Wednesday 31 August 2016

Kingdom of the wind - down to earth

From the summit of Ben Avon my return route went northeast across the plateau to the tor of Stob Bac an Fhurain (Point of the bank of the spring).  From this outlying summit a broad ridge leads down to the dome of Da Druim Lom (Two bare ridges) above the River Avon.  Part way down the ridge is perhaps the most impressive of ben Avon's many granite tors - Clach Bun Rudhtair.

The view while descending this ridge is very fine, with Lochnagar particularly prominent across 20km of clear air.......

...but it was the view nearer at hand which really caught my attention.  Across the corrie, below West Meur Gorm Craig ("Meur Gorm" is blue finger) there's a tantaalising view of the green jewel of Lochan nan Gobhar (Little loch of the goats).  Highlighted in a flash of sunlight the water seemed intensely green and I mentally stored this as the destination for a future walk, perhaps even a wild camp.

From the top of the ridge Clach Bun Rudhtair had looked fairly insignificant, close to hand it's a formidable outcrop of weathered brown granite which reaches 25 metres above the ridge.  Despite its position quite low down the ridge, the top of this tor is at 914 metres or 3000ft.  The central blade has a "window" right through it and I scrambled up to take a look through - it's quite an awkward scramble and fairly tight at the window itself. 

Clach Bun Rudhtair (the name possibly translates as stone of the foot of the peat stack) was appropriatley described by Dr Adam Watson in the SMC guidebook to the Cairngorms as resembling Rhinoceros horns.  Below the tor the ground levels out before taking a final steep drop to reach the River Avon, where a short way downstream the main track from Inchrory up Glen Avon is met.

I'd spent many hours high up on Ben Avon where the predominant shades are those of muted greens and the delicate pinkish brown of Cairngorm granite.  When coming back down to a glen after a day high up the smells and colours always seem very striking, and on this day the effect was particularly noticeable on the track by the River Avon.

The damp ground adjacent to the track was studded with two of Scotland's carniverous plants, the pale green starfish-shaped Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) and the deep red Round Leafed Sundew (Drosera rotundifola).  Both live on poor, wet ground and supplement the lack of soil by trapping insects on sticky parts of their leaves. 

The Butterwort's leaves curl over to digest the unfortunate insects trapped by the sticky surface with a cocktail of enzymes.  In the case of the Sundew, insects are trapped by a sticky "dew" secreted on the leaves and contact initiates a touch stimulus causing the nearest tentacles to bend inwards - remarkably this can start within ten seconds of an insect becoming trapped.  The leaves take about a day to close fully and remain shut for one to two weeks before opening to release indigistible parts of the insects.  Both species typically trap very small insects of about midge size, but Sundews can trap surprisingly large insects across several leaves.

Another plant of damper ground and a real late summer indicator is the Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum).  The flower spikes open to a brilliant yellow cluster on 10-20cm stems and seem to fairly glow in sunshine.  When the flowers have died in autumn the spikes of pale, bleached Bog Asphodels can last well into the winter.

On the track margins in dry and well drained ground were large areas of Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus), the intensely coloured flowers a magnet for bees and hoverflies in the warm sunshine.  Getting close to the plants to take photographs, the herbal scent was really strong - the leaves make a very tasty addition to wild camp meals too!

The flowers along the way helped to ease the 3km walk along the rough and stony track to Linn of Avon, a favourite spot which never loses its appeal.  I'd left my bike in the heather by the track here to speed the way back over the hill to my starting point at Cock Bridge.  The track climbing out from Inchrory over to the bowl of the Feith Bhait is quite steep...and was quite beyond me staying on the bike after 20km of hillwalking...I gave in gracefully at the bottom and pushed the bike up!

Fortunately it's pretty much all gently downhill from there on, finishing with a fast stretch of cycling on the tarmac estate track leading to the car park below the gaunt castle at Corgarff to end a really enjoyable day.

Monday 29 August 2016

Kingdom of the wind - granite versus gale

The summit plateau of Ben Avon is a windswept sweep of cropped alpine vegetation studded with granite boulders and tors.  The summit of the hill is itself a highly featured tor and is visible from a long distances.

