Friday, 30 January 2015
In the bleak midwinter - the icy factor
As we moved deeper into the mountains along the narrow Loch Leven the wind died to nothing. Paddling seemed effortless, the boats gliding through the quiet water. During this paddle we saw a total of five Otters, including one near this spot contentedly munching on a fish on the shore.
We'd chosen to do a short paddle against a 5 knot tidal stream at our starting point partially to arrive at the other very narrow part of Loch Leven, Caolasnacon (dog narrows) at nearly slack water. The south-west entrance is marked by a wooden "perch", now delapidated but which would have been an important navigational mark for the small vessels making their way to the aluminium smelter at Kinlochleven.
The narrows are less than a kilometre long but quite a bit of water has to pass each way as the tide moves in and out of the upper loch; the tidal stream reaches 5 knots/10 kmh. We knew from previous visits that we could use eddies on the north side to work back against the lesser speeds we anticipated.
Most of the upper loch sees no sun for months during the winter as it is bounded by the high ridge of the Aonach Eagach (notched ridge) to the south. On this short January afternoon the sun was already past its zenith but provided a spectacular "glory" blazed into a lovely blue sky. My image doesn't really capture the effect, but Douglas has got it perfectly exposed in his photograph here
Looking back down toward the mouth of the loch it's intruiging that here, in the heart of mountain scenery and up to sixty kilometres from open sea we were paddling on salt water with a strong tidal flow. We felt truly lucky to be experiencing such a great day; the "horse tails" of high cirrus clouds indicated a change to come.
Our own change was happening right in front of us.....
...up until now it had been merely cold; in upper Loch Leven it was truly freezing. From the outset every splash of water on the boats had been freezing, but this ice had been easy to clear. Up here the sea itself was freezing and any splash or drip from our paddles instantly froze to a hard, clear ice covering.
The banks were covered with silvered plates of ice formed as the tide dropped and the surface of the water had first a thin, then a thicker covering of continuous ice.
We had intended to beach the boats on the gravel flats at the head of the loch where a freshwater river was keeping the water open and walk up to The Ice Factor for a coffee. As we approached the shore the temperature dropped even further and a shrivelling wind started up, flowing down from the mountains above. This image is a bit hazy because the lens of my camera was beginning to freeze over....
All three of us are winter mountaineers and hillwalkers as well as sea kayakers - we're accustomed to cold conditions but this was really, really bitter. We decided on the briefest of comfort stops before getting straight back into the boats to retreat. We had our hands out of our pogies for probably less than five minutes, yet in that time both Douglas and I suffered some minor cold injuries to our fingers, Douglas got two numb fingertips whilst re-tying a deck rigging knot which took fully 24 hours to recover. I got similar damage between some of the bases of my fingers. Probably it was the stark change from hands being warm but a bit damp inside pogies to being exposed to the biting breeze, but it was a salutary reminder.
Frozen fingers and iced-up rigging probably wasn't the ideal scenario in which to put up a sail on a kayak for the first time, but the breeze did speed us away from the worst of the cold before dying less than a kilometre from the head of the loch.
We re-warmed by steady paddling, enjoying the reflections and reflecting on the cold we'd just experienced. Clearly this required a whole new scale of reference. Douglas came up with "zero dgrees K" - not Kelvin, but "Kinlochleven". It's the scale we'll use from now on and we are confident that we'll not often be in minus figures!
We passed back down through the Caolasnacon and later through the islands of the lower loch, leaving a visit to the graves there for another time. It was well after sunset when we arrived back at the ferry slipway, our paddle up against the flood far easier than our departure that morning.
It had been a truly great day's sea-kayaking in some remarkable conditions. Days like these, they stay with you forever....