Monday 28 November 2016

Reflecting on Loch Laggan

Towards the end of October, with a spell of several months working away from home looming, I was keeping an eye on the weather charts for a day of settled weather to go paddling. A forecast day of very light winds and dry conditions looked ideal, so Allan and I discussed where we might go. The simple choice would have been the Moray Firth, but the autumn colours blazing across Scotland tempted us to look for a location to combine a day paddle with the autumnal trees.

Our choice was Loch Laggan, a fresh water loch a couple of hours drive from home.  I've paddled here before in autumn when the colours were at their best..... we hoped for something similar. Actually this was the second freshwater loch I'd paddled in a couple of weeks - but more about the other one in a future post.

Grey and misty weather on the drive across wasn't greatly encouraging, but the mist was beginning to break up as we unloaded our boats by the roadside just west of the car park for Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve.  The comparatively dry summer had resulted in quite low water levels, as a result the carry was quite a bit longer than I remembered!

Conditions were rapidly improving as we started out, initially heading southwest along the northern shore under a vast cloudscape.  The A86 road runs close to the shore, but for almost the entire length of the loch is hidden from the water and we were hardly conscious of it.

The mist broke up rapidly to give views up to some of Creag Meagaidh's southern corries above woods of birch, oak and rowan.  Warm sunshine began to light the scene and we were soon thinking about removing a layer of clothing.

Quite suddenly, the breeze died completely to leave very calm water - with no coastal swell the change was rapid and noticeable. Ahead we had a long view down Glen Spean to the distant Grey Corries.  Kayaking on freshwater lochs may lack some of the vibrant interest of the coastal environment, but being surrounded by mountains does offer a great perspective.

We arrived at the southwestern end of the loch and landed on a large, flat beach criss-crossed with the tracks of deer, herons and geese - but devoid of human footprints.  We found a spot of grass to sit on and took first luncheon while enjoying the views along the length of the loch and across to Creag Meagaidh's outlier spurs.  We were in no hurry at all, the pleasant weather and the view suited the relaxed pace of the day perfectly.

Leaving the beach we started back along the southern shore of the loch, which has an estate track but no public road.  The colours in some of the Birch trees were absolutely stunning.

Allan is a keen motorcyclist and had recently done a long route across the Highlands including circuits of several lochs.  He pointed out that in the vast majority of cases the main roads pass along the north shores of lochs while the southern shores have minor roads, if there's any road at all.  We speculated that this might be due to the north shores getting more sunlight in the winter, so being snow-free for longer than the southern shores which would be in shade?

While we were reflecting on the geography of Highland roads, we were treated to some superb reflections right alongside our boats - it seemed a shame to disturb the effect with the ripples from our boats!

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Equipment Review - Exped Downmat UL 7 sleeping mat

A good sleeping mat is pretty much essential for a good night's sleep when camping or bothying, particularly when the weather is colder.  Up until two years ago I'd used Thermarest inflatable mats for about ten years, which were a big step up from the closed cell Karrimats I used before that.

A friend recommended looking at the Exped range of downmats - I was intruiged by the concept and after some research took the plunge and purchased a Downmat UL 7.

Exped are a European company with a reputation for producing innovative lightweight camping equipment, and the downmat series certainly fits this theme.  The Downmat UL 7 is an inflatable mat with 170g of 700 fill-power goose down distributed along the tubes.  The combination of the down and the thickness of the mat are designed to provide insulation from the ground, claimed to be effective down to -24 degrees Celcius.  At a suggested retail price of £180, this is a premium product.....  so is it any good? 

The pack size is very compact - 23cm x 11cm and fitting into a 2.2 litre stuffsack.  Shown here against a 250g gas canister and a lightweight "traditional" inflatable sleep mat, the pack size is noticeably smaller, and lighter too.  The mat itself in the Medium size weighs 575g, and is supplied with a stuffsack, a useful repair kit and instructions (both of which fit into a pocket in the stuffsack - a good bit of design).  Also supplied is the inflation method.....

.....which Exped have named a "Schnozzle".  This is a large and lightweight stuffsack-type bag with a roll and clip closure and a "beak" fitted with a valve.

On the mat are two large valves, one to deflate and a non-return inflation valve.  To avoid the down getting damp from oral inflation, the method is to attach the Schnozzle, capture a bagful of air and squeeze it into the mat.  This takes a few goes to get the hang of, but is a really efficient method of inflation.  In a breeze, the bag can be fully filled and the mat filled very quickly.  The non-return valve ensures that no air escapes when removing the Schnozzle.  Deflation is very quick via the large deflation valve and the mat is easy to roll up. Unlike many outdoor products, it also fits easily back into the stuffsack with the Schnozzle and other accessories.  Incidentally, filled with spare clothing, the Schnozzle makes a useful pillow - I find it most comfortable if I then put the "pillow" of clothes inside a fleece top rather than sleeping in contact with the nylon bag.

