It all started 2 years ago with a crazy dream that we could do our Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition by canoe. The dream was put to Andrew Eastman (Explorer Leader with Ifield Explorers) and the idea of paddling across Scotland along the Caledonian Canal grew and became a reality this summer when six members of Crawley Network and Ifield Explorers completed the challenge.
From the first idea of the trip there were two years of preparation and training to undertake. The dream team, consisting of Stuart Graves, Karl Edwards, Josh Hemmings, Kuba Jasko, Georgina Reece and Nat Burfieldord-Wallace, had a good kayaking standard and some canoe experience. We have always had the chance to paddle at Tilgate Lake every week and paddle the local rivers. Obviously this is nothing compared to what we accomplished, so we needed to prepare ourselves quite a bit. We all knew how to get in a kayak and propel ourselves from A to B, but we had to convert this into getting into a canoe, and going all the way to Z!
The challenges set to us by the county before we could start the trip was to for the three who didn’t already have it to gain their BCU two star award and all of us at least completed the open water section of the BCU canoe three star and attend a BCU Foundation, Safety and Rescue Training (FSRT) course. This involved many a Wednesday evenings at Tilgate Lake along with additional Saturdays and Sundays. The FSRT was run for us by Roger Harris, Surrey Scouts Canoe adviser, and was a day learning to deal with emergency situations both theoretically and practically.
Our official expedition practice was four days at Easter canoeing the river Wye. This gave a great experience of not just paddling but carrying kit, pitching camp quickly and leaving early in the mornings. This also gave most their first experience of whitewater in open canoes.
The final part of the training required was our three star Canoe open water training, for this we joined Surrey Scouts for their annual training trip to Brownsea Island. This gave a chance to paddle large open water and learn how to sail the canoes across Poole Harbour, we also spent time carrying out rescue techniques and developing canoe packing skills. Whilst at Brownsea we also visited the memorial stone from the first Scout camp and spent time Geocaching.
Finally the Scotland trip was here, we travelled to Scotland along with other members Crawley Network and Ifield Explorers who had arranged to have their annual expedition this year in Scotland. We spent a day after arriving acclimatising, collecting the Inverness Sea Scout Groups Canoes that we were borrowing, purchasing the food for the trip, along with meeting our assessor. The Caledonian Canal was all that was left ahead of us for the expedition. The canal runs for 100km down the great glen, only one third is on man-made canals, the rest being made up of 4 lochs, Lochy, Oich, Ness and Dochfour. Ness being the biggest would take us a day and a half to paddle.
We started our great expedition across the width of Scotland with great enthusiasm and speed. The kit was very quickly assembled into the boats as we were encouraged by the onslaught of midges which had not yet picked favourites and appeared to be taking a shine to everyone. Waving a frantic goodbye to those who had braved the midges we set off on our mission. The canals were beautifully still and the silence was only constantly broken by the chatter from the boats. Although we seem to be paddling quicker than planned the time was back to plan following out first portage around locks which took a lot longer than thought. We then entered our first loch, Loch Lochy which gave us our first of many wonderful views of lochs with the mountains in the background. We headed to our first campsite of the trip on the banks of the Loch. Following diner we went for a stroll and found a wonderful waterfall. Before bed we skipped stones, evaluated the day’s events and admired the view.
Day two of the trip we left the campsite at 8am before the winds picked up too much. We paddled to the end of Loch Lochy and the lock gates, at the end racing another D of E team and getting there first to obtain first use of the portage trolley. The rest of the day was spent mainly paddling on the canal with a couple of portages. It was at the second portage we meet up with our assessor. Then we paddled onto the hardest portage of the entire journey, Fort Augustus. The portage was 800m long and we had to get all three canoes, our bags and group gear down to the other end using only a wheelbarrow as there was no trolley there. But with a big team effort we managed to get to the other end with no problems. When we got there we were greeted by the amazing but daunting view of Loch Ness. After getting back on the water we had a short paddle to the campsite, it was just inside the tree line on the bank of Loch Ness with a good area to pitch our tents and a burn running by the tents for fresh water. That evening we all decided to have a quick swim in the loch which was pretty cold as the water is only 4° all year round. We then spent the rest of the evening sitting on the beach round a fire watching the sun set behind the mountains, giving even more stunning views.
Day three saw another early start as we set off on our days paddling on Loch Ness. The water started fairly calm, but as we paddled further down the Loch the weather got slightly worse and then the water got choppier which we enjoyed. During lunch we came across a German man who was taking a swim in the freezing water. The campsite for the evening was hard to find due to there being very few landmarks to find it from. When we found the campsite we had picked, which was a just a picnic area, we found the burn had dried up and our supply of water was no more. Josh and Stuart became the alpha males of the group and went hunting for water for the herd. After dinner we were driven into our tents as the midges had seemed to take a liking to us.
On our final day we were again driving off the campsite by the midges, so we were on the water at 7.45am. We paddled the last 10km of Loch Ness and moved onto Loch Dochfour which is only a small Loch. The rest of our journey was on the canal with just one final portage. After that it was the home stretch paddling to the Inverness Rowing club where our journey finished.
This trip would not have happened without a support team behind us:
- We have all of our parents who have been there with money and food but also support and a warm dry house for after wet sessions.
- 2nd Ifield Scout Group and their Active Support Unit who without their support of their coaches, led by Damien Scott and Mark Eastman, the use of the canoes and the trailers and just the efforts to make sure boats were where we needed them to be.
- Mark Haymes and Roger Harris from Surrey who gave us the necessary skills to complete this expedition safely, doing some vital assessments for us and running the Brownsea Island Trip
- Allen Heath and Brian Eastman who put in time and effort to make sure our practice expedition went smoothly getting the boats to Wales and getting the boats to practice sessions around Sussex and Kent.
- Mark Eastman who has been massively key in the training side, a go to man for advice and has generally been helping and advising us all the way, and his help also meant that the practice expeditions and browse trip could go ahead
- Luke Winstanley – hero amongst men, doing many pieces of paper work and getting us the correct maps that we needed making sure we had all the stuff we needed so that we couldn’t say “I couldn’t do it I didn’t have the right information” because Luke knows you do and there no hiding
- Andrew Eastman – a big force behind making this expedition happen, he formed the dream team and what a team he formed, much like a superhero he was all over the place saving lives and stopping baddies… well he would if it wasn’t for his hip, but he deserves superhero credit for all the chasing up of county and making sure this expedition could go ahead
- A big thank you goes to everyone for pushing us in the direction that was easily the most incredible four days of scouting we have ever experienced and I’d be shocked if anyone would say differently.
But now what? We have finished and Andrew Eastman and Luke Winstanley have nothing to do, so come up with a crazy plan and see whether you, like us, can complete that crazy idea you had two years ago.
Stuart Graves, Karl Edwards, Josh Hemmings, Kuba Jasko, Georgina Reece, Nat Burfield-Wallace