Glyn-Freemen’s CCF tackle the Great Glen canoe trail

Lt. Dr Richard Bustin recounts his cadets water based adventure that took place during the summer of 2017. 

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A team of intrepid cadets from the Glyn-Freemen’s CCF, Surrey, completed the Great Glen Canoe Trail: a 95km (60 mile) stretch of Lochs and waterways that links the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea.

The official guidebook says the route can be canoed in five days: the cadets completed it in just less than four days, and achieved the Silver Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition section at the same time. It is an arduous, challenging paddle that requires determination, resilience, careful planning and constant focus and as such develops and demonstrates the core values of the CCF.

The preparation

The team of eight cadets had been building up to this trip for many years. The Glyn- Freemen’s CCF (City of London Freemen’s School) was created as part of the Cadet Expansion Programme in partnership with Glyn School, and unusually for the CEP schools, neither had previously had a CCF. After a generous donation from the parents association at the City of London Freemen’s School, the newly formed CCF was able to use the school’s fleet of open canoes, paddles, buoyancy aids, and dry bags and shortly afterwards a canoe trailer was added to enable the cadets to paddle on a range of different waters. Soon canoeing became a staple part of the Adventurous Training programme on offer to both RAF and Army sections of the CCF, thanks also to the canoe coaching qualifications of two of the founding officers.

Cadets have been able to take part in the expedition sections of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in canoes at Bronze level; two days and one night expeditions carrying all kit and paddling an open canoe in tandem. These have taken place in the secluded waterways of Surrey’s canal systems. But for Silver the cadets wanted a greater challenge. We enlisted the use of the volunteer coaches at the Kingston Scouts Canoe Club who helped facilitate training, and a practice expedition along the River Wye. This gave the cadets their first taste of white water, paddling Symonds Yat rapids. 

Training took place weekly in the summer term prior to the Great Glen Trail, as well as two full Sundays. The team were able to confidently manoeuvre their boats, knew the basics of weight distribution and canoe sailing, and had several practices at capsize drills!

The expedition

Day One:

The team, accompanied by two of their officers, took an early flight from London to Glasgow, before hiring a minibus to travel the final three hours to Fort William and the official start of the route. They were here reunited with their kit and the canoes that had been transported by road the previous day. The group soon got on the water and paddled for the afternoon the relatively short distance to their first overnight stop in Gairlochy. This short stretch, along the relatively sedate waters of the Caledonian Canal provided the group with a familiarisation of the environment as well as enabling them to ensure all was working with their kit. As they were not yet on the DofE assessed part of the trail the team were taken out that evening for dinner in the local town, which also provided an opportunity for the party to pay their respects at the Royal Marine Commando memorial.

Day Two:

This was the first full day of paddling, and the group were on assessment for their Silver DofE expedition. From here, the group had planned and timed their routes that would take them to the end of the trail. The campsite was Scottish Midge ridden, and there had been rain overnight so the group were starting their day with damp heavy tents and itchy skin. The forecast was for thunder and lightning which would have meant an immediate stop to the paddling.

The team were soon in their stride, paddling across their first Scottish Loch: Loch Locky. The wind blew gently behind them which pushed them to a good speed. Fortunately the planned storm never arrived. They made great progress, and reached their planned campsite at Leiterfearn, on the banks of Loch Oich in good time. The campsite was one of many set up along the trail for groups to use. It was a basic site with a compost toilet as the only facility. The team cooked dinner in their camping stoves before heading into bed for an early night, with trepidation as they knew the bigger challenge lay ahead.

Day Three:

The group slept well after their full day of paddling and were quickly back on the water after a nutritious camp cooked breakfast. Soon they reached the formidable challenge of Loch Ness. Loch Ness is so large that they had another challenge to contend with. Overnight the wind direction had changed so now was blowing towards them, whipping up the surface of the loch into waves that provided an obstacle to progress. If any of the canoes got side on to an oncoming wave it could have led to capsize which, in the cold waters of Loch Ness would have risked hypothermia unless the team acted quickly and put their training into practice. Any stopping on the water meant the team drifted back down the Loch. 

The team had to paddle hard, dig deep for reserves of energy and stay focussed on the task. They were not making the progress they wanted. Spirits sank as the enormity of the challenge became real. They were tired, hungry and team dynamics began to tear apart with some murmurings of giving up. They paddled to the side of the Loch to consider their options. There was not much light daylight left and they were still several kilometres away from their planned campsite (which promised a warm shower and comfortable facilities). They had choices to make. They could try to power on, but had little energy left. They could wild camp where they were on the banks and try to make up the lost time tomorrow. This was not what they wanted. 

Conditions on the water were getting worse and the safety team made up of three experienced paddlers, who up until now had followed at a distance were now on their tail to keep them safe. They decided to cook up their evening meal there on the bankside. This proved decisive. After a long break and hot meal energy levels rose, and the group’s resilience too. The wind and waves seemed to have abated slightly. It was now or never. They got back into their canoes, put their head torches on in case the light failed completely and paddled with more fervour and purpose than ever. They kept going in the face of adversity and soon the campsite became visible on the bank. This gave the team the final push they needed. 

After an exhausting 11 hours on the water they landed their canoes at the campsite in Foyers, halfway along the Loch. They set up camp, and after a refreshing shower they went to bed. Despite their elation at reaching the campsite they knew they still had another day ahead of them, knew they were only halfway along the Loch and knew that if the wind did not change direction then they were in for another mammoth paddle. The weather was to blame for their difficulties, but that did not stop the team from imagining this was the work of the famed monster of which, incidentally, there had been no sighting.

Day Four:

Overnight a miracle happened. The wind reversed direction, and when the team popped their heads out of the tent to assess the water conditions they soon realised their worst fears had not materialised. With the wind behind them, they were in for an easier time. The sun also appeared and the Loch loomed large, although the end of the Loch was still well out of sight.

They soon packed their kit up and got back on the water. Spirits were high; if they made it to the end of the day they would complete the expedition requirements of the DofE. With the wind in their favour the group made steady progress, paddling faster than they had planned. They also were able to use their makeshift sails, made up of tarps wrapped sound the end of the paddles. True teamwork came into play here as the team rafted their boats together; some held sails whilst others used their paddles to act as rudders to keep the craft under control.

The end of the Loch, at Dores, appeared and soon they were back in the relative serenity of the Caledonian Canal. They had reached their planned end point for the day in the middle of the afternoon. The end of the entire Great Glen Canoe Trail was only a few kilometres beyond this point and was originally planned as a half day paddle for the final day but with spirits high they chose to continue. They reached the end of the Great Gen Canoe Trail, in Inverness, at the end of another mammoth day on the water. They had successfully paddled the whole width of Scotland.

Conclusion

The team achieved many things. Obviously they were able to complete one of the country’s most challenging canoe expeditions. But more importantly the group overcame tiredness, overcame adversity and really learnt what it takes to succeed when conditions become challenging. What helped them was the canoeing skills they had learnt, but also the principles of the CCF that had been imbued in them over the previous three years: not giving up, being self-reliant and stepping up to leadership when required. The team are already planning their Gold expedition. Worryingly for the Officers, they seem keen to tackle some of the waters in Canada in a couple of summer’s time.