I have always thought the waters of Loch Maree are one of those few places in Scotland that can only be described by one word: elemental. As if they came fresh from the forging of the world. Pure. Tempestuous. Wild.
The long nose of the kayak rode up on a wave and slapped down hard, splashing water into the air. The wind snatched the spray and slapped me in the face with it, catching me in the eyes. Stung, I shook my head and blinked, but I couldn’t raise a hand to my eyes. I couldn’t stop paddling; not even for a moment. Instead I dug in again, keeping to the rhythm, keeping the boat moving forward. I was alone on the water in the storm, fighting through the headwind. As my eyes cleared once again I looked up through the spray. I could see I still had a long way to go before I reached the shore.
Two days previously I paddled In. That’s In with a captial ‘I’. It’s the only way to mark with words the significance of that passage across the water. The water itself was binary in colour that day. Black and white, it was like paddling across a million rolling yin-yangs. The red nose of the boat buffeted in waves and breeze as I threaded it between islands of wood and stone.
God how I needed this. I needed this nature, this solitude, this escape. Mere days since we were released from the first lockdown. Mere days since being told of my redundancy. A job of five years in a company I loved, vanished. Gone like a rock beneath the water. So here I was, giving myself to this place. Full of trepidation and doubt, yes. But giving myself to a place where I don’t have to be anything. It is enough simply to be.
It was cold in the dark, and the night was long. So very long. Outside the stars were wheeling, and crystals of ice were growing on the wood of my paddle and the hull of the canoe. No doubt beautiful, but in the darkness of the tent I hunched around the diminishing heat of the hot water bottle, desperately wishing for the night to end. I’m not sleeping. I’m just trying to outlast my own fear.
How do I tell this part of my story? The truth is scary, but I do not wish to be reductive. Mental illness. There you have it. Biting anxiety that needs to be confronted. Some fears that I can rationalise, others I can not. I am here to let them get me. I choose to do that. I put myself in this place where I can not escape them, because the only way to reach the other side is to keep on going through the dark, and through the fear.
Risking an escape of heat I found my phone and checked the time. I saw that sunset was more than 6 hours ago. But there were still more than 6 hours of darkness left. Outside, the water of the loch was turning to ice.
I put my head in the sleeping bag again, and told myself not for the first time that after tomorrow I wouldn’t remember the fear and panic. I’d just remember the good parts. And that if I could do this then there was no doubt I’d beat this illness. I didn’t know it at that point, but on both points I was right.
The water was like silver silk as I pushed off from Slattadale, but it danced and rippled in the quiet hiss of the rain. A ray of gold flowed in from a breach in the clouds that held back the sunlight, and the water scattered it through the raindrops like a thousand tiny pearls. Every silent stroke of my paddle was like a sigh of satisfaction as the boat cruised forward, drawing a wake like an opening zipper.
The rain was warm on my skin, and it made my heart sing to be in this place again. To be here, touching this water, touching the beloved loch. Seeing Slioch again in the distance as a grey silhouette. It stood like a cloaked figure, with head bowed but arms wide in a welcoming embrace. Hello old friend.
The marker-black shapes of the islands grew nearer and brighter as I approached. I found that deep familiarity with their shapes made them no less tantalising. A floating forest full of secrets and mystery. Every time I come back they still have something new to show me.
Loch Maree’s beauty is obvious, but it goes way deeper than the surface. Even so, the place makes me work hard to find it. It asks me to prove my devotion every single time, and earn my rewards. And then it doubles them by reminding me that the efforts were also rewards in themselves.
The canoe slips along a familiar path through the water. I pass beaches where I have slept, where I have shivered and worried through the darkness, or dozed in the heat. I cross stretches of open water where I have sailed in lazy tailwinds and battled ferocious headwinds. Close by the shore I pass beneath branches that have been frames to old photos. Always I head towards Slioch – and see it in snow, in mist, and the red glow of a summer evening. I am coming home.
Vapours of mist drifted between the islands in the early morning. Jamie and I paddled our canoes for more than an hour in the pre dawn light, slipping across the water effortlessly and silently. Feeling, through the wood of our paddles, the weight and stillness of the world reaching out all around us.
Even though the sun was risen, and we had watched the alpen glow wash down the distant hills, still it seemed that the magic of twilight was just going on and on and on. The clouds above Slioch and the hills of Fisherfield kept a lid on the moment. The mist continued to drift and rise, the trees stood in shadow. It was not until well over an hour past dawn that the first light began to reach us. The clouds began to open very slightly at their edges, but just enough for the light to pour out and down among us. Like the quiet waters on which we floated, the light was relaxed and tensionless; ready at a moment’s notice to flow.
For a matter of seconds, a ray of sun broke through the clouds, swept across us, over the woods and was gone. Bare seconds in which to create. But happily, like the water and the light, I was relaxed, tensionless, and ready to flow at a moment’s notice.
I can feel the power in the wind as it catches in my sail. The canoe races forward, flying like a bird over the blue water. The sun glitters in every wave and droplet of spray, and I laugh with the sheer mad joy of living. Racing about on the loch in an open boat before most people have even had their breakfast.
I cannot help but keep looking over my shoulder at Slioch, watching the last tendrils of the morning mist drape themselves across the shoulder of the mountain. Feeling the toss of every wave. The loch and the mountain are as alive as I am today. I do not want this journey to end. I want to go on sailing my canoe across the loch for hour after hour. This ecstasy is the ultimate gift of the wild.
But all things end. All things. This too shall pass. As the canoe bumps against the shore once again I take a moment to dip my hands in the loch once more, just to touch it. Who knows when I’ll be coming back? Who knows? I can’t say, but I do know that part of me will never leave.