Monday, 11 November 2019

From cold to gold on Loch Gairloch

When a few days of very good weather coincided with the height of the autumnal colours and some planned leave from work, it was much too good to miss!

With a firm forecast for settled conditions starting three days ahead, Allan, Lorna and I looked at where we might go.  We discussed various options and settled on two days of paddling, one on the sea at Gairloch and one on fresh water at Loch Maree.  The nights are fairly long in the north of Scotland in the last week of October, and the forecast was for particularly low temperatures overnight.  As we weren't doing a continuous journey it seemed a good idea to use a commercial campsite in the area to allow hot showers and the chance of evening meals in a point in suffering unnecessarily!

We had a journey of about four hours from home in Aberdeenshire across the country then north to Wester Ross, so decided to travel on the day before the settled conditions established.  The further north west we travelled, the more unsettled the weather became; the iconic Slioch was playing hide-and-seek through veils of snow showers and it was clear that there had been a good deal of wet weather in the preceding days.

Arriving in the village of Gairloch, we booked in at the camp site at Strath in a very heavy shower of cold rain.  In the hope that it would "soon pass through" we adjourned to the nearby Mountain Coffee shop for a hot drink.  The rain slackened rather than passed through and we got our tents up and kit stowed without getting too wet.

Once sorted out we headed off to walk around to the "other" part of Gairloch - which consists of Strath on the north side of the loch and Charlestown towards the head of the bay.  We were nicely warmed up by our 3km walk (for which you need a head torch after dark, part of the road is unlit) to the Old Inn at Charlestown.  I've eaten here before and persuaded Allan and Lorna it was worth the walk.   Despite the fact that the Inn was closing a for the season a few days later there was a full menu of great home cooked food available, along with a selection of craft beers.  The walk back kept us warm and we turned in early before we got chilled down back at the camp site.

Our tents had been wet from the evening rain, but we woke to quite different conditions with frozen tents from a sharp overnight frost.  The early morning was undeniably chilly but we soon got going and warmed up.

The morning sun takes a wee while to rise above the mountains to the southeast of Gairloch, but when it did things started to warm up quickly.  We were staying at the Gairloch Caravan and Camping Site - a place I've used regularly through the years.  The new owners have invested in brand new toilet and shower blocks which are immaculately clean and centrally heated, and the old shower block has been turned into a "shelter" for campers.  Recognising that lightweight camping in Scotland's north west can have some unpredictable conditions at times, this shelter is a basic building with a picnic bench inside, plus a microwave, fridge-freezer and a kettle.  It sounds simple, but what a difference it made to be able to boil a kettle for breakfast and to fill flasks rather than firing up cold gas stoves on the ground.  In very wet and/or midgy conditions the shelter will be a real haven.  Every camp site should have something like this!

As the sun began to come up, pale golden light streamed around the skyline formed by Beinn an Eoin on the left and Baos Bheinn on the right, the two highest hills in the Flowerdale Forest.  It looked like it was going to be a golden day!

We decided to launch from the slipway at Strath and moved the boats the short distance from the campsite.  This morning was Spring tides and at about half tide the lowest part of the slipway is exposed.  Two locals warned us that it was lethally slippery, there have been two recent accidents resulting in serious broken bone injuries here.  We tried the lower part and none of us was prepared to carry a boat below a line of dark green weed.  Instead, we lifted the boats off the slipway and onto the rocky shore - still slippery but with some angles to work with.  We'd recommend launching from the shore a couple of hundred metres to the east of the slipway. 

In absolutely perfect conditions, we set out into the calm waters of Loch Gairloch (one of several tautological names for lochs - Gairloch translates as Short Loch).  Paddling seemed effortless, the boats sliding through crystal clear water over a sandy seabed.

Image: Lorna McCourt

Our pace started slow and soon slowed further - this was no day to rush.  Lorna caught this image of my boat's bow reflecting with absolute clarity on the surface of the sea.

At times the reflections were startlingly clear, the brain having to consciously process what the eyes were seeing.  Conditions like this are not at all common - when they do happen it's a marvelous experience to be out on the water.

We paddled around the back of  Eilean Horrisdale, enjoying the contrast of golden aspens and russet bracken reflecting on the water, topped with a flawless blue sky.

Continuing west towards the open sea, the beach at Port Henderson offered a first luncheon (or was it second breakfast?!) stop on the reddish-brown sand so typical of this area of Torridonian Sandstone.  What a day it was to be out and about!

Saturday, 9 November 2019

In Remembrance

In remembrance of all those men and women who have given their lives in the service of their countries, those who still suffer the physical and mental scars of the conflicts in which they served; and those who are left with loss and grief

"At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them"

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Powered up on Loch Ericht

After our hillwalking diversion we had a cup of tea on the shore before getting back on the water to complete our return leg up Loch Ericht to Dalwhinnie. Near to Corrievarkie is the turbine house for a hydro-electric power scheme.  This station produces 2.2MW of power and is fed from Loch Garry in the hills to the east of Loch Ericht.  There's a 55 metre height difference between the lochs which gives the "head" for the water.  This scheme is part of the larger and widespread Tummel hydro network.

