Wednesday 29 April 2015

A push to the finish on Loch Ailort

When we left the beach at Ardnish we started on the last leg of our journey from Glenfinnan to Lochailort.  A fresh breeze from the southwest was welcome as we could utilise our sails to help push against the ebb tide pouring from Loch Ailort.

Our route took us past the bothy at Peanmeanach.....

...and on towards the narrow middle section of the loch.  The scenery is rugged and complex here, and dominated by the Corbett of Rois-Bheinn (sometimes Anglicized as "Roshven").

As the loch narrows there's a shallow section which forces the tide up and increases the rate of the stream and was kicking up into standing waves by the wind-against tide.

We managed to keep just clear of the main tidal stream while a few metres away the race charged past us. On the day of a solar eclipse, there was one of the biggest tides of the year and it seemed that the whole loch was emptying!  Even with the assistance of our sails it was a real push on this section.


We won clear of the race and passed through a group of small skerries.  According to the Tide Tables we'd reached low water but actually the ebb was still running, although with less force.

As a squally shower passed overhead there was a sudden increase in the wind which hurled us forward under sail, a couple of minutes of exhilarating speed......

.....before the wind died completely and the sun lit the slopes at the head of the loch.   A final couple of skerries and we reached the public slipway at Inverailort.

Our arrival point is just 17 kilometres from Glenfinnan by road, but we'd taken the long way round,  paddling down Loch Shiel and the River Shiel, out to the sea on Loch Moidart and then via the Sound of Arisaig to paddle the length of Loch Ailort.  Our route had been 65 kilometres and had taken in a wild camp on Loch Shiel and a night at the Glenuig Inn - and of course a solar eclipse!

The trip had one last surprise in store for us though.....

The extremely low Spring tide which coincide with the eclipse had left the end of the slipway over a metre above the water when we arrived!  There was nothing for it but to land the boats and between the three of us manhandle and lift each boat up onto the slipway.  We were grateful that our camping gear wasn't in them!

As we ran the shuttle to retrieve the second car we reflected on what had been a superb trip - and one we know that we'll repeat some day.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Return of the sun at Ardnish

After experiencing the solar eclipse from a vantage point on the Sound of Arisaig we headed for the entrance to Loch Ailort.  We had an interesting few minutes paddling against the ebb tide streaming out of the channel between Eilean na Gobhar and Eilean a'Chaolais. We were keen to push through because we knew that around the corner we'd find.......

......a pair of super little sandy beaches on the Ardnish shore which are exposed only below half tide.  There was no debate - it was time for first luncheon!

Our boats were soon pulled up on the beach

Both beaches are lovely spots; we chose the one with the best seating arrangement....

....and drank a toast to the return of the sun  :o)

Monday 27 April 2015

Obscured by clouds on the Sound of Arisaig

Our day paddling from Loch Shiel to Glenuig had been a truly exceptional day's kayaking, very hard to beat.  The following day did, however promise to "eclipse" even that.  20th March 2015 was the date of a solar eclipse which would be visible over much of the UK (weather permitting of course!).

We were delighted that Steve and Chris were able to postpone their duties at the Glenuig Inn for a few hours to join us on the water - even though the morning's very overcast weather was less than promising.

Our plan was really quite simple; we left Glenuig Bay and paddled north-west out into the Sound of Arisag to get an unobstructed view of the sky to the south-east where the eclipse was scheduled to reach maximum coverage of 90% at 0934.

To the west the sky was clearing and we hoped against hope that the clearance would reach us before the eclipse started.

The islands of Rum and Eigg were in clearer sky with sunlight across the hills.  The wind was increasing as the edge of the cloud approached but it was by now obvious that we'd not get a clear view.  Then, a remarkable sight as the sunlight on Eigg was obscured in a very progressive darkening - the eclipse had begun.

We began to experience a noticeable lowering of the light level as the moon moved across the face of the sun.  At 0925 there was a definite dusk quality.....

...and at 0934 when the coverage was maximum, the light was very low.  The choppy conditions dissuaded me from trying to use my DSLR and the compact camera struggled to cope with the combination of low light and boat movement.

There was an unusual and quite eerie atmosphere, and we felt really privileged to be out in our kayaks on the Sound of Arisaig during this rare natural phenomenon.  The choppy water meant that we couldn't simply stare upwards to try and see progress through the cloud cover - we were disinclined to make the eclipse yet more memorable by capsizing!

Slowly the light began to return, just as the cloud began to break above us. 

The extreme contrast in light conditions made it very difficult even to look near to the sun and I didn't manage any photographs at all.......

Image by:   Douglas Wilcox

....but fortunately Douglas, just a few hundred metres to the west of Mike and I, got a brief unobstructed view and risked the unthinkable by taking out a very expensive DSLR and lens in the choppy conditions to capture this image at 0956 with the coverage at about 30%.  Despite the fleeting glimpse, on this occasion our navigator's logbooks would have to record the eclipse as "obscured by clouds".

