September in the highlands, the deer grass going over. Mist, russet and rust.
I didn't have much of a plan, just a few pages of OS mapping I'd printed off some weeks before. So the plan evolved on the wing, and that meant deciding to paddle up the loch only once I'd arrived. I'd been up since 5am and the water was millpond clam, so it seemed sensible.
These places where natural architecture meets man made intervention are endlessly fascinating to me. I've taken to seeking out the dissonance. Being physically close to that mix of scale and intent is disorientating, even when the weather is this good. And doing that in a boat even more so. I stopped halfway across the loch to take photos, very aware I was in a single chamber vessel and the water underneath went a long, long way down.
I look up at the trees. So much time holding my breath recently I wonder if I've forgotten how to exhale. I breathe out, in the boat. The inflatable dinghy stays miraculously afloat. I look at the trees again. At shoreside, it's a desert, but up above me on the hillsides, regeneration blooms.
There are tree trunks in the water, skeleton bones. The loch edges are littered with their corpses. Later, I break a dead limb off for the fire, then feel so wrong I put it back, attempting to put it back into the socket, pathetic. I paddle past implacable cliff, boulder, tree and mud. The western end is bare, stripped of all cover.
There's a different rhythm on a loch, to a river. I practice my stroke, working on body rotation and not my arms to pull the craft through the water. I stop often to take photos, spin the boat and lean back, then explore inlets onshore. Later, there's a headwind, and more focus required.
There's an island on the map I hadn't noticed before. I'm still undecided of my final plans as I push north once more to visit. On the lee side, it's heavily carpeted with moss and heather, but on the other there are small clearings between scrubby birch.
Is Mullardoch island a fake island, only here because of the reservoir? The dam was built in 1951, and it submerged two lesser natural lochs and a number of dwellings. The hydro board promised to restore the right of way after construction, but unsurprisingly have yet to provide the residents of the glen with a submarine. The shores of my island, like the shores on all sides, are fragile, mobile, the soil washed away by the rising and falling of water.
It's a unique feeling to sleep alone on an island, and equally unique to set off from one in the morning. The place is riven with midges. I awake to their hum, lie there for 40 minutes before bracing myself for the inevitable quick strike, relocating to the rocks to relight the fire.
The mists hug the lake, I paddle into a horizonless abyss, features swimming in and out of the murk, a silent and surreal wet desert.
There are no words for this place.
More dead trees hug the shore, spiders with their heads removed. The price paid for all mod cons. Are we not gods? Frank Herbert had it right.
There is the ruin, once a croft or a stalkers cabin? I get out, collect water, make tea, and pack down the boat. I have rafted my pack. It's now time to pack my raft.
Reaching the top of An Socach takes nearly 2 hours. It's less a hill, more a spectacular coire circled by an enormous pie crust. I stop for lunch, snoozing a little whilst grasses sway in the sun.
The next day or so is spent on a fine ridge walk, with 2 my paddle poles whistling in the wind like milk bottles or the soundtrack to a Samurai movie. I zen out. Compared to trips in the last year the pace was relaxed, yet the risks of boating, especially solo and this far from a road, are much higher.
I camped at the bealach, the midges departing as the temperatures drop. Sitting doing nothing takes patience, and practice. I was out of the latter, but remembered the former, but it took me a while to slow down… then stop… to appreciate where I was. Silence. Just the burn carving a line down the hillside, the stags calling their readiness to mate in the middle distance. And a gentle breeze as night fell, somewhere between cool and cold. I brew tea, pick up my notepad, and the present moment edges by.
I awake to two more stags in the coire, I can hear their harem clattering about on the rocks above me. A raven misjudges it's landing and narrowly misses the shelter, a ptarmigan chatters a few metres away. Otherwise, stillness. The isness of rock and moss. I stare unthinkingly at the remains of insects glued to the shelter from yesterday's hasty lowland evacuation. You know it's bad when they form a sort of morbid patè on your tarp.
I cross another munro, a big one I think, over 1100metres, in the fog, but it's no trouble starting from a bealach, just a straight forward hillwalk with the need to take bearings. Lower down, I bounce along springy tundra dry as tinder, grey wagtails and wheatears flitting and darting amongst the glacial debris, the perfect basecamp for a future adventure - next time with another boat and the girls?
I make good time and then it's time to come off not long after lunch, passing by a drystone wall of all things, looking completely out of place in the highlands. I go the stupid, off trail, hard way of course, which means finding a way through steep crags. Follow the deer paths, they'll steer you right, and no other souls pass through here. This place is entirely theirs, I'm only passing through, an idiot carrying expensive toys sweating in the afternoon haze.
There's no doubt that traveling with a boat is fussy - blowing it up, letting it down, securing it to the bag or the bag to the boat - the pfd, the boatknife, the bloody straps and buckles! It's heavy and takes time, but the rewards are immense. How else could I sleep on an island one night, and a hilltop the next?