Tuesday, August 25, 2009

SusExp 2009: Epilogue

I'm currently writing a kind of epilogue with some reflections on trip and what I've learned. Please come back at the end of the week and this will be done.

In the meantime, if you're reading about the Skye rip, I'd suggest starting from Day -1, tempting as it is to read about the last day immediately below.

Thanks for the interest!

Friday, August 21, 2009

SusExp 2009 Day 11: Staffin to Portree (29km)

I’m sitting in my flat starting the well interrupted writing of the expedition blog, starting with the last day of the trip as it’s what I remember best and hopefully it will set the standard for the rest of the writing. I want to make this a good write up, not just about the sustainable expeditions side of it, but also a more holistic perspective looking at expedition life and the dynamic of human relationships.

So, the alarm went off at 8.30am, it was a beautiful sunny morning, the best morning light yet. I unset the tent under a cloud of midges then went for a walk along the shore for one of my final roll-ups – the end of the expedition was supposed to tie in with stopping smoking – and a poo with a view. Looking across to Raasay, Rona, Applecross and Torridon, I enjoyed both! Poo is always a bit taboo, so I’ll bring it up. You could have an in depth discussion about what to do with poo and lots of organisation have their own best practice. I would/do follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code recommendations for human waste:

“If you need to urinate, do so at least 30m from open water or rivers and streams. If you need to defecate, do so as far away as possible from buildings, from open water or rivers and streams, and from any farm animals. Bury faeces in a shallow hole and replace the turf.”

So I woke Sam up from his coastal sleep in the bivvy bag at 9.15am – we were trying to be away by 11am, so it would yet again be a push to get away on time.

As usual, things didn’t happen as fast as I would have liked, but nevertheless, they happened. Sam kept the fire going through the night with some wood he’d prepared before, but it was a warm night and he said he got too warm! The fire was still going, when we started making breakfast, but it was near the end of the expedition and neither I or Sam had the patience to cook on a fire. So Sam had his uncooked porridge oats with powdered milk and water, and I had scrambled egg with salad (eggs and salad from Isle of Skye Fresh Produce Company) with Stornoway black pudding.

We got on the water at 11.45am – not too bad I guess, but it was now a race to be in time for a meeting with the West Highland Free Press for arrival photographs. The water was flat and the visibility slightly hazy which made it an atmospheric paddle.

Setting off south along the coast we paddled down the steep cliff coast with enjoying the interesting geology and the flat water.

Had lunch of the usual oatcakes with cheese, and also indulged with some popcorn that Sam had brought, plus a wee bit more Skye Fudge! Carrying on along the coast the Old Man of Storr came in and out of view with the intermittent cloud.

We could see Holm island in the distance, a nice comfort, knowing it was under 10km from there or Portree. Sam tried a bit of fishing where the fish were rising – sand eels maybe being chased by something, or breeding? – but no joy.

Onwards we paddled, excited and fuelled by the fact it was only a matter of hours now until we were finished.

We rounded the blind corner and Camas Ban came into sight (only this time there was a huge cruise ship in the bay). The ravens were characteristically soaring at the top of the ridge in a haunting way

Further round Portree harbour, the yachts, the lifeboat, the colourful houses came into view.

And a few minutes later we hand landed – we had done it!!

A quick hug and congratulations for each other then Willy Urquhart, the West Highland Free Press photographer asked us to get back in our boats and paddle in and out a few more times!! After this brief photo shoot and a quick chat, we pulled our boats up, opened a few beers from Isle of Skye Brewery, and got some fish and chips.

