Thursday 21 November 2019

Smoke on the water

You certainly won't find a casino on the shoreline, or a stylish town, but in the right conditions you may get to see "smoke on the water" at Slattadale on the shore of Loch Maree.  Lorna, Allan and I drove from Gairloch to Slattadale for a second day of paddling in what we hoped would be superb autumn conditions.

Slattadale catches the morning sunshine, which was melting away the frost of a cold night.  As the water was retaining some of summer's warmth and was several degrees warmer than the air, conditions were right for the particular sort of mist known as "frost smoke". 

Although strictly speaking the term describes frozen water vapour over the sea, sharply cold air over the fresh water of Loch Maree was producing a similar effect.  Beautiful and ethereal, the mist dissipated as soon as it was touched by the morning sun.

Autumn was everywhere; bright "hips" on a wild rose bush glowed like beacons, frost on the branches melting to silvered droplets of water.

Over all, the impressive presence of Slioch dominates the far end of the loch.  Although the mountain seems close by, it's over 12 kilometres away.

When we got onto the water and paddled away from the shore, the view behind us was of stunning autumnal colour...the purple "bloom" of birches which had already shed their leaves, the green of spruces and the dazzling gold of larches; it was going to be a great day......

Friday 15 November 2019

From gold back to cold on Loch Gairloch

On this day of peerless autumn weather, the beach at Big Sand was a small piece of paradise.  With no breeze the sunshine felt warm on the face...and the views, oh the views!  It would have been easy to spend hours on this beautiful beach, but as you can see from the shadows behind our boats, the short autumn day was already wearing on.  By the time we got on the water for the final leg of our paddle back to Strath the sun was already low in the south western sky.

We paddled steadily back along the shore, occasionally glancing over our shoulders to note the rapid skimming of the sun.  There was a moment of brilliance as it dipped below the skyline of Skye's Trotternish peninsula, with even the briefest of  hint of a "green flash" as the very last of the disc disappeared.

Once the sun had set it became very cold, a contrast to the golden light.  A "sundowner" breeze had started up and we paddled a bit faster to kep up our tcore temperature, and to land before darkness fell.

After landing on the shore a few undred metres east of the slipway at Strath, we carried our boats across the road to unload them on a handy stretch of grass prior to moving them back to the campsite.  A full hour afte sunset the western horizon still had a deep bronze glow.  The lighting here is deceptive, in reality it was virtually dark at this point.

A hot shower awaited us backat te camp site, and then another really good meal at the ld Inn rounded off what had been an outstanding day of sea kayaking in the most perfect of conditions and in a stunning location.

Our trip had been a very leisurely 25Km/15 miles in seven hours on the water - given good weather we can absolutely recommend this as a day paddle!

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Wonder after wonder on Loch Gairloch

From the beach at Port Henderson we looked straight out across the Minch to the "Long Isle"; the conjoined islands of Lewis and Harris, the more mountainous skyline to the left of this image is An Cliseam and the hills of Harris.  The two small dark islands just showing to the centre right of this image are the Shiants.....they're a destination which is most definitely on my radar for an expedition.

Our plan had been to paddle south from the mouth of Loch Gairloch for a short distance to check out Opinan beach.  Allan decided to omit this diversion and to make a leisurely crossing north to Longa Island.  Lorna and I headed south into the eye of a searing autumnal sun......

...and soon reached Opinan.  The beach is a good one, reddish sand backed by dunes; in low swell conditions makes for an easy landing.  We didn't linger too long before getting back on the water and heading straight north towards our rendezvous with Allan at Longa.

With the sun now behind us we enjoyed a superb view of the Flowerdale hills - Baos Bheinn (Wizard's Hill) to the left and at the extreme right of this image, Beinn an Eoin (Hill of the Birds - this usually refers to eagles).

Part way across the mouth of Loch Gairloch I stopped to take in the suroundings.  A kayak on a flat calm sea, under a searing sun and backed with a view to the Trotternish peninsula of Skye - it's one of my favourite memories of this trip.  But if that scene was special, to look the other way was a wee bit special too....

