Thursday, 26 April 2018

Rivers in spate & wild camps in the Cairngorms

River Feshie

Rivers are one of the delights of wild land, bringing dynamism to forests and hills as they slice through the land, twisting and turning and surging. I love following rivers and streams to see where they go, to see what lies along their banks. They’re particularly wonderful in spate after heavy rain or snowmelt when their power can be both scary and invigorating. One of my favourite Cairngorm rivers is the Eidart, which is remote and little-known though a key watercourse as it drains the Moine Mhor, that vast plateau on the western side of the range. The Eidart almost splits the plateau in two, running from close to the northern edge some ten kilometres down to a confluence with the River Feshie.

I’ve walked a circuit from Glen Feshie to the Eidart then back to the glen across the Moine Mhor a few times. It’s a superb trip. I’d never done it at the height of the snowmelt though so last week as the first really warm weather of the year was stripping the snow almost visibly from the hills I set out. Every stream was rushing furiously and I had several knee deep fords in the first few miles up Glen Feshie. My boots were quickly sodden and stayed that way throughout the trip.

Camp in Glen Feshie

I didn’t go far that first afternoon as I wanted to camp amongst the trees in Glen Feshie for the first time this year. I passed the refurbished bothy at Ruigh-aiteachan thinking it seemed a bit too clean and characterless. I guess the bothy atmosphere will soon return. A couple of miles further up the glen I camped with a view of trees and crags, a lovely wild spot. I had hoped for stars but the sky was overcast. I fell asleep listening to owls hooting.

Packing up in Glen Feshie

The sky cleared overnight and I woke to a deep blue sky. The sun was on the crags across the river but the glen floor was still in shade and the temperature was near freezing. I went and looked at the Feshie, all white water and roaring. The latter sound would be with me all day even when I couldn’t see the water. 

River Feshie

The rough path round to the Eidart leads out of the forest and onto open moorland. There are still trees though, hanging onto the steep banks above the river out of reach of deer. As the forest continues to regenerate and expand in the lower glen hopefully it will start to spread up here.

Eidart Falls

The confluence of the Eidart and Feshie was a clash of white water. Just upstream I could see a cloud of mist rising into the air. As I approached I realised it was spray from the Eidart Falls, crashing down below the Eidart Bridge. I couldn’t remember seeing the waterfall this powerful before.

River Eidart

I thought the same about the Eidart as a whole as I continued past a succession of smaller falls, water slides, and rapids. The river was sparkling, alive, boisterous. I watched dippers skimming the water, the little birds perfectly at home in the white water. 

The Caochan Dubh
 
In its upper reaches the Eidart splits into three branches. Previously I’d followed the longest of these, the Allt Sgairnich, which rises on the slopes of Carn Ban Mor on the north side of the Moine Mhor. This time I wanted to explore the westernmost branch, the Caochan Dubh, which took a twisting route up a narrow ravine into the heart of the Moine Mhor. 

Caochan Dubh camp

That was for the next day though. I camped beside big snowbanks not far from the mouth of the Caochan Dubh. The sky had clouded over during the day and rain started just as I finished pitching the tent. It continued hard and sharp, its drumming on the nylon waking me during the night.

Early morning, Caochan Dubh camp

The storm had passed by dawn, though the sky still looked angry, with dark clouds racing overhead. The Caochan Dubh ravine was rocky and there were big banks of hard icy snow. Eventually, as it grew steeper, I decided to clamber up the side onto flatter ground. This brought me, unintentionally, to a superb viewpoint, a little knoll at the end of the northern arm of Coire Mharconaich. Here I could look back down the Eidart to the hills on the far side of the Feshie and up the eastern of the three feeder streams, the Allt Luineag to cloud-capped Cairn Toul. Ahead of me lay the gentle undulating Moine Mhor.

The Caochan Dubh
 
There was less snow remaining than I had hoped for up here but the now shallow course of the Caochan Dubh was still unbroken white and I was finally able to don the snowshoes I was carrying for a few kilometres. As I neared the northern end of the snow and the end of the now hidden Caochan Dubh I saw a figure on the track that runs along the ridge above, the first person I’d seen since setting out the day before. 