Exped's website is packed with information about the mat, including full instructions, tips and repair instructions.

Fully inflated, the Downmat UL 7 is (as the name suggests) 7cm thick, the comparison with a traditional inflatable mat is quite striking.  This provides not only insulation, but evens out bumps in the ground under the tent.  The medium size is 183cm long and 52cm wide, ample for a 175cm tall, 75Kg adult.  Although lightweight, the construction is tough. Like any inflatable product, care needs to be taken to avoid punctures, but this mat feels well made.

Of course the only measure a sleep mat should be judged against is whether it offers a good night's sleep.  I can honestly say that the Exped Downmat has revolutionised my comfort and the quality of sleep.  The combination of insulation and the "plush" feel of the 7cm thickness make sleeping on this mat more akin to sleeping in a proper bed.  The outer two tubes are slightly larger than the other tubes which helps prevent any tendency to roll off the mat whilst asleep. Some lightweight and ultralightweight sleep mats sound like "crisp packets" when they are laid on; the Downmat is not, though there is a slight rustle when turning over. 

The Downmat has is astonishingly comfortable in use.  No more waking up with cold spots, and no more emerging from the tent in the morning feeling like the night has been spent lying on bumpy ground.  It's and expensive product, but in my opinion pays this back many times over in the quality of sleep it provides. Another noticeable benefit of using the Downmat is that there's no condensation on the base of my sleeping bag or under the mat itself. After a look at my mat, Douglas and Mike also took the plunge and bought Downmat UL 7's - none of us would consider going back to our previous sleep mats for a second!

After multiple uses, the down sometimes "clumps" in the tubes a little, this can be made out if the mat is held up against bright light.  Inflating the mat and giving it a good shake redistributes the down along the tubes.  One thing to look out for is the length of the mat.  For average sized folk, the Medium mat is well long enough at 183cm; if you go for the Long model,  it's 197cm and it would be worth checking if it will fit in your tent.  For very cold climates, a 9cm thick version with more down is available.

Having used the Downmat UL 7 for two years, in all kinds of conditions from well sub-zero to comparatively warm, in tents on a variety of surface and in bothies, I can highly recommend it - put simply it provides an extremely comfortable outdoor sleeping experience.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Inveravon church and Pictish stones

Off the busy A95 road along Speyside, a small sign points the way to Inveravon Church and Pictish stones  Tucked out of sight well below the present line of the road and above the River Spey itself, the church is in a peaceful spot.  The name "Inveravon" (mouth of the Avon) hints at the proximity of the confluence of two of Scotland's best known rivers, the Avon and the Spey.  The present church is the latest in a series of buildings on the site, which was closer to the old course of the Spey and so on a more prominent spot.  There was possibly a chapel here built by St Drostan in the seventh century, at the height of Pictish power.

The first church proper was built in 1108 and probably incorporated some nearby Pictish stones into its fabric.  A new church with a turf roof was built in 1568, which was re-roofed with slate in 1633.  In 1806 the present church was built in a simple but elegant style and at least one Pictish stone was discovered.

The interior of the church continues the theme of elegant simplicity with a light and airy atmosphere and remains in use as a place of worship.  Early Christian churches were often built on sites of pagan or communal significance and Inveravon seems to have been one of them. 

The kirkyard contains grave markers of great age and a mausoleum for the Grants of Ballindalloch, the local lairds but interesting as these are, the greater interest is to be found in the porch of the church.  Pictish symbol stones found at the site were placed against the wall of the church but have now been protected in the porch, beautifully lit to show them to their best.

There are four impressive carved stones, numbered according to their sequence of discovery.  Inveravon 1 is a slab of blue slate 1.7 metres by 0.9 metres bearing a large but (by Pictish standards) crude carving of an eagle.  Above the eagle is a shape interpreted as a mirror case, and below the eagle and now faintly discernable are a mirror and comb - two of the recurring items found on Pictish stones.

Inveravon 3 is, at first glance, the least interesting, but it is just a fragment of the original as the stone was broken to form building material for the church.  Carved onto the stone is the head portion of a fantastic beast, again a common Pictish symbol and variously interpreted as a dolphin, an elephant or simply a mythological beast.

Inveravon 4 was discovered buried near the church in 1964 and is heavily weathered.  Standing a metre tall and half a metre across, the stone is carved with the same beast motif as Inveravon 3, together with other "standard" Pictish symbols, the crescent and V-Rod.