After emptying the boats and packing the car we set off to find a campsite up north close to White Wave Outdoor Centre to drop the boat off. We wanted some time to look at the maps and mull over what we’d just done so we popped into the quaint Flodigarry Country House Hotel just north of Staffin, a funny place with staff in kilts, playing Runrig – they served nice coffee, so it was all good! We drove on and found a place to camp at the side of the road on one of the numerous grassy patches at the side of the road. High from coffee, we chatted and laughed about for a few hours about the previous weeks happenings, then enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

Food diary:

  • Breakfast: scrambled egg with Stornoway black pudding and parsley (Skye Fresh Produce Company);
  • Lunch: popcorn; malt loaf; oatcakes with cheese; Skye Fudge.
  • Snacks: Skye Fudge;
  • Dinner: Fish and Chips plus a bottle of beer from Skye Brewery.
  • Coffee in the Flodigarry Country House Hotel with funny staff all wearing kilts, pretty posh but nice coffee.

SusExp 2009 Day 10: Ard Mor to Staffin including Waternish Point and Rubha Hunish (44km)

Having gone to bed early the night before, we woke up early and alert, ready (hopefully) for what would be our longest single day paddle (if you don’t count the night paddle which went on till 2am). After a breakfast of uncooked porridge oats with water and powdered milk, we were ready to leave just before 9am as planned. I checked in to let the coastguard know our plan for the day and agreed to check in at the end of the day also.

Then our friendly landowner, Jeanette, who with her husband owns the Ard Mor peninsula and rear highland cows, came over to offer us some the her world renowned rock cakes! A very welcome gift, still warm from the oven – thanks Jeanette! We were going to ask for water anyway, so we got in our boats, paddled a few hundred metres, then got out below her house. After filling our recycled plastic bottles we were offered a cup of tea which we/I couldn’t say no to, despite our time limited day, the idea of sitting at a table with a mug, having a chat was too tempting. We sat and chatted, both probably thankful of someone else’s conversation other than our own. Jeanette's younger labrador was keen for a swim, and followed me out a bit, but gave up after 5ish meters, thought wiser, and turned around.

An hour later, we were on the water, heading north up to Waternish Point. It was a misty day at times, with the usual ‘rain or showers’ forecast from Stornoway Coastguard. We approached and rounded the point in good time, fuelled by Skye Fudge.

Found a nice toilet stop just round the point at (eroded) jetty next to the lighthouse. Learning point: having to stop on dry land to do a pee was an ongoing frustration – I’m changing my kit to either shorts and thermals or wetsuit trousers so I can pee in a bottle and mitigate the need for any landing at all.

As we set off again I caught a glimpse of something in the water a few kilometres off the coast. At first I thought it was a basking shark but it was too tall. Then I thought it was a dinghy, but it disappeared and reappeared a few minutes later. I couldn’t believe it, it must be an Orca! I shouted to Sam to let him know, a few explicit lyrics later, we headed off in the direction of the fins. I think there were two or three. Sadly no photos of this, as breaches were short and infrequent and far away. Sam was keen to chase, I was keen to get on, conscious we had a long day ahead. We paddled after them for a while, watching the fins pop up, unfortunately getting further and further away, then decided to turn around. Shortly after turning around we turned around we saw some kind of dolphin and chased that for a bit, but it and maybe a few others only surfaced occasionally then they were gone. By this time, the south going tide ever increasing, I was keen to head off on the right direction. So we set a bearing for Rubha Hunish (the mist was causing the point to disappear regularly), and went on our way.

A few hours later, which felt like a few more, we got to a group of skerries and decided to have lunch on the easiest to land – An Dudh Sgeir – a welcome break after the 15km open crossing.

After lunch we carried out, now a good step closer to our final destination. Spotted a few puffins chilling out on the water.

Coming round Rubha Hunish felt like a milestone, being the last of the four corners, the most northerly, having already covered the other most extreme points in each direction, we were now on the home straight! It felt right to have a rest. We sat for an unknown time. Listening to the wind and the waves. Taking in the view, north to Stornoway and the Shiant Isles, west to North Uist, Berneray and Harris, south to our island, and east to Torridon. For the first time, I could taste success on the tip of my tongue.

We carried on, south down the coast, Staffin Island in the distance, ever nearing.

