Paddle Therapy

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Following a total knee replacement at the beginning of the year, and all the inactivity and slobbing about thereafter, it was imperative I got back onto the water as soon as possible. Paddling a kayak is the perfect antidote to chocolate hobnobs and daytime TV. And if you get a move on you can be back in time for ‘Pointless’ anyway.

It probably isn’t the best from of exercise to bulk up the leg muscles following knee surgery, in fact huge amounts of time sitting in a boat with ‘vestigial’ legs (as my chum described them) probably contributed to the problem in the first place.

But what the heck. It’s good for the soul.

Roadford lake
Roadford lake

 

I started off with flat water. Bude canal and Roadford Lake. Superb. As the Spring got going the surrounding bushes and trees were a cacophony of birdsong.

Roadford Lake
Roadford Lake

 

I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter a Roe Deer swimming a mile across the middle if the lake.P1120401P1120407

As the sea settled down after winter we cherry-picked sheltered sections of the Southwest coast to explore during daytrips.

Charmouth, Lyme Regis and the Jurassic coast.P1110473

The only problem with the south coast is the easy access and flat water which encourages the scum of the seas.  To which  of these blubber -laden sea creatures do you think I refer?…

Blubber A
Blubber A , or
Blubber B
Blubber B

 

Dave and I spent a tremendous sunny day around Gerrans and Veryan Bay in South Cornwall, featuring my first cetacean encounter of the year…..a very small porpoise, and a fantastic aerobatic display by a cornish Chough including a gravity defying g-force loop, with its legs on the OUTSIDE of the circle. Reminiscent of the Eurofighter at Dawlish air display.

Superb Chough
Superb Chough

 

six-star porpoiseAnd when eventually the swell abated on the ragged North Cornwall coast, making it accessible for kayaking for about the first time in six months, we wasted no time in a tour along the Hartland Heritage Coast.

The reefs here must be respected as highlighted in the cheerful proverb/shanty/sonnet:

“From Hartland Quay to Padstow Light,

‘Tis a watery grave by day or night”

Plenty of evidence of this at low tide:

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As the sea began to warm up and the sandy bays echoed to the grating calls of migrating Sandwich terns, I thought it was time to concentrate on a bit of dolphin spotting.

My paddling fitness had returned which made me a bit more confident about doing some offshore paddling.

However this was not necessary for my first dolphin encounter of the year….a pod of Risso’s dolphins which I picked up right outside the entrance to Newlyn harbour and followed for a mile to Penlee point. Like Bottlenose Dolphins they cruise along at 5mph so take a bit of keeping up with. A superb encounter, my best views yet of Risso’s dolphins. They showed their typical colour variation: one almost white, one almost black and one pale grey with a characteristics pattern of scars on its dorsal fin that would allow individual identification (which I am following up).

Risso's
Risso’s Dolphins

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The scarred dolphin did a respectful little jump right beneath the slipway of the old Penlee lifeboat, used for the last time in December 1981 when the lifeboat, and the entire crew, were lost while carrying out a rescue.P1120342

My second dolphin encounter of the season was a distant view of a fast moving pod of Bottlenose dolphins at Pentewan beach, Mevagissey. No photos, too far away. The only other notable ingot of wildlife on that day was a Great-Northern Diver dressed up in its spectacular breeding plumage. Most have departed for the far north by the time they have changed into their smart clothes, but this year for some reason many have been slow to depart. In fact I saw one still lingering on 18 June.

Breeding plumage Loon
Breeding plumage Loon

 

To complete my dolphin species hat-trick I had to make a bit  more of an effort. Common dolphins usually keep further offshore so I thought a jaunt out to the Eddystone Lighthouse, ten miles beyond Plymouth breakwater, should do the job. I wasn’t disappointed. On the way back I found myself amonst a group of about a dozen Common dolphins which surged all around for a couple of minutes.

Common dolphins
Common dolphins

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Throw a few porpoises, a Sunfish and a dozen Puffins into the mix and it was worth the strain.

Eddystone Puffin
Eddystone Puffin

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With the reported sightings of several Minke whales in the west of Cornwall, plus a handful of Humpbacks and the amazing record of a Bowhead whale loafing about only just off the beach at Penzance, a whale encounter from my kayak has got to be my next big wildlife goal. In the UK of course. OK it’s not going to happen. But it just might.

Till then I’ll just have to be happy with the local foxcubs (viewed from the kayak, of course).P1120912

And if all else fails, find a deserted ‘kayak only’ beach and just enjoy the scenery.P1110473P1120958

This particular wordpress blog has now run out of space to download photos. And as I seem to have ‘gone off ‘ the fishing side of things for the time being, in favour of touring and wildlife encounters, I will write future blogs at thelonekayaker.wordpress.com.

