It was the second day of my October paddling trip. Conditions on Loch Affric the previous day had been superb – calm and windless, perfect for a relaxing paddle. Clear skies overnight had left some frost on the grass and it promised to be every bit as good today.
Loch Beinn a’Bheadhoin is actually a reservoir, the dam supplying hydro-electric power. The water level can vary quite a lot as a result, but it wasn’t a long walk from the carpark by the dam to the water’s edge in the small bay just below.
The birches here were bearded with lichens, testament to the lack of air pollution.
A quick scurry down the slope with the boat on my shoulders was followed by another trip with paddles and supplies for the day. The south side of the loch was in deep shadow, but the north bank was sunlit, and despite it being October, there was some warmth with it.
The play of light over the landscape gave contrasting warm and cool light. In the shadows, the rocks picked up blue tones from the sky, while the birches glowed gold where the sun touched them.
At this sheltered eastern end of the loch, the reflections were unspoilt, but as I travelled west, cats’ paws played across the water.
In the distance, the ridges of the Carn Eighe stood sharp against the sky. My eye traced a route up and round the horseshoe, maybe one to do if I was here in winter conditions.
Today though I was happy to be on the water. Having returned to paddling over the last ten years, after a long hiatus spent climbing and walking, I have rediscovered the joy of floating. Sitting in a small boat on a large body of water speaks to the soul in a way unlike anything else.
A wider view took in the choice of ways ahead of me as I approached the narrows of the loch. Usually I would turn up the right fork at the first opportunity, but today I decided to keep left and see how far up this cul de sac the water levels would let me get.
Coming into this more constricted part of the loch, what wind there was disappeared, lost in the baffles of scots pine that stood above the bank. The mirrored calm of the start of my trip returned.
I took a look up the entrance to the northern channel before continuing my more southerly route.
Not far passed the point the bedrock sits exposed at the water’s edge. The twisted beds of metamorphosed rock gave witness to the tremendous forces that formed them, but today were perfectly reflected on water as smooth as mercury.
My chosen channel lead passed an island into a long inlet confined by the ancient woods of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, the third largest area of Caledonian Forest in Scotland.
The seclusion of this area never ceases to amaze me. It was only half an hour’s paddle from the carpark, but it felt a world away. Sunlit coves beckoned me, inviting a pause, but alluring as this part of the loch was, I wanted to explore further.
There is a second entrance into the main channel at the west end of the island. Last time I was here, it was only few inches deep, and impassable without wading. Today it was deeper, but not much further on up the blind inlet, water gave way to mud. Turning back, I enjoyed the rear view before rounding the head of the island.
As I entered this small strait, bars of angled light cut through the woods above me. A stand of grass stood spot-lit on the shore. Pulling into the shallows, I stopped to capture the scene. Above my head, a birch, resplendent in autumn hues, gloried in the sunshine.
Once more reflections caught my eye as I set off again.
A pipeline carries water from the Mullardoch dam in Glen Cannich into Loch Beinn a’Bheadhoin not far from my return to the continuous northern channel. It gave a strong plume of flowing water with a confused and boily eddy line, and I practised a few moves into and out of the current. The cronje, not really a boat designed for fast-moving water, behaved very well in the transitions. After a few minutes of entertainment, I continued west, and soon entered the wide-open spaces of the upper loch. The change in mood as I turned the corner was abrupt.
The wind remained light as I continued westward up the middle of the loch. In the distance I spied two canoes coming towards me – the father and son from the van I had seen at the carpark. Meeting in the middle, we shared our pleasure at the conditions, the elder taking pains to explain to his son just how lucky he was to be here and now. They were making a leisurely return after spending a night at the top of the loch.
We parted ways, I now looking forward to lunch nearer the top of the loch. I paddled on under blue skies, with just a light breeze coming down the loch – idyllic conditions that made the four-kilometre traverse fly by. The cronje is a fast boat and was in its element here. The steady twist and dip of paddling became almost mesmeric, and it was a surprise to discover myself near the top of the loch.
I started looking for a place to land but decided against the sunnier north bank as the road runs close to the shore. But about 1500 metres short of the loch’s end, I happened on a natural dock for the boat, with a sunlit shingle beach on which to rest.
An unnamed stream trickled into the loch here, while opposite the peak of Toll Creagach peered between the nearer tops of Am Meallan and Beinn a’Bheadhoin itself.
Looking west craggy Sgurr na Lapaich and the rounded bulk of Carn a’Choire Bhuide framed distant glimpses of the Kintail mountains beyond Loch Affric in the upper glen.
I sat for a while just soaking it all in before enjoying a waterside meal made somehow more satisfying by the place I was in. Views along the shore soon had me reaching for the camera again though.
Sitting by the water on a calm day can become very absorbing, and I found my attention drawn to the patterns of reflection on the surface. Gentle ripples lent an abstract form to the colours of trees, hillside and sky.
After a while I found myself impatient to be back on the water, so set off on the return leg eastward. Conditions remained pretty much perfect for a relaxed paddle, and as I headed further east, the water became flat calm. I let the boat drift for few minutes while I enjoyed the sensation of floating between clouds.
This quiet mood was shattered shortly after though by an insistent base beat, joined by a turbine whine as a chinook dropped over the ridge and flew low enough over the loch that I could see the crews’ faces.
Tranquillity restored after this fly-by, I once again got drawn into the play of colour over the loch. The resulting abstract image may not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed playing with the visual possibilities.
Before long I was once more in the narrows, this time following the northern arm. I had exchanged mountains for wooded ridges, but the feeling of wildness stayed with me.
Towards the eastern end of the narrows, reflections once more caught my eye. The bright angled light of the morning had gone now, but the gentle overcast brought a richness to the colours surrounding me.
There was still an hour or so to go before sunset as I crossed the final section of the loch, beyond the narrows, but it felt that the day was drawing to a close. High cloud had spread through the afternoon presaging a wetter, windier day to come. But right now, all was still as I took a last look west.
The last few paddle strokes sent me drifting in to land on the beach at my starting point.
Coming back to Loch Beinn a’Bheadhoin had been a joy. I know I will be back again…