The wind today had been perfect for our cause, west or south west 4 or 5 veering northerly 3, which after veering, took us nicely down the coast. With the wind, we again made good time and arrived with enough light to get dinner cooking on the stove and find firewood. Also checked in with the coastguard to let them know we were safe. Being the last night of camping on the expedition, we put the wind up radio on, listened to a bit of Scottish Jazz that happened to be on Radio Scotland, had a wee dance, and enjoyed a Talisker or two.

After a relaxing evening, Sam decided to sleep on the shore next to the fire, and I decided I was too tired to risk an uncomfy night, so slept in the tent.

Food diary:

  • Breakfast: uncooked oats with water and powdered milk; cuppa tea from Jeanette on Ard Mor;
  • Snacks: Skye Fudge;
  • Lunch: oatcakes with cheese, butter and Barra Bramble jam;
  • Dinner: Potato (Skye Food group), carrot and onion, bean and parsley stew, cheese. With stir fried beans, onion, garlic.

SusExp 2009 Day 9: Loch Pooltiel to Ard Mor including Dunvegan Head (14km)

Woke up this morning to the sound of heavy rain, making it so much harder to get out of the tent. I waited for a calm period then decided to get up, thinking the weather might have cleared. Popping my head out, I saw two clouds, one of midges, and one blanket cloud across the sky. The only thing that cleared were my hopes of the weather getting better. Ah, but the shed…I went to have a look, and the door was open! Great – a roof over our heads to cook breakfast.

Carole from Skye Fudge gave us some bacon (and eggs) so we had a nice big omelette with bacon and parsley (and some red onion Sam had bought).

The breakfast warmed us up nicely, so we got moving soon after, and managed to get on the water at 1pm. It was a wee bit misty, making it an atmospheric paddle.

We only had a short day ahead of us, so there was no huge rush, although we needed to meet the food link van in Stein at 6pm. The wind was behind us because it was being buffeted down the coast, making the first leg easy. Also, the Skye Fudge was great for a quick sugar rush to get us through low times.

We approached the headland (Dunvegan Head) and thankfully the wind was still blowing in the direction we needed. We were making pretty good time and decided to just carry on without a break. Taking a compass bearing for Ard Mor where we were planning on camping for the night, we headed for the small peninsula, which disappeared and reappeared from the behind the cloud pretty regularly. Looking back, we saw the highest point on Dunvegan Head, which we couldn't see when we left.

Compasses are great – it’d already helped us through the August weather once without getting lost and I’m sure it’d help again.

More or less with the swell, we enjoyed surfing most of the way there, and averaged a satisfying 7.5kph. We rounded the south point of Ard Mor and came into the shelter of the bay. I have to admit, we’d heard a rumour of possibly unfriendly landowners, so we were a bit anxious. However, Sam being English and me being Scottish, I was more confident that we could talk our way out of any problems. The house looked a bit deserted and we weren’t sure if anyone would be around, but then say washing blowing outside.

So we decided to land and set up camp. As we took the stuff up we saw someone walking over. I said I’d do the talking, but wasn’t sure what to expect. The woman came closer and I went over to say hello. She asked if we were planning on camping. First impressions count so I was polite and courteous: ‘yes, if that’s ok?’ ‘Yea, that’s fine’ was the reply or words to that effect – she had just come to warn us about the inquisitive cows and advised us to camp in the area enclosed by stone walls – great! Far from anything we had expected, Jeanette was a friendly lady who was very welcoming.

Time was getting on and I needed to get to Stein, so I got my walking boots on, left Sam to himself and to make dinner, and set off south along the road. Taking the opportunity to make a few calls, I spoke to a few people including family, friends, Richard who drives the Local Food Link Van, and the West Highland Free Press, who I was hopefully going to get some press coverage from. Richard told me he wouldn’t be at the Stein Inn till 7.30, so I could relax my pace and possibly even have time for a pint. As I walked a car stopped, it was Jeanette and her husband and friends on their way to see Ali Bain and Phil Cunningham in Portree, and they gave me a lift to just near the Stein Inn. Fantastic, maybe time for two pints!