We'd met up again with Allan at Longa (from the Norse Ship Island), where I'd briefly landed on an awkward bouldery shore.  The view to the Torridon skyline was really, really fine.

Sometimes the sheer beauty and majesty of Scotland just grabs you by the throat - and this was one of those times.

And to make things even better, a shape on the summit trig point of Longa unfurled itself into a White Tailed Eagle and flew purposefully and powerfully across the loch towards the mountains fo Torridon....really, it doesn't get a lot better than this...........

.....although second luncheon on a sweep of immaculate beach simply called "Big Sand" helps too!

Monday 11 November 2019

From cold to gold on Loch Gairloch

When a few days of very good weather coincided with the height of the autumnal colours and some planned leave from work, it was much too good to miss!

With a firm forecast for settled conditions starting three days ahead, Allan, Lorna and I looked at where we might go.  We discussed various options and settled on two days of paddling, one on the sea at Gairloch and one on fresh water at Loch Maree.  The nights are fairly long in the north of Scotland in the last week of October, and the forecast was for particularly low temperatures overnight.  As we weren't doing a continuous journey it seemed a good idea to use a commercial campsite in the area to allow hot showers and the chance of evening meals in a point in suffering unnecessarily!

We had a journey of about four hours from home in Aberdeenshire across the country then north to Wester Ross, so decided to travel on the day before the settled conditions established.  The further north west we travelled, the more unsettled the weather became; the iconic Slioch was playing hide-and-seek through veils of snow showers and it was clear that there had been a good deal of wet weather in the preceding days.

Arriving in the village of Gairloch, we booked in at the camp site at Strath in a very heavy shower of cold rain.  In the hope that it would "soon pass through" we adjourned to the nearby Mountain Coffee shop for a hot drink.  The rain slackened rather than passed through and we got our tents up and kit stowed without getting too wet.

Once sorted out we headed off to walk around to the "other" part of Gairloch - which consists of Strath on the north side of the loch and Charlestown towards the head of the bay.  We were nicely warmed up by our 3km walk (for which you need a head torch after dark, part of the road is unlit) to the Old Inn at Charlestown.  I've eaten here before and persuaded Allan and Lorna it was worth the walk.   Despite the fact that the Inn was closing a for the season a few days later there was a full menu of great home cooked food available, along with a selection of craft beers.  The walk back kept us warm and we turned in early before we got chilled down back at the camp site.

Our tents had been wet from the evening rain, but we woke to quite different conditions with frozen tents from a sharp overnight frost.  The early morning was undeniably chilly but we soon got going and warmed up.

The morning sun takes a wee while to rise above the mountains to the southeast of Gairloch, but when it did things started to warm up quickly.  We were staying at the Gairloch Caravan and Camping Site - a place I've used regularly through the years.  The new owners have invested in brand new toilet and shower blocks which are immaculately clean and centrally heated, and the old shower block has been turned into a "shelter" for campers.  Recognising that lightweight camping in Scotland's north west can have some unpredictable conditions at times, this shelter is a basic building with a picnic bench inside, plus a microwave, fridge-freezer and a kettle.  It sounds simple, but what a difference it made to be able to boil a kettle for breakfast and to fill flasks rather than firing up cold gas stoves on the ground.  In very wet and/or midgy conditions the shelter will be a real haven.  Every camp site should have something like this!

As the sun began to come up, pale golden light streamed around the skyline formed by Beinn an Eoin on the left and Baos Bheinn on the right, the two highest hills in the Flowerdale Forest.  It looked like it was going to be a golden day!

We decided to launch from the slipway at Strath and moved the boats the short distance from the campsite.  This morning was Spring tides and at about half tide the lowest part of the slipway is exposed.  Two locals warned us that it was lethally slippery, there have been two recent accidents resulting in serious broken bone injuries here.  We tried the lower part and none of us was prepared to carry a boat below a line of dark green weed.  Instead, we lifted the boats off the slipway and onto the rocky shore - still slippery but with some angles to work with.  We'd recommend launching from the shore a couple of hundred metres to the east of the slipway. 

