Friday, November 7, 2014

Day 9: The Great Glen Way

This marks the start of the Great Glen Way.
Sept 16: I woke, broke down camp and was moving by 7:15 in the morning. That's generally a bit early for me since it's not light enough to get good photos, but I still had to walk to the start of the Great Glen Way which is where my photos would begin. And rather than eating the same cereal every morning, I decided to stop at McDonalds for breakfast. I had it under good authority that it was located practically across the street from where the trail started! (Saw it myself when I looked for the start of the trail the evening before.) I figured by the time I walked there and ate breakfast, it would be light enough to start hiking and taking photos.

Besides stopping to eat breakfast at McDonalds, I also filled up with water and used the restrooms. Because, hey, it was there! And by 7:45, it was light enough to start taking photos and it was time to get moving for real....

I walked the minute or two to the start of the Great Glen Way. I took some more photos at the start. Technically, I already had some photos, but many of them were a bit blurry since I had taken them so late in the evening the night before. I could do a better job of them now that the sun was up.

The trail follows the River Lochy upstream a short ways, then crosses a small pedestrian-only bridge before heading back to the shoreline of the loch Fort William sits on. Where the trail meets up with the Caledonian Canal, it does a sharp, hairpin turn where it nearly backtracks on the same path I came out on. It's like switchbacks, but on flat ground! It's a meandering route and certainly not the shortest way out the other side of town. From the start of the trail to the far end of town where the trail heads back into the country, it's a few miles of walking.

The walking, however, was generally pleasant and easy. Views along the water were magnificent, Ben Nevis towered over the town and strange and wonderful artwork dotted the route.

The Caledonian Canal is an engineering marvel. I'd never heard of it until I started planning this hike, but it stretches from Fort William to Inverness and allows boats to travel from coast to coast through Scotland. Okay, technically, the end of the canal is at Corpach, but that's essentially a suburb of Fort William, so I tend to say Fort William since it's bigger and better known. But yes, I know the canal technically ends at Corpach! =)

Since McDonalds was almost literally on the trail, at the very beginning of the trail, I stopped here for breakfast.

But I digress... (it won't be the last time either!) One-third of the length of the entire canal is man-made--a narrow channel of water dug out by men in the early 1800s. The other two-thirds of the canal are natural lakes, or lochs as they prefer to call them in Scotland. Loch Lochy (which strikes me as a strange name--kind of like if we called a lake in the United States "Lake Lakey"), which links to Loch Oich. Loch Oich is the highest point of the canal at 106 feet (32m) above sea level.

Then Loch Oich links to the famed Loch Ness--of Loch Ness monster fame. Loch Ness stretches nearly half the distance between Inverness and Fort William. And the man-made canals connect each of the lakes together like a string of pearls.

Between each of the lochs are actual locks that raise and lower the boats as needed. They may not be huge locks befitting of maritime shipping like the Panama Canal, but they're still fun to watch. They're also big tourist attractions in the area, much to my annoyance at times... but I'm getting ahead of the story. =)

In any case, this area is also called the Great Glen, and the trail that runs through it is therefore the Great Glen Way, which more-or-less follows the shoreline of the Caledonian Canal. For people who prefer canoeing or kayaking, there's a sister route called the Great Glen Canoe Trail which allows you to paddle between Fort William and Inverness. I didn't have a boat handy, however, so I'd be walking along the shore instead.

Walking along the River Lochy.

The walking route heads to the first locks of the Caledonian Canal, then starts following the canal upstream where it passes Neptune's Staircase--a series of eight locks built between 1803 and 1822. It's the longest staircase lock in Britain. I'd seen it on postcards in town and it's impressive. I was a little disappointed, however, when I realized the view was somewhat less impressive on foot. The staircase is so flat and level, it's hard to see more than two or three of the locks at the same time. You know there are others, just out of view, but there's nowhere to get high enough to see them all at once. I was a little frustrated that I couldn't get any photos that clearly showed all eight locks at once as a giant staircase.

When I arrived, a sailboat from North Carolina was just entering the locks. I decided not to stay and watch its progression up the staircase, though. It usually takes a boat about 90 minutes to reach the top of the staircase and I didn't have that much time to waste.

One of my concerns at this point was time. Amanda had a layover in Glasgow on the 19th-20th, and if I could finish the trail and meet her in Glasgow in time, I'd have a free hotel to stay in on the 19th and could have Amanda service me on the flight home. If you ever have the opportunity to have Amanda service you on a plane, you should always take it! ;o)

So I really wanted to finish the trail by the 19th, in time to take a train to Glasgow. Which gave me exactly four days to do the 80-or-so mile trail. If it was as easy as the West Highland Way, I didn't think 20 miles per day was out of the question, but it didn't leave me with a lot of time to sit around and ponder the meaning of life either! I had hoped to get in five more miles the day before, but my adventures on Ben Nevis took a lot longer than I anticipated and now I already felt like I was five miles behind schedule.

