A few weeks ago, Walkhighlands kindly reported on a little adventure a friend and I are doing in May. The plan is to walk and paddle across Scotland including the nine highest mountains – the 4,000 footers – using inflatable dinghy’s called ‘packrafts’. This might well sound a little insane, so it might be time to explain a bit more about these vessels, and the advantages they have for self-powered travel in the highlands.
Modern packrafting was borne in Alaska, used by backcountry travellers and hunters, although previous incarnations of these cute little boats pop up in Australian outback travel and (less cutely in) British military histories. Essentially, it’s a small polyurethane raft that can, as the name suggests, be packed. It’s designed to be both lightweight and tough: With a PFD (personal floatation device – that’s a life vest to you and I) and a paddle that can be split into 4 pieces, the total is about 4 kilos, but if my steering is anything to go by, these boats can take a fair bit of abuse. The raft is stored rolled up in your backpack, and is inflated with a bag made from tarp fabric to enable river travel or loch crossings. No pump or bellows – just a bag to catch air in. It’s fairly Heath Robinson, but it works brilliantly.
Scotland’s backcountry may be smaller and have less brush cover than Alaska, but having done enough Scottish bog snorkelling to last a lifetime I can vouch for paddling (on water) as opposed to wading (through the mire). However, it’s not just about ease of travel. Using a packraft means joining places up on a map that would be awkward or impossible to join otherwise. Looking at a map of Scotland as a whole, we can see the lochs run roughly parallel, broadly left-right, (or east-west if you have your map upside down). For the walker, water presents as an obstacle to be surmounted, sometimes requiring detours or funnelling us onto roads and into towns. Footbridges are washed away in the spring, and rivers in spate are a genuine hazard. River or lake crossings can completely determine route planning and limit available choices.
Now – imagine you have a little boat in your pack. Look at the map again. Suddenly, what was in your way is now a further opportunity for exploration. The mountain can be paddled around and walked up – or even, with more experience – walked up and paddled down. Miles of tarmac can be avoided, and rivers used as arteries for graceful travel, as they once were. As a walker, I’m so used to looking at the map from the point of view of terra firma, it’s still tricky to do otherwise. But this little rubber dinghy means almost complete freedom from the tyranny of dry land.
There are also places that are hard or even impossible to reach without a boat. I took my boat to Loch Mullardoch early last autumn as a way of accessing the Munros to the north of the water. An Socach and its northerly sisters are a long way from a road, with more than just a day’s worth of bagging needed to do them real justice. Indeed, Walkhighlands’ own description features the words ‘wild and inaccessible’ – just the sort of thing to get the blood pumping and pique the interest! There’s a ferryboat available for hillwalkers, but with a packraft I was free to go under my own steam. There is nothing quite like landing on an island and setting up camp surrounded by water: The feeling of adventure is palpable. Now I look for these islands of opportunity whenever I study the maps…
Of course, there are caveats to all this freedom – with it comes (you guessed it) responsibilities, for ourselves and our fellow paddlers. Packrafts are small, light and super manoeuvrable, but they have no underwater keel. That shallow hull is great for stony, bony Scottish rivers, but our blunted bowed boat is not a sea kayak, or even an open canoe. It’s much easier to portage (carry over land), but what it gains in pack-ability, it loses in track-ability. With the wind behind us paddling is easy, but against a headwind things become hard work fast. It helps to know when planning, that the prevailing winds in the UK in spring and summer are south-westerly. But there are matters of safety too. Packrafts are made of tough fabric and will bounce off most things, but they are ‘single chambered’. A big hole in a single chambered boat in open water is a serious risk to your health. It’s common sense to hug the shoreline in these boats. Wear waterproofs and a PFD even for simple trips.
Design factors out of the way and, as with most things, we’re left with human error. Packrafting is child’s play to start with, and easily the best time you can have with your waterproofs on. Unlike canoeing, where there are grades and training to work through, packrafters often fall into (and out of) the boat without any prior experience, so it’s easy to look before you leap and cause yourself serious injury. I have made some very stupid and serious mistakes in my boat, carried away by the fun of the boat and the momentum of the water, which is astonishingly powerful if you go under. A friend has a saying: ‘The river will not stop killing you’. Especially as a beginner, travelling in a group is advised, and any disappearing horizons mean you should scout ahead – i.e get back on shore and have a look! For anything remotely ‘white water’, helmets, throw bags, dry suits and extreme caution are essential. I’d heartily recommend some training and renting a boat before you buy one. They’re fun, and open up a whole new world of self-propelled travel, but there is a learning curve and they are expensive.
So far I’ve only really mentioned lochs, but it’s on rivers that these nimble, shallow hulled boats really shine. It’s not an overstatement to say that paddling down rivers has thoroughly transformed my understanding of landscape, wildlife and nature. The first time, on the River Tyne in the Lothians, was a total revelation. Amongst the human flotsam of plastic bags, shopping trolleys, and abandoned tyres, I saw hordes of dippers, mallards, herons, families of swans… and the highlight, the quicksilver flash of a kingfisher. Small fish catching flies plopped out of the water just yards away. I didn’t see Otters but certainly saw (and smelt!) their presence on the sand bars.
In contrast, a 3-day trip down the River Dee was a lesson in hydrology. The river for our first sub zero day was low and a little technical, requiring quick thinking and micro navigation to avoid boulders and branches. Overnight a huge thaw on the hills above us meant the water level rose by over a metre. We paddled rapidly through enormous standing waves and past flooded banks, in awe of the power of the weather and it’s effect on the river landscape. River travel is a window into another world, another way of moving through the environment, expanding ways of seeing and experiencing what’s around me. Traveling 3 foot above the water, I now see rivers as the ‘arteries of life’ that they are.
Water – whether animal or vegetable, we all need it. And everything flows, energetically, from somewhere to somewhere. It’s fascinating and mesmerising to be along for that ride.
Title with apologies to the brilliant conservationist, filmmaker and canoeist Bill Mason