Packraft UK: Paddling in the shadows of Suilven

Hilleberg Soulo aerial shot

This page contains accounts of solo packrafting in remote locations. No paddlesports instructor would recommend this and neither do I. If you choose to packraft solo, then you and you alone are responsible for that decision and your safety. Nothing in this site constitutes a recommendation to paddle alone.

For various reasons, I had the whole of October off and decided to take as full advantage of this as I could. Despite not being able to buy petrol for love nor money in the South East at the time, I managed to make my escape, and after a brief overnight in Carlisle soon found myself on the single track roads of Assynt once again, having previously been here last year. I had delayed by a day because the weather on the Saturday was nothing short of horrendous. This meant I had 2 half days, 1 full day and 2 nights to spend here. In the end this limited my options a bit.

I parked at the parking area on the minor road South of Lochinver, where the path runs along the river Kircaig out to the Falls of Kircaig and Fionn Loch. It was raining when I parked, and there was only one other car in the car park. I had a scout around and saw the path out to the Falls, and soon I had my very heavy packraft pack on and was on my way.

There’s an important side note to this, which is that I, like many others, had spent the best part of 18 months working at my dining table. The fridge had been dangerously close at all times and as a consequence of that, I felt that I needed to ease myself back in to carrying heavy packs. This coupled with the shorter available time meant I decided to complete a relatively short circuit, ensuring that I was close enough to the car at the end of the full day so I could make my planned B&B in Crianlarich the following day. However, although relatively short (about 20km over the 2 days) it was extremely varied and mostly enjoyable (apart from some of the walking, which combined constantly soaked feet and trousers with a heavy pack and tussocky, pathless, waist-high-bracken hell!).

I started off in the pouring rain and strong winds along the river. The map is quite clear, but I hadn’t really registered that this was going to be a high-level affair. The river runs in a gorge and you will walk quite high above it and with quite a steep drop off on one side. Nothing to worry anyone who is used to hillwalking, but it is worth noting as I’d just assumed it would run close to the river without really studying it properly. I produced a video of this trip, and there is a link below. You can see what to expect from that if you are interested in following this route. Most of the path is straightforward and looks like the below.

After a couple of miles of being pelted with stinging rain, I came to the Falls of Kircaig. Actually more accurately I came to a sign that indicated the path to the Falls of Kircaig, with an accompanying warning that the drops were steep and that you will definitely die if you try to view them. I decided to pass, and continued along the path towards Fionn Loch.

As I came to the outfall from Fionn Loch into the river, there was some serious white water making quite a thunderous noise. I made a note that the next day I should paddle well clear of the outfall as if you did end up in the river it probably wouldn’t end amazingly well.

The rain and wind intensified and soon I was starting to think about where to pitch. I wanted to pitch somewhere near the loch so that in the morning I could change straight into my paddling gear and set off. I headed over to the loch and there was a row boat, presumably used by the Assynt Angling Club, and a perfectly flat piece of grass right on the beach. Given it was raining so hard I have never been so grateful for an easy decision. I set about pitching my Hilleberg Soulo, made more difficult because I still hadn’t changed the pole elastics that have stretched over time so the poles were falling apart as I was pitching. Soon though I was in out of the wind and rain and sorting out all my gear. I knew the front would pass, and that it would be better in the morning. So I changed into dry clothes, had some food and a couple of drams, and settled down under my quilt to read, the weather raging outside. I did have a peek outside, because I knew that Suilven was there, but I couldn’t see it given the low cloud.

I fell asleep quite quickly and slept fairly well. About 3am I woke up and unzipped the tent. There, looming above me was the unmistakable dark shadow of Suilven, looking a bit broody and menacing as it always does. I was excited to paddle along the loch in the morning.

I fell back asleep and woke to clear sky. It was a fantastic location and I didn’t hurry my breakfast or my coffee. The wind had died down, but despite being forecast as a westerly was blowing from the east. It wasn’t enough to concern me about paddling though. I used the drone to capture a few videos of the pitch and of Suilven and thoroughly enjoyed my slow start. It’s such a long drive here from the south that I wanted to savour every second.

