As has become a habit in recent years, late October saw me heading determinedly northwards, destination Glen Affric. Since my first visit in 2016, the area has become a favourite of mine, promising peace and relaxation in a beautiful place.
The forecast for the trip was a mixed bag – light easterlies and mild temperatures, though with a preponderance of low cloud, fog and drizzle drifting in off the North Sea. But I have found the weather is usually better than the forecast once you are out in it, so long as you have the right clothing. Undeterred I set off early from Yorkshire, with an eight-hour head start to allow a paddle in daylight when I arrived.
The campsite at Cannich was as welcoming as ever, the pod I was staying in feeling very much like a second home now. If I was quick, I could get on the water with three hours of light left, so I decided to launch by the Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin dam and head through the narrows. With a bit of luck, I would catch sunset over the upper loch.
The walk to the water’s edge was shorter than it has been on recent visits, with water levels high. A bit of afternoon sunshine brightened the view, and the promised light winds barely raised a ripple. On the opposite shore, a tall birch, resplendent with silver bark and golden foliage, stood out against the Scots pines.
As I pushed the canoe out from the shore, I noticed a circle of ripples next to me. A dragonfly had become stuck in the surface tension. Gently I lifted it free with my paddle and placed it ashore. I was surprised to see one on the wing so late in the year and so far north. Trying to ID it later from the photos I took, I think it was probably a common hawker.
Heading west into the sun the view towards the narrows was reduced almost to silhouettes, with just the backlit leaves showing any colour.
I chose the northern channel, to get a bit of shade. In this more sheltered area, the water was a mirror, distorted only by ripples from my own movement. I paused to enjoy the reflections surrounding me.
There is a second communication between the two channels of the loch, which on a whim I decided to take, heading through to explore the dead end of the southern side. Often this has been quite short and shallow, but with today’s high water levels, I could paddle right to the grassy rise of the peninsula that separates the upper loch from the narrows section. As I turned the corner, I met a father and sons in a pair of open canoes, looking for a good shoreline campsite. It turned out they were from the Isle of Lewis, so we shared stories of paddling trips on the island before passing or separate ways. If anything, the water was even calmer, so I drifted, letting my wake dissipate to restore the mercury surface. Low-angled sunlight shone below the canopy of the woods on the bank. I chose to ignore the straight shot, making a more abstract image of an indirect view.
The westward horizon was beginning to cloud over but looking east the early evening sky was blue.
Having explored to the south, I rejoined the northern channel and continued my journey to the upper loch. What wind there had been had settled completely now. I travelled slowly, Indian strokes with the paddle propelling the canoe forward without noise or splash as I let myself sink into the deep calm.
There is something very meditative about paddling alone in such conditions and such a place – the solitude, the quiet, the rhythm of the paddle all conspire to remove a sense of time and distance. Here and now becomes everything. So it was with a start that I realised I was entering the upper loch. The view broadens abruptly and the banks retreat as you emerge from the narrows. Mountains now define the distant horizon.
I paddled on for a while, watching the sky to see if there would be a break in the cloud to herald a colourful sunset. With only ten minutes to go before the sun dipped below the horizon, it looked like it would be a more subtle display.
I was far from disappointed but decided I would start my return leg rather than wait and have a longer paddle in low light. Turning eastwards once more, I saw the family I had met earlier setting up on a sheltered beach.
Re-entering the narrows was like paddling across a painter’s palette, so strong were the gold and green reflections of the hillside.
I was in no rush, wandering from one shore to the other to investigate small details. My eye was caught by the bleached branches of a fallen tree, catching the blue of the evening light.
The loch was completely still, not a zephyr stirring its surface to mar the reflections.
I wandered on, enjoying the cloud lanes as they echoed the dip in the horizon.
I paused again to make another image of the eastward view as I approached the final section of the loch, and by chance glanced over my shoulder.
Good things come to those who wait, the saying goes. Well, I hadn’t waited, and felt I had already had a very good day on the water, so this was an extra treat on top. The sky was awash with light, yellow and peach shading to the palest turquoise, the water’s surface catching it all to cast it up again from below.
I stopped the boat, just sat and soaked it in.
Eventually sated as the light faded away, I completed by trip in the gloaming of a long Highland twilight, only resorting to my torch as I paddled the last few yards under the trees to come ashore. The beauty of Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin never fails to touch me. And as I say after every visit, I will be back…