The Caochan Dubh on the Moine Mhor
 
Reaching the path that leads back to Glen Feshie I stopped to remove the snowshoes. The walker came across the snow and I recognised multi-Munroist Hazel Strachan. She’d just done a walk round the seven Munros in the area, with a bivvy on the slopes of one, and was now heading back to Glen Feshie. Standing there in the midst of the huge expanse of the Moine Mhor we talked of the mountains, the weather, the snow, boots, waterproof socks and more then Hazel was off speeding up the path at a faster rate than I could manage while I packed away the snowshoes before following rather more slowly.

The snow covered Caochan Dubh
 
The clouds had slowly lifted during the day though a bitter wind nullified any warmth from the sun. The light was sharp though and the views west to Ben Alder, Ben Nevis, Creag Meagaidh and more from the descent were excellent. I was also entertained by a glider swooping silently over the slopes. Then it was dry shoes and socks and Aviemore for a late lunch after what had been an excellent trip.

Glider over Glen Feshie

Monday, 23 April 2018

In Praise of Ravens

Raven page from the excellent Collins BTO Guide To British Birds
A rush of air. I looked up. A raven. Flying low some fifty metres away. The bird turned effortlessly and flew back past me, having a good look. Ravens are curious birds and know that people often leave tasty scraps of food. Later I heard it's harsh 'crark' cutting through the windy air, one of the thrilling sounds of the mountains.

I was on the vast plateau of the Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms just two days ago when I encountered that raven. I returned home to learn that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) had issued a licence for a five-year mass cull of ravens in an area of Perthshire noted for wildlife crime. This is appalling and has led to an outcry, as it should. It's been covered thoroughly by Raptor Persecution UK and the RSPB has said it is outraged. There are two petitions to sign - one on the Petition Site and one on Change.org. More importantly letters of objection can be sent to Mike Cantlay, SNH Chair, calling on him to withdraw the licence with immediate effect. Emails to: chair@snh.gov.uk.

There seems to me no justification for this slaughter. It's noteworthy that SNH worked with gamekeepers, farmers and estates on this but no wildlife or bird organisations. Not the RSPB, or the Scottish Raptors Study Group, not the Scottish Wildlife Trust - no-one in fact who might have argued against the proposal.

The killing of birds of prey to protect other birds so they can be shot always sickens me. This proposal has upset and angered me more than most as ravens are a favourite of mine. One of the symbols of wild places their harsh cries always inspire me. They are brilliant fliers and I love watching them and find their behaviour fascinating. They are very curious and often unwary around people. Sit and watch and they'll perform superb aerobatics as they keep an eye on you in return. Look back and you'll often see them land where you've been sitting, hoping to find something edible.

Ravens are found in wild areas worldwide. I've seen them everywhere from the deserts of Arizona where I startled a flock of them feeding on a dead cow and Makalu base camp high in the Himalaya where another flock was enjoying teasing a dog. The last case showed just how much ravens like having fun and how clever they are. The dog had tagged along with us for several days, feeding on scraps chucked to it by the kitchen crew. At base camp I was sitting on a rock watching some ravens picking about on the ground when the dog suddenly appeared and ran at the ravens, which flew up in the air cackling loudly. They didn't just fly off though. Instead they settled on a boulder and watched the dog. Then one of them flew down onto the ground near the dog and turned its back to it. The dog duly charged the raven which flew off to the sound of loud cackling from the other ravens. Another raven then repeated the performance. Then another. The ravens were clearly finding the poor dog very entertaining.

In Scotland many mountain features are named for the raven. There's a Creag an Fhithich (rock of the raven) on Ben Lawers, a Biod an Fhithich (pointed top of the raven) in Kintail and an Eas an Fhithich (waterfall of the raven) in Strathglass plus many more. It was and is an important bird of mountains and wild places. It should remain so, unpersecuted.


Monday, 16 April 2018

Forty years ago, April 16, 1978, I set out from Land's End to John O'Groats

First pages of my Land's End to John O'Groats journal

On this day forty years ago I set off from Land’s End to John O’Groats, my first long-distance walk. I had no idea of course whether I could do such a walk or, more importantly, whether I’d enjoy it. I knew the answer 1255 miles and 71 days later. Yes, I could do the walk, and yes I really did enjoy it. I could happily have gone on for weeks more.