It’ll be non-stop action, superb wildlife and the best of UK paddling. Hopefully.

 

ounters.wordpress.com. Follow my adventures there.

Boscastle, Bideford, Berkhampstead

P1100958The open sea and exposed coast is always my favourite paddling environment. It’s just so exciting, especially down here in Devon and Cornwall. The scenery alone is enough to fulfil all your requirements for a good day out. But for me its the expectation of an extreme wildlife encounter that makes me go back time and time again. A peregrine scorching across the sky, the glimpse of a dolphin’s fin, the snore of a sleeping seal, a fox hunting along the shore.

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Skittery Fox

It’s so easy to take it all for granted. Kayaking is by far the best way to see all this stuff. It’s silent. Not having an engine means you can hear the marine equivalent of a pin being dropped. The piff of a porpoise, the ‘thoomph’ of a distant gannet hitting the water, the snicker of a little gang of purple sandpipers creeping amongst the barnacles.Or the high-pitched squeak of an otter up one of the rivers.P1110102

The weather ensures that the north coast of Devon and Cornwall will never get crowded with kayakers. There has not been a single day in the last three months that has been suitable for the open coast. Almost incessant wind and huge waves. On the handful of windless days the groundswell has been prohibitive.

So it was a wise move to make the effort to go to Boscastle at the end of September, on probably the last calm day there of the summer. And it was amazingly flat with no wind and a very rare completely swell-free day. Any sort of lumpiness at all makes going into the amazing caves and ‘zawns’a bit uncomfortable and edgy. Not to mention the exposed headlands.P1090724

Boscastle down to Tintagel is one of the UK’s best paddles. You can do a sort of circuit. Paddle half a mile offshore and follow the tide down, admiring the coast from afar, and then return investigating every twist and turn and gulch and cave and waterfall and island and beach. There’s a lot of fish here as they are protected by the fisherman-hostile environment.

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Boscastle zawn

The turning point of the trip is Tintagel island. In the summer time there are always a lot of tourists here who do a lot of aimless milling about (or are they reeling from the extortionate entry fees to King Arthur-land?).

At high tide you can paddle right through the neck of the island using Merlin’s cave, emerging into a completely different view down to Port Isaac and Rump’s point. To make it even more mysterious the entrance to the cave is very difficult to find, especially if approaching from the south.

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Merlin’s cave

On the way back up to Boscastle Bossiney bay provides a superb sandy beach stop, as well as the only colony of cliff-nesting housemartins in the southwest (I think).

Long island provides the biggest highlight. An impossibly craggy and eroded fang of rock. I had my first encounter with basking sharks here.

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Amazing Long Island, Boscastle

It’s a bit of a shock to get back to Boscastle itself. Although super quaint it is always heaving with sightseers. Trolleying the kayak back up through the mainstreet I never loiter. I’d sooner still be out with the sandpipers.

Since the wind has livened up it’s been a bit of a struggle to find somewhere to paddle to burn off a few mince pies. The coast is out of bounds and the rivers are flooded. This makes even estuary paddling a bit of a problem as the river flow overwhelms the strength of the incoming tide. Bideford and the Torridge estuary is always a good bet however and if you have to paddle against the flow for a bit it can only be a good thing in terms of blubber-burning.

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Bideford

Canals are very much a last resort for me. They really are quite boring and the tow paths are teeming with doggy people, and dogs. Not good for wildlife. But sometimes they are the only viable option if I feel a necessity to put paddle to water. The Grand Union Canal at Tiverton is one of the best around here. 11 miles long and no locks. It carves through some pleasant farmland and has one or two very scenic cuttings that look even better with the colours of autumn.The whirligig beetles have to jostle for a bit of space on the surface of the water with all the fallen leaves.

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Grand Western Canal

P1100921A couple of weeks spent in North London before Christmas would have been even more like a holiday in a prison camp if I hadn’t taken Puffing Pig, my inflatable kayak with me. A handful of jaunts along the Grand Union Canal provided a welcome change to the stationary traffic of Watford and Rickmansworth. Kingfishers and Herons and the squawk of Parakeets. The water smelled a bit oily and looked a bit iffy but it was OK for a bit of a blast. I was grateful for Puffing Pig’s easy 14kgs weight to make the many portages around the locks as easy as it could be.

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Grand Union canal near Berkhampstead

It was my first ever visit to Berkhamstead. And my last, probably. Hopefully.P1100994

Scotland at its best

sunset over skyeTime for a quick dash up north to get lost in the wilderness for a few days, before the onset of the dark and dreary months. A blob of high pressure over Scotland promised light winds and maybe even a bit of sunshine. Wow.

