Saturday 21 February 2009

After the snow, the damaged woods

A week of above freezing temperatures has seen the snow pack dwindle and shrink, reduced now to large patches in shady spots. The ground is sodden, the streams swollen and the air grey and damp. The high hills have been mostly shrouded in cloud. The excitement of the blizzards, the bright whiteness of the snow covered landscape, the thrill of the hard frosts have all gone, replaced by dampness and dullness. No, not dullness, nature is never dull. Just less immediately spectacular, less instantly stimulating, but still interesting. And the most interesting aspect of nature in recent days is the big change to the forest.

Wandering through the now soft and subtle woods the aftermath of the heavy snowfall is apparent everywhere. Branches litter the ground; massive boughs ripped off Scots pines high above, thin birches snapped off twenty feet above the ground, aspen split where the trunks divide. Look high into the trees and fresh ragged tears are visible everywhere. Whole trees have been toppled or tipped over to lean at alarming angles. Supple trees like birches and rowan have been bent into great arches. Many tracks are almost impassable, blocked by a tangle of bent, broken and fallen branches. In nearly twenty years of wandering these woods, during which time big wind storms have downed trees and snapped branches, I have never seen such extensive damage before. Nowhere is out of sight of wounded trees. Why has this happened? Because there has not been heavy snow like this, falling in windless conditions and sticking to the trees, in many, many years. Since the last such snowfall the trees have grown, shaking off the lighter snowfalls, until this fall was too big and heavy for them to bear. If it snowed like this every few years the trees would never grow to be so susceptible. Most will survive of course and the scars will soon darken and be less noticeable. The woods will go on.

Photo info: Snow damaged birch trees. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@36mm, 1/50@F5.6, ISO 800, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Saturday 14 February 2009

The Thaw Begins

The weather forecast suggested that yesterday would be the last fine day for a week or more so I decided to take the skis up onto the Cairngorm Plateau and maybe go over to Ben MacDui. However even as I set out the first clouds were drifting in from the west, a hazy grey web sliding towards the sun. With climbing skins on the skis the ascent was quite easy and quite fast, certainly when compared to the walkers I passed trudging through the knee deep snow. But I wasn’t fast enough to reach Cairn Gorm before cloud covered the summit. With visibility down to a few yards continuing on to Ben MacDui seemed unappealing so instead I skied down the long, gentle north ridge of Cairn Gorm. As I did so a light mix of sleet and drizzle began to fall. The air felt warmer. The snow was changing too. Losing its lightness and softness and becoming thicker and heavier and stickier. The steeper descent off the ridge was slow as I skied down in wide traverses, keeping the speed down as I couldn’t see anything other than the dark smudges of the occasional rock. At times the sky and snow merged. Little streams presented big obstacles. Their banks were piled high with snow, overhanging in curling cornices in places, and it took time and care to find safe ways across without getting my skis or boots wet and having great clumps of snow stick to them.

Today the temperature at home at 1,000 feet reached a balmy +5°C, the first time it’s been much above zero in over a week. The snowpack in the garden is slowly dwindling, though it will be many days before it all melts. The huge bulbous drapes of snow on the trees are crashing down in huge chunks, the branches, released of the weight, springing back up. With mild weather forecast for the next week the thaw seems to have really begun.

Photo info: Walkers climbing Cairn Gorm. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@23mm, 1/500@F5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Darwin Day

This post is to celebrate Charles Darwin who was born two hundred years ago today and whose book On The Origin Of Species changed the way we understand nature and our place in it. I can’t remember when I first heard of Darwin or natural selection and the theory of evolution. They seem to have been part of my life forever. Probably though it was when I was ten or eleven as that is when I started to study natural history, reading books on rocks, plants and animals, watching birds, dabbling in ponds and collecting shells, rocks, insects and anything else I found. My bedroom window shelf was covered with old glass sweet jars containing pond life – tadpoles, great diving beetle larvae, water scorpions, whirligig beetles, ramshorn snails and more while my cupboards were full of cardboard boxes containing neatly labelled sea shells and insects and on my desk were notebooks detailing what I saw and collected in neat lists. On television I watched programmes with David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell, Hans and Lotte Hass and other TV naturalists. From my first readings I grasped that all life is related and has evolved from common ancestors. I also understood that human beings were animals too and just as much part of nature as frogs or woodlice. Being interested in history as well as nature I’ve always liked knowing where ideas come from and how they develop so I read the stories of how our knowledge of the natural world came about and learnt of the importance of Darwin and evolution.

