After a wonderful twilight paddle on the evening of my arrival in Glen Affric, I was very keen to get on the water again the following morning. The forecast for the week was for a settled area of cold high pressure and light winds to slowly drift away with windier conditions, snow and rain coming in at some point towards the end of the week. But where I was in the northern Highlands, some small weather fronts might sneak in to give short-lived snowfall. The local weather gave out warnings for heavy snow later on this Tuesday into Wednesday, so it was with pleasure and surprise that I found a still and calm morning as I made my way up the glen.
The first proper glimpse up along Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin had me stopping the car and reaching for the camera.
Snow was already lying on the higher hills, but autumn colour still showed where stands of birch interrupted the spread of Scots pines.
Further up the glen, the road leaves the loch-side, travelling through areas of mixed woodland – one of the small areas of native forest left in the highlands.
Low-angled light from the morning sun gilded the autumn foliage of the birches, and brought warmth to spent grasses already in their winter state.
The carpark viewpoint at the roadhead offers a great perspective on the River Affric and upstream into the loch. Usually I prefer to find my own view, but sometimes they get it just right.
From here I could see my intended put-in, not far above the top of the rapids, but still requiring a short portage with the trolley. I loaded up my canoe and gear for the day, and hauled it all the few hundred yards to the water.
It was a joy to be back on Loch Affric, and in such conditions as these, even though the cloud cover had increased noticeably during my trip up the glen. The lack of blue in the sky couldn’t detract from the autumn colours and snow-dusted peaks perfectly reflected in a mercury surface.
With the forecast predicting light easterlies until mid-afternoon, strengthening and swinging to the south-west ahead of some snowfall later, I decided that I would be able to reach the head of the loch and take advantage of the changing wind to blow me homeward.
All along the narrow tail of the loch, the woods were putting on their best seasonal display. A long cool and dry spell in October often seems to bring out the strongest leaf colour in November, and that certainly seemed to be the case this year, with the added bonus that there had been no really strong equinoctial gales to blow leaves from branches.
This was one of those days when absorbing your surroundings was more important than making progress, so I travelled slowly, trying to minimise the disturbance to the water from the boat’s passage. Fresh scenes brought frequent pauses to bring my camera to my eye as I enjoyed the rich hues surrounding me.
Leaving the wooded tail of the loch behind me, I soon came to Affric Lodge, situated by a shallow narrowing. The loch is bridged here, but the bridge itself is private.
Every time I have passed here, a pair of white horses come down to the water on the south bank to see who is going by. Today was no exception, but I chose to leave the Glen Affric unicorns out of shot, and try a different interpretation of the view up the loch. A slight current helped smooth out any ripples from my paddle as I positioned the boat for the shoot, before heading further westward into the upper loch.
Beyond Affric Lodge, the banks become more dominated by Scots pines, growing in an abundance only matched in Torridon, but here and there deciduous trees still made their presence felt, all the more strongly for a background of conifer and heather.
The water remained mirror-calm as I made my way westward. Mullach Fraoch-choire stood between the ridges at the head of the glen, and beyond, the distant ridges of the Kintail peaks broke the horizon.
A wooded spur under Carn Glas lochdarach looked to offer a sheltered spot to overnight, and after a good couple of hours knelt in the boat, I was ready to go ashore to investigate its possibilities for future reference.
Tucking into a secluded bay below the bluff, I ran the canoe onto a shingle beach. My first few steps ashore were stiff and awkward as my feet got used to a more normal posture again, but then I was able to follow a deer trod up to the stand of Scots pines.
Moss covered much of the floor, and the trees gave shelter from a breeze that was more obvious that little bit above the loch. An area of level ground looked perfect for a pitched tent, but that wasn’t on the agenda today.
Marking the spot for another day, I returned to the boat to complete my trip to the head of Loch Affric.
Approaching the head of the loch I could see a new-looking bothy nestled into the back of the dune. With its timber construction and turf roof, it didn’t intrude in the landscape.
A group of whooper swans took flight as I let the wind blow the canoe towards the sandy shallows at the end of the loch. I missed the take-off while reaching for the camera, but was lucky enough to grab a flight shot not long after they got airborne.
Tracking the family as they flew, I was able to get a few more panning shots before they looped out of range. It was interesting to see how an adult kept station with each youngster as they went.
Poling the boat off the sands I had drifted onto while watching the swans, I made landfall on the beach at the west end of the loch. A new-looking fire pit with a sheltering wall had been built on the crest of the beach, and the bothy sat proudly on the rise behind.
Hoping for some shelter from a rising easterly wind, I was disappointed to find it locked. After a brief lunch on the porch, I made some images looking up the glen, where the River Affric debouched.
The cloud cover was a lot heavier now, and the temperature lower. It looked like the promised snow wouldn’t be long arriving, but the wind, while rising, had stayed stubbornly in the east. So much for a wind-assisted passage back down the loch! Finishing an abbreviated lunch, I quickly repacked my gear and got back on the water.
For the first two or three kilometres, I punched against a steady headwind, keeping a steady rhythm through the choppy waves. Then suddenly the wind dropped away to almost nothing and the water flattened out in a gunmetal sheet. I have experienced this before on the sea, usually just before the wind picks up again sharply from a totally different direction and the approaching weather front hits. But as I kept moving east down the loch, the still conditions travelled with me. Approaching the lodge again, I had a rest, turning the boat to see what was behind me.
Sure enough, the weather was closing in on me! Snow had already stolen the far peaks, and wet flakes began to land on me as I resumed my journey. The effort of staying ahead of this weather had seen me make good speed on the return leg, and it was after only an hour or so from leaving the head of the loch that I approached the put-in.
Definitely time to go! A short but strenuous haul up the bank and a trolley back to the car, then I was on my way back to Cannich for tea in a nice warm camping pod.