A following breeze was very welcome and we hoisted our sails to get some assistance on the long run back up to Dalwhinnie.

Keeping to the eastern side of the loch, we got a good view of Ben Alder Lodge in its grand wooded setting below hillsides already touched by the blonde shades of autumn.  The stalking season would get into full swing a few days after our visit and there was plenty of activity on the estate road leading down the west shore from Dalwhinnie.

Not long after this image was taken the serene, pleasant paddle-sailing ended.  At a slight twist in the loch the wind began to blow in mighty gusts which were rolling down from the steep slopes to our right (east) side.  We assessed later that these might have been turbulent rolls of wind rushing downslope from the steady easterly flow over the high ground but whatever the cause, the effect was very dramatic.

Before we could drop our sails the wind caught our boats with considerable violence.  I was driven downwind at a terrific rate and had real concern about the sail and mast being torn from the hull of my boat.  For a few moments I had little or no control over either direction or speed and just hung on, bracing hard on the paddle with a rooster tail of spray tailing back from the submerged blade.  I glanced up at the top of my mast and wished that I hadn't, the whole thing was being forced into an arc by the pressure of wind.  As soon as it had started the gust subsided and we dropped our sails hastily.  Checking my GPS later, it had briefly recorded a speed of 15Km/h during this gust.

We continued to experience these gusts until near the top of the loch when the wind simply poured out of a valley, hammering across the loch and making for quite challenging conditions as it blew from the starboard quarter at a solid F6 for some ten minutes.  Then, as soon as we were out of the firing line of the valley, the wind subsided again to almost nothing.  Paddling on Loch Ericht needs careful planning, the orientation of the loch catches the prevailing wind but even in light crosswinds the topography will give tricky conditions at times, with the area between Ben Alder Bay and Corrievarkie seemingly a real wind tunnel.

As we approached the dam which holds the northern end of Loch Ericht our return was marked by the noise of traffic from the nearby A9 trunk road and the slightly strange sight of a Scotrail train belting north towards Inverness.

We pulled into the bay near the inflow of the aqueduct which brings water from Loch Cuaich on the other side of the road and railway.  The water in Loch Ericht is used in it's turn to feed the hydro electric power station on Loch Rannoch, and thence to Tummel in an interconnected hydro scheme.

Our paddle and hillwalking trip had been short in time, but we'd done quite a bit.  In a little over 24 hours we'd covered 47km/29 miles of paddling and done a 10Km hillwalk with around 550 metres of ascent.  Allan remarked wryly that I'd managed to plan three days of a trip into one overnight journey!

Monday, 28 October 2019

A small diversion from Loch Ericht

Allan and I were up and about early after a comfortable night at Ben Alder Cottage bothy...and as expected the only sounds of footsteps and activity through the night were of the mouse, and not the ghost variety.  We emerged into a gloriously bright morning...

...and soon after breakfast had our boats packed and ready to go.  Both boats were somewhat lighter as we'd brought in firewood for the evening, some of which was left for the next occupants.  One small advantage of fresh water paddling is that boats don't need to be lifted above a high tide mark, so there's less distance to carry them back to the water...though this isn't always the case....

As we paddled out of Ben Alder bay we got a great view back up the loch.  There was hardly any breeze and our paddling seemed effortless; a nice contrast to the effort we'd had to put in the previous afternoon.

The first leg of our return journey along Loch Ericht took us across the loch and up the eastern shore to land in a bay north of Corrievarkie Lodge; another of the Ben Alder estate properties.  As we passed a fairly narrow part of the loch the breeze got up considerably; something we'd note for later in the day. We changed into walking boots for a short diversion; first steeply up an estate road to a bealach, then a turn to the west ups very steep ground.  It was a bit of a steep slog, but we think worth it....

...for the stunning view up the length of Loch Ericht.  There's no enhancement in this image, the water was really this vividly blue in the crystal clear air (which we were sampling at a copious rate having climbed 500 metres in one steep lift!).

When we arrived at the summit of Stob an Aoinach Mhoir - at 855m/2805ft one of the "Corbetts" the views just kept coming.

Back down the loch into Perthshire, with the entrance to Ben Alder Bay on the right

And across the loch to Ben Alder itself - at 1148m/3766ft it's one of the highest hills around and visible from much of the central Highlands.  The nearest transverse ridge links Ben Alder's plateau to Beinn Bheoil - it makes a superb round and possibly all the better because it's a fair day's walk just to get to the base of these hills.

To the south east the skyline was silhouetted in the morning sunlight.  Schiehallion is prominent on the left - a pointy hill standing apart in a central Highlands view is pretty likely to be Schiehallion.

Instead of returning to the road, we took the north ridge off Stob an Aoinach Mhoir; appropriately the name is peak of the big ridge and kept to the crest to maintain the view for the longest time.   We reckon comparatively few people climb this Corbett via the loch route, the vast majority will use the estate road from Loch Rannoch.

