The Tay, Source to Sea by Canoe - Three guys, one gal and a dog called Wobble.
By Paul Cromey.
Saturday morning, phone rang at 9am (OK I was still in bed). "Would I like to cross Scotland by Canoe in 4 days starting on Tuesday"? Er em Yes!
Ash, Al and Mark arrived from the Lake District on Monday night. Eats, route decision, gear sort, then cups of tea. Route revised to do the Tay confluence, source to sea. According to a display in the Perth Museum it takes 440 days for a drop of water that falls on Ben Lui to reach Dundee. 420 days are spent getting through Loch Tay. Our aim was to take the canoes as far up the track to the foot of Ben Lui as possible, summit Ben Lui and then commence the journey down to Dundee along the River Cononish, River Fillan, River Dochart, Loch Tay and River Tay. We also wanted to learn and test journeying skills such as lining, tracking, poling, sailing and general ropework. Accommodation would be in bivis with the sail doubling up as a sociable tarp using the canoes as walls.
On Tuesday morning we loaded the car with 2 canoes, 4 days gear, 5 folk and one dog. Isla very kindly drove us up to Dalrigh between Crianlarich and Tyndrum.
We hoped to drive along the track to the foot of Ben Lui but a ford prevented that (A four wheel drive could cross with the water levels we had) so we set about portaging the canoes. We put one canoe on top of the other and put two full packs in as well. Result was one collapsed trolley (Not a KCS model I hear Mike Thompson shout). Ash is an outdoor instructor and one of his hobbies is testing gear to destruction!
On the Water
We opted to put in at this point (OS 50 340289) and save the Ben Lui start for another trip. Having packed the boats a guy came over to us and expressed surprise that we were not getting in below the fall just downstream! We paddled off nevertheless and found that we could comfortably line the boats through the small drop under a bridge (OS 50 345288). We were off and paddling.
The River Cononish becomes the River Fillan and runs parallel to the A82 to Crianlarich with some gentle bends to warm up the back paddling and setting techniques. We passed the castle on Loch Dochart (another reason to return!) and entered Loch Lubhair. With light fading in a drizzly evening we opted for the opportunity to make our first camp with the benefit of day light, a wise decision as the other two camps were set up at night! We made camp in the trees on a point on the south shore of the loch looking over to Lochdochart House.
The combination of tarp, canoes and bivis worked well. The camp site was "open plan" with plenty of head room. There were none of the hassles of getting in and out of tents. It also saved on the weight of a tent.
Might be different in midge season though. We had a very enjoyable evening round a camp fire.
On the water about 10.30am on Wednesday morning. The paddle towards Killin was meandering with plenty of time to admire the many surrounding Munros. Wobble the dog, would often be dropped off on the bank to have a run and get off the water. Wobble doesn't like water, particularly rapids!
We inspected the rapids about 2km above Killin before running them.
Wobble was on the other bank and eventually decided she could be parted from her owners no longer. Just as the first boat was about to set off Wobble jumped into the grade 2 water downstream and swam (ferry glided) across to our bank!
The Dochart Falls
We arrived at Killin later than planned and had lunch at 4pm, after a long inspection of the rapids with a view to lining the canoes through. We walked down the right chute under the bridge which takes less water but is quite tight at points and decided it would take lined canoes!
We paddled and lined our way down the top part of the rapids. We were getting quite slick now assisted with coaching from Ash. Prepare bow and stern ropes, bridle, paddle down rapids, must make break out, jump onto rock, line down drop, back in boat, ferry glide across to tiny eddy jump out, line down, rest. The crux was next. A tricky powerful chute with a diagonal wave and a large rock blocking bank movement downstream with the rocky bank slippy and slopping towards the river. Within 5 minutes the first canoe had broached and was pinned hull downstream against a large flat midstream rock. Fortunately we had retained both the stern and bow ropes. The gear was secured in two large dry/portage sacs that meant that the gear was safe and also kept a lot water out of the boat. By now we had attracted a lot of interest on the bank with the coach parties having a field day!
The rope attached to the far end of the canoe was tensioned against an upstream tree on the bank and we set about applying tension to the near end of the canoe to pull it of the rock. After the first attempt we set up a Z drag. A photographer arrived with a large camera bag and settled down on the rock slabs selecting his equipment carefully! Soon the coffee and hamburger van would arrive! Very soon the canoe showed signs of movement. Encouraged we put on more strain. The canoe slipped off the rock. It was now back in the flow but back in danger because it was under tension from two ropes and side on to the current. One of us ran over to the rope attached to the tree. It was too tight to loosen quickly. Ash shouted "Cut it", Pull the knife off the buoyancy aid and slash rope....or not...non cutting edge......turn the knife round and ping. The coach parties would really be able to dine out on this........."and do you know what happened next, he shouted CUT IT and the rope was cut". The photographer had missed his chance, repacked and trudged off disconsolately.
We pulled the canoe ashore and inspected the damage. The gunwales were badly bent from where the canoe had broached upstream of the pin. The hull had a couple of ripples but was otherwise fine. A couple of kicks and the gunwale was back in reasonable shape. Next the gear, sleeping bags etc. The Sealline 115 litre boundary bags were bone dry. I was impressed. The trip was still on.
