Over a three-day period from 9 to 11 April, 28 seasoned highways professionals stepped way outside their comfort zones to battle the elements along the Great Glen Canoe trail across Scotland.
The journey took them coast to coast, starting at Fort William and then paddling the 60 miles across to Inverness, navigating some huge stretches of water including the infamous Loch Ness.
This charitable effort was made even more challenging by being attempted in just three days, against the usual five required to complete this epic journey, along with the fact that many of the party were first time canoeists.
A noble cause
The fundraiser was for the CLC’s chosen social value partner - OnSide Youth Zones, a national charity that is making a difference to the lives of thousands of young people across the UK.
OnSide operates purpose-built, state-of-the-art Youth Zone facilities in some of the most deprived areas of the UK, providing young people with 'somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to'.
These Youth Zones channel the boundless energy, ideas and initiatives of young people into positive outcomes, leading to huge reductions in crime and anti-social behaviour in the communities in which they are based, as well as a range of positive inputs to society.
OnSide has received significant recent publicity following the opening by HRH Prince Harry of its latest project, named 'Future' Youth Zone in Barking and Dagenham.
Facing the wild
Returning to the adventure, this saw participants stripped of the usual comforts and luxuries of everyday life.
The long days were spent paddling along the vast lochs and canals and the team were fortunate that in the main the weather was kind, particularly for this time of year, allowing them to take in the wonderful scenery.
At night the temperatures dropped below zero and this was extreme wild camping with only a tarpaulin and sleeping bag to keep them warm.
Day 1: A cold night passes
The chirpy crew loaded their canoes and after a safety briefing set off along the first stretch of canal, pausing only to undertake a stretch of porterage (carrying their canoes and supplies) through a series of man-made locks and a rest for lunch.
As Day 1 drew to a close the crew set up camp beside Loch Lochy and quickly assembled a bonfire where some old boy scout and girl guiding skills came into their own. Following the consumption of a hearty supper, the weary canoeists settled down for what proved a very cold and uncomfortable night in the wild.
Day 2: Big decisions, fast water and tall tales
Up and on the water by 8am, with some serious work ahead and a 20+ mile paddle to Fort Augustus – the start of Loch Ness.
The sun was shining and a morning paddle along lengths of the canal and Loch Oich proved pleasant, with the team making significant progress.
The group had been aware that a section of the canal was undergoing repair and as the afternoon approached a decision needed to be made – should the group paddle on along a stretch of the River Oich (and was it safe?) or should it walk the 8km to Fort Augustus and arrange for the canoes / supplies to be transported there?
The guides opted for the former and this became the first experience of white-water rapids for many of the party.
River Oich includes several sections of difficult rapids and with the water level low a number of rocks were exposed which needed to be navigated. Unfortunately, this led to several capsized canoes, leaving some of the party in the bitterly cold river along with their empty canoes and supply barrels.
Outstanding teamwork meant that warm and dry clothes were shared among the white water casualties and all supplies were recovered. Fortunately, nobody was injured, apart from their pride, along with the usual tales of woe and some dubious accounts of what happened - some of which will go down in folklore.
As Day 2 came to a close the team consumed a well-earned supper at 10.30pm as they camped in an open field at the mouth of Loch Ness.
Day 3 The final push
The sun rose and serene, peace and calm are only a few words to describe Loch Ness that morning with its surface of mirror glass. The team faced a gruelling 21-mile final push to Inverness and despite the events of the day before, were very much up for the challenge that lay ahead.
An enjoyable mornings paddle covering 11 miles then suddenly all changed as the weather worsened and a strong headwind meant that significant waves started to emerge, to replicate the form of the Loch Ness monster.
Undeterred the team paddled on but as the waves got higher the safety decision was taken and reluctantly the intrepid adventurers had to turn around. With the wind at their backs and the waves getting higher by the minute the team carefully navigated their way back to Fort Augustus. They arrived back safe and slightly disheartened with the weather having beaten them - they still completed the target of 60 miles, although not all in the same direction!
A fantastic event full of fond memories and new friendships built, but most importantly the fantastic sum of over £80,000 has currently been raised which will go towards the building of the new OnSide Youth Zone in Warrington.
If anyone would like to donate, please follow this link