Soon I had inflated my raft and finished packing my things. And then, I was off. It was only a short paddle of 3-4km along the loch, but it was some of the most serene paddling I’ve experienced, with some of the most iconic hills all around, including not just Suilven but also Canisp, Cul Mor, Cul Beag and glimpses of Stac Pollaidh.

After just over an hour of relaxed paddling in perfect conditions, I arrived at a small peninsula that had perfect flat grass on it. I decided to land and have a look at the map, conscious that I didn’t want to continue to Loch Veyatie and then end up a long way from the car as I needed to be away early. Had I had that extra night, I would have continued, but as I didn’t and as the wind was now beginning to strengthen from the south I decided to start hiking. I put the tent up to get out of that wind and change out of my wetsuit, and made myself a hot lunch and a cup of tea, before filtering some more water from the loch.

The sun, although weak, did succeed in somewhat drying my boat and my tent, and there was actually some warmth in the tent with the sun shining on it, which I was enjoying and allowed it to dry my clothes. In fact, I was feeling a bit too relaxed and spent almost two hours there enjoying just being in this outstanding place.

Perhaps my reluctance to move was because I knew what was coming. The wind, as I mentioned, was now coming from the south. This was not as per forecast. I had planned to walk down to Loch Sionscaig and paddle to Boat Bay, as this left me close to the minor road that would take me to the car. However, with the wind strengthening in the wrong direction it may not have been doable, and I wasn’t sure if I could cross the rivers shown on the map if I got to the north shore of Loch Sionscaig and couldn’t paddle, meaning a backtrack would be required. So I decided to pack up and walk.

The walk was, if I’m honest, painful. My pack must have been over 20kg with all the kit, and there aren’t really any paths except deer tracks and perhaps those used by anglers around the lochs. None of those are ideal, all are boggy and indistinct, and going was slow. Mostly it was dry but occasionally it rained. It took me nearly 3 hours to walk 5 km with my pack, when I arrived at Loch Clais Fearna, which being about 1.5km from the road I judged to be close enough to make a quick exit in the morning.

The wind was strong at times, but there was some sunshine and once I had the tent up (moving it because my initial pitch wasn’t quite as flat as it appeared) I spent some time relaxing, reading and trying not to hear the stags that were rutting all around me, their bellows echoing from the hills. This was bearable in the day, but disconcerting at night. I have experienced this before when climbing Ben Alder, when I was bivvying. Somehow that was better than zipping up a tent and still hearing them. I had seen quite a few on my walk and I am sure that generally they will just leave you alone, but it can feel a bit nerve wracking to listen to not knowing quite how far away they are.

In the morning, I had some coffee and breakfast and set off early, conscious that I needed to get to Crianlarich. The 1.5km to the road was straightforward until the end, when I couldn’t work out how to actually get to the road. My initial route led me to a locked gate, and I felt that vaulting it would have been a bit rude to the homeowners, so I backtracked and found a route through thick bracken and trees, which meant I was attacked not only from below but also from above as my paddles snagged in the trees. Swearitude ensued. After twenty minutes I got my map out in exasperation wondering where exactly this road was. Just then, a BMW passed about 10 metres to my left, and I realised it was there.

I had a 5km tramp back to the car, involving some steep climbs but also passing the coast at Loch an Eisg Brachaidh. This added another dimension to the walk, and I enjoyed a short stop for a drink there before returning to my car. By contrast to when I started, the car park was full and a few minutes observation revealed there were dog walkers, hikers and anglers amongst them. It was quite heartening to see so many people enjoy the outdoors in their own way.

Prior to this trip, I hadn’t packrafted for nearly 18 months and although short, this one was very enjoyable given the remote location. One I will not forget! If you are interested I produced a short video of this trip and you can find it below.

I used the excellent Harvey Maps Assynt and Coigach British Mountain map for this trip.

If you are interested in learning more about packrafting, I thoroughly recommend the following book by Falcon Guides. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. This helps me to maintain the site.

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