Inverpolly Lochs by Open Canoe

I can’t believe it is five years since I last canoed here (on a paddle approach to Cul Mor and Suilven), as it is somewhere I love spending time and somewhere I think about canoeing a lot, I suppose the distance is a factor, but in any case, it is good not to visit somewhere too often when it is a favourite.

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Taking an unexpected half day on the Friday, I managed to get up to Ullapool with plenty of daylight remaining and on the way up I was trying to think of things to do to make the best of that time. Re-fuelling was first, so a fish supper and a pint were savoured across the road from the Ferry Boat Inn where I could admire the views of Loch Broom and snow-capped mountains beyond. Sunset was to be at 20:10, which gave me time to get round to the base of Stac Pollaidh where I intended to set up camp, but having arrived there and having had a quick hunt for a suitable spot, I decided instead to get up as high as I could and enjoy the views and changing colours on the hills as the sun set first.

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There was a cold air but it was hot work as I walked quickly up the path with numerous stops to admire the views around me. I passed a small herd of deer who seemed pretty chilled out with my close proximity and managed to get some reasonably close-up pictures. My target though was to get high enough up the side of Stac Pollaidh to see over the back and get views of the area we could be paddling in the following two days. Thankfully, I managed to get views of both the sun setting over the Hebrides and then in the opposite direction a few minutes later, the changing light on the hills, especially those with any remaining snow on them – finally, the last of winter, or at least it seemed so at the time. As I’d hoped, I also got to see the layout of some of the Lochs we would paddle across too.

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Only now, high up and looking north did I see how much smoke and therefore haze there was in the sky. Wisps of smoke partly obscured Suilven and Cul Mor and on the descent the hills south of me too had smoky air hanging in front of them, something I had not been able to pick up in the brighter light earlier on. Passing the deer again I got even closer but annoyingly I had flattened my camera battery so did not get what could have been better photos of them.

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Later, with two late arrivals, there were three of us and we bedded down for the night in various places; tent, van and bivvy, under clear, starry skies. Thankfully, I had decided to bivvy under my tarp as a precaution as I was woken through the night more than once by heavy rain falling. In the morning I found the rain had made its way along the ground and under my sleeping mat but thankfully not to my sleeping bag itself which would have made for a very unpleasant second night.

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What had been heavy rain for us down low was more wintry higher up, so the hills we woke up between had a fresh dusting of snow on them. Breakfast then a quick look at the river sections we expected to paddle towards the end of our trip were scouted out with a short drive west, then it was round to Elphin to our starting point having left a car at the Stac Pollaidh car park where we hoped to finish paddling a day later.

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Starting from Elphin, though close to my previous starting point, avoids an initial portage down from Loch Cam to Loch Veyatie and here instead an initial wheeling of the boats down the private road to the fish farm gives quick and easy access to Loch Veyatie where views of Cul Mor and Suilven sit either side of the way ahead acting like huge distance markers to gauge progress against.

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We set off with barely a breath of wind on a mirror-like surface, looking down as well as up at the clouds and bulks of Cul Mor and Suilven, the latter of which stubbornly held on to its misty shroud. It was almost unbalancing if you focused on the sky below you long enough as you moved across its reflectiion.

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Soon enough we arrived at Loch a’ Mhadail which we wanted to explore but also gave rise to a decision, would we opt for the portage here to Loch Sionascaig, or would carry on further west to another portage option? We opted to go with the former as a river stretch on the second approach may well have been too dry based what we had seen at the river entering Loch Veyatie at Elphin.

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Lunch first before a final short paddle to start of some serious effort. The portage which we now had to undertake is about 1.6km (a mile) over rough, tussocky and in places boggy ground, which we managed in three journeys; down with bags to scout out route, back up for boat, down with boat. It all sounds so effortless like that but it was by far the toughest part of the weekend and really knackering. In contrast to our efforts, two soaring eagles spiraled above us with ease. I for one have learned the lesson of going much lighter on any future trip involving portages. Thankfully we only had grunt work to deal with but not midges or rain too.

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A very short paddle across a Lochan na Claise led to our next, much shorter portage and we were now in Loch Sionascaig. Phew! It was notably grayer now and cooler too as we made our way across, passing Eilean Mor and some smaller islands to get to Boat Bay, an irregular shaped sidearm of the Loch which had the promise of camping for us. The three of us were growing tired now and cold wind and light rain added to our desire to settle on a site but these seemed fewer than expected, we eventually settled on a little spit of moorland (previously burned) with hardly any flat ground. One bonus though, it did have a little beach area, backed by higher ground which allowed us to set up a tarp, still proving to be a really simple yet effective bit of kit, for a communal shelter to cook and chat in.

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By the time tents and tarp were up and warm clothes on, the weather had deteriorated further with the rain having turned to snow and the cooler temperatures were much more notable with our lack of movement. No lingering, once it got dark we all headed off for an early night and warmth in our tents.

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Next day we woke to find snow covering the nearby peaks of Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh, and there was frost and light snow on our gear and tents too, Winter was not giving up just yet! The sky was gray and cloud still low but a walk up the hill behind us showed signs of better weather nearby which seemed to be headed our way, albeit slowly. Winds were stronger though and a quick chat and look at the map over breakfast had us deciding what the rest of the day could entail based mainly on that. It would be a shorter trip, we ditched the idea of running the River Polly fully to the sea as it was obvious that would involve a lot of carrying but also commit us to being on a stretch of the sea with offshore winds. Assuming all that would go well, we’d then have more uphill portages and a long paddle in to a headwind to get back to my car at Stac Pollaidh.

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A headwind then, to warm us up on our way out of Boat Bay and there was some sailing along our way to the Polly Lochs and River Polly system, which proved to be a much more sheltered environment than Loch Sionascaig had been. The sun was even burning off the cloud now and it almost felt warm.

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A short portage past a sluice gate and rocky stretch of river gave access to Loch Uidh Tarraigean then a short paddle beyond to our next sluice gate where some extended investigation of portage and paddle options were undertaken, the latter was obviously not going to happen so it was the decision of portaging on river left or river right that had to be looked at. We settled on river right but first enjoyed a drop down the flow through the sluice. Loch na Dail was our end point after a final hard portage, thankfully mostly downhill and over heather we could simply haul the boats and gear across, and then it was a last couple of hundred meters on the water.

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Our second day seemed to be over almost too quickly as we were finished in time for lunch. However, we were not where we had expected to finish so the next part of the adventure was getting the transport back. A hilly, 10km run got the car at Stac Pollaidh back, then it was back to the boats for the second driver and then back to Elphin then back to the boats one last time before leaving for home.

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The paddling now seems like a small part of the overall trip with all the portaging and shuttling of vehicles but despite this and with a bit more thought in future towards lightening the load, I’m keen to return for more as there are plenty of options for trips in the area and lots more to explore.

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