First Escape of the Summer: Loch Etive

Glen Etive

As soon as my exams were over, the plan was to head up to Scotland and spend some time paddling for photography. An Instagram buddy, who was keen to get out in his boat, wondered if he might join me for a trip and so to keep things manageable, I proposed an easy 30km cruise along Loch Etive, with an overnight camp at the head of the loch.

Meeting James at our intended start point, on the south shore at Bonawe Narrows, we noticed the car park was very full and were in two minds whether we would be able to safely leave our vehicles there unattended for the weekend. Plan B was to head down to the Connel Bridge, where a put in needed careful timing to allow us to negotiate the Falls of Lora – a narrow passage which can produce huge overfalls and turbulent water on both the ebb and flood tides.

A fairly tame Falls of Lora on an Flood Tide

In the back of my mind, I was aware of the fact that James was relatively new to the sport and having never seen him paddle, nor did I have much knowledge regarding his capabilities for moving water or long distances, I didn’t want us to find ourselves in any situations which might have put him off this amazing sport for life. I was confident we could successfully time our paddle out from Connel Bridge, however it may have meant we might not make it as far as the beautiful Glen Etive (it would add an extra 20km), and I had no idea what time we would make it back to base again the next day, potentially presenting problems for that careful timing of the falls. As a result, I retired for a night in the van with the intention of checking over the map once more to see if there was an alternative. By the morning I had formulated Plan C. Head back to the Bonawe Narrows, only this time along the north shore. There appeared to be access to the water and enough space to park at the entrance to the quarry, and failing that I assumed we’d find a spot along the loch shore there regardless. As it turned out, the quarry spot was ideal and the weather was turning out to be absolutely perfect.

We enjoyed a stunningly beautiful paddle up the loch on mirror-like calm water. Taking it very easy and stopping often for photos and just to soak up the surrounding sights and sounds.

At the opposite end of the loch, the road along Glen Etive is extremely popular with tourists and I expected to see the loch head full up with wild-campers there to enjoy the beautiful weather and incredible scenery. Indeed this is exactly what we found on arrival, however the beauty of arriving by kayak meant we had access to the unoccupied south shore; cut off from the tourists by delta-like multiple streams of the River Etive and with plenty of room to pitch our tents on lovely short grass… or so I thought.

How close do you let it get before you’d move your tent?

After assessing the dryness of what appeared to be the highest tide line of stranded seaweed, I concluded our location was safe from the incoming tide, but over dinner and a couple of beers, we watched it creep ever closer through the grass, submerging the lovely pink sea thrift one by one. Eventually I allocated the ‘danger rock’ as a bench mark, around two foot from the tents. Should the water reach the rock, we’d start peeling back the tents from its path. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realise was that the danger rock, along with James’ tent, were situated on just slightly higher ground than my own and so water would have been well in my through my front door before the rock raised the alarm.

I knew that the speed of the tide slows as it reaches its highest and lowest points, so with it encroaching at an almost imperceptible rate, I knew it would soon be slack water and then start to recede. With 6 inches to spare before a soggy disaster ensued (or maybe I’d have just moved my tent), the tide relented and began heading back out again, where it wouldn’t be back before we were long gone in the morning.

Dabbling Dunlin

The evening was still, although we were treated to a classic playlist of 80’s and 90’s cheese from a party of wild-campers across the loch. I see this sort of thing now and again and always wonder why people come to such tranquil places to do something other than enjoy the peace. Surely they would achieve the same results had they pitched a tent in their own garden at home? They did eventually quieten down and a decent night’s sleep was had.

The next morning was beautifully still once more, and the early morning sun made the mountain scenery even more spectacular. Breaking camp was a leisurely affair, but by the time we were on the water, the wind had picked up a little and being in the valley meant there was no place to escape it. However, we paddled on and eventually the valley widened and the wind dropped, allowing for lots more quiet moments listening to the birds, spotting wildlife and noticing what goes on beneath your boat as you float by.

By the time we reached the narrows once more, the sun was out and it was red hot, making the water seem rather inviting. Having been challenged by another paddler, James was keen to test his ability to stand in his kayak – he did so expertly and with style, at least until he tried to sit back down. Splash.

With a long drive ahead of him, James had to get away, and unfortunately missed the best otter sighting I’ve ever had (and I’ve seen a fair few), with a pair of otters spending 20 minutes hunting in the little bay. Diving under the seaweed and re-emerging with comical wigs of bladder wrack framing their cute little faces, and of course, mouths full of fish to chomp on too.

It was a lovely weekend and Loch Etive is just stunning, plus I think James went away convinced that even a short weekend sea kayaking on the Scottish West Coast is worth the journey.

I don’t know what he caught, but it was definitely crunchy

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