During the start of National Go Canoeing Week 2015, Graham Wells, of Peninsula Canoe Club in the Wirral, became the very first person to complete our ultimate paddling adventure: the Three Lakes Challenge! Ably supported by his wife, Sue, his finish times were as follows:
Loch Awe, 23rd May 2015, 2.20 p.m. to 8.03 p.m., 5 hours 43 minutes
Windermere, 24th May 2015, 2.05 p.m. to 4.55 p.m., 2 hours 50 minutes
Bala (Llyn Tegid), 25th May 2015, 10.37 a.m. to 12.34 p.m., 1 hour 57 minutes TOTAL TIME: 10 h 30 m
I am a member of Peninsula Canoe Club on the Wirral and a team from the Club is planning to do the Three Lakes Challenge later this year, to raise money for our local Children’s Hospice. As part of the planning I volunteered to carry out a reconnaissance of the lakes to find out what the put-ins and get-outs were like and get an idea of the water and the likely hazards and problems.
My paddling background is in sea and touring. I am a 4 star leader on the sea and a UKCC L2 coach. My wife, Sue, also paddles from time to time, but she provided the essential support for this Challenge by sharing the driving (doing the greater share of it) and helping with the faff at put-in and get-out as well as providing encouragement.
We set off for Loch Awe on Saturday morning and arrived just after 1.00 p.m. The put-in at Torran Hostel is great. Very friendly staff, plenty of space to park and get the kit ready. Launch fee is £3 per boat.
I was paddling a sea kayak – Tiderace Xcite – and carried basic kit; that being spare paddles and a pump on deck; a paddlefloat; sufficient material to repair the hull in case of collision; spare clothing and emergency stuff to deal with hypothermia. I planned to paddle between lunch and supper, so I only carried water, a couple of snack bars, some dried fruit as well as emergency chocolate and a flask of hot chocolate.
As I was paddling solo, I had safety firmly in mind. There is a road along the east shore of Loch Awe and my route was to cross the loch to the east shore and then paddle up fairly close to it so that I could bail out if necessary. We tried short range radios, which were useless, but there is a decent mobile signal along the whole length. I had a 1:25000 map of the lake, which tells you where the castles and crannogs are and is the best scale for the trip.
The prevailing wind is westerly and I had a forecast of south-south-west to west force 3 rising, which was great as it would be a tailwind. It was a little stronger and caused some waves in the first third of the loch, which if not surfable were pushing me along. It was sunny to begin with and the scenery is truly wonderful. In the far distance are some impressive mountains (they get closer and you end up paddling alongside them) and the loch is studded with ruined castles and surrounded by forest. A couple of boats were about, mostly fishermen, and I gave them and their rods and lines some space so the chats were friendly
There were not many hazards but there is one to be extremely careful of and that is a large fish farm at Durran. It extends out from the shore about 2-300 metres and there is no route inshore of it. Do not get blown onto it, as in a tussle with a boat, the farm will win.
Paddling Loch Awe is a long haul and really tests your forward paddling technique as you get tired. The scenery is uplifting until the clouds descend and when it rains, it pours. The rain started at 6.00 p.m. and the wind died down almost completely. From then on it rained on and off.
The get-out is to the left of Kilchurn Castle, a really gaunt ruin that is a fitting end to the paddle; it reflects how you feel, battered and weary but still standing.
We then drove to Tyndrum and stayed at the Tyndrum Inn; good solid food, great beer and a comfortable bed.
We drove down from Scotland to Ambleside. The put-in at the north end of the lake is at Waterhead. There is a public car park but as it was bank holiday weekendthat was full when we arrived at lunch time. There is a little slipway opposite with a small road up to it. You can launch from there and it is a great place to unload the boat and kit up. There is a launch fee of £3 per boat and you could not park the car there for any longer than it takes to unload.
The wind was north-westerly and force 4 plus. The lake was busy; the steamers were up and down; the sailing boats were out in force, going pretty quickly and heeling over in the wind; the wakeboarders and other motor boats were doing their thing. I decided to paddle down the east side of the lake rather than cross over to the west shore. This was a mistake because the wind was moving westerly and the effect was that the waves were pushing me onto the shore. Getting out into the middle of the lake was not an option because of the sailing boats – their look-out is limited and a kayak is tricky to spot from a cockpit. I should have crossed the lake and gone down in the lee of the west shore from the start, which is what I did when I got to Bowness and could use Belle Isle and the speed limit as protection from the other traffic. After that it was a much easier paddle and the lower part of the lake is always quieter, except for the wakeboarders and their very surfable wash, if they are going your way.
Windermere is easily the busiest of the lakes and paddling south is not the most scenic way to do it, since the hills are to the north. But it was a lovely sunny day and there was lots to look at. At less than half the length of Loch Awe, it does not become such a slog but forward paddling technique is essential.
The get-out is Fell Foot Park. The car park is a National Trust car park, so free to members. It is possible to bail out at any point on Windermere and retrieval is easy enough, so the best thing for the support crew to do is go to the park and enjoy the facilities. I am told that the cappuccino in the café is excellent. They can get to a stranded paddler quickly enough and Windermere is not wilderness.
We had wondered whether we could fit in Bala but decided not to push it and so drove home.
Sue could not support me on this one, so I drove down to Bala. There is one point to put-in and get-out. Parking all day costs £4 and each boat needs a permit, £3.50. You can get both from the pay-and-display machines as long as you have the right cash to hand. Otherwise, the Wardens are friendly and will take the money.
The Challenge says that Bala is a round trip of 7 miles; it is but you must go to the very bottom of the lake and make a wide circuit, staying pretty close to the shore, to make it that distance. Actually, staying close to the shore is a good idea because of sailing dinghies crewed by enthusiastic but not very accomplished sailors. The wind was south-westerly, so in my face as I went down and pushing me back up.
At the very bottom of the lake there is a fence jutting out into the water. I stopped there for a while in its lee, looking up the lake, munching on a bar and just taking it in. Cut down on my average speed considerably but with just 3 ½ miles to go, the wind in my favour and the sun trying to come out it, that was OK.
The information on the website about the Challenge warns that it is demanding; it is. Physically, the paddles of Loch Awe to a greater, and Windermere to a lesser, extent are gruelling (yes, I know about the DW and such-like but we are not talking extreme here, we are talking challenging). Going solo, I stayed well within my capabilities, keeping close to a “safe” shore where get-out was possible. But Loch Awe is well named and be prepared for a rocky landing if you have to bail.
As for kit; be prepared to deal with hypothermia as the demanding physical effort takes its toll. A support crew is essential; do not even contemplate a shuttle of Loch Awe and the ability to pick you up if you should bail is important.
Plan your trip in detail; mine was a blitz and was planned accordingly. We booked a room at Tyndrum well in advance; you do not want to be looking for accommodation when you reach the end of the Loch. Of course you can camp, but preparing for that speaks for itself. Be weather-wise; wind direction and speed can make a vast difference here.
But all that being said, get out and do it; as I told my Club when proposing the paddle, “You know the madness makes sense.”