Tuesday 30 June 2009

Twenty-Four Hours in the Cairngorms

The urge to head for the wilds is always strong and I try and seize any opportunity to head out for an hour, a day, an overnight or longer. A few days ago the chance of an overnight trip came about with the completion of a piece of work and a gap between city trips – Aberdeen a week ago, Edinburgh this week. It had been twelve days since I managed more than a few hours in the local woods and on that occasion strong winds and low cloud persuaded me a long day over Braeriach, third highest mountain in Scotland and one of the finest in the Cairngorms, would not have had enough rewards for the effort involved. Instead I took a lower route over smaller hills and through a section of Rothiemurchus Forest I hadn’t visited for a few years. The likelihood of better weather in the late June heat wave persuaded me to think of Braeriach again so I wandered back through the forest, which was somnolent and silent in the heavy, humid, hot air. Nothing moved, nothing called or sang. Just once a heron flapped slowly out of a boggy trailside pool. Lush grass speckled with flowers edged the path. The first orchids poked their pink and purple spikes through the greenery. This is old natural forest and rich with vegetation, beautiful with age. Leaving the trees I climbed into the rocky confines of the Lairig Ghru. Thick grey clouds hung over the peaks and a southerly wind gusted through the pass. The moving air was warm though and I was fine in shorts and thin top. Once over the pass I found a streamside camp site, still in the breeze at around 750 metres and hopefully midge free.

The sudden spatter of rain on the tent woke me at 5.30 a.m. I peered out into dense mist, rolled over and went back to sleep. A few hours later the rain and mist were gone. To the south Cairn Toul and Bod an Deamhain looked grey and cold, the clouds still brushing over them at times. Knowing the forecast was for a gradual clearance and a fine end to the day I did not hurry to pack and move on, lingering over a second coffee, taking photographs, dismantling a recently built little rock shelter and chucking the stones into the stream, writing my journal, watching the clouds swirl and split, revealing specks of blue and short bursts of hazy sunlight, and just delighting in being there, in the heart of the hills. When I did eventually move I left the trail and contoured round the hillside into Coire Brochain, a fine, high corrie backed by the summit cliffs of Braeriach. Out of the wind here and with the sun strengthening and hot I found a granite seat with my pack softening the rock backrest and ate lunch, wrote more notes and studied the complex, shattered rock architecture curving round the flat, grass and boulder floor of the corrie. Close to hand a clear stream gurgled out of a boulder pile and trickled away across a bed of pale golden sand and gravel. Not very seriously I contemplated investigating one of the gullies, still half-choked with snow, to see if a way could be found to the summit plateau. A sudden loud bang followed by a series of cracks and roars startled me out my reverie. High on the cliffs a smudge of dust hung in the air. Below this I spotted a rock, the size of a football, bouncing wildly and fast out of a gully, spinning many feet into the air each time it hit a boulder until finally coming to rest almost on the corrie floor. I would not be entering any gullies. Instead I clambered over the boulders and up the edge of the corrie to Braeriach and an expansive view of the northern Cairngorms. Further away all was hazy and cloudy.

After a brief chat with the few other walks on the summit I strode across the broad stony plateau to pick up the old stalkers’ path that runs steeply down into Coire Dhondail and then more easily into Gleann Einich. Once off the plateau and out of the breeze the sun was very hot, the sky now cloud free. The long walk down Glean Einich and back through the forest to my car was relaxing and leisurely, with flowers and trees and streams and rocks to keep me interested and involved.

Photo info: Camp in the Lairig Ghru. Canon EF-S 18-55mm@20mm, 1/60@F8, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Saturday 27 June 2009

1980s long distance backpacking photos on Rohantime/Flickr

Rohantime has uploaded to Flickr some of my photos from long distance walks in the 1980s on which I wore Rohan clothing. You can see them here. The originals are mostly Kodachrome 64 slides (a film that Kodak has just discontinued). They were scanned for Flickr by Sarah Howcroft. Images include ones from the Continental Divide Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, the Pyrenees and my length of the Canadian Rockies walk.

Photo info: Campsite in Teton National Forest on the Continental Divide Trail. Pentax MX with Tamron 35-70 lens. Kodachrome 64 film. Camera balanced on a rock. Exposure long forgotten!

Sunday 21 June 2009

Book Review: In The Presence of Grizzlies by Doug and Andrea Peacock

Hiking in grizzly bear country is always an adventure. Just knowing there is a predator out there that is bigger and stronger than you adds an edge to a trip, even though the likelihood of a dangerous encounter is extremely remote. I’ve hiked thousands of miles solo in grizzly country and only ever seen three bears, though I’ve seen plenty of bear sign (and reacted accordingly). Two of the bears were spotted at a distance (one of the reasons I carry mini binoculars – is that a tree stump or a bear on the far side of the meadow?) so I changed my route without going near them. Just one bear was relatively close – a few hundred feet away, which seems no distance with a grizzly bear – and coming towards me. Nothing dramatic happened. I made a noise. The bear sniffed the air, changed direction and disappeared into some willow thickets, leaving me feeling elated and scared at the same time and privileged at seeing the bear wild and free in its wilderness home.

