There is something almost indecent about staying in a good hotel isn't there? For those of us brought up in the belief that suffering is good for you, winter sea-kayaking must surely rate as suffering, mustn't it?
Such were the guilt feelings running through my head as I savoured the remains of a rather excellent leg of lamb washed down with a fine claret and contemplated the sweet trolley. Deciding against further indulgence, we joined the rest of the hard core winter sea kayakers holed up in the excellent Taynuilt Hotel on a dank winter's evening. The Taynuilt offers superb hospitality and a very warm welcome, an ideal place to spend the first night of such a trip. The beer was good, and as Dave raided the piggy bank to buy me a splendid malt, the evening could only get better.
We (that being Dave, Helen and I) had journeyed to Taynuilt from Dumfries via the madness that is Glasgow on a Friday rush hour and were now settled nicely into the slow tempo of good company, pleasant surroundings and convivial banter with old friends and sharing tall tales with new ones. At some point in the wee small hours, most of us went to bed I think. Some in the hotel, some in their cars and some in cars, vans or even tents at the pier.
The following morning saw something like 20 paddlers assembled at that pier, awaiting the command to launch!
Only a small selection of the party - - -
Awaiting the briefing.
Lets put this into context - this is an SCA trip, from the Touring Calendar - details are to be found in the Touring Section of the SCA site. There are a lot of people of varying degrees of experience - inevitably there has to be a degree of organisation - and there is! But it's necessary, it's relaxed and Robert (the organiser for this little outing) gets us marshaled and gives a brief briefing of where we're going and what's expected. It's his birthday - we have expectations for later, he doesn't!
Happy birthday Robert!
Soon the mass of paddlers are on the water and we make steady progress up the loch, enjoying the company of friends in a relaxed, calm setting. The mountains reflect in the waters, sometimes so calm that it causes an un-nerving sensation which leads you to question whether you're the right way up!
A mirror finish - - - (Pic: Dave Biggs)
A wisp of low cloud hangs in the still, cold air, it's truly stunning paddling in these conditions. There's no hurry and paddlers swap places to chat and catch up on news since the last meeting as we drift northwards into the hills.
Reaching the camp site after a couple of hours, there's a discrete sense of urgency as the old hands seek for the spots they remembered from previous years here and soon there's a neatly spaced line of tents, each with it's occupant sitting / squatting / kneeling in front preparing lunch. That misty cloud is gathering a little now, but soon groups of paddlers are taking to the water again to head up the loch in the late afternoon. Others are content to sit and blether, or start collecting wood for the fire later in the evening.
Stragglers drift in, one or two of whom had been delayed having discovered just how effective the rear compartment heater in a Kia MPV can be!
Be warned - Dave and Helen had to replace all their food as it had been gently heated all the way from Dumfries to Taynuilt - what a sad sight it is to see prime steaks reduced to a foul smelling mess!
Dave & Helen arrive - view SW down the loch.
The afternoon gets mistier as time passes, but it's flat calm and although some reach the head of the loch, others are content to paddle a while, sit and drift, paddle, drift, chill and enjoy. I return just as the light is going while others come back in the dark. A gentle drizzle is falling now and cookers are being primed and soon the site reverberates to the combined sound of MSR's on full bore, the gentle rustle of gas stoves, the putter of Trangias and even the roar of a Primus on full afterburner.
Soon people are beginning to gather round the fire - well, what will become the fire as it's still in start mode - the moisture content of the wood, the lack of wind to fan the flames, and the general wetness are all combining to make life difficult for the arsonists. Eventually, the fire is going and as the level of flames rise and the level of the whisky bottles drop, the tales and singing start. This weekend is about conviviality as much as paddling.
Fire - people - what more do you need?
Various boxes of goodies pass round the group - millionaires shortbread, home-baking of various sorts, nibbles - most convivial. From the flickering shadows outside the warmth of the fire comes the skirl of the pipes - someone has brought a set of pipes with him and the sound echoes hauntingly round the hills, raising the hairs on the back of the neck and evoking thoughts of the past and the history of the place. We're not far from Glencoe after all.
To hear the pipes played in the open air, in their natural surroundings of the hills and glens of Scotland, is a stirring experience - never forgotten.
Robert hasn't been forgotten either and the poor lad is assailed with "Happy Birthday" and then with cake - two large and suitably decorated cakes having been produced from a hatch somewhere and presented to the hero, with suitable words of congratulation. Thoughtfully, these cakes have been designed with care and marked in appropriate places to ease the cutting - soon yet more eating material is passed round and we toast the birthday boy.
Robert is presented with his cake.
Eventually the weather takes its toll and people head for bed - the steady fall of rain on the tent roof soon lulls us into sleep and the camp resonates to the sound of gentle (or not so gentle) snoring.
The morn dawns fair but whispers of an inbound SW'ly haste our departure and sure enough the trip back turns into a slog into the wind - nothing too unpleasant though. The pier at Taynuilt marks the end of the trip - boats are loaded and people say their goodbyes before heading in whatever direction eventually takes them home - the Etive Trip is over for another year.
OS Landranger Map, sheet 50 Glen Orchy covers the area.
Loch Etive is a great paddle at any time of year, it's the venue for the kayaking leg of an annual charity triathlon called 70 Wild Miles and makes for a good day trip or a relaxed weekend. The tidal flow isn't significant except at the narrows by the jetty where the North side can be a bit bouncy with wind against tide. The outflow from the River Awe can make for an interesting ferry glide, depending on how much water is coming down the river.
The loch is relatively sheltered although the hills can funnel the winds quite effectively, especially an Easterly. In summer, the midges are truly horrendous - come prepared.
It's a lovely landscape and although there are a few commercial mussel farming operations and a rather ugly quarry at the SW end of the loch, the upper reaches are pristine. Do please practise low impact camping techniques to help keep it that way.
Cars can be left at the pier at Taynuilt, but please park well away from the large shed there as it's part of a mussel farming operation and access is needed 24/7. Vodaphone mobiles work at the bottom end of the loch but only sporadically at the camp site. If anyone can comment on VHF coverage or other mobile networks, please let me know.
The horror of a Glasgow rush hour can be avoided by travelling via Stirling, Lochearnhead, Crianlarich and Tyndrum to get to Taynuilt from the South (M74) and I prefer that to fighting the M8 through Glasgow and then going up Loch Lomondside. An alternative (and very pretty) route would take you from Tarbet over to Inverary if you have come through Glasgow on the M8 and over the bridge at Erskine.
Mike Buckley - 2004.