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The Scottish 'Spare Seat' Project: A canoe and kayak adventure

09:05 12th July 2013 By Fi Spotswood

The Scottish Spare Seat Project

A small group of kayakers started on the East Coast of Scotland near Oban and paddled almost 130 miles in the sea and then the Great Glenn Canoe Trail to Inverness, an epic and beautiful journey in its own right. However, included in the journey were 8 people who took a ‘Spare Seat’ on the journey; in search of a little adventure. These ‘Spare Seaters’ had won a competition run in conjunction with Offshore Magazine and gave people the opportunity to join in an adventure for a day. The team paddled a combination of canoes and double kayaks allowing inexperienced people to paddle and experience watersports and adventure.

Beautiful, moody Scotland

Beautiful, moody Scotland


The history

The original Spare Seat kayak expedition was across New York State – 510 miles from Niagara Falls to the Statue of Liberty following the historic Erie Canal and the Hudson River. The communities along the route embraced the adventure with local people joining in the Spare Seat and also bringing their own boats and kayaks. In total over 300 people brought a seat and 29 different people paddled in the Spare Seat. The adventure was covered by lots of different media, was publicized to millions of people and won an International Marketing Award.

Whirlpools and Wild Camping

The start of the adventure required strong technical paddling skills as it involved sea kayaking the large whirlpool off the North End of Jura called the Corryvreckan, paddling the ‘Grey Dogs’ tide race and then heading up to Oban. Adventurer Richard Harpham, outdoor instructor Ollie Jay of Active4 Seasons and experienced paddler Jamie Queen set off to wild camp before tackling the infamous whirlpool the next day.

The trio camped on Scarba before heading into the jaws of the Corryvreckan the next morning. It was 1 theyek before the Springs, so there was some anticipation about how strong the whirlpool would be. They were paddling at slack water but the tide race would switch in about 15 minutes.

The three paddlers edged along the North side of the channel and then did a big ferry glide to the North End of Jura, touched the rock and prepared to head back across and on up to Grey Dogs for the tide race and then onto to Oban. This part went smoothly, but conditions worsened later in the day to a Force 6 and they were treated to lumpy following seas as they surfed towards Oban. The day involved plenty of stunning wildlife including the Eagles on Scarba, seals and even some dolphins joining the Spare Seat trip.

The weather remained changeable with plenty of liquid sunshine and blustery wind, and the paddling was tough with a 36 mile day ahead. However, on the second day the sun broke through as they headed into Loch Linhe and passed the Crenin Ferry before arriving at Fort William, the Activity Capital of the Highlands. After plenty of rolling waves and fairly cold weather they opted to stay at the Glenn Nevis hostel, mainly to dry out kit and remove some of the salt.

Taking a well-earned rest

Taking a well-earned rest


The ‘spare seaters’

The journey now saw them switch from sea kayaking to inland paddling on the Great Glenn Canoe Trail, formerly known as the Caledonian Canal. Here, the team were joined by Wendy and her daughter Jenny who would paddle the first day of the Great Glenn Canoe trail. This popular canoe trail is visited by over 4,000 paddlers a year to experience some of the most beautiful Loch and river paddling Scotland has to offer, plus of course the infamous Loch Ness. Wendy and Jennifer had not paddled much and were relative novices but they came equipped with a great ‘can do’ attitude and an infectious spirit. They were soon part of the team. The rest of the Spare Seaters for the inland section included Colin Day, Ashley Kenlock and two team members from Inspired Life (www.inspiredlife.org ), Alex and Grace, both animal trainers at zoos.

William and Ash - some of the spare seaters

William and Ash – some of the spare seaters

The group started paddling with Wendy and Jennifer from the top of Neptune’s Staircase, the huge lock system at one end of the canal. The weather remained changeable and they were treated to showers and high winds. The first part of the Great Glenn Canoe Trail meanders through the valley before opening up into the Loch. Here, sea kayaks were relegated onto the trailer and the team switched to open canoes and one double so that the novice paddlers could join in. The waves on the lochs was gusting force 5 and Olly opted to raft the canoes and use a sail for part of the crossing. Richard and Wendy in the double enjoyed a long surf down the loch with plenty of smiles and laughter.