In absolutely perfect conditions, we set out into the calm waters of Loch Gairloch (one of several tautological names for lochs - Gairloch translates as Short Loch).  Paddling seemed effortless, the boats sliding through crystal clear water over a sandy seabed.

Image: Lorna McCourt

Our pace started slow and soon slowed further - this was no day to rush.  Lorna caught this image of my boat's bow reflecting with absolute clarity on the surface of the sea.

At times the reflections were startlingly clear, the brain having to consciously process what the eyes were seeing.  Conditions like this are not at all common - when they do happen it's a marvelous experience to be out on the water.

We paddled around the back of  Eilean Horrisdale, enjoying the contrast of golden aspens and russet bracken reflecting on the water, topped with a flawless blue sky.

Continuing west towards the open sea, the beach at Port Henderson offered a first luncheon (or was it second breakfast?!) stop on the reddish-brown sand so typical of this area of Torridonian Sandstone.  What a day it was to be out and about!

Saturday 9 November 2019

In Remembrance

In remembrance of all those men and women who have given their lives in the service of their countries, those who still suffer the physical and mental scars of the conflicts in which they served; and those who are left with loss and grief

"At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them"

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Powered up on Loch Ericht

After our hillwalking diversion we had a cup of tea on the shore before getting back on the water to complete our return leg up Loch Ericht to Dalwhinnie. Near to Corrievarkie is the turbine house for a hydro-electric power scheme.  This station produces 2.2MW of power and is fed from Loch Garry in the hills to the east of Loch Ericht.  There's a 55 metre height difference between the lochs which gives the "head" for the water.  This scheme is part of the larger and widespread Tummel hydro network.

A following breeze was very welcome and we hoisted our sails to get some assistance on the long run back up to Dalwhinnie.

Keeping to the eastern side of the loch, we got a good view of Ben Alder Lodge in its grand wooded setting below hillsides already touched by the blonde shades of autumn.  The stalking season would get into full swing a few days after our visit and there was plenty of activity on the estate road leading down the west shore from Dalwhinnie.

Not long after this image was taken the serene, pleasant paddle-sailing ended.  At a slight twist in the loch the wind began to blow in mighty gusts which were rolling down from the steep slopes to our right (east) side.  We assessed later that these might have been turbulent rolls of wind rushing downslope from the steady easterly flow over the high ground but whatever the cause, the effect was very dramatic.

Before we could drop our sails the wind caught our boats with considerable violence.  I was driven downwind at a terrific rate and had real concern about the sail and mast being torn from the hull of my boat.  For a few moments I had little or no control over either direction or speed and just hung on, bracing hard on the paddle with a rooster tail of spray tailing back from the submerged blade.  I glanced up at the top of my mast and wished that I hadn't, the whole thing was being forced into an arc by the pressure of wind.  As soon as it had started the gust subsided and we dropped our sails hastily.  Checking my GPS later, it had briefly recorded a speed of 15Km/h during this gust.

We continued to experience these gusts until near the top of the loch when the wind simply poured out of a valley, hammering across the loch and making for quite challenging conditions as it blew from the starboard quarter at a solid F6 for some ten minutes.  Then, as soon as we were out of the firing line of the valley, the wind subsided again to almost nothing.  Paddling on Loch Ericht needs careful planning, the orientation of the loch catches the prevailing wind but even in light crosswinds the topography will give tricky conditions at times, with the area between Ben Alder Bay and Corrievarkie seemingly a real wind tunnel.

As we approached the dam which holds the northern end of Loch Ericht our return was marked by the noise of traffic from the nearby A9 trunk road and the slightly strange sight of a Scotrail train belting north towards Inverness.

We pulled into the bay near the inflow of the aqueduct which brings water from Loch Cuaich on the other side of the road and railway.  The water in Loch Ericht is used in it's turn to feed the hydro electric power station on Loch Rannoch, and thence to Tummel in an interconnected hydro scheme.

Our paddle and hillwalking trip had been short in time, but we'd done quite a bit.  In a little over 24 hours we'd covered 47km/29 miles of paddling and done a 10Km hillwalk with around 550 metres of ascent.  Allan remarked wryly that I'd managed to plan three days of a trip into one overnight journey!