Summertime, and the living is … busy

Paddling across the ClydeI think it might be a Scottish phenomenon but, when the weather improves, suddenly life gets very busy. What should be the lazy days of summer are filled with a mad compulsion to get out and make the most of the weather before it changes back to wind and rain (which, let’s face it, could happen any minute).  Indeed, it took me a few years of living in permanently sunny climes to resist this urge, to realise that it never rains in California and therefore there was no urgency to, say, complete all my outdoor activities in the space of 3 days.  Back in Scotland, however, we cannot take anything for granted, therefore, when a spell of good weather appears, one feels the need to cram in all gardening, kayaking, hiking, biking, house-painting, window-cleaning etc etc activities at once. Indoor activities, such as housework and working for a living, tend to get neglected. If you’re not careful, it can get stressful.

Of course, not getting out on the water during a spell of good weather, in particular an actual stable high pressure system is, I’m fairly certain, a criminal offence.  With this in mind, we have been hitting the sea on a regular basis by way of outings of varying locations, durations and companions.

Friendly porpoise

Friendly porpoise

Back and forth across the Clyde

A highly memorable trip was one undertaken by just Alan and myself. That statement is no reflection on our excellent paddling friends, but relates to the fact that it was our wedding anniversary and the conditions were, in all respects, perfect. We put in at the bottom of our street and headed across the Clyde to Inverkip. We were only a few minutes into our journey when we saw a couple of porpoises swimming nearby. I anticipated that, upon sensing our presence, they would hasten away as porpoises usually do. But these two were different, they proceeded to approach us, getting closer and closer until they were within a few feet of our kayaks. They were quite unperturbed and, I imagine, were probably intent on feeding on whatever delicacies abounded in that vicinity. I actually prefer, however, to imagine that they were saying “hello”. Anyway, it made my day.

Inverkip Power Station wildlife haven

Inverkip Power Station wildlife haven

Eventually, we parted company, bidding our porpoise friends farewell, and headed across the river. Towards the eastern coast, we came across the famous 78-foot yacht, Drum (formerly owned by Simon Le Bon and now Arnold Clark), looking very smart indeed. Upon reaching Inverkip power station, we rediscovered the little wildlife haven there, where we encountered eider ducks, nesting cormorants and starlings, shags, guillemots, masses of tiny moon jellyfish and more. We heard some clanking sounds and I understand that some dismantling work is now being conducted. It has been rumoured for some years now that the landmark chimney of the unused power station is to be taken down and that, indeed, the power station will be demolished to accommodate 800 new houses which will make the village of Inverkip a very busy place indeed. Of course, it remains to be seen.

Collecting rubbish ... could be here a while

Collecting rubbish ... could be here a while

Departing Inverkip, we made landfall on a quiet stretch of coast just ahead of Lunderston Bay where we had lunch. Being sensitive to such matters, we began to notice various bits of plastic on the beach. Alan then dug out rubbish bags and started his own one-man beach clean-up. After a short time, which involved delving into the undergrowth (mistake), it became clear that this could evolve into a task of mammoth proportions, requiring a small team of assistants and a bin lorry. Not having those on hand, he did what he could with some input from me. Every little helps.

Returning to Dunoon

Returning to Dunoon

We stopped briefly at the very busy Lunderston Bay in order to deposit the collected rubbish, before proceeding north to the Cloch Lighthouse which is always a photogenic stopping point. The sun had shone brightly all day and a bit of a breeze had got up as we paddled back across the Clyde to Dunoon. This made the conditions pleasantly interesting and we felt invigorated by the time we reached Dunoon for a tea-stop at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.  What better way to celebrate our anniversary!

