A Packrafting Apprenticeship

Packrafting? That’s floating about on one of those rubber dinghies from Argos and then going camping isn’t it? As far as I was concerned that was pretty much the sum of it, until recently anyway. Andy and Rob at Backcountryboating are on a mission to educate the un-buoyant masses though, one landlubber at a time. Is it a souped-up lilo, or is it a 2kg, easy to carry and easy to inflate cruise-liner to adventure? Just look at what these guys did with them in Alaska…

There are some pretty cool places in Scotland, as we know. However, we also know it has a tendency to rain from time to time. This rain often collects to form large, soggy areas called lochs, some of which may impede our getting to the aforementioned cool places. This is especially true in the far North-west, where there are even more cool places, but even more lochs. Planning a route around here is hard work – a canoe would be great, but at some point you’re going to have to shlepp over bogs and moors with a 16ft boat on your shoulder, which is not fun. Enter the packraft! It inflates in a few minutes, weighs the same as a small tent and you can even use it to carry a bike if you’ve a mind to. Suddenly those blue bits on the map are nice, flat highways through the mountains to take you places you’ve never been before. Portage? Just sling it on your back and off you go.

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Oh. Bugger.

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You might also use this packable boat to go and paddle on soggy places that would otherwise be inaccessible. Why? Because we’re bloody-minded that’s why. Annie bought a packraft last year, and within a stone’s throw (more accurately a morning’s sweaty walk) from us in Aviemore is Scotland’s highest loch, Loch Coire an lochain, which nestles unseen in one of Braeriach’s shadowy coires at just a smidge below 1,000m. Highest, you say? Better paddle it then, hadn’t we. And that’s how we found out that shallow lochs in shady north-facing coires in Scotland stay completely frozen over for a lot longer than you might think. Even up until late April, in fact. Still, it had been a beautiful walk to get there, and now we’d gone to the trouble it was a beautifully imposing place to be. Although Aviemore was gearing up for the summer sunshine below us, life up in the coire was still in stasis and winter was far from over. The ice on the loch was 30cm thick, and apart from the gushing of meltwater running beneath an icefall on the headwall, there was little to disturb the peace. We could just as easily have been in Iceland or Greenland as the Highlands, to guess from the scene.

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Not wanting to waste a long walk, we set up the raft anyway on a pool in the outflow, and paddled beneath the snow drifts that had built up to a height of several metres over the long, dark months. Not so much about the paddling then, but a journey nonetheless and a different way to appreciate a place that few visit. Thinking that this start could perhaps be improved upon, Andy supplied us with a loaner packraft, and earlier this week we headed to classic packraft country in the far north-west, to try the real thing. A nifty 5km walk in around the southern flank of Cul Mor wasn’t too bad, as our packs weighed no more than a winter exped anyway, and we knew that the weight would be off our backs once we were on the water anyway. The water levels are low at this time of the year though, especially with the recent dry spell, so our optimistic first put-in turned out to be too bony even for the rafts, which only have a draft of 10cm or so.

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Finally, we were able to put the boats on to Lochan Gainmheich. Inflating is done with a simple sil-nylon dry-bag to trap air and squeeze it into the boat, which is good news for your lungs. We snapped the folding paddles into place and set off, straight into the inevitable headwind. Not that it was too bad: we managed around 4km/hour into the wind for several kilometres, and due to the boats being so short there were plenty of chances to ride the rodeo whenever a group of bigger waves met us. We turned a corner towards the ruin at Clais, and suddenly the wind was on our side anyway, which boosted the smiles as well as the speed. A quick portage between lochs was no problem, and after a bit more paddling through the narrower reaches of Loch a Mhadail we found what looked like a good camp spot, just as the telltale signs of an approaching warm front started to darken the sky. Our campsite was nice and flat, but unfortunately also contained all of the ticks that have ever lived, so we stayed on the rocks at the loch shore to cook and watch the lazy rises of the resident trout. As the rain started in earnest the dilemma of sogginess versus tick infestation increased, and eventually we jumped into our bivvy bags beneath the tarp as quickly as possible and hoped for the best.

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The morning was as golden and clear as you could hope for, and we realised that, on foot, there was no way we would ever have tramped through the trackless miles of bog and heather to arrive here. Win for the packraft then! The domed head of Suilven poked its head above the banks of morning mist, and the prospect of a smooth paddle along the long and crooked Loch Veyatie seemed like a pretty good option in comparison to hauling a heavy bag onto our shoulders and walking out. We were even rewarded with a gentle breeze to propel us the 6km or so out towards the village of Elphin at the head of the loch, followed by a gentle plod in the sunshine back to our starting place. We had effectively circumnavigated Cul Mor, one of the lonesome old hills that pepper the moors in that part of the world – not the most adventurous route, but rather than just understanding why packrafting was a good idea for that route in particular, I thought I understood why packrafting, full stop. Anyone with an ounce or two of the adventurous in them will be drawn to the new and the different, and what better way to travel around a beautiful but decidedly damp part of the country than by going with the flow?

Back in the ‘office’ it was out with the maps and time to look for more adventures waiting to happen. Given that you can put a bike on them, and you can even use a sail, this could take some time…

In the meantime, you can check out Andy’s weird world of packrafting here… http://www.backcountrybiking.co.uk/

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