Over the last few years, I have visited Cannich and the surrounding glens most autumns, and have been lucky to enjoy some stunning paddling in some of the most beautiful Highland scenery. While Glen Affric is the best known of these glens, Glen Cannich has always appealed to me.
Headed by the reservoir of Loch Mullardoch, the river then twisted gently through several smaller natural lochs on its way to a steeper, narrower drop down to the village of Cannich, where it joins the River Affric to make the River Glass. On previous trips I had explored the glen on foot, but never by boat. With my new packraft, the upper reaches of the river looked perfect for a spot of bike rafting. And on a very windy day, it was going to be both downstream and downwind. Ideal!
This was to be my first trip on the water with the packraft. From the map and my other visits, I knew there would be some portages, but it looked like I should be able to string together a trip from Loch Sealbhanach most of the way down to the bridge at Dalriach, around 7km in all.
There is very handy parking near the bridge, so I pulled the car off the road there, and loaded up the bike. This was my first attempt at bike rafting , and the bundle of boat, paddle and pfd was a bit unwieldy. The rear rack I’d burrowed from my son’s bike wasn’t great either, but then you have to experiment to find what works best for you. Although it was bulky, the load wasn’t heavy, and didn’t affect the bike’s handling. I carried a small day sack with those essentials for a day on the water.
The single track raid leading up the glen passes along the shores of both Loch Carrie and Loch Sealbhanach. A brisk wind was blowing down the glen, raising white horses on the open reaches of Loch Carrie. Brief spells of rain blew through from the west as I stopped briefly to admire the view.
The road rises a bit on the approach to Loch Sealbhanach, before dropping down to Mullardoch House by the water’s edge. From here, I got a long view of Glen Cannich and the Mullardoch Dam. This is the largest in Scotland – an impressive concrete edifice stretching half a mile across the valley. It holds back Loch Mullardoch, ten miles long, heading towards the hills of Kintail.
Loch Sealbhanach, tucked in below the dam, was relatively sheltered, but there was still enough wind to seek out a handy windbreak by a stand of trees where I stopped to change from peddle- to paddle-power.
This was only the second time I’d inflated the packraft, but I found it went quicker this time, the wind helping fill the inflation bag. I tried a couple of different ways to attach the bike to the bow tubes before settling on one method. Given the strength of the wind, and the patches of rapids on the river sections I attached a painter to the stern loop as well in case the boat got away from me at the point of disembarkation.
And then I was afloat. My immediate impressions were how stable and secure the packraft felt, although it was very strange feeling the boat flex under me as the waves rolled by. Now to remember how this double-bladed paddling lark went. Left… right… left.. right, left, right. Ok, got it!
The day sack made a useful footrest, but I realised I had sat the bike too far back, and it was slightly obstructing my paddle stroke. A quick push with my feet got me enough clearance. I would sort it out at properly at the first portage.
Away from the bank, the strength of the wind was immediately apparent. I tested the boat’s behaviour paddling at different angles to the wind, and found it handled surprisingly well, even angled across the waves. The wind though was picking up steadily, and pushed me quickly down the loch.
By the outfall of the loch, I noticed an old boat in the heather on the far bank. I landed to investigate, and made a few images. Bilberry and tall grasses grew in the hull now, and an old stump weathered alongside it.
The tail of the loch narrows down to a wide river, but is held back by a weir further downstream, so it was only the wind helping me along. I tucked in behind a raised bank to try the boat as a camera platform. Being sat so low, and with wide tubes each side, it was incredibly stable, and I could shoot almost at water level as I explored a reed bank.
Away from shelter, the wind was now a steady force 6 and rising, but fortunately it was behind me all the way. I only really needed the paddles to keep me away from the bank. The wind did the rest!
The whitewashed buildings of Liatrie huddled behind their windbreak as I crossed the next section of open water, the bulky hill of Sgorr na Diollaid rising behind them.
The sky was quite bright to the east, but rain squalls were still blowing in behind me.
The river narrowed down, and abruptly a horizon line appeared. This must be the weir, and the start of the first portage. And how easy was the portage! I just grabbed the bike and towed bike and boat together over the heather. It wasn’t a long portage by any means, but was so much less strenuous than when in a hard-shell boat.
The weir was in a very attractive spot, so having completed the carry, I stopped for a while to enjoy the view. Despite the gusting wind that made it hard to stand up at times, and the rain getting on the camera lens, it was a beautiful, restful place to be.
Heading further downstream, I looked back towards the hills of Beinn Fhionlaidh and Carn Eighe in the distance. There was obviously a lot more weather to come today.
Just before Loch Carrie, the river steepened and shallowed again. A spot of lining and a short portage saw me passed and onto the loch, with a nicely sheltered launch site.
The wind was blowing a full gale as I crossed Loch Carrie, to the point where it was hard at times to keep hold of the paddle, but the packraft handled it with aplomb, flexing with the waves as swells higher than the side tubes rolled under the hull.
I was quickly driven across the loch. The river narrowed down now. There was to be no more open water. From the road, parts of this section had looked quite rocky, so I was expecting to have to line or portage more often now. The road was never all that far away though, so I decided to just see how far I could get, then cycle back to the car.
Before long a rocky section ran too shallow to paddle through, so I joined the boat through. Autumn leaves added a splash of colour to the riverbed.
The next rocky section was paddleable, and the packraft proved quite nimble as I chose the deepest path through the rock garden.
The glen was closing in on the river now, autumn birches and bracken painting the banks gold and ochre.
The worst of the weather seemed to have blown by now, and patches of blue brightened the sky overhead.
More rock-dodging ensued as I headed eastwards, but I could see that there was more rock and less water ahead of me. It wouldn’t be long before it wasn’t worth staying on the water. I decided to call it a day at a beautiful sunlit falls about a kilometre from the bridge. from my upstream cycle ride I knew there were extensive rapids between here and the bridge, so it was time to revert to two wheels to complete the trip.
Before I left the river though, I took time to get the camera out again and make the most of my situation.
Afternoon sun gilded the hills as I deflated the packraft and walked to the road. A few minutes on the bike saw me back to the car.
I learnt a lot. The packraft impressed me hugely. For something that looks like a beach toy, it felt stable and secure on the water in conditions I would have found challenging in my 16-footer, and was quite manouvreable when it needed to be, even with an unwieldy load strapped inexpertly to the front. The bike needed to be further forwards than I first thought, and although that made it look very unstable, it was anything but. A bag in the front of the cockpit helped greatly as a footrest, and I would try to stow something there on every trip. But, its worth remembering that sandwiches don’t cope well with being used as a footrest, so I need to think about which way up I place the bag!
Photographic notes: packrafts are wet boats. I started the trip with my dslr in a roll-top aquapac waterproof camera bag intending to use it ashore only, and used my phone camera (which is waterproof and fits nicely in my pfd pocket) while afloat. But as I got more confident in the boat, I used the dslr most of the time. The aquapac bag performed excellently. I used a Canon 7D with a Tamron 18-300 lens, which gave me plenty of focal range without having to worry about changing lenses, something I wouldn’t want to try in such a watery environment as a packraft!