There are many books about grizzlies. Too often they paint the bears as killers and monsters and humans as victims and heroes and have little to do with the true nature of bears. The books of Doug Peacock are an exception. For many years Peacock spent months at a time living alone in grizzly country studying and filming the bears. His first book, Grizzly Years, tells the story of those trips and is one of the best natural history and wilderness adventure books I have read. In The Presence of Grizzlies, written in conjunction with his wife, journalist Andrea Peacock, looks at the relationship between human beings and grizzly bears and why it is of value and why the continuing presence of bears is necessary. The book discusses fear of bears and how to act in grizzly country and has interviews with photographers, hunters, bear keepers, conservationists and others involved with grizzlies, including survivors of attacks by bears. Interspersed with the interviews and facts are fictional stories of individual bears, bases on grizzlies Doug Peacock encountered. These tales are wonderful and whilst of course no one can know how the world looks from the perspective of a grizzly bear or how a bear thinks Peacock can undoubtedly come as close as is possible. His knowledge of the natural history of grizzlies and the pattern of their lives means that the stories fit with how wild bears actually behave.

This is a powerful and moving book, well written, enthralling, enlightening, informative and inspiring. Ignore the sensationalist bear books. This is the one to read to learn about real bears and our relationship with them.

Photo info: Yellowstone National Park is one of the few areas in USA outside of Alaska where grizzlies are still found. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm@28mm, 1/400@F8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

MCoS Support for Ramblers Scotland

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has issued a press release in support of Ramblers Scotland (see my June 14 post Ramblers Betray Scotland). We at the MCoS work closely with Ramblers Scotland colleagues on many access and conservation issues and are impressed with their dedication and expertise. The outdoor world in Scotland needs them.

This press release has been reported on the excellent Grough website here.

And it's now appeared on Outdoors Magic.

And Walk Highlands has a post about the press release and Ramblers Scotland appeal.

Update 18 June: Cameron McNeish has posted about the press release on his website and also published an excellent letter of support from Glasgow Young Walkers.

Update: 19 June: The Herald has an excellent piece on Ramblers Scotland President Dennis Canavan, who says that Ramblers Scotland might have to go it alone if Ramblers UK withdraw funding.

Photo info: The MCoS and Ramblers Scotland work together to safeguard access in Scotland and prevent the appearance of notices like this. Canon EOS 300D, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, 1/125 @ f8, ISO 100, JPEG processed in Lightroom 2.

Pacific Crest Trail story on Rohantime

My second post on the Rohantime website has just appeared, headed Pacific Crest Trail (see my post for March 13 Rohan Memories). I hiked this magnificent trail from Mexico to Canada back in 1982. The first lightweight polycotton hiking clothing from Rohan had just appeared and I wore this on the walk and was delighted to discover that it was really durable. The Rohantime post describes the clothing, with weights (which are lower than those of some of today’s hiking clothing), with a little bit about the trail.

Photo info: Below Mount Jefferson on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon. This is one of the few photographs I took of myself on the walk as I didn’t carry a tripod. The camera was balanced on a rock. Pentax MX. 28mm F1.8 lens. Kodachrome 64. Exposure not recorded.

Sunday 14 June 2009

Ramblers Betray Scotland

Over the years the Ramblers have been a major force in access and conservation work in Scotland. Now the UK head office of the Ramblers is proposing closing the Scottish office, making the staff redundant and then reemploying two of them to work from home on reduced wages. The same is proposed for the Ramblers in Wales – I don’t know what effect this will have there. I do know that this will have serious consequences in Scotland and suggests that the Ramblers Board in London have little knowledge or understanding of the role Ramblers Scotland plays. I’ve worked with the Scottish Ramblers staff – most recently on the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group – and know just how good and committed they are. Losing them will be a big blow to all outdoors people in Scotland. Unfortunately the Ramblers are a UK based group run from London and the Scottish branch is just that, a branch. Maybe it’s time for Ramblers Scotland to break loose and become an independent Scottish organisation not beholden to London masters.

Cameron McNeish, a Vice-President and former President of Ramblers Scotland, has written good pieces on this on his blog and on the TGO forum in the Speak Out section. His heading “have the Ramblers gone completely mad?” shows what he thinks. There is also a good piece by Rob Edwards in the Sunday Herald under the heading "Death by a vicious cut for Ramblers Scotland".

I’ve been concerned for some time that the Ramblers are becoming a cosy Southern England organisation, losing their radical heritage and commitment. I’ve been a member for many years. It looks like I won’t be renewing.

Update: Dick Balharry, Dennis Canavan and Cameron McNeish, the President, Convener and Vice-President of Ramblers Scotland have launched an appeal for £200,000 to keep the organisation going.