Since those days I have continued my interest in nature, though my boyhood desires to be a scientist died long ago, crushed by the boring science lessons of secondary school, dull chemistry and physics that seemed to bear no relation to the real world and taught by teachers whose only interest appeared to be exam results. For years I didn’t even realise that there was any connection between school science lessons and the natural history I continued to study. Over the years I’ve read many books on evolution and Darwin and those who followed him and amassed the overwhelming evidence, still growing daily, that proves he was correct but I never attempted to read Darwin’s major work itself, the closest being Steve Jones’s modern (and excellent) reworking Almost Like A Whale. I read the eloquent and literary essays of Stephen Jay Gould, the books of Richard Dawkins (The Ancestor’s Tale is a wonderful conceit that works well) and Richard Fortey (whose Life: An Unauthorised Biography is superb) and articles in New Scientist but not On The Origin Of Species. This year I intend to put that right.

The idea that we are part of nature, part of the world and not some superior being planted on it by an outside force has always seemed to me both obvious and wonderful. Perhaps it is why I have never felt lonely when spending weeks by myself in wild country. Instead I feel I am at home, where I belong. Darwin put it beautifully in the famous and stirring last lines of The Origin of Species:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved”.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Sigma DP1 on Backpacking Light

My review of the Sigma DP1 camera has just appeared on Backpacking I’ve been using this camera since last summer and am very pleased with the images it produces though not so happy with aspects of it in use. It’s of interest to lightweight backpackers because it’s the only digital compact camera with a sensor large enough to produce images comparable to those from a much heavier and larger DSLR. Although other digital compacts are better designed and easier to use the images just don’t compare with the DP1. As well as the images in the review Backpacking Light has published two photo essays with images taken with the DP1 – see my posts for January 8 & 21. There are more DP1 photo essays to come.

A Camp In The Snow

With deep snow in the woods and on the hills, the local road still icy and no sign of a thaw I decided to make an overnight trip from home and camp out in these unusual conditions. Skiing through the local woods was still difficult due to the soft snow and fallen trees and branches and after an hour I was barely a mile from home. Reaching a road I was surprised to see it had not been ploughed. Skiing down it I reached a barrier of great blocks of snow. This was as far as the snowplough had managed to reach. Leaving the road I skied out of the trees onto open moorland where the snow was a little firmer and progress a little faster. The hills here, in the north-eastern corner of the Cairngorms National Park, are rolling and rounded and covered with heather. Walking away from tracks is arduous due to the thick vegetation. But with snow burying the heather and on skis travel was surprisingly easy and I was soon on the summit of the highest hill in the area Carn na Loine. At just 549 metres (1801 feet) it’s only a small hill. However with snow stretching out in every direction to distant white summits I could easily have been in the Arctic rather than just a few miles from home. The snow was a foot or more deep on the summit and it took a while to create a firm platform for the tent.

That evening a full moon rose in the sky and the temperature plummeted. The hills glowed palely in the moonlight. Down in the glens and straths I could see the orange lights of villages, isolated farmsteads and the bigger, brighter town of Grantown-on-Spey. From up here it all seemed far away and a different world. Camping on a hilltop in the snow, even such a little hill so close to civilisation, had taken me back into a different home, that of wild country and nature.

Overnight the temperature inside the tent dropped to -8°C. Back home my thermometer recorded -15°C while Strathspey Weather said the low was -19.5°C. I didn’t mind the cold. In fact, I relished it, relished the sharp air and the snow, relished the brief return of this little hill to a wild state. Dawn came with a clear sky and a sun with a hint of warmth. The descent from Carn na Loine was on wonderful snow that I swooped down with delight, amazed to discover such conditions up here. Mountain hares started at my approach and raced away across the snow. Soon I was approaching the trees and a sudden slowing of my progress as I hit the deep soft forest snow. But the sun shining through the snow laden trees and the sparkling of shards of snow in the air shaken off the branches by the breeze made the woods magical and beautiful and I didn’t mind the twisting, turning, stumbling skiing as I made my way back home.

Photo info: Camp on Carn na Loine. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@24mm, 1/640@F5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Friday 6 February 2009

And The Snow Continues

The blue skies of yesterday afternoon and the starry sky of the early night proved just a lull in the storm and by dawn the air was thick with gently falling snow that continued all day. Following the suggestion of my skiing neighbour yesterday I ventured out on snowshoes and they were indeed easier and less arduous to use than skis in the soft deep snow. Quicker too, for once. The snowshoes also enabled me to wander off the tracks and into the woods without having to worry about negotiating the trees. The air was hazy and grey – no sign of the sun today.