Even on a walk like this, much of in England, there was a sense of isolation back then. Unlike today with its tracking devices, mobile phones and the internet there was no option but to be out of touch for long periods. Contact was via phone when there was a phone box and, mostly, via the mail. Postcards were my standard means of communication. Only friends, family and work colleagues knew what I was doing and they rarely knew exactly where I was. There was no social media.

My gear was good, as it should have been given that I was working in an outdoor shop at the time and I’d learnt a great deal from a Pennine Way walk two years earlier. I’ve written about the equipment I used and what I’d take today in the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, which also has its fortieth anniversary this year. Long-distance walking and The Great Outdoors were soon to become intertwined in my life.

I hadn’t started writing seriously and it didn’t occur to me that I might want photographs of the walk. I did set off with a cheap compact (film of course, digital was decades away) which duly broke by the time I’d reached Bristol. Where the few photos I took are I have no idea. 

After the walk I wrote my first feature for a magazine, a long-gone publication called Camping World. The editor told me I really needed to supply photos as well as words so I bought a second-hand SLR camera and taught myself, slowly and painfully, how to take publishable pictures. I really wish I’d done so before the walk.

The Great Backpacking Adventure

I did however keep a journal, as I’d been doing for all walks for many years. That was to prove extremely valuable, both personally – I’d have forgotten much without it, and because eight years later I got my first book contract. The Great Backpacking Adventure covered seven backpacking trips, including some 20,000 words on Land’s End to John O’Groats. Without my journals I couldn’t have written the book.

Since then I haven’t written or thought that much about the walk until this year. Digging out my journal – the ink still legible, I must have used a good pen (this was before I discovered Alwych notebooks and space pens which I’ve mostly used since) – I was surprised at some of the stuff in it, especially the lists I kept. Not just the route but where I stopped every night, with the prices for camp sites where I used them (10p for Dale Head Farm in the Yorkshire Dales, a whole pound for the Pine Woods Caravan Site in Tyndrum), and the birds and flowers I saw.

Where I camped
 
At the end of the walk I wrote ‘now comes the hard part, the return to Manchester. I feel strangely lost. I wandered amongst the people at John O’Groats not quite sure what to do. I feel both glad and sad, that I’ve done it and that it’s over. Tomorrow it will seem real. Tonight in the tent it is just as normal. I like living in the tent.’

I still have those feeling at the end of every long-distance walk but now I know there will be another one. I solved the problem of returning to the world by making the outdoors my world. And whilst the world in general has changed greatly in the last forty years long-distance walking hasn’t. Moving slowly and quietly through the countryside and wild places, watching the clouds, wildlife, trees, rocks and the whole natural world, is still as fulfilling as ever.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Suddenly it feels like spring

The view from Craigellachie

Spring in the Cairngorms has been creeping in slowly this year. East winds and snow have kept a wintry feel to the landscape. Spring birds are arriving – curlews, lapwings, oystercatchers in the meadows – but the buds on the trees are only just showing signs of opening and there are few flowers. The land still has that faded look, shades of fawn, yellow and brown. The greening of spring is still to come.

In the Craigellachie woods
 
Yesterday though it suddenly felt like spring was here. I went up Craigellachie, that tree clad crag rising above Aviemore, and the air was warm. For the first time since late summer last year a sunhat and sunglasses were more important than warm clothing. I didn’t need even a light jacket let alone hat or gloves. On the summit I sat on a rock warmed by the sun and stared over the landscape. The hills faded into a distant haze. The air felt thick and heavy. The day before with the clouds low and dark and a bitter wind I thought it felt more like November than April. Today it felt more like August.

Craigellachie birch woods

Below the summit the birch woods were beautiful with that purple sheen that comes in late winter as the leaf buds expand and prepare to burst into life. There were no flowers, no fresh green, no bright colours yet but there was an expectancy, a sense that all was about to change. Spring has begun.

Hill fading away