I found this grocery cart on the trail and thought, "HEY! I could USE that to push my pack!" Just kidding... what I really thought when I saw the grocery cart was, "PHOTO OP!!!!" =)
It was a beautiful morning!

The Great Glen Way was even easier than the West Highland Way, though. Once I passed Neptune's Staircase, it followed alongside a man-made canal. Completely flat. Utterly boring as well. Each side of the canal was lined with trees which blocked views of the mountains in the area. Even Ben Nevis could rarely break through the wall of trees. Walking along the shoreline of the canal might seem nice, but the canal was about the width of a four-lane highway and pretty much looked like one except the road was made of water instead of asphalt. So completely sterile of anything remotely interesting.

The miles clicked off quickly, and late in the morning I reached Gairlochy Locks which took boats from the canal level up to Loch Lochy. The trail crossed the locks themselves--locks were the primary way for pedestrians to cross the canal.

I thought the views would improve once I started following the shores of Loch Lochy. These weren't man-made sterile bodies of water and the views were wide and far reaching. The mountains in the distance towered overhead.

Unfortunately, the trail soon headed into the woods near the shore of Loch Lochy, but not on the shoreline for most of the route. It was frustrating getting peaks at the lake through the trees, knowing that better views were so close and the trail rarely going down to them. The views that I did get were wonderful, but they were far too few for my taste.

All day long I saw military craft buzzing northeast over Loch Locky. Only in the one direction, though, and never circling back. I saw fighter jets, and bombers--some of them looked like old WWII bombers even--and helicopters. I must have seen a dozen helicopters flying by over the course of a couple of hours. Where did they all come from? Where were they all going?! I wanted to get photos of them all, but it was a frustrating experience since most of the time I could hear the planes, but the trees along the trail blocked clear views of them. Not to mention that the planes in particular flew by so darned fast they were hard to get photos of even when I was at a break in the trees.

A railroad bridge across the River Lochy.

Today just felt like a day of frustration. Nothing really important, though, just small annoyances. The lack of views, the difficulty of getting photos of the locks, planes and helicopters. Argh!

Then I reached some composting toilets on the trail. Wonderful! Except that the doors were locked. Not locked as if the toilets were closed, because they weren't. You just needed a key to use them, and I didn't have a key. And it wasn't just any old key either. No, these used keycards like a fancy motel would have. I'd never seen such fancy locks on composting toilets in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere! Seriously? A previous hiker and written graffiti covering the entire door of one stall saying, "Walking whole Great Glen Way to find a closed toilet!!! I need to take a huge dump!"

I knew how the poor fellow felt. *nodding* It was another petty annoyance.

The one nice surprise along this route, however, was a plethora of interesting information about WWII training that happened on the shores of Loch Lochy, and much of it was described in large, detailed informational signs along the route. I'll write more about those in the photos....

The small town of Laggan marked the end of Loch Lochy and the start of the next man-made canal walk, but this canal was considerably shorter than the last one and only lasted a mile or so before reaching Loch Oich. Another set of lochs raised boats from Loch Lochy to the canal level and allowed pedestrians (and Great Glen Way walkers) to cross back to the other side of the canal.

On the south side of Loch Oich, the trail followed an old, abandoned rail line. Once again, the large, expansive views I expected of Loch Oich were rare because of the trees surrounding the trail. I followed near the shore, with occasional peeks of the lake through the trees, but the views were largely lacking. The one nice thing about following the old railroad was being able to see some of the old bridges and other structures that had been built to support it. (But still, I would have preferred more views of Loch Oich!)

Near sunset, I finally came to a stop along the shore of Loch Oich. If I couldn't enjoy the loch while hiking, at least I could set up camp with a nice view of it--and a splendid view it was!

When I figured out the mileage I had covered for the day, I was pleased to realize that I had hiked just over 26 miles. I was hoping to get at least 20 miles. Maybe 22 if I was lucky. I was more than pleased to find I had blown through a whopping 26 miles. This was exactly where I wanted to be, so I could do 20-mile days for the next two days and a short 15-mile day to Inverness with time to take a train into Glasgow. I fell behind due to Ben Nevis, but I made up for it today.

The River Lochy.

I'm doing well if I can hit 5 mph! =)
Ben Nevis looms over Fort William.
This home owner appears to be in favor of Scottish independence. *nodding*
Yes, definitely in favor. *nodding* Looks like they ran out of posters before they ran out of fencing, though.

