Tuesday, 18 September 2007

A Theory of Relativity

Sometimes, it seems as if kayaking is a window on another dimension, as if it allows a casual disregard for the usual inexorable passing of time in our carefully-measured world. Moving along Ravenglass estuary at a rate of knots with the incoming tide, we should have been only too aware of time's passing, measured as it was by a whopping six foot range between high and low tide. Instead, we entered a small eddy in the time-space continuum. All around us, land changed to water in a matter of moments, but somehow internal clocks changed little, and if anything, slowed.

Herons flocked to feed in the minutes of low water. Odd, bill-hook silhouettes of curlews screamed off in our wake. The kayaks lodged onto gritty banks and we zig-zagged from one flank to the other as the ducks did overhead. In the hissing of rushes we got out on a sand bank only to find that it disappeared beneath incoming water in seconds.

The tide changed, and we returned to Ravenglass. The estuary now full, it was as if we were paddling in an entirely different place. Somehow, we had glimpsed another world, where time had relaxed its incessant grip on reality. For a time at least, it was a wonderful place to be.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Skye reflections...

A few more photos of Skye...

Paddling towards the Cuillin...well, towards the Old Inn at Carbost if the truth be known...

Smashing wee moo, aye.

Wooo, spooky manor house again.

A rather interesting feature of the old mill at Pootiel Bay...

This place put the wind up us a bit...the atmospheric Eilean Munde graveyard, home to those massacred at Glencoe in 1692, and their clan chief, MacIain. Ironically, the short paddle out to the island provided us with some of the strongest down-draughts we'd experienced. We couldn't get off the island quick enough. It felt like an odd place.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Between Sea and Skye

The Isle of Rona

I think with hindsight, the two weeks spent on Skye will feel like a monumental experience that sealed our fate as sea kayakers-in-the-making.

Perhaps it was naïve to expect settled enough conditions to do multi-day camping trips, and in the event, we did none….but gained experience in a way which was probably far more condensed, and far more valuable.

Armed with just a little bit more equipment than a Honda Civic can carry, we set up a Control Room that James Bond would be proud of. Each and every trip out on the water had its own challenges, and none, from the shortest of several hundred metres, to the longest of day trips, were easy or uneventful. It was an incredible forging of experience.

So here we go. Join me on a journey through the seascapes of Skye. With the odd cycle ride and run thrown in for good measure.

The Grizzly Isles: Dunvegan to Stein

Our first trip had to be the well-worn beginners’ classic from Dunvegan to Stein. Past seal colonies, coral beaches, isles with a less than placid past, it’s a must-do kayaking trip. Oh, and the cracking, shoreline pub at the end had something to do with it as well...

It was with trepidation that we made the short crossing to Isay. To say that this unassuming Isle had an interesting past is an understatement. A dip into Hamish Haswell-Smith's excellent treatise on the Scottish islands reveals that the 16th century manor house at the southern end of the island was the site of the gruesome, and it has to be said, spectacularly ill-thought out murder of two entire families in a single sitting. Roderick MacLeod took it upon himself to wipe out everyone closer in line to the inheritance of Raasay than his own grandson by inviting them to a banquet, then stabbing them one by one, in sequence. Hmm...I hope he didn't skimp on the canapes...

The Manor House on Isay...

Looking back to Isay and Stein after some very nice beers

The Day that Will Hereafter Be Known as the Uig Experience...

It started off much like any other day. The same woefully inadequate text message forecast for Inshore Waters, the same web forecast for Force 4, freshening to 5 or 6...We had already become accustomed to the blustery Skye weather systems which had burst into life as soon as we arrived. We had though, concocted a series of devilishly cunning plans to avoid the worst of the winds by sheltering in the lee of one or other of Skye's great northern peninsulas. Today it was the turn of Trotternish's western shore, at Uig. Our plan was to paddle west and then south into the sheltered waters of Loch Snizort before the "freshening to 5 or 6" took hold. Things started off very calmly, sheltered as we were in the perfect cove of Uig. In retrospect, what was remarkable about unfolding events was the seamless and inexorable progression from calm to interesting to strange to scary to "arrgghhh". As we crossed the mouth of Camas Beag, the waves were definitely scary. And it was only going to get worse. So we took the only course of action and dived into the imagined haven of Camas Beag. Trouble was, here, the waves were in direct line with the screaming wind gusting Force 5 or 6 from the Atlantic, with only the flimsy filigree of the Outer Hebrides landmass to question its path. So we were by no means out of the water, as it were.