Almost as soon as the eclipse had finished the sky overhead became mostly clear and the sun shone down brightly!  Ah well, the weather might not have been cooperative (some will say typically Scottish in fact!) but it was still a memorable experience.

As Chris and Steve headed back in towards Glenuig, Douglas, Mike and I turned our bows east and headed towards the rocky coast at the entrance to Loch Ailort on the next leg of our journey from Glenfinnan.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Days like these - Loch Shiel and Moidart

We landed on the white sand at Shoe Bay and climbed to a grassy terrace above the beach for a luncheon stop.  The view across Loch Moidart and away to the Ardnamurchan peninsula is reason enough to spend time here, as was the warm sunshine.  We lay back and relaxed, just savouring being in this special place.

You won't find the name "Shoe Bay" on a map.  A tiny beach in an enclosed bay which has three entrances, it gets its unofficial name from the extremely fine and soft white sand...........

.....which as this image from a previous visit shows, must have claimed many a shoe!

From our vantage point we had spotted a strange shape in the water outside the bay.  Was it a shark, a huge salmon maybe?  Sadly not; as the shape drifted closer it proved to be nothing more than a semi-submerged log, but it gave us a reason to linger a little longer in this lovely spot.

But we still had some way to go on our day's paddle and so strolled back down to the waiting boats.  Each time I visit Shoe Bay it seems to exert this relaxing effect - it's not a place in which to rush.

Heading up the rugged seaward coast of Eilean Shona we picked up a bit of afternoon onshore breeze and hoisted our sails to take advantage of the wind assistance.

By the time we passed the entrance to the North Channel separating Eilean Shona from Moidart the slight breeze had died again.  Inland we could see a haze in the air from the warmth of the day, unusual for March but welcome all the same.

It was now about eight hours since we'd left our campsite on Loch Shiel, with some 30km of paddling and a portage behind us.  We didn't need too much persuasion to take in one more stop on one more beautiful white sand beach.........

....and really, paddling past these beaches just wouldn't seem right!

Our already modest pace had begun to slow further, but as we turned the headland at Smirisary and entered the Sound of Arisaig we had the familiar sight of Roshven to draw us onwards.  The sun was now low in the sky astern of us but there was no need for us to hurry...... our landing at our accommodation for the night, the Glenuig Inn, was perfectly timed to coincide with high water.  This meant that we had just a short carry of our boats to park them outside the hotel - and importantly, from where we stepped from the boats we were less than 50 paces from the bar and a round of frothing sports recovery drinks!

What a day we'd had - starting from our campsite on Loch Shiel in the freezing pre-dawn air, we'd experienced a glorious hour of early morning light, explored the history of a holy island, travelled from fresh water to the sea down the River Shiel and visited the white sand beaches of Moidart.  It had been a long day in time and a fair day in distance, 38 kilometres in total, but it was a day to cherish.  This, for me, is what sea kayaking is really about - a small group of like-minded friends making a journey among wild places with spectacular scenery and resonating interest. 

Days like these, they stay with you forever.

Monday 20 April 2015

At home on salt water

Back on salt water, we couldn't miss out on inspecting the River Shiel outflow from below.  The jet of water is quite impressive...... is the slope of water pouring into Loch Moidart!

Over the past couple of years we've come to view the Moidart area and the Sound of Arisaig almost as "home waters" as we've been lucky enough to paddle in this area numerous times.  The familiar view of Castle Tioram never becomes routine though, the dramatic outline and superb location always a highlight of a visit here.

We hoisted our sails to cross Loch Moidart, each taking a different line to either catch the best of the light onshore breeze or to avoid the strongest of the flooding tidal stream.  It was quite striking how effective the forward skeg on Douglas' Aries was when sailing upwind, he was able to sail at least a point closer than either Mike or I in our Cetus MV's

We weren't the only paddlers to be enjoying the superb Spring weather, a couple in an open canoe were also heading towards the seaward end of Eilean Shona.

As we'd set out from the head of the loch a little after low tide, we knew that the North Channel of Eilean Shona would not be passable.  This meant that our route choice was limited to taking the South Channel; but we certainly weren't disappointed as it gave the opportunity to visit one of our favourite places......

forcing through a narrow channel entrance against the flooding tide, we arrived at the glorious Shoe Bay........

Wednesday 15 April 2015

On foot to the sea

Having passed the bridges on the River Shiel we now had to decide where to leave the river.   We knew that there would be a considerable rapid at the point where the river empties into the sea at Loch Moidart.  The drop is caused by the raised level of the land in this part of Scotland; a rise which continues following the release of the weight of ice when the glaciers melted thousands of years ago.