So I arrived in the busy pub (where I was meeting the Local Food Link van) and ordered a coffee. In addition, Sam had given me a shopping list of butter and oats – not your average order, but the bar maid sold me some, so we could have breakfast and butter our oatcakes for the rest of the journey.

Got chatting to the people at the bar…Gordon and ‘Eilean’, or it could be Ailean. Gordon offered me a pint: ‘anyone that’s paddled that far round Skye deserves a pint’. I couldn’t agree more, but it hadn’t been too hard so far. Still, I couldn’t say no. The pub was a busy social hive and I enjoyed being surrounded by people and talking and enjoyed the conversation with Gordon and Eilean, who run the dive centre. Shortly after the second pint which Richard arrived with our food delivery…potatoes from Skye Fresh Produce Company, not as much as I was expecting, but no less than we needed to survive, so I was content. I got one last cup of coffee, and then got a lift with Richard who was heading in my direction.

We said our goodbyes, and also Richard informed me he had hens and would be happy to put some eggs on the van on Friday. So I made my way back along to the tent, looking forward to whatever dinner Sam had cooked up. One potatoey, carroty, oniony soup later, I was full and satisfied and keen for bed. Not being a long day, we looked at maps and chatted for a few hours. I hadn’t really checked the distance of the trip I had planned for the next day, but I wanted to get to Staffin – after checking maps we found it would be 44km if our supporting water wasn’t moving (but we would be against the tide at times, so who knows how far we would actually paddle).

I passed out, nervous about the scale of the open crossing we had planned for tomorrow. Although we weren’t too far off the coast, there’s something comforting about going close to the coast, like a handrail. I was sure it would be fine, but was just keen to get the next leg underway.

Food diary:

  • Breakfast: onion and bacon omelette (Skye Fresh Produce Company eggs);
  • Snacks: Skye Fudge Tablet (including Talisker flavour)
  • Dinner: Sam’s potato (Skye Fresh Produce Company) and Barra carrot stew, with onion;
  • Pudding: malt loaf with butter.

SusExp 2009 Day 8: Loch Bracadale to Loch Pooltiel including Neist Point (33km)

This morning was going to be the usual race to get things done as quickly as possible so that we got on the water soon. I woke up around 7ish and started on the list of things to do, the main one being picking up some food from Roger and Fiona Whiddon, who own and help to run the Skye Fresh Produce Company, along with a number of others. After breakfast, typing up some of the blog on Jim and Carole’s computer, and a few wee chats here and there, Jim kindly gave me a lift to see Roger Whiddon while he was on his way to do some work. He wasn’t around to start with (I was 2 day early after all, so wasn’t expecting him to be expecting me), so I took a wee wonder around his poly-tunnels.

Wow, they were huge. I hadn’t expected anything on this scale, but there were four (I think) massive poly-tunnels. I wondered around then went up to the house to look for him. Before I could get up his drive, he arrived in the car, we said our hellos (I think he was slightly shocked to see me), he dealt with a few things that needed done, and showed me round.

I also met Fiona, who went looking for some eggs from their eggs. There weren’t many because they tend to lay in the afternoon, but we managed to get four, which I was very grateful off.

The professionalism of their operation was quite impressive, and I was glad to have seen it. Jim Inglis arrived to give me a lift back, returning from finishing his work (something to do with training for the construction industry). I left with eggs, parsley and a nice salad for the day, and Roger agreed to put some more stuff on the Local Food Link Van which we would get a drop off from the next day.

So arriving back at Carole and Jim’s I found Sam had cleaned the kitchen and dishes, which was grand. After the usual arrangement of trying to sort ourselves out, we were ready to leave by lunch time, oh apart from one last thing that we couldn’t forget – Skye Fudge!! The moment I’d been looking forward too. Following a quick chat with Carole, we were six packets of Skye Fudge up – great. I was sure that these packets of tasty sugar would get us through the hardest of times. A quick photo shoot (Carole’s got better photos which hopefully I’ll upload soon).

And so we set off on the next leg.