Ailsa Craig must wait

After our recent sojourn on the South Ayrshire coast, the fire of ambition had been lit for a crossing to Ailsa Craig. And so it was planned that we should make an attempt during a continuing spell of settled weather. The day did not get off to a good start for me. Alan was away conducting a training course, and I had to undertake the arduous task of organising myself without a support crew (solo paddlers will have no sympathy, I know). I opened the curtains at 6 am that Sunday to find a small roe deer staring back at me having, I soon learned, consumed half of our garden already. OK, I exaggerate, but he had made significant inroads. Suffice to say, this summer’s roses and strawberries are now cancelled, but thankfully, the veggie plot remains intact. Who knows what apocalyptic scene would have greeted me if I’d got up at 7 am. In the process of chasing the deer, I lost a cat. (I spent the majority of the journey down to Ayrshire absorbed in frantic texting to Alan who co-ordinated communications with our neighbour and … well, to cut a long story short, the cat was behind the TV. Fortunately, I wasn’t driving).   I managed to turn my attention to paddling by the time we reached Lendalfoot.

Setting out for Ailsa Craig

Setting out for Ailsa Craig

A bit lumpy

A bit lumpy

At this point, we noted that it wasn’t quite the balmy, windless day that we’d hoped for. Nonetheless, we gamely set out for the unmissable lump of rock that dominated the scene.  I noted that conditions were not entirely calm and a small doubt crossed my mind – the all-too-familiar thought of, “Well, this is fine … but what if it gets worse?”. This was heightened by my awareness that 2 coaches in our number had taken up the rear and were having a bit of a conference. My spider senses anticipated a possible outcome and, indeed, Lewis called us to a meeting where he explained the realities of the conditions in which we found ourselves. Basically, the sea state suggested that there was more weather activity further south and local knowledge indicated that the wind would increase as the day went on, making the return crossing in particular a potential challenge. Being that the crossing is 2.5 hours long and fairly exposed, and not being in the mood for any epics, those words of wisdom were certainly good enough for me. Everyone else seemed to manage to hide their disappointment very well as we settled on a coastal paddle instead. As Dave said, Ailsa Craig isn’t going anywhere  – unless of course there’s a tectonic plate shift (hey – I’ve seen the putrid trash movie “2012”, you know).

Heading south

Heading south

We paddled northwards to Girvan and had lunch on the beach. Then, as we headed back south, the wind duly did get up and conditions became a bit more challenging, but in a very good way. Albeit that it was a long drive for a coastal paddle, it did provide us with some practice in bigger swell than one usually experiences further north on the Clyde. I always hugely appreciate the chance to broaden my abilities in the company of proficient potential rescuers good friends.

Alan adjusts my Isel

Alan adjusts my Rockpool Isel

A short hop to Bute

Alan was back on the scene last weekend, with the weather still holding, albeit a little breezy. We intended to go across to Bute on the Saturday, and even had the kayaks on the car roof, but the wind and a total lack of oomph on my part made us turn around. By Sunday, my energy levels had improved and, we thought, so had the wind. The crossing to Bute was very tranquil to the point of  – apart from the spectacular scenery – well, a tiny bit boring (did I just say that?). We paddled south along the Bute coast for a bit, then swapped kayaks and returned to Craigmore for a tea-stop. Alan had been coveting admiring my Isel and had requested a test drive. Even although its design is intended for a smaller person, he did manage to squeeze in and get a flavour of the delights of Isel ownership (of which I have raved extensively). Upon enjoying a cuppa in the tearoom, Alan, who was facing the window, noticed that the weather was changing in front of him. The flat calm had been replaced by a vigorous breeze. There was even some surf on the beach! Torn between waiting to see if it would settle, and making a run for it, we decided on the latter, just in case matters got worse. If we were going to do wind, I wanted my Isel back and Alan graciously obliged. We jumped into our kayaks, reversed into the surf and turned to face the elements.

Who ordered wind?

Who ordered wind?

The northwesterly breeze would be fairly described as a quartering wind and provided us with some decent waves to negotiate as we battered our way eastwards. We adopted a PLF (paddle like … fury) strategy, keeping close together and, before we knew it, we were in the shelter of the Toward shore. Being that Alan and I have not spent a lot of time in such conditions all on our own, our reaction was perhaps understandable – yes, high-fives and big grins all round! It felt like a small step forwards in our self-sufficient paddling evolution, and one that we really enjoyed.

And in between trips, we’ve been hopping over to the Royal West club in Greenock for practice evenings, the most recent one involving lots and lots of rescues: self-rescues, assisted rescues and rolls, including Alan’s first ever (and entirely unheralded) re-entry and roll.

