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 …

A freezing paddle around Great Cumbrae

cumbrae kayak preparation It seems I have a bit of catching up to do, so let’s begin with the small Ice Age recently endured by the UK, when “Arctic deep freeze” conditions were making daily headlines. That now famous satellite photo of a white and frozen Blighty was actually more than a little disturbing. It looked awfully like Greenland. I suppose this might explain why it seemed to have no negative impact upon the aspirations of my paddling pals, and may actually have served to encourage them. Indeed, I did try to keep in mind that using temperature (of -3°C that day) as an excuse for not going kayaking would not fly in Inuit circles. Not that I’m an Inuit, as I later confirmed.

And so, the put-in point was set for Largs with a view to a circumnavigation of at least one of the Cumbrae Islands. There was certainly a nip in the air as we exited the coffee shop at the Largs Marina and organised our gear on the shore. Enveloped in a drysuit, 3 interior layers, 2 pairs of socks, mukluks, pogies, a neck gaiter and fleece-lined cap, I felt sure I had (literally) covered all bases when it came to maximising my chances of staying warm.

Hungry robin

Hungry robin

A robin was quite gallusly hopping about our launch area and we concluded that, along with all the other birds and wildlife, he must have been hungry, being that a large portion of his regular food supply was presently frozen. I selflessly scattered a corner of my energy bar in his direction.

There wasn’t much in the way of wind as we headed over to Great Cumbrae. Heading southwards, we passed Millport and then the mountains of Arran came into view which, although a little clouded over, were nonetheless snowy and beautiful. Agreeing that we would not encompass Little Cumbrae in our journey this time around, we turned right at the Tan, at which point a friendly seal showed some moderate interest in Barrie’s and my whistling efforts.

Arran mountains

Arran mountains

I was feeling fairly happy in the awareness that, indeed, I was not experiencing much in the way of cold when we pulled in at Bell Bay on the west side of Great Cumbrae to enjoy lunch. I use the term “enjoy” loosely. To my surprise, another robin appeared to investigate our foodstuffs … or perhaps that energy bar had really worked wonders?! After imbibing various concoctions from our respective (thermos) flasks, it became apparent that there would be no further hanging about as a chill was descending rapidly. Sadly, footering about with flasks and snacks involves the removal of one’s pogies. I had brought neoprene gloves with me, but couldn’t even get them on as my hands were damp and numb with cold. I would have given my right arm for a pair of mittens! (Or, I suppose then I’d only need one mitten …). Not only that, I could feel the cold starting to seep through my various layers. So, with visions of hypothermia setting in, I began to PLF (Paddle Like – er, Fury) in order to generate some heat. I know that my companions wondered what it was that they’d said, or why I’d suddenly developed an inappropriately competitive streak, as I paddled off ahead of them without the merest thought towards group cohesion. This was a matter of survival! Alas, they could not see the tears of pain that I was shedding over my frostbitten fingers. Fortunately, my efforts worked and feeling and warmth gradually returned to my person.

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

We re-grouped before paddling eastwards back to Largs. It was a long slog back against the wind and there were moments when I could have sworn we were getting no closer to our destination. Upon arrival, the cold torture was not over, of course, as we then set about unpacking our kit, loading cars up etc. Once again, I cursed the absence of mittens, however, ever-thoughtful Julia produced a gel hand warmer for me to clutch in order to aid my hopeless efforts at knot-tying and general fumbling. This is the best invention ever! You can guess which section of the outdoor store I made a beeline for at the first opportunity.

It’s no surprise that during our excursions in the colder months, we are frequently interrogated by passersby, with comments ranging from the observant “Is it not cold out there?”, to the more judgemental “You must be insane” variety. I fear that our attempts to reassure everyone that we have a firm grasp of our sanity are not very effective – but they just don’t know what they’re missing!

Astronomical view of our tripUpon returning to the shores of Cowal, we discovered that (still injured, but now healing) Alan had been busy in our absence. Left to his own devices, the thought had occurred to him that the inventive use of one astronomical telescope and a camera might produce results. Indeed, he managed to locate us at the northern end of Great Cumbrae from a distance of 7 miles! This is quite a technological breakthrough, I feel and just goes to prove that, even when you think you’re not being watched, quite possibly you are!