During planning for this trip I'd identified a couple of possible egress points from the river and in the event we used the first of these, at a river gauging station opposite Shielfoot

Photo: Douglas Wilcox

We loaded our boats onto trollies for the portage to Loch Moidart.  This trip is one where the use of a trolley is pretty much essential to move laden kayaks from fresh water to the sea.  The first hundred metres or so were on the public road before passing through a gate.........

.....and onto an estate track.  This was the first outing for my new trolley; an Expedition trolley from Kayak Carrier Systems (KCS).  The trolley dealt with the bumpy track and a heavy kayak with ease and proved very stable.  We found that there were two further places we could have left the river to shorten the portage but we were happy to get out early because if these last opportunities are missed.........

........this is what awaits the sea kayaker!

The five metres which the fresh water pouring out of Loch Shiel needs to drop to the sea is largely taken up with two impressive and powerful falls right at the end of the river.  The first drop becomes a boiling cauldron......

....which enters the sea in a jet of white water.

We'd arrived at the Sea Pool near low water, but after two or three dry days.  We decided that portaging would almost always be our preferred route at this spot; none of us felt the slightest inclination to attempt this run in heavily laden 5 metre boats!

And so at last we came to salt water at Loch Moidart after a day and a half exploring the beautiful Loch Shiel and its river.  Back on familiar territory, we prepared to set out on the next stage of our journey.

Monday 13 April 2015

Water under the bridge(s)

We left Eilean Fhianain knowing that we would return one day; it's a special place.  The lightest of breezes started up, the first all day so we hoisted sail to get whatever assistance it could offer. curious locals lined the water's edge to watch us pass by

After less than ten minutes the breeze died and mirror-calm conditions were restored.  The late morning spring sunshine was pleasantly warm, hot even, on our faces.

The lower part of Loch Shiel would originally have been beyond the snout of the glacier which formed the upper loch; Eilean Fhianan was formed as a terminal moraine.  Imperceptibly the loch becomes more like a wide, shallow river and it's quite difficult to detect where Loch Shiel truly becomes River Shiel. 

We were now paddling past houses on both banks and alongside a road, on which the traffic came as a bit of  asurprise.  We'd been on our small expedition for less than 24 hours and yet we seemed to have been out much longer.

At Moss opposite Acharacle we passed the wildlife cruise vessel "Sileas" on her winter maintenance slipway.  We spent a pleasant few minutes chatting with owner Jim Michie who was tidying away the final items of preparation for her annual safety survey prior to the start of the season.

An ex-Admiralty launch built in 1940, "Sileas" has had a really interesting career and at least three names over her 75 year life.  At various times a Navy launch, mailboat, a ferry at various west coast locations, a pier construction tender and for the last 15 or so years a graceful wildlife cruise boat. After extensive refurbishment to fit her for wildlife watching, "Sileas" had to be taken to the shores of Loch Shiel by road and physically pushed off a trailer into her new freshwater home.

Built by James Silver of Rosneath, her hull is of double diagonal teak planking on oak frames - she's truly built to last and Jim has clearly engaged in a labour of love to keep her in such fine condition.  If you're not a kayaker or canoeist, a trip on the loch aboard "Sileas" would be a super way to experience Loch Shiel.

Beyond Acharacle we were definitely on the River Shiel as we approached the first of two bridges at Shiel Bridge (not to be confused with the place of the same name in Kintail on the road to Skye), this one the newer of the two is a fine stone triple arch with decorative castellated piers constructed in the 1930's.

I've driven on the road across this bridge many ties and it was nice to get a different view as we cruised underneath.

 As we passed under the bridge we became much more aware of the flow of the river, an insistent pull of water towards the sea. We now barely needed to paddle in order to keep up a steady speed downstream.

 The River Shiel is a noted fishing river and has several wooden stages from which anglers cast for salmon and sea trout.  Rounding one of these at a sharp turn in the river, the water enters a tightening gorge framed by the arch of Old Shiel Bridge.  We approached cautiously because from ahead was the umistakable sound of rapids.......

Douglas had scouted this section on a previous visit and knew that the rapid was a short one.  Nevertheless, it takes a leap of faith to point fully laden 5 metre sea kayaks towards white water hidden around a bend in a gorge!

The boats surged forward as one by one we lined up to avoid the most disturbed water and went for it.  Although fully engaging, the rapid turned out to be of moderate grade and short-lived.  Looking at the debris high up the walls of the gorge, I was very thankful once more that I hadn't attempted this trip solo after very wet and stormy weather. 

We were now past the initial obstacle and heading quickly towards the point where the River Shiel joins the sea.  It was a little after low tide and that all this fast-moving water in the river still had the best part of 5 metres to drop before reaching Loch Moidart..........