Photo info: A new double fence across Ben Tirran above Glen Clova, May 2009. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, 1/500@F5.6, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Icons of the Wild: The Loch Garten Ospreys

Every spring the ospreys return to their nest near Loch Garten, as they have done for over 50 years now, ever since they returned to Scotland after decades of absence. Today ospreys breed in many places in Scotland but it is those at Loch Garten that are iconic, special birds in a special place. As I’ve written before, every year I make at least one visit to the RSPB’s Loch Garten Visitor Centre to see the ospreys. Having been away for two weeks in both April and May this year’s visit came late, just a few days ago, but was as important as ever, a pilgrimage of a sort to a place that marks a restoration of wildness, despite the large visitor centre and the reinforced, heavily protected nesting tree. From the centre through binoculars we could see the head of EJ, the female, sitting on the huge tangled bundle of sticks that is the nest. Nearby, her new mate, Odin, perched on the branch of a dead tree. EJ was calling, asking Odin to bring her a fish. In the centre a video link gave a close-up view of the ospreys. This live video can be viewed online here.

The area round the centre is alive with other birds (and birdwatchers!). There was some excitement about the appearance of a capercaillie in front of the centre. We failed to spot this but didn’t mind as we see them in the woods around our house. Indeed one of these huge turkey-like birds had flapped noisily across our path only a few days earlier. We were more interested in a redstart, a bird not seen around home. Leaving the centre we walked through the forest beside Lochs Garten and Mallachie, relishing the fresh green of the new vegetation and the damp smell of the woods after rain. A goldeneye with a family of small fluffy ducklings slid out of some reeds and out into the choppy waters of Loch Garten. Across the loch fresh snow sparkled on Bynack More. The air was soft and quiet, high clouds making the sunlight hazy and weak. My partner remarked that the woods and the atmosphere made her feel diffuse and spread out, replicating the gentle and unfocused peacefulness of the silent forest and lapping water.

Photo info: View over Loch Garten and Abernethy Forest to Bynack More, capped with fresh June snow, and Meall a’Bhuachaille. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS@55mm, 1/800@F5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Monday 8 June 2009

Seeking the Wild in TGO

Rather belatedly I thought I’d point out that my backpacking column in the latest TGO magazine (July issue – in the shops now) is about the nature of wilderness. The piece is called Seeking the Wild and looks at what wilderness means for the backpacker, especially in a British and European context. In this issue I’ve also reviewed hiking shirts, just at the right time for the recent hot weather, during which I’ve worn two of the shirts tested, the Paramo Katmai Light and the Patagonia Sun Tech, on Ben Macdui, Ben Nevis and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, and Sgurr a’Mhaim. Also in the Wild Walks section is an account of a two-day backpack on Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird (the Wild Walks are accounts of walks rather than route descriptions with a brief route box attached).

Photo info: Knoydart, one of the wildest areas in Britain. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@55mm, 1/100@F8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Sunday 7 June 2009

The International Appalachian Trail in the Scottish Highlands

Last week I spent a few days in the Fort William area with a delegation from the International Appalachian Trail (IAT). We climbed Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg on a superb day of sunshine and dramatic clouds, a wonderful way to show our American and Canadian visitors the glories of the Highlands. The event was hosted by the British Geological Survey (BGS) and Lochaber Geopark and the key to why they were in Scotland lies in the word “geology”. The Appalachian Mountains in North America and the Scottish Highlands are both remnants of the ancient Caledonian Mountain range and in geological time only recently separated by the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. Walking in the mountains the similarities are clear. I spent two weeks hiking over the White Mountains of New Hampshire a few years ago and felt I could have been in the Cairngorms apart from the rather larger number of trees.

The IAT extends the original 2100 mile Appalachian Trail, the first long distance trail in the world, for another 1350 miles from Maine in the USA through eastern Canada to the tip of Newfoundland. Now the organisers would like to form links with Scotland and extend the concept of the trail to this side of the Atlantic. As well as Scotland there are geological connections between the Appalachians and Ireland, Norway, Spain, Portugal, and North Africa so the potential is vast. The idea is to link up all the areas once part of the Caledonian Mountains under one banner. The IAT is also a means of extending co-operation and friendship across borders with a shared love of nature and hiking. In Scotland it would probably mean including existing trails as parts of the IAT.

The IAT visit is gaining attention from local and national politicians and organisations so I expect we’ll be hearing more about it. After talking to the IAT delegation I feel that it’s an interesting idea that could lead to closer contact between North American and British walkers. The concept of a long distance walk that involved crossing the Atlantic is also unusual and exciting!

Photo info: The cliffs of Ben Nevis from the summit. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, 1/250@F5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Friday 5 June 2009

Footwear Interview on Fjäderlätt

For some years now I have had an interesting email correspondence with Swedish lightweight backpacker Jörgen Johansson, author of Lättare packning. Recently Jörgen interviewed me about footwear for his website Fjäderlätt. The questions covered weight, ankle support and my current favourite footwear. The interview is now online and can be found here. It’s in English!

Photo info: Hiking in sandals on the Arizona Trail. Ricoh RDC-5000, 1/125@F13, JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro.