Articles from September 2009



Club trip to Glencoe and Loch Leven

Glencoe

Pap of Glencoe and Loch Leven

It was high time for a Garnock Canoe Club jamboree and one had duly been scheduled for last weekend. If I hadn’t known better, however, I would have wondered if the organisers weren’t trying to throw us off the scent in the communications leading up to our departure. The email entitled “Arisaig Trip” which informed us that the trip that had previously been moved from Arisaig to Oban had now been relocated to Glencoe, was especially confounding. Undaunted, we tracked everyone down to the Invercoe campsite in Glencoe on Friday evening. As various cars emptied out their occupants, something became apparent to me and that was a growing sense of being outnumbered. To explain: there was me, and then there were 10 chaps of the male persuasion. Which leads me to ask the question – oh, where were the women of Garnock? At least the conversation around the campfire didn’t resort to the usual stereotypical subject matter of football and cars (no, it was much worse than that).

Setting out on Loch Leven

Setting out on Loch Leven

I would like to say that I was up and about, bright and breezy on Saturday morning, but this was not the case at all. Unfortunately, Friday night had been claimed by the demons of insomnia from whom I receive occasional visitations. Once they appear, no amount of relaxation technique, yogic breathing, counting sheep or just plain wishing will get me to sleep. What starts as a small, nagging worry that I haven’t fallen asleep yet becomes a full-blown anxiety attack that I will be trapped in a torturous hell of sleep deprivation the following day, and, of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not to worry, I somehow managed to find myself sitting fully dressed in a drysuit and in a kayak on the waters of Loch Leven on Saturday morning. Not just any old kayak mind you, but a beautiful white Valley Avocet with black trim. After the very favourable impressions that had been made upon us during our week with Skyak Adventures, one thing had led to another and we were now taking a lovely, nippy wee day kayak out to play. Through the foggy haze (I refer to my sleepless state and not the weather conditions), I became aware of some truly astounding scenery as we paddled from our campsite eastwards to Kinlochleven. Majestic mountains prevailed, and it was wonderful to admire the Aonoch Eagach ridge from the water having climbed it some years ago. The conditions were most favourable, especially with the wind pushing us along.

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Upon reaching Kinlochleven, the environment began to take on more of a feel of a river, as opposed to a sea loch, as indeed the loch effectively becomes the River Leven (or that might actually be the other way around). The water narrowed in on us and became “gushy” in places, and there were lots of rocks. You can tell from my description that I am not a river kayaker. There are reasons for this, mostly relating to sharp, pointy rocks (did I mention those?), icy cold, moving water – er, and unrelenting fear. Regardless, some members of our group saw this as an excellent opportunity to toss their kayaks about the rocks. I started to believe that my tired state was causing hallucinations when I then saw bodies floating down the river, but it seems that certain individuals had abandoned their vessels altogether in favour of engaging in a whole new sport the name of which eludes me (“unkayaking”? “drysuiting”?). Having no desire to scratch wreck our kayaks, or get icily cold, Alan and I sensibly decided to have some hot soup and pull up a chair to watch the other hardy souls from the sidelines.

Loch Leven

Garbh Bheinn, from Loch Leven

Whilst the rest of the group then embarked on an elaborate climbing exercise in order to consume their lunch on top of the riverbank, Alan and I, having dined already, decided to start heading back the way we’d come. Our progress was slowed by the wind which was now doing its best to place us in reverse gear. Around the half way point, my lower back was screaming for a rest and we pulled in to a pebbly beach. Here, a solo paddler in a Capella 163 came ashore and sat down with us for a chat. It seems that whenever I write about paddlers whom we happen to bump into on the water, to my delight they somehow later find my blog and make contact. Perhaps I will hear from this lady too. Anyway, let me just say, it was nice to enjoy the company of another female paddler.

