Thursday, 19 May 2016

A night among the skerries and summits of South Morar

On reaching the outer skerries of Arisiag I had simply pulled into a tiny sheltered bay and sat awhile. The last hour had been an exhausting mix of headwinds and small chop into which the bow slammed with every stroke of the paddle. The sort of conditions which although not difficult in any technical sense, allow no rest. And after some seven hours in the boat, I was keen to land. With the tide out, I ferried across the wind blown shallows, paddles scraping white sands below before eventually stepping into the still cold shallows and pulling the boat into a weed strewn gully above which was a perfect platform on which to rest, looking out over the sands towards The Cuillin. 
I made several brews in quick succession, and watched the ebbing tide slow and stop. With that, the wind eased and I simply basked in the sun, debating my next move.
It was too good to go, so as the water rose, I trotted off among the islands, looking for a suitable pitch. Finding one with a steep shingle beach below that would make for an easy launch the next morning, I splashed back to the boat and paddled over the sands covered just minutes earlier, to set another idyllic camp overlooking the skerries and low summits of South Morar.
Established on one of the larger islands, another lazy evening followed as I explored my surroundings, taking pictures and gathering ticks in equal measure - most spotted quickly and removed without fuss, others requiring a little more care later that night.
The maze of The Skerries - it is easy to understand the popularity of the area though for now, the island was mine, the waters beyond home to otters which rolled in the shallows just yards from the shore as I watched, the air cooling as the sun sank.
Looking back on Rum...
...and later, towards Skye and The Cuillin - what a night it would have been to bivvy on the ridge...
...and then back across the sea to Eigg and Rum - the end of a long and tiring but wonderful day among wild, evocative landscapes. The next morning the shallow bays and channels were a mass of whitecaps driven by warm offshore winds and I paddled from one outcrop to the next before ferrying across the South Channel and on into the calm bay beyond. 
The trip ended as it began, on the thickly wooded shoreline, among a mass of gear above the sheltered waters of Loch nan Ceal.
For those less familiar with the area, the map above shows the route taken.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A lazy evening and long crossing from Rum

Beneath a blinding sun, on the hottest day of the year, the paddle from Eigg to Rum and along its west and and northern coast had been one of the best and longest days I'd spent on the water for some time. The 10km crossing had been followed by another 25km of rugged coastline, soaring cliffs, deep caves and wild storm beaches. Sea Eagles, puffins and porpoises had been my companions, the exposure of Rum's west coast allayed by the lack of swell though it had seemed no less wild as a result. The day ended on one of the finest beaches that I have found anywhere in the world and after pulling the boat from the gentlest of waves and stripping of my salt caked cag and deck I turned and walked straight back into the sea. It would have been the perfect end to a brilliant day, but I had been looking forward to this camp since leaving Arisiag and with a long, light evening ahead, I intended to make the most of what remained of an exceptional day, ashore.
I set camp on a broad level area of deer cropped grass, a perfect pitch - golden sands and a view to Canna behind, the Cuillin Ridge ahead. Perfect.
After spending some time simply lazing in the sun, drinking coffee, soaking in every detail of this wild landscape I headed up towards the summit of a small hill above, passing a number of deer en-route, where I knew a signal could be found and the forecast checked. 
The weather was perfect now, but tomorrow's paddle would involve at least one not insignificant crossing and the easterly winds - which had prevailed for the week - are prone to sudden and dramatic increases in this part of the world. In Torridon in particular, I have been caught out in this way before, the winds rising from nothing to F6/7 in minutes. It was a situation I wanted to avoid 10km off shore tomorrow. In the event the forecast was almost entirely accurate, F2/3 easterlies building to F4/5 through the morning and confident the crossing was manageable, I returned to camp.
Fishing from the point I caught a number of small pollock and one much larger - I had intended to eat what I caught but in the event, the boat already loaded with more food than I now expected to need, returned all alive. Later I watched the sun sink slowly beneath the sea, the Outer Hebrides clearly visible on the horizon.
And later still, I watched from the beach as the moon rose above Canna, the air still and cool, the only sounds that of the curlew and the waves gently washing the sands below. After a long and lazy evening, there was little that was easy the next day and it began in much the same vein as it would continue with a difficult and tiring exercise moving the boat to the water's edge. 
The tide was rising and had covered the sands leaving 30 yards of sandstone slabs and boulders to negotiate - again deep beds of kelp eased the journey and along with drift wood planks to bridge the boulders, I manhandled the boat to the water, launching once again beneath a burning sun.
The breeze was fresh, pleasantly so, on rounding Rubha Shamhnan. Turning the bow south, I ploughed into a small chop though before long the wind was all of the predicted F4/5 and often gusting at slightly more. Clapotis slowed my progress and in breaking waves of dazzling white I turned the bow offshore, heading for the more regular rhythms of deeper water, before aiming south-east once more. 
Some way short of Loch Scresort, already more than 3km offshore, I changed plans once again. Rather than heading for Eigg, I turned a little to the east, to make a direct crossing to Arisiag. There followed a crossing of over 25km, the winds constant at F4/5 on the beam for the first couple of hours, before dropping and then building once more, shifting to the south a little at the same time leaving an exhausting 10km to cover directly into F5 gusting at F6 to reach the skerries in the early afternoon. 
Hauling the boat through the shallows, I spent the next couple of hours sitting atop a smooth rocky summit, tired but content, surrounded by the white sands and turquoise shallows for which the area is famous. Drinking in the scene I pondered how best to end the trip. I wasn't ready just yet, to return to Arisaig.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Missing out on Muck

