On my return from the Isle of Lewis in late March, I decided to break my journey south with a short stop in Glen Affric. It’s one of my favourite glens, but I have only visited at the other end of the year, seeing the landscape in the full throws of autumn or fading into early winter. A couple of nights staying at the campsite in Cannich, with a day trip on Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin, would make a nice end to my Scottish Springtime trip, and give me the opportunity to enjoy this beautiful place in a different guise.
Water levels were high on the loch, so it was a shorter walk than usual from the carpark by the dam down to the get-in. The weather was set fair, and with no demands on my time I decided to just see how far I got.
The first bay, just by the dam is usually a sheltered spot, and proved to be so today. Reflections of Scots pine and birch reached across the water to the launch spot.
Across the loch a tall birch stood like a sentinel. Without its foliage, the rich colour of last year’s new growth made a gentle contrast to the Spring greens of the surrounding pines. The colour palette of the landscape was very different to my autumnal trips.
The first long view westward arrived as I cleared the headland. Cloud obscured the mountains at the head of there glen, but I could see clear to the far end of the southern arm of the narrows. It looked like I was in for a day of calm water and low winds.
There is a choice of routes as you enter the narrows of Loch Being a’Mheadhoin. The northern arm continues to the wider, more open upper loch. The southern side is a dead end, but there is a second channel between the two. Approaching the first parting of ways, my eye was caught by the colours in the woods on the north bank. Maroon birch, ochre bracken, bottle green pines standing tall, all creating a much subtler feel than the vivid gold and green I usually encounter on this trip.
Before I left the south channel, I made one more image of the westward view, perfect reflections encircling the waterline, then turned right to enjoy the different colour palette offered by the birch woods.
I had wondered if at this time of year, I would meet more canoeists on the water making the most of the Easter weather and midge window, but as seems to be the norm for me, mine was the only boat on the water. I gently made my way up the straits, enjoying the peace that comes with paddling on calm waters. On a whim as I approached the western end of the island separating the channels, I decide to take a detour into the cul-de-sac on the southern side. The high water levels would mean I could explore further than on some visits when an expanse of mud greets the paddler.
Perfect reflections made me pause my paddle strokes. I drifted, letting the mirror of the loch restore itself before reaching for my camera.
I dawdled, sliding slowly over an inverted world. Echoes of tree trunks extended out from the shore, so that at times I was weaving through woodland, at at others flying high between clouds.
Ahead I saw the characteristic, if unexpected, silhouette of a diver. I have never seen these birds in Glen Affric, probably because I have always been here too late in the year for them. Looking through my long lens, I realised it was a black-throated diver. These are legally protected birds, so if it seemed stressed by my presence, I would have to back off. It seemed very relaxed though, dipping under the water every now and then to fish, but not paying much attention to the figure sat in a canoe. I slowed down even more, doing little more than drifting as the bird continued its patrol of the area.
As we approached end of the cul de sac together, I was careful to stay to one side of the channel so it wouldn’t feel trapped. It glided close by, while I tracked it in the viewfinder, thrilled by its proximity.
Buoyed by the surprise sighting, I shot a few more frames to make sure I had a decent image, then put the camera down and just enjoyed the privilege of sharing this creature’s environment. It headed east, and I let it get some way ahead before making my own way back towards the cut-through to the northern side of the loch. It is still just about visible in the image of the eastwards view.
Re-entering the north channel, I passed the outfall of the hydro scheme pipes from Loch Mullardoch, emitting no flow today, and wended westward, pausing now and then to make images as my eye was caught by colour or shape on the banks.
I love the appearance of reindeer lichen growing thick on trees, and without the distraction of autumn foliage, I could enjoy the full effect on these bearded birches.
Rounding a final bend, I left the confines of the narrows, and re-emerged into a world of wide horizons.
The loch remained unmarred by the wind, only my own wake disturbing the surface. There was no traffic on the road along the loch side, so I followed the north bank, enjoying the tranquility. Progress was intermittent, new sights necessitating frequent pauses while photography took precedence over paddling.
Seeking out the long view, I headed away from the shore until, sat in the middle of a mercury expanse, I could stop and let perfection reassert itself as my wake dispersed.
I decided I would turn round when I reached the island on the north side. In lower water levels, this connects to the shore, but today it was a fully surrounded by water. A bit of a breeze was blowing across the loch, raising a wind lane which caught the light.
It was windy enough to blow the bow around while I had camera in hand, but I was able to frame an image of the shoreline woods, a patchwork of mauve and green.
I turned for home, retracing my paddle strokes along the north shore. The breeze, for a change, stayed behind me, a gentle push helping me along. Before long I reached the entrance to the narrows and another sometimes-island. Last autumn I made some images of birches along the shore here, and I consciously sought out the same spot to make a comparative image. (The eagle-eyed viewer may notice a few other such shots in this blog)
There is a carpark and some picnic tables hidden in the woods here, so I went ashore to have lunch and a leg stretch. While ashore, I wandered camera in hand through the woods, remaking old images in new conditions and finding new compositions.
Refreshed and relaxed, I relaunched to enjoy another visual treat.
But the wind was picking up now, and this was to be almost the last bit of unruffled water I paddled. Fortunately it continued to be a tailwind, taking a little of the load off tiring muscles. Looking across the loch, receding horizons of Scots pine gave the impression of limitless tree cover – sadly not the case once over the ridge into the next glen.
Following the shore, I was again struck by the contrast with the autumn colours I am used to here. Leafless, the structure of the birches was much more evident, and while they showed early signs of Spring the bracken on the wood floor was very much still winter-hued.
One final headland, and the dam was once more in sight. I pulled into the bay and let my canoe ground itself on the shingle. A last look back, then the short uphill walk to reload the truck.
As ever, Loch Being a’Mheadhoin provided delights. Familiar with its landscape as I am, it was fascinating to see it in another garb.