Soon our group had caught up with us and quickly embarked on a challenging and manly survival exercise on the beach involving fire-building and slater-eating, in the manner of – I think I’m safe in saying – Ray Mears. I had dared to mention the name of Bear Grylls, which was greeted with snorts of derision from the guys. I wonder if female paddlers feel similarly? 😉

Making friends with guillemot

Making friends with a guillemot

At this point, Jordan graciously offered to swap kayaks with me in order for me to try out his Rockpool Isel. This is a relatively new Rockpool kayak, designed for the smaller paddler, and I have been very interested in learning more about it. To be able to try it out was an opportunity not to be missed. Well, let me just say – I like it very much! Whilst I cannot put a kayak through its paces in quite the way Jordan can, here’s what I did manage to observe:

  • What a great fit! Part of the trouble that I’ve had in assessing fit is that the majority of kayaks out there don’t fit the smaller person well – so how do you truly know what a good fit is until you actually encounter it? The Isel makes snug contact in all the places that matter, including the excellent thigh braces. I felt like the kayak fitted me, as opposed to me trying to fit it via outfitting (or eating pies).
  • After kayaking back the remaining half of the return journey, my back no longer hurt. The seat and lumbar support are exactly that, supportive.
  • My feet loved the footplate (versus foot pegs). I could feel the blood in my toes again. Such comfort.
  • The hard chines took me back to my Capella a little and edging seemed “stickier” than the Valley kayaks – obviously not an issue to the skilled paddler.
  • The Isel doesn’t turn quite as responsively (imho) as the Avocet, but it turns perfectly well nonetheless.
  • Despite tiredness to the extreme, a less than ideal set-up, and some gusty wind, I managed to roll the Isel. It wasn’t my prettiest roll ever due to the aforementioned, but the kayak simply has that feeling that suggests that you can rely on a roll even when conditions/you are less than perfect. I really like that feeling.

Meanwhile, it was fun to watch young Jordan making our Avocet dance in the water the way it was meant to. If kayaks had emotions, ours would have been very happy to have someone with such natural skill in charge.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

Before returning to our campsite, we detoured over to Eilean Munde, the “Burial Island” of Loch Leven. We stepped ashore to explore its many gravesites. I hadn’t realised that they were so numerous and it was interesting to read the inscriptions and examine the symbology (to use a Dan Brown kind of term), as well as to view the graves’ seemingly random placement across the island. Many of the slate gravestones seemed as new, no doubt scoured clean by the prevailing elements.

It was a short trip back to Invercoe where a hot shower followed by dinner in the smirry rain awaited. In danger of falling asleep as we sheltered in the car, Alan and I turned in for the night not long after 9 pm. Sleep came upon me like an anaesthetic and I would have known nothing of the party in the neighbouring tipi but for the impressive amount of recyclable materials and marked lack of perkiness that emerged from it in the morning, combined with the run on Powerade in the campsite shop.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

What with all the blustery wind and rain on Sunday morning, I was gutted to learn that no-one seemed keen to go and get soaked and freeze in the Falls of Lora as had been originally planned. But a consensus of reluctance had been reached and who was I to argue? So we packed up and made our way homewards. After having nearly lost our kayaks to the wind on the way over Rannoch Moor on the journey to Glencoe, we decided to take the less gusty route home via Oban. This took us past the said Falls of Lora where, to our surprise, we found other members of the Garnock club! Apparently, a second branch of the club had arrived for Sunday’s activities. As inviting as it was to get out and join them, Alan and I were in full “going home to cosy fireside” mode and, after stopping to chat briefly, proceeded on our way. I confess, however, that a slight pall hung over me as often occurs when left with the feeling of having missed out on something. Never mind, the cosy fireside was nice.

And so concluded a fun weekend in a beautiful location, in good company (despite there being gender disparities) … what more could you want? Apart from a good night’s sleep.

Loch Sween and the MacCormaig Isles

It was becoming apparent as the week went on that certain of the key elements contributing towards an ideal paddling outing were aligning into a perfect – not so much storm – as lull. First, a high pressure system was approaching and the forecast was therefore for clear skies, low winds and – get this – no rain. A proverbial Indian Summer, no less! Second, it was neap tides. And so we embarked on a frenzy of planning and decision making as to how to take full advantage of these freak conditions.