This was another milestone – the most westerly point on Skye, Neist Point, also infamous for rough water when the tide’s running past against the prevailing wind and swell.

We rounded the Idrigil Point some pretty cool sea stacks, which I would later find out were called McLeod’s Maidens. As we continued I saw a boat with a couple of guys fishing, pulling fish out left, right and centre. I went over to have a wee chat and told them about what we were doing. They offered us some fish, which I was delighted. In all honesty, I didn’t feel we had time to sit and fish as I’d rather have been paddling and getting distance behind us to help the circum navigation, so I was happier to accept gifts of fish than to actually catch them ourselves – that’s on this trip, maybe it’ll be different another time.

Five mackerel and one sathe (Pollock) later…we thanked the guys, Neil and his pal (sorry, can’t remember your/his name – if you get in touch, I’ll change this bit). I knocked them out on my cockpit rim and put them between my legs, no time or room to sort them just now. So we paddled on… A pee spot was on the cards, so we found a sheltered set of skerries and made it a lunch spot too.

Neist Point was in our sights now, we could just see the lighthouse in the distance, ever nearing. Continuing up the coast was great paddling, the sun was shining and we were feeling well rested and fit, though not made easy as we were paddling into a force 3 or 4 headwind.

After another pee stop at the last bay before Neist Point, we felt closer to our goal. The tide was running south, against us, but thankfully ever decreasing with every stroke. We caught an eddy in Moonen bay just south of Neist Point, which took us north. Sam was tiring and so we had a short rest at the jetty for food and water. I was slightly nervous as the south-going tide was going to be running against the wind and swell, so I wasn’t sure exactly what this would be like, and I probably built it up quite a lot, so understandably, he may have been a little nervous too.

To my surprise, we left the jetty, went west with the eddy (which was no small amount of water flowing!) and rounded the point, but there was no raging tidal race! I was slightly disappointed as I’d kind of hoped for a bit of tidal race paddling with some white water. So we paddled round enjoying the relatively calm water and continued up the coast.

The sun now lowering, the coast became a yellow-orange, making the rocks and coast seem more impressive than before.

This was my favourite bit of coast so far, I think maybe because it was the furthest west we’d been and it felt closest to home and the sea I had grown up with, i.e. bigger swell than anything we’d seen so far.

Continuing up the coast the rounding the point, we came into Loch Pooltiel after another interesting bit of geology: the columnar basalt right to the sea in a horizontal structured, with amazingly clear structured crystallisation

Dodging the people casting fishing rods, we found a slip way and set up camp. I think Sam was keen for bed, however, after getting some dinner on, the thought of hot food made him hold back from heading off to the land of nod for a few hours. Sam took care of dinner while I went to find heather for Kelly – after searching the whole hill and almost giving up, on the walk back I found some at the side of the road which would be enough to boil some water for tea.

We used most of the fish for stew, but I filleted some for barbecuing on Kelly. This cooking kit that they sell is a new thing, and I have to admit, is a bit of a black art, but after a bit of trial and error, I started to get the hang of it. A few minutes later we had some cooked and well smoked mackerel which were lovely! Also tried Sam’s method of cooking on wood, which seem to work ok, but maybe could do with some fine tuning – I think the principle came from cooking on hot rocks that have been heated by fire.

After some stew we were both ready for our beds and after realising it was midnight, we made our way to the tents for some rest, satisfied with the days paddling and activities.

Food diary:

  • Breakfast: uncooked oats with water; rhubarb and bell heather honey soup;
  • Lunch: oatcakes (from Vanilla Skye); Cabroc (Scottish goat’s) cheese; salad (Isle of Skye Fresh Produce Company);
  • Dinner: mackerel stew (fish from the Neil and his pal in the boat, potatoes from the market stall); grilled mackerel (flame grilled on the Kelly Kettle cooking set).
  • Snacks: Skye Fudge.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

SusExp 2009 Day 7: Loch Brittle to Loch Bracadale (31km)

Waking up well rested, I found Sam already up and about. He managed to get most of his clothes dry the night before, but still needed to get more done, so after a breakfast of the usual tasty uncooked oats, he headed up to the hostel, and I took the opportunity to fix a few things on my boat and contact local suppliers.