So, to summarise, we’ve been busy spending the days paddling, and this is very much a good thing. With the news of the unending Gulf oil catastrophe which will affect us all one way or another (and which, especially as kayakers who love the sea, leads us to a place of deep despair), all we can do is turn our attention to what we have now, to moments filled with beauty and wind and saltwater and birds and porpoises.

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am ageing and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”
Annie Dillard

Never too much of a good thing

There is a Zen saying that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I have come to realise a slightly adapted version of this, which is: “When the kayaker is ready, the paddling opportunities will come.” This has certainly been the way of things lately. When Alan and I started out, we didn’t know any other kayakers.  We then made friends down at Garnock and, now, we find similarly minded folks right on our very doorstep, providing no shortage of opportunity to get out on the water. It’s a truly wonderful thing.

Misty Holy Loch

Last weekend saw several of those folks stranded on the “wrong” side of the water. Those of us on the Cowal side had intended to meet our friends at Kilcreggan, however, a thick, pea-souper of a fog had descended upon Greenock. Not possessing any suicidal tendencies, our friends quite sensibly abandoned any plans to cross the Clyde shipping channel. Sadly, therefore, they missed out on the beautiful sunny window that had opened over the Cowal Peninsula. We gazed over at the fog-enshrouded gloom in disappointment, which was only assuaged by blue skies, sunshine and beautiful scenery as we made our way from the Holy Loch to Dunoon and a hot cuppa at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.

Heading for the Kyles

Paddling in the Kyles

This weekend saw everyone gathered on the “right” side of the water where more blue skies and sunshine, if not exactly balmy temperatures, beckoned us out for a paddle from Toward to the East Kyles of Bute. After a great deal of deliberation, Alan decided that this would be the day of his “official” return to the world of sea kayaking after a nearly 4 months’ absence due to injury (give or take a couple of short practice outings). It was really excellent to have him back. Also a little strange. I confess to having become a bit “precious” about organising my kit, and I did try not to show my irritation upon discovering bits of his kit appearing in “my” Ikea bag. On the other hand, it’s awfully nice to have someone help you tug your mukluks off (paddlers will understand) at the end of a day’s exertions.

Taxi for Alan

Taxi for Alan

The wind was coming from the NNW  at about 20 kph as we headed straight into it on the way up the Kyles. Fortunately, the sun was out sufficient to keep us from freezing, despite the 3°C temperature and, indeed, my hands became quite sweaty in my pogies. I watched Alan with some concern, hoping that he wasn’t at risk of undoing all the hard physio work he’d undertaken in order to heal, but he assured me that he was feeling fine.  It seemed like the wind was picking up a bit as we pulled into shore for a spot of lunch. Most conveniently, our lunch site sported a rope swing, the temptation of which was too great to resist. Several of us let loose with our inner child and were soon flying through the air in a state of reckless abandon.

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Returning was a quite different experience, with the wind now behind us. We soon established that, at the rate we were being pushed along, we were acquiring 2-3 knots of wind and tidal assistance. It took me all my time not to pull out a newspaper and make a cup of tea as we coasted along. As the waters exiting the Kyles met up with their relations exiting Loch Striven, however, things became a little livelier and required a return of all hands on paddles as we negotiated a bit of F4 chop. The optimists within our party had anticipated that it might be possible to not have to skirt around the fish farm at the southern end of Loch Striven, however, such hopes were obliterated upon meeting up with the rather chunky cables and pipes inconsiderately placed between the shore and the fish cages.  And so we laboured through the chop all the way around the fish farm. Suddenly Alan was making excellent progress as, momentarily distracted from his injury, he had hit the “turbocharger” button on his kayak (a well-known bonus feature of the Nordkapp). I continued to enjoy and appreciate my Rockpool Isel, which took the turbulence in its stride.

A January roll

A January roll

Soon we were back in the calmer waters of Toward. As we approached our destination slipway, not happy with a successful day’s paddling, Alan decided to test out his roll. I am pleased to report that it was present and correct, thus motivating the rest of us to duly pat him on the back and declare him mad (but in a good way).