We’ve fancied a visit to Loch Sween for a while, having seen enticing photos and heard that it was a good sea kayaking spot in terms of scenery and wildlife. So it won out and we were on the road to Tayvallich first thing on Saturday morning. Upon arrival, another couple were putting in at the other side of the jetty from us and I tried not to make too obvious my glances over in their direction to compare gear (all in the interests of research, of course).

Leaving picturesque Tayvallich

Leaving picturesque Tayvallich

Strangely, Alan and I hadn’t even entered into the Great Wet Suit vs Drysuit Debate, before setting out. We’ve been doing so much immersion work lately that, combined with all the recent inclement weather, we’d become auto- programmed to pack our drysuits. As we set off from Tayvallich, I found myself longing not so much for my wetsuit as a swimsuit. I thought about rolling to cool off, but reckoned that trying to roll a fully laden kayak for the first time ever might result in some delay to our progress. I tried to ignore the fact that my neck seal appeared to be melting.

As we paddled south-west down Loch Sween, we were soon distracted by the beautiful scenery and mirror-like calm of the water. It was so calm, in fact, that we could easily see the many black starfish on the loch’s seabed. I still haven’t determined what they are all about, but have since been informed that they are only to be found in Loch Sween. We also saw several seals, including some of this year’s young.

Juvenile Common Seal, Loch Sween

Juvenile Common Seal, Loch Sween

It didn’t seem to take long to reach the Island of Danna, at which point we debated upon our course. As it was still fairly early in the afternoon, we thought about rounding Danna and heading up towards Carsaig Bay, but we felt that this might narrow our options for the following day. By continuing south-west instead, we would have the opportunity to explore the MacCormaig Isles, and to generally chill out. Rather than focusing on getting somewhere, it seemed like a nice idea to simply enjoy being somewhere instead.

And so we crossed the Sound of Jura to Eilean Ghamna. I say “crossed the Sound of Jura” because that reads better than “crossed a very small portion of the Sound of Jura”. Regardless, it felt like an achievement to be out on our own in the Sound, known for its powerful tides. The sea state even in such benign conditions made us realise just how challenging a location it must be in a bit more of a breeze. As we approached the islands, we encountered more seals and lots of Canada Geese who noisily flitted about – perhaps more of this year’s young practising flying.

St Cormac's Chapel, Eilean Mor

St Cormac's Chapel, Eilean Mor

We paddled west from Corr Eilean to Eilean Mor where we decided to set up camp. As we drew nearer, we could see the impact of wind against tide to the west of the island and decided to avoid that particular locale, paddling towards the anchorage bay instead. Eilean Mor is a popular spot for day visitors, being that it plays host to St Cormac’s 13th Century chapel, an early standing Celtic cross, a more recent Celtic cross, and St Cormac’s cave. St Cormac was a 7th Century Irish monk who apparently used the island as a retreat. It’s certainly away from it all, and perhaps its remoteness was the very reason that, showing no respect for heritage, the chapel was later used as an alehouse and for an illicit still (which goes to show that the conversion of former churches to nightclubs is not a modern phenomenon). There is even a little turf-roofed visitor’s bothy at the bay which anyone can enter and peruse the displays therein. As we erected our tent, 4 vessels stopping by for a quick visit. Only one group of passengers disembarked to explore further.

After that, we had the island to ourselves. Well, ourselves and the many, many little brown birds who squeaked about in colossal flocks. Their small size, generic brown-ness and complete inability to stay put made my attempts at identification a frustrating and unsuccessful exercise. Upon perusal of my bird books on returning home, however, I’ve determined that they may be twites. Then again, they may not.

Naturally, I was keen to get out of my dry suit, a process facilitated by the rending in two of my neck seal. It really had been melting! I’ve since learned that the probable culprit is sun tan lotion. Alan noticed that his neck seal was showing signs of perishing as well, as he gingerly removed his suit lest it should follow a similar fate. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about ventilation the following day.

Celtic Cross at Eilean Mor

Celtic Cross on summit of Eilean Mor

Just as we were preparing to climb up the hill to watch the splendid sunset, we noticed a large yacht at full sail on a course headed straight for us. I will confess here that my heart sank a little. For some reason, visions of gin-soaked deck parties into the wee hours filled my head. I do realise that this is yachtist and discriminatory, and the ongoing silence emanating from this sizeable vessel upon anchoring made me ashamed of my presumptions.