During the last twelve years since I have been paddling in the sea I have been pretty fortunate in having close encounters with all manner of fantastic sea creatures. Peregrines, puffins, porpoises, three species of dolphin, seals, basking sharks, swimming foxes,deer and badgers and even a leatherback turtle. But I have never seen a whale from my kayak. It would be easy to jet off to the USA or Canada to see the Orcas or Humpbacks off the west coast, but I really want to see one in the UK. I quite like the fact that the odds are hugely stacked against me, it makes it  more of a challenge.

Anyway, I thought if I could manage a bit of offshore paddling north of the Isle of Skye, I might just bump into one of the Minke whales that wallow about up there.

So after picking up a stupid blooming fine for spending too long in the services car park on the M6, I arrived at a sunny but windy Broadford on Skye, busting with excitement. Last time I was here it was dull and grey.

My Cobra Expedition kayak got loaded to the eyeballs and I was off.I took a swing around Guillamon island (great name) en route to the north side of Scalpay. The stiff southerly wing had been forecast but was due to drop tomorrow, so I needed to be poised for action in the right place.

As usual the scale of the place had caught me out. What I thought were the distant hills of Raasay were in fact part of Scalpay and it was a long haul around the coast to my planned camping place.In fact I started to get despondent as every bay was unsuitable for setting up a pitch. Maybe the 700 mile drive was taking its toll.

The wildlife came to the rescue, as usual. I sneaked up on the huge bulk of a White-tailed Eagle sitting on a promontory, only lumbering away at the last minute, and was surrounded by huge numbers of harbour seals.

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White-tailed Eagle (plus tag)
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camera-shy seal

And then the perfect sandy bay welcomed me in complete with flat grassy pitch. Unfortunately approximately sixteen thousand midges were also pleased to make my acquaintance.

The eagle flew overhead squeaking in the weird way that sea eagles do.

camp on scalpay
Camp on Scalpay

Fantastic night’s sleep, waking occasionally to the bawl of rutting stags, and the ‘worrying’ call of a Loon.

I was up and packed and paddling as the first light was damping out the stars. It was going to be a stunning sunny day and I was going to make the most of it. I hopped across to the south-eastern corner of Raasay and headed north. There was a spectacular backdrop of the saw-toothed ridge of the Cuillin mountains over my left shoulder.

cuillin mountains on skye
Cuillin Mountains

The mighty cliffs of Raasay looked superb in the morning sun. Waterfalls included.

Raasay waterfall
Raasay waterfall

The light winds provided a perfect updraught for three more Sea Eagles, and a single Golden Eagle. Fab.

sea eagle x3
Trio of White-tailed Eagles
Golden eagle
Golden Eagle

I stopped for a brief break at Brochel to work out what to do next. Continue round Raasay and Rona would be the obvious choice. But I wanted to do a bit of offshore stuff, although the sea was still a bit choppy.I might just see that whale. As I downed a peanut butter sandwich (easy to make, but stale), the whitecaps abated and I focused on the tiny white dot of Uags bothy on the south-western tip of the Applecross peninsular, twelve miles away across the Inner Sound. I had spent a couple of nights camped there last year (sheltering from a storm) and it has got to be one of my favourite places ever.

I stripped down to my vest in the hot sun and dug in with the paddle. A little bit of trepidation, all alone and a long way out. A chunky looking skua passed, not broad-winged enough for a bonxie , not rakish enough for an arctic, so must have been a Pomarine. And lots of Black Guillemots in their pale winter outfit.

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Black Guillemots

Unfortunately I was paddling directly into the sun and had no sunglasses so was developing a bit of a headache. But lots of porpoises around the increasingly swirly eddylines kept me distracted. Over thirty altogether. The only two fishing boats within sight both came disturbingly close. It’s funny how that always seem to happen to me. It’s a bit like when I used to love mountain walking…..the only other people we would see all day would invariably set off on the same path a couple of minutes ahead and wear brightly coloured clothes and talk loudly and frighten away all the wildlife.

At last I reached the northern tip of the Crowlins and I was pretty pooped. It was just about the biggest tide of the year, and low water, so I hauled out amongst a huge area of kelp, and sea urchins.

Before nipping across Caolas Mor to Uags bothy I followed the side of the island, and was rewarded with a prolonged view of an otter hunting and diving in front of me, carving quite an impressive wake.

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fast moving otter

I arrived at Uags while the sun was still strong. And I was certainly superheated by the time I had lugged all my camping stuff up from the low tide beach. So I stripped off (almost completely) and had a wash in the burn. As I was air-drying beside my tent I was taken aback to hear voices like Benny and Bjorn from Abba drifting across the water.A mile out to sea were a group of seven Swedish sea kayakers, heading towards the bothy.