And, speaking of resurfacing, the Cowal Kayak Club is now providing yet more opportunities to paddle. The Friday night pool sessions have re-started and future trips are in the works. If I’m not careful, this paddling thing could become a bit of an obsession …

Winter Kayaking

As we awoke to a temperature of -2°C, crystal blue skies and the glistening waters of the Clyde within view, it was hard to resist the call of our kayaks. Having said that, it was also hard to resist remaining tucked up under the duvet. There’s something about a combination of freezing temperatures and the close proximity of water that causes an instinctive physical recoil. Yet, we are fortunate enough to have the cold-weather kit that’s required to enable us to get out on the water despite the chilly conditions, so – as often is the case – it really was all (or mostly) in the mind.

Insufficient daylight hours ruled out a very long paddling trip, so we kept things local. Of course, these local journeys happily coincide with being a more environmentally conducive approach than travelling by car for many miles to gain access to the sea. With the smörgåsbord of idyllic paddling locales that is presented by Scotland, however, it is hard to strictly adhere to this principal.

We were drawn northwards by incredibly beautiful scenery, consisting of snow-dusted hilltops on all sides. A fantastic day for photography, we thought! Alan struggled a little with moisture on the camera lens and – as I discovered upon applying it to my sunglasses – a spongey, fake chamois serves only one purpose and that is to fog and smear the lens further. Alas, we had forgotten to take a proper lens cloth with us. This was cruelly confirmed upon our return to discover that barely a handful of photographs (seen here) were worth salvaging out of the many besmeared and blurrily vague renderings revealed on the laptop. No amount of hours spent with Photoshop will save the majority. There lies lesson number one of winter kayaking photography.

As much as we were toasty in our triple-layered fleeces and encompassing drysuit (plus BA and kayak, of course), our hands – being exposed to water drips – became quite cold despite wearing neoprene gloves. This was especially felt upon reaching the Holy Loch where a northerly breeze was blowing, albeit gently. We decided to have a snack at that point and, being that I didn’t necessarily want to feed the eider ducks with my salted peanuts, I decided to take my gloves off momentarily. I instantly regretted this as the cold then felt by my hands brought tears to my eyes and I clumsily fumbled my gloves back on accompanied by a great deal of whining stoic fortitude.

As we paddled on the Holy Loch, I found myself contemplating what it was like there when the loch was host to a US Naval base and the odd nuclear submarine that that entailed. The very notion felt quite incongruous – that such a beautiful area could be so militarised, but one need only paddle up the Gareloch to see a modern-day example of the same. I have recently read On Celtic Tides by Chris Duff and, proving the concept of “six degrees of separation” (or even fewer), I was interested to note that the author was formerly stationed at the Holy Loch as a US Navy diver. Indeed, that very posting played a part in inspiring him to undertake his circumnavigation of Ireland at a later date, the subject of the book.

As we headed over to the east side of the loch, we were assailed by shouts of our names and soon spotted our neighbour bounding down to the shoreline to greet us, once again proving that it’s a small world (well, it definitely is in Cowal). It was tempting to request a lift home in his van (where there would surely be plenty of room for 2 kayaks), but we refrained. Instead, we headed back out of the loch and turned south into the blinding sunshine. Applying our recently improved navigational skills, Alan informed me of what heading he was on, however, this was a bit superfluous considering I couldn’t even see my compass. A quick game of chicken with Western Ferries and we were soon past Hunter’s Quay and approaching Dunoon – at least I think it was Dunoon, having only the smell of kebabs to go by.

With immaculate timing, we stepped out of our kayaks just as the sun disappeared behind the hills, resulting in an instant plummet in the temperature from almost bearable, to get-me-home-to-a-hot-shower-right-now levels. Taking the metal j-bars off of our car roofrack upon our return was like fondling the contents of the freezer, and practically tore the skin off of our fingers. A speedy cold-water hose-down (of our kit, not us) was followed by a wonderfully hot shower and a cosy night by the fire that not even the disappointment of some botched photographs could spoil.