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.

Thursday 17 October 2019

October colours

All of a sudden it seems, the golden colours of autumn have come alive in Aberdeenshire.  On a walk above Glen Derry, the trees of the Doire Bhraghad (broad wood) have gained a palette of rich browns and glowing gold among the bottle green of the pines.  There's a long view north from here to the heart of the Cairngorms - the giants of Derry Cairngorm and Ben Macdui showed up well in the clear air.

The purple of late summer heather has faded to a purple-brown as the flowers dry out in the wind; it's not as bright as the swathes of stunning purple brilliance but has its own subtle beauty. As with many places in the east of the country, the hills have a plaid of dark green pines across their lower slopes....always the pinewoods as a setting.

A set of prints in the mud of a forest track - smaller than a fox, larger than a stoat or weasel? - ah, of course.... Red Squirrel, that bright spark of energy among the trees.

The pace had slowed; this was no day to be charging around the hill.  To stop and absorb the colours, the shifting light and the shimmer of golden birch leaves in the breeze seemed the way to get the best of the day.

At times the colours were breathtaking.  Just after taking this image, two Ravens powered into the sky from a big pine, flying straight and true with deep "krokk" calls.  We weren't the source of their alarm, so we followed their flight and, as suspected, a Golden Eagle slipped down the breeze overhead.  The Ravens started to mob it, but soon backed off when the eagle banked sharply and lashed out with its talons before casually resuming its glide towards the valley of the Dee, all rich brown against the blue.

On the short drive home we stopped of in Crathie to visit a new enterprise.  We've been regular customers of the Highlanders Bakehouse who sell superb breads at local farmers markets in Aberdeenshire.  The new enterprise is a cafe and shop, a big step for a young couple who have put everything into getting it up and running.  We can report that the food is superb, fresh, local and wholesome, if you travel on the A93 on Deeside, don't miss it!

It had been a beautiful autumn day, but there was one last treat.........

.....when the huge "hunter's moon" (the full moon after the September equinox harvest moon) rose over the fields of home - a fitting golden end to a golden October day.

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Summer sojourn on the Moray Firth - sealed with a kiss

Almost as soon as we'd paddled through the tall cave-arch from among the red towers we were joined by another young Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Just as curious and confiding as the one we'd encountered earlier in the day, it swam repeatedly around and behind us before approaching each of our kayaks in turn to investigate us more closely.  As it padded under the bow of my boat there was the faintest kiss from its muzzle and flipper - perhaps trying to figure out what the boat felt like.

The youngster followed us for a couple of kilometres, never far from us but never so close as to cause alarm to either it or us.  Adult Atlantic Grey Seals are Europe's largest native carnivore; bulls can weigh in at up to 300Kg and reach around 3 metres in length - they are animals to respect.  This little seal - we weren't able to tell whether it was male or female, but suspect male - was less than half that, but still a wild animal and the fact that  it chose to accompany us made for a special encounter.

When we stopped, so did it.  Completely relaxed in our company, it seemed to relish the encounter as much as we did.  Whilst I don't lke to anthropomorphise animal behaviour, it really seemed like this young seal which was on its own was enjoying the company.

"Who, me?"

As we approached Pennan harbour the seal pulled up alongside us, then turned and headed back along the cliffs.  It's possible that it was wary of going too near the harbour due to the level of motorised boat traffic, or perhaps it had reached the end of its patch, or just had had enough of accompanying us. We encounter seals almost every time we paddle on the sea, and try as we might we sometimes take sightings a bit for granted.  But when an encounter with a wild animal is so intimate, and especially when initiated by the animal - it's a special experience.

The pretty village of Pennan was our destination for this paddle.  A line of cottages strung along the shore beneath a low cliff, it's one of the most picturesque of Aberdeenshire's many fishing villages.  A claim to fame for the village is in it's role as a setting for the 1983 film "Local Hero".

A development since we last visited is the Coastal Cuppie, a tea shop with a bit of a difference.  Housed in a converted wooden shed, its a bright spot in the harbour.  It looked open, but the sign said "Kettle on the boil, scones in the oven", while another said "open at 1250".  We had a half hour to wait and so took a stroll along the village and back, where the scones were just arriving in a little pull-along cart.  We can report that both coffee and scones were wonderful!

By the time we headed back along towards New Aberdour on our return leg the tide had dropped considerably.  The tall arch we'd paddled through was completely dry and we landed to walk through.  We recommend paddling this section of coast as near to high water as possible, and to save it for very calm conditions in order to get the best of it and to paddle all the caves, stacks and arches.  I've been here in a moderate onshore swell and been unable to get anywhere near the rocks.

Nearby, a cave right through a stack was revealed which would usually be submerged.  I took a look and found the rocks to be very slippery, but the effort was worth it......