Perhaps the most impressive of the stones is Inveravon 2 which was unearthed in the 19th century. The carving remains sharp, suggesting it was incorporated into the building of one of the earlier churches.  An array of typical symbols can be made out, the triple-disc, mirror and comb, plus the crescent and V-Rod.

It's remarkable that a people who dominated the north and east of Scotland for many centuries left so little which we can interpret with any certainty.  For me, the fact that we can't understand what these beautiful and impressive stones mean - or what they signified to the Picts - makes them even more special.

In a previous post I wrote that I hoped to explore more Pictish sites, and this is one of the better ones - if you're travelling along Speyside, a turn off the A95 and into the past is heartily recommended.

Monday 7 November 2016

Carrying on to the end around Morvern

We woke to a bright morning at our camp on the shore of Loch Sunart, unfortunately so did the midges!  A welcome breeze started up as we ate breakfast which was just enough to keep them away.

We were soon on the water and heading into the enclosed Loch na Droma Buidhe (also known as Loch Drumbuie and meaning Loch of the yellow ridge). The mainland shore of this loch had been one possible camp site, but we were pretty sure that the loch would be busy with yachts as it's a popular and very sheltered anchorage.  There were six yachts at anchor immediately off the spot we'd identified, and anyway we'd have missed out on the superb sunset as the view from the loch is obscured by the high ground on Oronsay.

The east end of Loch na Droma Buidhe connects with Loch Sunart by a narrow channel which dries out to leave Oronsay connected to the Morvern shore.  We knew that we'd have a bit of a portage to move the boats across the gap, but felt that this would be a bit quicker than paddling around the outside of Oronsay against a stiff breeze.

The portage was a bit longer than we'd have liked at around 200 metres but having chosen this route we decided to just carry on and carry the boats over.  The yellow colour of the exposed weed here led us to speculate whether this might be the source of the loch's name?

Back on the water and we had a stiff paddle around the south end of Carna against the ebb stream pouring out of Loch Teacuis.  The flow here can be very strong but we arrived near the end of the ebb and were able to eddy-hop around the south of Carna then enjoy a push out of Caol Charna (narrows (kyle) of Carna).  Although we'd been going less than two hours, a stop for second breakfast was unanimously carried - the exertions of portaging and paddling had rekindled appetites!

Back out on Loch Sunart and we started to feel the east wind in our faces, but it was somewhat less than the F5 being broadcast on the VHF weather forecast.  We knew that if it remained at this sort of strength we'd finish our trip without difficulty.  Sunart is a long and fjord-like sea loch reaching far from the open sea, lined with glorious Atlantic oakwood for much of its length.  The scenery is grand, this part of the loch is dominated by Ben Resipol, which today was pin-sharp in the clear air.

The upper part of Loch Sunart is joined to the rest of the loch by a constriction at Laudale.  The tidal stream in the narrows can run very strongly and rough water is often found when wind opposes tide.  By the time we gathered in a bay immediately to the west of the narrows the flood tide was barrelling through against a breeze which had risen a notch as it too passed through the gap.  We expected some rough water but in truth it was just fun, the boats powering through eddy lines and along ribbons of surf.  Donald had so much fun in his F-RIB that he went back for a second pass!

Through the narrows and we were on the last leg of the trip.  At our final stop for a leisurely second luncheon the view ahead was to the Ardgour hills, below which we'd set off.  It seemed like a long time had passed since setting out on Loch Linnhe, but it was only two days previously; sea kayak trips seem to have this ability to make time seem extended.

By the time we reached the slipway near Strontian the wind had died completely to leave a very warm afternoon with temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius - well, very warm for Scotland that is!  After lifting our boats up the slipway, all that remained was to run the shuttle and collect our cars from Glensanda.  It had been a really great trip, almost around Morven, shared with good friends and with memories to treasure.

Our route was 95 kilometres, paddled over two and a half days with two nights en route.  We started on Loch Linnhe, turned up the Sound of Mull and then along Loch Sunart to finish at Strontian.  The forecast weather was for increasingly strong winds from the east, and certainly the wind in the Sound of Mull reached  the top of the forecast.  Otherwise we enjoyed a light easterly airflow and this is probably the best weather in which to do this trip.

Day 1

Not quite an island, not quite the mainland

How to remove a hill - one load at a time    Note that on the Google Earth slide above, the Glensanda quarry is clearly visible as two pale scars above Loch Linnhe, which gives an indication of scale.

Midge Avoidance at Inninmore

Day 2 

Having a blast on the Sound of Mull

The magic of a wild camp on Loch Sunart

A Sunart stunner

Day 3

This post