Not sure whether we were going to have to perform a surf landing either, tensions were running a little high for my tastes. Through thick layers of neoprene, goretex laminate and buoyancy aid, my heart rate had soared to about 200. It seemed as if the nightmare would never end, as wave after wave sideswiped the kayak, somehow managing to remain on top of it, yet unsure of when it would all come to a crashing and predictable end. Yet of course, it did. And we survived. Pushing the bows of the kayaks onto the rocky shores of Camas Beag with the eagerness of those who think they've probably cheated death, or at least the coastguard call, we assessed our situation.

I tried to remind myself of passages of Laurence Gonzales' book, Deep Survival, knowing that all it took to turn a situation like this into a survival situation was a mere wrong decision, a whim. We had two choices. To go back out in "that" and head for Uig, or to abandon ship and somehow lug the kayaks out to the road a kilometre away. Well, we really only had the one option and so we set about carrying bags and kayaks out up very steep, hairpinned paths for the afternoon. In the event, the physical hardship was a mere pecadillo in comparison to the alternative option.

A salutary kayaking day, and one which in reality was probably not that serious, but had tested us enough for us to know more about our limitations. A good thing on all counts.

Cycling on Vertical Tarmac: the Tour of Raasay

A tactical withdrawal from kayaking was called for at this stage, and so by way of relaxation, we decided, perhaps a little misguidedly, to cycle the length of Raasay. Perhaps we should have looked a little closer at the writhing bunches of contours, and the fact that the road crosses up and over the spiney little isle not once, but twice. In any case, the road started off nicely, through fields and glades, but quickly started racking upwards across open moorland. As we passed through the cloud base, it started to get a little more daunting. Still, we raced downhill, until we came to the second of the island crossings. At this point, we change from Highways Agency road building to Calum MacLeod's spectacular piece of engineering doggedness. In the face of the local council refusing to cut a road to the isolated Arnish community, and all his neighbours threatening to leave as a result, he spent 10 remarkable, persistent years digging out a road with handtools. 2 miles of this is extraordinary enough, but seeing the terrain in the flesh leaves you prickly with the thought of carving anything out of this incredibly hard, 5 Billion year old Lewisian gneiss. It would be churlish of me to say that I wished he hadn't bothered as every atom of my being was under tension trying to ride a bike up these vertical tarmac shutes. It was the closest thing I've experienced to a roller coaster ride. The bitter sweet footnote to Calum's labour was that by the time it was finished, all the other inhabitants had left.

By the time we retraced our double ascents of Raasay's peaks back to the ferry, I think I know how Calum must have felt.

Running Amongst the Needles

Maybe it was the kilometre hike with 2 kayaks, or the entire body strain involved in heaving bikes up vertical Lewisian gneiss, but it was clear that we might peak too soon, so an easy day was called for. I went for a run in the Quirang through thick mist. An incredible environment to run in.

Leave No Stone Unturned

It is a rare thing indeed to find yourself bowled over by something funny, touching and beautiful all at once. It is even rarer to find that this state has been achieved not by Nature alone, but by man's place in it.

Rounding Neist Point Lighthouse on another heinous, hilly bike ride, there it was. Out where the land meets the sea, a jagged, rocky, tilting line of stones. Was it a particularly badly-made drystone wall or what? As we got nearer, it became clear. These strangely wobbly pyramids had been built by people visiting the point.

Someone had obviously started it, and things had snowballed from there... All of humanity seemed to be here in some form or other - some stone piles funny, others poignant. Some had the acrobatic grace of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, others the sturdiness of Fred Dibnah's art. This perfectly scaled down Stonehenge was a favourite. We built our own little monument of our visit- built on a foundation of solid engineering principles, capped by a topstone ripped through with quartz veins.