.....because inside, several rock pools were lined with what seemed to be coral of a vibrant pink shade.

The final day of our three day's route on the Moray Firth had been different to the preceding two days of a continuous linear route, but had, once again, given so much.  These three days were almost the last of the settled summer conditions - late August and most of September were mostly unsettled, so we counted ourselves doubly lucky!

Friday 11 October 2019

Summer sojourn on the Moray Firth - among the red towers

The conglomerate rock arch we passed through is a portal to a very special stretch of coastline.  A wall of red rock capped with verdant green and carved into spires, battlements and stacks, it's like nowhere else on the Moray Firth.  This area between Strahangles Point and Pennan Head never fails to amaze.

The scale only becomes apparent as you paddle close inshore.  These cliffs are over 120m/400ft high and fall sheer to a glacis of the most brilliant green grass overlaying fallen pieces of the cliffs.

There are gaps between stacks of fantastical shape, haunted by seabirds.  Each time we've paddled here we've felt ourselves to be in a privileged place...... a landscape that could have been taken straight from a Tolkien book.

On a day of windless calm with the sea a mirror of the cliffs, we paddled into the shade of the north facing cliffs in silence, lost in our own appreciation of this place of soaring red towers.

Our kayaks were dwarfed by the scale of the rock architecture.  Sure, there are bigger cliffs and higher stacks but few places I've paddled have quite the same atmosphere as this double cirque of stone.

We'd entered the place through one arch, and we would leave by another arch, a long cave-arch passable above half tide and in calm conditions.  The entrance is guarded by submerged rocks and needs care. 

The arch leads out to a line of cliffs which anywhere else wold be a highlight of a paddling route.  Here; thoughts almost immediately turn to paddling back through the red towers.

Thursday 10 October 2019

Summer sojourn on the Moray Firth - underneath the arches

The third day of our trip on the Moray Firth dawned bright and sunny again. Raymond had hillwalking plans for this day and so it would be Allan, Lorna and I paddling. We'd discussed various route options for the day over dinner the previous evening - perhaps setting out again from Whitehills to make a continuous journey, or heading farther east to Aberdeenshire's North Sea coast.  It didn't take much debate before we decided on a trip which would take in some of the best rock architecture on this coast.

It takes longer than you'd think to drive the 30-odd miles from Sandend to Pennan, then take a twisting, hilly road to the pebble beach below the village of New Aberdour.  It's notobvious on this image but this beach is quite steep-to and often has dumping surf which makes launching and landing tricky.  If this is the case, a burn running into the sea is a good guide to some rock channels which can break up some of the swell.  No swell problems on this morning though!  A bit of a cloud sheet had drawn overhead, but it was still warm and there was clear blue sky to the west indicating sunnier conditions on the way

Rather than run a lengthy shuttle which would have been awkward with three kayaks and two vehicles we'd decided to paddle west from New Aberdour to the village of Pennan and return by the same route, perhaps visiting Troup Head if there was time.  Doing an out-and-back isn't always the best option, but given the scenery we knew was on this stretch, paddling it twice would be just perfect.  The rock architecture starts almost straight away, a square-cut arch forming a bridge leading out from a small headland.

This arch is bigger than it appears - we wondered how many people might have casually strolled out to the headland without knowing that this was beneath their feet!

Having passed through the first arch, there's immediately another one, taller and narrower. This would be great paddling in itself, but is just the warm-up for what follows.

Crossing a small rock bay, we headed through a couple of channels between different types of rock - this coast has some really complex geology which is in part the reason it's so interesting.

Ahead of us was the impressive Strahangles Point.  Much less well known than Troup Head farther to the west, it's actually higher than Troup - if not as massive.  The cave-arch at the base of the point goes through one of the spurs of the point, and can be very tricky in less benign conditions.

Having paddled through the cave into the shaded geo beyond, I landed on a pebble beach to see if there were any interesting pieces among the driftwood.  I was surprised to see a young Grey Seal pull up into the shallows right beside me.  It showed no fear, just curiosity and seemed to want to know exactly what I was up to.

When I walked up the beach at the back of the geo, the young seal swam back to investigate Lorna's boat a little closer, following her every move.  The water in the geo was shallow and we could see the seal twisting underneath the kayak.  Although not behaving at all nervously it could have panicked at any time - not really a good thing in this confined place.  Lorna moved out into more open water and the seal followed, allowing me to launch without spooking it.  A lovely close encounter, and it wouldn't be our last of the day.

Beyond Strahangles Point there's another change in the geology to a conglomerate rock with flood-washed pebbles in a red matrix.  Quite a soft rock type, it erodes to form some great features; this narrow arch is the gateway to a place of wonders.....