Since first acquaintance over 30 years ago I've loved the open nature and the huge skyscapes offered by the Cairngorm giants; in fact the whole area is a great upland plateau cut by steep glacial trenches to form individual hills and ranges.  The gravel flats of the higher ground look lifeless, but there are arctic specialists which prefer the conditions found up here.... the Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus).  A member of the Grouse family, Ptarmigan are superbly adapted to sub-arctic and arctic conditions.  The Linnaean name Lagopus translates as "hare foot" and refers to the birds feathered feet which insulate against ice and snow.  The birds are superbly camouflaged, moulting to white in winter and then to mottled grey during the summer, and have feathers adapted to maximise body insulation. The nostrils are also protected by small feathers to warm the air before they breathe it in.

 Living high up the Scottish hills (in other regions the bird lives on arctic tundra at lower levels) gives Ptarmigan an advantage as there are few competitor species eating their food plants of bilberry, saxifrages and heather shoots supplemented by insects in summer.  The tough plants which the birds eat are difficult to digest, so in common with Red Grouse the birds ingest small quantities of grit which they use to help grind up plant shoots - the gut of a Ptarmigan is the largest of any bird as a proportion of body weight - they are in effect a flying gut!  The mottled grey summer plumage is superbly effective amongst boulders and grasses, often the birds are only noticed when they move; a good thing if you are a favoured prey of Eagles.  To preserve energy Ptarmigan prefer to walk around rather than fly any distance and are endearingly approachable - this bird moved around me quite unconcernedly, occasionally giving the unusual croaking call which is reflected in its name; an anglicised version of the Gaelic Tarmachan.

Animals and birds can either adapt to the harsh conditions of the Cairngorm plateau, or move downhill when things get really tough.  For plants that's not so easy, but there are subtle ways in which vegetation can adapt.  These lines of gravel demarcate "wind stripes" of prostrate heather growing tight to the ground aligned to the wind; in this image the prevailing wind is from behind the camera.  On the slope across the corrie the bare patches are deflation surfaces where the aspect is so exposed to the wind that little vegetation can survive; the surface itself is being lifted by the wind and deposited elsewhere on lee slopes.

Even the granite bedrock isn't immune to the effects of the wind. The numerous tors which stud the summit plateau of Ben Avon have holes worn into them which are partly formed by the wind.  Grit and tiny pebbles which were deposited by the wind are whirled around in rainwater, slowly deepening the depression.  Gradually the process forms these deep pots as larger stones and more water are able to accumulate.

Some become quite deep; this one was about half a metre into the rock and the process of the wind whirling the water and disturbing the grit at the bottom of the pool could actually be seen.  Near the top of this image, another hole is beginning to form.  In the face of Cairngorm gales, even granite gives way....

The summit of Ben Avon is a granite tor at 1171m/3842ft, named Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe (couch (bed) of the yellow stag).  A short scramble gains the narrow crest of the tor, normally as on this day quite easy but not if it's plated in ice or lashed by the wind - or both!

From the summit there's a view across to Ben Avon's massive neighbour, Beinn a'Bhuird (table mountain) which has an even larger high plateau.  

The two Munros are linked by the narrow connecting bealach (col) of The Sneck which can be seen near the left of the image.  The two hills can be combined into a really big day's walking starting (for example) from Invercauld on Deeside, rewarding but shattering!  My own day on Ben Avon wasn't quite as long, but the "long walk in" inevitably means a long walk back out was time for me to get moving again.

Monday 22 August 2016

Kingdom of the wind - where plants walk

On the high plateaux of the Cairngorms, the wind rules everything. The great open areas of ground above 1100m / 3600ft are exposed to the full force of weather from every direction and are often swept by gales and winds of hurricane force, especially in winter. Gusts of over 170mph/280kph have been recorded and sustained wind speeds in excess of 100mph/160kph are common. Given these sorts of speeds, it's hardly surprising that the wind exerts influence over everything which lives on the high arctic-like plateaux, limiting possibilities and even determining landforms.

When planning walks on the high ground here, the wind is a primary consideration with strength and direction factored into the day's plan. After a run of windy days in mid July abated, I took a long walk on Ben Avon (pronounced "A'an" and named for the river at the mountains foot -the bright one). 