Big Brother is watching you.
1984, George Orwell

A winter’s paddle

If someone had told me earlier this year that most of my kayaking would be done in the winter months, I would have pointed out the error of their assumptions. As it turns out, it seems that my paddling gear has barely had time to dry before I am back out on the water during these shorter, colder days. As I have perhaps mentioned, it’s been my very good fortune to find friends who are enthusiastic and serious kayakers and for whom a little cold weather is no reason to forego a good day out on the water.

Last Saturday was one such cold day. As we were enjoying some settled conditions, however, it seemed guaranteed to be sunny. Winter sunshine provides some of the best lighting for photography. With that in mind, Alan (who is still healing from injury) accompanied us in order to provide a roving shuttle service and land support where needed, as well as on-shore photography.

Kayakers on Loch Fyne

Kayakers (and ducks) on Loch Fyne

Suitably attired in warm paddle-wear, our group launched at picturesque Otter Ferry and the low sun lit up the landscape as we crossed Loch Fyne. We landed at a small beach and, failing to find a 4 star eating establishment, we consumed our respective packed lunches, compensated by the beauty of the scenery before us. The sun managed to keep the temperature bearable.

 

Scottish sea kayaker in winter plumage

Scottish sea kayaker in winter plumage

At this point, it is useful to note what constitutes adequate and warm apparel for cold-weather paddling. I find I am perfectly toasty in a decent fleece base layer and a drysuit, accompanied by mukluks, a neck gaiter and – my latest prized possession – a fleece-lined Gore-Tex cap with earflaps. The appendages most at risk of freezing off a kayaker are, however, the hands. I have tried neoprene gloves, but find that they alter my grip of the paddle to the extent that certain wrist/arm tendons start to hurt after a while. I also haven’t found them especially warm. Since I’ve taken possession of borrowed Alan’s Kokatat pogies, however, I have decided that they are my accessories of choice as they do a great job of keeping the icy breezes off of your hands whilst allowing you to grip the paddle shaft as you would normally.

Synchronise your paddles

Synchronise your paddles

Following lunch, we ferry glided our way back over Loch Fyne and made for Castle Lachlan by sunset. At this point in the journey, the sky started to really put on a performance, glowing with the most beautiful pastel and russet hues. We spotted Alan’s car by the shore as he stopped to take pictures of us. He then drove on in order to take photos of us landing at Castle Lachlan where, inspired by the recent photographic achievements of a certain well-known Scottish paddler, we practised some synchronised paddle strokes under the direction of Wing Commander Andy. All that was missing were some vapour trails.

Sunset at Castle Lachlan

Sunset at Castle Lachlan

Our arrival at the ruin of Castle Lachlan was almost exactly timed with the sun finally going down around 3.30 pm. This in turn coincided with an immediate decline in temperature. Upon withdrawing my hands from my pogies and hauling my kayak ashore, I instantly lost contact with my fingers to the point that I was almost launching a search for them along the shoreline. I have never known such rapid freezing of digits! Our group quickly abandoned the kayaks and beat a path to the nearby InverCottage Restaurant where – oh bliss – a cosy fireside awaited. I took urgent advantage of the empty seat next to the hearth and all but crawled into the fireplace. Alan had to point out that my fingers were melting before I would remove them. Tea, coffee and hot choc all round ensured that we soon thawed out sufficient for some of our party to venture back out in order to retrieve cars from our launch point. The rest of us volunteered to “look after” the kayaks – an onerous duty involving a good deal of mutual reassurance that the kayaks would probably be fine as we continued to warm ourselves by the fire.

Upon returning home, Alan and I reviewed our collective haul of photos. The trouble with having 2 photographers at work is that there are (at least) twice the number of photos to sift through. Still, such superb conditions warranted ample recording. I’m sure that there will be plenty of duller days to spend reflecting on a perfect winter’s day of paddling.