Packrafting the 1980's

I'm just back from a week away, a good part of which was spent exploring the caves, hills, lochs and islands of Assynt. On Eilean Mor, in the middle of Loch Sionascaig I met Steve Cooler and his party of open canoers. Steve was quite taken with the packraft, and got in touch via email with stories of his own blow up exploits. Having read a few American and Australian packrafting histories, we thought it would be fun to share his memories below. Thanks Steve!

In the days when outdoor legwear was a pair of old corduroys, Gore Tex cags were the preserve of those with a well padded wallet, and the best tent out there was the venerable Vango Force 10, packrafting was yet to be invented. Or was it? As students we had chunks of time on our hands and best of all, my friend Jim had a car, a rusty Vauxhall Cavalier that drank almost as much oil as petrol.

We made numerous trips up to the Highlands & on one occasion back in the September of 1981 we took up a LiLo dinghy designed for kids to use on the beach. I seem to remember that it came with a warning that its safe load was just two children. On the shores of Loch Maree we pumped it up, extra hard to be on the safe side and piled in, three of us that is, and paddled out to explore the stunning wooded islands just half a mile from the shore. We camped out on Eilean Subhainn for several days and drank in the scenery, swatted the midges and dared each other to explore spooky Isle Maree, with its graves and ghosts in the dead of night. Our island was magical place of chunky Torridonian sandstone blanketed in bogs and the most magnificently weathered Caledonian pines it is possible to imagine. With a backdrop of rugged mountains including the thrusting spear of Slioch dominating the head of the lake we were entranced when a rainbow framed the peak and had us dashing for our cameras. I was very frustrated that I only had one roll of Kodachrome 64, for the entire week’s trip. Returning to the mainland in the wind was something of a battle; our progress into the steady south-westerly was at a snail’s pace.

We returned to the island in the Easter of 1986, and repeated our trip, memories of student life and absent friends dominating our thoughts. That it until a dazzling rainbow arced high above the snow bound Slioch and once again we made a dash for our cameras. This time the return journey was a true epic. In mid channel a sudden squall blew up and the considerable waves soon filled our meagre tub. Soaked and worried we baled & paddled furiously as we sunk lower and lower into the water. I was squeezed into the middle buried under rucksacks and my paddle was a plastic camping plate lashed to a stick! The fact that we were all wearing heavy walking boots and not wearing buoyancy aids preying on our minds. We made the shore, soaked and very relieved, but a seed was sown and having bagged the Munros the time was ripe to explore Scotland’s intricate coastline by sea kayak & Canadian canoe, bagging the odd peak for old time’s sake. Maybe the time is ripe to head back to Loch Maree, but in packrafts this time…

All words and pictures Steve Cooling

Having been born in London & grown up in the Chilterns Steve discovered a love of wild places on family holidays to the Lake District and North Wales. After taking a degree in Geography at Leeds University he worked in the offshore oil industry for five years before donning his arm patched tweed jacket and taking to the class room as a Geography teacher (complete with beard and orange cag...), where he remains. Long holidays have allowed all manner of trips from Patagonia to Pakistan, Baffin Island to New Zealand, and in competition with a number of friends he bagged his final Munro, Stob Coire Sgreamhach in 1999. Now living in Cumbria he keeps fit by cycling, on and off road, and enjoys expeditions from the cockpit of a sea kayak.