Any day out on Ben Avon will be a "big day"; this is the largest of the Cairngorm hills by area, some 12 kilometres NE to SW and 9 kilometres N to S - really a hill-range rather than a single mountain.  In addition to the large extent of the hill, the starting points for walks are at some distance from the summit.  The most logical starting point from my home is at Cock Bridge to the north east of the hill, and my route would be some 40 kilometres.  The wind was forecast to remain light until evening, when it would once again begin to increase.  Fortunately, a mountain bike can be used on the track leading from Cock Bridge past the source of the River Don and on to Inchrory and the Linn of Avon, meaning that I'd do around 20km on the bike and 20km on foot.

Above Inchrory, this dry ravine cuts steeply down through lime-rich rock, an unusual rock type for the Cairngorms and visible from quite a distance as a bright green patch among the more muted colours.  Ahead, the outlying slopes of Ben Avon beyond the river were still cloud-capped.  The MWIS forecast was for the cloud to lift gradually during the day; I hoped that it would be as accurate as it usually is.

The bike was left near the Linn of Avon and I headed uphill on a stalkers path past grouse butts.....

...towards the start of one of the ridges of Ben Avon at Carn Fiaclach (toothed (or notched) Cairn).  Beyond  and above the wood surrounding the lodge at Inchrory, my route of approach already seemed quite distant, the green slope leading down to the estate track and across the hills to Cock Bridge.

The bald summit of Meall Gaineimh (sandy hill) is passed on a path which winds through gravelly ground and past some of the distinctive granite tors which are such a feature of Ben Avon.  The walking is a delight, fast movement on small mountain paths once the initial ascent is done.

My route took me up to the granite ridge of East Meur Gorm Craig before descending slightly to the wide sweep of the appropriately named Big Brae (slope).  Even in mid summer there are significant snow patches in most years, and this is in part due to the wind.  Snow is either compacted by gales into any depression on a windward slope.....

.....or deposited on lee slopes and in corries to immense depths.  The snow patches irrigate the ground through the summer and give a foothold to alpine grasses and plants.

Up to around 1000 metres / 3300ft there's a mix of plants such as Alpine Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla alpina), a relative of the larger plant commonly seen in gardens.  A combination of grazing by deer and the scouring of the wind keeps the plant low-growing.

Higher up, and only the hardiest of plants can survive the harsh conditions.  Alternately frozen, baked, flooded and subject to drought and gale, plants need to be tough up here.  The Three-leaved Rush (Juncus trifidus) is a real Cairngorm plateau specialist, able to survive on the most exposed ground where few other plants are able to apart from mosses and lichens.  Talking of "trifid", the 1951 Sci-Fi book by John Wyndham, later made into a classic 1962 movie - "Day of the Triffids" - features a species of plant capable of "walking" locomotion.  Here on the Cairngorm plateau, there are species of plants which can do just that, albeit slowly.

This Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum sp) started life in the lee of the small boulder at the bottom of the image.  It has grown away from the prevailing wind, putting out small roots as it goes seeking a more sheltered spot, curving around the boulder near the top of the image.  The original rootstock and stem are now dead and completely detached from the ground.  In some examples of this sort of downwind movement, the track of individual plants over decades and perhaps centuries can be traced by the absence of lichens on the rocks over which they have moved. 

This Crowberry also has a reproductive trick to help it survive the harsh environment, it is of the sub-species hermaphroditum which has bisexual flowers to increase the chances of fertilisation, and smaller, stubbier foliage to resist the hostile weather.  A real life "Triffid" !

A gentle rise to the SW now took me to the highest plateau of Ben Avon, a broad ridge leading towards the tor which forms the summit.  I emulated the plants and sheltered behind a large boulder to rest and eat, there wwas still plenty of walking ahead....

Thursday 11 August 2016

Rockhopping and rainstorms, Part 2

This is the second of two posts catching up on a number of sea kayaking day paddles around the northeast of Scotland during July 2016. Having managed to entice Mike north with tales of the dry and sunny climate of Aberdeenshire, Allan and I rendezvoused with him at Findochty for a trip to Sandend which would take in some of the best bits of the Moray Firth coast. It was indeed sunny and warm when we met up in the morning.......

.... but it didn't last!  A torrential rainstorm hammered down for  an hour or so, and strangely this actually added enjoyment to the day.

The rain passed through soon enough and we were left with calm conditions - perfect for this part of the coast which is prone to swell - and perfect in particular......

....for Mike to experience paddling through this iconic arch near Portknockie and so become a "Bow Fiddler".

A different day but similar weather on the Moray Firth - Lorna heading through one of the hidden channels to the west of Sandend - a rockhopping delight even in the rain.

