My Springtime trip was once more to be to the Isle of Lewis and Harris. Last year was the first time I had been back there in 20 years, and I had fallen in love with the island all over again, in the process fulfilling a long-held ambition to paddle Loch Langabhat and the Grimersta system. This year, I only had 2 days free before meeting my friends for a week of landscape photography, so chose a shorter trip to explore some of the Trealabhal system. I also wanted the chance to field test my bike canoe trailer, and the 3km approach to the water involving mostly tracks looked perfect to do so.
Loch Trealabhal and its feeders sit a little east and north of Loch Langabhat, in the wilderness of water, low hills and bog that is the interior of southeast Lewis. A well surfaced track leads from Baile Ailein through the township land to peter out in the peatlands. The Hebridean Way footpath joins it and provides a link to the start of the paddling at Loch Cul Airigh a’Flod.
Leaving the truck at the start of the track, I soon had the trailer, branded the ‘Bobcat’ by my daughter (Bike-On-Board Canoe Adventure Trailer!) assembled. But here I hit a snag. The prototype has two different sized axle beams to fit my canoes, and while I had brought along the Cronje to paddle, I had forgotten to change to the wider axle beam to fit it.
Adapt and overcome, they say, so after a few choice words directed at myself, I found a way to load a wide boat on a narrow trailer. Sitting the canoe on edge, and with some spare straps I fortunately had in the back of the truck, I was able to secure it well enough. It wasn’t as quick to load, or as stable, as it should have been, but it did at least solve the potential problem of grounding the rear of the canoe.
Undeterred, I set off, and covered 2km of well-surfaced track passed Loch na Craoibhe in not much more than 10 minutes. It seemed to be working well and was a lot faster than trolleying. The path forked, and my route took the track less travelled – bumpy, rocky and potholed. But it was doable, albeit somewhat more slowly.
After 500m of this, the track gave out completely, continuing on as a vague line, or rather many vague lines, over a bog to a plank bridge over a small stream on the shores of Loch Cul Airigh a’Flod. This proved unrideable, though by dint of much effort, I was able to haul the bike, trailer and canoe through in one go. Here was terrain my big-wheeled Eckla trolley would have coped much better with, but it would still have relied on brute force and sweat.
The bog-crossing complete, I was at last able to slide the canoe down the bank into the water. A handy shingle bank made loading it dry-foot easy. Everything fitted in the boat, and the trim was nicely balanced, slightly stern-heavy once I was in too.
Without more ado, I set off. It was quite late in the afternoon now, and the forecast for this evening wasn’t great. But the wind was mostly behind me, and I made good progress north towards Loch Trealabhal.
Water levels seemed quite high, and the narrow channel into Loch Trealabhal was easily paddled. Now I turned left, across the wind which was now growing in strength. Still quite manageable, it did mean a couple of kilometres of wind-ferrying as I wended westward.
I wanted to reach the next loch upstream, Loch Fada Gobha, and maybe Loch Roineabhal if I made good enough time. The map, and the aerial view on digital mapping, suggested quite a sizeable stream linking Lochs Trealabhal and Fada Gobha. When I reached, I found it was quite wide, but also quite shallow.
So I waded the stream, pulling the boat up behind me. A small dam held back the waters of the upper loch, but by laying my kneeling mat down on the concrete, I was able to lift and drag the canoe over.
By some quirk of weather and terrain, the tail of Loch Fada Gobha was mirror calm. The light was starting to fade now, and I was conscious that I still had to find a campsite. But the banks were quite boggy here, so I pressed on to the outfall of Loch na Foaghail Bige which links to Loch Roineabhal.
Another stream provides a route, but the first hundred metres looked too shallow and rocky to be able to float the boat. I didn’t fancy the fight with a heavy load in the boat so decided to head north along the length of Loch Fada Gobha instead. There were some islands marked that looked interesting, and some rocky outcrops that might be drier underfoot if the islands didn’t serve as an overnight stop.
Ahead, over one of these small rocky rises, a large bird circled. It was too far away and too dark to be sure, but I thought it might be an eagle. Bird life so far on these lochs had been far scarcer and much shyer than on Langabhat last year. Some brief glimpses of red throated divers flying over, and a handful of geese had been about it until now.
