Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Small Isles - Another crossing and a couple of dolphins

Before settling in for the night on Rum, I had watched the skies darken above the Cuillin, the pastel shades of a summer sunset darkening above Loch Bracadale, thinking back again to our trip around Skye four years earlier. We had crossed the wide mouth of the loch in the late afternoon, moving steadily towards Idrigill Point and the stacks - Macleod's Maidens - which mark the start of some truly spectacular cliff scenery and a coastline tailor made for sea kayakers. I remembered too, framing a shot of Tim paddling into a giant arch, a waterfall cascading from the cliffs beyond. It is a wonderful thing, to stand in such a place and recall moments like these. 
Sitting quietly on the sandstone platform, gazing across the Sea of the Hebrides, I heard the long blow of a whale and searched in vain for sight of a fin. It was not to be, not that night at least. I woke with the familiar sensation of the sun burning into the tent though before long the skies had clouded over and the wind arrived. 
Just the gentlest of breezes to begin with it was soon a steady F3/4. But despite expectations of a lumpy crossing, the wind settled and we set out on a northerly heading, bound for Rubha na Dúnain and beyond, the beach of Glenbrittle.
As so often on crossings like these, we each found our own pace, the gap between us opening and closing as we tracked up wind before turning to run before the small waves, always in sight of one another but effectively paddling alone, immersed in our own thoughts. Turning the bow into the wind on the crest of a wave two dolphins simultaneously burst through the surface, spray showering the kayak as another fin broke the surface and then another and another.
All around me dolphins lunging, cresting - one moment beneath the hull and the next crashing back beneath the waves. The pod of around a dozen common dolphins stayed with me for some time before eventually heading north, tiring it seemed of this slow creature unable to follow beneath the surface or keep pace with their effortless speed.
I paddled on for a short while, before two pale flanks flashed deep beneath my bow and the show began once again. 
Given a rare second chance I managed a few more shots until the pod moved off again and I knew this time they were gone. All lethargy banished I paddled on, the entrance of Loch Brittle suddenly close, Tim waiting beneath the low cliffs, the Cuillin still clear and towering above, a twisting spine of dark and broken rock, familiar yet still forbidding in its brooding presence.
In a tiny bay, a perfectly rounded smooth hollow in the low cliffs, we rested a while, looking back towards Canna, Rum and the Outer Hebrides, the last crossing complete, just a few kilometres more to the beach and the end of trip containing more than seemed possible in less than two full days paddling.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Small Isles - A taste of Rum

Leaving the cliffs and caves of Canna and Sanday behind, we pulled out into the Sound of Canna to start the second of the three crossings on this trip. Despite being in the middle hours of the ebb, there was no appreciable tidal movement in the sound. This was a pleasant surprise given the Sp rate of 5 knots - even on neaps as we were, paddling against the flow would have been tiresome at this point. And so with the evening sun warming our backs and the northern cliffs of Rum glowing in the soft light, we moved quickly across the sound, splitting a widespread raft of puffins within moments of turning our backs on Sanday.
Looking across to the Cuillin, the eastern-most skerries of Sanday in the foreground, Rum some 3km directly across the sound though our easterly heading lengthened the crossing to 5km which we covered quickly in the calm conditions.
The shadows lengthen in Glen Guirdil beneath Bloodstone Hill, named I believe for the semi-precious stone found on the beach beneath.
Arriving on the coast of Rum, by the wreck of Jack Abry II - Tim dwarfed beneath the steeply shelving deck which remains with surprisingly little damage from the sea so far.
From the wreck it is a short paddle to Kilmory and by now hungry and tired we wasted little time in setting up camp after which I spent a short while on the beach watching the sun sinking slowly toward a shimmering sea.
Tim experimenting with a new camera...
...as I did much the same, trying to capture something of the beauty across the bay as the moon rose into a clear sky.
Last light beyond Canna and the Outer Hebrides - a peaceful close to a stunning day among the Small Isles. I wondered if the morning would be quite so peaceful - the last forecast we had seen had called for a gradually freshening easterly wind, F5 by midday and F6 a little later. All being well we would be within reach of Glenbrittle before then however and I drifted off to the call of the snipe, the distant piping of oyster catchers smothered by the soft rise and fall of the sea beyond.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Small Isles - Crossing to Canna