This ship doesn't look like it's gone anywhere for a long time....
A weir along the Caledonian Canal.
The Great Glen Way makes a sharp, hairpin turn then goes over the top of the same weir! That bridge above the weir in the previous photo is where I took this photo, and the previous photo was taken by the bridge that crosses the water on the right side of this image. Both are part of the Great Glen Way!
Ben Nevis looms over Fort William. (Okay, technically over Corpach in this photo, but it does loom over Fort William too!)
I liked the plants growing in this old post. So sue me! =)
A boat from North Carolina is heading into the first lock at Neptune's Staircase. (The bridge on the left is a swing bridge, currently open for the boat to get through. It's usually closed (for boats) so vehicular traffic can cross the canal.
One of the eight locks that make up Neptune's Staircase. You can see some of the railing of a couple of the locks behind it where people can cross, but it kind of blends in with the railing from this lock and loses a lot of the "staircase" look from the ground level.
The canal walk was utterly boring. Same view for miles and miles!

I had to get off the Great Glen Way to take this photo of an aqueduct running beneath the canal. The canal trail (and Great Glen Way) runs over the top of these tunnels.

One of the few places where I could see some of the surrounding mountains! This post is a typical marker for the Great Glen Way. (Except there's no arrow because the trail goes straight here.)
The Moy Swing Bridge is only for access to the fields of Moy Farm and is only available to the farmer to use. When it does need to be closed, the lock-keeper has to turn a capstan by hand to open one-half of the bridge, then use a boat to cross the other side to turn a second capstan by hand to open the other side of the bridge. Then reverse the process to open the canal for boats again! Can't be the most efficient swing bridge in the world, but I don't think it gets used very often which is why it's probably left open most of the time for boats (which are much more common).
A bird on a fence is better than two overhead! =)

Loch Lochy
Sometimes, discarded machinery was the most interesting thing to see along the trail!
Loch Lochy
Enjoy the views while you can, because the trail doesn't stay on the shoreline for very long before heading back into the trees!
A plaque describes this structure: Between 1942 and 1945, this area became arduous training grounds for over 25,000 Commandos. Before using floating boats, recruits practiced their embarking and disembarking drills on purpose built land-based craft.  This concrete structure stands as the remains of an original practice landing craft. Commando recruits were trained under live fire; and on this very craft towards further boat practice and operational service.
You know I'm desperate for photos when I have to start looking underneath mushrooms to find something I think looks interesting. =)
Another nearby historical sign described this tranquil scene as it would have looked during WWII: The trainees were loaded into boats, they then rowed across the waters of Loch Lochy, and carried out a mock attack against a heavily defended section of shore. It may have been a mock attack but was certainly not a mock defense. The attack route was carefully planned and determined. Any deviation from it would put the trainees in grave danger. They were confronted by an arsenal of weapons manned by an army of instructors skilled to shoot but not to miss by very much. There was no blank ammunition used. The weapons of defense, from the mortars to the rifles, spat out live stuff—and spat it out in vast quantities.
Rooster hiking the Great Glen Way!
Much of the trail along Loch Lochy was like this, surrounded with trees on both sides. (This was actually one of the more open areas, though, where the trees didn't provide a canopy above!)

This ground looked particularly lush and green, but in a soft and fluffy sort of way.
Because it was a giant carpet of clovers! All of the ones I saw were three-leaf clovers, but I bet you could find some four-leaf clovers if you looked diligently! =)

This staircase off the Great Glen Way amused me because it didn't appear to lead to anything except a dead end! =) (It's also the kind of thick forest that blocked views along most of this stretch of trail.)
One of a dozen or more military helicopters (presumably) I saw flying in my direction along the length of Loch Lochy. They may not be training soldiers for D-Day anymore, but there's definitely some sort of military presence still in the area!
I barely caught this fighter jet in a break in the trees before it disappeared from view again. (It was one of many I saw and heard, but always flying in the same direction.)
If you've never seen a composting toilet with a state-of-the-art lock on it, you have now! =)

A fungi family!
The sheep are always watching....
Approaching the Laggan Locks.
I can't believe I'm missing Quiz Night, but alas, I am! =(
This body of water is actually called "Ceann Loch," but it's really more of a small bay within the larger Loch Lochy.
Once again, the Great Glen Way crossed the Caledonian Cancel, this time over Laggan Lock.

Bzz! Bzzz!

This sign made me laugh. What are thieves going to steal from a long-abandoned rail line?!
Maybe they'll steal this small length of railroad? I suspect this rail was recently installed because they want to turn this area in to a railroad museum and have plans to install an engine or train car on this segment. But for now, there's only a railroad maybe 100 feet long at the platform of where an old train station used to be.
I found a place to set up camp next to Loch Oich. (Hey, Karolina! That's your emergency blanket I'm using as a groundsheet!)


Anonymous said...

Your bird on a fence looks like a Robin, according to my Green Guide.

Unknown said...

Is that how the Scotish spell will?

Ryan said...

It took me the longest time to figure out what you were talking about--I didn't realize that "will" was spelled different on that sign! So far as I know, though, it's just a spelling error. I'm pretty sure they spell it the same way we do!

Karolina said...

Caledonian Canal resembles to me canals of the Netherlands. I wish I could paddle the Great Glen Way... Hey, great campsite! You're welcome for the safety blanket =). I hope you slept well on it! =)