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Uags view
view from my tent towards Skye
A tent with a view

A very pleasant crowd, as sea kayakers usually are, and I was very grateful for their appearance when I tagged along with their flotilla for the crossing back to Plockton in thick fog the next morning.P1100190

As soon as I split off from them beneath the Skye bridge, otter number two put in an appearance. The increasing headwind provided a tough paddle back to Broadford.

Skye bridge
Skye Bridge
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Otter number two

I was going to head back down south after a visit to my brother and his family in Grantown-on-Spey, but forecast of fog on the M6 made me do a rethink.

I decided to return to the west coast and paddle a circuit of the islands of Seil and Luing. Lightish winds again but this time grey and overcast. I was aware that there are some pretty savage tides in this area but because I only ended up here on a whim I hadn’t done any planning. By sheer good luck I arrived at Cuan sound between Seil and Luing at exactly slack water. It was glass still. Or maybe it was bad luck as it lulled me into a sense of false security and I thought that maybe this tide thing was blown out of all proportion. And anyway if you stick close to the shore surely you can dodge the current. Wrong. Very wrong. Oops.

I happily paddled down the sheltered water on the east side of Luing and along the side of Shuna island. Luing was a bit disappointing as it is largely fields and not very wild.Funnily enough I remember dehorning a Luing cow in Tavistock as a student 35 years ago.

On the very southern tip of Luing I had a great view of a very tame Great-Northern Diver and good encounter with an otter which came out onto a rock to munch a fish.

fat otter
Otter number three

And the wonderful haunting sound of rutting stags wafting across the water from Scarba.

And another, very strange, sound. The sound of a vast amount of water moving extremely fast. No wind chop or waves or surf, just a sort of sound like a prolonged exhalation. A bit sinister.

I didn’t feel the current till after Black Mill Bay. It was initially strong only at the headlands but I hit an absolute wall where the tide was squeezed between Luing and the island of Eilean Mhic Chiarain. Water was pouring over a two foot ‘waterfall’ and even the smooth water was flowing at a fearful rate. The whole sea was sloping uphill. I took a couple of minutes to prepare my muscles and then set off as fast as I could paddle. I gave it everything I had got and just about nosed my way against the current. I was paddling at about 7 mph against a 6mph flow. Blimey. I could always have hauled over land but it was rocky and rough. Good thing it wasn’t 6mph against a 7 mph current.

By the time I arrived at the idiotically calm Cullipool I was absolutely roasting and down to my vest again.

A bit further on, and my second passage of Cuan sound was rather different to the first.( I paddled the two islands as a figure of eight). It was absolutely ferocious.Really sinister swirling whirlpools and upwellings that made me brace the paddle on the surface in expectation of a wobble. The ferry crossed the current pointing upstream at an angle of forty-five degrees.

And into the shelter of Seil sound it was suddenly all calm again. It was further than I expected to the Bridge over the Atlantic at Clachan (maybe because of my exertions around the west of Luing, and twenty miles covered so far), and I just squeaked through the tidal narrows, bottom of kayak scraping the sand, before they dried out. Once again paddling against the current!

Bridge over the Atlantic, Seil
Bridge over the Atlantic

I was pretty shattered as I at last arrived back at Easdale and the line of squat slate quarrying cottages, not looking their best under more typical leaden Scottish skies.

grey scene, Easdale
Grey scene, Easdale

Time to head home now the fog had cleared.

And still no whales.cuillin mountains

 

 

 

Puffing Pig. Gumotex Safari Inflatable Kayak

Gumotex Safari Inflatable Kayak
Gumotex Safari Inflatable Kayak

I have got fed up with lifting heavy kayaks onto the roofrack of my car. At 23kg the Cobra Expedition isn’t too bad, but the Tarpon 160 is a beast at approx 35 kgs (I think Wilderness, the manufacturers, are a bit coy about its exact weight). I like to paddle by myself and it takes a supreme effort, both physical and mental, to ‘clean and jerk’ kayaks onto the roof. I have drawn a few suspicious (and even sympathetic) glances from passers-by as I square up to the task like I’m about to toss the caber (which would be a lot easier).

Sooner or later one of my discs, or some other critical component of my back, is going to give.

So enter the GUMOTEX SAFARI. An inflatable kayak. 10ft long 28″ wide. You’ve got to be joking. You can’t possibly go offshore kayaking in that!P1090911

Yes I can.And who cares that it’s a glorified lilo when it weighs only 14kgs and you don’t even have to hoist it onto the roofrack because it can fit IN the car?