Loch Brittle was a busy campsite – I guess it was peak season. A great location for hikers bagging their Munros on the west side of the Cuillin, I noticed countless groups heading off up into the mist covered summits. After going to the shop to buy cord, fixing my boat, making a kit to slide the boat down the shore with one person, using plastic bottles from the recycling bin, and breaking it, then using full water bottles as rollers (patent pending) it was lunchtime before I knew it!

We had some bread with tasty bramble jam (given to use from Vanilla Skye, produce in Staffin) and/or cheese, then got on our way in the early afternoon.

One source of comfort for me was being on the water paddling in the right direction. Another source of comfort was the simplicity of life, something I love about sea kayaking. Everything else is just external to the true joy of sea kayaking. When I’m on the water with just my paddle to get me through situations, my mind is free to wonder through any thoughts it wants, and my senses are free to focus on the surrounding natural world and become focussed on the here and now – it’s can be pure bliss and I often have my most inspired thoughts while paddling.

We continued up the coast, enjoying the following wind. We could see the Loch Bracadale in the distance, and Idrigil point to the west, leading up to Neist Point (tomorrow’s challenge). As we paddled, I caught site of a massive too bird…wasn’t sure at first, but realised, it was definitely too big for a Golden Eagle, ‘must be a sea eagle’ I thought to myself – what a beautiful bird, soaring and gliding, dominant along the coastline, until the black back gulls start to pester it. I’m sure the eagle would win in a fight, but just didn’t have to patience to deal with the gulls.

We paddled and watched it for a while, it flew on, we followed, then it turned in the other direction. We carried on, shortly after, we spotted another, not so big this time. Same again, it flew away, we followed, then it turned. As if that wasn’t enough, we then saw a third sea eagle! This was surely a once in a lifetime experience (for me at least)…I’ve never seen more than one sea eagle at the same time, so for me, it felt very special. We paddled on.

Rounding the last headland before Loch Bracadale, I heard the modern beeping that meant I had a phone signal and got a text. ‘Can you phone!! Thought you weren’t arriving till Tuesday!’ I didn’t know the number, but I hoped it was Carole Inglis, who owns and manages Skye Fudge and had also very kindly offered us a bed in her house for the night. I tried phoning, and got through. I tried to be an assuming and told her our plan and that we would be happy to camp on the shore (she’d just come back from holiday), thank thankfully, she said we could stay – fantastic. A nice thought that we’d be able to sleep in a warm comfy bed tonight, we’d be able to sit on soft seat, we’d have a roof over our head that we could stand up under – although we hadn’t been away from civilisation for too long, it’s amazing how much you miss it (especially if you’re sea kayak camping).

We carried on happy in the knowledge of the above and arrived at Harlosh slipway around 9.30pm, Carole arrived to pick us up, and we went to her house and met her husband Jim. Carole showed us where we could sleep, and we even had our own living room and kitchen in what used to be a self-catering B&B. It must so much more than we had expected and/or would have been happy with – personally I would have been happy with some floor space in the living room. We got some stuff sorted, cooked our dinner on the electric cooker (electricity coming from the nearby Edinbane wind farm), and talked into the night about the following day’s plan – to get round Neist point if possible. I looked at the yachtsman’s pilot for the area and checked out tide times, so we knew when the south- and north-going streams would begin.

The dinner was a story in itself, but to be short, we had mouldy lorn sausage (not too mouldy), with potatoes and Stornoway black pudding. I also still had some rhubarb from the garden in Barra which I felt we had to eat now, so I boiled it with some water, sugar and honey. It was sickly sweet, so I left it to the morning.

Food diary:

  • Breakfast: uncooked oats with water;
  • Lunch: bread; oatcakes; cheese; butter; jam;
  • Dinner: lorn sausage; boiled potatoes; any other fresh veg we still had.