With a firm forecast for settled conditions starting three days ahead, Allan, Lorna and I looked at where we might go. We discussed various options and settled on two days of paddling, one on the sea at Gairloch and one on fresh water at Loch Maree. The nights are fairly long in the north of Scotland in the last week of October, and the forecast was for particularly low temperatures overnight. As we weren't doing a continuous journey it seemed a good idea to use a commercial campsite in the area to allow hot showers and the chance of evening meals in a pub.....no point in suffering unnecessarily!
We had a journey of about four hours from home in Aberdeenshire across the country then north to Wester Ross, so decided to travel on the day before the settled conditions established. The further north west we travelled, the more unsettled the weather became; the iconic Slioch was playing hide-and-seek through veils of snow showers and it was clear that there had been a good deal of wet weather in the preceding days.
Arriving in the village of Gairloch, we booked in at the camp site at Strath in a very heavy shower of cold rain. In the hope that it would "soon pass through" we adjourned to the nearby Mountain Coffee shop for a hot drink. The rain slackened rather than passed through and we got our tents up and kit stowed without getting too wet.
Once sorted out we headed off to walk around to the "other" part of Gairloch - which consists of Strath on the north side of the loch and Charlestown towards the head of the bay. We were nicely warmed up by our 3km walk (for which you need a head torch after dark, part of the road is unlit) to the Old Inn at Charlestown. I've eaten here before and persuaded Allan and Lorna it was worth the walk. Despite the fact that the Inn was closing a for the season a few days later there was a full menu of great home cooked food available, along with a selection of craft beers. The walk back kept us warm and we turned in early before we got chilled down back at the camp site.
Our tents had been wet from the evening rain, but we woke to quite different conditions with frozen tents from a sharp overnight frost. The early morning was undeniably chilly but we soon got going and warmed up.
The morning sun takes a wee while to rise above the mountains to the southeast of Gairloch, but when it did things started to warm up quickly. We were staying at the Gairloch Caravan and Camping Site - a place I've used regularly through the years. The new owners have invested in brand new toilet and shower blocks which are immaculately clean and centrally heated, and the old shower block has been turned into a "shelter" for campers. Recognising that lightweight camping in Scotland's north west can have some unpredictable conditions at times, this shelter is a basic building with a picnic bench inside, plus a microwave, fridge-freezer and a kettle. It sounds simple, but what a difference it made to be able to boil a kettle for breakfast and to fill flasks rather than firing up cold gas stoves on the ground. In very wet and/or midgy conditions the shelter will be a real haven. Every camp site should have something like this!
As the sun began to come up, pale golden light streamed around the skyline formed by Beinn an Eoin on the left and Baos Bheinn on the right, the two highest hills in the Flowerdale Forest. It looked like it was going to be a golden day!
We decided to launch from the slipway at Strath and moved the boats the short distance from the campsite. This morning was Spring tides and at about half tide the lowest part of the slipway is exposed. Two locals warned us that it was lethally slippery, there have been two recent accidents resulting in serious broken bone injuries here. We tried the lower part and none of us was prepared to carry a boat below a line of dark green weed. Instead, we lifted the boats off the slipway and onto the rocky shore - still slippery but with some angles to work with. We'd recommend launching from the shore a couple of hundred metres to the east of the slipway.
In absolutely perfect conditions, we set out into the calm waters of Loch Gairloch (one of several tautological names for lochs - Gairloch translates as Short Loch). Paddling seemed effortless, the boats sliding through crystal clear water over a sandy seabed.
Image: Lorna McCourt
Our pace started slow and soon slowed further - this was no day to rush. Lorna caught this image of my boat's bow reflecting with absolute clarity on the surface of the sea.
At times the reflections were startlingly clear, the brain having to consciously process what the eyes were seeing. Conditions like this are not at all common - when they do happen it's a marvelous experience to be out on the water.
We paddled around the back of Eilean Horrisdale, enjoying the contrast of golden aspens and russet bracken reflecting on the water, topped with a flawless blue sky.
Continuing west towards the open sea, the beach at Port Henderson offered a first luncheon (or was it second breakfast?!) stop on the reddish-brown sand so typical of this area of Torridonian Sandstone. What a day it was to be out and about!