Being short and fat (although it isn’t particularly wide) it must surely suffer from a low top speed.Well yes but unbelievably this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Gumotex seem to have been able to defy the basic laws of kayak speed, shape, and everything.

Puffing Pig in Heaven
Puffing Pig in Heaven

It is noticeable how much bigger a ‘wash’ is created while paddling along, but this seems to be offset by the superbly comfortable inflatable seat and footrest which encourage a powerful and sustainable paddling technique that you can keep up all day long.Yes you are probably inadvertently paddling a bit harder but it means you burn of a few extra pies. It’s a win win.

Having dibbled with some very long and slender (and very tippy) kayaks , as I’ve always had a bit of a desire to clock up a bit of pace and notch up a few miles, I am no stranger to the relationship between width and length of kayak and speed through the water. So I was very wary about biting off more than I could chew when I took Puffing Pig (there was really no other choice for a name) out for it’s inaugural BIG paddle at Land’s End. Puffing Pig, incidentally, is the old English term for a harbour porpoise because of their characteristic ‘piff’ they make when they breathe.

Dawn Departure from Penzance
Dawn Departure from Penzance

I was pretty chuffed when I completed the 17 miles between Penzance and Sennen ,rated as a Grade ‘C’ paddle….potentially pretty hairy. Fortunately it was about the flattest day in history in West Cornwall, with ultra light winds and no swell, and very small neap tide minimising the notorious currents around Gwennap Head and Land’s End itself. I was then going to catch the bus back to Penzance, but it was such a lovely afternoon I wasn’t in the mood for intermingling with humanity (favouring instead gannets and seals and the odd porpoise), so I paddled all the way back.

Land's End
Land’s End

For this return trip I kept a mile or so offshore all the way , passing Longships lighthouse (in the company of a paddler who was en route to Scilly) and around the Runnel Stone buoy. Thought I might encounter the humpback whale that had recently be seen in the area, but needless to say didn’t.

Longships Lighthouse
Longships Lighthouse
Runnel Stone buoy
Runnel Stone buoy

To make the trip even more cushy the wind switched from east to west so I essentially had a breeze from behind for the whole 34 miles. Lucky Puffing Pig! I’ve only once covered a greater mileage during a coastal paddle in a normal (ish) sea kayak.

I get the impression that the ‘natural ‘speed of the Gumotex Safari is about 75 % of a normal SOT , but this is balanced by the high level of comfort and superb paddling posture encouraged by the inflatable backrest and inflatable footrest.

Gumotex Safari comfort
Gumotex Safari comfort

And it’s even got scupper holes so that when you go surfing or tackle a bit of white water it is self draining.

So what about fishing? No rod holders obviously but with a bit of elementary DIY you can rig up a pipe in the rear storage area to act as a rod holder and go out and bag yourself a couple of fish.

miniscule garfish
miniscule garfish

One issue I nearly overlooked. Would a bass thrashing about in the footwell puncture one of the chambers with its spiky dorsal fin? I wasn’t going to chance it so kept the fish in a bucket while dehooking. It doesn’t make for the best photo but better than being marooned in a rocky cove near Hartland Point.

potentially perforating bass
potentially perforating bass

It’s all too good to be true. The ultra light weight of the Gumotex Safari means you don’t hesitate to carry it over a long section of rocks or rough ground, or groan with dismay when confronted with another lock on a canal. You can be out of the car and on the water and away in a minute so what you might lose in hull speed you gain with minimising faff time at the beginning and end of a trip.

Inflatable kayaks have a bit of a reputation at being susceptible to wind.Understandable as they are glorified airbeds, and I have head to rescue a few of these (airbeds that is)as they, and their occupants, have been heading out across the English Channel fanned by an offshore wind.

This lack of grip on the water, and poor directional stability, is eliminated by the installation of a tracking fin, essentially the same as a surfboard. Fantastic, it now behaves like a ‘normal’ kayak and is no more vulnerable to wind than any other kayak, maybe less so.

And maybe best of all, when you have finished your trip, you don’t have to paddle all the way back, you can fold it up, stick it in its dedicated rucksack, and catch the bus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loch Shiel Circuit

Loch Shiel Route Map
Loch Shiel Route Map

Boy were we lucky with the weather. I’ve been having a bit of a winge about the incessant wind in south west England messing up plans for some open sea kayaking, but 500 miles further north in Scotland it’s been a whole lot worse. You might expect that to be the norm as you get closer to the North Pole, but often it isn’t. Good thing I did my mega trip up the Scottish west coast last year. If it was this ‘summer’ I would have spent an awful lot of time staring at the inside of my tent.

