my visits. Now it was bare of bark, leafless. But the silver of its exposed trunk and its sinuous branches made it an attractive subject still.
Directly across the loch, a stand of its cousins stood in contrasting rude health, vibrant greens colouring the water below them.
Before long I was back by the lodge. Reflections had been a major part of this trip so far, so I decided to play with just that, making my impressionist interpretation of the lodge itself.
The end of the trip seemed to be approaching far too rapidly. Without really trying to, I had made better time on my return leg, probably because I stopped less often to get the camera out, but there was plenty of light left in the day and not very much water to travel. Beyond the bridge I stopped to explore the possibilities in the large patch of sedges and horsetails there.
Black Beauty was still standing sentinel, keeping a wary eye on me, but his fair companions were unconcerned. They knew I would be back again…
In the final half a kilometre I dawdled disgracefully. This was too good a day to rush to the get-out. Drifting along, I enjoyed the reflections of the woods where they came down to the water’s edge.
It was no hardship waiting for the ripples to settle. The challenge was picking up the paddle again to move closer to the end of the trip. Eventually the lure of a hot meal back at the campsite began to exert a pull, and I paddled the last few yards, still half-reluctant to bring an end to a magical day. As I drifted into the bank a scattering of birch leaves gave me a final pause before I left the water.
I count myself hugely privileged to have had so many great days on this loch over the years. Today’s trip was every bit as special.