The laws of camping dictate that it is necessary for me to make the acquaintance of nature several times during the night. This had the advantage of affording me a view of the most spectacular, unpolluted night sky that I have seen in many years. Wow. I mean, just wow. As I wrestled with the tent zipper, I started thinking on how very tiny we are in the Grand Scheme of Things … and other deep thoughts.

Early morning, Sound of Jura

Early morning, Sound of Jura

We were up at dawn on Sunday morning and, after a quick breakfast, we packed up and were back on the water. We waved to the lone crewperson sitting out on the deck of the yacht and made our way back out on to the Sound. We were pleased to note that conditions hadn’t changed much at all from the day before. Regardless, we decided to head back to Loch Sween, even although travelling up the Sound to Carsaig would have been entirely do-able. It was simply the case that we wanted to explore scenic Loch Sween a bit more, including the Faery Isles at the northern end. Plus the car was parked in Tayvallich and a mile’s a long walk.

Breakfast time for otters

Breakfast time for otters

Against a magnificent backdrop of the Paps of Jura, we reached Corr Eilean and toyed with the idea of heading over to Eilean nan Leac. Instead we proceeded north-east back to Danna. This turned out to be a fortuitous choice as, upon cutting through the gap at Sgeir Dhonncha, up ahead we saw a small head in the water followed by a tail – an otter! We held back as he busily wrestled with his breakfast before hauling it ashore to devour. He seemed untroubled by our presence, although we were careful not to get too close. We were able to watch him for a good 10 minutes or so before he moved on to fishing grounds new.

Looking out to Jura from Loch Sween

Looking out to Jura from Loch Sween

As we paddled towards the eastern shore of Loch Sween, it occurred to me that early Sunday morning out on the water truly is the perfect time. It’s the time when it seems humanity is not quite awake yet and we have all of nature to ourselves. For that short period, nature is in charge and all is as it should be.

After a brief stop at Bagh na Doide, we continued northwards past the ruins of Castle Sween. As is usually the case, the return journey seemed longer than the outbound journey and, by the time we reached Eilean Loain, my injured shoulder was starting to hurt. It was nothing that a couple of ibuprofen couldn’t sort out and we were able to continue on to the Faery Isles whose beauty really was quite magical. It was very shallow in places which made me once again appreciate the benefits of being in a sea kayak with little draught.

Britney the coo

Britney the coo

After we’d finished our explorations, we turned south-west towards Tayvallich. One final treat awaited us as we entered the bay. On the north-western shore was a small herd of Highland cattle, several of whom were having a foot bath in the cool waters of the loch. We paddled over to them, fairly certain that they were not officially classified as “wildlife” and that it was therefore acceptable to get up a little closer for a photo opportunity. Indeed, they were unfazed by our approach and obligingly posed for our camera. It was at this time that I noticed that one “coo”, most fetchingly, had her hair in bunches! I kid you not. We could only surmise that she (for it must surely have been a female) had had some sort of vision problem which had been alleviated by the farmer, if not the local hairdresser.

I could scarcely believe that it was only approaching 3 pm when we stepped ashore and, as we headed back down the road to Cowal, I marvelled that it was only the previous day we’d left. Time is merely a vague concept when you are absorbed in each moment, and it’s only then that you are truly living.

Both sides of the story

Scottish summer weather

Scottish summer weather

Let me start by mentioning the weather situation here on the west coast of Scotland. This past August was the second wettest on record, as measured at Benmore Gardens near Dunoon. A full 410 mm of rain fell. For a kayaker, of course, getting wet isn’t necessarily an obstacle to enjoyment. Indeed, a river kayaker may positively relish such conditions, at least in terms of their impact on river levels. But for the sea kayaker of less-than-advanced skills, aside from visibility issues, the real deterrent is the wind which has accompanied the torrential rain, with gusts of anything up to 50 mph. This doesn’t exactly entice one outdoors, let alone on to the sea (or on to the rapidly developing patch of wilderness/swamp formerly known as the garden, for that matter). Not only that, the average maximum temperature for August was 18°C. I know that my overseas readership is finding this difficult to believe, especially those in, say, fiery California or sweltering Spain, for whom August is still officially classified as summer.