The plan had been to paddle out to and around Muck via Eigg - but as low pressure tracked slowly across the UK the winds shifted. Keen to avoid an easterly headwind on the return crossing, we elected to start a little further north and head out to Canna and Rum before returning to Glenbrittle on Skye. If the forecast held it would mean a F4 quartering on the stern as we paddled north, infinitely preferable to completing the trip with a 15km crossing directly into a headwind. Besides, we had paddled around Eigg previously and while I remain keen to visit Muck, Canna is arguably the jewel of the Small Isles positioned as it is, at the north-west end of this enigmatic island chain.
Ready to launch, looking out across Loch Brittle. Rum is beyond the low headland on the left and Canna is just visible on the right. For all intents and purposes, it is an open crossing of 20km - approximately half of the distance we would cover to reach our camp on Rum that night above the sands of Kilmory.
Looking north once out of Loch Brittle I immediately recognised the distinctive stacks Tim and I had passed beneath on our trip around Skye in 2011. It is one of the more dramatic sections of the Skye coastline and that day was perhaps one of the best of the trip.
The view back towards the Cuillin, enveloped in the rain we had just paddled through...
...to reach another world of blue skies and gentle seas, sufficient detail now visible on the cliffs of Canna to note our intended landfall immediately east of the stack: Iorcail.
Roughly half way, looking back on the west coast of Skye and looking out for whales. We didn't see any, though on the return crossing I was accompanied for some time by a pod of around 12 dolphins, more of which later.
Tim lands in the sun, on a steep gravel beach accessed via a beautiful arch...
...not a bad way to end a crossing and a perfect introduction to Canna.
Passing Iorcail on our way west beneath the 200m cliffs...
...alive with guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes. We had passed several rafts of puffins on the crossing, but it was the manx shearwaters that stole the show, their grace unequalled to my mind. Of the sea eagles we saw no sign though two other paddlers we passed shortly after had seen one earlier in the day.
The white shell sand beach close to the western tip of Canna is not marked on the OS map. I knew it was there however and despite a recent stop, there was little debate about stopping again. We very nearly stopped altogether, for the day at least, but despite the perfect camp it would have provided, eventually launched again, determined to use the perfect conditions to explore the caves on the south coast. In fact we had already entered several, passing along a long tunnel in one to emerge at the back of small bay - these were like the caves found around the north coast of Skye.
Passing Garrisdale Point, between the skerries that guard Canna's west coast - Rum growing in stature beyond.
Another cave, beneath the distinctive basalt columns which would no doubt provide a few new routes for those with the inclination though there are already more recorded climbs than I suspected: see the Canna Guide on Colin Moody's site.
And another cave - this one on Sanday, a superb twisting tunnel reaching far back into the cliffs - Tim framed in the entrance with the north coast of Rum beyond. From the south-east corner of Sanday we paddled due east, crossing the Sound of Canna to arrive on Rum beneath the wreck of Jack Abry II by which time we were both ready to camp for the night...

Saturday night on the Small Isles

A weekend dash north, well-timed with a brief weather window saw us complete the crossing from Glenbrittle to Canna beneath blue skies before paddling around the island on calm seas and crossing to Rum for one of the most spectacularly situated camps...
...with long views back to Canna, across the Minch to the Outer Hebrides and back to Skye, the Cuillin silhouetted beneath a clear night sky. It had been a wonderful day's paddling but in some ways the best was still to come.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Farne Islands

It has been a couple of years but Bamburgh and the Farnes remains a familiar destination. Like so many places, it seems busier than ever in the summer months, tour boats busily shipping their customers among the islands for a glimpse of the seals, birds and maybe a whale. Happily there were more puffins than punters this day...
...which began with a little fun in the low, clean surf a little south of the castle.
There had been a good sized swell running for most of the week from the north-east...
...though by the weekend it had dropped significantly...
...to leave clean lines of 2ft - 4ft surf.
Perfect for some long rides and a few bongos by way of a warm up for the paddle to follow.
Chris waiting for a last ride before heading out to the inner islands...
...where we were soon among large rafts of puffins. I have rarely seen so many hereabouts - an encouraging sign though I'm unsure of the picture overall.
Approaching the low cliffs of Inner Farne...
...and maneuvering among the channels beneath...
...the low swell creating playful conditions as we passed beneath countless guillemots, gannets, razorbills and more puffins.
Approaching the lighthouse where the tide had turned a little early, the north going stream already running strongly among the skerries.
The welcoming committee watched us pass by, its more enthusiastic members following boisterously behind, waiting patiently until we were back on the water and following again as we cut between the islands, weaving in and out of the flow...
...encountering the odd breaker in shallower channels. Crossing Staple Sound the wind picked up a notch and by the time we began to ferry across the Inner Sound was sufficient to create a heads-down slog back to the beach, by which time the surf had all but disappeared along with the sun and the seals. Taking the hint we followed suit.