Our expedition was planned for early June (so this report is a bit out of date). As usual I was glued to the weather forecasts in the preceeding few days, and by sheer good fortune it seemed that the latest deep Atlantic depression was going to pull away from Scotland as we drove up the M6, to be followed by a period of slack winds.

Not worried about rain or temperature, the wind strength and direction was key to the trip as Calum and George would be piloting a Canadian canoe, and they were (justifiably) a bit anxious about the exposed section of open coast from Moidart to the entrance of Loch Ailort.

Calum and George
Calum and George

Brother James and I rolled into Glenfinnan after a trifling 600 mile drive from Devon, and soon found a good launch spot beside the loch. A few red deer browsed unconcernedly nearby.

With Calum and George’s Canadian loaded up with provisions we were soon on the water and looking for a place to camp, as there was nowhere suitable in Glenfinnan itself.

And before we had de-fuddled our heads from the long drive, we were straight into an encounter with a superb Scottish speciality wildlife nugget, a Black-throated Diver. While James and I (as southerners) were fumbling for binoculars and cooing over the beauty of the extraordinarily intricately marked extreme bird of the Highlands, Calum and George paddled on chatting merrily and the diver had soon submerged, not to be seen again.

camp 1 at Eilean Dubh
camp 1 at Eilean Dubh

As I had hoped, the little beach at Eilean Dubh provided the perfect place to camp with a good view down the loch. The stiff headwind (which had apparently been blowing for many days), had been easing as we paddled…..by sheer luck our trip seemed to have been timed to the nearest minute with regard to weather. A couple of short, sharp showers during the night were the last rain we would see for the whole trip.

Day 2 was Scottish freshwater loch paddling at its best. Light winds (OK not that warm and not that sunny), big mountains all around, natural deciduous woodland alive with the song of willow and wood warblers , and the occasional cuckoo. Not a lot of sign of human existence. Fantastic.

Upper Loch Shiel
Upper Loch Shiel

We were pretty keen to eyeball a golden eagle so during lunch on a sandy beach binoculars were trained on the hillside opposite. We did indeed spot our bird but it was at extreme range and I don’t think came close enough to be seen with the naked eye.

James Eagle hunting
James Eagle hunting

After Polloch inlet on the south side of the Loch,the shape of the loch  suddenly becomes more interesting. The way forward is apparently barred by the extraordinary little island of Eilean Fhianain, where we landed for a bit of a nose around the spooky burial ground consisting of graves dating back many hundreds of years ,dotted about randomly.

Eilean Fhianain
Eilean Fhianain

We opted to camp beside one of the last sandy beaches just after the island before the long stretch of flat bogland which I knew from my adventure last year offered poor camping opportunities.

As we connected tent poles and pushed in tent pegs our eyes were drawn to the source of a weird wailing cry. It came from the vast silhouette of a sea eagle hanging in the wind, yelling to its mate a bit further away. Not a very regal call from such a majestic beast.

White-tailed Eagle dwarfing a pair of Hooded crows
White-tailed Eagle dwarfing a pair of Hooded crows

I was awoken in the middle of the night, which never really gets dark at this time of year this far north, by the piping song of Greenshank and the bubbling call of Curlew. These ground-nesting waders are in serious decline further south, but there’s not a lot to disturb them up here in these vast tracts of undeveloped land. Long may it continue.

Our immediate aim at the start of our third day was to get a good view of the Sea Eagles. They are so massive they didn’t take a lot of tracking down. We could see one perched in the top of a tree on the other side of the loch from a mile away. Not quite such a challenge to spot as the Golden Eagles that favour distant remote crags.

James Eagle watching (again)
James Eagle watching (again)

It lumbered off and sat in a withered tree which somehow didn’t enhance its status as admiral of the air.

The few miles approaching the end of the loch are bleak, as I discovered last year when I was paddling here in a storm. Potentially Scotland at its worst with  flat boggy shore and no shelter from the wind.

However today we were lucky…..little wind and the start of a favourable current to suck us into the mouth of the River Shiel for our journey down to the sea. A quick stop in Acharacle for milk.

This short river is really excellent. Completely different to the previous 20 miles and there is an unexpected treat with a mini-gorge and ancient bridge before it opens out a bit into sweeping bends.

River Shiel
River Shiel

Our planning was perfect. Nearly. We knew there was quite a drop into the sea at Loch Moidart creating a challenging short section of rapids, but at high tide this is ‘washed out’ and covered by high water. It probably would have been if it had been a Spring tide, but as it was Neaps the rapid was still very evident. And the recent heavy rain meant a powerful flow.

I pulled every zip on my drysuit as tight as it would go before tackling the shoot and only just avoided a dunking with a nasty surge from the left which nearly flipped me.