So perhaps I may be forgiven if I don’t have exciting blog posts filled with details of multi-day trips to beautiful, sun-baked Hebridean beaches. Or even wee jaunts down the Clyde. Instead, the conditions have only served to encourage our preoccupation with rolling practice in the pool and at the loch. At the risk of being a tiny bit boring – and going on the premise that a boring blog entry is slightly less boring than no blog entry at all – allow me to return to that very topic.

Alan has come on in leaps and bounds, finally mastering a sweep roll – on both sides. Months of working on his “bad” side have been followed by him discovering that his other bad side, ie the injured side (bear with me here) is actually now his good side. A pool session at Garnock last week, coached expertly by Harvey, produced great results which saw my role as rescuer becoming entirely redundant. Also thanks to the efforts of Harvey in teaching me what a decent sweep was really all about, and to the many suggestions from other experienced folks, my sea kayak roll has improved markedly. Three things have been key:

  • aforementioned sweep
  • watching the paddle blade
  • blade angle

On that latter point, I made an astounding discovery. When I first learned to roll at the pool, I found that my blade angle was improved by tweaking my leading wrist away from me, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Last weekend, I discovered that in my Nordkapp LV, possibly due to the differing body position upon set-up (ie I’m up much higher in the water than when in the pool kayaks and in other sea kayaks), I have to tweak my wrist towards me. This flat out surprised me as I realised that this especially had been my undoing all along. Whenever I’d been trying to “improve” blade angle, I’d actually been hindering myself further. Finally, I started rolling consistently.

On the other hand (so to speak), I have been completely neglecting my off side, choosing instead to try to make my right side “bombproof” first. I am a very right-sided person. Doing anything on my left feels weak and/or weird. So I knew that I would be starting essentially from scratch when I did move over to rolling up on the left. What I hadn’t factored in was the revival of an old mountain-biking injury from a few years ago.

I recall it was a March morning up on the forest trail. I was cruising along on the flat when suddenly my bike wiped out from under me upon hitting a patch of ice. I slammed into the trail, which caused me to writhe about helplessly in pain. I still have the shin dent to prove it. The worst of the injury was the tearing of the (rhomboid) muscular tissue between the shoulder and the spine which took some time to heal. And, at a certain age, one might argue that healing of such injuries is never quite complete or perfect. So it goes when attempting to engage a sweep roll on my left side that I cause whatever patchwork repair that occurred to start to unravel and my best friend soon becomes an ice pack. Of course, this only adds weight to my suspicion that I should have learned all this rolling stuff at age 12 (hi Jessica!).

Now I am facing the awareness that rolling on both sides may be a higher mountain to climb than I’d previously thought. When checking off the mental skills chart, in the entry against “rolling” I see a little asterisk beside my name which translates to “one side only”. Getting back to reality (I remember that!), there is also the annoying prospect of being unable to roll up against the waves because they are not on my “good” side.

I can’t help but note how, in rolling, my personal goalposts keep moving and it thus becomes rather like an emotional rollercoaster. It goes something like this:

  • Starting to learn to roll –> fear
  • Overcoming fear –> moderate contentment
  • Still can’t roll –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • First roll at the pool –> ecstasy!
  • Growing awareness that roll could be better –> dose of reality
  • Can’t roll sea kayak –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • First sea kayak roll –> ecstasy!
  • First sea kayak roll in rough water conditions –> best day ever!
  • Difficulty rolling own sea kayak –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • Continued difficulty rolling own sea kayak –> meltdown/tantrums
  • Rolling own sea kayak consistently –> happiness moderated by growing awareness of inability to roll on both sides
  • Can’t roll on both sides –> frustration and lowered self-esteem

That’s a lot for the old nerves to handle. Or should I say, the old ego. Good job that, at the end of the day, I can take a step back from it all and realise that it’s really the be all and end all only rolling.

If less is more, just think how much more more could be.” Frasier Crane