There are many disadvantages to paddling alone, but like any solo trip, it offers a real sense of freedom, of independence and at times commitment. Decisions can be made, changed and changed again depending on any number of factors - usually the wind. On this day, more unusually, it was the lack of it.
Leaving the tree lined southern shore of Loch nan Ceal opposite Arisaig late in the day, I had intended simply to paddle out to the skerries and camp, beginning the trip proper, out to Muck, the following morning. But while there was limited light left, the still evening seemed an opportunity not to miss, and so I paused only briefly by the largest of the skerries, Lunga Mhor, before heading out towards the northern tip of Eigg, a shorter crossing of around 14km and a known camp, rather than chance an awkward landing at dusk. I settled into a rhythm quickly enough, weeks of accumulated stress unwinding gently as the boat slid through oily seas. Manx shearwaters were soon in attendance, carving above gentle unbroken waves and a lone puffin watched nervously as I passed the midway point. Rounding Eilean Thuilm, the northern tip of Eigg, the skies were clearing, the faintest of pastel hues beginning to colour the sea south of Rum and I landed soon after, hauling the heavy boat over deep kelp to reach what remained exposed of the sands at Camas Sgiotaig. Dealing with a loaded boat alone often requires a little ingenuity to bridge the gap between sea and camp...
...here the kelp provided an obvious if mildly unpleasant solution and I was quickly established ashore, looking out across the Sound of Rum, tomorrow's objective.
Overnight the wind picked up, easing slightly at first light but remaining fresh right up to the moment of launching. 
Once offshore it eased again, the second crossing of the trip towards Rum no less idyllic than the first. Approaching the cliffs beneath Sgurr nan Gillean - the southern end of the Rum Cuillin, which bares a remarkable resemblance to Gars Bheinn at the southern end of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye - gannets were diving repeatedly while the gulls crowded below, dispersing slowly as I approached. But the show was not quite over and as I paused, three porpoises passed more closely than I have ever seen them before. 
I watched as they made repeated passes, remembering eventually to take a picture, before leaving them to mop up in peace and moving on towards the cliffs of Rum.
Beneath the arch on the south-west corner of Rum - so calm was the sea that I paddled through it twice. I doubt many are fortunate enough to do so once. 
And so it continued, as the temperature soared so I paddled on beneath blue skies and rugged cliffs, exploring the coast in intricate detail, arriving eventually in the bay at Harris, well known for the Mausoleum resembling a Greek temple, constructed by the island's once owner, George Bullough. It is worth noting that close to high water, the sandy beach providing one of few landings in less calm conditions, is covered, leaving a boulder strewn shoreline, awkward to land upon, especially with a falling tide, in any conditions. I left the boat nestled among the boulders in the shallows, quickly refilling water containers from the burn before heading north once more.
Here, north of Harris, the cliffs grow in stature again, bold sweeping lines rising from sea level...
...deep caves cutting into their base, on this day offering welcome respite from the glare and burn of the sun.
Rounding the shattered cliffs which form the north-west headland of Rum, a sea eagle circled above - on such calm seas it was a simple enough matter to extract a longer lens from the day hatch and switch but by the time I had done so, the eagle was being mobbed by a pair of ravens, all three birds rapidly climbing and disappearing soon after.
I moved on quickly after that, passing the now familiar wreck of Jack Abry II...
...and heading in towards the wonderful beaches of Kilmory and what is perhaps one of the most finely situated camps I have enjoyed. The tide was low and there followed a period of shuttling gear to the grass above before the boat was light enough to manhandle above the boulder strewn tide line without damage. But before that I swam. If only every day's paddle could end so.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Another taste of Rum - full measure to follow