Another day with outbreaks of rain when one tactic was to shelter in caves from the heavier bursts!  This is one of the many caves near Portsoy , one which which Allan, Lorna and I hadn't previously explored. It turned out to have a blowhole and the landward end and became very tight at the back - the scrape of paddle on rock the only indication that there was a paddler within!

The coincidence of calm conditions with rainy days continued right through July - Allan and I made our way to Collieston on a day of rare flat calm on this exposed part of the North Sea coast.  We drove from inland Aberdeenshire through very heavy rain which continued on and off all day.  Heading north towards Cruden Bay, we took the opportunity to explore close inshore while the conditions were so calm, passing noisy seabird cities and paddling amongst large rafts of Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Fulmars.

This part of the coast has been the scene of many shipwrecks, documented wrecks include the 1594 destruction of a Spanish (actually believed to be from the Spanish Netherlands) sailing ship "Santa Catherina", from which various artefacts have been recovered.

In more recent times there have been numerous wrecks, a combination of wild weather, a rocky coast with little shelter and a busy shipping lane all contributing to the numbers.  This rusted piece lodged at the back of a rocky cove looks as if it may be a ship's boiler.

Just north of Collieston we came across the entrance to a cave which is entered through a curtain of water dripping from the cliff above. 

The rock is quite soft and porous here and the roof of the cave was marvellously featured with calcite formations.  Probably the violence of swells driven in here will prevent the formation of stalactites, but it was still one of the more striking caves we've explored.

We rafted up to get headtorches out and explored deeper into the cave.  It splits into two tunnels deep under the cliff and the left hand branch goes back a good way to where we found a tiny beach of exquisitely coloured pebbles

The air in the cave was markedly cooler than outside and there was a strange absence of the echo normally heard in caves - a remarkable place.  Half-tide and absolutely flat conditions are needed to explore this cave - the roof is quite low and it would be hazardous in even a small's well worth waiting for the right conditions though.

Sea kayaking in sunshine on blue seas is, of course, perfection....but grey skies and heavy rain aren't bad either!

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Rockhopping and rainstorms, Part 1

In Scotland we don't really have a climate, we have "weather" and July 2016 was particularly changeable with some warm days but also some periods of heavy rain and thunderstorms.  It seemed that most of the warm days were windy and that the calmer spells coincided with days of showers or rain.  The conditions didn't dampen some good sea kayaking though, and in some ways the heavier rain actually added to the experience!  This is the first of two posts catching up on a number of sea kayak trips around the Moray Firth and North Sea coasts during the month.

It wasn't all rain; Maurice, Mike and I met at Auchmithie and enjoyed a day on the colourful Angus coast.  The morning was calm and warm, which allowed us to explore the rock formations......

......and caves which stud the stretch of coast between Auchmithie and Arbroath.  The largest of them is Gaylet Pot, a long cave which emerges some 150 metres inland....... a spectacular "gloup" or collapsed cave in the middle of a farm field.

That afternoon brought a marked increase in the wind, as forecast, and we enjoyed an exhilarating blast back up the coast under sail at an average speed of 12km/h.

Pulling out of the wind at the arched outcrop of Prail Castle, we stopped for second luncheon.  It's sometimes possible to kayak through the arch, but on this occasion the tide was too low.  As Maurice hadn't visited this feature previously, he and I walked through the arch to the north side.  Just a few seconds after we'd done so a large rock fell clear from the face above and smashed into the ground right behind us - a lucky escape.

There have been several paddles on the Moray Firth too; on a day of alternating hot sunshine and torrential downpours Lorna, Allan and I paddled a favourite section of the Moray Firth coast from Findochty to Sandend.  One of the best known features is the Bow Fiddle Rock, and we were lucky to find it not only calm enough to paddle.....

......but looking very fine backed by an approaching downpour.

The northeast coast in summer just teems with wildlife.  The seabirds seem to have had a pretty successful breeding season and we encountered them in their tens of thousands.

On a paddle from Sandend to Whitehills Allan, Lorna and I were given a real wildlife treat when a pod of the Moray Firth dolphins shared the water with us, I completely fluffed the photographs of three adults which raced straight to our boats and dived right in front of us, examining the boats closely from below before moving on - the only image I managed was this dolphin which repeatedly leapt out of the water in the middle distance.