Wednesday 31 January 2024

Winter colours - Wester Ross

On the second paddling day of our trip in Wester Ross Allan and I launched from the jetty at Laide in Gruinard Bay.  This is a handy launch spot but there's virtually no parking at the jetty itself so we parked back up the road a way so as not to block things for any other users.  There's also an honesty box, ingeniously adapted from an old fire extinguisher, for donations towards the jetty's upkeep.

It was another very cold, clear and calm morning - "frost smoke" was rising from the sea as the sun climbed a bit higher.

We paddled around the inner part of Gruinard Bay and landed at the northern end of the big beach which is so popular in summer.  Today we had it to ourselves for a leisurely coffee break.

Heading north we had a view to Priest Island and the Summer Isles, we've had some great paddling ventures there!  Conditions were near perfect and we landed at Mungasdale Bay for a second stop - not sure whether that was third breakfast or first luncheon though.....

From Mungasdale we paddled over to land on the boulder spit at the south of Gruinard Island, infamous for the experiment that was carried out here to test the efficacy of a biological weapon.  The desparate measures under consideration during WW2 are understandable, but not the indifference of the UK government for decades afterward - they were eventually forced to properly (hopefully!) decontaminate the whole island in 1990.  The disconnect between a remote UK government and the north of Scotland is neatly illustrated in the staged image at the end of the BBC news article linked above with a Defence Minister pulling down the "Landing Prohibited" sign....dressed in a pinstripe city suit and immaculate dress shoes.

We stopped but briefly on the bouldery spit - it's hard on the feet in paddling footwear.  Interestingly the island has been recently and intensively planted with forestry, so clearly there is confidence that disturbing the soil won't release any dormant anthrax spores.  Behind Allan in this image, the brilliant white summits of  An Teallach rose into a blue sky .

The view across to Torridon when we arrived back in Laide was glorious - winter can sometimes throw up the most stunning conditions.

Back at our base on Loch Ewe the last of the sun lit the Fisherfield hills s we enjoyed a post-paddle cup of tea, but the best of the colour was reserved for well after the sun had set..... the sky and sea suffused with the most intense and beautiful lilac pink light.  Some winter days are just so perfect!

Sunday 28 January 2024

Beach Life - The Winter Edition

 We paddled along the southern shore of Loch Gairloch (a tautological name which translates as Loch of the Short Loch) and took a coffee break at Port Henderson where a narrow strip of sand allows an easy landing on an otherwise bouldery beach.

Of course, when there are so many excellent beaches to savour, it pays to have plenty of hot water for coffee!  We headed north and made the 4km crossing of the outer loch to a beach which is simply known as "Big Sand"...for the most obvious of reasons!  A landing on the broad expanse of warm-coloured sand was followed by another coffee break.  To get these conditions in winter is a rare treat; it was actually pleasantly warm due to the lack of wind, clear sky and our paddling drysuits. An advantage of this winter beach-life is a lack of biting insects and crowds...though it has to be said tha the air temperature was hardly above freezing all day.

As Allan headed out from the beach I took a short video on my phone to show the "widescreen" situation, which is pretty special.

On our paddle back along the north shore of Loch Gairloch we took time to hang out with the local youth - these two young Otters were curious rather than wary, a real treat.

It seemed a shame to end such a superb day as we headed back towards Charlestown but the views to the Torridon hills went some way to compensating for the shortness of daylight.

After packing up at Charlestown we drove out to a spot above Big Sand to watch the sun set over the north of Skye.  It had been a great day and the bonus was returning to our base on Loch Ewe to a warm house, home cooked food and a sports recovery drink - all in all a fine day!

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Ice, Ice Baby.....

During a winter which had so far been alternately wet or windy, the chance of some sea kayaking in settled weather had Allan and I regularly checking forecasts in mid January.  As a high pressure system built over the UK we made plans to head to Wester Ross - we were disappointed that neither Lorna or Douglas were able to join us for this short notice trip.

A family connection of Allan and Lorna's kindly allowed us the use of a house overlooking Loch Ewe as a base, which made this winter trip very comfortable indeed.  Allan headed up on a frosty morning, I left later in the day and we met at the house.  The view first thing in the morning was very encouraging as pre-dawn light coloured the sky and reflected off mirror calm water - it looked like we had a fine day ahead.

We drove to Charlestown on Loch Gairloch and loaded our boats on the slipway.  there was frost on the boats which made for chilly fingers.

There was also plenty of ice left by the falling tide.  The water in the harbour at Charlestown was free of any ice so the possibility of sea didn't really register with me as we got ready to get on the water.

After paddling out of the harbour we turned south and for a short while paddled straight into a dazzling low sun with reflections from the water - it was really hard work to see where we were headed!  We'd intended to paddle close to the shore past Badachro and around Eilean Horrisdale, but found a large area of sea ice over a centimetre thick drifting towards us on the ebb tide.

 It was pretty obvious straight away that this was hard ice which was probably drifting in and out on the tide, freezing at low water twice a day.  It was too thick to crash through with the boat or the paddle and was, disconcertingly, moving quite purposefully.  I've experienced this just twice before, once on Loch Long and near Kinlochleven - both occasions in similar prolonged deep frosts.

Manoeuvring a sea kayak in ice even a centimetre thick is difficult and unstable, the paddle has to be crashed through and sometimes glances off, destabilising things.  Add to that ice moving on a tidal flow with the possibility of constrictions and it's not a place to be....coming out of the boat would have serious consequences.  Allan and I reversed away from the ice and found a lead of clear water to take us back out into the open.  Just an hour into our winter day and it was already packed with interest!

Saturday 6 January 2024

After the rain....

 December 2023 and into January 2024 saw some exceptionally wet weather in the north east of Scotland - Aberdeenshire received three times the average monthly rainfall in December as storms tracked more to the south than usual, resulting in a run of what felt like weeks of south easterly wind and rain for us.  This part of Scotland is usually the driest place in the country, but there have been only two dry-ish days in the last 20!

But, at last, the rain pulled away early afternoon on the 5th January with a forecast of much more settled weather for the next week or so.  As the sky cleared the temperature fell sharply and a ground mist spread across land saturated by rain.  the effect was very atmospheric as the sun set, the mist suffused by a gorgeous glow.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

A Winter Light Show

In late December there was a wonderful display of Nacreous Cloud in the skies over Aberdeenshire.  From before sunrise the ethereal colours and effects were evident and continued to varying degrees all day.

Nacreous (mother of pearl) clouds need really specific conditions and are consequently rare phenomena:  the cloud needs to be very high at 10-20 miles above the earth's surface, the air at that height needs to be very cold (below -80 degrees Celsius) and a very low sun angle.  They're also known as Polar Stratospheric Cloud (PSC) and the particular ice crystals forming the clouds refract the low sun at an angle down to earth.  Because of these specific conditions, nacreous clouds are usually only seen in northern polar regions in winter, or when the polar upper atmosphere vortex sinks south, which was what gave rise to this lovely display.

The ice crystals in Nacreous clouds are smaller than those in lower cloud types and can often be composed of atoms of nitric acid and water ice - this combination can combine to release chlorine atoms, so they're not entirely good things!

That said, as the sun began to set in mid-afternoon the colours of the clouds intensified and the shapes was a captivating sight.

 The most intense colours happened well after sunset when the clouds were still being lit by the sun which had left the surface and was shining at just the right angle - simply stunning!