Having signed up to the MS Trust’s Scottish Coast to Coast Canoe Challenge back in November 2016, I spent the intervening period trying to raise as much money as possible whilst also putting in plenty of (well, a few…) hours in the gym. It turned out to be one of the toughest, most memorable and rewarding experiences of my life, all in aid of a cause very close to my heart.
The challenge was to paddle some 100km from the west coast of Scotland to the east, navigating rivers, canals and vast lochs. Eight intrepid fundraisers made it to the start on a drizzly September day, to take initial instruction and advice from the excellent tour manager and ever-patient guides who supported us and kept us safe throughout the trip. It soon became apparent that most of us weren’t overly familiar with the finer details of canoeing, but it somehow felt comforting to know that there were others in the same boat. So to speak.
The imaginatively named Loch Lochy was up first, followed by Lochs Oich, Ness and Dochfour. I think quite a few of us were hoping to enjoy the scenery as it whizzed past. Unfortunately it soon became apparent that it doesn’t. As breathtaking as the views were, they pretty much stay in your eyeline for hours on end as you edge interminably along the water. That was a tricky concept to deal with initially, as it felt like the efforts you made weren’t really getting you very far. But after a short while it all started to make more sense as we settled into a rhythm and began to fully appreciate the beauty of the wilderness, and the natural sense of freedom and calm that it evoked. Whilst still not getting very far…
As dusk approached each evening we’d head to shore to set up camp. We soon got used to following a routine of pitching minuscule tents that you couldn’t swing a midgie in, heating a pan of water to rehydrate our meals and generally trying to dodge the incessant raindrops. The next morning we’d take the tiny tents down, pack the boats and set off for another gruelling 6 to 8 hours of paddling in the direction of Inverness (which had taken on a utopian quality by Day 2).
Making new friends
As the week wore on so did we, dealing with aching arms, bagpiped ears, sore backs and soul-sapping portages (a posh word for lugging the boats out of the canal, carrying them beyond the next lock, then carefully plopping them back into the water rather than recklessly shoving them down the bank and getting shouted at by the lock-keeper. Ideally.).
A few of the party knew each other, but some of us had travelled alone and weren’t really sure what to expect. Obviously we all had an affiliation to the MS Trust as well as a sense of adventure, but that didn’t necessarily mean we’d gel as a group. However, after some initial school-disco awkwardness on Day 1 it soon became apparent that we were all going to form some strong bonds, drinking alliances and friendships.
The challenge was as much a test of mental toughness as physical resilience, paddling through squalls, rain, headwinds, hangovers and some more rain. All the while with a nagging feeling that we were getting nowhere fast. But we pulled together as a group, dug deep, moaned a lot, laughed a lot more, got used to bemused tourists taking photos of us and after five long days we were absolutely overjoyed to finally make it to Inverness (which sadly bears precious little resemblance to Utopia).
A great achievement
As a group we’ve currently raised well over £12,000 at last count. That’s testament to the excellent organisation of the challenge, the unwavering support from the MS Trust, the tenacity and determination of everyone who took part and the generosity of our friends and families.
We accomplished something pretty amazing in the face of some adversity, and actually looking back it wasn’t that bad. Bad, but not that bad. It was tough at times, but also tremendous fun. I’ve got memories that will stay with me forever (some brilliant, some I’d rather forget), made friends for life and the aches are even starting to ease.
Would I do it all over again? In a heartbeat.