Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Suilven by kayak: a mini adventure

Sometimes you plan things months, even years in advance, sometimes you just go on a whim and hope for the best. This trip was a little of both.
Jon had been thinking about the Suilven kayak route for years and had a clear plan of where to get in and out, where we could leave a car, where to camp and roughly the difficulties we might face. On the other hand, doing an overnight trip out of our river boats was something we were completely new to and you might expect more than three days planning would go into the logistics of this. I actually arrived with no idea if all my stuff would go in my boat. Winging it at its very best, it all went surprisingly smoothly…
The route:

Map image from Bing maps - blame them for the squint.
Jon and I arrived late friday night at a car park just outside Inverkirkaig. Jen was already there, but there was no sign of movement in the truck - she was already fast asleep. We pitched the tent on a convenient bit of grass beside the car and dropped off with the sound of the Kirkaig to lull us to sleep.
The next morning was the big test: does everything fit in the boats? Turns out pretty much everything did, with only a bit of violent coaxing. Jen had to leave her sandals behind and we did put an awful lot of kit in Jon’s boat (thanks Jon). Piling all in my car, we headed for Elphin to put on at a bridge over the Ledbeg river. We dropped the boats, then I moved the car to a layby just up the road. We were off!

At the put in with Suilvin in the background
The boats felt quite weird with so much more weight, but we were soon getting into the flat water paddling down the river and out across Cam Loch to the Abhainn Mhor.

Cam Loch, a bit windy.
The Abhainn Mhor is mentioned on UKRGB as a set of grade 4 falls, however the combination of low water levels and loaded boats made us unwilling to run the slightly sketchy looking drops below the bridge, especially given the metal debris present in the second last drop! The defunct fish farm beside the drops at some point must have put a water intake in the fall which is now falling apart.

You can see some of the debris on the left of this fall, there's more on the right.
Not wanting to miss out though, we decided to run the grade 3 drops above the bridge. It was a good introduction into loaded boat paddling. Changing the speed and direction of the boat is much harder work!

Photo taken by Jon Harwell
Photo taken by Jon Harwell
The portage was hard work, but then we had fun messing about below the last fall.

The long Loch Veyatie was ahead of us - our big challenge of the day. We paddled about a km before hunger started to take over and we found a sheltered island for lunch.

Loch Veyatie, photo by Jen Hartnett
The head wind didn’t let up and paddling was hard, hard work. The final appearance of the Uidh Fhearna river between the lochs was more exciting than it perhaps deserved, given the scrapey shingle bed grade 1 rapids. But still, flow! The river dropped us into Fionn Loch and we found a nice bay to set up camp. Jon and I kitted up for Suilven while Jen decided to stay at camp and have a scout around for firewood (trees are in short supply around here).

Jen heading off into the distance to look for firewood.
Across the heather and bog we trundled, towards the intimidating wall of Suilven. This is not a friendly looking hill, but it is an epic looking hill. At 731m high, Suilven is far from a Munro (above 914m), however it’s unique shape and position in the wide open landscape of Assynt make it an iconic mountain. The usual route to climb it is nearly 10km of hacking across the heather and bog from Inverkirkaig, then the same back. Jon has done this route before and was so very happy not to have to do it this time.

The wall of Suilven.

The path up the side of the wall is very steep and eroded, and a little precarious in places.

"Very steep and eroded" - exactly as advertised!
Some minor scrambling bypassed some scree filled sections near the top and suddenly we were out on the ridge! We descended a couple of metres on the other side to hide from the wind and ate some cereal bars. Then it was up towards the summit along the narrow ridge.

That view...
Looking towards the other peak of Suilven (you need climbing gear for it),
photo taken by Jon Harwell
On the ridge to the summit.
If you ever wonder how someone could be so petty about something just remember: someone once built a drystone wall across the Suilven ridge, presumably just to say “That bit’s yours, this bit’s MINE.”

The summit is strangely flat after the narrow ridge traverse and we spent some time at the cairn pointing out glacial features like the geography nerds we are. Then it was was back down the way we came up, with some (mostly) controlled sliding in places.

At the summit cairn.
We made it back to camp at 7 to discover Jen had put risotto on and forgot to stir it, woops. Thankfully I’d brought enough food for us all, but Jen’s pan may never be the same again! My experimental moroccan lentil curry with polenta actually worked really well (recipe below if you’re interested). After food we set Jen’s fire alight, though the lack of wood meant we were quickly retreating to the tents in the evening cold.

Camp, waiting for dinner to cook.
Fire! Somewhat short lived.
At some unidentified time during the night Jon and I were woken by Jen slightly panicked in her bivvy tent after she was nuzzled by (probably) a deer!
The morning dawned sunny in the east with clouds approaching from the west. I made pancakes for breakfast! Packing up was a challenge as we tried to remember how everything fit in the kayaks the day before, but since I’d carried the food at least my boat was a bit lighter.