A couple of Canadian canoeists were not so fortunate.

Canadian catastrophe
Canadian catastrophe

And so out onto the extraordinary Loch Moidart, with its steep heavily wooded banks, many islands, and nucleus of the crumbling Castle Tioram. We had a leisurely paddle of the Loch before sauntering down the south channel to the bottom left-hand corner of Eilean Shona and its sandy beach for a place to camp. Perfect, with a view over the open sea out to the west, and the Isle of Eigg with its Sgurr.

Castle Tioram
Castle Tioram

And even better for the serious birdwatcher, good views of Twites, another West coast of Scotland speciality. Barely distinguishable from a sparrow to the casual observer (in fact maybe even duller), so not surprisingly beaten to the front pages of tourists brochures by the more dramatic White-tailed Eagle and more charismatic Black-throated Diver.

Day 4 was crunch day. Three miles of exposed west-facing coast before the haven of Loch Ailort. Phew. The wind was light and it looked good enough. Just.

I sneaked ahead for an early morning otter-spot and nearly knocked into one which was eating something on a rock and got almost as much of a surprise as I did.

George’s recollection of seeing someone tip over in a Canadian canoe and only just make it to shore last time he visited Eilean Shona didn’t help. There was a noticeable quiet about our group, and it was indeed a bit lumpy past the rockier sections with a bit of wave bounceback from the sheer cliffy bits.

In front of the Sgurr of Eigg
In front of the Sgurr of Eigg

Things looked up as we were lured to the lovely sandy (but surprisingly busy) beach at Smirisary escorted by a posse of seals. James followed a smart breeding-plumage Great-Northern Diver around the bay for a closer look.

Stoked up by (yet another) cup of tea from the Jetboil, and a noticeable decrease in the wind, the second section of exposure was looking like a doddle. And it was, just an excellent paddle with the backdrop of the small isles including the lofty peaks of Rum.

We were soon ashore again stretching our legs on Samalaman island and feeling so smug with ourselves that we even decided to bypass the trough-stop of Glenuig Inn, which had been the main carrot for doing the ‘exposed bit’ in the first place.P1010271

Instead we found a perfect sandy beach lunch-spot on Eilean na Gualain, at the head of Loch Ailort. And the sun came out and the sea turned from battleship grey to a Bermudan green and all was well.

Lunch beckons
Lunch beckons

It got even better as we crossed over to the remote Ardnish peninsular and pulled up on the wide sandy beach at Peanmeanach for our final camp. A huge area of flat short-cropped grass perfect for camping. The well maintained bothy was not an option (although would have been if it had been raining and/or windy).

Camp at Peanmeanach
Camp at Peanmeanach

With the tents set up I took a solo paddle to the end of the Ardnish peninsular and spent a long time peering at a pile of boulders on the shore from which emanated a chattering scolding noise. I suspect pine martens but saw nothing.

James opted for minimalist camping and opted for his bivvi bag. Maybe it was time I changed my socks.P1080284

The final day for the easy paddle up the length of Loch Ailort was about as relaxing as it could have been. Glass calm surface. Silence apart from the clamour of an assortment of seabirds, mainly terns.

Glassy Loch Ailort
Glassy Loch Ailort

Finish. A ten mile shuttle to pick up Calum’s car. Mini adventure over.

This near complete circuit has to be the most interesting in terms of variety of scenery and variety of paddling (freshwater loch, river, wooded sea loch, open sea, sea loch) in the whole of Scotland. And all packed into a mere 50 miles. Fab.

But beware the ticks. I was scratching for days.

Time for a Tope

P1010338If you happen to be a shark and you want a nice quiet life away from the risk of being netted, hooked or harpooned, you could do worse than choose the North Cornwall coast. It’s just too hostile for any coordinated type of fishing activity. The few fishing boats that sneak out of Boscastle and Bude during a weather window are soon sneaking back into shelter of their harbours again.

Good for gannets though
Good for gannets though
....and Manx Shearwaters
….and Manx Shearwaters

And when it comes to the sort of prolonged period of calm that is required for a shark-fishing session from a kayak, it’s probably quicker to wait for the next solar eclipse. (here’s the last one, by the way, a couple of months ago.

Solar eclipse , Holsworthy style
Solar eclipse , Holsworthy style

…)

This summer the sea conditions have been particularly bad.Almost continuously windy, and when the weather does pause for an intake of breath, the residual swell still prevents any kind of relaxed launch from a beach that will not dose everything and everybody in huge quantities of salt water.

So all fish that are vulnerable to a couple of inept kayak-fishermen have been quite safe….up until now.