The forest was silent and still, the only movement the slowly falling snowflakes. Tracks showed where a rabbit had ventured out or a roe deer had stepped but mostly the snow was unbroken. Even the usually noisy pheasants were absent. Back home I topped up the bird feeders and watched coal tits, blue tits, great tits and chaffinches as they pecked at the peanuts and seeds, trying to acquire enough energy to survive another freezing night. Beautiful though the snow makes the land it can be deadly for birds, covering food sources. How desperate the situation can be was shown by the presence of five robins on the bird tables and seed trays. Usually these solitary birds won’t tolerate other robins and drive them off aggressively but today they just ignored each other. Food was far more important than fighting. One robin even managed to cling to the wire mesh of a feeder and feed off the peanuts, something I’ve not seen before.

Keeping warm in the snow for this human has not been difficult as there has been little wind and the effort of skiing and snowshoeing creates much heat. Hats have been quickly abandoned, the jacket hood used to keep off the snow enough for warmth as well. Thin gloves have been all I needed on my hands. Ploughing through ankle to knee deep snow might seem to be a good way to suffer cold feet but thick wool socks inside my old leather ski touring boots with supergaiters on the outside kept my feet warm while skiing and snowshoeing. However I wanted to move the car closer to the nearest public road so there was less chance of it being snowed in and driving in ski boots is difficult so I changed to ultralight flexible footwear inside knee-high NEOS overshoes. Walking back up the track from the car this combination was warm enough though I wouldn’t have wanted to be out for hours.

Now at 10.30 pm the outside temperature is -1°C and the snow has stopped. Blizzards are forecast for tomorrow.

Photo info: Snowshoe Tracks. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, 1/100@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Thursday 5 February 2009

And The Snow Came

After days of warning, and after watching the chaos caused by a touch of the white stuff down south, the snow came to Strathspey. Yesterday heavy, wet snow drifted slowly down all day, sticking to trees and rocks, plastering the sides of buildings. Yet only a few inches actually lay on the ground. But this morning I woke to swirling clouds of much thicker, heavier and drier snow and the snow on the garden path was knee deep. This new snow was cold and had stuck to the wet snow of the day before. Trees were bowed down with the weight, bushes had disappeared under huge mounds (and so had two tents pitched in the garden) and great bosses of snow decorated chimneys, gable ends, gutters, bird feeders and other protuberances.

By early afternoon the snow was fading and the grey sky was turning blue with a strengthening sun appearing, strengthening in terms of brightness that is. The temperature remained below freezing all day. Fetching my old ski gear (dating back to the mid 80s and now only used for short local trips) from the garage I went on a tour of the local woods and fields. The snow was deep and soft and even on skis I sank in shin deep and sometimes more. Progress was slow walking pace at best but actually walking would have been even slower and even more tiring. Even downhill I had to push the skis through the snow, sending a wave in front of my buried skis. Trees heavy with snow were bent over, some forming arches below which I skied. Some had come down, blocking tracks (and roads – many were closed due to fallen trees). Under the trees it was grey and gloomy, the thick snow forming a canopy that cut out the sun. In the open fields the snow shone and the light was sharp. I met a neighbour also out on skis, the only other person about. “Snowshoes would make more sense”, she said. She was probably right. I only skied some three miles but it took me over two hours. Still, it is always wonderful to be able to ski from my front door. And the snow looks like lasting for several days at least. Late in the evening the temperature is -5C. A waxing moon glows palely in the black sky. Winter is here.

Photo info: Ski Tracks. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, 1/160@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Trekking Poles & Winter Cairngorms in TGO

The March issue of TGO, just out, contains my review of the latest trekking poles plus a short Wild Walks piece on a winter walk up the north ridge of Cairn Gorm, a trip I undertook last December. Also in this issue is a section on Scotland in winter with pieces by Mike Cawthorne, Jamie Whittle, Ronald Turnbull and Bernard Newman plus Nigel Williams of Glenmore Lodge on snowholes. Eddy Meecham has an interesting in-depth report on the Kahtoola crampons, which I recommended in a crampons and ice axes piece in the December 08 issue. And John Manning has a useful feature on companies who can repair and restore your gear to make it last longer while Judy Armstrong looks at fitness and training so you can keep your body in shape as well as your gear.

Photo info: Bynack More from the north ridge of Cairn Gorm. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@55mm, 1/200@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.