The broach was caused by the gunwale dipping below the water on the diagonal wave taking in water which made directional control difficult. The canoe had briefly broadsided on rocks at each end with the main current hiting the unsupported middle and causing the broach. We believed the pin which lasted about 45minutes caused little or no damage. The downstream line had not been caught by the downstream person because of line of sight problems and therefore had been unable to exert pull on the canoe which may have kept it on line better.
In retrospect we didn't identify the hardest part of the portage and make special plans for it. We were too spaced out along the bank. A third side rope may have helped keep the gunwale above the water. This could have been attached either to the centre thwart or by putting a sliding karabiner on the rear rope. Finally we attempted a difficult task at 5pm after a late lunch, a low spot in the body's day, when concentration was perhaps low.
Plan B - Ask a kind person with a box trailer if we could borrow it for a portage through Killin (Having broken our own trolley). No problem, we were towed through Killin. So this is what a sponsored End to End walk with Canoes would feel like!
We launched onto the River Lochy and made our way onto Loch Tay in the dark. It was a lovely still night for a paddle. We decided to head over to the south shore and began looking for a camp spot and at 8.30pm finding one in the clearing 1.5k to the east of Firbush point. 2 people on food and 2 on accommodation, very soon we had a cosy camp eating lovely pizzas.
We wanted a south westerly the next day to sail down Loch Tay. It duly arrived and the tarp was rigged up. This was no ordinary tarp. Mark 4, it was very light, strong material, 3m x 3m, with fixings for sailing and camp use. By Mark 5 or 6 it is hoped a model will be commercially available.
The canoes were rafted up using a 9m length of wood, the sail hoisted and we did about 7km/hour down the loch even being able to brew up an expresso for our elevenses.
A quick loo and demasting stop at Kenmore before heading down the lovely bumpy stretch to Grandtully. Some rapids were difficult enough without Wobble moving from the bow to the middle of the canoe in mid rapid!
Our objective was still to reach Dundee but we were behind schedule. The tide would turn at Perth at 8.30am the next morning. Progress was now up to 11km/hour with the river flowing fast and energy restored after the efficient sail down the Loch. We slickly ran Grandtully with bank support and only a stand up inspection to save time and lined the weir below the bridge. A quick snack. It was 5pm and we decided to push on and get to Dunkeld or possibly Campsie Linn before stopping. Progress continued at pace. By 7pm we were at Dunkeld and we decided to call it a day pitching camp in the dark and rain on the left hand bank below Dunkeld. A slick pitch and we were soon snug under the tarp.
A decision to be made. To go for Dundee or opt for Perth. We worked back from the tide starting to flood at Perth and decided a 3am wake up call to be on the water by 4am was needed to catch the ebb at Perth to give the best chance of beating the flood at Dundee. We choose to try for Dundee.
We couldn't communicate this to poor Wobble who spent most of the night rootling for rabbits and only came to bed at 2am. We stirred at 3am, up at 3.30pm and on the water by 4.15am not bad. Poor Wobble was in shock and kept falling asleep. We were confident that there were no rapids of consequence before Campsie nevertheless water makes a noise out of all proportion in the dark. At 6am we rafted up for breakfast and caught the sunrise as we passed the Isla confluence. We lined Campsie and had a warm up session/second breakfast on the bank.
Ominously we had felt the start of a head wind and after running the Stanley to Thistlebrigg section we knew the game was pretty much up. Energy was low after yesterday's 59km paddle and a cold easterly had arrived which would make the leg to Dundee a tricky slog in wind against tide conditions. At 9am we reached Perth and took out just above the first bridge. The Caf and Gallery near the bridge on proved wonderfully welcoming to 4 tired, bedraggled canoeists.
Isla brought the car down and within a nanosecond Wobble was asleep on the back seat. Back to our house and Wobble was fast asleep on the doormat as everyone trundled in and out!
This route goes through great scenery and could be extended to take in the many munros en route. It provides excellent open canoe journeying opportunities and some long stretches of fun rapids. The Tay confluence is the longest in Britain. I'll be back. The one disappointment was the amount of litter left by "users of the outdoors". The first camp site, on Loch Lubhair, although off the beaten track had numerous beer bottles part buried in the long grass. The spot on Loch Tay had a lot of litter, many fireplaces and even two carrier bags of litter carefully collected then hung from a tree.
Some Stats and Gear
The trip started at 2pm on Day 1 and finished at 9am on Day 4. Two Mad River Canoes were ideal for the trip with each person taking no more gear than could fit in the large cascade Boundary bags. 2 poles were used for sailing, poling and camp erection. Sailing Loch Tay can be done with a prevailing wind. The river was flowing fast though not especially high. The upper part of the Cononish would need inspected to work out feasibility of running or lining canoe. Upstream of our start point there were two or three large drops. Longer daylight hours in Spring may be of assistance though the darker nights possibly made camping more discrete. We believed Dochart falls could be lined. A trolley would be necessary as a back up and may also be useful on the upper Cononish. Munros en route include the Ben Lui horseshoe, Ben More, Lawyers range.
OS Maps 50 to 53