Ollie as always was a source of much fun with various games both on and off the water. This culminated in the headstand challenge on the front of the canoe whilst rafted up moving down the Loch. At one point he was also stand-up paddle canoeing and rail riding, demonstrating great balance and skill. Their destination for the night was the brilliant Great Glenn Hostel where they camped on the front paddock. The team responded by knocking up another great meal to feed the troops.

A variety of modes: this time stand up paddle canoes

A variety of modes: this time stand up paddle canoes

The Laggan Corridor and searching for Nessie

The Laggan Corridor after the locks is a beautiful paddle flanked by rich coloured trees. It opens up onto Loch Oich which involved more blustery conditions as made the crossing to the North End and grabbed lunch on the canal bank. The routine was now established with stoves at the ready, wraps and rolls and plenty to refuel with.  At the end of day 2 on the Great Glenn Canoe trail, Rich, Ollie and Jamie opted to repeat the final section but this time taking the River Oich to down to the locks at Fort Augustus. The River is graded as 1-2 with a couple of sections of small rapids to play in. It was a bit of a break from the buffeting they had experienced on the Lochs albeit, wind powered in the right direction. They enjoyed the flow and playing in the moving water and the whitewater section.

At Fort Augustus they stayed in the local hostel and the next day they were meeting the next lot of Spare Seaters; Maggie, a Scottish paddler and former international sailor, and 5 young people who were interviewing the team and trying paddling as part of a feature for National Geographic Kids magazine. Whilst part of the team shuttled vehicles up to Drumnadrochit the rest of us organized an impromptu ‘come and try it’ session and some races. Late morning they were ready to paddle off from the shores of Loch Ness in search of Nessie. The wind whipped up after our lunch break and they were faced with 2 ft waves and some interesting conditions with gusts reaching Force 6.  The canoes rafted up again and played various I-Spy and memory games while Sam paddled one of the single kayaks and Maggie and Rich surfed in the double.

They eventually arrived at Drumnadroichit and headed to another local hostel, The ‪Bearnock Country Centre, again offered great communal facilities for cooking which made life much easier with the size of our team. The final day on Loch Ness was a mixture of sunny skies, and more blustery winds providing the final sting in the tail. They were all glad to be sat at the North End on the beach (appropriately called Loch End) near the lighthouse looking back down the loch with a sense of achievement. Sam took the opportunity to do a bit of wild swimming whilst the rest of us shivered in mutual support. They headed around the beach next to Bona Lighthouse and headed towards Inverness. The colours on the hills and trees continuing to take our breath away. In particular the trees flanking the shallow lochs were draped in a mid-green lichen which was stunning, like a candy floss coating.

Lunch in the rain

Lunch in the rain

Homebound to Inverness

On the final morning, the group approached a large weir, signaling the River Ness and our final passage to Inverness. As with so many trips the variety and change of conditions always seems like a real boost, and in this case it was moving water which had them cheering. The first weir and drop looked a bit lumpy with heavy kit, a mix of paddling experience and even William the dog, so the group skirted to the left and portaged over a narrow channel, floating the canoes and wading. They mounted up and paddled on finding a few small drops and wave trains to enjoy. One larger weir led to some of the group tracking and lining the boats down the side whilst Richard and Ashley paddled the main chute and waves. It was a fitting end to an incredible trip with stunning scenery, a great team and so many fantastic moments to savour.

Wind power!

Wind power!

For more information about the Great Glenn Canoe Trail then visit http://greatglencanoetrail.info/

Richard Harpham is a human powered adventurer who has completed over 6800 miles of human powered adventure by bike, canoe and kayak. (www.thespareseat.com, www.big5kayakchallenge.com, and www.inspiredlife.org )

Ollie Jay is a professional outdoor instructor, qualified teacher who runs www.active4seasons.co.uk based in Northumberland with the Farne Islands and the River Ttheyed in his back yard.

The trip was supported by Aquabound Paddles, Vango Tents, Leatherman, Garmin GPS Products, Olympus Cameras, ICOM Radios, Avoncraft, Paramo Clothing, Bamboo Clothing and Reed Chillcheater




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