After one failed attempt to paddle around Rum, though we spent two nights on the island, and another on a separate occasion after paddling around Canna having crossed from Glenbrittle on Skye, it seemed time to get the measure of Rum. A small selection of images below.
A still night, looking across the Sound of Rum from a wonderfully situated camp on Eigg.
White sands among the skerries of Arisaig and another spectacular sunset...
...looking back on the crossing just completed - from the north east corner of Rum, direct to the skerries. One of the longest open crossings I've made I think, certainly when paddling alone - approximately 35km - all of it except for half an hour in the middle when the wind dropped completely, with a F4/5 on the beam, and the final 12km with a good F5 headwind. And for a stretch of water with little tidal movement, there were some interesting things occurring in the middle of the Cuillin Sound. A spectacular trip - the full measure to follow.

Friday, 29 April 2016

High Street by Mardale Ill Bell

The summit of High Street on the eastern edge of the Lakeland fells is an entirely unremarkable spot. In the clag, it might be described as miss-able, literally so often enough, there being only two features of significance and both man made - the trig point and the wall. But on a clear evening, it provides a grandstand view of the central fells equaled only by the views from Grassmoor or perhaps Esk Pike. 
And despite the featureless nature of the summit, approaching via Small water and Nan Bield gives a fell run which though short overall provides one of the best descents in the area, via the long ridge of Riggindale.
The only level section of the ascent, approaching Small Water...
...lit by a shaft of sunlight moments later approaching the col above.
The climb continues after Nan Bield but soon eases with long views to the western fells beneath dramatic skies.
I detoured from the ridge to look down onto Hayeswater (to the west, rather than Haweswater to the east of the ridge), before making a beeline for the trig point.
This was the view I had come for - Fairfield beyond Gray Crag and Hartsop Dodd, Great Gable the unmistakable summit in the distance, left of frame.
The crags of Kidsty Pike, lit briefly by the sun and looking promising for a route or three - worth investigating perhaps, I've yet to consult the book.
And this the descent that made the effort going up worthwhile - dropping to the first minor col before a steeper section on which some care is required if taken at any kind of speed. To the left is the valley of Riggindale, home to England's last golden eagle - so far there have been no sightings this year.
Looking down on Blea Water - one of four tarns in the Lakes of this name, this the deepest I believe - before putting the camera away and enjoying the last few miles without interruption. Not bad for a short evening after work. One week later and the fells are white once again.