I really don’t know what I am talking about when it comes to kayak shark-fishing, but I get the impression that Tope appear in North Cornish waters in May and June, then disappear in July, and the come back again in August and September. Maybe I read this somewhere, but I do seem to remember that in previous years I have spent quite a lot of time drifting about in July and not catching a lot.

Anyway, beggars can’t be choosers. We had the promise of a day of light winds and a mere three foot swell and 20 degrees. We were off!

With absolute minimal fishing tackle as usual. I can’t stand the faff of complicated gear, fishfinders and boxes laden with clobber that would probably sink our double kayak anyway.

One rod and spinning reel each, 30 lb line, plus a wire trace and massive hook.

We adopted the same tactic as last year. I was the engine in the back seat with the paddle. Son Henry was in the front seat armed with fishing rod and portion of chocolate cake.

Hi carb cake
Hi carb cake

First we had to catch a mackerel as bait. Why is this so difficult?. If you don’t want to catch a mackerel they will come in by the bucketload, but as soon as the pressure is on the sea seems to be devoid of anything even vaguely mackerelly.

However at last, after nearly two hours of paddling , Henry pulled up a stick of four decent mackerel. Perfect. They were soon converted into mackerel flappers and legered to the bottom, and the long wait began. The ‘set up’ was as good as I could have hoped as we had paddled three or four miles into a lightish head wind, and so would now be pushed back up the coast towards Bude and hopefully be level with our launch beach after three or fours hours drifting, by which time we would either be bored stiff, or hopefully had a thrilling shark-style encounter.The odds were very heavily stacked towards total failure, as there just didn’t seem to be a lot of fish about.

And so we drifted.Total silence apart from the single ‘piff’ of a porpoise which I glimpsed once and then, in typical porpoise-style, was gone.

poised to strike
poised to strike

And we drifted. And Hezzer fell asleep . Even more intense silence. Apart from the distant constant roar of the waves crashing on the rocks on the shore a mile away.

Being an ex-trainspotter and ongoing birdwatcher I thought my threshold of boredom was very high, so I was quite surprised that I was the first one to ‘crack’.Maybe it was because Henry was asleep  I reeled in my mackerel and their was not so much as a hint of a nibble on it. So I converted to a quick bit of bottom fishing with feathers and rapidly hauled up a couple of tiny whitihg.

So small in fact that I immediately reverted to using the mackerel as bait as waiting in the vain hope to catch a whopping fish was going to be more fun than reeling in tiddlers that you can’t even tell are on the end of your line.

We made lunch last as long as possible. And tea. Then started to discuss reeling in as we drew level with our launch beach.

Four hours without a single tug or rattle on our rods.

Suddenly the tip of my rod leapt as something violently  worried the bait. Then nothing momentarily until it tore off wth Hezzer’s line. Are you sure it’s not the bottom? Absolutely not. The rod tip was leaping about all over the place.Our adrenaline levels rocketed from zero to danger level in a fraction of a second. As line continued to be poured out of Hezzer’s reel, he worried that it would completely run out.

mega -action
mega -action

But then the fish halted and Henry pointed the rod to the front of the kayak so the shark could pull us a long for a bit to tire it out. This is where shark-fishing from a kayak is a bit more ‘forgiving ‘ than from a boat…..a mighty tug from a fish will be cushioned by movement of the kayak and so lines are less likely to break.

Tope appearing from the depths
Tope appearing from the depths

After a very satisfactory struggle to haul the Tope up from the depths we both started to peer over into the clear blue water to catch a glimpse of the fish. As usual it seemed absolutely enormous and as usual dived again when it caught a glimpse of us. This scenario was repeated at our first attempt to get it on board and we got a bit of a soaking from thrashing fins. I was more concerned than previous similar efforts that one of us was going to get tangled up in the wire trace as the fish tried to swivel. Must be a sign of getter older. I was also a bit concerned about getting bitten. The back seat of a double kayak is quite a cosy place to share with a five foot fish with a potential attitude issue.

....result.....50+lbs Tope
….result…..50+lbs Tope

At last in it came, and the hooked was quite easily removed from the corner of its mouth. Getting Hezzer to rotate in his seat and passing him the Tope for the photo was probably the most challenging manoeuvre of the afternoon but once accomplished successfully we gently lowered the fish back into the water and it swam off vertically downwards apparently  neither shaken nor stirred.

It can certainly relax for a while as there is no prospect of it being hooked again for at least a couple of weeks with the impending return of wind and swell making the sea a no-go area for kayak fishing.

The only shelter to be found will be close inshore, in super-quaint places like this:P1010309

Or maybe this:

St Michael's Mount
St Michael’s Mount