The last steep decent was rough and at the base of the ridge there's dense forestry to negotiate, but it made for a good descent.  There's a good view down to Corrievarkie Lodge - our boats were in the bay near to the hydro station in the far right of this image.

It had been a very well worthwhile diversion from the paddling to climb the hill - the effort was more than well rewarded with the view - save the hill for a good day!

Thursday, 24 October 2019

A glow at the end of a long day on Loch Ericht

Loch Ericht has been on my list of places to kayak for some time. A 23Km/14.5 mile long fresh water loch, it  is rarely wider than a kilometre wide and forms a long slash across the highlands.  It follows the general NE-SW orientation of highland faults and deep lochs and is flanked by mountains on either side for most of its length.   I've walked the hills above the loch and backpacked along one side on a long through-route, but not yet paddled on it.

Due to the orientation of the loch, it inevitably forms a wind-tunnel in the prevailing SW'ly winds.  Several tenuous plans to kayak here over a period of years had been abandoned when the wind just wasn't suitable.  But, as September turned to October a period of very light winds was forecast for the central Highlands which coincided with Allan and I being able to get away.....time for another adventure!

We drove to the village of Dalwhinnie at the north east end of the loch.  There's space for a couple of carefully parked cars near to the railway underpass.  A trolley is very useful here as it's a few hundred metres to the water and there's a barrier across the private estate road.  We were soon on the water and underway on an absolutely idyllic morning.

An hour or so  down the loch and we pulled in to a tiny beach for coffee and first luncheon.  With warm sunshine and light winds it felt like summer.  Only occasional whispers of wind disturbed the loch surface and we noted several rising fish.  Loch Ericht is known for its population of Ferox Trout , a form of Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) which are piscivourous - fish feeding - rather than benthivorous - invertebrate feeding -like Brown Trout.  Ferox trout grow to prodigious sizes; up to 30lbs (14Kg) is not unknown.  Their prey may be Arctic Charr or Brown Trout in Loch Ericht, and they may or may not be genetically different from Brown Trout populations in the same loch, a fascinating species of fish.

While we lazed in the sun we saw a Dipper working along the side of the loch towards us.  I associate Dippers with fast flowing rivers and burns; they're common on the River Don near to my home.  Here though, the bird was swimming along in shallow water before diving under to search for invertebrates in slightly deeper water.  It was completely oblivious to our presence until one of us moved; it then gave a splendid double-take before scolding us and flying straight across the loch.

The Ben Alder estate has some very fine buildings on it; this is one of the smallest, the gate lodge on the estate road along the north shore of the loch, which can be rented and sleeps 8 in some splendour.....

....but that's quite bijou compared to the rather magnificent Ben Alder Lodge!  The "big house" for the estate is really quite something and even has a nearby full-sized church.

Past Ben Alder Lodge the view from the loch on the north side opens out briefly to give a great view to Ben Alder and Bheinn Bheoil (on the left) and Sgor Iutharn on the right, with its superb Lancet Edge seen head-on.  On the two occasions I've climbed these hills I've had great winter conditions, hard packed snow high up; they give superlative mountain days.

Across the loch the steep flank of the Corbett Stob an Aonaich Mhoir (peak of the big ridge) plunges directly into the loch, so steeply that there's hardly a shoreline.  There was a great image here somewhere but I failed to get the composition as I'd have liked.

Just past Ben Alder Lodge we'd experienced a very strong headwind; so pressing that we'd got off the water to see if it would subside as we weren't making much headway.  Winds were generally light so this was probably a local effect with some funneling and perhaps a bit of a thermal effect.  Once it dropped we got back on the water - the last few kilometres were a bit of a slog!

Eventually though we tuned a corner into a bay containing our destination for the night, Ben Alder Cottage.  A bothy maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, it was a welcome sight.  I hadn't stayed here for several years but had good memories of a dry and comfortable place - particularly given I'd arrived in a heavy snowstorm which was followed by a thaw and a roaring flood.

The MBA plaque on a door in remote country is one of the most welcome sights there is, especially when tired!

We got ourselves installed and unpacked.  A party of mountain bikers and a solo walker were camped outside but joined us in the bothy to share some of the spartan comfort of the place.  There is an old story about this bothy being haunted by the ghost of a former resident, a gamekeeper called McCook who hanged himself behind the door.  Great tale as it is, McCook died in his own bed in Newtonmore in 1933 and the tales are, well, just that - the true story is  told on Trevor Hipkin's blog here .

Well after the sun set the glow in the western sky was gorgeous, silhouetting the hills in cold steel-blue and graduating the sky from gold to pink to palest blue - a great sunset.

Back indoors we created our own glow with a fire in the bothy's stove.  We'd brought logs and offcuts of whisky barrel staves in our boats, much to the delight of the mountain bikers who'd travelled in light.  A dinner of venison casserole followed by stewed apples with clotted cream and accompanied by a dram soon gave an inner glow to match that of the fire.  It had been a long day of paddling and the next day would be an even bigger one....we weren't up late.