It will all fit back in, right? Photo by Jen Hartnett
We paddled about 3km of flat in the morning, still facing an irritating head wind. Getting into the flow of the Kirkaig was quite a relief and we quickly came to the first grade 4 rapid. Jon styled it first, then Jen followed and I came down last, taking advantage of the heavy boat’s straight line momentum.

Rapids with Suilven in the background.
Jon nails the line
Grade 2 and 3 water lead down into a gorge and we closed in on the Falls of Kirkaig which we knew were going to be a portage.

The gorge above the falls.
Last few eddies before the falls
Three 15m hauls up a steep bank got us to the path, high up on the gorge rim.

Long way up!
Two pyranhas and a tuna climbed out of a gorge.
The short walk was somewhat educational in how heavy the boats were and how much more you sink into the mud when carrying them!

The bog was deeper than it looked!
The descent to the pool below the falls does have a path, but it’s not great and requires a bit of sling lowering to get the heavy boats down the rock steps. We gathered on the ledge opposite the falls and had lunch as the rain started to pour down.

Falls of Kirkaig
After lunch we had a fun seal launch into the pool.

Seal launching below the Falls of Kirkaig, photo by Jen Hartnett

Down into the gorge we paddled. Most of the rapids were grade 3 with a bit of 4. We portaged one with serious pinning potential that would probably clean up with a bit more water. The level was a bit on the low side and there was a lot of rock dodging, though we didn’t have to get out and walk until some shingle bed rapids nearly at the sea forced a quick hop out and drag. Inverkirkaig bay was looking a bit dreary in the rain but we were happy to have made it all the way!

Inverkirkaig bay, tired but happy paddlers.
Jen jogged up the road to get the truck and we packed up and drove back to Elphin to get my car. Onwards to the next adventure!

Thanks to Jen and Jon for being my (usually) tireless adventure companions and helping me with all the carrying and hauling!

A few lessons learned:
1. Make sure your dry bags fit in the back of your boat. We had a number of bulky dry bags that were of no use.
2. Head winds are hard work.
3. Watershed drybags make good pillows.
4. Lots Most of our drybags leak.
5. Waterproof socks are not very waterproof.
6. The "real" tent was so, so, so much better than the bivvy tent.
7. Loaded boats do not like to change what they're doing which is good for holes but bad for eddies.
8. Learn effective forward paddling!

Moroccan lentil curry with polenta
Knorr vegetable stock pot
Most of a tube of tomato puree with garlic
Block of ready made polenta (find it in the pasta aisle)
In a zip-lock bag:
1 cup dried lentils
Handful of dried sultanas
Handful of chopped dried apricots
Handful of chopped sundried tomatoes (you can get them just dried without the oil)
Coriander, cumin, ginger, leaf coriander, mint, paprika (just chuck a bunch in)

All the ingredients fitted inside the pot I was going to cook in and they’re all in waterproof containers, so they don’t need to go in a good dry bag.

Pour the contents of the zip-lock bag into the pot and add the stock pot and tomato puree (half the tube to start with).
Fill 1/2 of the pot with water and put on to boil with a lid.
Chop up the polenta into bite size bits.
Once the lentils have been bubbling for a few minutes you might need to add more water, keep checking this. Add the polenta to the pan as well.
Simmer until the lentils are cooked.
Serves 3
Gluten free and vegan

Packing list
I used the guide written by Jake Holland here as a vague idea of what to pack.
Back left:
Dry bag - Sleeping bag, toothbrush/toothpaste, waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, contact lens kit, head torch.
Bottle of water for cooking (ideally I would just take a filter) and Ribena to keep me going on the flat.
Back right:
Dry bag 1 - spare fleece and thermal leggings.
Dry bag 2 (leaky) - pot with frying pan lid, dinner ingredients, sporks x 2, 250ml pancake mix in plastic bottle, maple syrup, oil.
Dry bag 3 (also leaky) - hummus and pitta bread for lunch, cashew nuts for snacks, extra cereal bars.
First aid kit (small).
Throw bag
In front of the footrest: Dry bag with hiking boots, spare socks and spare leggings for the walk.
Between my legs:
Watershed dry bag - Thermarest, primaloft (fake down) jacket, camera.
Lifestraw water bottle.
On me:
Phone and car keys in aquapacks.
BA pocket: Cereal bars, Karabiners, sling, pulley.

Group kit in Jon's boat:
Lightweight 2 man tent for Jon and I, stove and gas, pot scrubber, lighter, split paddle, first aid kit.

Edit October 2017: I finally remembered to put up a guide for the river on UKRGB

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