So I was surprised and amazed when I got near the islands to be overflown by a pair of white-tailed eagles. They must have been roosting nearby. I backed off a bit, so I wasn’t too near their roost, then watched them circling overhead for a few minutes. Despite the low light, I managed to get some frames of them as they passed close by. The pictures don’t really give an impression of just how big they are – massive wings, and a heavy, powerful body.
I felt privileged to see these birds so close, even though it meant I was going to have to find somewhere else to camp. I paddled back, about half a kilometre from where they had lifted off from, and found a flat, though boggy, place to set up the tent. It was quite dark now, and by the time I had set up camp, filtered water for tea and a meal, and eaten, it was fully dark.
The rounded bulk of Roineabhal almost touched the clouds, even though its summit is relatively lowly at 280m. The sky promised rain, and rain it did in the night. Apparently, the northern lights were visible that night, but where I was, all there was to see in the northern sky was cloud.
I was awoken at sunrise by the calls of divers and whooper swans. There are far worse alarm calls, even if this was much earlier than I wanted! I emerged from the tent into a windless morning.
Though mercifully midge-free, the mild temperatures had brought out an early flight of thunderflies, and these in turn triggered fish to rise. The mercury surface of the loch was marred by rings of bright ripples.
The forecast suggested I would be on the edge of the weather, with cloud thickening and rain encroaching from the southwest, so after finishing a brew and making a few more pictures, I broke camp.
I slid the canoe back into the water and headed back towards Loch Trealabhal. The view eastwards was a skyscape, reflected below the boat as overhead. Just a narrow strip of land separated the two halves.
In the distance skeins of mist drifted over the rolling ridges that rose towards Roineabhal.
Entering the narrow confines of the tail of Loch Roineabhal, the only thing disturbing the water was me. Stopping for a moment to look back, I let the mirror restore itself, and reached again for my camera.
Cloud was beginning to build over Roineabhal, but it was still set fair east and north where my route lead.
Once more, I waded the connecting stream below the dam, and was soon entering Loch Trealabhal again.
With the day stretching ahead of me and kindly weather, I decided to explore Loch Trealabhal more fully. Heading east past the low bulk of Trealabhal itself, I crossed a bowl full of sky, just enjoying the ease of paddling calm waters.
The loch turns northwards, and so did I, passing islands and threading a strait to enter the top basin of the loch. I was aware as I did so that the wind was building, and it would be a little more work retracing my route. Returning south, the skyscape confirmed what I had already felt in the wind.
The edge of the weather was a lot closer now. But the clouds were lighter where I was heading, slanting sunlight lying on the flanks of Roineabhal to brighten the landscape.
I decided to take a detour into Loch nam Foaileag, drawn there by the distant sight of waterfowl. A pair of whooper swans kept their distance, not much more than white dots against the water. But a diver proved bolder, dipping under the water to hunt for fish while I drifted closer. To my delight, this was a black-throated diver – the first I’ve seen for years.
This loch leads to the Abhainn Lacasaidh, a possible route back to the road, but from prior research on satellite imagery, it looked likely that I would spend more time out of the boat than in it if I took this exit. I decided to simply return the way I had come.
Half an hour of gentle paddling took me back to my launch point at the end of Loch Cul Airigh a’Flod. Looking back, it was clear I had escaped the rain that seemed to have settled over the Langabhat basin instead.
Retracing my steps also involved recrossing the bog. Feeling a little tired from the best part of a day on the water, I decided to split my load this time, taking the bike, trailer and camping kit first, then coming back for the boat. Although this wasn’t any faster, it was less strenuous. The bog was after all almost watery enough to float an empty hull, so I opted to drag the canoe rather than force my feet deeper in the mire carrying it. On reaching the relatively high ground of Cnoc Dubh Iaruinn, I reloaded the trailer with kit and canoe and switched to pedal power for the final stretch.
Once more, the Bobcat proved up to the task, and I made good time back to the roadhead.
It was a very different trip to my Langabhat journey, the landscape just as wild and remote, but very different in character. The trial of the Bobcat Mk1 had proved the concept, even though I had brought the wrong axle beam, and would have done better with some of the load on the bike itself rather than all on the trailer. The Mk2 is taking shape in my head – standard MTB wheels for more ground clearance with fatter tyres to spread the load better. And maybe a different construction to make it a toolless build…